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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Drug violence puts dent in Mexico City's Easter exodus

This year, some residents are forgoing the annual spring trip to tourist areas such as Acapulco, where drug cartel violence have made inroads.

April 21, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez, Los Angeles Times
  • Soldiers are deployed at the scene of a battle between troops and gunmen in the Mexican resort city of Acapulco.
Soldiers are deployed at the scene of a battle between troops and gunmen… (Bernandino Hernandez /…)

Reporting from Mexico City — The ritual exodus from Mexico City for Easter holidays usually launches around Palm Sunday, then shifts into full gear by right about now. This congested capital of about 20 million people virtually empties out, blissfully so for those who remain.

But this year there have been signs that Mexicans were reconsidering their holiday travel patterns. And that bodes ill for public faith in the government's efforts to make the country safe.

With a vicious war against drug cartels claiming hundreds of lives a month, and with that violence moving into traditional tourist areas such as legendary coastal enclave Acapulco, some Mexico City residents have decided it's better to forgo the annual spring trip and stay at home.

And other Mexicans are opting for a visit to the capital, a city that has emerged, improbably, as one of the safest spots around.

In Mexico City's Polanco neighborhood, lines were long Thursday at the Soumaya Museum, one of the capital's newest art galleries.

"We had rented a van with friends and neighbors and were going to go to Acapulco," said Carlos Ortega, 50, an office worker waiting to visit the museum with five companions. "But then several backed out, and with all the kidnappings, we thought it best to wait and see if things improve next year."

Also in line was Fabiola Retana, a 41-year-old Mexico City homemaker, who had in tow nieces and nephews from Nuevo Leon, the industrial center of Mexico that was once its most secure and prosperous region.

"My sister sent them to me because in Nuevo Leon it's so unsafe the kids can't go out into the streets," she said. "The truth is in Mexico City you can go around without fear of gun battles."

A local nightly television news program called "Hora 21" last week asked viewers to comment via Twitter on whether the bloodshed has prompted them to change holiday travel plans. Most of the tweets read on air indicated that yes, they were now staying put.

One said that traveling overland these days (the most common form in Mexico) meant "ending up in San Fernando." That was a reference to mass graves around the town of San Fernando, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, that recently yielded 145 corpses, many of them people snatched from interstate buses headed toward the United States.

A separate survey by the Reforma newspaper indicated widespread fear of travel on state highways, with 57% saying they went on vacation last Holy Week and only 24% saying they would do so this year.

Surveys like these, of course, are merely indicators and, at the end of the day, many people may choose to travel anyway.

"The question is whether the perception of insecurity in Mexico trumps the desire to take a break," said Leon Krauze, the journalist who hosts "Hora 21."

As Krauze noted, the most common path of holiday escape for Mexicans from Mexico City is the highway that heads south to Cuernavaca, then through Guerrero state to the resort of Acapulco. A journey that has become, in Krauze's words, "the route of blood."

In the last year or so, bougainvillea-filled Cuernavaca, 60 miles from Mexico City, along with the tourist mecca of Acapulco, has witnessed horrific crime and its aftermath, including bodies hung from highway overpasses, severed heads found in parking lots and middle-of-the-street shootouts.

To be sure, southbound traffic Thursday out of the capital was heavy. But tourism officials acknowledged that they expected lower occupancy rates in many areas.

Covadonga Gomez, head of Acapulco's Assn. of Hotels and Tourism Businesses, said Wednesday that occupancy was down about 15% from last year and that hoteliers did not expect to fill up this weekend as in years past.

"But, I should tell you that considering what we were expecting, that is not so bad," she said.

As Holy Week got underway this year, authorities pledged to deploy extra federal police and army patrols on dangerous highways and to provide additional services and safety advice in 222 cities to Mexicans traveling home from the United States, whose numbers have also declined in the face of violence and a sagging U.S. economy.

Back at the Soumaya Museum, Maria Teresa Uribe, a 36-year-old secretary, said the tranquility of Mexico City this time of year and its full menu of activities and attractions won out in her mind over the dangers of the road to Cuernavaca and Acapulco.

"Why take the risk?"

wilkinson@latimes.com

Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.

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