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Accentuating Acapulco's positives in a time of negatives

An Acapulco bar owner heads a business group that took on the daunting task of promoting the city to tourists despite the violence that plagues it, including the rapes of six tourists this month.

February 16, 2013|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Erick De Santiago, president of the nonprofit group Habla Bien de Aca, or Speak Well of Acapulco, wants to counter the bad news about the Mexican resort city with the good.
Erick De Santiago, president of the nonprofit group Habla Bien de Aca, or… (Richard Fausset, Los Angeles…)

ACAPULCO — Four days after the rapes of six Spanish tourists here, Erick De Santiago sat at his beachfront bar, with its commanding view of the blue expanse of Acapulco Bay, and posted a question on Facebook.

If you could describe Acapulco in one word, what would it be?

The responses came rolling in from his followers, as contradictory and tragic as modern Mexico itself:

"Paradise." "Sadness." "Magic." "Terror." "Hope." "Death."

De Santiago, a gregarious bar owner and nightclub manager, is also the president of Habla Bien de Aca, or Speak Well of Acapulco, a 2-year-old group of local business owners trying to balance the city's litany of harrowing drug-war headlines with reminders of its enduring charms.

That has been a particularly complicated task since the Feb. 4 violence, which generated headlines around the globe. After considering the first 33 Facebook responses, De Santiago, ever the optimist, posted a second time, with the best spin that he could muster:

"The positive comments predominate," he wrote. "That's the important thing."

The rapes occurred in a beachfront rental home a few miles out of town. Officials announced Wednesday that they had arrested six suspects, with a seventh still at large, but the case has raised questions about Mexico's ability to protect its tourists from the violence that plagues so many residents here. And the city of 700,000, which lives and dies on tourism, was still reeling from the latest blow.

Online travel sites had slashed prices at the top resorts. The streets were rife with unsubstantiated rumors about the victims and their attackers. And all along the sun-kissed shore, taxi drivers, waiters and strolling musicians braced for days of empty hotels and empty wallets.

De Santiago, meanwhile, was meeting with worried restaurateurs, refining the wording of an advertisement that he planned to run in the national papers, and soldiering on with his upbeat social networking campaign, dominated, as usual, by quotable bromides, civic cheerleading and snapshots of stunning Acapulco sunsets.

"That's life. Life is designed for good and bad," De Santiago, 43, mused Tuesday morning from his office, set above a vast and nearly empty cantina. "But what is our job? It's not that we deny the bad. It's that we overtake the bad with the good. We have to value the good."

De Santiago, who followed his father into the nightclub business, was dressed in designer jeans and retro Pumas and puffing on a Marlboro red. The name of his civic group was emblazoned on his polo shirt.

De Santiago said that he was an optimist by nature, but that he and others who had chosen to live and invest in Acapulco had no choice but to be positive.

Before the assault on the Spanish tourists, he said, things were looking up. From December to February, traditionally a busy season, the clubs were full again; occupancy during the Christmas break, according to local officials, was at 98% — almost like the old days.

Habla Bien de Aca was founded a few months after 20 men were killed in Acapulco in 2010, apparently by members of a cartel who mistook them for rivals (the victims' families said they were tourists).

Foreign tourism dwindled, and the Mexicans who visited were often what many here call "Wal-Mart tourists": holed up in condominium complexes, too scared by the violence to venture out beyond the big-box stores.

The idea of Habla Bien was to change the way residents spoke and thought about their city, on the theory that their positive attitudes would spread to tourists. The group's members took their message to taxi drivers and children in schools. De Santiago took the unpaid president's job with no experience in saving a city's reputation; perhaps as a result, the group's activities borrowed heavily from the nightclub promotion playbook. They gave away glossy fliers and colorful woven bracelets. They also took aggressively to Twitter and Facebook.

De Santiago writes the posts, and since the news of the rapes, his musings — along with responses from Habla Bien's thousands of followers — have offered a glimpse of the port city's tortured soul. On Feb. 6, he playfully asked followers to list the essential hits of spring break. Among the party anthems, someone suggested Nirvana's "Rape Me."

De Santiago cast doubt on a report issued this month by a Mexican nongovernmental group that says Acapulco was the second-deadliest of 50 cities worldwide studied, after San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

He posted articles about how a struggling New York had touted itself to tourists in the 1970s, and how a struggling Colombia marketed itself more recently, with the cheeky slogan, "The only risk is that you'll want to stay."

He posted photos of Acapulco's breathtaking cliff-ringed bay and women in string bikinis, along with cheerleading self-help quotes: "The optimist always has a project, the pessimist always has an excuse."

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