MEXICO CITY — The tourism world turned its eyes on Mexico after six Spanish women were raped by masked gunmen during a vacation in the long-troubled Pacific coast resort of Acapulco.
While there has been talk of reviving the golden era of the ’40s and ’50s, international tourists have long steered away from Acapulco, even before the drug violence of recent years, as the city fell into disrepair and glitzier Cancun and Los Cabos gained favor.
The question now is whether the attack will affect other resorts as Mexico prepares for its annual spring break onslaught and peak season.
The hours-long assault was carried out by a gang of masked gunmen who burst into the beachfront home before dawn on Monday and tied up the six men inside, then raped the women. A seventh Mexican woman was unharmed.
“We are really sorry about what happened with the Spanish tourists because … it is something that affects Mexico’s image,” said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, tourism secretary of Quintana Roo, the Caribbean coast state where Cancun is located and which hosted about 17 million tourists last year.
But, he added, “we are definitely not as contaminated with the crime issue as other states in Mexico.”
Acapulco barely registers on U.S. tourists’ radar anymore, said Kathy Gerhardt, a spokeswoman for Travel Leaders, a network of independently owned and operated travel agencies in the U.S.
“Those individuals trying to lump Acapulco into the list of top Mexico destinations for U.S. travelers are simply misinformed,” she said.
In a recent survey of over 1,000 travel agency owners, managers and agents, “not a single individual chose Acapulco as a top international destination they are booking for their clients,” Gerhardt said.
“We do not see any spillover effect,” she added, for areas like Cancun, which Travel Leaders lists as the No. 2 foreign destination for U.S. travelers, after Caribbean island cruises.
From a 2009 shootout that killed 18 near Acapulco’s fabled Flamingo Hotel to this week’s attack, the resort once celebrated in Frank Sinatra songs and Elvis Presley movies has been the scene of body dumpings, beheadings and taxi-driver killings as gangs vie for drug transport routes once controlled by the now-decimated Beltran Leyva cartel.
Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — some of the last lines making port calls in Acapulco — canceled those in December, before the latest attack.
An estimated 50,000 Spaniards travel to Mexico each year, but mostly to the Caribbean coast, not Acapulco. Mexicans and Spaniards living in Mexico like the victims, however, flock to Acapulco during Easter week and other long holiday weekends, such as Monday, when the country celebrated its Constitution Day.
Local tourists believe they can distinguish unsafe areas of the city, and even foreign travel warnings say it’s safe for those who don’t wander far from the beach.
“For us, this is an incredibly safe zone,” said Rafael Gallego Nadal, president of the Spanish Confederation of Travel Agencies. “This was a terrible attack, but it’s not the first time that something bad has happened in that part of Mexico.”
He said there has been no talk of travel agencies reducing package tour prices.
Some press reports Wednesday suggested a drug purchase could have played a role in Monday’s rapes, but Marcos Juarez, the chief investigator for Guerrero state prosecutors, said there was no evidence of that.
Still, the attack exposed a dangerous security situation in areas that had been considered safe, such as the laid-back stretch of beach dotted with restaurants, small hotels and homes southeast of the city’s center, where the Spaniards had rented a villa.
The five attackers held the group at gunpoint, tying up the six men with phone cords and bathing suit straps, then raping the six women over a three-hour period, authorities said.
The manager of a hotel near the house said he heard shouting just after midnight Monday, but did nothing because he felt it would be too dangerous. The man did not want to give his name for safety reasons.
It was unclear whether the victims had been targeted because of their nationality.
Guerrero state Attorney General Martha Garzon told local media that the attackers’ motive was robbery and that they drank mescal they found at the house. The Mexican woman, who is married to one of the Spaniards, “was saved by the fact that she is Mexican,” Garzon said.
“She says she identified herself to the (attackers) and asked not to be raped, and they told her that she had passed the test by being Mexican and they didn’t touch her,” Garzon told Radio Formula.
While some Mexicans harbor resentment against Spaniards dating to colonial times, the victims may have been targeted for other reasons, such as appearance or possessions.
Mayor Luis Walton rushed to apologize Wednesday for his comment the day before that “this happens everywhere in the world, not just in Acapulco or in Mexico.”
“Of course, this worries us and we don’t want anything like this to happen in Acapulco or anywhere else in the world,” he said. “We know this is going to affect our tourism.”
Billionaire business magnate Carlos Slim, ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s richest man, proposed a plan last year to rescue Acapulco by building parks and recreational centers there.
Still, it would be a long way from the city’s heyday, when Elizabeth Taylor was married in Acapulco, John F. and Jackie Kennedy spent their honeymoon there and Howard Hughes hid out in a suite at the Princess Hotel, a pyramid-shaped icon in the exclusive Punta Diamante, or Diamond Point.
Gallego said it’s important for authorities to make arrests soon to prove that those responsible will be punished. State prosecutor Garzon said authorities have strong evidence leading to the culprits.
Given the sheer volume of visitors to such popular destinations as the Caribbean Riviera Maya south of Cancun, Gonzalez said, “we certainly could have some cancellations. But given the number of Spanish tourists, it would not be significant.”