Criminal groups in one of Mexico’s most popular tourist regions have found yet another sector to extort and terrorize: hotel builders.
Everyone — from engineers, to plumbers and painters — is systematically extorted during the construction of Cancun’s hotels, according to an investigation by Aristegui Noticias in alliance with Connectas. When workers or their employers don’t pay, they have been tortured, disappeared, and even killed, according to accounts from victims and their families.
A map in the report highlights several hotels built along the Caribbean coast of the state of Quintana Roo — home to the popular beach destinations of Cancún and Riviera Maya — that have been the targets of crime groups.
The modus operandi is always the same. When the construction of a hotel begins, crime groups demand what has been dubbed “floor rights,” weekly fees from construction workers or their bosses. For low-level employees, many from other Mexican states — the quota can represent a third of their earnings, according to the investigation.
Construction workers have also been press-ganged into working for the criminal groups themselves. They “are captured and taken, first to assist with drug sales, and later they are converted into hitmen,” Quintana Roo Attorney General Óscar Montes de Oca told Aristegui Noticias.
According to James Tobin Cunningham, a member of Mexico’s National Security Council who is cited in the report, between 30,000 and 40,000 construction workers may be victims of this type of scheme. However, few complaints to authorities are ever logged, out of fear.
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The tourist corridor of Riviera Maya, visited by more than one million people a year, has attracted criminal groups involved in a range of illicit activities, including extortion of restaurants and bars, street-level drug sales and human trafficking. It was was only natural that they would begin to target the hotel construction sector, which has seen major growth in recent years.
Several criminal groups have a presence in the Riviera Maya, including Mexico’s two most powerful cartels, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel. Remnants of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas are also present, while foreign groups like the Romanian mafia have found a foothold there as well.
Due to its perch on the Caribbean sea, the region also serves as a gateway for cocaine arriving in Mexico via the Atlantic routes from South America. In September 2020, for example, almost three tons of the drug were seized in the port municipality of Mahahual.
Criminal groups now regularly battle over control of territory and illicit activities. In 2020, Quintana Roo state registered 581 homicides. In December of this year, more than 160 disappearances were reported. At least three local politicians were also shot dead, reportedly after receiving threats from crime groups.
Though important efforts have been made by authorities in Quintana Roo to combat organized crime, officials often downplay violence aimed at people who are not tourists to maintain an image of safety.
For example, in January, the Planet Hollywood hotel in Cancun opened to much fanfare. Two months before, however, authorities had found the remains of four missing workers on land adjacent the hotel. Family members claimed that this might be a clandestine grave, where other remains could also be found, but they have not seen any subsequent investigation taking place.
“All [the homicides] are deplorable, but as a state that lives off tourism, we have to take care of our raw material, which is tourism, so that [tourists] do not decide not to come,” said Prosecutor Montes de Oca, according to the report by Aristegui Noticias.
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