ACAPULCO, Mexico -- The black-and-white photos still hang in the faded Hotel Los Flamingos. Over there is the muscled star of "Tarzan," Johnny Weissmuller, who owned the hotel for a time during Acapulco's heyday. There's Maureen O'Sullivan. Tyrone Power. Errol Flynn. Fred MacMurray.
They all came, mixed booze in a coconut -- called it a Coco Loco.
When mortals gazed at Acapulco, they saw romance itself smiling back. So they came too. As did a fortress of high-rise hotels that packed the beach and diminished the very thing everyone was chasing.
Now, just as it hopes to regain some of its cachet, Acapulco is confronting more than the weight of history. The famed resort city has been the scene of vicious fighting among rival drug gangs that has killed more than 650 people in four years, the fifth-highest count for any Mexican city, according to government figures. The toll includes 30 men slain two weekends ago in and around the city. Fifteen of them were decapitated.
Most of the killing takes place outside the main tourist zone -- a winding stretch of hotels, discotheques, taco shops and convenience stores so densely packed it is sometimes impossible to see the bay that attracted them all.
There is a separate Acapulco, a dusty city of poverty, bad roads and few police that sprawls far across the hills embracing the resort city. It is there where the taxi drivers, waiters and chambermaids live. It is there that bodies are found, sometimes with hand-scrawled notes left by the killers, sometimes without heads, an unwelcome reminder of the drug wars raging across much of Mexico.
But the violence at times penetrates the unofficial border between the two parts of the city. Two police officers were slain earlier this month on Miguel Aleman Boulevard, the city's main thoroughfare. Now, truckloads of Mexican troops are in town, and the sight of them is once again fanning worries of irreparable damage to Acapulco's image.
In September, 20 men from the neighboring state of Michoacan were kidnapped while searching for the hotel where they had reserved rooms. Eighteen of them were later found dead, apparently killed by henchmen of the Beltran Leyva drug gang who mistook them for hit men from a rival cartel, La Familia.
In June 2009, 16 gunmen and two Mexican soldiers died during a shootout after an army raid on a safe house at one end of the tourist zone.
In April of last year, a wild gunfight on Miguel Aleman left six people dead and sent bystanders screaming.
Souvenir vendor Sandra Luz Liborio watched that melee from her stall, which is piled with Mexican sombreros, Acapulco mugs and seashell trinkets. Then, two months ago, she said, another shooting forced her to run for cover again.
"I ran out back and put myself on the floor. That's what they say you should do during a shootout," Liborio said.
Liborio stays open until midnight but doesn't like it. Many residents no longer venture out after 10, she said, and lots of tourists are doing the same.
"It's out of control," Liborio said on a recent evening, at least seven hours since her last sale. "We had never seen anything like this, or even thought it possible."
Federal officials say more soldiers and police are coming. It would be an economic disaster for Mexico if the drug violence that has killed 34,000 people started spreading into tourist havens on a regular basis. Already, there has been some effect. Slumping popularity of Mexican cruises is prompting two of the largest ships sailing out of Los Angeles to head for busier ports in the Caribbean.
Although officials insist that tourism remains robust in Acapulco, merchants say the months of carnage have scared away visitors. Mexicans, especially from Mexico City, make up a big share of visitors, and the rising death toll has prompted many to scratch Acapulco from their list.
"It's very sad what is happening in Acapulco. The violence is unstoppable," said Laura Caballero, president of an association of 400 merchants. She said 16 businesses closed in December, which is normally a busy month.
Last week, after thousands of Mexican visitors returned home following the Christmas school vacation, the beach zone was serene. Sunbathers were sparse and many of the restaurants and ice cream stands were without customers.
As in many Mexican resort towns, the tourists' world rarely rubs elbows here with the real one. The hotels cocoon guests behind a bunker-like barrier along Acapulco Bay.
But the truckloads of soldiers rolling past a backdrop of shining surf and a beachside bungee-jumping tower provided a reminder of what lay beyond the high-rises and clubs with names like Euphoria and Extazyz.
Foreign tourists lured by cheap prices said they felt safe -- but were taking care not to venture far.
Duncan Gosnell and Michael Brown booked their trip from Toronto just before news broke of the Jan. 8 violence. "Both of us sat back in our chairs, thinking, 'Did we do the right thing?' " said Gosnell, a 52-year-old insurance executive.
Three days into the trip, they were pretty sure the answer was yes. Gosnell said he felt "very comfortable." The two were even planning their first night out.
"Seeing police officers with machine guns is a little unnerving," Gosnell said. "But I'm from Canada."
Not everyone was thrilled to be here.
Dennis Levin, a Seattle-area acupuncturist, was in town for a one-day layover during a bus trip that began in the southern state of Chiapas.
"When we started hearing about what was going on, we really tried to find a way around it altogether, but it was impractical," Levin said. "We lost a little sleep over the idea."
Humberto Lopez, a vendor whose sales are off by a third, said tourists had no reason to be afraid because the killing was among drug traffickers.
"It doesn't have anything to do with ordinary people," he said, standing in the entrance of an otherwise empty shop. "Nobody is going to come up and shoot you."
Adolfo Santiago, the manager of the Los Flamingos, said a sustained promotional campaign was needed to help Acapulco survive the ugliness.
"It has to remain alive, very alive," he said.
From a cliff, five young men kept up another Acapulco tradition, swan-diving into the surf, one after the other, from a heart-stopping height. As they bobbed to the surface, a small contingent of tourists was there to applaud.
(Cecilia Sanchez of the Los Angeles Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.)
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.
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