Mexico’s drug war rocks U.S. expat stronghold
AJIJIC, Mexico, (Reuters) - For decades, American and Canadian expats have flocked to the shores of Chapala, seeking refuge in the spring-like climate of Mexico’s largest natural lake, where English author D.H. Lawrence once came for inspiration.
But the calm of the clustered lakeside retreats was shattered last month when suspected drug-gang hitmen kidnapped a group of Mexican locals and dumped 18 decapitated bodies in two vehicles just miles (kilometres) from the lakeside tourist enclave of Ajijic.
The explosion of violence followed months of escalating tension in a turf war between the Sinaloa and Zetas drug cartels that has spread from smuggling routes in the north to the fringes of Mexico’s second biggest city, Guadalajara.
Just 40 minutes from the Jalisco state capital, the Chapala slayings horrified foreigners and locals alike, who locked themselves indoors and stopped going out.
“We thought it was going to be the end of Ajijic,” said Phil Rylett, a 61-year-old retiree from Sacramento, California, who was in the picturesque village finalizing plans to buy a house with his wife. “You can’t live in paradise if you’re afraid.”
Cross-border tourism to Mexico has been a notable victim of the drug war, which has killed more than 55,000 people since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led offensive against the cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006.
The number of day trippers to Mexico fell by a quarter between 2008 and 2011 and the numbers of U.S. tourists staying also declined three percent last year, despite a rise in the total number of international tourists, official data show.
But for all that, more and more Americans are coming to live in Mexico, seeking the lower cost of living and escaping the tough U.S. economy. The U.S. Embassy estimates over 1 million reside in the country now, up by more than a quarter from 2010.
Between 7,000 and 17,000 U.S. and Canadians live in Chapala depending on the season, making it the oldest and biggest concentration of U.S. expats in Mexico.
Despite the violence, most expats are staying put for now.
In February, the U.S. State Depart-ment issued its widest warning since 2006, advising against “non-essential travel” to 14 of Mexico’s 31 states. It noted that the number of U.S. citizens murdered in Mexico had jumped from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.
Calderon’s failure to contain the violence has eroded support for his National Action Party (PAN) which polls show is likely to lose the presidential elections due on July 1.
American residents across the country have been closely monitoring developments in Chapala, said Richard Kiy, president of the International Community Foundation, which has extensively surveyed the U.S. population in Mexico. As recently as October 2011, respondents overwhelmingly reported feeling safe.
According to residents and authorities, Zeta gang members kidnapped 32 people from the Chapala area in late April and early May, including three waiters walking home from their night shift at a lakeside restaurant and a 17-year-old girl.
“This time these were innocent people that they just snatched off the street,” said Terry Vidal, 52, executive director of the Lake Chapala Society, which caters to expats.
“These were the children of our maids and gardeners and our colleagues. We were terrified,” he added.