The second tourist center in Mexico accumulates violent events and is considered by the US Treasury Department as a node of money laundering networks
The main avenue of Puerto Vallarta, the heart of the second-largest tourist center in Mexico, has become in recent years the playground of organized crime. In the early hours of Friday, former Governor Sandoval was shot to death in a fashionable bar. Three weeks earlier, a businessman was kidnapped on his way home and a few days later the body was found in a gutter. In summer, a command intercepted a dozen tourists after being mistaken for members of a rival cartel. And four years ago, two sons of El Chapo Guzmán were kidnapped in another restaurant 500 meters from where they shot the former governor two days ago.
The place is called La Leche and it continues to be one of Vallarta’s tourist attractions. All the decoration is white and the menu has a buttered lobster for 850 pesos. The waiters assure that there is no one left from the era of the uprising. One of the valets, who was not there that night when 20 armed men entered the restaurant, defends his city on the grounds of the “lesser evil” before opening the door of a customer’s red sports car.
—Do you think tourists keep coming to Vallarta because it’s still supposed to be a safe place?
“Not supposed.” It is safe. Here it was not a shooting. They entered, they grabbed them and there was no shoot out.
Of course, it was not like the event on Friday at dawn in the District 5 bar. The ambush of the former governor began, according to the authorities, with a shot from behind in the bathroom and machine-gun bursts from about 10 hitmen when the bodyguards tried to attack. drive him to a hospital. At the same height as the bar, but on the other side of the avenue, the doorman of the luxury resort Grand Venetian who was on duty that morning “no more hearing the gunshots threw himself on the floor of the sentry box,” according to his colleagues.
The hard crime figures in Puerto Vallarta do not reveal an alert situation. Drug dealing and injuries stand out, while homicides, kidnappings, or extortion remain below the average, for example, in Guadalajara, the state capital. There are not many serious cases. Drug trafficking blows are usually very thoughtful. But when they happen they are thunderous. Despite everything, Vallarta remains a tourist emporium, the second in the country after Cancun, which receives an average of five million visitors a year. Mostly Americans.
A family crosses the avenue through which the hitmen escaped on Friday. All wearing the same colorful flower Hawaiian shirt. The parents, two children, and the grandmother, who also wears a hat to avoid the sun while walking very short steps across the crossroads. They are on their way to the entrance of the resort where the guard fell to the ground when he heard the shooting just a few hours ago. The heart of Vallarta is a “no place”, according to the definition of the anthropologist Marc Augé. An impersonal space of transit, of flow, where nothing remains. The social bond is broken and everything is anonymous and functional. Another Grand Venetian worker sums it up this way: “Tourists don’t even notice anything.
Anonymity, entry of foreign exchange, and real estate businesses. Three of the favorite ingredients of organized crime. “The value of Puerto Vallarta has to do above all with drug dealing aimed at tourists and money laundering. Criminal structures are like an octopus that needs to purify its dirty money through real estate, ”says Héctor Escamilla, a local journalist who has been investigating the drug trafficking phenomenon for more than 20 years.
The shady real estate deals are behind one of the latest crimes in the area. The prosecution announced two weeks ago that the kidnapping and murder of businessman Felipe Tomé “may be related to real estate issues in very high-level apartment towers, very luxurious.” Last summer, the state government signed a specific agreement with the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) of the Ministry of Finance to combat money laundering and corruption. A little earlier, in spring, police from the federal prosecutor’s office caught Adrian N in an apartment near the beach, accused of being the accountant for the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG) in Vallarta.
The US Department of the Treasury has also pointed out the logistical importance of Jalisco’s tourist jewel for the mafia. In front of the money laundering operations, the leader of the section known as Los Cuinis appears in particular. Abigael González Valencia was arrested in 2015 here, in Puerto Vallarta, and is the brother-in-law of the drug lord, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, ‘El Mencho’, the second most wanted narco by the DEA after Rafael Caro Quintero, the head of the historic Cartel de Guadalajara, the mothership of the Mexican criminal organizations.
In the late 1970s, the pioneers moved the headquarters of the mafia fleeing military operations in their native, poor and mountainous Sinaloa. Thus they arrived in Guadalajara, the splendid capital of Jalisco, one of the economic and cultural engines of Mexico. And for many years, a comfort zone for organized crime. The same status that Puerto Vallarta had, the exit to the Pacific of Jalisco, during the first decade of the past. Until in 2008, the armed peace between the allied organizations around the Sinaloa cartel, heir to the Guadalajara mafia, was broken.
The Federation was blown to pieces. The group of the Beltrán Leyva brothers began a bloody dispute over the Pacific cities. While on the other coast, Los Zetas appeared. All against Sinaloa and its armed wing of that time: Jalisco Nueva Generación. The fall of the chief in the area, Ignacio Coronel, left a void that was quickly filled by the new cartel, which also broke away from Sinaloa and took control of Vallarta since the beginning of this decade. Thus was born CJNG, a modern organization with a flexible structure and new operating patterns. Faced with the classic hierarchical pyramid, Jalisco absorbs the small groups that rule the cities that it is conquering, leaving them autonomy and forming a kind of hydra with a multitude of cells.
Today considered the most powerful mafia, it maintains control of drug trafficking in the Pacific. High traffic ports such as Lázaro Cárdenas or Manzanillo are the entrances for Asian precursors to manufacture new-generation synthetic drugs such as fentanyl or methamphetamine. Vallarta is rather a marina, not an industrial one like those in Colima or Michoacán, but its importance lies, in addition to the tourism market, in its geostrategic value. It is also the coastal connection with the mountainous area of Jalisco, where the narco-laboratories are located to process drugs.
Vallarta has been a CJNG stronghold for 10 years, key in its battle with Sinaloa. For this reason, when on August 15, 2016, two of El Chapo’s sons entered enemy territory for dinner, Jalisco responded with a warning. The youths were captured and released after five days. Even so, as with the opaque world of drug trafficking, it is not entirely clear who and why they entered the La Leche restaurant that night. Gabriel López, a veteran taxi driver from the port area, says he saw more than 20 armed men getting out of four trucks. Their version is that it was not the Jalisco Cartel, but the people of Sinaloa who got to get them out of there before the enemy arrived. “It was the people of El Chapo. They were kicked out of here because they knew it was dangerous.