Pubdate: 20 Dec 1998
Source: Miami Herald (FL) 
Copyright: 1998 The Miami Herald
Author: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press



PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico -- Luxury hotels, pristine white beaches and
excursion boats plying turquoise waters -- all are part of the image of
paradise that draws tourists to Mexico's Caribbean coast.

All have also become key elements in drug smugglers' efforts to make the
area a new hot spot for cocaine smuggling, law enforcement sources say.

Drug traffickers are using the special resources of the area to their full
advantage, sneaking in drug-laden boats among the fleets of yachts, hiding
drug profits in the guise of wealthy homes that line the coast and even
blackmailing tourists into moving their cargo to its destination.

"There are a lot of ways to get drugs in, and they use them all," said Juan
Miguel Ponce Edmundson, director of Interpol's Mexico office.

In the early 1990s, the Caribbean drug trade dropped off as smugglers moved
west to mainland Mexico, where large planes stuffed with drugs could drop
shipments on desert landing strips.

Return to Caribbean

But as U.S. and Mexican authorities crack down on drug smuggling along the
2,000-mile border joining the two nations, officials say smugglers have
increasingly returned to the Caribbean -- and in a new twist, to Quintana
Roo state, which covers the Mexican Caribbean.

"In recent years, there has been a growth in the entry of cocaine and other
drugs through Colombia, Central America, then on to Quintana Roo and into
the United States," U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow said last week.

"We have more than 25,000 Americans visiting Cancun every day, so for us it
is very important that the state be a safe place," he said.

Quintana Roo Gov. Mario Villanueva insists that the throngs of tourists
actually discourage the trade.

"It's very difficult for drug traffickers to set up operations here . . .
because the state's tourism activity is of such an open nature," he said.

But law enforcement officials say the opposite is true, and that smugglers
are increasingly using the area's heavy tourism to cloak their activities.

"If there are 100 boats at a resort, it's easier to get one boat in loaded
with drugs," Ponce Edmundson said. "It's easier to get gasoline at a marina
in Cozumel or Cancun than to haul drums of gas through the jungle."

Denies Link To Drug Trade

Meanwhile, prosecutors are investigating whether Villanueva himself is
linked to the drug trade.

Villanueva denies that he is.

"In the past in Mexico, when they wanted to damage someone politically,
they accused him of corruption," he said. "Today, they accuse him of drug

The cocaine trade is increasingly sophisticated: Airplanes or boats from
Colombia drop packages of drugs into the sea, and ground crews on small
boats pick them up in as little as 10 minutes.

Drug traffickers "look for deserted stretches of coast, and then they come
in with boats, ships, airplanes," said Andres Irrola Flores of the Cozumel
Fishermen's Cooperative Society.

Sailors in Cozumel, a tropical island off the coast favored by scuba divers
and cruise ship stopovers, stand guard over more than a dozen small boats
seized in the last year from drug smugglers.

On the nearly virgin beaches of the Sian Kaan biosphere reserve about 30
miles to the south, patrols of armed soldiers drive down the single dirt
road along the coast every half-hour.

A caretaker at the abandoned Pez Maya Hotel said an army helicopter lands
every three or four days to search the beach in front of the building,
apparently looking for drugs washing up.

From the Caribbean, the drugs then go by land or air to the United States
or Europe.

It would be easy to move the drugs through a commercial airport like Cancun
- -- where most tourists enter Mexico's Caribbean -- if drug smugglers
controlled the airport's private security guards. Until recently,
prosecutors say, they did.

Turning To Tourists

In early November, police raided the offices of the Cancun airport's Lualti
private security company, on the grounds that the company was probably
owned by a member of Mexico's Juarez cocaine cartel.

Local news media said the private guards kept watch on the movements of
federal anti-drug police at the terminal.

Now, the smugglers have turned to the tourists to get drugs to market, law
enforcement officials say.

At a crowded seaside bar in Playa Del Carmen, a laid-back resort 40 miles
south of Cancun, a waiter identifying himself only as "William" offered
foreign men the chance to meet young, attractive women. Just an
introduction, not prostitution, he said.

Ponce Edmundson said that's a typical opening line. The tourist gets the
introduction -- and within days finds himself deep in debt for wild cocaine
parties. Smugglers threaten the tourist with death, then offer an easy way
out: Take an extra load on their flight home, then turn it over to local

"We've detected several cases, mostly involving European tourists," Ponce
Edmundson said. "They [tourists] go to the Caribbean and they think they're
in paradise. They don't have the sophistication to handle these situations."

U.S. officials said they weren't aware of any cases involving Americans.

Mexico's Caribbean isn't just a convenient spot to smuggle drugs, officials
say, but also an ideal place to hide the profits.

With all the luxurious properties rapidly springing up along the 75-mile
stretch of coast between Cancun and Tulum, it's easy to be inconspicuous.

"Many people buy homes here, but never come to live in them," said real
estate salesman Enrique Medina, as he shuttled a reporter around in a golf
cart on a tour of the million-dollar homes of the Isla Dorada community.

Weeks later, the attorney general's office announced it had seized 16 of
the houses at Isla Dorada -- whose name means "Golden Island"-- and two
unbuilt lots there "as properties related to money laundering, probably as
a result of drug trafficking." 
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Checked-by: Richard Lake