With winds of up to 165 mph, Category 5 Hurricane Otis tore through Acapulco in late October, leaving a trail of unprecedented devastation.
It strengthened so quickly there was little time to prepare for the strongest storm to ever hit Mexico’s Pacific coast. In just a few hours, Otis left Acapulco in shambles, changing the iconic tourist destination into a water-logged war zone. At last count, 39 people are dead.
Before the storm, Acapulco was already staggering under the weight of one of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, high poverty, and a sagging tourism industry.
Can it recover from Hurricane Otis?
Maybe the bigger question is what will the region’s powerful organized crime cartels do now?
My ties to Acapulco
Acapulco is the setting for the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series in which the first female police detective takes on cartels, corruption and Mexican machismo. The Detective Emilia Cruz series was inspired by my experience as an intelligence officer focusing on counterdrug issues.
I chose Acapulco as the setting for the series for three reasons:
Stunning backdrop: Acapulco is undeniably one of the most beautiful places on earth, with its horseshoe-shaped bay and mountain backdrop.
Familiarity: Most readers instantly recognize the name of the city. It’s been an iconic destination for generations.
Have vs have-nots: I knew that social and economic factors could be a source of tension (something you always want to build in a mystery) for the character of Emilia Cruz.
The series explores the two faces of Acapulco; the one that tourists see made up of glittering water, white skyscrapers, luxury hotels and fabulous nightclubs. Then there’s the other face of Acapulco–street gangs, endemic poverty, crooked cops. The port is a drop zone for incoming shipments of fentanyl precursors from China and a drug distribution route into the United States.
The Detective Emilia Cruz series doesn’t flinch when addressing the impact of organized crime in Acapulco including missing persons, cartel rivalries, and widespread official corruption.
Sometimes the series can be a little too authentic, but I’m following the old adage of write what you know.
Acapulco was flayed alive
As i write this, Acapulco’s infrastructure is all but obliterated.
The basics are gone for half a million people in the city: no drinking water, electricity, shelter, transportation, etc. Widespread looting is going on. https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexico-starts-clearing-up-hurricane-otis-wreckage-casualties-reach-27-2023-10-27/
According to CNN, “Otis rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to an extremely dangerous Category 5 hurricane – the area’s strongest storm on record – in just 12 hours.” After the rain, photos show ravaged buildings and mountains of debris against an unflinching blue sky. https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/26/weather/hurricane-otis-acapulco-mexico-impact-thursday/index.html
The picture-postcard row of iconic white beachfront skyscrapers were flayed; their skeletal framework exposed after walls and windows were torn away. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador lamented the loss of every electrical pole. The main highway along the Pacific coast was battered. The Acapulco airport closed. The Mexican National Guard is there now. and about 10,000 members of the military have been sent to help.
An initial estimate put total losses at $15 billion, according to the Reuters report. Yes, billions.
The aftermath (and opportunities) for organized crime
The aftermath of Hurricane Otis almost certainly will provide violent plot lines for the Detective Emilia Cruz series.
Organized crime has a history of exploiting vulnerabilities and crises. The aftermath of Hurricane Otis is unlikely to be the exception.
Here’s how criminal entities could use the chaos and destruction left by the hurricane to extend control:
Disrupt Law Enforcement
As military and law enforcement prioritizes disaster response and recovery, organized crime elements will be working overtime to reestablish their own supply routes and communication links. The two opposing forces will be after the same resources in short supply, potentially leading to violent clashes when the city can least afford it. Criminal alliances may shift as deals are made to oppose law enforcement and access supplies.
Exploit New Vulnerabilities
Despite the glitz of Acapulco’s waterfront, the state of Guerrero (where Acapulco is located) is Mexico’s second poorest. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-poorest-states-in-mexico.html
Neighborhoods that were already home to grinding poverty and rival street gangs are now even more ripe for exploitation. Organized crime organizations, flush with money from drug sales, extortion, kidnappings and other illegal operations, can extend their territory and influence by offering financial support. They may offer aid in exchange for protection, cooperation, and information.
The destruction of so many hotels and residences mean thousands are without shelter in Acapulco. Cartels can infiltrate these displaced communities, offering security and services that the government or private charities don’t provide. New members join because they see the government as ineffective, understand that working for a cartel means their family can eat, or need the sense of belonging offered as a way out of the chaos. Basically, by offering economic incentives or promises of protection, organized crime groups can swell their ranks during times of crisis. They might use these communities as cover for their operations, too.
Corruption and Infiltration
The uncertainty following a hurricane can provide an opportunity for cartels to corrupt local officials or even infiltrate emergency response organizations. This allows them to manipulate relief efforts to their advantage and further their control and potentially even seize control of vital resources such as food, water, and medicine. By controlling distribution, they can manipulate and exert influence, possibly even making deals with officials to allow vital resources to get through to populations in dire straits in return for favors, influence, territorial access, the proverbial blind eye, etc.
As Acapulco rebuilds in the hurricane’s aftermath, cartels will want to influence construction and development projects. By controlling contracts and decisions related to reconstruction, they can launder money, invest in legal businesses, and expand their economic assets. The construction business is a known vehicle for money laundering and it will be interesting to see how, when and to whom such contracts to rebuild are awarded.
The factors that led to Acapulco’s high poverty, homicide and violent crime rate will all intensify in the aftermath of Hurricane Otis. Organized crime will seek to exploit the situation and will probably be successful, depending on the government’s effectiveness in restoring services and supporting the city.
It’s crucial for the Mexican government and international organizations to provide swift and effective disaster relief, enhance security measures, and address the socioeconomic factors that make communities susceptible to cartel influence.
Unfortunately, with claims that the destruction is being overestimated by his political rivals, President López Obrador is already being accused of gaslighting the public.
I won’t be writing a happy ending any time soon.