The final night of a high-profile electronic music festival was marred by gunfire that led to five deaths early on Monday morning in Playa del Carmen, a town on the Mayan Riviera, a popular tourist area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Gunfire erupted during the BPM music festival at the Blue Parrot club, not far from the beach, around 2:30 a.m.
Confusion about the noise quickly turned into panic, and scores of attendees rushed to exit the premises.
The Quintana Roo state attorney general said five people — a Mexican who was targeted as well as a Canadian and an Italian, all three of whom were on the event’s security staff, and another man and woman — were among the dead.
The US embassy confirmed late on Monday night that a US citizen was killed.
The shooting took place near the venue’s biggest exit, and people had to scramble over a fence to get away. Others hid under tables or behind walls around the club.
“I was thinking it was the same thing that happened in Paris, some guy just walking in and shooting people at a restaurant, bang bang bang, a terrorist attack,” Tyler Klee, a tourist from New Zealand who was outside the club when shots rang out, told the Associated Press.
The state’s tourism department said the shooting was an “isolated act of violence” and that Mexicans and foreigners in the areas could feel safe. It was initially reported that the shooting came after security stopping a man trying to enter the club with a weapon.
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Investigators were also looking at disputes over extortion payments or drug trafficking (Quintana Roo is not a hotspot for drug-related violence but there is a market for tourists seeking drugs) as reasons for the shooting.
Later on Monday, after viewing security footage, the Quintana Roo state attorney general said the shooter came to the club with a specific target — a member of the club’s security detail. He also said many people at the event appeared to be armed and that many of the wounded were shot when security guards tried to shoot the attacker.
“The person who entered [the Blue Parrot] went exclusively for this person,” who was from Veracruz, a state farther up Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Attorney General Miguel Angel Pech said. Security personnel “tried to help [the target] and to respond to the aggression.”
Playa del Carmen, nearby Cancun, and the surrounding state of Quintana Roo have largely avoided the deadly violence that has plagued much of Mexico over the last decade.
According to official data, which is believed to deliberately under count killings in many if not all of Mexico’s states, Quintana Roo is on pace this year for a little over half the number of homicide victims registered last year.
The state’s homicide rate per 100,000 people, 7.66 through November, is about half the national rate, 15.47, and a little above the US national homicide rate, which as been around 4 or 5 per 100,000 in recent years.
In the Solidaridad municipality, where Playa del Carmen is located, 19 homicide cases have recorded through November this year, putting 2016 on pace to be just over the 19.4 average notched over the last five years.
Benito Juarez municipality, where Cancun is located, has seen more violence in recent years, but the 66 homicide cases there during the first 11 months of this year put it on pace to be well below the 213 recorded last year and under the average of 149.8 registered over the last five years.
But while killings have not been rampant in the area, another, more discreet kind of crime appears to be growing more widespread.
“In Playa del Carmen,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in his El Universal column in early December, “there is not business visible … that hasn’t received a visit or a call from extortionists.”
Going by official statistics, extortion wouldn’t appear to be a common occurrence in the state.
The 22 cases reported through November this year give Quintana Roo an extortion rate of 1.36 per 100,000 people, about one-third of the national rate, 3.85 per 100,000 people.
But “Almost no one reports” extortion or extortion attempts, Hope wrote last month, “and many, perhaps the majority, pay.”
While not visible when looking at official reports, this kind of crime appears to have had a drag on the local economy.
“According to reports from local press, some 100 Playa del Carmen businesses closed their doors in the last year” because of the impossibility of making extortion payments — which could be as much as 40,000 pesos, or about $1,800 — Hope wrote.
Organized-crime groups — like the Gulf cartel and the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel — are believed to be responsible for preying on Quintana Roo’s legitimate businesses and on other enterprises like prostitution.
Officials are also believed to be exploiting local businesses. Quintana Roo is known to be a transshipment point for drugs — local officials have been linked to the drug trade — and the area’s bustling tourism industry has proved amenable to money laundering.
The former governor of the state was extradited to the US in 2010 to face drug-trafficking charges and accusations of links to the Juarez cartel, which, along with the Gulf cartel, controlled smuggling in the area during the 1990s and 2000s, before the Zetas moved in around 2010.
While the Mayan Riviera is still a far cry from the violence and instability that has befallen Acapulco — a once idyllic Pacific coast resort city frequented by celebrities — the mix of toxic factors like organized crime and weak institutions that could bring on those conditions is there, Hope says.
“We have already lost a paradise on the Pacific,” he wrote in December. “Hopefully the authorities do something before another is lost on the Caribbean.”