*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries. This particular segment covers a trip I took to Mexico in February of 2019.
I spent part of last week vacationing in Mexico. I know some of you are shaking your head and saying you would never visit such a location because of the high level of cartel violence. That tells me that you haven’t been there.
While there are certainly some places in Mexico that I would not visit for safety concerns, the tourist areas are actually quite safe for travelers, even if a bunch of cartel members are getting killed. Counting the stamps in my passports shows that I’ve visited Mexico 17 times in the last 18 years.
I also made one visit where I hopped the border and entered illegally, but that is a story for another time. The bottom line is that I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico.
I have very little security concerns about the “Riviera Maya” area between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Going up the peninsula from Cancun to Merida is also pretty safe, as are the ruins of Chichen Itza, the popular cenotes, Isla Holbox, and Isla Mujeres. Those are most of the places you’d want to stay on the Caribbean coast.
Why the conflicting information? Why do I think it’s safe when the government and all media sources are constantly telling us how dangerous Mexico is?
The Mexican drug cartels are battling each other over drug distribution territories. They are also trying to expand their income sources by extorting business owners and government officials for “protection money.” Besides defining their drug selling territories, they are also fighting about which cartel gets to extort which business area.
That means a lot of people involved in the drug gangs are getting killed. When a cartel member gets killed, the victim cartel strikes back against the attacking cartel, killing both cartel members as well as their families. Businessmen and government employees who don’t cooperate with the extortion are getting killed.
Guess who is not getting killed? The tourists. While there is a small chance of getting caught up in the crossfire of a cartel gun battle, that risk is also present in the gang territories of all the big cities in America. So long as the tourist doesn’t get involved in drug sales, doesn’t openly insult cartel members, and stays away from prostitutes, the chance of the tourist getting killed in Mexico is close to zero.
Why are the tourists safe?
It’s because the drug cartels need the tourists to keep coming. Who do you think owns those large all-inclusive resorts? The drug cartels and their families. They use those huge tourist resorts to launder their drug money. If the tourists stop coming to Mexico, it becomes much harder for the cartels to operate. They have a very clear motivation to keep the tourists safe.
Back to last week’s trip. Even though we only spent four days in the country, I learned a massive amount of how the drug cartels operate and all about the local drug markets, cartel assassins, and human trafficking rings. All were openly on display for anyone who was alert enough to take notice. Ninety-nine percent of the tourists were too engrossed in their margaritas to really see what was going on right under their noses.
When we normally spend time in Mexico, we will rent an Air BnB condo or stay at a very small resort far outside the tourist zones. We like a quieter and more local feel than what the big all inclusive resorts provide. Because of that, I was unaware of a lot of the drug and human trafficking activity at the larger resorts. I never saw any of it on previous trips precisely because we stayed in areas with few tourists. I learned that American tourists play a much larger role in funding the cartels than I had previously realized.
On this trip we decided we wanted to make it easy as we were only going to be spending four days in the country. We booked at a very large and fairly swanky all-inclusive resort hotel. It was a wonderful location and we got all the beach and relaxation we had been looking for. We also got an education about how drug sales work south of the border.
Over the past few years I’ve been working hard to increase my awareness levels and intuition. I’ve been following some shamanic pathways I learned in the jungles of Peru and some exercises I’ve picked up in books.
Before you start thinking I’m crazy and spouting off woo-woo bullshit, consider that warriors throughout history have intensely studied the art of intuition and awareness in both time and space. Here’s one of my favorite quotes on the topic from a 19th century Chinese Tai Chi master:
“If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.
At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”
– Wu Yuxiang
Master Yuxiang cultivated his awareness and intuition for decades to reach the point he writes about above. I’m just a beginner, but I’m coming to understand the importance of cultivating my intuition as well as the advantages a high intuitive ability can bring to a defensive combatant.
One day on this vacation, I spent quite a bit of time working on some of the drills I use to refine my intuition. I went to the beach and sat there. I people watched all day long. No book, no phone, no digital entertainment. I was trying to be focused on living in the present moment. As a result, I saw a lot of things that most tourists miss.
There is a massive complex operation uniting both drug dealers and their customers on the hotel zone beaches in Cancun. After a day’s worth of observation and talking to a few of my fellow American travelers who had made some drug purchases the previous day, I was truly enlightened.
If you are a tourist who wants to buy drugs in Mexico, one of the easiest way of doing it is to ask a waiter at your hotel. He can usually facilitate the deal for a generous trip. I saw and heard several such requests to our waiters during my day of observation.
One of the other ways to acquire a drug supply is through the local drug dealers on the beach. The dealers walk back and forth on the beach pretending to sell some type of product. All beaches are public in Mexico so these guys have essentially free reign to walk up and down the beach selling beach towels, sunscreen, sunglasses, and jewelry.
I very quickly noticed that the folks selling sunglasses and beach towels walked past our place on the beach at a hustling pace. We seldom saw the same vendor more than once or twice a day. These walking salesmen need to go where there is a market for their wares. If people aren’t interested the first time you present them with your products, they probably won’t suddenly want what you are selling a couple of hours later. The salesman keeps moving down the beach to attract new customers.
I observed an anomaly. The guys selling boxes of Cuban cigars on the beach came back every 20 minutes or so. I never saw them actually sell a single cigar. How do these guys stay in business when there aren’t any customers interested in their wares? It’s easy. They aren’t selling cigars. They are taking drug orders from the tourists.
The drug sales networks utilize the same tactics that terrorist cells use to keep from generating too much attention. Also similar to a terrorist cell, the dealers employ lots of “cut outs” to reduce the damage should one of the dealers get arrested. They compartmentalize their operations so that each individual player doesn’t know much about the entire operation. Everything was on a “need to know” basis.
Here’s how the process works…
– You tell the cigar salesman what you want (I saw deals involving marijuana, powder cocaine, and heroin).
– The cigar salesman gives you a price, but doesn’t take your money. He tells you to pay the person who approaches you and asks you for money in a few minutes. He then saunters off.
– Another beach salesperson will then walk up to you under the pretense of selling you some insignificant trinket. He takes your money for the drugs. When the money changes hands the cigar salesman won’t even be on the same beach. Plausible deniability for him if the deal is under surveillance.
– Within 30-60 minutes a third salesman drops off your drugs.
– Finally, if you need money back in change after the transaction, a fourth person will bring it to you soon after the drug delivery man has cleared the scene. No one in the distribution chain is ever at the same place at the same time
There was quite a bit of drama involved in this process. It seemed that only the cigar salesman speaks fluent English. The dudes who pick up the money or drop off the drugs didn’t speak English at all. They aren’t helpful if you have any questions. I saw a couple different people getting themselves worked up about their deals.
One older white dude literally threw a temper tantrum on the beach because it took about 30 minutes for his cocaine to be delivered. He was convinced that the dealer had ripped him off. Another woman didn’t immediately get her change back after the drugs were delivered. She was very upset until the “change guy” walked up and provided her with correct change. It was a completely ludicrous scene to watch unfold.
I struck up a conversation with another hotel guest as he smoked a joint on the beach. He filled me in on some additional details about how the game works.
According to my new friend, the cartels really don’t want to be in the business of making small scale marijuana deliveries. Because of this fact, they intentionally limit the supply of weed to the dealers. They want the dealers selling the cocaine and heroin instead of marijuana. By noon each day, there was no weed available to purchase anywhere on the beach. If you want to smoke, you better hit the dealer up early.
The cartels also have a price fixing effect on drug sales. They set the prices. The individual dealers aren’t allowed to either up charge or discount the product. I didn’t inquire as to the prices of the hard drugs, but the smoking hotel guest told me that the going rate for subpar quality marijuana was expensive at $100 per quarter ounce.
Lots of drugs and cash moving around. How do the cartels protect it and avoid getting ripped off by a competing gang? They use undercover “security” or sicarios. “Security” consisted of mostly Eastern European men patrolling around the property. They always moved in pairs. While they wore swimming attire, they never got in the pool or ocean. Both men on each team carried heavy backpacks (presumably full of weapons of some type).
They looked low key, but it ended up being obvious that they weren’t hotel guests. Each guest at the all-inclusive hotel had to wear a bracelet so that the restaurants wouldn’t serve free meals to people walking in off the beach. “Security” was trying hard to fit in by acting like guests, but they missed one key detail. None of them were wearing the hotel bracelet.
The men appeared to be capable and fit. They patrolled in a purposeful random pattern, with two pairs constantly “on-duty” at any given time.
When I noted the lack of wrist bands, I started looking for that with other guests. I quickly noticed a male/female couple. They were sitting on the beach directly under the lifeguard chair. They had neither bracelets or swimsuits. They were speaking what sounded like Russian. Both look like they were going through heroin withdrawal.
A waiter “placed” these two in their position. The lifeguard kept an eye on them. They never once got in the water or ordered a drink. After a few hours, the two were led away by a couple of the “security” men.
I have no idea what those two were actually doing, but I would guess that the couple was somehow being “trafficked” from one location to another. They were using the beach as a well-protected place to hide in plain sight.
All in all, I think my observation/intuition practice that day was immensely productive. It’s truly astonishing to really see what so many other folks fail to observe. There is a baffling amount of information available to you if you just take the time to notice it.
It might initially seem strange to say it, but seeing all this stuff actually made me feel a bit safer. I knew that the drug lords want to keep tourists coming in. But I didn’t know how much income those tourists also provided directly to the cartels in terms of illicit drug sales.
The “cigar salesmen” were very busy all day long. We tourists are literally the geese who lay golden eggs. The cartel bosses would likely do just about anything possible to ensure that the tourists are happy and safe. There’s too much money to lose if the tourists stop coming to Cancun.