PUERTO MORELOS, Quintana Roo — Tourists at two Mexican resorts popular with Americans were shocked when terrifying shootouts recently interrupted their vacations.
Two tourists caught up in the gunfire in Tulum last month were killed and three others were injured.
On Thursday, dozens of panicked vacationers ran for cover as bullets flew on the beach of their luxury hotel south of Cancun. Two drug dealers died in that shooting.
Officials in Mexico blame a turf war between drug cartels for both deadly shootings and other recent crimes that threaten to scare vacationers away from the tranquil oasis.
Gov. Carlos Joaquin called the attack “a serious blow to the development and security of the state, putting the image of the state at grave risk.”
Shootout near Cancun
The most recent shooting happened on the beach at the Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancun in Puerto Morelos.
A commando of masked gunmen in boats stormed ashore and executed two drug dealers from a rival gang.
“About 15 people arrived on the beach to assassinate two men who had showed up saying they were the new dealers in the area,” the head prosecutor of Quintana Roo state, Oscar Montes de Oca, told the Radio Formula station.
Joaquin said one of the men targeted in the attack fled into one of the hotels before dying. The other died on the beach.
The dramatic attack sent tourists scrambling for cover at the Hyatt and the nearby Azul Beach Resort.
The governor said one person suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the attack, but authorities could not determine whether that person was a hotel employee or a guest because they were still undergoing medical treatment.
Mike Singleton tweeted video saying guests gathered in the lobby where employees brought them after determining the danger was over. He said people were "crying and hugging."
Guests at the Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancun posted videos and photos of tourists hiding or nervously milling in the lobby and hallways of hotels during the incident.
Guests at the nearby Azul Beach Resort also posted videos of people taking shelter or gathering in the lobby. An employee who answered the phone at the hotel said the shooting occurred on the beach near the facility.
Several cartels are fighting for the area’s lucrative retail drug trade, including the Jalisco cartel and the a gang allied with the Gulf cartel.
Tourists killed in Tulum
The Puerto Morelos shooting comes two weeks after a California travel blogger and a German tourist were killed in a similar shootout in the beach town of Tulum. Both women were caught in the crossfire.
An Instagram post by Anjali Ryot, 26, showed her lounging and smiling on a seaside pier in Tulum two days before the shooting. It listed her as a travel blogger from Himachal, India, living in California. A linked Facebook page said she lived in San Jose.
The German citizen killed was identified as Jennifer Henzold.
Three other foreign tourists were wounded in the shooting at a street-side restaurant that has some outdoor tables, right off Tulum’s main strip. They included two German men and a Dutch woman.
The German Foreign Office issued a travel advisory about the violence, advising its citizens “if you are currently in the Tulum or Playa del Carmen area, do not leave your secured hotel facilities.”
The Tulum gunfight also apparently broke out between two groups that operate street-level drug sales in the area, according to prosecutors.
Montes de Oca said eight suspects in the Tulum attack had been detained in possession of firearms.
'We are in control here'
There have been signs that the situation in Quintana Roo state, where all the resorts are located, was out of control months ago. In June, two men were shot to death on the beach in Tulum and a third was wounded.
And in nearby Playa del Carmen, police stage a massive raid in October on the beach town’s restaurant-lined Quinta Avenida, detaining 26 suspects — most apparently for drug sales — after a city policewoman was shot to death and locked in the trunk of a car last week. Prosecutors said Friday they have arrested a suspect in that killing.
Crime “has gone up a little with extortion, with drug sales to foreigners and Mexicans,” the prosecutors office said about the raid.
The shooting occurred on Tulum’s ‘Mini-Quinta,’ a reference to Playa del Carmen’s larger, flashier bar and restaurant zone known as Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue.
On Friday, the civic group Citizens Observatorio of Tulum posted photos of hand-lettered signs that appeared at a local market in Tulum, signed by a drug gang known as Los Pelones, roughly “the Shaved Heads.”
The sign said the shooting “was a warning, so you can see we mean business,” adding “you either get in line or we are going to continue shutting places down like the Mini Quinta,” an apparent warning to pay extortion demands for protection money.
“We are in control here,” the sign added. The gang, part of the Gulf Cartel, has long extorted protection money from bars and night clubs in Cancun, but has now apparently extended operations further south to Playa del Carmen and Tulum. The gang is also fighting the Jalisco Cartel and other groups for the area’s lucrative drug market.
Will tourists keep coming?
The killings threatened Tulum’s reputation as a low-key carefree beach town without the crowding and problems of Cancun.
"I've been here a lot over the last year -- to Tulum and Playa -- and we're not used to seeing this kind of violence in the tourists sections," another tourist said. "It's frightening for everybody. I think it's still a great place to be."
After the shooting, U.S. tourist James Graham said he had come to Tulum with the idea of possibly buying a property there to rent out on AirBnB. “Right now, we are not so sure we’re going to buy anything here,” Graham said.
“I think that what was surprising, is we figured that this type of crime wouldn’t necessarily be where the main tourist areas are, just because it’s such a big part of the economy,” Graham said. “You would think that you would be very careful to make sure that you know the tourists feel very safe coming here.”
The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pinned its hopes on Tulum, where it has announced plans to build an international airport and a stop for the Maya train, which will run in a loop around the Yucatan peninsula.
The government sent security forces to Tulum after the shooting.
U.S. travel advisories
The U.S. State Department advises travelers to "exercise increased caution due to crime" when traveling to Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum.
Criminal activity and violence may occur throughout the state.
There are no restrictions on travel for U.S. government employees in Quintana Roo state, which include tourist areas in: Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and the Riviera Maya.