Spring-breakers party on amid Acapulco drug war

ACAPULCO, Mexico Sat Mar 3, 2007 5:31pm EST

A Mexican soldier mans a vehicle checkpoint on the outskirts of the resort town of Acapulco in this file photo from February 23, 2007. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

A Mexican soldier mans a vehicle checkpoint on the outskirts of the resort town of Acapulco in this file photo from February 23, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) - U.S. spring-breakers are guzzling beers and slamming back tequilas in the Mexican Pacific beach resort of Acapulco, unfazed by a violent drug war that has killed police and left body parts strewn about town.

Famed for its cliff divers and sweeping bay, the once glamorous resort city has seen daytime shootouts between police and drug hit men who have dumped severed heads in public as part of turf battles that killed 2,000 people in Mexico last year.

Gunmen disguised as soldiers killed seven people in an attack on two police stations in February and heavily armed federal police now patrol the resort day and night as part of a nationwide crackdown by new President Felipe Calderon.

But with the beachfront strip largely unaffected by the violence, college students are packing hotels and vast dance clubs in what officials hope will be record numbers, most of them blissfully unaware of the drug war raging nearby.

"We don't necessarily think about any of that, it's more just coming down here and having a good time," Western Michigan University student Caitlin Murray said at the Copacabana hotel's pool, scene of wet T-shirt and beer-drinking contests.

Hundreds of students splashed, danced and yelled to hip-hop music behind her as youths in giant boxing gloves slugged it out in a ring for a top prize of $100 and a bottle of tequila.

Nearby, federal police with machine guns frisked drivers and searched cars for drugs and arms at one of many checkpoints aimed at keeping tourists safe from Acapulco's darker side.

JILTED BY THE JET-SET

The resort is a shadow of the jet-set magnet that led Frank Sinatra to sing "We'll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay" in his 1950s hit "Come Fly With Me," but its economy still pulsates when students flock in for a week of sun and fun.

In early February, two Canadian tourists were shot in the legs by unknown gunmen the same weekend police found a man's chopped-up body in plastic garbage bags, but the violence has for the most part not affected the beach front hotel strip.

Tourism officials said there had been no significant cancellations and expected a spring break record of 30,000 students this season. Hotel occupancy is higher than 2006 and seen reaching 75 percent despite a State Department warning about drug-related violence in the resort.

Students say the only noticeable effect of the crackdown is a scarcity of illicit drugs. Cocaine and marijuana readily available in most Mexican resorts have been hard to find, boosting usage of prescription drugs like pain-killer Vicodin.

"Kids are less likely to go searching for drugs in the street. Everyone who comes down here now wants to get their Vicodin. Kids are still getting that from the drugstore," said a University of Michigan undergraduate, requesting anonymity.

With tourism driving the local economy, locals dread what would happen if drug violence spread to the beach.

"We live from tourism. If we don't take care of tourists, they'll leave. If they do, there is no work, no economy, no nothing," said Agustin Serrano at the state tourist office.

Robert Wehmeyer, a University of Michigan graduate student on his second consecutive spring break in Mexico, agreed.

"If one American tourist is killed here, my parents would never let me come back," he said.

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