ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) - Eighteen people were killed in a shootout between drug gangs and soldiers in the Mexican beach resort of Acapulco, the army said on Sunday.
The gun battle, near tourist hotels in the Pacific Ocean resort, was a further blow to Mexico’s tourism industry, already reeling from cancellations by foreigners scared away by the swine flu epidemic.
Gunmen battled troops from a cartel safe house, throwing hand grenades at soldiers who had surrounded them and spraying gunfire into military vehicles and nearby homes. The shooting began late on Saturday and went on until after midnight.
“There were grenade and rocket explosions, and weapons like AK-47s,” said an employee of a neighboring hotel. “The fight lasted almost two hours.”
Sixteen suspected members of the Beltran Leyva drug gang were killed as well as two soldiers, including a captain.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has staked his presidency on crushing drug gangs whose turf wars have killed about 2,300 people this year. Some 45,000 troops and federal police have been deployed across the country.
While the clash was several miles away from the main area where foreign tourists stay in high-rise hotels, a resurgence of violence in Acapulco is bad news for the tourism industry.
Rival drug gangs fought over territory in Acapulco, home to around a million people, several years ago, but the resort has been relatively free of drug violence in recent years.
Tourism, a key industry for Mexico, took a hit in late April and early May when the H1N1 flu virus spread through Mexico and scared off travelers.
Violence associated with drugs across Mexico has damaged investor sentiment and the U.S. government is concerned about instability in Mexico, an ally and big oil supplier.
President Barack Obama visited Mexico City in April, praised Calderon for tackling the drug gangs and offered more U.S. help in the war.
Drug violence has also hurt Mexican beach resorts, like Cancun and Ixtapa.
The Beltran Leyva gang, rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, is believed to dominate the drug trade around Acapulco, a popular destination for vacationing U.S. college students.
Also on Sunday, the attorney general’s office said police arrested Olga Cristina Lerma, a financial operative in the Sinaloa cartel, which is based in northwest Mexico.
Lerma is responsible for bringing $22 million from drug sales from the United States into Mexico and will be extradited, the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in Mexico City