Acapulco in the front line as Mexican drug cartels hit back at government

Frank Sinatra sang wistfully about it and Errol Flynn adopted it as his winter hang-out, but the scenic Mexican resort city of Acapulco is struggling to protect its image as a jet-set paradise amid an outbreak of street violence that is being blamed on warring drug cartels.

The city, no longer a darling of celebrities but still dependent on tourism, has long struggled to combat the crime wave which last year saw a severed head wash up on a tourist beach and on Sunday led investigators to the chopped up remains of a man's body in rubbish bin.

But the crisis deepened this week with attacks by men dressed as soldiers and armed with AK-47 rifles invading two police stations barely two miles from the main tourist areas, stripping the police officers of their weapons and opening fire. Three policemen were killed in the first incident. At the second station, the men took the lives of a secretary, two police officers and a public prosecutor.

The attacks challenge the new Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, who since taking office in December has launched an offensive against drug trafficking cartels, deploying 25,000 police and army troops to Acapulco. Nationwide last year, rival drug cartels killed a record 2,000 people.

After an emergency meeting of Mr Calderon's national security cabinet on Tuesday, the government in Mexico City reiterated its commitment to stemming the bloodshed promising that it would not "retreat or give up in the face of the attacks by organised crime".

Two of Mexico's largest drug-trafficking gangs are fighting for control in Acapulco, an important way-station for cocaine arriving from Latin America and bound for the US markets.

Officials said it was the element of surprise combined with the green-beret uniforms that made the attacks on Tuesday so deadly. "They pretended to check police guns. That's how they disarmed the guys and once they were disarmed, took their lives," a spokesman at the prosecutor's office commented.

In Acapulco federal authorities have been trying to tackle corruption in local police forces amid suspicions that many officers are themselves tied to drug gangs. In the northwestern city of Tijuana, government forces confiscated weapons from the entire police force.

For Mr Calderon's crackdown, Mexico reversed the policy of the previous government and authorised the extradition of 15 alleged traffickers to face trial in the US. But events in Acapulco have made a mockery of Mr Calderon's campaign. It has also raised fears of damage to the tourist industry, which even before Tuesday was reeling after bullets fired into a hotel lobby earlier this month injured two Canadian visitors.

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