Sun, sea, sand... and shanty town misery

Phil Davison visits the violent and poverty-stricken side of Acapulco, rarely seen by tourists; `Here in Mexico we are free. Free to die of hunger'; `Pupils are robbed of their shoes, even their trousers'
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The Independent Online
Behind him, Tom Jones was beaming, Roger Moore was smirking and the ubiquitous George Hamilton was hugging a trim Elizabeth Taylor. But all 26-year-old Modesto Mendoza was thinking about was getting away from the blown-up photographs of stars at the rear of Blackbeard's Bar and back to his home in the slum city known as Renacemiento (Rebirth).

Modesto is one of hundreds of thousands of Acapulcans who serve the world's bronzed jet-set before returning to primitive mud-walled homes the tourists never see.

To Modesto's poor family, he is already big time. Not only is he a "promoter" at Blackbeard's - paid $10 (pounds 6.50) a day to shout at passers-by in the hope of pulling them in - but his boss pays him a few dollars extra for taking the pictures of the bare-chested male stars and jewel-dripping women famous enough to merit a spot on the trendy restaurant's walls.

What worried Modesto on a recent rain-soaked night was the couple of hours it might take to get over the forested hill that separates Acapulco's "Golden Beach" from the resort's little-known reality - some of the most poverty-stricken and violent slums of Latin America. And once he got over the hill, out of sight of the neon lights and the tourists, how would he get home through the drug- or alcohol-fuelled gangs that rob, rape or kill nightly in barrios even the police fear to tread?

The Acapulco presented in the tourist brochures is one of high-rise hotels, cliff-top discotheques, casinos and margaritas. Yet only a couple of miles away, on the inland slopes of the resort's coastal hills, is a world of poverty, hopelessness, neglect and violence.

Acapulco was a fishing village until Hollywood discovered it in the Forties and helped create the image of an exotic Pacific resort. But it was only in the last 25 years that hotels sprang up along the Golden Beach and the resort became a centre for what locals here call "La Jet", the jet- set.

With the stars, the tourists and their wealth came the workers; Mexicans from the state of Guerrero and beyond, looking to cash in on the boom or, in most cases, simply eke out a living from this new God-given crop more lucrative than the traditional corn. The fishing village is now a noisy, polluted city of over 1 million people, 70 per cent living in the hidden slums known as "the colonies".

As the wealthy tourists poured in during the Seventies, the workers and peasants threw up shanty homes in the green hills. Like the rest of the wealthy elite who came here "to see and be seen", however, President Jose Lopez Portillo considered them an unfortunate eyesore.

"They said we were polluting the area. We said if we had the infrastructure, water, electricity, we would not pollute," said Patricio Abarca, a social worker in Renacemiento. "But Lopez Portillo decided it was easier to move the people than the infrastructure."

The shanties were torn down and the president ordered the founding of new "model cities" such as Renacemiento on the far side of the hills. "They just wanted us out of sight of the tourists," said Mr Abarca. "Once that was done, they forgot all about us."

Now the "model cities" are themselves shanty towns, neglected, roadless, without public services, some made of mud, plywood, corrugated iron or just palm fronds. Renacemiento's secondary school, with robberies running at rate of two a day, is considering hiring security guards. "Pupils are being robbed of their shoes, even their trousers," said a local official, Bernardo de la Cruz. "Local gang members force them to pay to use the toilet."

Across the garbage-choked Sabana river is the burgeoning slum called La Frontera. Only a few months ago, it was a lush grove of coconut palms. Now, the palms have been chopped down and peasants are paying wealthy landowners around 5,000 pesos (pounds 500) for plots just big enough to fit a dwelling. To a labourer, that is almost a year's salary. There is no water, no electricity, no security, no order.

To reach La Frontera, you can walk over a shaky pontoon bridge of wooden planks, cut through the river's surface garbage on a rowing boat or drive in a jeep along a bouncy 100-yard makeshift bridge of slippery steel tubes

One night last week in La Frontera, just as the jet-set were sipping their first rum-and-Cokes, Luis Lopez Avelino was shot then hacked to death with his own machete while waiting for his daughter Laura to return from work. She is still missing.

Alcoholism is rife, with teporocha (pure sugar-cane alcohol mixed with soft drinks) the favourite drink. Prostitution, too, is a growing problem as peasant girls seek ways to buy the clothes they see in glitzy stores on the other side of the hill.

"In Mexico, we're free. Free to die of hunger," said Hilda Navarrete Gorjon, a peasant human-rights activist. "They wouldn't even let us locals near any of the fancy hotels, except to work."

"It's like going to Disneyland," said Maria Eloina, restaurant hostess at the palatial beachfront Acapulco Princess Hotel. She was describing how it feels to come from her modest home to a hotel where swans glide across ponds in the lobby, and a waiter is paid simply to push in guests' chairs each time they return from the buffet table. "But it's like living in a golden cage. It's good to get back to your family, where you have love, where you hear dogs barking."

Maria is one of the lucky ones. A job at a five-star hotel such as the Princess, where tourists tip in dollars, is the most coveted in town. These hotel waiters have created a class of their own. "They look down on their own people," said Mrs Navarrete. "They prostitute themselves for the tips." The job hierarchy also reveals how Mexico's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) can still win votes despite its widespread unpopularity. To get a job at the Princess you have got to be in a union. The unions are all affiliated to the PRI. And the price of a lucrative job is that you vote for the party.

There is also more than a hint of a kind of apartheid here. "It sure helps to have a cara de gringo," a gringo's face, said Javier Mojica, a doctor who spends his spare time fighting for workers' and peasants' rights, as security guards raised their barriers for me at the Las Brisas area of luxury hillside villas. "They'd never let me through alone."

Mr Mojica took up human rights after riot-squad police beat up marching workers on 27 February 1990. For the first time, the workers had taken their protest past the luxury hotels in full view of the tourists. They were passing the Princess when mounted police charged them, sending the marchers scattering into the hotel lobby.

"There were gaping guests on every balcony. Hotel staff told them someone was shooting a movie," said Mr Mojica. "But that's what the authorities here fear most. That the other side of Acapulco comes to call."