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Originally published Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Cancún violence overshadows spring break

Students preparing for spring break at this beach resort have a spate of bad local news to factor into their plans: the slaying of an army general; the jailing of the police chief for alleged complicity in the killing; and a link to the feared Zetas drug gang based along the Mexico-Texas border.

The Dallas Morning News

CANCÚN, Mexico — Students preparing for spring break at this beach resort have a spate of bad local news to factor into their plans: the slaying of an army general; the jailing of the police chief for alleged complicity in the killing; and a link to the feared Zetas drug gang based along the Mexico-Texas border.

The head of the city jail was jailed late last month, and a dozen city police are being investigated after the discovery of a Zetas "cell" turned up a list of authorities alleged to be on the take.

Recent events suggest that Cancún is starting to see the drug violence that has long plagued other cities.

Mexican officials say it ain't so, asserting that the 18-mile island is immune from the narco-violence popping up in the adjoining downtown and the larger metropolitan area on the mainland known as Benito Juárez.

But some spring breakers already here, many from the U.S. Northeast, are taking extra precautions.

And some analysts say that the relative security in the "hotel zone" could disappear quickly should a drug turf war break out in a region long known for drug trafficking and immigrant smuggling.

Ed Coleman, 23, on break from the Rochester Institute of Technology, came prepared in case of trouble. He arranged cellphone service in Mexico and saved the phone numbers of the U.S. Consulate and Embassy.

"So far, we have not seen much of anything" in terms of trouble, he said.

But as the bulk of "los espring breakers," as the Mexican media call them, start to arrive, analysts say there is a latent fear that Cancún could go the direction of once-popular party spots for Americans like Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and even Acapulco, which has had drug hits along its hotel strip.

Arturo Yanez, a commentator on the drug trade, said Cancún "is on the verge of becoming the Ciudad Juárez of the southeast because it is one of the principal entrances for drugs from Central America."

Both Juárez and Cancún have had a rapid influx of outsiders and a history of police corruption. Mario Villanueva, the former governor of the state where Cancún is located, Quintana Roo, was imprisoned a decade ago for drug crimes.

For now, because of its importance to tourism, the resort appears to be "under control," Yanez said, "but someone who wants to assert himself there," such as a newly arrived rival drug group, "could change all of that."

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Mayor Gregorio Sanchez Martinez, whose nephew was killed in early February when drug traffickers abducted and killed retired army Gen. Mauro Enrique Tello, said the high-level killing was "an isolated incident" and a direct reaction to a government crackdown against trafficking groups. The city had hired Tello to set up an elite police force to fight drug trafficking.

One reason the Cancún hotel zone is remarkably safe, Sanchez added, is because it is essentially a long island with just two entry and exit points.

Alejandro Betancourt Perez, head of the island's separate Tourist Police, said that crime against tourists has decreased over the past year and that the Tourist Police force was tripled to 100 officers, most of them bilingual.

ALSO: President Obama was briefed Saturday by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen about the drug wars in Mexico. A military official said Obama was very interested in what kind of military capabilities may be used in Mexico.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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