Mexican authorities said Tuesday (Jan. 17) they are investigating whether extortion, street-level drug sales or a murder plot was the motive behind a shooting at an electronic music festival at a Caribbean resort town that left three foreigners and two Mexicans dead.
The attorney general of Quintana Roo state, where Playa del Carmen is located, said the gunman fired directly at one of the Mexican victims at the nightclub where the festival’s closing party was being held. A confused shootout ensued in which guards — it is not clear whether festival security personnel or the Mexican’s bodyguards — returned fire.
One guard was hit by gunfire, and as he fell, his pistol went off, wounding several concert-goers, according to state Attorney General Miguel Angel Pech. It is unclear why the Mexican man may have been a target. Pech said his family told prosecutors he had “an important relative” in the state government of Veracruz, a state plagued by corruption and violence.
The attacker fled, but Pech told the Televisa TV network that a taxi driver who helped him escape has been linked to previous extortion attempts. Some businesses in Mexico are forced to pay protection money, under threat of being attacked. “Either they didn’t reach an agreement over protection payments, directly extortion, or it may be that somebody did not allow them to sell drugs inside” the nightclub, Pech said.
Playa del Carmen residents said the shooting came amid a growing and increasingly open drug scene in this resort town that has long been spared the violence of Mexico’s cartel wars. Concerns that violence may be creeping into the once-tranquil beachside town just south of Cancun were voiced as people attended a Monday evening vigil in front of the Blue Parrot nightclub, where five people died and 15 were injured Monday.
“This is a sign of what has been happening,” said Lenin Amaro, a local business owner and politician. “It has reached us,” Amaro said of the country’s drug violence. “We were living in what you could call a bubble.”
Federal authorities say the Zeta cartel has been in the state for years, especially in Cancun itself, where the Zetas were blamed for the firebombing of a bar in which eight people died in 2010. And drug cartel influence in the state as a whole goes back at least to the 1990s under Gov. Mario Villanueva, who was later convicted in the U.S. of involvement in large-scale drug smuggling.
On Monday, officials released a list of the dead, who included one Canadian, one American, two Mexicans and one Italian. Three were identified as part of the festival’s security team. Fifteen people suffered injuries, including at least two Canadians and two Americans. One man who was inside the club said he hid in a storeroom with four others until the shooting stopped. He said he is a local resident and veteran of the club scene, and he agreed to speak about it only if granted anonymity because of fears for his safety.
He said that the Zetas cartel controls all drug dealing in the resort and that in the big clubs it has multiple people selling drugs, usually out of the bathrooms. He said drug dealing has become more open in recent years. “In this area there are Zetas that control everything and that’s why everything is fine,” he said. “All the clubs here, every club here is controlled. In the toilets, everywhere, they control the drugs. They offer you drugs openly. The businessmen, the people in nightclubs, they cannot do anything. They (the Zetas) can burn your building.”
He said local officials tolerate drug dealers as long as they don’t “mess up.”
For that reason, he did not believe the Zetas were responsible for the shooting. “The Zetas didn’t do this. Otherwise they’re going to kill their own business,” he said. “If there are no clients there are no drugs.”
The Blue Parrot’s management did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.