Real Estate developments and Hotels in Cancun, a target of organized crime

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Every day, some 35,000 workers build the foundations of the hotel infrastructure in Cancun and Isla Blanca, at an annual growth rate of more than 7,000 rooms. Along with this successful industry, workers live true stories of terror due to drug sales and recruitment by organized crime, culminating in extortion, disappearances, and homicides.

The Planet Hollywood Hotel in Cancun offers its guests the possibility of vacationing like a movie star in Isla Blanca, as it is inspired by the glamor of the American seventh art. It is the first lodging in Mexico operated under the brand owned by the luminaries Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the photo of Paola Chiomante, the beach at the Planet Hollywood Cancun hotel.

In contrast to the dreamlike environments in the middle of the exuberant jungle and the turquoise tones of the Caribbean Sea, which invite you to live a fantasy experience, this property has been the scene of terror for workers who have been tortured, disappeared, or murdered during the building stage.

The inauguration of this 898-room hotel complex, whose investment reached 200 million dollars, was scheduled for December 15, 2020. However, it was postponed a few weeks due to the discovery of the bones of four people in an adjoining lot, in November 2020. The identities of the victims have not been officially released.

It is not an isolated case. Organized crime has infiltrated the foundations in the Mexican Caribbean tourism industry, considered the main economic engine of the region, admit authorities, businessmen and workers. The film that those who work in the hotel construction industry in Cancun experience every day has a script based on extortion, torture, and disappearances.

In Alejandro Castro’s photo, builders take a break outside one of Cancun’s hotels in construction.

Catalonia, Atelier, Excellence, Majestic, Palladium, RIU Dunamar, and RIU Beach Palace are accommodations whose construction works were also co-opted by people dedicated to extortion and drug sales, the testimonies of former workers and an element of the Ministerial Police of Investigation of the state, who for security reasons asked not to reveal his identity. 

During a meeting with deputies of the Justice Commission, on December 18, 2020, the head of the Quintana Roo State Attorney General’s Office (FGE), Óscar Montes de Oca Rosales, assured that the escalation of violence in the entity is directly linked to migrants employed in the construction sector.

“Of the homicides (in Quintana Roo) –both perpetrators and victims–, 80 percent are not from here; they all come from neighboring states and have to do with the issue of construction.

There they are captured and taken, first, to assist in the issue of drug sales and, later, they are turned into hit men, ”said Montes de Oca.

A photograph of violent crimes

On June 18, 2020, seven months before the official opening of Planet Hollywood Cancun, Ángel de la Cruz, a worker from Tabasco, was taken to an isolated basement inside the resort by a criminal group that infiltrated the construction site.

What is known is that he was beaten and tortured for 12 hours, his weekly payment and his telephone were stolen. Then they released him. It was a warning for Manolo, his employer, to pay the forced fees he owed to the criminal group that had taken over the work. In the event that Manolo refused, there would be reprisals against him or his workers, according to what Ángel himself was able to tell his family in Tabasco over the phone, thanks to a cell phone they lent him. 

In Erick Galindo’s photo, authorities from the governments of Mexico and Quintana Roo cordon off the area after finding bones in a Cancun hotel construction.

The threat materialized on July 21 and Ángel disappeared. According to testimonies collected by his father, two hooded men abducted him from his workplace, in full view of his colleagues. Since then they have been desperately searching for him. 

In Planet Hollywood, William Ariel Llanes, Carlos de la Cruz, Juan Pablo Pech, and Carlos Ramón López were also disappeared between 2019 and 2020, without so far the investigations have yielded clues about their whereabouts or those responsible for their disappearance. On the other hand, in the construction works of the Catalonia hotel, the workers Jesús Moisés Gómez and Laureano Méndez, originally from Yucatán and Tabasco, respectively, were disappeared. 

William Ariel is originally from Cancun. He worked as a laborer at Planet Hollywood, from where he was allegedly disappeared on September 15, 2020. Among the more than 100 bone fragments found in November, were his remains, according to the prosecutor assured William’s mother, in front of the press and more relatives of missing persons.

William’s mother maintained that, according to the information provided by the Prosecutor’s Office, the last location of the victim’s cell phone was registered in Planet Hollywood, but the company denied that the 20-year-old had reported to work that day. The mother also points out that the research folder to which they have had access does not contain data provided by the resort.

In the photo of Cecilia Suárez, the coffin of William Gabriel, during his funeral.

Extortion at construction sites, the recruitment of workers, their torture, disappearance, and homicide are part of an organized crime operation scheme that began to be identified two or three years ago in Isla Blanca, located within the area of the mainland of Isla Mujeres; It was extended in Cancun and currently covers the north coast of the state, confirms James Tobin Cunningham, member of the National Security Council (CNS)

Tobin Cunningham, who between 2016 and 2017 headed the Mexican Association of Real Estate Owners (AMPI) in Cancun, says he has learned of 15 complaints from companies affected by the phenomenon, involving 30,000 to 40,000 workers. Fear, he explains, is the main reason why this extortion scheme is the crime with the least reported and, therefore, the one with the highest black figure: for each case, there are 99 that are not reported.

Isla Blanca, a 22-kilometer coastal strip north of Cancun, is the epicenter of the problem. Called to be “the new hotel zone of Cancun”, here the construction of 29,400 hotel rooms is projected, according to the Partial Urban Development Plan. However, there, in addition to the disappearances of construction workers, there are reports of violent executions to the detriment of this sector. 

Photo: Paola Chiomante

Thus, on January 14, 2020, a security guard from the RIU Dunamar hotel was shot to death in front of the works of this 754-room tourist complex, located in the fraction of Costa Mujeres. The next day a body was found on the road, outside the Planet Hollywood hotel, which was in development. The victim was prostrate in a pool of his own blood. 

Eight months later, another lifeless body was found on the sidewalk, in front of the Catalonia hotel facilities, next to Planet Hollywood. The victim did not carry identification, so it is unknown if he was a worker. 

On January 27, a bricklayer identified as Eduardo N was tortured inside the RIU hotel building and then dumped in a nearby green area. While attending the report, personnel from the Ministry of Public Security detained a person identified as Luis Francisco N, who had images of torture on his cell phone. 

Who could be behind this scene of violence? A diagnosis on security matters, prepared by Lantia Consultores, which nurtured the State Development Plan of the government led by Carlos Joaquín González, in 2016, located the operation of two large organized crime groups in the state: the Pacific Cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG), with a presence in Cancun and Chetumal, dedicated to the trafficking of drugs, people, merchandise, extortion, and kidnapping.

Modus operandi of organized crime 

The pattern of extortion is similar in all works where the presence of people linked to criminal groups is reported: working has a cost or there is “tablazo”, a method of torture in which pieces of wood are used to beat the victim’s body in order to inflict extreme pain on you. If the first call is not answered, the torture escalates or culminates in murder, the versions of different former construction workers interviewed for this investigation coincide.

 All workers have to pay floor fees: engineers, architects, construction managers, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, helpers, and even street vendors and public transport workers. Nobody gets away. 

The charge varies, according to the position and the work in which it works. Generally, the floor fee is paid “on the day of the line”, that is to say, on Saturdays, days in which the bosses give their wages to the workers, after working hours. Said collection is mandatory and can be in two ways: a weekly fee of approximately 500 pesos or doses of marijuana that the employee must pay forcibly. 

“René” paid the drug trafficker about $ 75 a week (1,500 MXN), a third of his salary, for 10 bags of marijuana that they forced him to buy. He is a worker who worked at the Catalonia, Majestic, and Planet Hollywood hotels. His name, as well as that of all the names of the workers interviewed in this journalistic work, have been changed so as not to put their integrity at risk.

“You cannot owe what drugs are, you cannot owe anything. In other words, if you didn’t pay on Saturday, you arrive on Monday and they are already waiting for you. They take you to the office and there they are embarrassing you ”, adds the former employee from Tabasco. The “office” is the place on each job site where all the tools are kept. Commonly, that room is used to hit employees who do not line up. 

The “engineer”, as his direct employer is called, has to give an additional fee to that paid by each worker. If you do not give that payment, the first warning is to hit one or more of your workers, as happened with Ángel de la Cruz.

El sector de la construcción emplea alrededor de 74 mil trabajadores, según datos de la Secretaría del Trabajo y Previsión Social (STyPS) del estado. La mitad se ubica en Cancún y su zona conurbada de Isla Blanca. Cada obra en los resorts de gran dimensión, con superficies de hasta 40 hectáreas, alberga en promedio 800 trabajadores. 

In the case of Planet Hollywood, for example, the promoting company CM Hotel described in its application for environmental permits that the construction and site preparation phases would require 213 masons, 333 general assistants, 100 carpenters, 46 ironmongers, 41 electrical workers, 41 plumbers, and 18 security personnel, which totaled 881 employees. Mixed with this army of construction workers are the thugs. Shortly after joining the site, all the workers know who they are. 

During his first days on the job, “Jacinto” knew or suspected nothing. “Suddenly”, he saw that people entered who did not work, but who offered a “pass” (dose of drugs) to the workers: marijuana, cocaine or glass.

Criminals keep track of attendance and how much each worker earns per week as if they were in the Human Resources area. The work environment is hostile. Although “Jacinto” had already worked on construction sites, he confesses that he had never seen anything like it. The vendor offers them drugs all day. The situation worsens if, in addition to the weekly quota, the workers go into debt to be able to consume. 

“Jacinto” is originally from the north of the country. He traveled to Cancun before the start of the pandemic, in February 2020, and was unemployed a month after he settled. The urgency of income-led him to be employed in the construction sector. This is how he came to Planet Hollywood. As a painter, he earned by piecework, depending on how many meters he did per day. His payment varied between 150 (3,000 MXN) and 200 dollars (4,000 MXN) per week.

The workers face a dilemma because, although the “engineer” does not pay them, they do have to pay the criminal fees. “If the engineer doesn’t pay you, let him say ‘I don’t have money, you have to force the fee; that’s by force. If not, its torture ”. 

Counselor James Tobin argues that criminals identify works when they first begin; They look for the “engineers” or those responsible for the entire work, also the contractors.

They then investigate your personal data, locate your residence, your family, and then address them. 

In some cases, since the “engineer” also pays a fee, he has access to “favors” from organized crime; For example, if an employee reveals himself at your command, you can have him boarded. “Jacinto” ensures that members of organized crime also have a free letter to rape working women, who no longer return after these attacks.

“Manuel”, who works in a construction company in the photographic documentation area, relates that it is practically impossible to sneak out to avoid paying a fee, even when the work is not directly related to construction.

During the construction stage, the criminal group grows stronger. According to the testimonies, the workers are coerced or forced to sell drugs or are turned into hitmen. “There is a lot of morrillo that says ‘no, well, they are scrubbing me, I better take their side'”, says “Jacinto”. 

At the end of the work, Tobin thinks that it is possible that these criminal groups remain in the beach area, operating businesses such as massage beds, sale of cigars, or rental of umbrellas. This is how they disguise the sale of drugs to tourists. 

On March 15, 2021, the FGE reported on the arrest of three individuals identified as Marcos, Martín, and Carlos, related to crimes of extortion and possession, trafficking, and sale of drugs in hotel buildings in Cancun, the institution confirmed in a statement. The detainees carried out floor collection, intimidation, and drug trafficking actions, similar to the scheme described above. 

The Calvary of the Invisible Victims 

Driven by the promise of higher wages and better living conditions for themselves and their families, men and, to a lesser extent, women, migrate from marginalized populations in southeastern Mexico to Quintana Roo, in order to be employed in the manufacturing industry. construction associated with tourism development. 

“There in Nacajuca (Tabasco) I worked as a bricklayer’s assistant, but the chance came to come here and I ventured for the pay because there it is well-honed; They pay almost everywhere 800 or a thousand pesos a week (40 or 50 dollars) and that when there is a pull. Here they give double or more ”, shares Pedro Jiménez, a worker who arrived in Cancun two years ago and returns seasonally to his place of origin, where his parents, brothers, wife, and children live. 

According to the Interstate and Intermunicipal Migration analysis, prepared by the National Population Council (Conapo) and published in 2014, 90 percent of the people who arrive in Quintana Roo have a secondary and high school education level. Their main occupations are as clerks or laborers, and less than 10 percent are professionals.

Of the 74 thousand 764 people employed by the construction sector, 68 percent are registered with the Mexican Institute of Social Security, that is, 23 thousand 413 are in an informality scheme, without labor benefits, social security nor a contract of employer responsibility. Even so, Catalina Portillo Navarro, Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare affirms that working conditions in Quintana Roo are much higher than those of workers in their states of origin. 

The problem is that the contribution of construction employees to an economy that extends year after year is not proportional to the working conditions, historically marked by exploitation, informality, and security risks, laments Juan José Chilón, former leader of the Union of Construction Workers, Laborers, and Employees (Sitec). The economic deprivation and almost zero social mobility, place them – currently – in the sights of organized crime, either as victims or perpetrators.

For the security specialist and criminologist, Mónica Franco, these young people, living in poverty, alone and far from their families, do not have support networks, which increases their vulnerability to a phenomenon little explored in Quintana Roo: the disappearance of people in the construction sector. In addition, it involves a question of discrimination and racism, from their invalidation as subjects of law, devaluation of life, to the possibilities of access to justice.

These conditions, the expert adds, have made it practically impossible for workers to have the possibility to report extortion and acts of torture, due to the difficulties they face in hiring a lawyer and following up on their case, which is even more complicated if it is of migrants, indigenous people or people in a vulnerable condition.

The State Attorney General’s Office recognizes that there are 18 investigation files related to workers in the construction industry, according to a response obtained through the National Transparency Platform. Óscar Montes de Oca Rosales reported on December 4, 2020, in a meeting with relatives of missing workers, that nine cases of missing workers are being investigated, eight in Isla Blanca and one in the works of the Paseos Kuzamil subdivision. 

That month, after the findings of human remains in the vicinity of the Planet Hollywood hotel, the FGE began the “Safe Constructions” operation, which consisted of revisions to the construction facilities, according to communiqué 375/2020-ZN. However, when requesting data via Transparency, such as the number of those operations, location, and confiscated objects, the institution responded that it was information of “notorious incompetence”. 

Regarding the number of clandestine graves located in Quintana Roo, their location and the number of bones found, the figures between the FGE and the Ministry of Public Security (SSP) do not coincide. 

The SSP responded that nine clandestine graves have been located in the entity between 2015 and 2020, four of these in Cancun; The FGE detailed that the Directorate of Expert Services did not intervene in clandestine graves in the period indicated between January 1, 2015, and November 31, 2020. With this, it left out until the findings made on November 21 and 28 in the lot adjoining the Planet Hollywood hotel.

This whole situation is an odyssey for the victims’ families, due to their difficulties in traveling to Cancun to review their files, lack of knowledge in legal matters, apathy from the Prosecutor’s Office and deficient support. They have also stated that neither the hotels nor the construction company for which they worked has agreed to assist with the investigation; they even refuse to provide evidence, they say.  

Rubiel, originally from Chiapas, disappeared on August 2, 2020. His father filed a complaint in the municipality of Tulum, as he was seen for the last time in Puerto Aventuras; Rubiel had previously worked at the Planet Hollywood hotel. They agreed to communicate with his father to follow up on the case, but no ministerial ever contacted him or informed him of evidence or progress. The folder was thrown away, he says. 

In January, the man returned to Cancun again to look for his son, but by a family decision, he chose not to resort to the Prosecutor’s Office, but to do it on his own, sticking search cards on posts and walls in the areas he frequented. 

For their part, the family of Jesús Moisés, originally from Yucatán, filed the first complaint in January 2020, when he was disappeared at the Catalonia hotel construction site. Some subjects took him from his workplace, according to the relatives. When they returned to the Prosecutor’s Office to verify progress in the investigation, they found that the file had been modified, since the name of the Catalonia hotel was excluded in the original complaint. This situation forced them to file a new complaint. 

After announcing the discovery of bodies at the Planet Hollywood hotel, the Quintana Roo prosecutor stated in the December meeting with relatives of victims that he would meet periodically with them to inform them of the progress in the investigations. Almost four months later, that has not happened, the relative’s reproach. 

Although there are complaints about the Planet Hollywood and Catalonia hotels of forced disappearance of workers within the facilities, and that bodies were found in the vicinity, these tourist complexes operate normally. For the specialist, Mónica Franco, only the discovery of an area with human remains near a hotel, where there are also complaints of forced disappearance committed by individuals, would be reason enough to order the suspension of the works and carry out investigations without altering the tests. 

Protection… of the tourist brand

In a destination like Cancun, whose economy depends on the more than 23 million visitors that arrive annually, it is a priority to take care of the image of the tourist centers. The prosecutor Montes de Oca put it in those terms during the December meeting with the legislators: “All the events (homicides) are regrettable, but for a state that lives off tourism, we have to take care of our raw material, which is precisely the tourism, so that it does not happen that they decide not to come ”. 

In the photo of Cecilia Suárez, an aspect of the gardens of the Planet Hollywood Cancun hotel, whose theme revolves around the seventh art.

For her part, the head of the State Secretariat of Tourism of Quintana Roo (Sedetur), Marisol Vanegas Pérez, affirms that she does not know of recent cases of violence in construction, since otherwise, they would apply the security mechanisms that, she assures, exist. 

It rules out that it is a serious situation, since what happens “in a construction site” has no repercussion on other hotel constructions; it also dismisses that the situation inhibits the arrival of tourists to Quintana Roo and adds that so far no investment has been stopped for security reasons. 

However, Vanegas Pérez recognizes that drug trafficking groups have “sneaked” into the hotels under development, but suggests that this is resolved in a “simple” way: by certifying the supplier companies “before the Mexican Chamber of the Industry of Construction (CMIC) ”. 

She argues that, as part of the workshops where she participated, vanguard actions were taken to combat problems of violence in the construction industry and other sectors, such as the placement of surveillance cameras and certification of security companies. The official described these measures as “success”.

This position is shared by Ramón Roselló, manager of InverHotel, made up of 16 hotel chains such as Melia, Iberostar, Riu, AM Resorts, Palladium, Bahía Príncipe, Catalonia, Princess Hotels, Ocean Blue Hotels, Blue Bay, Sirenis, HN Hoteles, Excellence and Majestic, which add 50 thousand rooms of the 114 thousand that operate in the Mexican Caribbean, their second-highest concentration point after Spain.

Although Roselló recognizes that there is a problem of insecurity in buildings, he believes that it is not “so serious” and qualifies as “exceptional” the work of the authorities. He says that if the news about violence in construction is repeated a lot, it could have a negative impact on the image of Cancun as a destination. 

Not everyone thinks the same as Vanegas and Roselló. For example, James Tobin Cunningham mentions that there are already investors who have stopped projects due to insecurity in construction sites, such as the case of a developer who planned to invest between 400 and 800 million dollars in the construction of two hotels. 

For the former president of the Cancun, Puerto Morelos and Isla Mujeres Hotel Association, Abelardo Vara Riviera, insecurity is one of the main threats facing Cancun. For his part, the former labor leader Juan José Chilón says, by way of reproach, that the tourist brand has weighed more than the workers’ own lives. “It is very unfortunate that information is hidden in order to preserve the image of the city and prevent tourists from coming,” he concludes.

This research team repeatedly requested interviews with representatives of the Planet Hollywood, Catalonia, Atelier, Excellence, Majestic, Palladium, RIU Dunamar, and RIU Beach Palace hotels, as well as with the head of the Quintana Roo State Attorney General’s Office and even By the end of the investigation, none of them had responded.

For their part, the Riu Hotel and Resorts management answered the following: “We are aware of the situation, but we have been fortunate that in our work and projects we have not had to regret any serious problem. 

“It is true that with the pandemic and the situation generated, insecurity has increased, but we comply with our own internal security protocols, work, which have allowed us to be well. In fact, periodically, bodies or institutions such as Migration, the Navy, and even the National Guard (with visits almost every three days) carry out inspections in our works and we collaborate fully with them to guarantee the greatest safety to our collaborators ”.

And while tourism in the area shows signs of growth, the Stations of the Cross does not end for the victims and their families. 

On December 14, 2020, FGE personnel contacted the father of Ángel de la Cruz, the 26-year-old from Tabasco who disappeared in June of last year. They asked him to go to the offices in Cancun, as allegedly there were elements to consider that some of the remains found in the vicinity of Planet Hollywood belonged to his son. 

Although until that moment his disappearance had not been officially denounced, nor did the FGE have data on the family’s DNA, the father was assured that it was Ángel and that some paperwork was enough to deliver the remains, he said when he left the prosecutor’s office. “They tell me that they are sure that he is my son, but I have not left DNA evidence or anything. How am I going to know that it is? ”He asked. 

It was not until that visit that the FGE took a DNA sample from him, to help correctly identify the skeleton. However, until the close of this investigation, they have not contacted him again to inform him of the results. 

The disappearance of Ángel, Carlos, Moisés, Rubiel, and William at the hands of criminal groups not only truncated their life plans, but also those of their own relatives. Immersed in mourning, they are determined to find them and obtain justice despite fear, threats, and mistrust in the authorities, as part of the horror story that has not yet ended.

This research was carried out for Novedades, Aristegui Noticias, El Universal, Proceso, SomosAquí.mx and CONNECTAS with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) within the framework of the Initiative for Investigative Journalism of the Americas.

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