If you know what's good for you, fisherman Teodoro Contreras says, stay away from certain places after sunset on the beaches of Mexico's southern coast.
From the resort city of Acapulco to the Guatemala border, this region has become Mexico's "Cocaine Coast," the main destination for drug-carrying speedboats, planes and even submarines that are switching to the Pacific Ocean to avoid increasing patrols in the Caribbean.
"There are boats out there, trucks, people doing things they shouldn't be doing," Contreras says, waving at the curving shoreline. "People coming right up on the beach and catching rides to who knows where. You mind your own business at night."
The rise of this Pacific route shows how smugglers continue to evade and adapt, even as the Mexican government pours resources into its crackdown on major drug cartels.
More than 10,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón launched his offensive in late 2006.
The trafficking has spilled into some resort cities, leading to shootouts in Acapulco and "narco-banners" with threatening messages appearing in Huatulco.
The violence has not targeted tourists, and none of them has been hurt.
Nearly 70% of cocaine shipments bound for the USA moved through the eastern Pacific in 2007, up from 50% in 2005, the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center says.
"Most of the cocaine is now going through the Pacific side, so that has become a point of attraction for all kinds of criminal groups," says Carlos Antonio Flores of the Center for Economic, Administrative and Social Research, a Mexico City think tank.
The shift has resulted in huge cocaine busts in the past year on boats in the 300-mile stretch between Acapulco and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Last July, the Mexican navy caught a submersible boat with 5.8 tons of cocaine as it approached the coast of Oaxaca state. In January, a fishing boat had 7 tons of coke on board.
On June 7, 16 drug traffickers and two soldiers died in a shootout in Acapulco. The Mexican army believes the traffickers were directing smuggling operations along the coast for the Sinaloa Cartel, army spokesman Daniel Velasco Ramírez says.
Police are catching more members of the rival Gulf Cartel, including its elite enforcers known as the Zetas, says federal police Commissioner Facundo Rosas.
Last week, federal agents arrested three more suspected Zetas and freed a businessman kidnapped in the town of Juchitán, the Mexican attorney general's office said.
"Although initially found mainly along Mexico's northern border, the Zetas now have a presence in southern Mexico," says a U.S. Congressional Research Service study released last year.
Military checkpoints and navy trucks full of heavily armed troops are a common sight along the coast in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. One afternoon, vehicles had to drive slowly through a mobile X-ray machine on Highway 190 near Juchitán.
A few miles down the road, Mexican immigration agents searched northbound buses, looking for Central American migrants and drug couriers. At another checkpoint, soldiers questioned motorists about their destinations and used mirrors with long handles to check under cars.
Part of the change in routes is due to production, Flores says. Coca leaf cultivation in Colombia, the world's biggest producer, has moved closer to the Pacific in recent years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
More patrolling by Caribbean countries, broader radar coverage and increased cooperation with the United States have made it harder to get drugs through the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, says Scott Stewart, vice president of Stratfor, a global intelligence consulting company based in Austin.
Smugglers have adapted by bringing the drugs to Central America, then using light airplanes or fast boats to race into Mexican territory and drop their bundles into the water to be picked up, Stewart says.
To help fight the traffickers, the Mexican Senate took the unusual step of allowing Mexico's military to participate in naval exercises with the United States in April and May. Mexico has avoided joint exercises with the United States ever since the Mexican-American War in 1846-48.
"It was the first time we have ever allowed that, and it was precisely because of this threat," says Felipe González, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Safety. "Our navy needs to get more knowledge, so they can detect and stop these criminals."
By Chris Hawley
June 23, 2009