Less than two weeks ago, sun-seeking tourists in Cancun’s fabled hotel district were greeted by armed members of Mexico’s National Guard. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador [AMLO] sent 1,500 troops on permanent assignments to Quintana Roo following gang-related shootings that have tarnished the region's image, including the murders of two female tourists. AMLO explained the troops were there mostly for intelligence gathering.
Benito Juarez-Cancun Municipal President ( Mayor) Mara Lezama, a member of AMLO’s party, was there to greet the troops with open arms. Lezama, who was just re-elected to a second two-year term, was effusive, proclaiming that, “It’s a great day, an historic day on the issue of preventing crime and providing security” (Google English translation).
One wonders what Mayor Lezama has done herself, or whether she just might be part of the problem. Organized crime has reportedly been on the rise in Yucatan resort cities from Cancun to Playa del Carmen and further south for years. Recently, though, the criminal violence has begun to take a heavy toll on the area’s profitable tourism industry, already hit by 2020’s pandemic closures.
Numerous popular bars and nightclubs in the hotel district have closed their doors, perhaps permanently, because neither the city, state, or federal government has been able to curtail the violence and strong-arm tactics used by organized criminals to intimidate and extort money (and perhaps commit crimes themselves). As a measure of the intimidation, despite police investigations of 324 attacks on Cancun businesses since 2019, in every case the owners refused to file any complaint against their attackers.
Recently, the brazen gangs posted banners on local streets, warning by name at least 11 bars and nightclubs that their owners, employees, and parishioners would “face the consequences” if they did not ante up the demanded sums. Many of those bars shuttered their doors rather than comply.
Earlier, the state attorney general’s office had closed another bar following the execution of a client by an armed group. Another bar was closed after officers found drugs on the property. The U.S. State Department has issued an advisory warning Americans to “exercise caution” in traveling to Quintana Roo State because of its high crime rate.
Missing from every story on the Cancun crime wave is any mention of ongoing charges of political corruption filed by two civil society organizations against Mayor Lezama and members of her family. The charges were initially filed in 2020 but went nowhere, allegedly because the technical secretary of the city council was a first cousin to a recently removed Financial Intelligence Unit [UIF] official.
But in November, the National Movement for Security and Law Enforcement sued the new UIF head, Pablo Gomez Alvarez, to reactivate their complaint that accuses Mayor Lezama of illicit enrichment and organized crime activities. In addition, the Opus Magnum organization of Mexico is again demanding that the UIF and the Attorney General’s Office reactivate at least three of its complaints against Mayor Lezama and members of her family.
Mayor Lezama’s rise to power, and apparently great wealth, is at the least curious. The former journalist and broadcast celebrity had joined AMLO’s party in 2015 to run for municipal president of Benito Juarez in 2016 but dropped out of the race alleging she had been threatened. Others alleged that members of the Morena party had paid her a huge sum to withdraw from a race she was favored to win.
Two years later, though, she was Morena’s candidate for mayor and won 58 percent of the vote. She was reelected this year with just 41 percent of the vote, her halo perhaps dinged by the very public corruption charges. Undaunted, Lezama is now running to be Governor of Quintana Roo.
Reporter Daniel Rodriguez recently asked how Lezama can expect to win, given that she has been unable “to explain the origin of her fortune or that of her family,” which has increased exponentially since she entered politics in 2015. The family’s recent move to a luxury condominium is just one of the reasons many are questioning how they got rich so quickly.
Lezama, along with her husband, her brother, and her nephew, created the company DesarrolladoraCumpalin 2015 with an initial investment of 60,000 pesos. In just five years, they have purchased17 properties in Mexico and abroad valued at more than 60 million pesos. In addition to the real estate, there are also reports that family members made cash purchases of six luxury vehicles collectively valued at 6.9 million pesos. And then there are the 10 taxi concessions valued at a collective 10 million pesos.
In February 2020, the Lezama tribe moved into a luxurious two-story residence with solar panels, a jetty for yachts, a swimming pool, direct access to the Caribbean Sea and more in the exclusive residential area of Puerto Cancun. The condo, which Lezama claims is just on loan “during the pandemic,” is about 11,840 square feet and has a commercial value of 102.9 million pesos. The entire arrangement is a bit murky, and the optics of the “Mara White House” suggest the mayor and her family have already ascended to royalty (at least in their own minds).
It does appear that Mayor Lezama’s fortunes took a huge turn upward at about the time she withdrew from her first political campaign. With the wolves circling around, perhaps she would do well to withdraw once again, this time from the governor’s race until she has cleared her name (or has been found guilty). Maybe Cancun’s bars and restaurants could then find political leadership with the willpower to stop the criminal gangs from ruining, or even ending, their lives.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.