Wilma's Wake: Martial Law in Cancun
Associated Press | October 24, 2005
By WILL WEISSERT
CANCUN, Mexico (AP) - Troops and federal police moved in Monday to quell looting at stores and shopping centers ripped open by Hurricane Wilma, while hunger and frustration mounted among residents and tourists stranded in one of Mexico's most prosperous resorts.
An Associated Press reporter watched hundreds of people empty entire downtown blocks of merchandise Sunday, hiding when soldiers appeared, then returning to tear down metal shutters and haul off clothing, appliances and anything else they could find.
Police shot in the air to scare away looters, and some crowds responded by throwing rocks and chunks of concrete. Officers evacuated more than 30 foreigners from one area overrun by looters, fearing the mobs might turn on tourists.
``As soon as the hurricane arrived, the people went robbing,'' said Eva Bernabe. ``It's sad because Cancun is a relaxed place. We're good people. It's not like this normally.''
On Monday, federal troops and police threw up checkpoints to look for stolen goods and sent out patrols to chase crowds away from shops. More than 200 people were reported arrested.
Looting seemed to be stopped, but many stores were already stripped bare.
Floodwaters that were waist deep at the height of the storm had largely receded, leaving streets littered with debris from tattered buildings that had facades shorn off and windows smashed. Most of the city was still without electricity.
The looting shocked many Mexicans. National television networks on Monday ran images of dozens of looters working through stores like swarms of ants, then packing loot into cars, trucks and precariously loaded bicycles.
``The hurricane was ugly. The people were worse,'' said Arturo Campos, whose shoe store was cleaned out by thieves.
President Vicente Fox, who toured the region Sunday and Monday, ordered the army to take a larger presence in the city to halt looting and improve the delivery of aid.
Downtown, city workers handed out packages of rice, beans, crackers and cooking oil to people lined up for blocks. At least two cargo planes brought in emergency supplies at the airport, which remained closed to commercial flights.
Cancun is a booming tourism city with some of Mexico's highest wages. But most of the once sparsely populated region's 700,000 residents have come from elsewhere and have no nearby relatives to rely on if there is a disaster. Drug gangs also have moved in.
The initial thefts were mainly by people taking bottles of water and cans of tuna from convenience stores after huddling in shelters or flooded homes for two days. But looting escalated quickly, with a tougher crowd grabbing more lucrative goods.
It was a blow to the city's image.
Jarle Teigland, a tourist from Bergen, Norway, wandered the streets with his suitcase, looking for a ride to the airport.
``I know it's closed, but when it opens, we want to be on the first flight,'' he said. ``It's better to wait there, than to wait here.''
The U.S. Embassy was sending consular officials to shelters to help tourists prepare to leave the city.
At least three deaths were blamed on Wilma, but the storm's biggest damage was to the engine of Mexico's crucial tourism industry.
Foreign tourists spend $11 billion annually in Mexico, and Quintana Roo, the Caribbean coastal state that includes Cancun, accounted for half the nights spent by those tourists last year.
On Cancun's elite hotel strip, white-sand beaches have washed away in some places and high-rise resorts could take weeks, if not months, to repair. Fox said Monday it would take two months to restore ``80 to 90 percent of the touristic capacity of Cancun.''
He said federal officials were striving to reopen the airport quickly and restore power and water service to the area, but estimated it would take a week to restore most electricity.
``It is clear that we need quickly to reconstruct the economy, and the economy here is called tourism,'' Fox said.
As were many of the city's full-time residents, stranded tourists were struggling to find food.
Dennis Catesby, of Coventry, England, briefly returned to his hotel room to get bedding and raid the minibar for beer and whatever food it contained.
``After three days in a shelter, it was minibar time for us,'' said Catesby, who was married in Cancun. ``The beer is going to be free today.''
Last modified October 24, 2005