Images of terrified protesters fleeing police and gunfire have shaken one of Mexico's top beach resorts and dealt another blow to a tourism industry already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.
The crackdown on Monday in front of Cancun city hall, where hundreds were demonstrating against the murder of a local woman, sparked national outcry and protests in Mexico City.
Three people were injured when police fired in the air for several minutes and chased the mostly female demonstrators through a budget hotel district after property was vandalized.
“We’re living in the worst horror movie,” said Abelardo Vera, hotel association president in Cancun, a jewel of the country’s tourism industry located in Quintana Roo state on the Caribbean coast.
“Not to mention robberies, extortion and people being murdered and mutilated every day. It’s unacceptable,” he said.
Vera said the crackdown had further tarnished the reputation of Cancun, a magnet for foreign tourists that has already been hit by plunging visitor numbers due to the pandemic.
“Of course this type of situation affects Cancun. It’s already in all the international media. It’s completely reprehensible,” he said.
Tourism is a key pillar of the Mexican economy and usually accounts for almost nine percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
But it has been battered by the slump in international travel due to the coronavirus, which has left more than 96,000 people dead in Mexico — one of the world’s highest tolls.
Live fire by police against protesters is unprecedented in Cancun and rare across Mexico, where security forces usually limit themselves to using shields and sometimes pepper spray.
It was criticized by authorities at the regional and national level, cost the local police chief his job and led to the suspension of Quintana Roo’s head of security.
The crackdown shocked tourists lured to the Riviera Maya by its sun-kissed white sand beaches and turquoise waters.
Colombian university student Dayana Gomez said she heard about the shooting when she was about to get on a plane and almost abandoned her trip.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
“It’s the first time I’ve traveled outside of Colombia and on my own,” she told AFP.
In the end she went ahead with her holiday but gave up on the idea of backpacking through a country plagued by violence, much of it linked to drug cartels.
“I knew that Mexico’s not very safe, but I didn’t think that about Cancun,” she said.
There is growing anger in Mexico that the authorities are not doing more to tackle the problem of gender violence.
Ten women are killed every day in the Latin American country, according to the United Nations.
One of them was Bianca “Alexis” Lorenzana, a 20-year-old from Cancun whose dismembered body was found on Sunday in plastic bags, a day after she was reported missing.
Activists accuse the local authorities of putting the reputation of a resort that attracts more than 14 million visitors a year before the safety of the women who live there.
“There’s concern that a lot of information isn’t disclosed because it may affect the tourism industry,” said Monica Franco, a gender violence researcher in Cancun.
“They care more about covering it up than preventing it and that’s very serious because it creates a pressure cooker,” she said.