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Acapulco, Mexico — Along with beach towels or sandals, there’s a new popular beach accessory that says a lot about the violence gripping this once-glamorous resort: a small black leather tote hanging from the neck or shoulders of some men. It’s not a man-bag, exactly; it holds a small pistol.

“When I saw you guys standing outside my office, I almost went for my bag,” said one businessman who lives in terror after getting death threats and extortion demands by criminal gangs at his office four blocks from the water. “I’m in fear for my life.”

Death can strike anywhere in Acapulco these days: A sarong vendor was slain on the beach in January by a gunman who escaped on a Jet Ski. Another man was gunned down while enjoying a beer at a seaside restaurant. In the hillside slums that ring the city, a 15-year-old girl’s body was found chopped into pieces and wrapped in a blanket, her severed head in a bucket nearby with a hand-lettered sign from a drug gang.

The upsurge in killings has made Acapulco one of Mexico’s most violent places, scaring away what international tourism remained and recently prompting the U.S. government to bar its employees from traveling here for any reason.

In response, Mexico has lined the city’s coastal boulevard with heavily armed police and soldiers, turning Acapulco into a high-profile test case for a security strategy that the government has used elsewhere: When homicides spike, flood the area with troops.

Today it’s almost easier to find a truck full of soldiers, a federal policeman or a gaggle of local tourist cops than it is to find a taxi along the “costera,” the seaside boulevard that runs through the hotel zone. Marines patrol the beach, while federal police watch over the breakwaters.

“This area has been made bulletproof,” Guerrero state prosecutor Xavier Olea said.

Except it hasn’t. A week after AP reporters visited, gunmen shot to death three young men in broad daylight two blocks away from a restaurant where they met with an underworld figure. Two of their bullet-ridden bodies lay on the concrete just off the beach, and one bled out on the sand. Two were waiters, and the third a roving coconut oil vendor.

Experts say Acapulco shows the limitations of the government’s security strategy. Federal police, almost none of whom are from the city, quickly get lost once they leave the coastal boulevard and ascend into twisting, hillside neighborhoods. Their heavy weapons are ill-suited to urban policing, and they’re hampered as well by Mexico’s unwieldy judicial system and a lack of investigative training.

Acapulco’s latest wave of killings began April 24, when bursts of gunfire broke out along the coastal boulevard.Both prosecutor Olea and the underworld figure agree the conflict started late last year between the Beltran Leyva gang, which used to control the city, and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, or CIDA, which arose following the death of cartel boss Arturo Beltran Leyva in 2009.

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