MEXICO CITY – Surprised tourists found their little piece of Cancún beach paradise ringed by crime-scene tape and gun-toting sailors this week.
Environmental enforcement officers, backed by navy personnel, closed hundreds of feet of powder-white coastline Thursday in front of a hotel accused of illegally accumulating sand on its beach.
Mexico spent $19 million to replace Cancún beaches washed away by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. But much of the sand pumped from the sea floor has since washed away, leading some property owners to build breakwaters in a bid to retain sand. The practice often shifts sand loss to beaches below the breakwaters.
“Today we made the decision to close this stretch of ill-gotten, illegally accumulated sand,” said Patricio Patrón, Mexico’s attorney general for environmental protection. “This hotel was telling its tourists, ‘Come here, I have sand … the other hotels don’t, because I stole it.’ ”
Patrón said five people were detained in a raid for allegedly using pumps to move sand from the sea floor onto the beach in front of the Gran Caribe Real Hotel. The hotel is also suspected of illegally building a breakwater that impeded the natural flow of sand onto other hotels’ beaches, he said.
An employee of the hotel’s marketing office said nobody was available to comment on the allegations. Authorities said the hotel owner ignored previous orders to remove the breakwater.
A knot of angry tourists gathered around the closed beach.
María Bachino, a travel agent from Rocha, Uruguay, said that she had booked a beachfront room, only to find herself cut off from the warm, clear waters that lure millions to Cancún each year.
“They promised us a beach,” Bachino said. “This is very unpleasant.”
Patrón said he regretted any inconvenience for tourists and noted that the government is planning to restore beaches throughout Cancún in an orderly and environmentally responsible way.
“I apologize to the tourists for this problem,” he said, “but it is a question of enforcing the law.”