ACAPULCO, Mexico – On the surface, the beach town here is idyllic.
Crystal blue waters. Song birds with bright yellow wings darting from tree to tree.
And then there are the American college students.
They're tanning, tossing Frisbees and in some cases stumbling along the strip here with Corona beers in hand.
|VIDEO: Killings dampen spring break fun in Acapulco|
But what seems like paradise has been invaded by the harsh reality of drug cartel violence that has spilled from Mexico's underworld to the nation's streets.
Just this past weekend, nearly 50 people were killed nationwide in apparent drug-gang violence – 13 people were killed in and around Acapulco, with four victims found beheaded.
Three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate were killed Saturday in Ciudad Juarez, a city along the Texas border more than 1,000 miles from here. The victims – who were chased down in broad daylight while returning home from a child's birthday party – are believed to have been mistakenly targeted by drug cartel hit men.
Drug violence is endemic in Mexico. The casualty numbers sound like those from a conventional war. Fifty uniformed police officers murdered in just three days; 2,009 people killed since the beginning of the year. And many of the assassinations carry a brutal cartel trademark: beheading.
Still, an estimated 10,000 American college students will come to Acapulco – drawn by MTV's annual spring break production, and by lax enforcement of drinking laws.
"It's definitely on your mind, but I think I feel pretty safe with the military and the police all around the hotels," said Amber Hay, on break from Los Angles.
"We're trying to have a good time, me and my friends," said Alex Warren, a student from Indiana University. "We're trying to stick in groups and at nighttime, we're trying to make sure that even though the clubs are far away, we're not trying to venture off from the touristy area."
The state government, admitting it can do little to curb the violence, is worried about how the surge in violence is cutting into already low tourist levels. By some estimates, just half as many Americans visited Acapulco in 2009 as in the year before. In an effort to calm fears, authorities in Acapulco are flooding the tourist strip, known as the "Golden Zone," with police.
Dozens of police on foot, motor scooters and dune buggies are now stationed around and along the beach of Playa Suites, Acapulco's main hotel hosting the Spring Break parties. Authorities are advising the students to stay safe by keeping their partying close to the tourist zone. So far it's working.