MEXICO CITY — The timing couldn’t have been worse.
As Mexican President Felipe Calderon was unveiling a new campaign and TV program Tuesday to draw wary tourists back to his country, a gang dumped 35 bodies at a busy intersection in the tourist zone in the coastal city of Veracruz.
No one suggests that the events were related, but the gruesome appearance of two truckloads of bloody corpses in front of a large shopping mall at rush hour — just a few blocks from a hotel where state prosecutors were meeting — dominated the news cycle here and threatened to overwhelm Calderon’s campaign to woo tourists.
The images from the travel television program, called “Mexico: The Royal Tour” — clips of gray whales, Mayan pyramids and glasses of amber tequila — clashed with shaky videos captured by cellphone cameras of panicked commuters, wailing police vehicles and half-naked bodies dumped on an underpass near the Veracruz beaches.
Authorities in Veracruz said the 35 bodies included 24 men and 11 women. They quickly tried to calm the public — and foreign visitors — by saying that most of the dead were criminals who were killed by a warring drug cartel.
“The assassination of 35 people is tragic, but it is more tragic that these same people chose to devote themselves to extortion, kidnapping and killing,” said Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte de Ochoa.
Veracruz state prosecutor Reynaldo Escobar said that “almost all” of the 35 had been identified and that they had criminal records for drug dealing, kidnapping and ties to organized crime. Two of the dead had been reported missing; one was a municipal police officer.
Escobar identified the victims as members of the Zetas criminal organization and said that their executioners were members of the Gulf Cartel.
Sultry, salty Veracruz — with some of the best music, fresh seafood and colonial architecture in Mexico — has been the scene of intense fighting among criminal groups, including daylight assassinations and gruesome public displays of the dead. Two crime reporters for one of the region’s largest newspapers have been killed: One was decapitated, the other killed alongside family members.
There were, however, conflicting reports about who killed whom in the latest incident. The lurid and popular crime Web site El Blog de Narco reported that a sign left beside the bodies claimed that the “new boss” of Veracruz was the Gente Nueva, or the New People, an armed enforcement wing for billionaire Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful in Mexico, run by one of the most wanted criminals in the world.
On the same day these events unfolded in Veracruz, Calderon was in the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, showing clips from “Mexico: The Royal Tour,” which will air Thursday evening on PBS.
“Let me tell you that the problem of violence is mostly limited to the battle between one band and another,” Calderon said in New York. “It is tied to narcotics trafficking and not with tourism, and that is a very important distinction.”
“The Royal Tour,” hosted by travel journalist Peter Greenberg, shows the usually formal and ceremonial Calderon rappelling into the famed Cavern of the Swallows in San Luis Potosi, diving in the blue waters of a cave in Quintana Roo, taking an air balloon over the Pyramid of the Moon and watching gray whales in the Sea of Cortez.
Tourism is vitally important to Mexico. It is the nation’s third-leading source of foreign income, after petroleum sales and remittances from workers abroad, most of them in the United States. About 22 million visitors traveled to Mexico in 2010, and this year visits are up 3 percent.
Calderon confessed that his decision to participate in the travel show was controversial, not only among his political opponents but also his own staff. “It could have been a mistake,” he said. “But we did it, because I feel so proud of Mexico. I love my country, and I know so well that Mexico has so much to offer the world. I had so much fun doing this.”