The attack has added to a sense of alarm in an area that has long been the heart of Mexico's tourism industry.
The attack has added to a sense of alarm in an area that has long been the heart of Mexico's tourism industry, and the violence hints at the criminal presence in the region.
Authorities in Cancun declared a "code red" after at least 10 motorcycle-borne gunmen assaulted the state prosecutor's office and the Command, Computing, and Communications Control center (C4) at Xcaret and Rojo Gomez Kabah avenues around 4 p.m. on Tuesday.
The prosecutor's office is about 5 miles from the city's hotel district, one of the primary tourist destinations in Mexico.
Authorities set up checkpoints around the district, and the US embassy asked US citizens be careful and "to follow local authorities' warnings and directives and consult with their hotels before leaving the premises."
The state attorney general, Miguel Angel Pech, was not at the building at the time of the attack.
Soldiers, federal police, and other security personnel arrived on the scene and closed the surrounding streets, according to local daily Novedades Quintana Roo.
The attackers withdrew, but one of them was killed and a ministerial police officer was left dead.
"I was having a siesta and the noise woke me up," Sandra Ramirez, 33, told AFP.
"I went out later and police were reviewing every car that was going by," Ramirez said. In the past, "things have happened, a dead person has appeared here or there, but never something like this."
Initial reports indicated that the gunmen were there for Leticia Rodriquez Lara, aka "Doña Nety," who is thought to be a local plaza boss for the Sinaloa cartel. However, a state official denied this motive, saying that no one was detained at the facility at the time of the attack.
There were reports of another encounter west of the government buildings, near Nichupte Avenue and the Gran Plaza shopping center, which is believed to have left another assailant dead.
Hundreds of gunshots were heard over the course of the fighting. Public places were evacuated and stores closed their doors. Streets in the area were closed off. Videos circulated afterward showing panic amid the gunfire and the continued deployment of security forces after the shootouts.
The attackers also reportedly detonated at least two fragmentation grenades, one of which went off in a courtyard at the prosecutor's office and the other bounced off a wall. Neither killed anyone.
Not long after the gunfight at the prosecutor's office, a convoy of soldiers rushed to the Plaza de las Americas mall, where people reported hearing gunshots. The soldiers cleared the property, but a state official said there was no sign of a crime there.
In total, four people — the police officer and three suspected gunmen — were killed, and another five suspects were arrested, Quintana Roo Gov. Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez said on Tuesday evening.
"The state is under control and in order," Joaquin said, adding that he arranged with the Interior Ministry to send federal forces for added security.
"People from Cancun and our visitors can go about their lives as normal."
"Those who threaten the state and its laws will pay," the governor said.
Several people were wounded in the attacks, civilians among them.
"I don't know what is going on, one comes to a tranquil place to live, with a better quality of life and you get this surprise," said Cesar Salgado, a worker at an optical store who was left bloodied by an explosion. "The authorities should stop this."
Joaquin, who took office in September, said the attacks were a response by criminals to his crackdown on organized crime, which he said had acted with impunity in the area for years.
The attack in Cancun came just a little over 24 hours after a gunman opened fire during the final night of an electronic music festival at the Blue Parrot club in Playa del Carmen, a seaside resort city 42 miles to the south, in Mexico's Mayan Riviera.
That shooting left five people dead — including the head of security at the club, who was reportedly the target, and an American woman who was killed in the stampede of people escaping the scene. Another 15 people were wounded, several of them by bullets fired by security personnel and others on the scene.
Officials initially said that attack was the result of a personal dispute, but in the hours after, drug-cartel conflict emerged as potential motive.
The possibility of cartel involvement was strengthened by the appearance of four narcomantas — banners or signs typically left at the scene of cartel-related crimes — on Tuesday.
The state attorney general, Miguel Angel Pech, confirmed on Tuesday that drug-related activity was the principal line of investigation for the music-festival shooting, though he also said extortion was a possible motive. Another state official said authorities were investigating whether the two shootings were connected.
Quintana Roo has long been a transshipment point for drugs, and there is an active retail drug market there catering to tourists. While cartels have occasionally fought for control of the area, the state has largely avoided the high-impact violence that has ravaged other parts of Mexico like Acapulco, a well-known resort city on the Pacific coast.
According to Animal Politico, the Sinaloa, Gulf, Zetas, and Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) cartels are all present in the Cancun-Playa del Carmen tourist corridor.
Recent violence in the area has come about as a result of a deterioration in security that the previous governor, Roberto Borge, attempted to obscure, Francisco Rivas, director general of the National Citizen Observatory, told Animal Politico.
Rivas said that, in addition to homicides, his organization had documented femicides, extortion, and human trafficking in the area — all problems abetted by deficiencies among state police, 17% of whom were deemed unsuitable for service during the last year, up from 12%.
Borge, of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has been accused by the opposition of fraud and corruption, which he denies. The PRI is reviewing disciplinary action against Borge, one of many PRI governors and former governors implicated in wrongdoing.
There have been several high-profile acts of violence in the Cancun-Playa del Carmen area since late last year.
In a November 28 incident, armed men entered the Mandalá bar and opened fire on people inside, killing three.
That incident was believed to have been the work of the CJNG against its rival for primacy on Mexico's drug scene, the Sinaloa cartel.
A December 22 shooting at a Christmas fair in Cancun left one dead and five wounded, and Christmas Eve saw someone fire between 15 and 20 times at a car on Tulum Avenue in the city.
"That combination — high-impact incidents and narco messages — has been in other states indication of an eruption of a war between criminal groups," Mexican security analyst and El Universal columnist Alejandro Hope wrote this week. "It would not be unusual if the events in Quintana Roo announce the same."
According to Hope, there have been warnings about the violence and growth in criminality, like extortion, in Quintana Roo — but "nobody paid attention."
Journalists and columnists have noted the indicators of violence in the area, particularly extortion and attacks over the summer on centers of prostitution that left numerous dead, Hope said in an interview on Wednesday.
And the social conditions may be setting the stage for more conflict.
In addition to strong illicit markets and widespread extortion, the area has a large concentration of young men with dim economic prospects and has seen large population growth — 5.9% in the 1990s and 4.1% in the 2000s, the highest growth rates in Mexico during those periods — and disordered urban expansion.
During an interview Wednesday, Quintana Roo state Secretary Francisco Lopez Mena reiterated the governor's claim that the attack was in response to a crackdown on crime and denied that the state was becoming a narcostate, but he did say that Tuesday's shootings were "a violent episode of the fight for criminal territory."
"The attack fits in a context of fighting corruption," Lopez Mena said. "We are not going to be frightened by these criminal groups.