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“Extortion is the name of the game,” said security consultant Walter McKay in Mexico City.

McKay said going to bars, buying drugs or getting involved in illicit activity would put a tourist at great risk in Mexico. But he said it’s a safe vacation for the multitudes of bikini-clad visitors who have a singular goal when they reach the numerous resort cities that dot the east and west coasts: to lie on the beach with a beer and a taco.

Other Americans come south to visit family or travel on business. But the draw of sunshine, low prices and close flights are _ for many in need of a vacation _ the key, irresistible combination. And Cancun, with miles of all inclusive luxury resorts, is the top tourism spot in Mexico. Tens of thousands of bell boys, concierges, clerks, cooks, security guards and housemaids in starched uniforms here depend on the tourist dollars to send their children to school, put food on the table, take care of their elderly.

American tourists in many Mexican resort cities often vacation in a bit of a bubble. They are met at the airport by a driver holding a placard with their name, whisked past street markets, taco stands, schools and health clinics in an air conditioned car. They settle into their resort for the entire stay, venturing out only for an occasional shopping trip in a secure part of town.

Strolling through an upscale La Isla shopping mall in Cancun, Irene Hanson pushed partner Debbie Streeter’s wheelchair past one familiar shop after another: Cold Stone Creamery, United Colors of Benetton, Roxy. The Boston couple has traveled the world over the past two decades, and said they were looking forward to swimming with dolphins later in the afternoon.

Mexico’s tourism ministry reports a record 190 million domestic and international visitors toured the country’s attractions in 2011, an increase of 3.7 percent from 2010. Most of those tourists were Mexican.

“I have no safety concerns,” Streeter said. “I grew up street-wise and I can tell if someone is trouble, but these people make their money off tourists. They’re not going to hurt us and scare others off.”

Nearby, three Brooklyn friends _ Carmine Pennella, his brother Dominick and their friend Frank Cirrincione _ flexed their sizable biceps into bodybuilder poses when asked for a photo.

“If they wanna kidnap me, have at it,” said Pennella, who came down for a bachelor party. Then, growing serious, his brother said they’re being careful.

“We heard about hostages and drug wars,” Dominick Pennella said, “and we’re not wandering around at night. It’s common sense. Me, I don’t go to places out around Coney Island at night, either.”