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Column 121409 Longmire

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Myth that No Place in Mexico is Safe

By Sylvia Longmire

Thanks to the bloody drug battles being waged on a daily basis in so many Mexican cities and towns, the country has acquired a terrible reputation as a travel destination in the last few years. While some areas in Mexico definitely need to be avoided by tourists, there are several areas where this reputation is completely undeserved.

But before we get into the discussion of specific areas in Mexico and their relative safety, it’s important to understand why certain areas are so dangerous, and the factors that need to be taken into account when contemplating travel to Mexico.

As most people know, Mexico is in the middle of a drug war. The unprecedented bloodshed is a result of turf battles between drug cartels, as well as rivalries within cartels. The turf in question is usually one of two places: a highly valued drug trafficking corridor into the United States, also known as a plaza, and cities or towns where drugs are brought into Mexico from outside the country.

Control of these key locations is crucial for the success of a cartel’s business operation. In order to maintain control of these locations, cartels are willing to conduct assassinations of public officials, commit mass murders and dismemberment, and kidnap and torture those who wrong them.

The two most notorious plazas at the moment are Ciudad Juárez in the State of Chihuahua, and Tijuana in the State of Baja California.

The U.S. State Department has made clear in recurring travel alerts that non-essential travel by American citizens to certain areas should be deferred. More specifically: “The U.S. Mission in Mexico currently restricts non-essential travel within the state of Durango, the northwest quadrant of Chihuahua and an area southeast of Ciudad Juarez, and all parts of the state of Coahuila south of Mexican Highways 25 and 22 and the Alamos River for US Government employees assigned to Mexico.  This restriction was implemented in light of the recent increase in assaults, murders, and kidnappings in those three states.” 

Unfortunately, when Americans and other foreigners hear about all these travel warnings — and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the security situation in Mexico — they sometimes tend to get the impression that all of Mexico is a war zone. This is certainly not the case, as there are numerous places in Mexico that have been untouched by the drug war.

Mexico is well known as an affordable travel destination and for its all-inclusive beach resorts. Fortunately, the majority of these tourist locales remain safe for American and other foreign travelers. In fact, Baja California Sur — the home of the famous Cabo San Lucas and the other Los Cabos — is one of the safest places in Mexico, as it isn’t considered a strategic location for any of the drug cartels. Part of the safety factor is that many of the resorts in the Cabos are all-inclusive, meaning that guests never have the leave the resort grounds for food or entertainment.

Other popular tourist destinations include Acapulco, Cancun, and Cozumel. These places have occasionally appeared in the news as sites of drug-related shootouts and other violent incidents, and Acapulco was actually at the center of a turf battle for several years. However, it’s very important to note that these violent incidents occurred several miles away from tourist areas and resorts, and in no way affected the safety of tourists staying at those resorts. News reports don’t usually provide that helpful context.

In addition to the more well-known tourist destinations, there are dozens of other places in Mexico that cater to visitors who enjoy beaches, Mayan and Aztec ruins, and eco-tours. While too numerous to name individually, most of these sites remain beautiful — and safe — places to enjoy.

The most important thing any potential business visitor or tourist to Mexico can do is arm him or herself with good information about specific destinations. The U.S. State Department travel site for Mexico (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html) is a great place to start. One should never hesitate to contact a U.S. Consulate in Mexico if questions about the safety of a particular location arise.

Members of the military should be extremely diligent when planning any travel to Mexico, as certain locations have been officially declared off-limits by the Department of Defense, and others require command approval prior to travel.

Above all, travelers to Mexico and any other unfamiliar foreign travel destination need to exercise common sense. Try to blend in. Don’t wear things that scream “I’m American!” or “I’m an easy target!” Don’t wear flashy jewelry. Try to learn a few useful words in Spanish. While you’re not likely to be targeted in Mexico by the mere fact that you’re a tourist, you can still become the victim of common crime by not exercising common sense.

The violence in Mexico is not likely to escape our minds — or our headlines — any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that Mexico is no longer a viable option for rest and relaxation at an affordable price. It sounds almost corny, but it can’t be said enough that you need to know before you go. Arm yourself with good information about your destination, and enjoy the great things that Mexico still has to offer.

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Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force officer and Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where she specialized in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection analysis. After being medically retired in 2005, Ms. Longmire worked for almost four years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, providing daily situational awareness to senior state government officials on southwest border violence and significant events in Latin America. She received her Master’s degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with a focus on the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions. Ms. Longmire is currently an independent consultant and freelance writer.  Her website is Mexico's Drug War; she is a regular contributor to Examiner.com; and her email address is spooky926@gmail.com.

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