Danger is relative in Mexico

Experts say drug war mainly hits partisans

apart from flu, crashes are main threat

November 22, 2009|By Christopher Reynolds | Tribune Newspapers

Mexico's drug war is entering its fourth year. Its swine flu outbreak began with dozens of deaths and global headlines last spring. This leaves travelers with at least two reasons to study up before booking that Mexico trip. But it doesn't necessarily mean staying home.

More than 9,900 people have died in Mexico's drug war from January 2007 to early October 2009, according to the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. Many of the deaths occurred near the U.S. border and far from the resorts and cities that draw thousands of Americans every year.

Robert Reid, who has contributed to Lonely Planet's Mexico volumes and serves as U.S. travel editor for the guidebook publisher, likes to remind people that Mexico is about the size of France, Spain, Germany and Italy combined.

Before you let trouble in one corner of the country affect your travel to another corner, he said, "Imagine a shootout in Sicily forcing a canceled vacation in Germany."

Also, as Mexican officials are quick to note, most drug war victims have been active partisans - that is, drug-traffickers or law enforcement officials.

Charles Pope, interim director of the Trans-Border Institute, visits Tijuana and Mexicali up to four times a month, traveling just as he did in the years before President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug traffickers in 2006.

Pope dines out, drives at night and said he wouldn't hesitate to go to a baseball game, a "lucha libre" (professional wrestling match) or an event at the Tijuana Cultural Center.

Still, there has been plenty of trouble in Mexico, and it continues. On Oct. 16, authorities said they found nine mutilated bodies in Tlapehuala, a town in the state of Guerrero, and three more bodies in Acapulco, each accompanied by a threatening note signed "The boss of bosses."

Since Aug. 20, the State Department has urged Americans to delay unnecessary travel to parts of the states of Michoacan (capital: Morelia) and Chihuahua (which includes the cities of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez on the Texas border). Mexican authorities say that in the first half of 2009, more than 1,000 killings took place in Ciudad Juarez, located across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Although U.S. citizens have been killed in Mexico, apparently including four whose bodies were found in Tijuana in May, those deaths make up only a small fraction of those who have died in the drug-related violence.

If you set flu aside, said Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World," the biggest danger for a law-abiding traveler in Mexico is probably "the same as the big danger in the U.S. - road crashes. Almost everything else is negligible by comparison."

But Hasbrouck said, "You have to evaluate not only 'is it safe?' but also, 'Will I be so frightened that I won't enjoy my trip?' "

For details on the geography of Mexico's troubles, check the State Department's Web site, especially the Mexico security travel alert, at www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html.

Wherever you go in Mexico, the State Department recommends that you stay on the beaten path, carry a working cell phone, tell others where you're going and register to receive State Department e-mail notifications at https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/.

On the swine flu front, Mexico drew worldwide attention in April and May when H1N1 was blamed for dozens of deaths. In the offices of Passport Health Los Angeles, a travel medicine and immunization clinic, executive director Rayann Aziz recalls the concern that erupted. But lately, the United States and Mexico are in the same position - jointly leading the world in cases.

Aziz's advice for anybody traveling to Mexico is identical to her advice for those staying home: Get a 2009 H1N1 vaccination, especially if you're in a high-priority group (pregnant women, people who live with or care for children up to 6 months old, health care and emergency medical services workers, those 6 months to 24 years old, and anyone 25 to 64 with a chronic health disorder or compromised immune system).

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