Travel to Mexico: Not a Safe Proposition Right Now

If you’re considering travel to Mexico, be careful, according to the governments of the United States and Canada. Getting caught in the crossfire of warring drug cartels is a real possibility even for innocent tourists, and even in tourist areas previously thought safe from the drug-related carnage that has seen whole sections of Mexico devolve into Colombia-style narco-havens.

Most of the 6,290 people killed in Mexico’s drug wars last year were located in northern border towns, such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez (which shares the border with El Paso, Texas), and Baja, California. One of the major drug cartels is headquartered in Matamoros, just across a walking bridge into Brownsville, Texas, the southern tip of the Rio Grande Valley where thousands of Canadian and American “winter Texans” make their sunbelt homes. In addition, there have been recent drug-cartel-related killings in major resort areas of Acapulco and Cancun, and on February 25, 2009, gunmen opened fire and tossed grenades at a police patrol car in the Pacific resort town of Zihuatanejo, killing four police officers.

Many of those killed by drug cartels fighting for “rights” to drug smuggling routes into the US were innocent victims of drive-by shootings, some caught in the crossfire in popular shopping areas or recreational areas. Ransom-related kidnappings have also caught up tourists in the cartels’ web and some of the kidnappings have extended far beyond the Mexican border into Arizona, where a special police unit has been set up to track down drug cartel operatives who cross the border into the Phoenix area and kidnap US citizens for ransom.

In February, the US Department of State raised the “alert” signal on travel to Mexico, meaning all travellers should exercise special caution when travelling anywhere in that country, and Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development warned Canadians to exercise “a high degree of caution” when travelling to Mexico for spring break. At the “alert” or “caution” level, tourists in Mexico are still covered for emergency medical benefits under their travel insurance policies should they get hurt or otherwise caught up in any mishaps or crossfire. But once the signal goes up a notch to a “warning,” such benefits may cease if the “warning” was issued prior to the purchase of insurance. Once home governments issue “warnings” about travel to any country, all bets about travel insurance benefits are off.

Another consideration is that under NAFTA, the US, Canada, and Mexico have closely intertwined economic, business, and political relationships. Not to be too cynical, neither Canada nor the US are too anxious to rattle those relationships by issuing “warnings” too quickly. Politicians don’t like to have their country characterized as a danger zone. Thus when “alerts” or “warnings” are issued, you should take them seriously.

When the US State Department issued its alert, several US universities issued their own complementary warnings to their students to simply stay out of Mexico for spring break—period. Not just to be “extra cautious” but to avoid Mexico altogether. That seems to be the wiser course right now. It’s certainly the one I would take.

Who wants to go to a resort that posts warnings that you can only leave the grounds “at your own risk”?

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