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Mexico Travel Warning in Perspective

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Travel Warning in PerspectiveThe Travel Warning for Baja California remains the same, if not a little outdated. The news is the increased vigilance for Baja California Sur, specifically the state capital of La Paz. I take a look at the realities and if and how it should affect your travel plans to the peninsula.

Updated January 2, 2015: The latest Mexico Travel Warning issued by the United States Department of State was released on Christmas Eve, 2014 and unfortunately my hometown of La Paz, we got a lump of coal for Navidad.

What I have dubbed "Mexiphobia is rampant in the northern media for a number of reasons and there are certainly places in Mexico, like Detroit, Baltimore and New Orleans in the US, that are probably best avoided. But Mexico is a large country and the #1 destination for tourists and Americans choosing to live abroad. Here I take a first hand, realistic and on the ground look at what it means for traveling and living in Baja. I'll leave the rest of Mexico to another author.

There were several changes to the warning this time, including mention of the problems in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where 43 students disappeared in route to protest a speech by the governor's wife, which has been seen prolifically

Here is the partial text from the most recent Mexico Travel Warning issued by the U.S. Department of State on December 24, 2014. The specific portions dealing with the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur can be found in our story column right.

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain places in Mexico due to threats to safety and security posed by organized criminal groups in the country. U.S. citizens have been the target of violent crimes, such as kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery by organized criminal groups in various Mexican states.  For information on security conditions in specific regions of Mexico, which can vary, travelers should reference the state-by-state assessments further below.  This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning for Mexico, issued October 10, 2014, to update information about the security situation and to advise the public of additional restrictions on the travel of U.S. government (USG) personnel.

General Conditions: 

Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day.  The Mexican government dedicates substantial resources to protect visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that organized criminal groups have targeted U.S. visitors or residents based on their nationality.  Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime that are reported in the border region or in areas along major trafficking routes. 

Nevertheless, U.S. travelers should be aware that the Mexican government has been engaged in an extensive effort to counter organized criminal groups that engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico.  The groups themselves are engaged in a violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity.  Crime and violence are serious problems and can occur anywhere.  U.S. citizens have fallen victim to criminal activity, including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking, and highway robbery.  While many of those killed in organized crime-related violence have themselves been involved in criminal activity, innocent persons have also been killed.  The number of U.S. citizens reported to the Department of State as murdered in Mexico was 81 in 2013 and 85 in 2014 to date. 

Gun battles between rival criminal organizations or with Mexican authorities have taken place in towns and cities in many parts of Mexico.  Gun battles have occurred in broad daylight on streets and in other public venues, such as restaurants and clubs.  During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area. Criminal organizations have used stolen cars, buses, and trucks to create roadblocks on major thoroughfares, preventing the military and police from responding to criminal activity. The location and timing of future armed engagements is unpredictable.  We recommend that you defer travel to the areas specifically identified in this Travel Warning and exercise extreme caution when traveling throughout the other areas for which advisories are in effect. 

The number of kidnappings throughout Mexico is of particular concern and appears to be on the rise.  According to statistics published by the Mexican Secretaria de Gobernacion (SEGOB), in 2013 kidnappings nationwide increased 20 percent over the previous year.  While kidnappings can occur anywhere, according to SEGOB, during this timeframe, the states with the highest numbers of kidnappings were Tamaulipas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Estado de Mexico, and Morelos.  Additionally, according to a widely publicized study by the agency responsible for national statistics (INEGI, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography), Mexico suffered an estimated 105,682 kidnappings in 2012; only 1,317 were reported to the police.  Police have been implicated in some of these incidents.  Both local and expatriate communities have been victimized.  More than 130 kidnappings of U.S. citizens were reported to the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico between January and November of 2014.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to lower their personal profiles and to avoid displaying indicators of wealth such as expensive or expensive-looking jewelry, watches, or cameras.  U.S. citizens are encouraged to maintain awareness of their surroundings and avoid situations in which they may be isolated or stand out as potential victims.

Of particular safety concern are casinos, sports books, or other gambling establishments and adult entertainment establishments.  U.S. government personnel are specifically prohibited from patronizing these establishments in the states of Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit. 

Carjacking and highway robbery are serious problems in many parts of the border region, and U.S. citizens have been murdered in such incidents.  Most victims who complied with carjackers' demands have reported that they were not physically harmed.  Carjackers have shot at vehicles that have attempted to flee.  Incidents have occurred during the day and at night, and carjackers have used a variety of techniques, including roadblocks, bumping/moving vehicles to force them to stop, and running vehicles off the road at high speeds.  There are indications that criminals target newer and larger vehicles, especially dark-colored SUVs.  However, even drivers of old sedans and buses coming from the United States have been targeted.  While violent incidents can occur anywhere and at any time, they most frequently occur at night and on isolated roads.  To reduce risk when traveling by road, we strongly urge you to travel between cities throughout Mexico only during daylight hours, to avoid isolated roads, and to use toll roads ("cuotas") whenever possible. 

The Mexican government has deployed federal police and military personnel throughout the country as part of its efforts to combat organized criminal groups.  U.S. citizens traveling on Mexican roads and highways by car or bus may encounter government checkpoints, staffed by military or law enforcement personnel.  In some places, criminal organizations have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, at times wearing police and military uniforms, and have killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them.  You should cooperate at all checkpoints.

Demonstrations are common and occur in all parts of the country.  Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.  Protesters in Mexico may block traffic on roads, including major thoroughfares, or take control of toll booths on highways. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, and to exercise caution if in the vicinity of any protests.   Travelers who encounter protestors demanding unofficial tolls are generally allowed to pass upon payment.   Travelers are urged not to exit from major highways. U.S. Citizens should avoid participating in demonstrations and other activities that might be deemed political by the authorities as the Mexican Constitution prohibits political activities by foreigners; such actions may result in detention and/or deportation.

The Department imposes restrictions on U.S. government employees' travel in Mexico.  Since July 2010, USG employees are prohibited from driving on non-official travel from the U.S.-Mexico border to or from the interior of Mexico or Central America.  Personal travel by motor vehicle is permitted during daylight hours on Highway 15 toll road between Hermosillo and Nogales, on Highway 45 between Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, and on the main roads between Palomas, Chihuahua and Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua.

Click here to read the complete December 24, 2014 Mexico Travel Warning on the State Department Website

in the domestic and international press since its occurrence. But for the first time the city of La Paz has gained a specific mention for violence.

Combating Mexiphobia

It bothers me when I read stories on major news sites like CNN that describe 'a country in chaos" following the disappearance of 43 students in southern Mexico. It just isn't true, the populace is now taking the bull by the horns and people are standing up, protesting and demanding change. Many are suffering disillusion at having reverted to the conservative government party of the PRI, which ruled Mexico for decades. It looks like the problem was less evident before because PRI either ignored enforcement or was even in bed with the cartels.

I first authored this Mexico Travel Warning in Perspective article back in 2006, back before it was advanced from an "Advisory" to a "Warning". The Mexican drug war is said to have initiated in 2006and resulted from the power vacuum caused by the damage done to the Arellano-Felix organization. The arrests disrupted the power balance and the Sinaloa cartel tried to muscle in on the Arellano-Felix territory. The eastern cartels then moved against the Sinoloa cartel who became occupied with their new 'war'.

An estimated 110,000 people have died as a result of this drug war over the last decade, a vast majority of them have been directly tied to either police or cartel activity or were immigrants to Mexico, used for processing and muling the products. Of that number only a handful of North American" innocents" have been engulfed by the violence and Mexico remains the #1 foreign destination for US tourists, with more visitors in a single day than London has in a year. Almost twenty four MILLION people came to Mexico in 2013, making it one of the top 10 world wide destination annually and statistics indicate 2014 will have beaten that number..

Being an Aware Tourist

Although tourists anywhere are at greater risk for petty crimes, like pick pocketing and hotel room thefts, statistics show that you are more likely to be murdered in your home town than on vacation in Mexico, by a significant margin. There are cases of North Americans making headlines as victims in Mexico and Baja, but remember, nearly 2 million North Americans live in Mexico and a majority of them on the Baja peninsula. So, there are bound to be a few international headline worthy stories every year.

Legal and trial reforms accellerated in Mexico

Mexico is on the path of prosecution and court reform, to make the system much more similar to the US justice system, with assistance from the United States. The process is suppose to be completed nationwide by late 2016. But, because of the issues currently facing Baja California Sur, which I will cover in a just a moment, the change over will be completed in the state by mid-year 2015. The changes, including jury trials, will make the system more transparent and less susceptible to corruption.

In the Northern State of Baja California

Things got pretty dicey along the border back in 2007-08, as the homicide rate in Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Mexicali skyrocketed. When the Federal government moved in and replaced a large percentage of the Tijuana police department there was a surge in what appeared to be men in police uniform robbing and extorting tourists along the highway in the border region. At one juncture Philadelphia and Tijuana, being about the same size and fighting similar drug wars had nearly the same homicide statistics. President Calderon even sent the military in to restore tranquility and through 2012 things slowly settled down, although the homicide rate remained above the US average for similar sized cities.

The Travel Warning Text for Baja California:

Baja California: Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada and Mexicali are major cities/travel destinations in the state of Baja California – Exercise caution in the northern state of Baja California, particularly at night. Criminal activity along highways is a continuing security concern. According to the Baja State Secretariat for Public Security, from January to October 2014 Tijuana and Rosarito experienced increasing homicide rates compared to the same period in the previous year.

While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours.

Tijuana has changed dramatically in the last decade with the introduction of WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) requiring passports to return to the US. The blocks of blanket salesmen and strip bars have been replaced to a great extent to up scale restaurants and galleries. Because less than 28% of Americans hold a passport and few would buy a $110 passport to save $4 on a Mexican blanket. The change in Mexico's antibiotic rules, now requiring a prescription and equalized pricing on other pharmaceuticals also has decreased day-trip traffic to the border areas. But the city has taken the opportunity to move 'upscale' and now sports more nice restaurants and art galleries than ever before and appeared as a whole new city on my visit one year ago this week.

As to the statement about concerns along the highway and driving at night, that is old news from back in '07 and '08. The greater risk derived from driving at night is that of hitting a cow in the road, a pickup in front of you with no tail lights or driving off the road with no shoulder. The BajaInsider has always recommended avoiding driving at night for those larger and more common reason.

But all that reassurance said, the border areas do remain statistically more dangerous than say, San Diego on the other side of the line, yet safer than very dangerous cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Washington DC or New Orleans. However, once a crime is committed the rate of property recovery and/or prosecution remains embarrassingly low throughout the country.

Change in the status for Baja California Sur

In 2010 the State Department began specifying the travel warning by state, and Baja California Sur had enjoyed the status of 'no warning'. Unfortunately, in this advisory that has come to an end.

The Travel Warning Text for Baja California Sur:
Baja California (Sur): Cabo San Lucas and La Paz are major cities/travel destinations in the state of Southern Baja California – Exercise caution in the state capital of La Paz. According to the Department of Interior of Mexico, in 2013 Baja California Sur registered its highest homicide rate since 1997. Many of these homicides occurred in La Paz, where there has been an increase in organized crime-related violence.

First, let me point out that the major tourist destination for more than 30,000 visitors per week in Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo) has not seen this spike in homicides. The majority of the increased number has occurred in the capital city of La Paz/ The "battle" for the city of La Paz appears not to be a state-side traffic issue, but one of control of the local drug market. In the very recent past the state had around 8 to 10 homicides per year, most of them were domestic violence or neighborhood disagreements gone out of hand. But beginning in 2013 the number jumped to over 50 and now in 2014 we have exceeded that number by another dozen. Something has changed.

Whether you like to admit it or not, suppressing crime in any city is a spoken or unspoken agreement between police and organized criminals to 'keep it outta sight' or "we will come down on you - hard." That bond has apparently broken down here in La Paz, the city of peace. Fifty four drug related homicides have been committed in the city since July, when a hit was made on a cartel's summer party in Los Planes, just outside La Paz. There have been a half dozen other related incidents in the areas surrounding La Paz this year including Las Planes, Pescadero and three bodies found in a burned car on the road to Constitución, just north of La Paz.

There have been a variety of allegations as to why, ranging from the current president's change in crime fighting tactics (or lack there of, as some will say) to a change in that unspoken agreement between the state governor and the cartel of preference. But a turf war between has certainly erupted between two groups seeking to control the local market, rather than the trafficking routes which are the problems in border areas.

Is there reason to be frightened?

I live in La Paz, and have for more than 14 years, do I feel in greater danger today? I think the answer to that is yes and no.

We'll start with the "no". All of the increased number of homicides are directly associated with cartel "employees". All but three of the homicides were discovered as 'body dumps', tied tortured and murdered in a secluded location. Nearly all of the dead covered in the newspapers had "from Sinaloa" following their name. The police chief has had attempts on his life and one police officer was killed this summer, but that was not believe to be tied to cartel activity and some laid that one at the feet of the mayor and police chief over a separate political issue.

As to the "yes", I wish I could tell you that no innocents were harmed, but in November a 7 year old boy was struck in the leg and a young woman and her 8 month old suffered minor wounds in December. The 7 year old was wounded in a neighborhood know for drug dealing, on the very corner where I myself have witnessed "transactions". Of the later two, the police believe it was the father, who had a record for drug possession who was the target and was walking with them. In October there was a car to car gun battle just blocks from the La Paz civic center depositing more than 80 shell casings as a result. Other than that incident, the violence has occurred in impoverished or non-tourist neighborhoods.

I think the best way to sum it up was an observation I made when first moving to La Paz from San Diego, where there had been an incident in a fast food restaurant. I was in a San Diego restaurant when a balloon popped and a few people actually hit the floor in fear. A few weeks later a balloon popped in a La Paz McDonald's and nobody even blinked. Today, I think much of the La Paz populace would find themselves a little more on edge and would tend to checkout the origin of a popping balloon or a string of firecrackers with a little more interest. Do I feel insecure in my daily routine in La Paz?  No.

What is being done

The good news from all of this is, unlike decades past where the attitude was 'that is the way it is in Mexico', the citizens of La Paz are furious. There have been marches and rallies demanding a solution to the problem and restoration of tranquility to the City of Peace. The police force cleaned house in November, dismissing a large number of officers for failing drug tests. The military upped it presence by 2000 army regulars in November and a large number of federal police and 50 new patrol cars have been assigned to the region.

There is increased vigilance at all points of entry to La Paz, including the airport and the ferry terminal. The local police have initiated check points for unregistered cars (which have been a common denominator in many of the shootings, stolen from Sinaloa) and the enforcement on no tinted windows on the front or rear doors of domestic or foreign cars, to make it easier for police to spot the scofflaws. (at some locations they will remove your window tints on the spot) The local travel industry is panicked that the inclusion in the travel warning will cost the city its burgeoning reputation as a tourist destination and the may cause cancellation of the 16 cruise ships which are scheduled to visit in 2015.

Summing up the Travel Warnings for the Baja Peninsula:

The situation in Baja California (north) has changed little in the last couple of years, certainly it is slowly working its way to the better. In Baja California Sur the situation has deteriorated, specifically in La Paz, more than 90 miles north of the popular tourist destination of Cabo San Lucas. Would I recommend not visiting La Paz or changing your travel plans? I think that would be a little silly considering the real facts and it would hurt those that are trying hardest to remedy the situation.

The BajaInsider's Editorial Position

Finally, there are those that would say, because we are a travel and living in Baja 'good news' magazine, that we are sugar coating the situation. To that I would have to respond an emphatic "BULL HOCKEY!" The content of this article is factual and concise. Our researchers check a variety of news sources daily and I have been compiling the articles and stats daily since the problem accelerated in July.

Both James, the publisher and myself, as editor, have declined to publicize businesses we consider to not be in the interest of the environment or community, informed our readers about mining that could destroy the Baja beauty and exposed and educated our readers on the corruption and how to deal with it in the local police. We both love Baja and have called it home for many years and want those who come to visit or come to join us to live in this beautiful region to share our love for Baja. Our credibility for both your benefit and that of our sponsors has been of paramount importance to us since day one.

The Citizens of La Paz are Demanding Change


And in Espanol...