Carnaval Mazatlan a festive celebration, but safe?

Carnaval Mazatlan started this week and runs through February 21. Like other celebrations, glittering costumes, exotic foods and dancing street musicians are all part of the festivities. But this year’s Carnaval, while featuring a full program of activities designed for the whole family, comes on the heels of a renewed travel warning to Mexico questioning the safety of a visit south of the border.

“Thousands of North American visitors will join in the full array of festivities, which celebrate Mazatlan’s rich heritage, authentic cuisine, music and welcoming spirit of its residents,” says GoMazatlan, the marketing arm of the Mazatlan Hotel Association.

But will Americans traveling to Mexico be safe?

The U.S Department of State’s updated warning on travel to Mexico points out “an increasing number of innocent people are being targeted by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)”, something that Mexican President Felipe Calderón generally doesn’t like to acknowledge or discuss says HSsecuritytoday, a web site targeting news and analysis on homeland security affairs.

Issuing a “strong caution” against “nonessential travel to areas within 16 of Mexico’s 31 states,” Spring break trips to Mexico are being discouraged. In fact, National Public Radio (NPR) says Mexican drug wars have gotten so bad that the Mexican people are out on strike – not because they need better wages, but because of crime that’s nearly shut down the country’s tourism industry. In turn, NPR reported how locals and tourists have been “extorted, kidnapped and intimidated by local gangs,” said Huliq just this week.

While Americans may be debating a trip to Carnaval in Mazatlan, Canadians seem to have made a clear decision not to visit. In the latest case troubling Canadians, a Calgary woman was found badly beaten in a five star resort hotel elevator last month in Mazatlan and placed in a medically induced coma later undergoing reconstructive surgery for injuries to her face. The headline in Canadian news reports: Calgary woman Sheila Nabb emerges from coma after horrific Mexico hotel beating. Not good a good sign.

In 2011, six Canadians were killed in Mexico and 50 were assaulted. According to the State Department US citizens murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.

To be fair, the State Department also says that “the Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect US citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations,” which we found to be true visiting Mazatlan last October where armed Mexican Marines stood watch over Day of the Dead celebrations happening during our visit. But at that time, crime in the state of Sinaloa, where Mazatlan was located, was not a concern.

The travel warning updated by the State Department earlier this month breaks down crime by states in Mexico and notes “You should defer non-essential travel to the state of Sinaloa except the city of Mazatlan where you should exercise caution particularly late at night and in the early morning. One of Mexico’s most powerful TCOs is based in the state of Sinaloa,” which causes concern for many and will probably result in a lower than normal turnout for one of the best Carnaval celebrations in the world.

Dating back 113 years, Mazatlan’s celebration began in 1898 and is today recognized as the third largest Mardi Gras in the world, following Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. During Mazatlan’s Carnaval, locals and visitors converge for colorful parades, dance performances, art exhibitions, open-air street festivals, outdoor concerts by international artists and a grand firework display.

It will be a shame if, after all that time, Mazatlan’s Carnaval gets shut down by criminal activity. Still, the words of caution by a relative of Canadian Sheila Nabb are hard to ignore: “Stay out of Mexico. It seems to be getting worse and worse.”

Flickr photo by Kashmera