Mexico: Safer But Not Safe Says Travel Warning

Troubled with crime, Mexico has been on the bad list of places to visit for quite some time. But the situation is improving. Murders of U.S. citizens are down. Drug-related violence seems limited to isolated areas of the country. But a new warning issued by the U.S. Department of State urges caution.

The State Department is warning travelers to “defer nonessential travel” to the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango and Tamaulipas in Mexico. The continuing concern involves Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) that are “engaged in a violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity,” says the State Department warning.

The latest travel warning urged caution when visiting Mexico, including Mazatlan in the state of Sinaloa, saying travelers “should exercise extreme caution particularly late at night and in the early morning.”

Giving credit to an improving situation in Mexico, the State Department notes that 32 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico in the first six months of 2012, compared with 113 in all of 2011. Still, the number of kidnappings and disappearances throughout Mexico is of concern with both local and expatriate communities victimized.Casting a more positive light to illuminate efforts being taken to improve the situation, Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete of the Mexico Tourism Board said the protection of tourists “is at the pinnacle of importance to the Mexican government,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Indeed, festivals and events continue in Mexico and draw big crowds. Fifteen thousand people turned out for a mass yoga class in Mexico City, once a central location in the drug wars ravaging the country, now an area where no advisory is in place, as we see in this video:

[Photo Credit- Flickr user MattMawson]

Other Countries A US President Has Never Visited

President Barack Obama will land in Myanmar (aka Burma) this week, a first-time visit for any President of the United States. Never mind that Myanmar is best known as a brutal dictatorship, not exactly in line with U.S. foreign policy. Disregard any political or geographically strategic reasons for befriending Myanmar. Today, this is all about the President being the first to visit Myanmar and the trip begs the question: “So are there other countries that no sitting U.S. President has ever visited?”

Out of the 190+ countries in the world, just 113 of them have been visited by a President of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian.

Countries not visited include close-by neighbor the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, St Kitts, St Lucia and assorted tiny island-nations. Understandable, we would probably view a visit to the harmless Seychelles as a taxpayer-paid vacation anyway.

On the continent of Africa, more nations have not been visited than have been by a U.S. President. Again, probably not a lot of strategic reasons to stop by.But some big-name countries we might think that some President, somewhere along the way, might have visited; not one has.

  • Monaco, the second smallest country/monarchy in the world and the most densely populated country in the world boasts the world-famous Monte Carlo Casino.
  • Algeria, in northern Africa, famous for its vast Sahara in the south..
  • Nepal- famous for eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains. No visit.

Armenia is a country one might think worthy of a trip by any standards. Bordered by Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, Georgia to the north and Iran to the south, Armenia does seem to have a strategic location. Still, no visit.

Presidential travel takes any given sitting head of the free world to countries all over the planet on visits of good will. Meeting face to face with world leaders, attending meetings and spreading good old American spirit around when they can, Presidents are a big ticket when they come to town, along with Air Force One and more as we see in this video

Oh, and that trip to Myanmar? While President Obama is the first U.S. President to visit, he’s not the first Obama. The president’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was a cook in World War II for a British army captain stationed in what was then called Burma.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user 0ystercatcher]

Crime In Mexico, Just Part Of The Deal

Crime in Mexico continues to concern travelers. Recent accounts of death by a drug lord urge caution when visiting Mexico, yet the country still ranks high as a desirable travel destination.
Seeming to run deeper than ever, crime has weaved its way through Mexico in some unlikely areas as well. Affecting everything from the police, accused and indicted with claims of extortion and false imprisonment, to the launch of an app that could have predicted a recent earthquake, crime continues. Maybe, just in spite of tourism-charged efforts to paint a different picture of Mexico, crime is always going to be a deadly part of the canvass.

Police in Mexico’s northern state of Tamaulipas discovered the bodies of 14 men placed in plastic bags and left in a small delivery truck just this week. All of the men, between 30 and 35 years of age, are suspected to be the victims of the ongoing war between drug cartels, as reported by news organizations as far away as the Daily Star in Lebanon.

Granted, Tamaulipas is one of the areas most affected by drug cartel violence, but the deaths still add to the more than 47,000 people killed in drug-related violence since Mexico launched its “war against organized crimes” in 2006.

To counter the perception that all of Mexico is riddled with crime, the Mexico Tourism Board is making efforts to put a new face on the country.The Mexico Taxi Project, an advertising campaign, seeks to “change perceptions about conditions that tourists find there,” said the New York Times shortly before the program’s launch last November.

In the commercials, reminiscent of a cross between the HBO series “Taxicab Confessions” and Discovery’s “Cash Cab,” we see (via hidden camera) the cab driver asking his passengers how their (insert name of city in Mexico) vacation went. Predictably, the (very touristy but believable-looking) passengers had a (wonderful, safe, fabulous, highly recommended) time and can’t wait to come back.

Nice try, probably typical of the visits of many travelers, but news of a Mexican businessman found slain recently after accusing federal police of various crimes is troubling.

Of even more concern is that the incident is not isolated. As reported by the Latin American Herald Tribune, last September, more police officers were arrested and accused of even more crimes including extortion, bodily injury, abuse of authority and crimes against health.

It seems that the element of crime in Mexico has a way of becoming part of the best, most well directed efforts one could imagine.

Mexico City, host to a magnitude 8.0 earthquake in 1985 that claimed 10,000 lives, has been developing a new Blackberry app to provide early warning for earthquakes. When it failed to work for a recent magnitude 6.5 quake, the problem was found to be that the epicenter of that quake was in an area not yet covered by the app.

Carlos Valdés, head of the National Seismologic Service, told beyondbrics that crime in the state has blocked their efforts and that seismologists have been beaten up and threatened by armed assailants on the highways of the western state of Michoacan.

Still, tourism is growing in Mexico with most locations one might visit considered safe. Our immersion in Mazatlan last year revealed a safe and friendly destination. Fans and supporters of Mexico urge travel in spite of the U.S. Department of State’s warning of caution.

Gadling’s Dave Seminara, a fan of and frequent traveler to Mexico, may have nailed the “What to do?” question in his article, “Crime in Mexico: Is Puerto Vallarta unsafe for travelers?” answering,

“…Mexican officials are smart enough to know that they’ll need to redouble efforts to prevent crimes like this one from occurring again. In the meantime, travelers who are concerned about violent crime should consider visiting smaller towns, rather than big cities – not just in Mexico but also in many countries around the world.”

[Flickr photos by sarihuella]

Summer work travel: Cheap labor or cultural exchange?

The Summer Work Travel (SWT) program is a U.S. Department of State initiative that brings college students from around the world to the United States for seasonal jobs. But far from the cultural exchange advertised, students are finding themselves exploited by workplace safety and health violations.

Late last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered an “extensive and thorough review” of the program. Last month, federal officials issued citations and possible fines of nearly $300,000 against the Hershey Company, an employer involved with the program, reports PennLive. This week, the Center for Immigration Studies will hold a public discussion panel sorting it all out.

The panel will discuss results of the report “Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange: The $100 Million Work Travel Industry” that says the SWT program has become a cheap labor program in the guise of cultural exchange.Critical of motives behind the program, the Center for Immigration Studies report accuses the program of providing “incentives for employers to bypass American workers by exempting SWT employers from taxes that apply to employment of Americans. Employers also don’t have to worry about providing health insurance, since SWT students are required to buy it for themselves.”

The discussion will be held in Washington D.C. tomorrow, March 13, 2012 at 9 a.m. in the Murrow Room at the National Press Club, 14th and F Streets, NW. Admission is free and open to the public. A transcript and video of the discussion will be available the following week.

[Flickr photo by Ryan.padilla]

Texas authorities urge students to avoid Mexico

As spring break draws near, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) has issued a warning that advises college students to stay away from Mexico. The warning cites ongoing drug cartel violence as the main reason to avoid going south of the border, but also mentions criminal activity including homicides, gun battles, kidnappings, carjackings, rapes and more.

Popular resort destinations such as Cancun, Acapulco, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas and Tijuana are not exempt from the warning, which states these areas “can be havens for drug dealers and petty criminals.” Although the DPS acknowledges that many travel to Mexico without incident and that the Mexican government has made strides battling the cartels, it encourages travelers to carefully research any planned trips and always check the U.S. Department of State website for up-to-date information on security issues in Mexico.

Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of State issued a new Mexico travel warning that advised against nonessential travel to areas within 16 Mexican states. According to U.S. Department of State numbers, 120 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico during 2011, a number that has increased dramatically since the tally was at 35 in 2007. All U.S. citizens living or traveling in Mexico are advised to register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.