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Mexico's war on drugs taking toll on tourism  Feb 01, 2009

When planning a January vacation with his girlfriend, Oakland resident Jeremiah Nadya had only Mexico in mind. "Tickets are dirt cheap if you know where to look," he says. "It's close. It's beautiful."

His sentiment is shared by many Bay Area travelers. But Nadya readily admits that a trip south of the border can also be something else: dangerous.

As President Felipe Calderon attempts to weed out police corruption and break down drug cartels, there has been a power vacuum among narcotic traffickers - and a new wave of narco-violence in Mexico. In its latest travel warning, the State Department declared in October that "some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have taken on the characteristics of small-unit combat."

Although experts say the major tourist destinations remain safe, many travelers from the Bay Area and elsewhere are avoiding areas like Rosarito Beach in Baja and limiting trips to border towns such as Juarez and Tijuana.

More than 5,600 people in Mexico died last year as a result of drug-related violence - double the number from 2007, according to Mexican newspaper El Universal.

"The bigger concern for American citizens - for whom the odds of getting kidnapped or killed are still extra-small, something like the odds of getting struck by lightning - are the increases in other incidences of crime: small-scale robbery, assault, rape," says David Shirk, a criminal justice expert and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

"I think that Mexico in the past 10 years has experienced a significant increase in criminal activity," he adds, a situation he feels is likely to worsen in a global recession.

Skipping some destinations

Travel writer Maribeth Mellin, who lives in San Diego, has been happily exploring Mexico for more than 20 years. But during the past year, as drug-war-related crime shot upward, certain destinations have become off-limits to her.

"I live about 20 miles from Tijuana, and I haven't been for over a year. When I write about San Diego and Mexico, I no longer include information about Tijuana," she said. "Now I don't even recommend daylight trips there.

"I'm sorry to say that - I feel sorry for the businesspeople. I just think that your chances of being an innocent bystander or witnessing something bad are higher now."

The State Department declined to give numbers of U.S. victims of crime in Mexico, but noted in its update that "rates for robberies, homicides, petty thefts and carjackings have all increased over the last year across Mexico generally, with notable spikes in Tijuana and northern Baja California."

The reason for the rise in crime, according to Shirk and others, is the breakdown of the large cartels. It may be too soon to judge Calderon's strategy of making the criminal syndicates smaller, but, at least in the short term, it hasn't stopped the flow of narcotics through Mexico and has only fueled the violence.

Spike in kidnappings

"The problem with that (tactic) is that the crime gangs got broken but are not 'more manageable,' " Shirk said. He noted an increase in lower-level criminal activity - "not quite petty crime, but smaller-scale stuff. The big cartels never had much of an interest in kidnapping, for instance."

As of late November, there had been 943 reported kidnappings in the country, up from 630 in November 2007, according to the Christian Science Monitor. (Kidnapping is also known to be extremely underreported.) In one of the most publicized cases, an American security expert in the northern town of Saltillo to give corporations advice on how to avoid being abducted was himself taken away mid-meal at an upscale restaurant in late December. He remains missing.

Some recent visitors to Mexico say the reports of disorder have been overblown. Music teacher John Gabriel, 31, of San Diego recently returned from a month in the Mexican state of Veracruz and spent time in Tijuana. He said that the recent increase in drug-related violence was "a topic of conversation," but it didn't affect his trip.

"I would definitely say that the impression that the Americans get in the media is more intense and hyped-up than reality," Gabriel said, although he did acknowledge that he has curtailed drives down the Baja coast in response to criminal activity.

Bay Area resident Larry Habegger, who writes the syndicated World Travel Watch column, called security issues in Mexico "complicated."

'Be careful, stay informed'

"Millions of people go to Mexico every year without any incident whatsoever," he said. "The situation is grave in some sense, but it's not that significant for most tourists. ... But people need to be careful and stay informed where the major incidences are happening. I would not do a road trip to Baja, for instance. I would not go to the surf sites."

Mellin, the travel writer, says that although she has seen evidence of reduced tourism in certain parts of the country, the demand for her articles on Mexico seems to be just as strong in 2009.

"People who know Mexico will keep going. It is less expensive than many places, and it is easier to get there," Mellin said. She doesn't intend to do much differently other than avoid certain places.

"But then, I'm cautious. I don't do stupid things. I dress appropriately and I'm not rude to people. I try to speak Spanish as much as possible," she said, "These are all the things that I do as a traveler anywhere."

Mexico's war on drugs taking toll on tourism
Photograph by David Maung / AP

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