Cartel violence is raging in Mexico - should you cancel your trip?

The US State Department this week widened its ‘do not travel’ warning to cover six of Mexico’s 31 states after a wave of orchestrated violence by criminal cartels. Security and travel experts explain the risk tourists face to Io Dodds

Friday 19 August 2022 16:30 BST
<p>Members of the Navy patrol a beach resort as part of the vacation security in the tourist zone in Cancun by the government of Quintana Roo</p>

Members of the Navy patrol a beach resort as part of the vacation security in the tourist zone in Cancun by the government of Quintana Roo

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In early 2020, two American travellers were driving through Mexico's densely forested Tabasco region towards the coastal tourist hub of Cancún when their car was stopped by men with guns.

In a dashcam video that went viral last year, the gunmen appear to question the Americans in Spanish before realising they are just tourists. "No problem, no problem," says one gunman in English, putting a hand on the driver's shoulder and reaching across him to shake his passenger's hand.

The alleged incident illustrates the fraught situation facing foreigners hoping to visit Mexico. While the country's notorious criminal gangs rarely target travellers directly, the bloody conflicts between them appear to be spreading into major tourist areas.

On Wednesday, the US State Department widened its "do not travel" warning to cover six of Mexico's 31 states and urged Americans do "reconsider travel" to 11 more after a wave of orchestrated violence by criminal cartels across the country.

In one week, civilians were murdered and cars and buildings burned all along the US-Mexico border, including in the popular travel destination of Tijuana.

"Until recently, my advice has been that I definitely wouldn’t cancel my trip to Mexico because of reports of violence," Ken Bombace, a former US military intelligence officer whose company Global Threat Solutions provides bodyguards for travellers, tells The Independent.

"However, it seems that the violence between cartels has been increasingly spilling into the areas most often visited by tourists... and tourists have even fallen victim to feuding gang members in areas that were often thought to be off limits to the cartels, such as hotels, resorts and restaurants."

For foreigners, and for the millions of Mexicans who rely on tourism for their income, it raises the question of how safe it is now to be a tourist in Mexico.

Cartels wreak havoc across Mexico in week of 'narco-terrorism'

Tourism will account for about 8.3 per cent of Mexico's GDP in 2022, according to the Mexican federal government, contributing $35bn in US dollars. Last year around 31 million foreigners visited the country, following a steep downtown during the early Covid-19 pandemic.

A huge share of that business comes from the US, whose citizens made up 81 per cent of all arrivals in Mexico via air between January and August last year.

In the central states of Jalisco and Guanajuato, more than two dozen convenience stores and numerous cars and buses were set on fire in what appeared to be a revenge attack by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel for the arrest of Ricardo Ruiz, known as "RR" or sometimes "The YouTuber" for his role in cartel's propaganda videos.

Viral video filmed in early 2020 showed two American tourists allegedly being confronted by cartel members in Tabasco, Mexico

In Tijuana, a popular tourist and party destination for Americans who drive across the border from California and the western US, at least two dozen vehicles were hijacked and burned, while reports that the Jalisco Cartel had declared a curfew caused its normally busy streets to empty.

That week of chaos came after a series of incidents in which tourists were murdered or caught in the crossfire between gangs, including a gunfight on a beach near Cancún last November that sent hundreds of tourists racing for cover and several hurt.

José Andrés Sumano Rodríguez, a professor specialising in border violence at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana (known as Colef), told The Independent that the attacks in his city seemed intended to boost the perpetrators' protection rackets by spreading terror among local businesses.

"The motivations behind each of these attacks are very different, [but they have] several common patterns," he says. "This seems to be a growing tactic from Mexican criminal groups, who have learned from past experiences with the federal government... [they] believe that they can achieve better results by generating terror and fear in the population rather than by engaging in conflict against the Army."

Others have described the attacks as "narco-terrorism", meaning attempts by drug cartels to influence government policy through violence against civilians.

In response, the US Consulate in Tijuana ordered all its employees to shelter in place until the chaos was over, and told Americans nearby to “avoid the area” or, if they were already in it, “seek secure shelter”.

The US State Department has long warned citizens that "violent crime such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery is widespread and common in Mexico", and urged them to follow the same advice it gives its employees, such as never travelling between cities after dark and never hailing taxis on the street.

On Wednesday, though, it widened its "do not travel" alert from five Mexican states to six, its "reconsider travel" list from seven states to 11, and its "exercise increased caution" list from 14 states to 17, leaving only two states where "normal precautions" are sufficient.

"Nothing we saw last week was new," Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former member of Mexico's National Intelligence Centre, tells The Independent. "However, seeing it all in a single week is quite significant."

Members of the Mexican Army and National Guard check a car at a military checkpoint, as part of a security operation to reduce violence, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on 16 August 2022

Major tourist hubs remain safe – but concern is growing

Overall, experts asked by The Independent said that Mexico remains broadly safe for foreign travellers, as long as they avoid certain regions.

"A lot of the fear is unreasonable fear, and a lot of the risks can be mitigated through intelligence," says Brad Bonnell, a forensic consultant who often worked in Mexico as head of global security for Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), which owns the Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn hotel chains.

"Mexico City is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been, but if you go looking for trouble, you'll find it. And if you're stupid and decide to go wandering about because you think you're in Disneyland, you can probably get in trouble."

Dan Howell, a travel agent in Cincinnati who regularly books his clients on trips to Mexico, was among the people forced to take shelter during the beach battle near Cancún last year. Even so, he does not plan to stop visiting, and his bookings for so-called "Mayan Riviera" – a string of resorts running south of Cancún along Mexico's far eastern coast – have not slowed down.

The key is that different parts of Mexico have vastly different levels of danger. Border states such as Tamaulipas, Sonora, and Chihuahua, or states with a heavy cartel presence such as Sinaloa, Jalisco, Michoacán, or Gurerro, are best avoided; quieter states such as Yucatán and Quintana Roo (which contains Cancún) are much more hospitable.

"I wouldn't recommend any tourist to go to rural Michoacán... or Sonora, or rural Guerrero,” says Andrés Sumano. "Others are safe – for example Monterey, Mexico City. I wouldn't see any type of concern regarding these [attacks].”

Likewise, Mr Hope says: "It's not everywhere. It's in very specific areas... it's really highly unlikely that any tourist will face something like this, but still, the risk is there and will be there for a while."

However, Mr Bombace says that travellers should avoid Tijuana completely for the time being, despite its popularity. And he warns that even resort areas like Quintana Roo are getting more dangerous.

"The real concern is that we have seen violence occur at popular restaurants and even on resort property," he says. "If there were to be a signs of increased violence like we have seen in Tijuana, I would cancel any plans of travel."

Mexican authorities say that tourists themselves are part of the problem. "We know it’s not easy to turn off the supply as long as there is demand," Quintana Roo state security chief Lucio Hernández Gutiérrez told The Washington Post last December.

Indeed, security officials told the Post that November's beach gunfight actually started when two rival groups of drug dealers responded to a call from a hotel concierge who had been asked by some of their guests to supply them with cocaine.

One party promoter in Tulum, on the Mayan Riviera, said part of their job involved "making sure there’s only one cartel providing drugs at a party, so there’s no fighting between dealers."

Hotel guests take shelter after shooting on Cancun beach

Andrés Sumano describes drug sales as an important revenue source for criminal gangs in Quintana Roo, while crooks in Tijuana similarly make much of their money from American tourists' insatiable appetite for prostitution and gambling.

Even if you aren't looking for drugs, it can be hard to avoid contributing to criminal coffers' due to protection money paid by many tourist businesses. And when bar or restaurant owners cannot afford a gang's extortion rates, Andrés Sumano says they are often forced to agree to let the racketeers sell drugs in their establishment.

The only upside is that organised criminals rarely have any incentive to target tourists – though they may not take much care to avoid collateral damage when they clash.

How can tourists in Mexico avoid trouble?

The violence in Quintana Roo has alarmed the Mexican government enough to send a brand-new "Tourist Security Battalion" to the Mayan Riviera, consisting of 1,445 officers from the National Guard force created by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2019.

The troops are now constantly visible on beachfronts, says Mr Howell, which makes some of his clients feel intimidated and others feel more secure.

Yet neither Mr Hope nor Andrés Sumano believe the Mexican federal government will quell the violence any time soon.

"The government has now deployed as many as 200,000 soldiers and members of the Navy for law enforcement purposes, either directly or indirectly through the National Guard," says Mr Hope. "And even that, we're seeing this, which should question the wisdom of [Obrador's approach]."

Members of the security forces patrol in Playa del Carmen on 24 July 2022

Andrés Sumano describes the government's strategy as rushing National Guard units around the country to every new crisis, which is "not sustainable". He says logistical problems have led to Guard members having to sleep on the floor after being sent to a city without facilities to house them, to say nothing of corruption in the force.

Hence, tourists will need to be mindful of Mexico's gang problems for the foreseeable future. So what should they do?

Mr Bonnell and Mr Bombace both say you should carefully monitor the latest information from your home government and news about crime or unrest from the specific region you visit, and plan your trip carefully so you always know where you're going and what risks you might face there.

Mr Bonnell advises US citizens to register with the State Department's Smart Traveller Enrollment Programme (STEP), which sends out regular bulletins about safety risks in the area you're visiting and helps US embassies and consulates track and search for citizens who run into trouble.

"There is an unbelievable amount of information available to you about the risks, whether it's from disease, crime, threat of civil disturbances," he says. "They provide you with emergency phone numbers, they give you instructions... you have have your own personal intelligence-led security strategy.

"It's [about] individual responsibility... it's incumbent upon us take some responsibility not to put ourselves in harm's way. Or if we have to go someplace where know there might be an element of risk, to take reasonable precautions to mitigate those risks."

Both men also recommend staying in big resorts, which frequently share intelligence with each other and where criminal gangs rarely start fights. Mr Bonnell says hotels in Mexico tend to have one security officer on duty for every 250 rooms, with larger hotels (750 rooms or more) having multiple uniformed and plain clothes officers on the beat.

Hotel concierges, he adds, can also direct guests to safe car rental and taxi services, as well as providing crucial information about the area.

Finally, Mr Bombace says, "for those that might be inclined to use drugs while in Mexico – I would reconsider. You are inviting problems and intentionally bringing you and your party closer to the drug trade, which can be violent and dangerous."

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