State Dept. Cites 'Large Firefights' in Travel Alert on Mexico

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 21, 2009

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 20 -- The latest travel advisory for Mexico from the U.S. State Department will certainly not please the tourist board. Rather than a glossy brochure advertising the country's many delights, the travel alert issued Friday reads like the plot of a crime thriller.

"Recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades," the advisory reads. "Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area."

Being "temporarily prevented" from leaving a firefight is never a good thing as far as promoting tourism goes. Tourism is one of Mexico's main sources of income, and the country that sends the most tourists to Mexico is the United States.

The State Department routinely updates its assessments of hot spots around the globe, issuing official "warnings" and "alerts." Warnings are the worst, reserved for nations posing higher risks for travelers, and cover countries such as Haiti, Iraq and Congo. "Alerts," like the one issued for Mexico, do not recommend that visitors avoid an entire country but instead advise them to employ extra caution and avoid specific locales and behaviors. In Mexico, those behaviors include driving at night, buying drugs and visiting the state of Durango.

According to the alert, the threat of bodily harm is part of the ongoing drug war: "Mexican drug cartels are engaged in an increasingly violent conflict -- both among themselves and with Mexican security services -- for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. In order to combat violence, the government of Mexico has deployed troops in various parts of the country. U.S. citizens should cooperate fully with official checkpoints when traveling on Mexican highways."

The alerts are a poke in Mexico's eye as well as a source of friction. As Mexican commentators point out, the country is fighting to stop drugs heading to the world's largest consumer nation -- the United States.

The department uses strong language to describe the situation in Mexico. "U.S. citizens are urged to be alert to safety and security concerns when visiting the border region. . . . While most crime victims are Mexican citizens, the uncertain security situation poses serious risks for U.S. citizens as well," the alert states. "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. Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales are among the cities which have recently experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues."

The State Department will review the situation again in six months.

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