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Spring Break in Mexico: Travel and Security Risks
March 5, 2012
Every year between January and March, U.S. college administrations remind their students to exercise caution while on spring break. These well-meaning guidelines often go unread by their intended recipients, as do travel warnings issued to citizens by the U.S. State Department. Many regular visitors to Mexican resort areas believe they are safe from transnational criminal organizations (TCO), more commonly called cartels. These travelers tend to think cartels want to avoid interfering with the profitable tourism industry, or that they only target Mexican citizens; this is not an accurate assessment.
Nothing in the behavior of Mexican cartels indicates that they would consciously keep tourists out of the line of fire or away from gruesome displays of their murder victims. Violence related to the cartels is spreading, and while tourists may not be directly targeted, they can be caught in the crossfire or otherwise find themselves in situations where their security is compromised. TCOs, it should be remembered, are more than just drug traffickers — they participate in extortion, robbery, rape and carjackings. And where cartels are fighting each other violently, local gangs are able to take advantage of law enforcement’s resulting distraction to commit crimes of their own.
Mexico’s Drug War
Violence between competing criminal organizations in Mexico has continued for more than two decades. In the last decade, this violence has escalated nearly every year: In 2006 there were 2,119 murders related to organized crime. There were 2,275 in 2007, 5,207 in 2008, 6,598 in 2009 and 15,273 in 2010. While official figures are not yet available for 2011, figures reported by media agencies demonstrate that violence did not drop substantially from 2010.
The core of the conflict revolves around the most valuable routes for trafficking drugs through Mexico. Several groups are waging a violent campaign for control of these corridors and the Mexican government is using the military to combat drug traffickers, adding an additional actor in the conflict. However, no part of the country has been immune to the effects of organized crime.
While cartels typically direct their violence toward rival groups, outside parties are often caught up in the violence. For example, Los Zetas tried to burn down the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on Aug. 25, 2011, allegedly to send a message to the casino’s owner. The attackers were not stopped by the presence of innocent bystanders, and more than 50 individuals were killed in the blaze. In August 2011, a grenade targeting the Mexican military landed near a crowd of tourists near an aquarium in Veracruz state, killing at least one individual. U.S. citizens have been among those caught up in the violence of the drug wars, with the U.S. State Department reporting 120 U.S. citizens killed in 2011. While that number is small in relation to the estimated 4.7 million Americans who visited Mexico between January and October 2011 — and the more than 150,000 U.S. citizens who travel across the border each day — it marks a substantial increase from the 35 deaths reported in 2007.
There is no sign that cartel-related violence in Mexico will ease in 2012. While a polarization of organized criminal groups has set in — with Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation on opposing ends — 2011 witnessed a continued splintering of many organized criminal groups. Divisions between entities such as the Gulf Cartel, La Familia Michoacana and Knights Templar have exacerbated the violence in many regions of Mexico, and the efforts of federal forces have failed to effectively cap the violence.
Cartel operations within Mexico have affected many aspects of the country’s security infrastructure — some of which tourists may rely on. Corruption is rampant within Mexico’s governing bodies and law enforcement is a routine victim of cartel infiltration and violence. With federal, state and municipal forces focused on combating criminal organizations, resources are drawn away from combating unrelated crimes. This has led to an increase in serious crimes such as murder and kidnapping and to an uptick in general crime to which tourists are more likely to fall victim.
Threats from Cartels and Local Gangs
Cartels usually focus on the business of trafficking drugs through Mexico into the United States. However, they do resort to other methods of financial gain, which could affect visitors to Mexico. Groups such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas are known to involve themselves in kidnappings, carjackings and extortion. Cartel gunmen also operate with a sense of impunity in many parts of the country and will rob or rape targets of opportunity as they see fit. It is impossible to gauge the willingness of individual cartel members to victimize unwary tourists, but innocent bystanders can be caught in the crossfire as confrontations between groups escalate.
The presence of cartels, especially in areas where multiple cartels exist in competition, causes a deterioration of security conditions that also invites the formation of local gangs. These local gangs may not be affiliated with the cartels but still present many of the same security concerns. They may be involved in murder, extortion, carjacking, sexual assaults, kidnappings and collateral damage caused during open confrontations with rivals.
As law enforcement increases its focus on combating drug traffickers, resources are diverted away from providing the kind of security many visitors to Mexico are accustomed to local police providing. Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation also succeed in corrupting law enforcement agencies in Mexico, which in turn degrades the security infrastructure, providing a suitable environment for local gangs to thrive. Corrupt police officers themselves also frequently prey on other targets.
In 2011, 1,322 kidnappings were reported throughout Mexico. This number represents the kidnappings reported by victims and family who are willing to speak up — the actual number is believed to be much higher. As the security infrastructure in Mexico has deteriorated, many citizens have lost trust in Mexico’s law enforcement and feel it would be safer not to report a kidnapping.
While there are examples of groups such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas participating in kidnappings throughout the country, localized kidnapping rings have sprouted due to the lack of security in Mexican cities. The gangs’ victims range from wealthy businessmen to lower- and middle-class individuals, so assumptions should not be made regarding their typical target. There are also different types of kidnappings, ranging from classic high-value target abductions to express kidnappings (in which the victim can spend a week in the trunk of a vehicle as the kidnappers go from one ATM to the next withdrawing all the money in the victim’s account) and even virtual kidnappings, a method in which someone falsifies a kidnapping to extort a ransom. There is little uniformity with kidnapping rings in Mexico in terms of resources, targets and tactics. The vast majority of kidnapping victims are Mexican nationals, but the risk to tourists remains, especially if they are perceived to be wealthy.
Visitors to Mexico should not expect law enforcement officers to behave as their counterparts do in the United States. As previously stated, law enforcement in many areas of Mexico is focused on drug trafficking. In some regions, elements of law enforcement are on the payroll of cartels, and in some locations the police have been fired for corruption and law enforcement functions have been assumed by the Mexican military. In October 2011, authorities in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, announced that seven police officers were allowing Los Zetas to maintain safe-houses where cartel members watched over kidnapping victims. While obviously not every element of law enforcement in Mexico engages in these activities, visitors to the country should expect to assume sole responsibility for their personal security.
As Stratfor has previously stated, many of the popular spring break locations that are perceived to have “acceptable” levels of crime have experienced the violence related to the drug wars raging in Mexico. Firefights between Federal Police or soldiers and gunmen armed with assault rifles have erupted without warning throughout Mexico, affecting small mountain villages, large cities like Monterrey and resort towns like Acapulco and Cancun. While the cartels have not often intentionally targeted tourists, their violence increasingly has been on public display in popular tourist districts. In February this year, Acapulco saw multiple incidents of dismembered bodies being discovered in the trunks of abandoned vehicles — on Feb. 13, authorities discovered the decapitated body of a taxi driver in the trunk of a taxi. Highlighting these threats, the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning to Mexico in February 2012 and recommended against non-essential travel to resort areas such as Acapulco, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.
It also is important to understand the risks associated with traveling to a country that is engaged in ongoing counternarcotics operations involving thousands of military and federal law enforcement personnel. Some parts of Mexico can credibly be described as a war zone. While there are important differences among the security environments in Mexico’s various resort areas and between the resort towns and other parts of Mexico, the country’s overall reputation for crime and kidnapping is deserved. Locals and foreigners alike often become victims of assault, express kidnappings, high-value target kidnappings, sexual assaults, carjackings and other crimes.
As stated, the country’s security services sometimes pose security risks themselves. When driving, it is important to pay attention to the highway roadblocks manned by military personnel and to checkpoints established to screen vehicles for drugs and cartel operatives. Police officers and soldiers have opened fire on vehicles driven by innocent people who failed to follow instructions at the checkpoints, which are often poorly marked.
It is also important to note the well-documented episodes of cartel gunmen operating mobile or stationary roadblocks while disguised as government troops. We have not confirmed whether these have been encountered in popular resort areas, but if not, there is the strong possibility they will be eventually, given the increase in violence in port cities. And as violence escalates near Mexico’s resort towns, Stratfor anticipates that the cartels will not hesitate to use all the tools at their disposal to defeat their opponents, regardless of where these happen to be. An encounter with a checkpoint or roadblock operated by gunmen disguised as Federal Police or military personnel can be deadly. Driving around city streets in resort towns or roads in the surrounding countryside is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Many Mexican coastal resort towns better known for their beautiful beaches also depend on their port facilities, and these have come to play a strategic role in the country’s drug trade. Drug trafficking organizations use legitimate commercial ships as well as fishing boats and other small surface vessels to carry shipments of cocaine from South America to Mexico, and many cartels often rely on hotels and resorts to launder drug proceeds. Because of the importance of these facilities, the assumption has been that drug trafficking organizations seek to limit violence in such areas, not only to protect existing infrastructure but also to avoid the attention that violence affecting wealthy foreign tourists would draw.
This is no longer a safe assumption. The profound escalation of cartel-related conflict in Mexico has created an environment in which deadly violence can occur anywhere, with complete disregard for bystanders, whatever their nationality or status. Moreover, the threat to vacationing foreigners is not just the potential of being caught in the crossfire but also of inadvertently drawing the attention and anger of cartel gunmen.
Acapulco, which remains one of the most violent of Mexico’s popular resort towns, saw 1,199 murders in 2011 according to Mexican government figures. The criminal landscape in Acapulco is fluid and has seen many changes since 2011. Most violence related to organized crime in the city resulted from the collapse of the Beltran Leyva Organization, which spawned a set of competing organizations. While the reported activity of groups such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco and Cartel Pacifico Sur has dropped, a more recent group also formed from the remnants of Beltran Leyva Organization, La Barredora, has established dominance over the city.
Organized crime-related violence in Acapulco is not limited to regional outfits. For example, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, which is based out of Jalisco state and known for public displays of violence, recently announced its presence in Acapulco.
Cancun and Cozumel
Cancun’s port remains an important point of entry for South American drugs transiting Mexico on their way to the United States. Los Zetas remain highly active in the area, with a steady flow of drugs and foreign nationals entering the smuggling pipeline from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and other points of origin in the greater Caribbean Basin. Benito Juarez, the municipality in which Cancun is located, saw 423 homicides during 2011. Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and associated tourist zones have seen little violence related to organized crime — nine murders were reported for 2011.
Puerto Vallarta’s location on the Pacific coast makes it strategically important to trafficking groups that send and receive maritime shipments of South American drugs and Chinese chemical precursors used in the production of methamphetamine, much of which is produced in the areas surrounding the nearby city of Guadalajara. Several of Mexico’s largest and most powerful cartels maintain a trafficking presence in Puerto Vallarta and the nearby municipality of Jarretaderas. Incidents of cartel-related deaths in Puerto Vallarta are relatively low compared to places like Acapulco, but Puerto Vallarta still saw 64 murders and one reported kidnapping in 2011. Threats from kidnapping gangs or other criminal groups also are said to be lower in this resort city than in the rest of the country. Still, a February 2012 incident illustrated why caution and situational awareness should always be exercised: a group of 22 tourists ventured off their cruise ship to tour El Nogalito, an area near Puerto Vallarta, and were held at gunpoint and robbed of their personal belongings.
Cabo San Lucas
Located on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas and the greater Los Cabos region have been relatively insulated from the country’s drug-related violence and can be considered one of the safer places in Mexico for foreign tourists. Although historically it has been a stop on the cocaine trafficking routes, Cabo San Lucas’ strategic importance decreased dramatically after the peak of cartel activities there in the late 1990s when the Tijuana cartel lost its contacts with Colombian cocaine suppliers (the result of joint U.S.-Colombian counternarcotics activities). Over the last five years, drug trafficking in the area has been limited. Still, Cabo San Lucas’ ongoing problems with crime include incidences of kidnapping, theft and assault, as well as some drug trafficking. In October 2011, after being pursued by municipal police, gunmen took refuge in a grocery store in Cabo San Lucas — some reports stated the civilians inside were taken hostage. Despite the relative lack of cartel violence in the area, official 2011 statistics for the greater Los Cabos region show seven murders and one kidnapping.
Mazatlan, located only about 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Puerto Vallarta, has been perhaps the most consistently violent of Mexico’s resort cities during the past year. It is located in Sinaloa state, home of the country’s largest cartel, the Sinaloa Federation, and bodies of victims of drug cartels and kidnapping gangs appear on Mazatlan’s streets on a weekly basis. The sheer level of violence means that the potential for collateral damage is high. There were 382 murders and 12 reported kidnappings in Mazatlan and the rest of Sinaloa state in 2011.
Though Matamoros itself is not one of the more commonly visited spring break locations, we are including it in this discussion because of its proximity to South Padre Island, Texas. It has long been the practice of adventurous vacationers on the south end of South Padre Island to take advantage of the inexpensive alcohol and lower drinking age south of the border, mainly in Matamoros and the surrounding towns clustered along the Rio Grande. But it is important to note that drug- and human-smuggling activities in that region of Mexico are constant, vital to Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, and ruthlessly conducted. Since the Zetas offensive against the Gulf Cartel of Matamoros in 2011, Matamoros has seen a significant amount of violence between competing organizations as well as confrontations with the military. Visitors should not venture south into Mexico from South Padre Island.
General Safety Tips
If travel to Mexico is planned or necessary, visitors should keep in mind the following:
- Do not drive at night.
- Use only pre-arranged transportation between the airport and the resort or hotel.
- If at a resort, plan on staying there; refrain from going into town, particularly at night.
- If you do go into town (or anywhere off the resort property), do not accept a ride from unknown persons, do not go into suspicious-looking or run-down bars, do not wander away from brightly lit public places and do not wander on the beach at night.
- Stop at all roadblocks.
- Do not bring anything with you that you are not willing to have taken from you.
- If confronted by an armed individual who demands the possessions on your person, give them up.
- Do not bring ATM cards linked to your bank account. (Among other things, an ATM card can facilitate an express kidnapping.)
- Do not get irresponsibly intoxicated.
- Do not accept a drink from a stranger, regardless of whether you are male or female.
- Do not make yourself a tempting target by wearing expensive clothing or jewelry.
- Do not venture out alone. Additionally, being part of a group does not guarantee safety.
Editor’s Note: In July 2011, Stratfor published a series on travel security, available at the end of this piece on our website.
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“This content is republished with permission of STRATFOR and may not be republished by any other party without its express permission. More of STRATFOR’s coverage on Mexico. <http://www.stratfor.com/countries/mexico>”