REGION: Violence tarnishes Mexico's image, officials say


As the brutal drug violence in Mexico continues, local colleges are warning students about traveling to spring break meccas south of the border such as Tijuana and Rosarito Beach, a caution call that many Mexican officials say is hurting their economy.

MiraCosta College, Cal State San Marcos and San Diego State University are among the local schools that posted the U.S. State Department's travel alert regarding Mexico on their Web sites last week. School officials said they were simply passing on the information, not telling students they shouldn't go there.

"We are going to leave it up to the students to make their own decisions," said Richard Robertson, MiraCosta's vice president of student services. "We think the travel alert speaks for itself."

Last week, the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Los Angeles took the unusual step of urging college students not to travel to northern Mexico for spring break due to the bloody drug war taking place there.

That warning follows another alert from the U.S. State Department late last month, which noted that "while millions of U.S. citizens travel to Mexico safely each year," it is important that travelers "understand the risk ... and avoid areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur."

Military officials took note of the rising violence, too. In January, they barred local Marines and sailors from traveling to Mexico unless they had a commander's approval.

Several students at Cal State San Marcos on Friday said they did not plan to visit Mexico's border cities anytime soon.

"I wouldn't. It's not really worth taking the chance of going down there and just going down to party and have a good time," said Chelsey Armacost, 23, of Rancho Bernardo.

Thus far this year, 1,034 people have been killed in a battle that involves the Mexican government, drug cartels and rival factions of drug cartels, according to the Trans-Border Institute, a research center at the University of San Diego. In Baja California, 34 people have been killed this year.

But the drug violence is not targeted at U.S. tourists, said David Shirk, director of the institute, which focuses on Mexico's criminal justice system and crime, among other issues.

"When I go to Mexico, I don't fear for my life," Shirk said. "I think there's a perception that there are shootings going on at every street, all the time ... (but) the likelihood of tourists becoming an accidental victim is really quite negligible."

American blood

As in most foreign travel, there always is the risk of becoming the victim of crime, such as robbery, Shirk said.

"I think that the State Department is taking the maximum precaution telling tourists to make sure people are aware," he said.

More than 7,000 people have been killed in the drug war since January 2007, according to the Trans-Border Institute, which culled its information from Reforma, a leading newspaper in Mexico City that has kept a tally. But it is unclear how many of the people killed have been U.S. citizens.

More than 230 Americans have been slain in Mexico since 2003, 90 of them in Baja California, according to the Houston Chronicle, which compiled data from various sources including news reports and the U.S. State Department.

The federal government does not regularly report or identify American people killed in foreign countries by name for privacy reasons. However, the Chronicle was able to identify some of the dead through news reports. Among those identified were several San Diego and Riverside County residents.

The dead included Libby Craig, a La Mesa woman killed in an apparent drug transaction near Rosarito Beach in May 2008, and Lloyd Curtis, a Temecula retiree and an ex-Marine, stabbed to death while camping in Baja with his dog in November 2006.

Of the nearly 100 U.S. citizens identified by the Chronicle, about two dozen were labeled as criminals, including hit men, drug dealers and gang members. At least 70 victims were innocent U.S. citizens apparently killed while on vacation, working or visiting family, according to the newspaper.

The recent violence spurred North County Congressman Brian Bilbray to write a letter last month to President Barack Obama urging him to take stronger measures to beef up security along the U.S. border with Mexico.

"One can look at the situation in Mexico and see many parallels to Colombia in the 1980s," Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, wrote in the letter. "The drug cartels are battling to control the smuggling routes used to move marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs into the United States."

Bilbray, a former mayor of the border city of Imperial Beach, said he was "extremely concerned" about the increased violence. He praised the Mexican government for going after the drug cartels and said the U.S. should do more to help them fight organized crime.

"I don't think we should shy away from dealing with this issue," Bilbray said in a phone interview Friday. "If we don't help them win, Mexico could be a failed state."

Mexico at risk?

Mexican officials insist that the country is safe for tourists. They said Mexican businesses have been hurt by the repeated warnings and media reports overhyping the violence.

"What we want is for all of our tourists (to) feel safe and welcome," said Remedios Gomez, the Mexican consul general in San Diego.

Much of the violence has been attributed to the Mexican government's crackdown on drug cartels.

Since he was elected in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sent troops across the country trying to go after organized crime. But Mexican soldiers and police are outgunned and outnumbered.

The cartels have responded with unprecedented brutality.

Many Mexican officials have blamed much of the drug war on the United States because that is where the consumers are. It is also the source of many of the weapons that drug dealers use to battle each other and law enforcement.

"The main cause of the problems associated with organized crime is having the world's biggest consumer next to us," Calderon said in an interview last week with AFP, a French news agency.

Mexican officials also were irked by a U.S. government report released in January that said Mexico is one of two countries that "bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse." Pakistan was the other country.

The report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command on worldwide security threats said the drug war was to blame for the assessment.

"The Mexican possibility seems less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial system are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels," the report said.

Loss of tourism

In Rosarito Beach, the warnings have frustrated Mayor Hugo Torres, who has worked to clean up the town's image. He has battled corruption in his Police Department and been outspoken about crimes that occur in Rosarito, blaming them largely on drug traffickers.

The seaside town of about 60,000 people is popular among U.S. tourists and retirees and relies heavily on visitors for much of its income. Torres is the owner of the historical Rosarito Beach Hotel.

"This crime is among criminals," Torres said. "In this case, there was no reason to issue another alert."

Torres said that as soon as the alerts happened he started hearing from hotel owners about reservation cancellations.

Travel to Mexico has dropped significantly among people who visit border towns on day trips, according to government figures.

About 22.6 million people visited Mexico in 2008; about two-thirds of them were from the U.S. That doesn't include the 68 million mostly day-trippers who visited border towns the same year, according to figures issued by Mexico's board of tourism.

The number of tourists, those who stay overnight in hotels, has remained largely steady at about 21 million each year. It is the casual visitors, those who go for the day and don't stay at hotels, that has decreased from a high of 81 million in 2005 to 68 million last year.

Torres said that more than a million people visit his city each year, many of them during spring break. But if cancellations are any indication, he said he is bracing for a very bad year.

"Business owners are really surprised by the latest warning and they can't believe it," he said.

Tijuana native Victor Clark Alfaro said he, too, was disappointed by the U.S. government's warnings and the suggestion of a possible Mexican government collapse.

"Of course, those of us who were born here in this city are worried and unsettled by how Tijuana is perceived," Alfaro said.

Alfaro is director of the Binational Center for Human Rights, a group that monitors human rights abuses in Tijuana. He also pointed out that people need to know how to behave, where to go and where not to go in any large city.

"I have had the opportunity to travel at different times to New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the hotels always warn me about not going to certain areas because they are dangerous," Alfaro said.

Contact staff writer Edward Sifuentes at (760) 740-3511 or