Our Two Pesos: Is New U.S. State Department Travel Alert on Mexico Fair?
As noted in this article from the Christian Science Monitor, the U.S. State Department has issued an updated Travel Alert for Mexico that is already creating debate amongst city leaders and tourism officials in Mexico (as noted here). So the question once again comes up: is the most recent State Department Travel Alert on Mexico fair, or justified, given the security conditions in Mexico?
Frankly, it’s a difficult question to answer — because few of us have access to the kind of information that Embassy and Consular staff in Mexico likely have, nor do we necessarily know the specifics of any of the cases that are filed by U.S. citizens (or dual-nationals). What most of us hear is from media sources (in the U.S. or in Mexico), or — in some cases — based on research or data provided by local, State or Federal sources in Mexico.
What all of us can look at are a few publicly-available facts:
- The 2009 murder rate in one of the cities mentioned in the Travel Alert (Tijuana) dropped by approximately 22% in 2009 versus 2008 (something that many cities would be praised for), and despite occasional spikes in violence (largely confined to those involved with the drug trade or law enforcement, albeit certainly not exclusively), there are cities in the United States that had higher or comparable murder rates in 2009 (including New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore, based on a murders/100K population rate). So, one might conclude based on available data that the Travel Alert as an informational medium could be overemphasizing the levels of risk when U.S. citizen often live with such levels in U.S. cities that they visit.
- It also appears that the scale of murders in some cities does not appear to alone trigger Travel Alerts: The Institute for Public Security of the State Government of Rio de Janeiro reports that the Capital city of Rio de Janeiro — not the “metro region”, not the State — had 2,155 murders among its 6.6 million inhabitants in 2009. This is only approximately 20% fewer than the grave situation in Ciudad Juarez (in sheer numbers), yet there are no Travel Alerts for Brazil nor even Warden Safety Messages about the Capital from the U.S. State Department. Given that most incidents in Rio likely do not put tourists at risk, perhaps it is not necessary — but some would argue that neither are most tourists at risk in Mexico, yet there are consistent warnings and media coverage.
- In addition to over 21 million foreign tourists claimed by Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat for 2009 (a large proportion from the U.S.), and millions more border-crossing day tourists that enter Mexico via land Ports of Entry, there are also an estimated 1.0-1.5 million U.S. citizens residing in Mexico (primarily retirees) — the largest concentration of U.S. expats in the world by far. As such, the fact that a very small number of criminal or violent incidents in Mexico may involve U.S. citizens is likely not statistically unusual (in relation to the numbers of expat and tourist populations).
- Finally, the State Department’s own data shows that between January 2008 and June 2009 the number of U.S. citizens reported as having drowned in the beach areas of Baja California Sur (Los Cabos/La Paz) and Cozumel/Cancun, was actually similar to the number of U.S. homicide victims all of Baja California (Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, etc.). Common vehicle accidents appear to be a higher death risk for U.S. citizens in Mexico, in fact, than stray bullets or narco violence.
This by no means is meant to diminish the grief or pain of those that have met harm in some way while traveling in Mexico (or any other location), nor to imply that incidents (primarily) of narco-related violence are not concerning and serious. It’s meant to put into context the facts based on available data — and to raise some (we hope) legitimate questions about the methodology involved with developing and updating Travel Alerts.
Whether or not this most recent Travel Alert “is fair” isn’t really for Crossborder to decide — but you can look at the text itself. Below is a link to our analysis of the latest Travel Alert text — comparing it to the August 2009 and February 2009 Alerts issued for Mexico. There are some interesting new elements to this Alert, raising questions about security in certain regions of Mexico not previously mentioned, and text slightly deflating the attention on others. While it’s our opinion that some elements of this latest Alert appear to be “carry-over text” from past Alerts that (we believe) should be updated…and it includes references to incidents that are difficult to assess as having come from common or single events…and we continue to question why certain other areas of the world are not apparently treated with the same level of caution, we definitely know that the U.S. Consular staff throughout Mexico are doing what they can to help U.S. citizens and provide their insights about what is going on in Mexico. That’s our two-pesos.
Here’s the analysis: 100224-2010-2009-StateDeptTravelAlertComparison