Spring Break in Mexico: How Dangerous Is It?

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Shrugging off news of gangland hyper-slaughter, tens of thousands of American students will pour into Mexico in the coming weeks for the annual days of debauchery, even as the drug-fueled violence continues and threatens to increase.

Yep, the Spring Break hordes have gathered anew. Sun, surf and sand – not to mention bountiful booze and bronzed hard-bodies – prove too powerful a draw. Hormones trump the tales of horror, pheromones flip off the fear.

“In Cancun, the party never stops, so you many want to choose your spring break hotel based on the noise-level,” StudentCity, a travel agency selling packages to the Caribbean resort, advises with a wink. “Chances are that if you don’t choose a quiet one you’ll just be up for 7 days straight. And that may not be a bad thing for some of you.”

So party on, dudes and dudettes. Chances are all but certain that the worst you’ll suffer are multiple hangovers, sunburns and maybe irritating rashes in the nether parts. Still, be aware that the dangers ignored are present if not prevalent.

A pack of thugs last month gang-raped six Spanish tourists on a remote beach near the faded Pacific coast playground of Acapulco, which itself is ranked the second deadliest city in the world by a Mexican think tank.

A Canadian couple was mugged this month on Acapulco’s main tourist strip – the 60 year old woman suffering a knife wound to the leg, her 65-year-old male companion smacked on the head with an iron bar.

Assassins over the weekend gunned down the newly named tourism minister in Jalisco, the Pacific Coast state that includes Vallarta. Officials say he was likely targeted for his past dealings in the resort industry rather than his government post.

Back in 1989, before most of today’s party-hearty were born, Mark Kilroy of suburban Houston, spring breaking on Texas’ South Padre Island, was abducted leaving a Matamoros, Mexico bar and murdered by a drug gang. The killers had taken to offering victims to voodoo spirits in exchange for protection from police and rivals.

And that was before the drug gangs got out of control.

“The profound escalation of cartel-related conflict in Mexico has created an environment in which deadly violence can occur anywhere, with cartels displaying complete disregard for bystanders whatever their nationality or status,” stated Stratfor, the Austin-based think tank, darkly warns in its latest annual warning to Spring Breakers. 

“Moreover, the threat to vacationing foreigners is not just the potential of being caught in the crossfire,” the Stratfor advisory notes, “but also of inadvertently drawing the attention and anger of cartel gunmen.”

InSight Crime Analysis

While Stratfor’s warning provides an accurate rundown of gangland havoc in Cancun and the other primary Spring Break destination, and offers common sense advice on how best to avoid trouble, it will almost certainly won’t be heeded, especially by post-disco imbibers.

What’s more, bad things can happen anywhere but certainly are likelier to occur in some the dicier parts of Mexico. Scores of US citizens are murdered every year in Mexico, though most are dual-citizens of the gangster-addled border cities with at least some of them involved in the drug trade themselves.

Drugs are common in the discos and bars where students party. Gangs control that retail drug trade and employ violence to defend their own turf or capture that of their rivals. The younger gangsters themselves like to hang out in the same nightspots and are sometimes targeted as they play. Bystanders sometimes are killed or wounded in such crossfires, though mostly in places far from the resorts.

A count compiled by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma tallied a total of 2,351 gangland killings in the first 100 days of President Enrique Peña’s term, more than the last three months of his much-criticized predecessor’s reign.

Only seven of those murders took place in Quintana Roo state, where Cancun and the adjacent Riviera May are located. But more than 130 occurred in Guerrero state, mostly in and near Acapulco and nearly 260 others in Jalisco, which includes Puerto Vallarta.

“Some parts of Mexico can credibly be described as war zones,” Stratfor says. “While there are important differences among the security environments in Mexico’s various resort areas and other parts of Mexico, the country’s overall reputation for crime and kidnapping is deserved.”

(Wow! It’s a good thing Stratfor is not writing Mexico’s Tourism Brochure.)

Still, following the rape of the three Spanish women, all of whom were residents of Mexico City, Spain warned its citizens to avoid Acapulco.

The US State Department has issued repeated travel warnings for American citizens for many parts of Mexico, but also notes that, “The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted US visitors and residents based on their nationality.”

“Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes,” the report adds.

Similarly, while Canada’s government advises its citizens that while “high levels of criminal activity, as well as occasional illegal roadblocks, demonstrations and protests remain a concern throughout the country,” it also notes that, “Most major tourist areas have not been affected by the extreme levels of violence in the northern region.”

Overall, vacationers and the beach resorts they favor have not been directly targeted by the gangs. Even in Acapulco, most of the violence has been in poor neighborhoods, far from the tourist hot-spots. The bigger danger in Cancun might well be the crocodiles, who occasionally attack young men trekking in the dark to the shore of the back bay to relieve themselves of the beer they’ve consumed.

Caution may be the better part of valor — and now too often of vacation. But spring breakers who keep at least some of their wits about them should be able to party themselves to perdition in peace.

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