“The U.S. State Department maintained a cautious tenor on traveling to Mexico’s border region in a new travel warning that discourages travel to cities south of the Rio Grande.  Published Wednesday, the warning advises U.S. citizens against taking non-essential trips to Tamaulipas, noting carjacking attempts and the January 2011 slaying of Monte Alto missionary Nancy Davis, who died at a McAllen hospital after suspected carjackers shot her in the head.  The State Department claims that “no highway routes through Tamaulipas are considered safe,” emphasizing routes between Matamoros and Tampico as hotspots for carjackings and other crimes, according to an article written by Jared Taylor, of The Monitor.

Similar cautions are placed against travel in Nuevo León and Coahuila states in Northeast Mexico, which along with Tamaulipas are hotbeds of drug cartel activity.  The State Department cited homicide figures from the Mexican government that showed 47,515 people killed in narco-violence between late 2006 and through the first nine months of 2011, with nearly 13,000 homicides through Sept. 30, 2011, alone.   As with past travel warnings, the State Department warned about Mexican border cities, which have seen prolonged battles between the cartels that control lucrative drug smuggling routes into the United States. Many battles between cartel members and authorities have featured grenades and other improvised explosive devices, sometimes leaving bystanders injured or dead, officials said.

“Gun battles have occurred in broad daylight on streets and in other public venues, such as restaurants and clubs,” the warning states. “During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area.”  The warning does not specify the number of incidents in which U.S. citizens have been trapped, but a 2009 gun battle broke out in Nuevo Progreso that left dozens of Winter Texans fleeing for cover as shooters exchanged gunfire along the tourist spot’s main strip. No injuries to U.S. citizens were reported in that incident and no similar episodes of violence have been reported since.  The State Department noted the number of U.S. citizens slain in Mexico has risen from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.  U.S. officials warned against carjackings that have occurred day and night on both free and toll (cuota) highways in Mexico, especially along the border, with criminals targeting newer and larger vehicles.  The travel warning published Wednesday replaces a similar advisory issued in April 2011.

The State Department’s more cautionary advisories have garnered skepticism and dismay from merchants and officials along the Tamaulipas border, who have claimed tourism business has been scared away.  The chamber of commerce in Matamoros raised eyebrows among officials in the Rio Grande Valley in August 2011, when it issued its own travel warning that advised Mexican visitors to be aware of possible extortions or cartel violence when visiting U.S. border towns.  

U.S. government employees continue to face travel restrictions and curfews because of the heightened security risks in Mexico.  In Tamaulipas, U.S. government workers are prohibited from traveling on highways outside Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. The government has also imposed a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew, with employees prohibited from frequenting casinos and strip clubs in Tamaulipas. The new warning casts a dark taint on border areas, but says Mexico City and most tourist areas remain safe, as well as the states in the Yucatan Peninsula and far south of the country. ” 

The purpose of sharing this article with you is that March brings Spring Break, and we want our students who travel to come home safely.  There’s no rule that says Mexico is the only place to go to have fun.  With the cost of gasoline and travel, many families and students can find fun spots very near their homes.  The southern coast of the U.S. offers beautiful beaches and great food.  The state of our economy is another thing – many parents simply cannot afford to send their kids off for a week’s vacation. 

The last thing most of these students want to think about during spring break is safety. Unfortunately, the combination of youth, freedom and alcohol can have devastating consequences for young adults who just want to have a good time. Spring break revelries may expose students to risks of theft, sexual assaults, alcohol poisoning and more.  Marcia Peot, a full-time police officer and chief safety officer at StreetSafe, offers the following safety tips for vacation-bound college students:

· Don’t let your guard down. Being on vacation is not an excuse to go wild, do something out of character or dive into unsafe situations.
· Research your destination in advance, especially if it’s a foreign country. Learn about any dangerous areas you should avoid, familiarize yourself with local laws and customs and know where to go and what to do in case of an emergency.
· Stay in groups or use the buddy system. You are more of a target when you are by yourself.
· Be cautious with strangers. Do not accept a ride or go off somewhere alone with a person you don’t know.
· Use alcohol responsibly. Don’t drink excessively. When you are intoxicated, your physical reflexes, awareness of your surroundings and ability to make decisions become impaired, making you an easy target. Never leave your drink unattended and do not accept beverages from anyone other than the bartender or waiter.
· The beaten path is the better path. Stick to populated and well-lit areas, don’t take short cuts and familiarize yourself with the area before heading out.
· Be smart about hotel safety. Lock your hotel room at all times. Do not advertise your room number, open the door for anyone you are not expecting or bring strangers back to your room.

College life can be stressful, but there’s no need to add to that stress by putting yourself in danger during spring break. Have fun, be safe, and come home refreshed and ready to start those studies again!   If you plan to go to a beach, (preferably in the U.S.), take plenty of sunscreen, a good pair of sunglasses with UV protection, and a hat that offers some shade.  Call your parents often to let them know that you are ok.  Use common sense while you are having fun.  Remember, “let your conscience be your guide!”  If it feels wrong, it probably is.