Understanding the risks of travel to Mexico

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - For the first time in recent years, Mexico's tourism board is fighting back against warnings issued by the U.S. government regarding travel to Mexico.

Mexican government officials insist major tourist destinations are safe and that travel warnings from the federal government and the Texas Department of Public Safety are unnecessarily alarming.

Nonetheless, from the beaches and nightlife, to the stories of shootouts, carjackings and kidnappings; for many students going to Mexico for Spring Break is no longer such an easy decision.

"Yeah, I wouldn't want to put myself in that position," said one University of Houston student.

"We've thought about it, and we're just prepared to cover our tracks and lay low, I guess," student Turner Harris said.

The U.S. Department of State issued travel warnings for 18 different places in Mexico. These warnings involve the violence associated with warring drug cartels in border towns, interior states and desolate stretches of roads between major cities. These numbers are up from last year's travel warnings. Both the State Department and Texas Department of Public Safety even punctuated this year's travel warnings with statistics showing the numbers of Americans murdered in Mexico jumped from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.

Students Local 2 spoke with at the University of Houston are taking these warnings to heart. Dresdynn Warnell is heading to South Padre Island for Spring Break, but said her plans no longer include hopping the border to party in Matamoros.

"(I'm) still in Texas, so my mom, my parents, won't worry so much," said Warnell.

"I did think about it, but the violence is really not where I'm going to be," said Harris, whose planning a canoe trip down the Rio Grande River.

None of the travel warnings include the major tourist spots like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. The state department did warn tourists to "exercise caution and stay within tourist areas" in Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa.

"The security levels in Acapulco have plummeted," said Mason Wilder, an intelligence analyst for ASI Global, a Houston-based company specializing in security, as well as kidnap and ransom services for international travelers. "It's really turned from a vacation friendly destination to almost a drug cartel war zone."

The city of Puerto Vallarta is also not listed by the U.S. government as a danger zone, even though last month 22 cruise line passengers were robbed at gunpoint while on their way to a nature hike.

The state department's advisories do warn travelers to stay in the heavily populated tourists zones of these cities, urging tourists to not go off the beaten path, especially at night.

Also, U.S. government officials warn travelers to not project even the slightest appearance of wealth. Wilder said an under-reported crime in Mexico is a so-called "express kidnapping." Wilder said this generally happens when tourist are conned into taking a ride in an unmarked cab.

"(They'll) steal all their valuables and take them to several ATMs to make them withdraw their daily limit," said Wilder.

If you're planning to go to Mexico or anywhere else outside of the United States, here are some resources to help you stay safe during your trip:

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