- 2017 was Mexico’s most violent year on record, and the US State Department has given “do not travel” notices for five states there.
- Much of the country has in the past been subject to travel warnings, but these latest advisories are the State Department’s most severe.
- Many of Mexico’s most popular tourist areas, however, are not subject to warnings.
The US State Department’s latest travel advisory for Mexico cautions Americans to avoid five of Mexico’s 32 states because of crime and violence – a designation often given to war-torn countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
Mexico overall received a level-two warning, the second-lowest advisory from the State Department, which says US travellers should exercise increased caution. The department also advises US citizens that it has limited ability to provide emergency services in much of Mexico, as US government employees are barred from travelling to those places.
2017 was Mexico’s most violent year on record, with 26,573 homicide victims during the first 11 months of the year.
The homicide rate for that period, 18.7 cases per 100,000 people, was lower than in 2011 but more than three times the US national homicide rate of about five per 100,000.
The five states are Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. Each has been subject to travel warnings before, but the latest designation is level four, the State Department’s highest.
Four of them – Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, and Sinaloa – are Pacific coast states where violence related to drugs and organised crime is rampant.
Why these states got the highest-level warning
Guerrero, the southernmost of the four, has long been riddled with social conflict, and criminal groups in the state compete for control of valuable drug-cultivation areas and drug-trafficking routes.
Police forces in the state have proved incapable of combating criminal activity, and the military has been deployed there to replace them.
The 2,288 homicide victims in the state during the first 11 months of last year was more than it had throughout both 2015 and 2016.
Violence related to drug trafficking has also made the once idyllic resort city of Acapulco one of the most violent cities in the world, earning it the nickname “Guerrero’s Iraq.”
“Armed groups operate independently of the government in many areas of Guerrero,” the State Department advisory said. “Members of these groups frequently maintain roadblocks and may use violence towards travellers.”
Farther north, Michoacan has also long been a hotbed for drug-related violence. It was the first state to receive federal troops deployed around the country in 2007 by the president at the time, Felipe Calderon.
Criminal groups have proliferated there, including the Familia Michoacana, which was supplanted by the Knights Templar, as well as groups like the Zetas and the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
Self-defence forces have also appeared in Michoacan, formed by citizens to protect their homes and lucrative resources like avocado crops, though some of those forces have gotten involved in criminal activity.
The number of homicide victims recorded in Michoacan through November last year was 1,335, about equal to the 1,334 seen during that period in 2016 but exceeding the 963 during all of 2015.
Colima is Mexico’s smallest state, but the dramatic increase in homicides there over the past two years has given it the country’s highest homicide rate, 83.31 per 100,000 people during the first 11 months of 2017, or more than four times the national rate.
The number of homicide victims in Colima from January to November was 35% higher than in the same period in 2016 and 368% higher than in the period in 2015.
Violence in Colima has largely been driven by conflict among elements of the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, which are believed to be fighting over control of lucrative trafficking networks in the state, including the port of Manzanillo. The State Department says there are no restrictions on US government travel to Manzanillo.
Sinaloa, farther up the Pacific coast, has long been dominated by the cartel of the same name, which has experienced internal turmoil and increasing external pressure in the two years since its chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was recaptured. (Guzman was extradited to the US last January.)
The Sinaloa cartel is best understood as a confederation of factions, and the elements in Sinaloa state appear to have regained some stability, though violence in the state remains high.
The total number of homicide victims in the state in the first 11 months of 2017 was 38% higher than in the same period in 2016 and 61% higher than in the period in 2015.
Tamaulipas, bordering Texas in Mexico’s northeast corner, has been the redoubt of the Gulf and Zetas cartels.
Violence there has been elevated for some time, and criminal groups have worked their way into many sectors of public life, preying on residents and local commerce – including private businesses and public enterprises, like the energy industry.
“Violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common,” the State Department’s notice said. “Gang activity, including gun battles, is widespread.
“Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses travelling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments. Local law enforcement has limited capability to respond to violence in many parts of the state.”
Other states receive travel warnings
Many of Mexico’s states – including the border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Sonora – received level-three warnings, which urge travellers to reconsider travel.
Jalisco, which is home to resorts in Puerto Vallarta and expatriate communities in Chapala and Ajijic, also received a level-three warning, as did Mexico state, the country’s most populous, which is home to many of Mexico City’s suburbs.
A notice from the State Department late last summer warned travellers about rising violence in the states of Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, which include the resort areas Cancun and Los Cabos, respectively. Mexican officials said at the time they suspected that warning could have been related to ongoing NAFTA talks.
The most recent advisory gives both states a level-two warning, advising travellers to exercise increased caution, and says there are no restrictions on travel in tourist areas there.
From 2016 to 2017, Baja California Sur saw the biggest year-to-year increase in homicide victims, 223%, while Quintana Roo saw a 108% increase.
The violence in Baja California Sur doesn’t appear to have affected the state’s tourism industry.
The managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board told The Associated Press that tourism arrivals rose 16% and hotel occupancy rose 18% last year, adding that officials and tourism operators in the state were investing in more security.
Mexico’s tourism secretary, Enrique De La Madrid, said earlier this week that Mexico’s most significant challenge in the tourism sector was “crime events occurring where they didn’t before – for example, in Cancun, La Paz, and Los Cabos.”
Though De La Madrid also called tourism “one of the most important sectors of our economy” – representing more of the country’s gross domestic product than construction as well as mining and petroleum put together – he called for reducing Mexican tourism’s dependence on US travellers, saying Mexico should aim to reduce the US’s share of foreign arrivals to no more than 50% from 60%.