Mexico's Drug War Violence Spurs a Spring Break Public Relations Battle

Mexico's Drug War Violence Spring Break 2011
Mexico's Drug War Violence Spring Break 2011

"Oh, Mexico, it sounds so simple, I just got to go," James Taylor sang in his idyllic 1975 ode to our neighbors to the south.

Twenty-six years later, though, things are a bit more complicated.

Escalating violence largely stemming from the cross-border drug trade has caused Texas authorities to advise spring break revelers to avoid visiting Mexico, which drew a counterargument from Mexican tourist authorities who say that traveling south of the border remains safe. At stake is a chunk of the approximately $12 billion that tourists spend in Mexico each year. Mexico attracted about 22 million foreigners to the country last year, one in nine of whom flew there from Texas, according to the Mexico Tourism board.

In issuing its warning earlier this month, the Texas Department of Public Safety cited the murders this year in Mexico of a U.S. immigration agent and three other Texans, and pointed to figures showing that as many as 65 U.S. citizens were killed in Mexico in 2010. It also warned of criminal activity at Falcon Lake, part of the Rio Grande which separates the U.S. and Mexico. A number of Americans have been victims of robberies on and around the lake, located about 175 miles southwest of Corpus Christi, Texas.

"Various crime problems also exist in many popular resort areas, such as Acapulco and Cancun, and crimes against U.S. citizens often go unpunished," DPS Director Steven C. McCraw said in a statement earlier this month. "Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive."

That warning followed up a Feb. 17 statement from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico advising Americans to avoid traveling to or through the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

There's No Better Time to Visit, Says Mexico

The warnings have since spurred a public relations campaign from Mexico's Tourism Board espousing the fun and relative safety of the country.

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"Internationally-celebrated destinations such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta to name a few, are among the safest, most welcoming and relaxing tourist destinations in the world," the Mexico Tourism Board said in a statement last week. "There could not be a better time to visit Mexico."

What kind of effect the violence and the ensuing warnings will have on the number of visitors Mexico attracts for spring break remains to be seen. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 100,000 students go to Mexican resorts for spring break annually, with resort towns like Cancun, Acapulco and Mazatlan among the bigger draws.

With drug violence up in Acapulco as well as in the Mexico towns closest to spring break destination South Padre Island, Texas, though, the State Department's endorsement of a March or April trip to Mexico is less than enthusiastic.

"While the vast majority enjoys their vacation without incident, several may die, hundreds will be arrested, and still more will make mistakes that could affect them for the rest of their lives," the State Department writes on its website. While it doesn't suggest that spring breakers avoid Mexico, its long and detailed list of warnings and precautions for tourists offers a clear message: If you go, be careful.