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Spring Break in Mexico 2013: Security Risks and Travel Tips

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Analysis

Every year between January and March, U.S. college administrators remind their students to exercise caution during spring break. These well-meaning guidelines often go unread by their intended recipients, as do travel warnings issued to citizens by the U.S. State Department. As a result, many regular visitors to Mexican resort areas believe they are safe from transnational criminal organizations, more commonly known as cartels. While many people do travel to Mexico safely (approximately 150,000 U.S. citizens travel to the country each year), there is a misconception that cartels want to avoid interfering with the profitable tourism industry, or that they only target Mexican citizens. This simply is not true.

Nothing in the behavior of Mexican cartels indicates that they would consciously keep tourists out of the line of fire or away from the gruesome displays of their murder victims. Violence related to the cartels is spreading, and while tourists may not be directly targeted, they can be caught in the crossfire or otherwise find themselves in situations where their security is compromised. Transnational criminal organizations, it should be remembered, are more than just drug traffickers: They participate in extortion, robbery, rape and carjackings. And where cartels are violently targeting each other, local gangs can take advantage of law enforcement's resulting distraction to commit crimes of their own.

Mexico's Drug War

Violence between competing criminal organizations in Mexico has been ongoing for more than two decades. In the last decade, this violence has escalated nearly every year. According to Mexico's National System of Public Security, 2006 saw 11,806 murders. Subsequently, there were 10,253 murders in 2007, 13,155 in 2008, 16,118 in 2009, 20,681 in 2010, 22,480 in 2011, and 20,560 in 2012.

The core of the conflict centers on the most valuable routes for trafficking drugs through Mexico. Several groups are waging a violent campaign for control of these corridors. Meanwhile, the Mexican government is using the military to combat drug traffickers, adding an additional actor to the conflict. No part of the country, whether on a trafficking route or not, has been immune to the effects of organized crime, particularly as cartel-related violence has increasingly spread to competition over local criminal enterprises such as retail drug sales, kidnapping, extortion and prostitution, among other activities.

While cartels typically direct their violence toward rival groups, outside parties often wind up in the crossfire. For example, Los Zetas tried to burn down the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on Aug. 25, 2011, allegedly to send a message to the casino's owner. The attackers were undeterred by the presence of innocent bystanders, and more than 50 individuals died in the blaze.

In 2013, violence in Mexico likely will remain a significant threat nationwide to bystanders, law enforcement, the military and local businesses. Overall violence decreased during 2012, but cartel operations and competition continued to afflict several regions of Mexico throughout 2012. These dangers plus continued fracturing among cartels, such as Los Zetas, could cause overall violence to increase this year.

Homicides and other violent activities in Mexico including kidnappings, extortion, assaults and robberies linked to cartels did not increase in 2012, ending a trend of increasing annual homicides since 2006. But the drop does not indicate any significant shift toward peace among Mexican cartels. Other forms of cartel-related violence, including kidnappings, extortion and open conflict with the authorities, remained high during 2012 and are likely to increase. Inter-cartel violence thus remains a significant security threat to many of Mexico's urban areas, specifically in the states of Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Jalisco, Coahuila and Michoacan.

Cartel operations within Mexico have affected many aspects of the country's security infrastructure, some of which tourists may rely on. Corruption is rampant within Mexico's governing bodies and law enforcement is a routine victim of cartel infiltration and violence. With federal, state and municipal forces focused on combating criminal organizations, resources are drawn away from combating unrelated crimes. This has led to an uptick in serious crimes such as murder and kidnapping and to an increase in the sorts of general crime to which tourists are more likely to fall victim.

Threats From Cartels and Local Gangs

Cartels, of course, focus on the business of trafficking drugs through Mexico into the United States. They also resort to other moneymaking operations, however, which could affect visitors to Mexico. Groups such as the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas are known to engage in kidnappings, carjackings and extortion. Cartel gunmen operate with virtual impunity in many parts of the country and will rob or rape targets of opportunity as they see fit. It is impossible to gauge the willingness of individual cartel members to intentionally victimize unwary tourists, but either way innocent bystanders can be caught in the crossfire.

The presence of cartels, especially in areas where multiple cartels are engaged in competition, causes a deterioration of security conditions that lends itself to the formation of local gangs. These local gangs may not be affiliated with the cartels, but still present many of the same security concerns. They may be involved in murder, extortion, carjacking, sexual assaults, kidnappings and cause collateral damage like the cartels.

This worsening security situation already has caused problems for expatriates in Mexico in 2013. For example, a gang assaulted a group of Spanish tourists in a bungalow Feb. 4 in Acapulco, Guerrero state. The attackers bound and robbed the male tourists while sexually assaulting the females. Less than three weeks later in the same part of Acapulco, a gunman shot and killed a Belgian national Feb. 23 in a parking lot in the Diamante tourist zone. Authorities discovered the victim's body next to his vehicle with a gunshot wound to the chest and a spent .45-caliber casing nearby. Also during February in another popular tourist destination, two police officers in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, sexually assaulted an Italian citizen who resided in the city.

While there are examples of groups such as the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas participating in kidnappings throughout the country, localized kidnapping rings that operate independently from the drug trade have flourished due to the lack of security in Mexican cities. The gangs' victims range from wealthy businessmen to poor farmers, so assumptions should not be made regarding their typical target set.

There are also different types of kidnappings. These include everything from classic high-value target abductions to express kidnappings in which the victim can spend a week in the trunk of a vehicle as the kidnappers go from one automatic teller machine to the next withdrawing all the money in the victim's account. They even include so-called virtual kidnappings, a method in which perpetrators falsely claim to have kidnapped someone to extract a ransom.

There is little uniformity with kidnapping rings in Mexico in terms of resources, targets and tactics. Though the vast majority of reported kidnapping victims have been Mexican nationals, the risk to tourists remains, especially tourists perceived as being wealthy.

Law Enforcement

Visitors to Mexico should not expect law enforcement officers to behave as their counterparts do in the United States. As previously stated, law enforcement efforts in many areas of Mexico primarily are aimed at combatting drug trafficking. Worse, law enforcement officers have been discovered to be on the payroll of cartels, in some cases forcing the Mexican military to assume law enforcement responsibilities. For example, Tamaulipas state's municipal and state police were effectively disarmed over corruption concerns, requiring the military to fulfill the role of the state police.

As part of recently inaugurated President Enrique Pena Nieto's security plan, Mexican law enforcement is to undergo drastic changes in its structure in a bid to bring municipal, state and federal level authorities under a coordinated structure known as "Mando Unico." While no changes to unify police command have taken effect at the federal level, states such as Morelos already have begun transitioning toward a unified police body also referred to as Mando Unico. The intent behind such reforms is to enhance coordination between law enforcement officers at all levels and to expand oversight of law enforcement bodies at all levels. By itself, the planned restructuring will not eliminate problems with ineffectiveness and corruption. For example, Federal Police detained the Tlaquiltenango municipal police chief on March 3 in Morelos state for allegedly having ties to the criminal group Los Rojos.

Locations

Many popular spring break locations foreigners perceive as having "acceptable" levels of crime have experienced violence related to the drug wars raging in Mexico. Firefights between federal police or soldiers and gunmen armed with assault rifles have erupted without warning throughout Mexico, affecting mountain villages, large cities like Monterrey, and resort towns like Acapulco and Cancun. While the cartels have not intentionally targeted tourists often, their violence increasingly has been on public display in popular tourist districts.

It also is important to understand the risks associated with traveling to a country with in ongoing counternarcotics operations involving thousands of military and federal law enforcement personnel. Some parts of Mexico can credibly be described as war zones. 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. Locals and foreigners alike often become victims of assault, express kidnappings, high-value target kidnappings, sexual assaults, carjackings and other crimes.

As previously mentioned, the country's security services sometimes pose security risks, too. When driving, it is important to pay attention to highway roadblocks manned by military personnel and to checkpoints established to screen vehicles for drugs and cartel operatives. Police officers and soldiers have opened fire on vehicles driven by innocent people who failed to obey instructions at such checkpoints, which often are poorly marked.

Far more dangerous to tourists and others are instances of cartel gunmen operating mobile or stationary roadblocks while disguised as government troops, a well-documented phenomenon. We have not confirmed whether these have been encountered in popular resort areas, but there is the strong possibility they will be eventually given the increase in violence in port cities. As violence escalates near Mexico's resort towns, Stratfor anticipates that the cartels will not hesitate to use all tools at their disposal to defeat their opponents. An encounter with a checkpoint or roadblock operated by gunmen disguised as federal police or military personnel can be deadly. Driving around city streets in resort towns or roads in the surrounding countryside is also becoming increasingly dangerous.

Many Mexican coastal resort areas better known for their beautiful beaches also depend on their port facilities, and these have come to play a strategic role in the country's drug trade. Drug trafficking organizations use legitimate commercial ships as well as fishing boats and other small surface vessels to carry cocaine from South America to Mexico, and many cartels often rely on hotels and resorts to launder drug proceeds. Because of the importance of these facilities, the assumption has been that drug trafficking organizations seek to limit violence in such areas not only to protect existing infrastructure but also to avoid the attention that violence affecting wealthy foreign tourists would draw.

This is no longer a safe assumption. 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. Moreover, the threat to vacationing foreigners is not just the potential of being caught in the crossfire but also of inadvertently drawing the attention and anger of cartel gunmen.

Acapulco

Acapulco has become the most violent city in Mexico, with approximately 143 murders per 100,000 people during 2012. In fact, according to some media outlets, Acapulco is rated the second-most dangerous city in the world behind San Pedro de Sula, Honduras. Most violence related to organized crime in the city resulted from the collapse of the Beltran Leyva Organization in 2010, which spawned a set of competing organizations. In addition to conflicts between the Beltran Leyva Organization's remnant groups such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco and Cartel Pacifico Sur, other rival organizations such as the Sinaloa Federation, Gulf cartel and Los Zetas have competed for territorial control of the city.

The frequent conflicts among Mexican cartels, to include conflicts with authorities, has taxed authorities' ability to protect against more localized crime. As with the sexual assaults on the Spanish nationals or the murder of the Belgian businessman, foreigners traveling to Acapulco will face higher risks as a result of the ongoing cartel wars.

Despite the brazenness of attacking a large group in a tourist zone of Acapulco, an area that enjoys better security than the rest of the city, the incident does not reflect a trend in Acapulco. This sort of attack, particularly against expatriates, is rare in any part of Mexico. Still, it serves as a reminder of the potential dangers inherent in visiting a foreign country with a poor security environment.

Cancun

Cancun's port remains an important point of entry for South American drugs transiting Mexico on their way to the United States. Los Zetas remain highly active in the area, with a steady flow of drugs and foreign nationals entering the smuggling pipeline from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and other points of origin in the greater Caribbean Basin.

The year 2012 saw new cartel conflicts emerge in Cancun with an incursion by Los Zetas' rivals the Gulf cartel and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. While Los Zetas primarily control Quintana Roo as a whole, an independent crime group known as Los Pelones operates in Cancun, oftentimes having violent engagements with Los Zetas. The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion entered Cancun in the first quarter of 2012 as an ally of Los Pelones, bolstering Los Pelones' ability to confront Los Zetas.

With the new conflicts in Cancun, many of the acts typically associated with cartel violence have become more frequent. For example, in April 2012 authorities discovered two dismembered bodies along a street in Region 214 of Cancun. In another example of the ongoing turf war, authorities discovered a dead male accompanied by a narcomanta Jan. 12 in the Benito Juarez municipality (in which Cancun is located) of Quintana Roo state. The message said the victim was killed for belonging to Los Zetas.

Puerto Vallarta

Several of Mexico's largest and most powerful cartels maintain a trafficking presence in Puerto Vallarta and the nearby municipality of Jarretaderas. Los Zetas and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion are the most prone to violent acts in Puerto Vallarta. For example, a group of armed men threw a grenade and opened fire on the vehicle in which Puerto Vallarta Police Chief Roberto Rodriguez Preciado was traveling on Oct. 15, 2012. Rodriguez escaped unharmed, but three individuals including one of his police escorts were injured. The same day, Mexican media reported that at least four narcomantas were posted in several locations around Puerto Vallarta addressed to Rodriguez and signed "Z" — a signature commonly used by Los Zetas. The police chief subsequently resigned his post.

While Puerto Vallarta does not see nearly the violence that other popular destinations such as Acapulco or Mazatlan see, cartel-related violence does occur there. Ultimately, this will detract from local law enforcement's ability to combat localized crime.

Threats from kidnapping gangs or other criminal groups also are said to be lower in this resort city than in the rest of the country. Still, a February 2012 incident illustrated why caution and situational awareness should always be exercised: A group of 22 tourists ventured off their cruise ship to tour El Nogalito, an area near Puerto Vallarta, where they were held at gunpoint and robbed.

Cabo San Lucas

Located on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas and the greater Los Cabos region have remained relatively insulated from the country's drug-related violence and are considered one of the safer places in Mexico for foreign tourists. Although historically a stop on cocaine trafficking routes, Cabo San Lucas' strategic importance decreased dramatically after cartel activities there peaked in the late 1990s when the Tijuana cartel lost its contacts with Colombian cocaine suppliers as a result of joint U.S.-Colombian counternarcotics activities. Over the past five years, drug trafficking in the area has been limited.

Mazatlan

Mazatlan, located only about 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Puerto Vallarta, has been perhaps the most consistently violent of Mexico's resort cities during the past year, although the levels of violence have fluctuated. It is located in Sinaloa state, home of the country's largest cartel, the Sinaloa Federation, as well as the rival crime group Los Mazatlecos. Though the city has seen consistent violence associated with organized crime, violence has slowly lessened over the past few years. According to the city's mayor, Mazatlan experienced 47 homicides during 2012, down from 214 in 2011.

Even with decreasing violence in Mazatlan, the surrounding areas have experienced escalated violence as a result of incursions by Los Zetas and Los Mazatlecos into southern Sinaloa state. On Dec. 24, a group of as many as 30 gunmen executed nine people in a small community in Concordia, Sinaloa state, an approximately 45 kilometer-drive from Mazatlan. According to the Sinaloa state attorney general's office, the culprits belong to an alliance of Los Zetas and the Beltran Leyva Organization. But the latter organization disintegrated into various competing groups after its leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva, died in December 2009. Therefore, the gunmen most likely belong to one of these splinter groups — probably Los Mazatlecos. As Los Zetas continue to make inroads into Sinaloa state, it is possible such violence could spread to nearby municipalities such as Mazatlan.

Matamoros

Though Matamoros is not a more commonly visited spring break location, we address it because of its proximity to South Padre Island, Texas. It has long been the practice of adventurous vacationers at the southern end of South Padre Island to take advantage of the inexpensive alcohol and lower drinking age south of the border, mainly in Matamoros and the surrounding towns clustered along the Rio Grande. It is important to note that drug- and human-smuggling activities in that region of Mexico are constant, vital to Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel, and ruthlessly conducted. Since the Zetas' offensive against the Gulf cartel of Matamoros in 2011, Matamoros has seen significant violence between competing organizations along with confrontations with the military, such as a Feb. 12 fight between the military and gunmen that resulted in four gunmen killed.

In addition to cartel-related violence, Matamoros has been experiencing a surge in local crimes such as robberies and kidnappings. The U.S. Consulate in Matamoros posted a travel advisory on escalated kidnapping threats on Dec. 14, 2012, and on Feb. 21, 2013. Accordingly, visitors should not venture south into Mexico from South Padre Island.

General Safety Tips

If travel to Mexico is planned or necessary, visitors should keep in mind the following:

  • Do not drive at night.
  • Use only pre-arranged transportation between the airport and the resort or hotel.
  • If at a resort, plan on staying there; refrain from going into town, particularly at night.
  • If you do go into town (or anywhere off the resort property), do not accept a ride from unknown persons, do not go into suspicious-looking or run-down bars, do not wander away from brightly lit public places and do not wander on the beach at night.
  • Stop at all roadblocks.
  • Do not bring anything with you that you are not willing to have taken from you.
  • If confronted by an armed individual who demands the possessions on your person, give them up.
  • Do not bring ATM cards linked to your bank account (among other things, an ATM card can facilitate an express kidnapping.)
  • Do not get irresponsibly intoxicated.
  • Do not accept a drink from a stranger, regardless of your sex.
  • Do not make yourself a tempting target by wearing expensive clothing or jewelry.
  • Do not venture out alone, but bear in mind that being part of a group does not guarantee safety.

Editor's Note: We now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, designed to provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. To learn more about this new fee-based custom service, visit www.stratfor.com/msm.

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