State Department Upgrades Mexico Travel Warning As Violence Surges In Tourist Hotspots

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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The State Department issued a revised travel warning for Mexico on Tuesday, urging stricter caution for two states that are home to major seaside tourist enclaves.

State warns U.S. travelers about a rise in violent crime in Quintana Roo, including the cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean Sea, and Baja California Sur, home to Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific Ocean. A previous version released in December 2016 only mentioned spotty cellular and internet service in some areas of Quintana Roo.

The changes come as Mexico suffers a surge in drug cartel-related violence that has pushed homicide levels to their highest in two decades.

Through the first five months of 2017, the country recorded 9,916 murders, about 30 percent more than in the same period last year. In just the month of May, the most recent month for which data is available, Mexico had 2,186 murders. That surpassed the previous monthly high of 2,131 set in May 2011, according to government records dating back to 1997.

While much of the violence is confined to areas along the U.S.-Mexico border and major drug producing states in the western part of the country, historically safer Quintana Roo has not been immune from the troubling trend. Murders there have jumped nearly 90 percent from 2016.

Quintana Roo is one of Mexico’s most frequently visited — and lucrative — tourist destinations. More than 10 million international travelers flock to world-renowned white sand beaches in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cozumel every year, about a third of Mexico’s total. The new travel warning will likely be seen a setback for Mexico’s critical tourism industry, which brings in $20 billion a year, according to Bloomberg.

Updated semi-annually, State Department travel warnings are diplomatically sensitive documents closely scrutinized by host country officials. The inclusion of language suggesting that a certain city or region presents a danger to tourists almost always draws an indignant response from the foreign ministry.

The new travel warning for Mexico includes a comment on “innocent bystanders” being shot in Quintana Roo.

“While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens,” the travel warning said. “Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured or killed, have occurred.”

The travel warning includes a similar assessment for Baja California Sur, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the state that has seen the sharpest rise in killings. In the first five months of this year, the state registered 169 murders, a shocking 369 percent jump over the same period in 2016.

Various factors have contributed to Mexico’s surge in violence. Security analysts say competition over heroin cultivation and the fragmenting of established drug trafficking organizations, such as the Sinaloa cartel, have sparked new turf battles.

The Mexican government has highlighted its strategy of killing or arresting top cartel leaders: 107 of its 122 targets have been taken out since President Enrique Nieto took office in December 2012, reports the Guardian. As murders become more common in places that were relatively peaceful in recent years, however, many Mexicans are questioning if that strategy is making the country’s cartel violence problem even worse.

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