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As shoulder season approaches in Mexico, American travelers might want to turn a cold one toward the border regions, until a recent surge in drug-related violence levels off. Twenty-seven U.S. citizens were kidnapped, between August 2004 and late January 2005, south of the Texas border; two of those abductecd were murdered, and eleven are still missing, according to a US State Department's warning issued January 26, effective through April 2005. The statement read, "The overwhelming majority of the victims of violent crime have been Mexican citizens. Nonetheless, U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk posed by the deteriorating security situation." You can read the full warning at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/pa/pa_2100.html.

Alfonso Nieto, press secretary for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., says, "What has been reported as violence doesn't affect tourists. It has been conflicts between drug traffickers."

Indeed, the ferment mostly involves cartel underlings jockeying for supremacy over the lucrative Colombian cocaine trade along the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas -- especially in the eastern, Texas border state of Tamaulipas. According to numerous reports, however, the bedlam has caught up criminal justice officials, Mexican citizens, and now a relatively small number of Americans and other foreign tourists.

Some of the kidnappers reportedly wore police attire or drove police vehicles, suggesting that law enforcement officials are either complicit or at least overwhelmed by the pandemonium, which climaxed in late January, when cartel gunmen murdered six prison guards at the maximum security prison in Matamoros. President Vicente Fox quickly responded with a dispatch of 600 federal officers to Tamaulipas, where the American kidnappings occurred. (Twenty-three Americans disappeared in Nuevo Laredo, near Laredo,Texas; two vanished in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, just off the Gulf Coast; and two more went missing in Piedras Negras, in the desert region adjacent to Eagle Pass. Crime is a persistent threat in Juarez, as well.)

Though investigators agree that most of the victims were caught up in drug trading, the State Department insists that all travelers should use caution, along the entire length of the border, including the western portions near Tijuana and Mexicali, as well as Nogales, in the Sierra Madre. The State Department cautions that, "Mexico's police forces suffer from lack of funds and training, and the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient. Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know there is little chance they will be caught and punished."

Nieto counters that the recent violence is a symptom of things getting worse before they get better. He says that during the last four years, many kingpins have been arrested and imprisoned; 35,000 traffickers, including the most important cartel leaders, are now in jail. He says that Mexico has been a victim of its success, in that the apprehensions have created a temporary power vacuum.

"International cooperation is key to dealing with organized crime, and the authorities from both governments know that and are working together," Nieto says. And they must, in that a billion dollars in trade passes through the U.S.-Mexican border every day, he adds.

The Mexico A total of 7,989,000 international tourists visited Mexican border destinations, from January through November 2004, according to the latest statistics from Sectur, Mexico's tourism secretariat. That number showed an increase of 9.4 percent compared to the same period in 2003 and represents 44 percent of the amount of international tourists visiting Mexico (18.2 million travelers as of November 2004).

Nieto adds, "The year 2004 was a record year for tourism, according to the World Tourism Organization. After three years of stagnation since September 11, 2001, Mexico experienced a recovery in 2004." According to figures from Sectur, Mexico received 20.5 million international visitors in 2004, up from 18.6 million in 2003 and a half-million more than the 20 million mark the government had set as its target for last year. Sectur expects the number of visitors to exceed 21.5 million in 2005.

Ironically, the latest State Department notice came days before U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza announced his betrothal to billionaire Maria Asunci¿n Aramburuzabala, reportedly the wealthiest woman in Mexico, and vice chairwoman of Grupo Modelo, which manufactures Corona and Negra Modelo beer. Nieto says the effects of this high-profile political union on border relations would be hard to measure at this point.

Despite the recent agitation, the State Department allows that, "The majority of the thousands of U.S. citizens who cross the border each day do so safely, exercising common sense precautions." If you must travel to the border regions, the State Department recommends visiting only legitimate business districts during daylight hours. Avoid night travel, red light districts, or other places where drug transactions are likely to occur. They also recommend registering with an embassy or consulate, through the State Department's Travel Registration Web Site (https://travelregistration.state.gov), before you depart. Finally, call the Bureau of Consular Affairs Overseas Citizens' Services line (tel. 888/407-4747) for the latest updates, and read the Consular Information Sheet about Mexico, as well as A Safe Trip Abroad, both of which can be found on the U.S. State Department Web site (http://travel.state.gov).

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