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What Mexican drug war? Spring-break students defy travel warnings.

Universities and the US government warned American students about the risks of travel in Mexico. But Cancún numbers are off only slightly.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2009

STILL CROWDED: Despite travel warnings, hundreds of US students party at a hotel in Acapulco, Mexico.

Claudio Vargas/AFP/Newscom


Cancún, Mexico

Spring break in Mexico has always caused consternation among parents. Booze cruises and all-night beach parties are the typical worries.

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But this year, university officials joined parents in warning students to consider alternatives because of the drug-related violence that has spiraled out of control. Some travel agencies canceled trips, particularly along the border where most of the bloodshed is concentrated.

In February, the US State Department issued a travel alert, warning of "large firefights" across Mexico and confrontations with cartels resembling "small-unit combat."

But that hasn't stopped most students. They're cognizant of the threat, but aren't ready to give up the sun and sand.

"I think it's very important to be aware of what is going on here," says Clara Spas, a senior in business administration at Buffalo State College, who is in Cancún this week with 24 classmates. She says she studied the maps to learn the distance between Cancún and Mexico's most troubled spots before making the trip. She did so mostly to appease her mother – and her school – who urged her to change her plans. "I feel totally safe, even though I feel like I know so much of what is going on here."

There are few places as fabled for a spring break as Cancún, with its azure Caribbean waters and discounts that each year draw students from February through April. The scene this year is no different from years past, with big banners welcoming students, and streets full of flip-flop-clad Americans.

Yet this year many colleges felt obligated to educate students about the underbelly of all the fun. California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, for example, sent a warning to its student body last Monday, ahead of their spring vacation. "We understand that a number of our students travel to Mexico each year for spring break. This year, increased violence plagues the region," it warned, urging students to leave their full itineraries at home with families in friends.

That warning specified trouble spots, mostly near the border and hundreds of miles from techno parties and beach volleyball. Tour agencies and Mexican tourism officials are trying to reiterate that distinction. "We understand violence is happening, but some [places] are 2,000 miles away, and if students use common sense safety tips, it can be an enjoyable experience," says Patrick Evans, of STA Travel, one of the world's largest student travel agencies. He says they have not had any more cancellations this year than in previous ones.

STA Travel did, however, cancel a bus tour that crossed the border of Texas and headed down the Pacific coast to the resort town of Mazatlán.