Next week MTV hosts its annual spring break blowout – this year in Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. When the week is over, it will have aired massive beach parties and college kids doing things they’ll probably blush about after they graduate.
But the spring break celebrations hide a darker Mexican reality – as drug traffickers fight for power in the illicit, billion-dollar drug trade.
Just over the weekend, over a dozen people were killed near Acapulco – some of them beheaded.
Foreigners are not the typical targets. Mostly gang rivals, police, and sometimes military troops are victims of the bloody clashes. But after the killing of two Americans in Ciudad Juarez over the weekend and another Mexican citizen affiliated with the US consulate, Mexico’s image as a violent place to avoid will be further sealed.
Already, STA Travel, the student travel agency, says that students preemptively opted not to go to Mexico this year, after spring break 2009 was marked by colleges urging students to avoid swathes of Mexico and parents and students calling the agency to inquire about their spring break safety.
“This year it seems a lot of students and young people immediately opted for other destinations,” says Patrick Evans, a spokesperson for STA Travel. In their survey this year, only 10 percent of students said they were planning on heading to Mexico for spring break, down significantly from previous years, he says.
Violence mars Mexico's image
Mexican officials have worked tirelessly to promote the country as a safe tourist destination, after the swine flu outbreak last year and violent images of drug cartels aired across the globe have scared many off. Their motto: “Mexico: Time to go!”
And indeed most destinations are safe, including Cancún, the most popular spring break destination. It is followed by Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast, as well as other Pacific destinations like Mazatlan and Acapulco, according to STA Travel.
Even in Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero, which is in the throes of a power struggle between traffickers, the US State Department notes that the violence is not targeted at foreign residents or tourists.
Travel alert for border areas
Still, the US Embassy in Mexico has urged residents to delay unnecessary travel to parts of the states of Durango, Coahuila, and Chihuahua. And after the incident in Juarez on Saturday, the US State Department Sunday authorized the departure of families of personnel throughout northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and Matamoros.
Some 2,600 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2009. The city, with 1.3 million residents, also saw 16,000 car thefts and 1,900 carjackings in 2009.
The Texas Department of Public Security warned spring breakers to avoid parts of northern Mexico. Director Steven McCraw said in a statement last week that "parents should not allow their children to visit these Mexican cities because their safety cannot be guaranteed."
Such warnings could deter some college students in states like Texas who used to simply drive across the border and on to more alluring destinations on Mexico’s coasts.
“There were a lot of students in Texas who would drive over the border, it was very inexpensive,” says Evans. “There are less people doing that.”