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on security

Mar 6, 2018 | 08:00 GMT

11 mins read

Staying Smart and Safe on Spring Break in Mexico

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
The touristy Grand Oasis hotel in Cancun was the site of a murder apparently related to organized crime in early March 2018.
  • There are three general types of violence in Mexico, and all of them can intrude into tourist areas. 
  • Violence isn’t the only security threat, however. Travelers can also become victim to adulterated alcohol or ATM skimmers and shimmers.  
  • The good news is that if you understand the various threats, there are measures that can be taken to avoid or mitigate them.

Well, it's that time of the year again. Several friends, family members and even a Stratfor colleague have sought out my opinion on the security risks of spending spring break in Mexico. Some general guidance about planning a safe spring break can be found here, and I encourage you to read it in addition to this article. But based on the number of people asking me about spring break travel to Mexico, there seems to be a particular level of concern about the subject this year. And in fact, the security situation in the country has changed since my last dedicated piece on the topic five years ago.

Violence in Mexico

Three types of general violence can be found in Mexico: criminal on criminal violence; violence between criminals and security forces; and criminal violence against civilian victims.

As for the first category, Mexican cartels have fought continuously for more than two decades for control of the most valuable trafficking corridors and drug production areas. As noted in our 2018 annual cartel forecast, there's no evidence that the cartel violence will end soon, and the Balkanization of the cartels in recent years has only created more points of contention between the various groups, resulting in more homicides across the country. No part of the country has been immune to this violence.

Though cartels typically fight rival groups, outside parties are often caught in the middle. For example, on Jan. 16, 2017, a Gulf cartel member selling drugs at the Blue Parrot nightclub in the tourist town of Playa del Carmen was killed by gunmen from a Los Zetas faction attempting to maintain control of drug sales in the city. The shooting resulted in the deaths of five people unrelated to the conflict, including an American woman who was trampled to death in the panic after the shooting began. 

Many tourists assume that cartel violence and other criminal activity is removed from the beaches of the coastal resorts, but this simply isn't true.

Many tourists assume that cartel violence and other criminal activity is removed from the beaches of the coastal resorts, but this simply isn't true. Cartels don't directly target tourist venues frequently, but there's no proof they make an effort to keep tourists out of the line of fire or away from gruesome displays of their murder victims. Acapulco was once among Mexico's most popular tourist destinations, but a protracted war between several competing criminal gangs has turned the port city into one of the country's deadliest places, where there are frequent shootings on the beach or in the bars. On March 1, an unidentified man in his 20s was gunned down at 7:30 in the evening at the beachfront club at the Grand Oasis hotel in Cancun. The man was reportedly neither an employee nor a guest of the hotel, and this was likely a murder related to organized crime, similar to the 2017 Blue Parrot incident. The murder occurred in front of dozens of tourists who were in the club and clearly illustrates how organized crime violence can stray into tourist areas.   

The major cartel gangs are usually focused on the business of trafficking drugs through Mexico into the United States, but they sometimes turn to other enterprises that could affect visitors, including kidnapping, carjacking and extortion. Gunmen also operate with impunity in many parts of the country and will simply rob or rape as they see fit. It's impossible to gauge the willingness of individual cartel members to target unwary tourists, but it does happen, and as criminal violence increases, so does the likelihood of falling victim to such crimes.

While decades ago many cartel members considered it beneath them to participate in common crime, the Balkanization of the cartels has led to more smaller gangs, many of which are unable to fund themselves solely by trafficking narcotics through Mexico. Increasingly they are resorting to retail drug sales, kidnapping, extortion, fuel theft, carjacking and other crimes to support their criminal operations and the wars they wage against competing gangs. They also need to raise money for bribes.

Speaking of bribery, criminal gangs also affect the security infrastructure tourists depend on. Government corruption is rampant, and law enforcement officers are routinely targeted by criminal groups offering "plata o plomo" — silver or lead. The lead option brings us to the second type of violence, that between criminals and government security forces. 

Government corruption is rampant, and law enforcement officers are routinely targeted by criminal groups offering "plata o plomo" — silver or lead.

Silver or Lead

It is not uncommon for criminals to target law enforcement officers who refuse bribes or who take them from a competing group. Many of these assassinations occur in restaurants, at clubs or on the street. On the other side of the equation, law enforcement operations to arrest criminals can sometimes turn into wide-ranging firefights that span many miles and that can result in bystanders being injured by bullets or grenade fragments. Many high-ranking cartel figures live in upscale neighborhoods and frequently visit high-end clubs and restaurants, and they can drag violence into those normally peaceful environs if a rival gang targets them or if the government attempts to arrest them.

On Feb. 21, a ferry that makes the popular Cozumel-Playa del Carmen run was damaged by an explosive device that injured several tourists, including a U.S. citizen. A message purporting to be from a criminal gang claimed credit for the explosion and threatened the mayor of Playa del Carmen with more bombs, including at his home. On March 1, two unexploded bombs were found aboard another ferry that had been inactive for about 10 months, raising suspicions that it was an attempt at insurance fraud. It is not clear whether the two incidents are connected, or who the instigator of the Feb. 21 attack was, but the presence of explosive material on boats meant for tourist use is obviously cause for concern.

The Tourist as Target

The third category — criminal against civilian victim violence — is also a significant problem in Mexico. In many jurisdictions, the municipal police have been disbanded because of corruption and replaced by a patchwork of federal police and the military, who are more focused on combating the cartels than protecting citizens and visitors against common criminals. This has led to an increase in serious crimes such as murder and kidnapping and to an uptick in the general crime of which tourists are more likely to fall victim. In many locations where the cartel groups are fighting one another, local criminals take advantage of distracted security forces to commit crimes of their own.

A wide range of criminal groups participate in kidnapping and almost anyone can be targeted — from wealthy industrialists to lower-class businessmen to even tourists. There are also several types of kidnapping, including high-value target abductions, express kidnappings (in which the victim is held as the kidnappers go from one ATM to the next withdrawing cash until they empty the victim's account) and even virtual kidnappings, in which an abduction is faked in order to extract a ransom.

ATM card skimming and shimming (i.e., reading the chip on credit cards) in tourist areas, including the ATMs inside hotels, is also on the rise. Take care using ATMs while on vacation in Mexico, even if you're in a seemingly safe resort. If you do need to use an ATM, we recommend using one inside the secure area of a bank rather than one on the street or even in a hotel lobby. Most merchants in tourist zones accept U.S. dollars, but if you want to change money, we recommend doing so at the hotel desk, a bank or the money exchanges at the airport, preferably on the airside of the airport instead of outside the security hard line. 

Visitors should not expect Mexican law enforcement officers to behave like their U.S. counterparts. Some Mexican officials are on cartel payrolls, and others are just simply corrupt. They will shake down unsuspecting visitors for bribes or arrest them on minor charges and hold them in exchange for a large cash payment. Sadly, there have also been numerous reports of police assaulting and raping intoxicated female tourists.

Despite the prevalence of armed criminals, weapons laws are very strict in Mexico. Several Americans have been arrested in the past year for attempting to bring firearms into Mexico with them on vacation. Don't ever attempt to do this. 

One other concern during spring break in Mexico has been the many cases of tourists being made sick by, or even dying from, drinking counterfeit alcohol products at all-inclusive resorts.

One other concern during spring break in Mexico has been the many cases of tourists being made sick by, or even dying from, drinking counterfeit alcohol products at all-inclusive resorts. Visitors have also had their drinks spiked to incapacitate them for robbery or sexual assault. Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has amassed a list of over 150 cases in which people were either made ill or died after drinking adulterated alcohol in Mexico. And 10 of those cases occurred over the Christmas and New Year's holidays of 2017-18. All-inclusive resorts have a financial incentive to serve cheaper alcohol to their guests, and greed has caused some to endanger their guests by serving counterfeit alcohol. In mid-February, police in Guadalajara seized 71,000 liters of counterfeit tequila that contained methanol, a toxic substance. This is a serious and continuing problem, and people need to be careful about what they are drinking.

Staying Safe

After all that information about the perils in Mexico, I want to offer these tips on how you can have a safe and fun spring break south of the border. First, vacationers should read the general travel advice in the piece I linked to in the first paragraph. 

Second, travelers need to practice an appropriate level of situational awareness based on the dangers outlined above and to implement good, common-sense security measures to protect themselves from these perils.

Here are some additional safety recommendations for travelers to Mexico:

  • Do not drive on the highways at night. Use the tollways if you need to travel from city to city. 
  • Use only prearranged 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 or on the street at night.
  • Avoid bars and clubs (even upscale ones) with a bad reputation or where you see drugs are being sold.
  • Stop at all roadblocks.
  • Minimize what you carry with you on the trip, and do not bring anything that you are not willing to have taken from you.
  • If confronted by an armed individual who demands your possessions, give them up.
  • Do not bring ATM cards linked to a bank account holding a large sum of money. (This can prolong an express kidnapping, because the criminals may keep you until your account is drained and this could take a while if your account has a daily limit.)
  • Do not get irresponsibly intoxicated.
  • Do not urinate in public or commit other minor offenses that police can use as a pretext to arrest you.
  • Obey traffic laws.
  • Do not accept a drink from a stranger, regardless of whether you are male or female.
  • Do not make yourself a tempting target by wearing expensive clothing or jewelry or by flashing cash.
  • Do not venture out alone. Additionally, understand that merely being part of a group does not guarantee safety against heavily armed criminals.
  • If you receive a virtual kidnapping phone call, do not heed demands to leave your hotel. Call the U.S. Embassy or Consulate immediately.
  • Register with the U.S. Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — or the equivalent program from your government if you are not American — so your government knows who and where you are and can send you travel alert messages.

Remember, Mexico is not the United States. However, despite the very real security issues present in Mexico, it is possible to have a great vacation if you understand the threats, use common sense and maintain an appropriate level of situational awareness.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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