Mexico’s Drug Wars Curtail Holiday Travel

Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2008

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As Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans begin to plan their holidays, many say they are choosing not to make the annual trek home to visit relatives. While some are dissuaded by the worsening economy, others are avoiding travel to Mexico because they fear the rampant kidnappings, killings and shootouts.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert late last month warning U.S. citizens to take precautions and to be aware of the “increasingly violent fight for control of narcotics trafficking routes,” especially in the cities of Tijuana, Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez.

Business at Transportes Intercalifornias, which runs about 15 buses a day from Los Angeles to the border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali, is already down from last year, said dispatcher Robert Bahine.

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Mexicana Airlines has seen about a 4% drop from last year in bookings from Mexicans traveling home to visit friends and relatives, said Jorge Goytortua, vice president of sales for U.S. and Canada. But Goytortua attributed the decline to the economy, saying that many regular customers work in affected industries.

Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles, Juan Gutierrez Gonzalez, also said he believes the economy is having a greater effect on travel than the drug wars.

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But that is not the case with Yvonne Mariajimenez, a public interest attorney in Los Angeles. Mariajimenez said she has the money to travel home to see her relatives for Christmas but she is afraid to do so.

Mariajimenez, 50, said she has traveled to Mexico dozens of times in the last decade and usually spends her visits driving elderly relatives to neighboring towns to see one another. Her aunt told her that if she went this year, she shouldn’t rent a car or drive around the country.

“The more I talked to her, I realized that it wasn’t just my safety that she was concerned about, but it was hers as well,” she said. “If they see a foreigner, the assumption is that the person has money.”

Though Mariajimenez was born and raised in the U.S., she said Mexico is a part of her heritage and she is devastated by the increasing violence. She said she had hopes of retiring in Mexico, which she remembers as a relaxing and beautiful country, but worries now that may not be possible.

“The corruption of drug trafficking has really permeated these towns,” she said. “I am not sure the innocence of that time will come back.”

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Despite the concerns, many are undeterred.

More than 1 million Mexicans returned home last winter, according to the Mexican government, which runs a program called Welcome Home Paisano aimed at easing their passage, teaching them their rights and reducing corruption by public officials. National coordinator Itzel Ortiz Zaragoza said that based on summer travel, she expects about the same number this winter.

And Mexico’s tourism board said the number of travelers to the country actually increased by about 5% in the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period last year. Officials said they don’t expect a decline during the holidays.

“The Christmas season is the most important holiday for Hispanics in general (including Mexican Americans) to travel home to visit their families,” Jorge Gamboa Patron, director of the board for Los Angeles, said in an e-mail.

“If in fact there is a decline in travel during the upcoming holiday season, it will probably be because of the U.S. economic situation.”

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