Director's Statement on Crime

The Director's Statement on Mexican Crime and its Relevance to Conexiones:

by Michael Thomas PhD. Director: Conexiones/Mexico 2010

Introduction:
For several years and for a number of reasons concern has grown in the US about the safety of visiting Mexico. As the Director of Conexiones, I am writing to address those concerns. I am convinced that for informed travelers, Mexico remains a safe a destination.

To some extent, I base that conviction on my own experience as the director of Conexiones for nearly thirty years. I have also made numberless trips unconnected to the program to locations in Mexico spanning the entire length and breadth of that country. Here I will be focusing on Morelia, since that city is the Conexiones field site, and the border since those who travel overland to Mexico must cross the border (border issues are obviously not relevant for those who travel by air). Within the past year I have crossed border traveling by car (using both UNM vehicles and my personal auto) and by bus (Mexico has a very modern and efficient public transportation system that features fleets of new luxury buses and a sophisticated ticketing system with internet reservations - see the wiki page on bus travel). Likewise, I know the city of Morelia very well.

Since 1985 UNM has administered 17 summer programs similar to Conexiones 2010 in Morelia. Nearly 500 New Mexicans, students, faculty, graduate assistants and family members have spent four weeks in Morelia under the aegis of Conexiones/UNM. As director I have been responsible for organizing housing and arranging field travel to cultural study locations such as Mexico City, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, Guanajuato, Patzcuaro, and numerous less well know cultural destinations in central Mexico. A feature of Conexiones planning has always been to provide students with the finest most up-to-date information on the ins and outs of travel to and within Mexico. As I contemplate Conexiones 2010, I can count on one hand the unfortunate incidents that have involved students and faculty connected to the Conexiones program. No Conexiones student has yet sustained a serious injury nor been the victim of a serious crime. Conexiones has a long, happy experience of providing a setting in Morelia that is very safe and giving our students the information they need to travel safely, pass their visit in secure surroundings, and complete their studies in confidence.

In addition to my experience as a traveler and as director of educational programs in Mexico, I read widely to keep up with the changes and trends. So, based on my experience and my studies, I have observations on the issues that arouse concern in those contemplating travel to Mexico and/or participation in programs like Conexiones.

A) Organized Crime
In Mexico there are two types of crime: Organized crime and garden variety crime. In recent years organized crime has grown along the border and in various locales in Mexico. Most of the organized crime is related to the drug trade, drug smuggling from south to north. This trade is so lucrative that it spawns turf wars amongst those involved and ancillary crimes against the authorities struggling to curtail the power of the drug smuggling cartels. This sort of crime is disconcerting because violence is often directed towards respected authorities, judges, prosecutors, police officers, and reporters. The turf war crimes are also characterized by a level of brutality that is vicious and grotesque. The fact of organized crime is a terrible reality but it is not particularly relevant to tourist and student visitors. This sort of crime is localized and personalized.

Assessing organized crime in Mexico it is helpful to recall that until recently organized crime was a fact of life in the US. Cities like Chicago were famous for “gangland murders,” etc. During this time it was safe for foreign tourists to visit the US. Even notorious areas like Chicago, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, etc. were safe for those not involved in the crime families or law enforcement. The reported incidents of Mexican organized crime take place where the drugs are produced and processed or the location vectors for smuggling. The victims of organized crime are either those involved in it or those bravely attempting to stop it. The crime is targeted. Cd. Juarez is a vector for smuggling and so has become a real war zone in Mexican organized crime. It is an unpleasant place, at present, to spend time. It is not, however, dangerous to cross the border at Cd. Juarez, taxi to the bus station, and take a bus south to central Mexico.

Away from the border there are several locales where the struggles between cartels of organized criminals are in conflict with one another and/or are struggling against the forces of law and order. These locales tend to be in fairly remote areas where drugs are grown and/or processed. These locales are not the cultural or tourist destinations relevant to American travelers or students. Within the state of Michoacan, there is an area in the far western part of the state where authorities are struggling against organized criminals involved in the cultivation and processing of drugs. American students and tourists have no reason to travel to this locale. I feel confident that Conexiones 2010 can give our students instruction in Spanish and an introduction to Mexican culture without exposing them to danger from organized crime. The cultural sites we visit are not important to organized criminals.

B) Ordinary, “Garden Variety” Crime, Political Violence, and Kidnapping
Ordinary, “Garden variety” crime exists in Mexico as elsewhere and varies from city to city. Morelia is known as a tranquil city with a very low crime rate. As an ugly incident in Sept. 2008 showed, however, political violence is not unheard of in Morelia. It is, however, very rare. The 2008 incident is the only example in decades. Conexiones students learn to avoid situations where political feelings are running high. It is worth noting that Mexico has never been the target of a terrorist attack of the sort seen in European countries.

Kidnapping for ransom is a crime that has increased in frequency in Mexico in recent years. Foreigners, however, are seldom the targets of this crime. Few incidences of this crime have been reported in Morelia and no foreigners have been victims. One positive note on garden variety crime in Mexico is the fact that gun laws in Mexico are very strict (for this reason the recent incident of gunfire in a movie theater in Albuquerque would be unimaginable in Morelia). Petty criminals in Mexico are much less likely to bear firearms than petty criminals in the US. I maintain the view that Morelia is a safer city for our students than Albuquerque.

C) The Conexiones Approach: Information and Awareness
The Conexiones experience has been that the best way to avoid the perils and inconvenience of crime is to have the information and tools necessary to avoid bad situations. The UNM faculty and Mexican staff of Conexiones have extensive current information on the city of Morelia and all the locales of our field trips. We are able, therefore, to provide students with up to the minute information on places where crimes have been reported. Conexiones students are also required to attend extensive orientation workshops at UNM in which students learn how to recognize and avoid potential trouble.

Conclusion: The Conexiones Commitment:
Concluding, I must own that there is no way I can guarantee that Conexiones students are going to be safe. It is also true that UNM cannot guarantee that students attending classes on campus are going to be safe. What I can guarantee is that the Conexiones faculty and staff will do every thing we can to provide students with the resources they need to stay safe and complete their studies successfully. Hundreds of students have completed the program successfully. Drawing on that experience, many former students have returned to Mexico many times and returned safely from each trip. Several Conexiones alums have initiated successful business ventures or humanitarian enterprises in Mexico or worked for American corporations there. I remain convinced that for informed travelers, Mexico is a safe destination and that UNM’s Conexiones Program is a superior means of exploring this dynamic country while engaging the Spanish language.


(Here are links to newspapers in Morelia. You can browse and/or search these sources.
http://www.oem.com.mx/elsoldemorelia/, http://www.cambiodemichoacan.com.mx/, http://www.vozdemichoacan.com.mx/)