Consul sheds light on Mexico travel warning
A new State Department travel warning for Mexico is not meant to discourage American tourists from visiting Nogales, Sonora or Puerto Peñasco, the department's top envoy to Northern Sonora said.
Speaking during and after a Rio Rico Rotary Club meeting at the Esplendor Resort on Wednesday, Chad Cummins, U.S. consul in Nogales, Sonora, said that while some areas of Sonora should be avoided, the State Department is merely advising U.S. citizens to "exercise caution" while visiting the border city of Nogales and beach resort of Puerto Peñasco.
Explaining the meaning of "exercise caution" to the Rotarians, Cummins said: "In diplomatic speak, that's about as light as you can get."
"What the travel warning says about Nogales and Puerto Peñasco is to exercise caution - exercise caution is the same thing you do when you cross the street, or when you go out at night in the big city," Cummins told the NI after the meeting.
"And we are not discouraging people from coming to Mexico, that is not the purpose of this travel alert."
Instead, he said, the warning is meant to share the travel rules for consular personnel in Mexico with the general public, and offer a look at conditions on the ground as seen by State Department representatives there.
The travel warning, issued Feb. 8, expands previous State Department warnings for Mexico to include advisories for all 31 states and the federal district of Mexico City. The document advises U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel to parts of 11 states, and to all of the northern border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas,
The section on Sonora notes that Nogales and Puerto Peñasco are the state's major travel destinations in Sonora, and advises Americans to "exercise caution when visiting the coastal town of Puerto Peñasco." It also recommends that travelers access the beach town from the border crossing at Lukeville, Ariz. - a point reiterated by Cummins, who called the highway running west to Peñasco from Santa Ana through Caborca "a little sketchy."
As for Nogales, Sonora, the new warning contains no direct recommendation on the city itself. Instead, it discourages non-essential travel between Nogales and towns to its west including Sonoyta, Caborca, Saric, Tubutama and Altar, which the State Department calls "known centers of illegal activity."
The new document echoes a warning issued in April 2011, noting that Highway 15 between Nogales and Hermosillo is the exception to a rule prohibiting U.S. government employees and their families from driving between the U.S.-Mexico border and the interior of Mexico. Still, it recommends that visitors to Sonora "limit travel to main roads during daylight hours."
Cummins told the Rotarians that avoiding nighttime driving is good common sense. "Not because you'll be robbed, necessarily," he said, "but there's all sorts of things in the road, cows, or whatever it is."
And while Highway 15 is generally a good road, Cummins said, it has very little shoulder. "There's no room for error, so if something starts to go wrong, you're going to be out in the cactus pretty soon."
The new State Department warning tells travelers that "Sonora is a key region in the international drug and human trafficking trades, and can be extremely dangerous for travelers."
However, like the 2011 warning, it does not include an advisory that appeared in a 2010 version that listed Nogales as being "among the cities that have experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues."
"The language is softer this year than it was in the last couple of years," Cummins noted.
He told the Rotary Club that violence in Nogales has subsided somewhat since the Sinaloa Cartel took back local drug-trafficking routes from the Beltran Leyva gang by waging a bloody turf war starting in late 2009. That period, he said, was "when you literally had raging gun battles in the street."
"Sinaloa basically vanquished Beltran and now controls the routes coming up through northern Sonora," he said. "Not that we want to wish any drug cartels success, but because of that, the violence has subsided. There's no one vying for control of those drug routes right now."
There is still drug-related violence in Nogales, Cummins said, but it's most likely to be internal retribution against someone who lost a drug load or who didn't pay a debt.
"Now, instead of going into the restaurant and gunning one guy down and maybe hitting two other innocent people who are there, they tend to ... kidnap the guy and take him out to the desert and take care of business out there and dig a shallow grave," he said.
Americans can avoid that kind of violence in Nogales by steering clear of shady activity, Cummins said.
One Rotarian asked Cummins what Americans should do if they come across a roadblock. The Mexican military and police often set up security checkpoints on secondary highways, but criminal organizations sometimes do as well.
If a traveler encounters a roadblock where someone demands a payment from them, Cummins said: "I'd say just pay it and don't resist unless you feel that your life, of the life of one of your loved ones, is threatened."
Cummins told the Rotary Club that the day after the new travel warning was released, he gave a presentation to the Arizona-Mexico Commission in Puerto Peñasco.
"We got to be the lightening rod for a lot of people," he said, noting the backlash from Sonoran officials and business leaders.
"They don't want it mentioned at all. They don't want any mention of Nogales, and they particularly don't want any mention of Puerto Peñasco," Cummins told the NI. "I think that's a stretch. We need to give people - under the circumstances of what's going on in Mexico - a heads up. But that's all it is. It's a heads up. It's not, ‘don't come.'
"In fact, we want to encourage people," he said. "The more people that come to Mexico and see what's going on down (there), the more it will help to dispel the myth that all of northern Mexico is a war zone. Because that's just not the case."
The travel warnings become even more controversial when the media doesn't report them correctly, Cummins said. For example, an Associated Press story on the travel warning stated that, "As spring break approaches, Arizonans are urged to avoid Nogales, Mexico, and the beach areas of Puerto Peñasco, also known as Rocky Point." That was "just plain wrong," Cummins said. "That is not what the travel warning says."
"This is where I sympathize with the Sonorans and those in Puerto Peñasco," he said. "The State Department issues a travel alert, and the media embellishes it and falsely reports it, and then they have a legitimate beef."