Violence Making Mexican Vacations Risky

BY now, most Canadians know the sad story of Jeff Toews, the 33-year-old Grande Prairie, Alta., man who died of massive head injuries while vacationing in Mexico earlier this month. But far less has been said about another deadly incident in downtown Cancún, just four days before Toews suffered his fatal injuries.

On May 3, Ricardo Samos, Cancún's police chief, was driving in a truck along the city's main street when a group of men blocked his vehicle's path and opened fire. The attack took place just a few kilometres from the idyllic beach resorts that host thousands of Canadian tourists and spring break revellers every year. Samos escaped with his life, but one of his bodyguards died at the scene. Only one of his assailants was apprehended.

While most Canadians have been focused on whether Toews died in an accidental fall from his hotel's second-floor balcony, as Mexican authorities maintain, or was the victim of a beating, as his family suspects - the much-larger picture has been ignored. Mexico is in the midst of a deepening drug war between two murderous cartels, and the bullets are flying closer than ever to the vacation hot spots favoured by sun-starved northerners. And when trouble erupts, local police are often little help. More and more, a family trip to sunny Mexico might not be a risk worth taking. "Even if large numbers of tourists aren't lined up and shot, who wants to take that chance?" says Bruce Bagley, the director of the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. "Who wants to send their kid to take that chance?"

Turns out that the drinking water isn't the only thing tourists have to worry about when visiting Mexico. Gangs are becoming increasingly dangerous as they battle for control of lucrative drug routes - displaying the severed heads of police chiefs and rivals in public like trophies. One night last fall, for instance, while patrons of a club in the city of Uruapan drained shots of tequila and danced, a group of men, dressed in military garb and brandishing machine guns, stormed in and rolled five severed heads onto the dance floor.

The past 18 months have proven especially deadly for Canadians in Mexico. The highest-profile case involves the murders of Domenic and Nancy Ianiero, the Woodbridge, Ont., couple who had their throats slit in their room at a resort near Playa del Carmen in February 2006. A couple of months ago, two Canadians from the Niagara Falls region got caught in the crossfire when a gunman fired a semi-automatic weapon into the lobby of the hotel in Acapulco where they were staying. That attack, which left bullet wounds in the legs of both victims, came just a few weeks after 19-year-old Adam DePrisco, from Woodbridge, Ont., died outside an Acapulco nightclub. The local police determined the cause of his death to be a hit and run. Family and friends, however, suspect that DePrisco was targeted by locals and then fatally beaten - a theory that was backed at the time by a city official.

Foreign Affairs reports that 13 Canadians have been murdered in Mexico since January 2000. And of the 1,133 Canadians who reported being assaulted on foreign soil between 2000 and 2006, Mexico tops the list with 173 cases, followed by China (105) and Cuba (62). Even factoring in the popularity of Mexico as a vacation destination - more than a million Canadians stretched out on Mexican beaches last year - it still ranks second, behind only China, with the highest percentage of incidents per visit.

And with the war between Mexico's two major drug cartels - the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel - heating up, things aren't getting any better. The violence isn't meant to intimidate tourists, says Jorge Chabat, a drug and security specialist at the Center for Economic Research and Training in Mexico City, but "people see the news and say, 'Oh-oh. I'm going to a place where somebody is killing somebody a kilometre from the hotel.' "

For decades, says Chabat, the drug trade in Mexico operated with far less bloodshed. But a crackdown by Vicente Fox's government about two years ago led to several high-profile arrests and an imbalance in the ranks, resulting in the current turf war. More than 800 people have died in the drug-related violence in Mexico so far this year, and the body count rises daily. Police chiefs are being picked off - in many cases, say experts, not for cracking down on drugs, but because they're on the take from a rival gang. And resort towns, which offer a sanitized version of life in Mexico, are increasingly at the heart of the action. That's because, say experts, the main corridor for drug trafficking is up the Pacific coast, and tourists provide a well-heeled market.

In an effort to protect investment to the country and his precious $14-billion tourism business, current President Felipe Calderón has deployed more than 20,000 troops to some of the worst-affected areas in the country (almost a third have been sent to Acapulco). But, as the front pages of the local dailies in Mexico indicate, his efforts have done very little to rein in the violence. And the local cops are of little use in the fight. "You cannot count on the police to investigate and find the culprits," says Bagley. "They are not First World police forces. They are rife with petty corruption. And some of the higher-ups are deeply involved in drug-related corruption and trafficking."

Canada's Conservative government, however, has been treading softly in their dealings with Mexico about these cases - afraid, no doubt, of the political and economic fallout that may occur by alienating a NAFTA partner. On its website, Foreign Affairs warns Canadians travelling to Mexico that "crimes, including armed robbery, purse-snatching and pickpocketing, occur frequently," and that "Canadians have been victims of random shootings in areas notorious for drug trafficking." Since 2004, Mexico has been slapped with five warnings from Canada - four for bad weather; one for political tensions. "They're not telling you," says Bagley, "to dodge the AK-47s, the bazookas and the grenade launchers that these guys use."

According to Helena Guergis, Canada's secretary of state (foreign affairs), the government will only issue a travel warning in the case of a natural disaster, civil unrest, or if there's proof that Canadians are specifically being targeted. That has left many wondering just how bad the Mexican drug war has to get before the government sees fit to formally warn Canadians about it. Liberal foreign affairs critic Ujjal Dosanjh scratched Cancún off his list of possible travel destinations this year. "I'm worried not about the actual crime sometimes - I'm worried about how it's handled afterwards," he says.

The RCMP has a full-time liaison officer stationed in Mexico City, but due to the mutual legal assistance treaty that exists between the two countries, the officer can only take part in a local investigation at the request of Mexican authorities. While his involvement was requested last year in the case of the Ianiero murders, it should come as no surprise that the phone doesn't ring very often. "The police force from either country should be free to be part of an investigation," says Dosanjh. "Not lead it, but at least be observers."

So far, Canadians haven't been scared away. But 60 per cent of Canadians polled in February said that they would avoid Mexico as a vacation destination because of the recent crimes committed against tourists. And Christiane Théberge, the president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agents, says tourism could suffer if problems in Mexico persist. ACTA has lobbied Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay to put more pressure on the Mexican government to fully investigate every case involving Canadians. "Families and travellers are entitled to the truth," says Théberge. "People have to know what is happening there. We're concerned that's not really happening."

Others have grown tired of waiting for action. A couple of months ago, Jim Karygiannis, the Liberal MP for Scarborough-Agincourt, sent a letter to all of his constituents with a simple message: "Travelling to Mexico for March Break? I would think about it twice." While accidents can happen anywhere, there's no denying that some places are a lot more dangerous than others.

Maclean's June 4, 2007