Mexico, tourism, security and a house on the beach . . .

February 17, 2010

MANZANILLO, MX, Feb. 17, 2010/ Troy Media / — I am sitting under the covered patio in my rented casita (small house) about 15 metres from the Pacific Ocean in Manzanillo Mexico, having the best cup of coffee of my life (Oaxaca – pronounced Wuh – haw -kaa-  Pluma, grown in the country’s southern mountains), and watching a local family play in the sand and surf.

The February temperature is still about 28 degrees centigrade, even though the sun is quickly dropping behind the Juluapan Peninsula. The red-threaded sky reminds me of the old aphorism – red sky at night, sailor’s delight – and I am hoping that bodes well for my scheduled marlin-fishing trip in the morning. The beautiful sunset, the warmth, the sound and sight of the waves, and squeals of delight from the children on the beach, makes it easy to forget for a moment or two at least that I am visiting what some would consider to be a highly dangerous country.

Drug cartels and the Mexican army

You are no doubt aware of the fight along Mexico’s border with the United States between the drug cartels and the Mexican army (see also “U.S., Mexico drug ‘war’ needs bold new approach” Troy Media, June 2009). Brutal murders and gun battles between soldiers and los narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) is described by some as a civil war, raising serious questions as to whether the Mexican government is capable of dealing with the problem, and even more serious questions about whether the country is on the edge of anarchy.

Mid-January 2010, 15 people, mostly high-school aged teens, were murdered while attending a party, apparently targeted because one drug gang thought members of another were in attendance. Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, hinted that the teens themselves might have been involved in a gang and was forced to come to Ciudad Juarez to clear the air – declaring them to be bystanders in the “war”.

At the same time Calderon outlined the government’s plan to fight the drug battle using social development and job creation projects as well as keeping the army active in border and coastal states. Still, the deaths of the young Mexicans has led at least one former government official to ask publicly when Mexicans will get angry enough to take a stand, and stop accepting the deaths and the misery.

From a tourism perspective, it is widely assumed in Mexico that ongoing news reports on the drug battles have dampened interest in the country as a travel destination. Mexico lost about $2 billion dollars in tourism in 2009, a year which featured a perfect storm of bad news including the initial H1N1 flu scare, the recession generally and the violence.  Officials want to combat the combat stories with a campaign that speaks broadly to how safe it is to be in Mexico.  But it would seem to be a futile task until there is some sense that the border-battle is abating.

Optimistically, the government is predicting a tourism rebound for 2010. But except for weekends, when many more Mexicans arrive in Manzanillo and la playa (the beach) from the nearby city of Guadalajara, the kilometres of sand and restaurants in this port city at least seem mostly deserted.  Taxi drivers say their fares are down about 80 per cent. The party boats that take visitors on an all-inclusive junket around La Bahia (bay) Santiago carry only a small number of people at a time.

Our fishing guide is also having a slow season and is thankful for our business, and the 135-kilo marlin we catch with his skill and help. Other tourists say their hotels are virtually empty. A local real estate agent reports that inquiries for vacation rentals are down and the sales market is slow. Whatever reason Canadians and Americans have for coming here in lesser numbers, their absence is having an impact financially.

Is it safe in Mexico?

So what is life like for a traveler in Mexico? Is it safe? The answers are as complicated as the country itself, and it is only reasonable that each traveler here answers it in his or her own way, while acknowledging that it does not matter much to victims of crime that someone else may have visited repeatedly without having a problem.

Since 1993 I have been in Mexico about 15 times. I have toured around some of its poorest southern states; I have stayed in some fishing villages time has seemingly forgot; I have studied Spanish in Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Guanajuato and Colima; and I have done some teaching here, including bringing groups of students from Canada. I even stayed once in an all-inclusive resort.

I have witnessed many interesting events in that time. I was in Chiapas New Year’s day 1994 when the Zapatista’s declared war on the government and attacked a nearby town. I have been in Mexico City and watched supplicants walk for many metres on their knees over a cement lot praying to La Virgen de Guadaloupe as they approach a magnificent modern church in her name. Guadaloupe is revered in Mexico: a dark skinned Virgin Mary, she connects the country’s indigenous roots and religions to the Catholicism imported by the Spanish conquistadors.

I have sat in Oxaxca’s zocalo, or central plaza, as protestors marched for land rights, and improved services. I have watched the sunset over ornate Mayan temples in the Yucatan, and the more austere Monte Alban of the Zapotecs. I have watched the lava boil over the lip of Colima’s volcano, and experienced life following a serious earthquake. I have spent many Saturday afternoons in Los Portales (arched walls that face the central garden or plaza of most every town) con botanas y cerveza (with snacks and beer) and watched families celebrate special occasions with colourful good cheer. I was here as well when the country’s 80-year-old de facto dictatorship ended with the presidential election in 2000.

So, for me, the answer to the question of what it is like to travel in Mexico is that it has been a challenge, an education, and a revelation. Culturally rich and diverse, the country is populated by mestizos or people with mixed blood. Its indigenous roots still define its attitudes toward life, religion and authority.  Parts of the country remain veiled in superstition, and it is still common to have public exorcisms in some local churches.

It is also a country of revolutionary heroes whose names adorn most street signs, and whose statues stand in mute testimony to struggle and death. The Mexican expatriate writer Carlos Fuentes in a recent visit recent to a university here suggested to students that it is time for Mexico to create new heroes of ordinary people who represent what Mexico is today, and what it will become, a mostly modern country with a substantial economy and resources.

Right now though, ordinary Mexicans are worried about the country’s economy and security, and they abhor how politics is practiced here. Politicians in all countries face the charge of cronyism from time-to-time, while in Mexico cronyism is assumed and people are delighted when, on rare occasions, a politician does not disappoint them.

For most visitors, the country’s politics is unimportant but their safety is a concern. I can honestly say I have never been threatened, let alone robbed or attacked, though I have read numerous stories about tourists being robbed, assaulted and occasionally killed. The likelihood of a tourist being involved in drug violence is highly remote unless they get involved in the trade in some way. Still, it would be a mistake to assume one’s safety and I would be exceedingly careful in border towns, in parts of Mexico City and Guadalajara, on the beaches at night and in resort towns after midnight.

Mexican resort towns are home to many good people, and most tourists are respectful. But it is equally true that resort towns attract Mexicans interested in taking advantage of visitors, while also attracting the worst type of tourist – young people mostly, who come here to spend a week being as drunk and disorderly as possible.

“Borrachos,” (drunks) said the manager

On this trip we chose to be right on the beach for an extended stay in Manzanillo, Mexico’s quietest resort community.  Manzanillo is a busy port and naval base and a working-class town of just over 100,000 that has a number of large hotels and related services. By day the public beach is a place for families, fishers and visitors staying in nearby condos, many of them have been coming here for years. Just after sunset the beach becomes a place where young couples come and disappear into the darkness for a while. Sometimes, after midnight, partiers come down to listen to ear-splitting music and drink a few beers on the lighted patio beside the house, on the edge of the sand.

We call the local police and the quiet is soon restored, except for the thunderous sound of the waves at night. The most menacing moment so far was the theft of the hammock from the house’s patio, which required that the thieves come over the three metre high seawall.  “Borrachos” – drunks – the manager of la casita said when informed. Padlocks instead of S hooks secure the new hammock, but we don’t make the same assumption about our own security. We take basic sensible precautions such as leaving some outside lights on at night and ensuring doors are locked.

A positive experience

Overall our experience here has been overwhelmingly positive. We have met some new people and have hosted some old friends, and as it turns out, and by accident, the rental house is itself connected to the history and wonders of Mexico. Just under 500 years ago Spanish ships steered into what is now la Bahia Santiago for the first time, having come around the southern tip of the continent. On coming ashore, presumably for fresh water and food, they placed a cross on the beach at or near this spot defining the land as newfound Spanish territory. At the time, the people who lived in the hills and along the shore lived in what would clearly have passed as the Garden of Eden with its lush vegetation and marine life.

A cross still marks the spot today and it in fact stands over the party patio outside our wall, and la calle (the street) we are on is called de la Cruz (of the cross). It is not the original cross mind-you, which is reputedly in the possession of a politician. Replica or not, many locals acknowledge it when passing by with their own sign of the cross, and a bow of the head and, I imagine, a short prayer for their livelihood, their families and their country.

Terry Field has reported previously on Mexican politics and is the chair of the journalism degree program at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. 

For a comprehensive examination of Mexico’s drug gang problem start with: http://projects.latimes.com/siege/#/its-a-war

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