By Lynn Ashby 27 June 2011
THE TEX-MEX CAFÉ – Enchiladas, tamales, tequila, mariachi music and some Alivia bottled water. This restaurant is about as close as Texans can get to Mexico these days. It’s a shame because, when it comes to trips south of the border, every Texan has memories, some fond, some not so fond (hence my bottled water). Shopping along border towns for hats, pots, Elvis on velvet. Farther inland, including Mexico City, there was more shopping. I suspect most houses in Texas have something hecho en Mexico.
Ah, the food. It was hard to beat a star-lit evening at a café patio (circa 1510) sipping a margarita, woofing down a platter of tacos al carbon and listening to the music. The history, too. Texas and Mexico share so much history, much of it bloody. The first column I ever wrote was from Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City looking for the Alamo flag. Then it disappeared “for reconditioning,” never to reappear. And for many a young macho Texan, it was a rite of passage to visit Boys Town in Nuevo Laredo. From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Cancun, Mexico was a delight.
But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, no one goes there anymore — it’s too empty. Juarez, with 3,100 murders last year, is considered the deadliest city in the world. Remember that at one time there was a streetcar line that ran between El Paso and Juarez, the only such international link in the world. Last time I looked, the tracks were still there, but no street cars, and the border looked like Checkpoint Charlie.
According to the Government of Mexico, 34,612 people have been killed in narcotics-related violence in that country since December of 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared war against the drug king pins and deployed Mexican troops to the fight them. More than 15,000 narcotics-related homicides occurred just last year, an increase of almost two-thirds compared to 2009. A steep increase. In April, the U.S. State Department broadened its travel warning for Mexico, advising citizens to avoid certain areas and don’t drive at night. The State Department reported 111Americans were murdered in Mexico last year. (The Texas DPS puts it at 65. That’s quite a difference.)
Most of those killed in narcotics-related violence have been drug gang members, but bystanders have also been murdered, as have Mexican cops and soldiers. Acapulco, once the getaway for Frank Sinatra and Hollywood elite, was already turning a bit seedy, surpassed by Cancun, Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta. Now gun battles between competing drug cartels rage up and down Acapulco’s streets.
This violence is, well, killing tourism. Nearly half of all available rooms in 70 major resort centers have been vacant this year, except for Easter that nearly filled the hotels for a few days. In Acapulco, last year the resort occupancy rate slid 7 percentage points to 38.4 percent from 2008. In that same period, Cancun’s rate tumbled from 72.1 percent to 57.4 percent, according to the Mexico Tourism Board. Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Maya have seen similar declines.
Overall, the number of international visitors fell 13 percent to 79.8 million in 2010 from 91.5 million in 2008, according to Banco de Mexico. Travel to Mexico from the U.S. dropped by 4 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. And the downward trend continues: In January, 3.8 million day-trippers crossed the U.S. border into Mexico, down 16 percent from the same month last year. Even so, tourism provides Mexico its third largest source of revenue. This year the industry still is expected to account for 13 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product and nearly 15 percent of domestic jobs. But that’s also down from earlier years.
The violence is particularly a worry during the American colleges’ annual spring break, when thousands, if not tens of thousands, of bikini-clad co-eds were pursued by drunken frat rats across the sand dunes. The most recent Texas DPS travel warning, issued in time for spring break this year, wanders around a bit warning of drug violence, then ends with a very unbureaucratic: “Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive.”
The tourist industries in both countries are fighting back. Recently a traveling circus of Mexican government officials and Texas tourist agents visited Texas officials and newspapers, saying that Texas’ current warning is too broad and is hurting business. They claimed less than 5 percent of Mexico is affected by cartel and drug violence, and wanted future DPS travel warnings to point out which areas of Mexico pose the most threat to tourists. “Out of roughly 2,500 municipalities, only 80 are currently recording problems with drug violence,” a trade association official said. Specifically, the organizations claimed popular resort cities such as Cancun, Los Cabos and Cozumel are not dangerous for Americans. The DPS stood its ground, noting that even popular resort areas are drug battlegrounds.
Before we get too condescending about our neighbors’ drug wars, we must remember that if there was no market among us gringos for Mexican drugs, or drugs passing to us through Mexico from Colombia, etc., there wouldn’t be any Mexican drug trade, no turf wars, decapitated bodies or rampant terror. (I was about to add “no corruption,” but why bother?) Also, Texans are turning a buck on the chaos. ATF figures 70 percent of all guns seized in Mexico in 2009 and 2010 came from the U.S., with Houston, San Antonio and Dallas figuring prominently in the gun smuggling. Then there is the cash going south. Drug lords don’t take MasterCard.
So I sit here in this Tex-Mex café, dipping my chips in salsa while remembering the old days when all we had to worry about south of the border was Montezuma’s revenge. I take a sip of my prized Alivia water and casually read the label. “Product of Mexico. Water source: municipal supply.” All of a sudden I don’t feel so good.
Ashby stays put at email@example.com