|By Diana Washington Valdez, El Paso
Times, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 10, 2012--Violence linked to drug cartels and organized crime prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a new travel warning for U.S. citizens in Mexico.
The number of U.S. citizens reported murdered in Mexico rose from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011, officials said.
State Department officials also said that Juarez, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the country, is of special concern.
"The Mexican government reports that more than 3,100 people were killed in Juarez in 2010 and 1,933 were killed in 2011. Three persons associated with the Consulate General were murdered in March 2010," the State Department said in a statement. "There (also) have been incidents of narcotics-related violence in the vicinity of the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua."<>The warning issued on Wednesday that includes entire or parts of 18 states elicited a swift response from Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinoza, who said Mexico has made extraordinary efforts to ensure the safety of its citizens and foreign visitors.
She said that 1 million people from various countries visited Mexico in December, a busy travel season for people visiting relatives or hitting the beaches in resort areas.
Travel warnings are issued when long-term conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable are prevalent.
State Department officials attributed the violence to the Mexican government's crackdown against drug cartels and their well-armed gangs fighting over lucrative smuggling corridors. The warning describes conditions reminiscent of days from the Wild West.
"The Mexican government has been engaged in an extensive effort to counter TCO's (transnational criminal organizations) which engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico," U.S. officials said.
"The TCO's themselves are engaged in a violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. As a result, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and can occur anywhere. U.S. citizens have fallen victim to TCO activity, including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery."
Thousands of Juarez residents have left the city to escape the violence, and many of them have moved to El Paso and the vicinity.
Mexican Defense Secretary Guillermo Galvan said that organized crime began in Mexico with gangs led by corrupt police.
"The result of this is what we face today," Galvan said during a speech Thursday in Mexico City.
Part of the Mexican government's strategy to rein in the cartels has included purging police departments of corrupt officers. In some cases, police have been caught working for competing drug organizations.
In Juarez, the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel has waged a brutal battle against the Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman organization, which has led to thousands of deaths.
Filmmaker Charlie Minn, who's produced two films about the violence in Juarez, has sought to go beyond homicide statistics to put a human face on the situation.
He spoke on Thursday to a psychology class at the University of Texas at El Paso, showing clips from one of his films, "8 Murders a Day."
The images caused one of the students to burst out of the room crying. The student said later that three of her cousins were killed in Juarez two years ago. Some students said they no longer cross the border because of the violence.
Javier Ramos, another student, said his father is a law enforcement officer in Mexico.
"My family and I fear for his life every day," Ramos said. "My father is in the middle of the violence fighting the cartels."
Minn said he thought he was done documenting the violence in Juarez until he saw a video of elementary school students hitting the floor in their classroom while gunshots were fired outside.
"The image of the little girl in the video, which was taken by a teacher with a cellphone, inspired me to make another film about Juarez," Minn said. "This has been my passion."
State Department officials said Mexico's resort areas and tourist destinations have not experienced high levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border regions and in areas along major trafficking routes.
"The State Department's updated travel warning does not apply to Puerto Vallarta, which is a popular resort city and leading vacation destination in Mexico," said Gustavo Rivas-Solis, spokesman for the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board in New York. "Puerto Vallarta continues to be one of the safest destinations for international travelers."
Mexican tourism officials said they are expecting record numbers of international visitors this year, especially to the southern regions because of the legends about the Maya 2012 prophecies.
U.S. officials urged Americans who visit Mexico to avoid high-risk areas and to use common sense in getting around.
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6140.
(c)2012 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
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