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How Safe are Mexico’s Border Cities for Business Travelers?

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Cities along the nation's U.S. border have become markedly safer during the past couple of years, but the recent arrest of a drug lord could precipitate more violence.

The recent arrest of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has cast renewed attention on the state of security in Mexico. But will the capture of a high-ranking narcotraficante make it safer for business travelers who must visit important border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana?

Unfortunately, the answer may be "no," according to William Vancio, the security adviser for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in Mexico. Vancio, who is based near Fort Lauderdale, Florida (U.S.), travels frequently to provide security support to IHG's offices and hotels. "Many analysts believe that the recent arrest of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman and other high-ranking 'capos' may precipitate more violence as others try to take control of the various cartels," he warns. "And there is the possibility of an escalation of violence, as other cartels compete to take control of the more lucrative border area smuggling routes. In other words, until the various cartels are actually eliminated or their power base is broken, security is still a major concern."

Streets of Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana See Noticeable Crime Drop

Still, there are some bright spots along the border, according to Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. that promotes leadership on international affairs. "In the last couple of years, the streets of Ciudad Juarez have become increasingly safer and more secure," Marczak says. "People are again going out at night, without the overhanging fear of violence en route to a restaurant or bar. A similar story is playing out in Tijuana, where crime began to noticeably drop starting in 2012."

Marczak credits governmental efforts for the increased safety. "The Mexican government has pursued a multi-pronged approach to improving security, with a focus on recovering public space and putting in place programs geared toward at-risk youth," he says. "This comes in addition to other public security measures. The United States continues to improve its cooperation with Mexican authorities, but better coordination, especially in the repatriation of unauthorized immigrants, is clearly necessary."

A "Very Fluid" Situation

Vancio agrees that the safety situation is improving on the border. "In general, security in towns along the Mexico-U.S. border at the moment is better than it has been in a while,"he says. "However, I must say that the situation is very fluid. Many of the issues that contributed to the high-levels of violence over the last several years have not been resolved. Although the Mexican government has had some success in apprehending much of the high-level leadership, the cartels still represent a very significant threat."

U.S. State Department travel warnings for Mexico, which were updated in January, continue to discourage visitors headed to the border. Carjacking and highway robbery are serious problems in many parts of the border region, according to the latest warnings, which also advise travelers to exercise caution when traveling to business and shopping districts in the northeast section of Ciudad Juarez and its large industrial parks.

In practical terms, however, Marczak notes that while "U.S. travel warnings are an important indication of the safety of a particular country or region, [they] are generally more cautious than the on-the-ground situation dictates."

IHG's Seven-Point Strategy 

 

To deal effectively with the security situation, IHG has developed a seven-point security strategy specifically for its 124 hotels in Mexico, according to Vancio. The plan's guidelines including having each hotel property designate a senior executive who is responsible for security, and to implement security procedures based on the IHG Global Security system. "Our hotels are also adopting the Virtual Guardian alert system, which provides real-time intelligence on developing security incidents," Vancio adds. "Obviously, I can't get into all of the details, but we are confident that this program will provide our staff and guests the best security possible."

 

Competing and Contradictory Statistics 

 

As for the future, "It is very difficult to predict the security situation of any of the border cities, as there are so many variables in place at the moment," Vancio says. "While it is true that over the last several months, the levels of violence in [Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana] appear to have diminished, the situation can change at any given moment, and the border cities could again become a battleground among the various cartels and government security forces." He notes that some statistics and reporting show that eliminating cartel leaders tends to cause those cartels to fracture into smaller groups. "These smaller groups seem to then turn more toward kidnapping, extortion and more traditional street crime," he explains. "What makes defining the security situation even more difficult is that there are so many competing, and sometimes contradictory, statistics. It is difficult for the business traveler to know exactly what is going on."  

 

Stay Alert and Up-to-Date

 

The takeaway for business travelers: stay up-to-date, and stay alert. "Communication is very important, as the security situation in Mexico is so fluid," Vancio says. "The security 'hotspots' can quickly change from place to place and day to day, so it is important for travelers to know the specific security assessment for any areas they might plan to visit beforehand. Since problems can show up at any time and any place, maintaining a low profile and being aware of your immediate environment is very important." 

For coverage of security in 19 countries around the Americas, see Latin Business Chronicle's Latin Security Index.

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