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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Despite an ongoing violent drug war, Mexico continues to be one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. While Acapulco has fallen from the travel radar due to an astronomical murder rate since 2005, places like Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, and Cancun have remained largely untouched. However, that all changed when a crude explosive device detonated on Feb. 21 aboard a ferry that operates between the resort areas of Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.
Fortunately, no one was killed as a result of the detonation, but 26 people were injured (including U.S. citizens). But then authorities found an object a few days later attached to the underside of another ferry belonging to the same company near Cozumel Island, which they described as a similar “rudimentary artifact.” That one never detonated.
Ferry Security Alerts for Mexico
Within a week, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs started issuing security alerts for Mexico. The first one was posted on March 1, and stated, “U.S. Government employees are prohibited from using all tourist ferries on this route until further notice. Mexican and U.S. law enforcement continue to investigate.” No more details were provided. On March 7, another warning indicated that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City “received information about a security threat in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico.” The restriction for government employees was extended to Playa del Carmen resorts, and no further details were provided regarding the security threat.
After this alert was published, travel agency phones started ringing off the hook as U.S. citizens with travel plans to Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen started panicking and canceling their trips. The warnings came right in the middle of Spring Break season, so parents across the U.S. with children in Mexico scrambled to reach them and try to bring them home. Brides and grooms with weddings scheduled at one of the endless all-inclusive luxury resorts along the Riviera Maya wondered of any of their guests would show up.
Playa del Carmen Neighborhoods
Two days later, the State Department issued a third security alert that narrowed down the restricted areas to specific Playa del Carmen neighborhoods and lifted the U.S. government personnel travel restriction. It did say that “the circumstances surrounding the security threat affecting the above neighborhoods is separate from the threat against ferries operating between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel,” and the Department still advised Americans to avoid the ferry service. However, no more specifics about the threat were provided.
Given the location, one might be quick to assume that the explosive devices, and possibly the security threat in Playa del Carmen, were somehow related to local gang or drug cartel activity. However, on March 11, Mexico’s Deputy Attorney General Arturo Elias Beltran said at a news conference that terrorism and organized crime have been “ruled out.” He also told reporters that the bomb “had a very limited capacity” and “was not intended to do major damage,” adding that 60 police officers and sniffer dogs have been deployed to guard the docks and ferries between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.
Some Canadian tourists told CTV News in Canada that the U.S. travel warnings were not causing them to change their plans. They said they planned to stay safe by staying on their resort property, and by avoiding travelling anywhere by ferry. However, retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent Mike Vigil says that may not be enough. He told CTV News, “It’s a very poor decision to say, ‘As long as I stay in tourist places, I’m going to be safe.’ There are no safe places. There are no safe places.”
Is The Violence Cartel Related?
The problem remains that the creators of the explosive devices on the ferries have not been found, and the source of the separate threat in Playa del Carmen has not been made public. The bombs may not have been cartel-related, but there’s no indication if this is also the case for the resort town. Cartels tend to shy away from conducting operations—and associated violence—in popular tourist areas because it draws much unwanted police attention, as evidenced by recent events. However, the vagueness of the State Department’s warnings continues to sow unrest among U.S. tourists and the travel industry.