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U.S. Bitterness Lingers in Drug Agent's Killing : Highly Publicized Murder Is Cutting Into Mexican Tourism

March 17, 1985|LAURIE BECKLUND | Times Staff Writer

Last week, friends of slain American drug agent Enrique Camarena pooled some money and put up a billboard in his hometown of Calexico. "Warning, Not Safe to Travel to Guadalajara, Mexico," the sign said.

Now the sign is coming down.

The Chamber of Commerce, the mayor and many Calexico citizens are sympathetic to the family and friends of Camarena, who was kidnaped in Guadalajara. But they opposed the sign on grounds that it could create tensions that would unfairly hurt commerce and international relations.

Pressure on Mexico

"The sign was a way of pressuring Mexico, of letting people know that we were not pleased with the way the investigation was going," said Arturo Rioseco, a Calexico city councilman. He said he and others who decided to put up the sign are now taking it down at the request of Camarena's family.

"This has been a very difficult time for the family and they have decided that there has been too much controversy about it all. But, we feel that if even a few tourists have not gone to Guadalajara, we have accomplished our purpose," Rioseco said.

Canceled Travel Plans

More than a few tourists have canceled plans to travel to Guadalajara since Camarena, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was kidnaped Feb. 7 by Mexican drug dealers and killed.

Mexican and American officials say the highly publicized murder has had a residual impact on tourism in Mexico that they believe is unfortunate for both American vacationers and citizens of Mexico, where tourism is the No. 2 industry after oil.

"Travel to Mexico is extremely safe," said Caron Garcia, assistant press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "Mexico is essentially safer than New York City. And that isn't just my opinion. It is the opinion of people around the embassy here."

"What does tourism have to do with the murder?" asked Manuel Garrido, director of the Mexico City Assn. of Hotels and Motels. "Thousands--millions--of Mexicans depend directly or indirectly on tourism. And they are the innocent victims of this problem, which is just not what it has been portrayed. You can walk the streets of Mexico at midnight safely."

Reports of the Calexico sign have been prominent in some newspapers in Mexico City, where the news has deepened resentment among businessmen and tourism officials. Asked about the sign, Lino Villanueva, a Mexican government tourism spokesman, answered abruptly, "No comment."

Many Cancellations

Roughly 10% to 15% of American tourists who had planned to visit Mexico City this summer have canceled their hotel reservations, Garrido said, adding that most of the cancellations had been for group or study tours. He said he hopes tourists will reconsider their cancellations.

Though no statistics were available for Guadalajara, the cancellation rate for Mexico's second-largest city was described as higher--even though an estimated 30,000 U.S. citizens, many of them retired, live in Guadalajara.

"Guadalajara is probably hurting more than other cities (in terms of hotel cancellations,)" said Alberto Abdo, director of the Mexican government tourism office in Los Angeles. "But with all this publicity, my guess is that Guadalajara is probably the safest place in the world at the moment."

Mexican officials announced Thursday that they had taken into custody 13 suspects, including Guadalajara-based policemen, in the kidnap-murder case. At least one has confessed, they say. U.S. Ambassador John Gavin has said he is "pleased" by progress in the case, but believes still more police may be involved.

Killings, Disappearances

According to U.S. Embassy figures, a total of 54 American citizens have been killed or have disappeared in Mexico over the last two years. Twenty of the cases have been solved.

Five of these victims--Camarena and four American Jehovah's Witnesses who disappeared Dec. 2--were abducted in Guadalajara. The case of the kidnaped Jehovah's Witnesses has not been solved.

Of the 54 dead, 16 died in the northwestern region of the country covered by the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, Garcia, the U.S. Embassy assistant press officer, said. She said U.S. Embassy statistics indicate that 1,607 Americans were robbed in Mexico in the two-year period, and five were raped.

"But over 4 million tourists came to Mexico last year alone, and most of them were Americans," Garcia said. "Obviously, these statistics are not high compared to many places."

She described crime problems in Mexico as "localized," and urged caution for any tourists traveling to Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.

There have been seven armed robberies, one murder and one rape in Puerto Vallarta since January, she said, warning tourists who visit the resort town to refrain from walking alone late at night, wearing valuable jewelry and carrying large sums of money.

Unaffected so far by the Camarena incident have been airlines flying to Mexico, which are carrying more passengers this year than last year, officials said.

They also indicated that tourism has not declined significantly in border areas.

"I'd say the border area is much less affected by this because at least 75% of the people who come to Baja California are frequent visitors," said Nico Saad, owner of Ensenada's San Nicolas resort hotel. "They know they're not going to have problems."

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