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Traveling in Mexico despite drug violence, H1N1 flu

Keep in mind that the drug war is far from most resorts and other tourist areas and follow the U.S. State Department recommendations. And if possible, get immunized against the swine flu beforehand.

November 08, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

Mexico's drug war is entering its fourth year. Its H1N1 flu outbreak began with dozens of deaths and global headlines last spring. This leaves travelers with at least two reasons to study up before booking that Mexico trip.

But it doesn't necessarily mean staying home.

Mexico's drug-war death toll reached more than 9,900 between January 2007 and early October of this year, by the count of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. Many of the deaths have occurred near the U.S. border and far from the resorts and cities that draw thousands of Americans every year.

Robert Reid, who has contributed to Lonely Planet's Mexico volumes and serves as the New York-based U.S. travel editor for the guidebook publisher, likes to remind people that Mexico is about the size of France, Spain, Germany and Italy -- combined.

Before you let trouble in one corner of the country affect your travel to another corner, he said, "Imagine a shootout in Sicily forcing a canceled vacation in Germany."

Also, as Mexican officials are quick to note, most drug-war victims so far have been active partisans -- that is, drug-traffickers or law enforcement officials.

Charles Pope, interim director of the Trans-Border Institute, visits Tijuana and Mexicali up to four times a month, traveling just as he did in the years before President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug-traffickers in 2006. Pope dines out, drives at night and said he wouldn't hesitate to go to a baseball game, a lucha libre (professional wrestling match) or an event at the Tijuana Cultural Center.

Still, there has been plenty of trouble in Mexico, and it continues. On Oct. 16, authorities said they found nine mutilated bodies in Tlapehuala, a town in the state of Guerrero, and three more bodies in Acapulco, each accompanied by a threatening note signed "the boss of bosses."

Since Aug. 20, the U.S. State Department has urged Americans to delay unnecessary travel to parts of the states of Michoacan (capital: Morelia) and Chihuahua (which includes the cities of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez on the Texas border). Mexican authorities say that in the first half of 2009, more than 1,000 killings took place in Ciudad Juarez.

Though U.S. citizens have been killed in Mexico, apparently including four whose bodies were discovered in Tijuana in May, those deaths make up a small fraction of those who have died in the drug-related violence.

If you set flu aside, said Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World," the biggest danger for a law-abiding traveler in Mexico is probably "the same as the big danger in the U.S. -- road crashes. Almost everything else is negligible by comparison."

But Hasbrouck said, "You have to evaluate not only 'Is it safe?' but also, 'Will I be so frightened that I won't enjoy my trip?' "

For details on the geography of Mexico's troubles, check the U.S. State Department's website, especially the Mexico security travel alert, at www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa _tw/cis/cis_970.html.

For articles, images, maps and video on the drug war's effects in Baja California and throughout Mexico, check the Los Angeles Times "Mexico Under Siege" project. The site: latimes.com/mexicoundersiege.

Wherever you go in Mexico, the U.S. State Department recommends you stay on the beaten path, carry a working cellphone, tell others where you're going and register to receive State Department e-mail notifications at travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/

On the flu front, Mexico drew worldwide attention in April and May when H1N1 was blamed for dozens of deaths. In the offices of Passport Health Los Angeles, a travel medicine and immunization clinic, executive director Rayann Aziz recalls the concern that erupted then.

But lately, the U.S. and Mexico are in the same position -- jointly leading the world in cases.

So Aziz's advice for anybody traveling to Mexico is identical to her advice for those staying home: Get a 2009 H1N1 vaccination, especially if you're in a high-priority group (which includes pregnant women; people who live with or care for children up to 6 months old; healthcare and emergency medical services workers; those 6 months to 24 years old; and anyone 25 to 64 with a chronic health disorder or compromised immune system).

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chris.reynolds@latimes.com

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Flu information

For flu information from the World Health Organization, check the weekly updates on the organization's website. The site: www.who.int/csr /don/2009_10_09/en/index.html

To get travel guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control: wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/content /novel-h1n1-flu.aspx

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