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When Americans die on foreign soil -- the tally from early 2010

November 22, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • The earthquake in Haiti was the single most deadly event for Americans abroad in the first half of 2010, according to U.S. State Department statistics.
The earthquake in Haiti was the single most deadly event for Americans abroad… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

At least 572 American citizens died abroad of non-natural causes in the first half of 2010. That makes them a tiny minority among the millions traveling and residing safely in other countries. But their stories are still powerful reminders of where the greatest dangers are – and where they aren’t – when we leave the country.

The single most fatal event for Americans abroad? The Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. In the aftermath of that massively destructive temblor, authorities counted 120 U.S. citizens among the 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in the quake (total death estimates vary widely).  For the six-month period, U.S. officials counted 128 American deaths overall in Haiti.

If you leave Jan. 12 out, the most common killers of Americans abroad from January through June were vehicle accidents.  The U.S. State Department  counted  116 such deaths worldwide, involving cars, buses, motorcycles and pedestrians. The other leading categories were homicides (103 worldwide); suicides (68 worldwide) and drownings (52 worldwide).

Mexico, which gets far more American visitors than any other country and is in the middle of a drug war, registered more American deaths than any other foreign country:  137 from January through June.  Meanwhile, Canada reported just four American deaths during that time period --  two in auto accidents, two by suicide, no homicides.

Except for the Haiti figures, these numbers largely fit the pattern of death figures from previous years, and they underline the idea that many travelers underestimate the risks that come with facing foreign traffic.

“On international travel, I don’t drive vehicles, because I don’t feel secure in doing that,” said Sally Dunlap, vice president of Travelex Insurance Services in Omaha. "It’s a lot less stress to have transportation provided by other means.”

As for Mexico, she said, “We travel to Mexico at least once a year. If you go off property from where you’re staying, just be aware. Don’t go by yourself, and know where you’re going.”

All these numbers come from the U.S. State Department, which does its best to track non-natural deaths (i.e. from causes other than illness) of Americans abroad. By law, the department has to make the numbers (but not names) public, so it periodically updates a listing on its website, citing dates and causes of death. The tallies go back to October 2002.

These numbers come with many caveats. Department officials note that most Americans who die abroad are not tourists but people who live there as expatriates or as holders of dual citizenship. Also, these numbers are far from complete.  For instance, surviving family members might or might not follow the government’s request that they notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of a death. Also, members of the military and other government employees may be left out, which helps explain the low numbers for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other causes of death for Americans abroad in the first half of 2010:

Air accidents: 16.

“Drug-related” incidents: 12.

Maritime accidents: 4.

Train accidents: 4.

Under the category of “other accident”: 67.

Terrorist action: 2 (both in Afghanistan)

The Mexico death total of 137 is a slight increase from the first half of 2009, when the number was 126. Of the deaths in Mexico from January through June of this year, 44 were homicides and four more were labeled “executions.”  Thirty-nine resulted from vehicle accidents and 17 were drownings.

There are always several factors to keep in mind when looking at death statistics for Mexico. One is that the nation has been at war with various drug cartels since late 2006, with more than 28,000 lives lost. Though the conflict has reached just about every corner of the country (as this state-by-state map illustrates), most of the violence has taken place in the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Durango.

So far I’ve found just one American tourist who has been killed in apparent drug-war violence: Agustin Roberto Salcedo, a 33-year-old El Monte educator who in late 2009 was visiting his wife’s hometown in Mexico — Gomez Palacio, in the state of Durango, well off the traditional tourist path. On Dec. 30, Salcedo and his wife were in a local bar when unknown gunmen burst in and took him and five other men away. The six were later found dead at the edge of town.

Another factor in Mexico’s numbers is the sheer volume of visiting and resident Americans.  Millions of Americans cross the border by car and foot each year in Tijuana alone.  Exact figures on expats are hard to come by.

Further, government figures show that 583,732 Americans visited Mexican destinations by air in the month of July alone – a 20% increase over 2009, when Americans tourists were worrying about drug war and H1N1 flu. Some analysts say U.S. travelers may feel more confident about spending on travel again and see Mexico as a good bargain for vacations. 

For a country-by-country look at advice for travelers, check out the State Department's website for travelers.

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