The US state department has warned Americans to completely avoid five Mexican states plagued by crime and drug cartel violence, putting the regions on the same level as war-zones such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
In an advisory issued on Wednesday, the state department said “do not travel to” the border state of Tamaulipas, as well as the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacán and Guerrero.
Sinaloa has seen spiraling violence since the 2016 arrest – and subsequent extradition to the US – of the former Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and battles over the spoils of his criminal empire.
Guerrero has long suffered lawlessness, but became notorious for the disappearance of 43 students in 2014. It has turned especially violent as dozens of criminal groups battle for control of heroin production, and the US government warns that “armed groups operate independently of the government in many areas [and] maintain roadblocks and many use violence towards travellers”.
While Michoacán has a long history of drug cartel activities, the tiny coastal state of Colima has claimed the dubious title of Mexico’s murder capital as rival cartels are thought to be competing for control of the port of Manzanillo.
Why did Mexico launch its war on drugs?
On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Calderón, launched Mexico’s war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.
Calderón declared war eight days after taking power – a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.
What has the war cost so far?
The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.
But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 200,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.
As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence.
What has been achieved?
Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderón’s most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.
The biggest victory – and most embarrassing blunder – under Peña Nieto’s leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.
How is the US involved?
Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations.
Last year was Mexico’s most murderous year in memory, with the violence spreading to tourist destinations including Los Cabos and Acapulco, and the country’s government has shown little sign that it is getting the upper hand, despite an 11-year militarized crackdown on organized crime.
The US state department gave Mexico as a whole a “level-two” rating and encourages travellers to “exercise increased caution”. At least half of Mexico’s 31 states were assigned level 3 or 4 warnings, meaning visitors should “reconsider travel” or “do not travel” to those places.
“Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread,” the advisory read.
US travel advisories are sensitive for Mexico, which attracted more than 35 million foreign visitors in 2016, according to the Mexican tourism board.
The tourism secretariat issued a statement Tuesday saying Mexico’s five main destinations – Cancún, the Mayan Riviera, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta-Riviera Nayarit and Mexico City – were not subject to the US restrictions.
It added that the crime statistics and violence used for the evaluation “are not related to incidents that directly affected foreign visitors”.