Stay in groups. Don’t go out alone at night. Watch your drink. Keeping out of harm’s way is relatively easy if you follow basic travel guidelines, although things aren’t always as sunny as the trip advertisements may suggest.
“Whether you go to Cancun or California, regardless of where you go there’s always a risk of some sort of danger,” said David Sanderson, STA Travel advisor.
Aside from traditional worries about getting caught up in bad company, however, there’s also trouble that most party-seeking tourists usually don’t think of – and probably won’t come across in their lifetimes. This is the crime and violence that full-time residents of spring break “paradises” must deal with: Child pornography and social inequality in Cancun, bloody turf wars in Acapulco, police violence against HIV-positive citizens in Jamaica (which only makes the disease’s epidemic there more heartbreaking). Paradise, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.
This isn’t to say that you can’t throw yourself down the waterslide at Carlos’n Charlie’s, fully clothed, without your conscience weighing you down. (Even though the bartender that served you makes less for a week’s work than you would make in a day on U.S. minimum wage.) But you can be more conscious of what’s going on two bus transfers away. To borrow from cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, it’s the difference between thinking, “This shouldn’t happen here” about injustices in America and “This shouldn’t happen anywhere.”
TROUBLE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SHANGRI-LA
Cancun the resort is one thing, but Cancun the city is another, wrote Arizona Republic scribe Chris Hawley in a 2006 piece called “Darkness behind Cancun’s beaches.” After talking to hotel workers while covering a presidential summit, Hawley stayed to report further on the stark contrast between the poor residents and the rich tourists they serve. Visitors to Cancun drop more than $3 billion a year on all-inclusive hotel packages and guided scuba tours, accounting for one-third of Mexico’s total tourism revenue. But those who live outside of what Hawley termed the “Disney version of Mexico” – many of whom work in the Hotel Zone’s luxury digs – struggle with poverty, drugs, gangs and other criminal activity, including a purported child pornography ring. Hotel housekeepers make barely 60 percent of what McDonald’s workers do in the hotel districts, roughly $5 compared to $8, though the McDonald’s workers don’t fare much better considering bus fare costs 65 cents. Workers live in cinderblock homes called superblocks, one or two bus rides away from the Hotel Zone.
Cancun city is also known for its history of drug trafficking. In 2001, federal agents arrested and charged Mario Villanueva, ex-governor of Cancun’s state Quintana Roo, with helping traffickers move more than 200 tons of cocaine through his state during the 1990s. The U.S. is working on his extradition.
Former Mexican President Vincente Fox has said organized crime is a serious problem in Cancun as well as in another popular spring break destination, Acapulco.
BEACH BLANKET DRUG BATTLES
Rival gang battles for possession of the drug corridor from the Pacific coast of Mexico up to the U.S. border have reached such intensity that it’s changing Acapulco’s beach-town image.
As reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2006, only four cities in Mexico have more overall crime per 100,000 residents than Acapulco, according to a study by the Citizen Institute for Studies about Insecurity.
From the days the resort was popular with the likes of Frank Sinatra to the invasion of Greek-system socialites, drug traffickers have peacefully holidayed in Acapulco with their families. But incidents like a broad-daylight shootout two years ago between traffickers and police – four dead traffickers and “an arsenal of guns and grenades [were] left behind,” reported the Union-Tribune – ended the temporary cease-fire between two major cartels. Journalists reporting on alleged links between drug gangs and officials have been targeted by their subjects, according to a CNN report that aired after Mexican radio and TV correspondent Amado Ramirez was shot to death last year. He had covered Acapulco for the past decade, and his colleagues reported he had received anonymous threats leading up to the shooting. After the murder, Reporters Without Borders bumped up Mexico to the dubious ranking of second most-dangerous place in the world for journalists.
FREEDOM DOESN’T COME CHEAP
As of the last Freedom House evaluation in 2005, Jamaica was considered a “free” country with relatively healthy political and civil rights scores. Yet crime, much of it related to the drug trade, still runs rampant.
“Jamaica is a main transit point for cocaine shipped from Columbia to U.S. Markets, and the drug trade is now largely controlled by Columbian organized crime syndicates,” Freedom House reported. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world, and violence is the major cause of death.
An alarming amount of the violence has been linked to persecution of people assumed to be homosexual, sex workers and people living with HIV/AIDS. “Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic,” a Human Rights Watch report, documents police extortion of money and sex from gay men and sex workers. Some use the possession of condoms on a “suspect” as an excuse to harass him or her.
In recent years, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health has tried to combat discrimination against HIV-positive Jamaicans, and those living at risk, but the report says that the country’s “Victorian-era” sodomy and conduct laws (punishing the convicted with up to 10 years of hard labor) are undermining efforts.
WHAT HAPPENS IN CANCUN, STAYS IN CANCUN
Knowing what’s outside your hotel block probably won’t put a damper on your fun, but it might make you a more responsible traveler. Not responsible in the sense of personal safety (although you should still pack pepper spray), but as a world citizen. It’s impossible to “totally get” a place no matter how many beaches you lay on or themed nightclubs you frequent, unless you have at least a basic understanding of its sociopolitical context.
But it’s doubtful that more students recognizing police brutality in Jamaica will change the demand for tickets to Negril.
Acapulco and Cancun are traditionally go-to destinations, Sanderson said, and packages for Jamaica have sold increasingly well in recent years. Sun Splash also sells vacation deals for Caribbean and Mexican locations like Puerto Vallarta and the Bahamas, and Panama City Beach in Florida.
The Sun Splash one-page brochures list a lot of fine print about payment options, but nothing about safety precautions, much less information about human rights.
“Stuff like that’s probably the last thing on (tourists’) minds,” Sanderson said. “Most people, unfortunately, don’t care.”