In the spring of 2000, I was preparing to study abroad in Cochabamba, Bolivia when a local dispute of water service got out over control. Residents and campesinos staged a general strike and barricaded the streets. Since the city serves as a key node in Bolivia’s transport network, the country shut down. Clashes between police and protesters turned violent and several dozen people were killed, leading to a declaration of martial law.

Rather concerned, I contacted the head of my language school, and he replied that he’d be happy to refund my deposit, but added that these things weren’t too out of the ordinary and that it would still be safe for me to come.

I did not tell my mother.

That was how I ended up studying Spanish in a city under martial law that summer. The dispute died down and nothing happened to me or any other of my classmates. I had a fantastic time, met fascinating people from all over the world and learned more Spanish than I ever have before or since.

I keep that experience in mind as I think about the University’s current ban on travel to northern Mexico.

I do understand the University’s caution. Violence has spiked in the region, and a few incidents seem to have specifically targeted U.S. government employees, which is disturbing. Certainly the number of homicides in Ciudad Juarez reaching 2,600 last year — a rate of 200 per 100,000 inhabitants, roughly 20 times the rate in Detroit — is a cause for caution, as are shoot-outs in broad daylight between police and well-armed drug gangs. The desire to keep students safe, as well as potential liability concerns, favor a travel ban. Getting caught in a gun-battle with automatic weapons probably isn’t the educational experience the University has in mind.

But I also want to interject a note of caution before any sober analysis of the situation turns to hysteria. Something that struck me about the Apr. 12 U.S. State Department travel warning to northern Mexico was how much of it consisted of rather mundane statements — drive on main roads, travel in groups and don’t engage in ostentatious displays of wealth.

My personal favorite is an invocation to patronize only “legal” businesses. It’s good advice, sure, but avoiding prostitutes and not buying or selling drugs seems like a no-brainer. “Don’t go looking for trouble and trouble probably won’t find you” is a good rule to follow in any foreign or U.S. city. Several of my friends and colleagues who have recently traveled extensively in border cities, like Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras and Tijuana, say that rule will keep you as safe now as it always has.

Beyond using common sense, it’s important to keep risks in perspective. We take risks every day in the United States that we tend not to think about because they’re an intrinsic part of the environment. Before I went to Bolivia in 2000, I read the United Kingdom’s foreign ministry’s travel information section on the U.S. The section noted America’s high levels of violent crime and elevated rates of auto accidents as problems to avoid. A section on the dangers of Florida in particular caught my attention. After reading that, I felt reassured about undertaking my Bolivian adventure.

Today as well, our British cousins and their commonwealth brethren in Australia and New Zealand note the risk of potential terrorist attacks in the U.S., as well as the widespread incidence of severe weather, like tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. Throw in the high risk of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity on the West coast and in Alaska, and suddenly America sounds like a pretty risky trip. In fact, New Zealand’s foreign ministry lumps us in with Mexico as the two destinations in North America that involve some risk of travel. I guess Canada, Cuba and Costa Rica are safer. And that’s not even considering a specific warning about the rabid raccoons in New York City’s Central Park, from the U.K.’s foreign ministry (seriously).

Suddenly my University of Rochester-sponsored 1998 studies in Oaxaca, Mexico (a state with an active communist insurgency, high levels of marijuana production, a thoroughly corrupt local police force and quite a few earthquakes) doesn’t sound all that risky.

All of this isn’t to make light of a serious situation. Northern Mexico has some significant problems right now and any traveler should exercise extreme caution. Certainly, better safe than sorry, but let’s keep the situation in perspective — considering many of the risks we blithely face every day without realizing it.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at

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