Mexico responds to U.S. travel alert

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The Mexico Tourism Board defended the country as a "safe destination" in the face of an updated travel alert from the U.S. State Department released on Feb. 20.

The U.S. agency used strong language in warning Americans about escalating crime and violence throughout Mexico, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, violence in the country has increased recently," the State Department said.

The agency urged Americans to take common-sense precautions while traveling in Mexico, including staying in the "well-known tourist areas" of the cities they visit, and traveling on main roads during daylight hours, particularly toll roads, which are generally more secure.

According to the alert, Mexican drug cartels are "engaged in an increasingly violent conflict, both among themselves and with Mexican security services, for control of narcotics-trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border."

In an emailed statement sent to Travel Weekly on Monday, the tourism board said Mexico is a large country with many safe destinations to visit.

"Mexico remains a safe tourist destination, and this is reflected in the 22.6 million international visitors that arrived in 2008, of which 18 million were Americans," the board said. "This [total] number represents a 5.9% increase from the previous year.

"The violence associated with drug trafficking is isolated in cities that are far away from tourism destinations. We suggest using common precautions as when traveling to any foreign country."

Recent confrontations between Mexico's drug cartels and law enforcement "have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades," the alert said.

Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but have been particularly violent in Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.

"Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales are among the cities which have recently experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues," the alert said, adding that criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas, including Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Tijuana.

In Ciudad Juarez alone, the alert said, more than 1,800 people have been killed since January 2008, and carjackings in the city totaled more than 1,600 last year.

More than 6,000 people were killed in a wave of drug violence in Mexico last year, including close to 600 police and soldiers, according to Mexican authorities.

The State Department said this latest travel alert to Mexico would be in effect until Aug. 20. To read the alert and the State Department's recommendations for safe travel to Mexico, click here.

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