The U.S. State Department's decision to specifically mention Puerto Peñasco for the first time ever in its latest Mexico travel warning has hotel- and home-owners in the beach town known as Rocky Point up in arms.
The culmination of that anger can be seen in this full page advertisement in last Sunday's Arizona Daily Star (May 1) that is signed by 15 presidents of homeowner associations in Rocky Point. "The Reality of Rocky Point" is the headline.
"Why would any of us that own property in Rocky Point continue to drive and vacation there if we felt it wasn't safe??" the ad says. "Would it be fair to warn people not to come to Tucson in light of the Safeway shooting? Or course not. . . that's how relative it is."
As I reported in the April 23 story about the warning, the State Department advises travelers to excercise caution in Puerto Peñasco.
"In the past year there have been multiple incidents of TCO (transnational criminal organizations) -related violence, including the shooting of the city's police chief. U.S. citizens visiting Puerto Peñasco are urged to cross the border at Lukeville, Ariz., to limit driving through Mexico and to limit travel to main roads during daylight hours," the warning says.
The warning, which is more serious than a travel alert, does not tell people not to travel to Mexico, but it urges them to "excercise caution."
It is the second time in a year that a Rocky Point has been pinpointed by an official government warning. In May 2010, the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora, advised U.S. citizens to avoid traveling at night on Highway 8 between the U.S.-Mexico border and Rocky Point, due to unconfirmed reports of fake checkpoints being set up at night. That "warden message" told travelers to remain calm and cooperate if they are stopped at such a checkpoint.
Rocky Point business owners called the advisory unjustified and poorly timed, and questioned the validity of the "unconfirmed reports." A few days later, the U.S. Consulate in Nogales sent out an email further clarifying the alert.
Their reaction to inclusion in the new Mexico travel warning has been even stronger, highlighed by the full page advertisement.
"Are we saying Rocky Point is crime free? No, but most of the issues have been drug related and are not targeting American tourists," the ad says. "When will we work together with our neighbors south of the border and take responsibility for our own country's desire for drugs?"
A former Drug Enforcement Administration chief said the danger is not that Americans or tourists are targeted, but that the level of violence among drug traffickers has escalated the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Since late 2007, the Sinaloa Cartel has established a greater presence in Rocky Point, increasing the level of danger for everyone there, said Anthony Coulson, the former assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tucson office. The Sinaloa Cartel dominates Sonora's northern border.
"It's not that U.S. tourists are targeted or that spring breakers are targeted, it's the randomness of the violence," Coulson said. "If you get stopped at a roadblock, you don't know who's running that roadblock. Is it the military? Is it somebody dressed like the military?"
The anger from Rocky Point has spilled into my email and voice mail, with people decrying the warning and the Arizona Daily Star's decision to run a story. I've explained to them that we cannot ignore travel warnings.
There are travel warning for 35 countries in the world, including for Pakistan, Iraq, Colombia and Iran. They are issued when "long-term, protracted conditions" make a county dangerous or unstable, the State Department explains in this page on the travel warnings. The State Department issues the warnings when it wants to "recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country."