Rocky Point Arizona Daily Star

Travelers need to "exercise caution" in Nogales and Puerto Peñasco, an updated Mexico travel warning from the U.S. State Department says.

This is the first time the popular beach town also known as Rocky Point has been mentioned in an official travel warning.

"You are advised to exercise caution when visiting the coastal town of Puerto Peñasco," the warning says. "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."

In previous travel warnings and alerts dating to 2009, the city of Nogales, Sonora, had been mentioned as one of the cities in northern Mexico where large gunbattles have taken place and as one of the cities that have experienced daytime public shootouts. But the new warning takes it even further.

"You are advised to exercise caution in the city of Nogales. Northern Sonora is a key region in the international drug and human trafficking trades, and can be extremely dangerous for travelers," the warning says. "The U.S. Consulate requires that armored vehicles are used for official travel in the consular district of Nogales, including certain areas within the city of Nogales."

The warning also instructs people to avoid "non-essential" travel to certain parts of Sonora that are "known centers of illegal activity." That list includes the towns of Saric, Tubutama and Altar in the region west of Nogales, and the eastern edge of Sonora that borders the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Puerto Peñasco's inclusion in the new warning came as a surprise to Steve Schwab, owner of Sea Side Reservations, which manages 11 Puerto Peñasco resorts and more than 150 beach houses. "This is certainly one more blow to the economy of Puerto Peñasco," Schwab said.

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 that advisory unjustified and questioned the validity of the "unconfirmed reports." On Friday, they expressed disappointment about the resort town's being singled out in the new travel warning.

As long as you are not selling or buying drugs or trying to compete with drug smuggling organizations, Puerto Peñasco is a safe place to visit, Schwab said. He has been traveling and working in Mexico for 10 years and considers it safe enough to take his 7-year-old son with him on his frequent trips.

"Puerto Peñasco is a safe place as long as you are not checking your brain at the border," Schwab said.

Homicides in Puerto Peñasco have risen in the past four years to 13 in 2009, up from 3 in 2006, official figures from the Sonoran government show. Through July 2010, the latest figures available, there had been seven homicides.

A recently retired Drug Enforcement Administration official said the State Department made the right move by warning visitors about Rocky Point.

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?"

Speaking generally about conditions in Mexico, the State Department warning echoes Coulson's comments. It says there is no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted by criminals due to their citizenship but says bystanders, including U.S. citizens, have been killed and injured in violent incidents throughout the country, especially along the northern border.

The State Department said the number of U.S. citizens reported murdered in Mexico increased to 111 in 2010, up from 35 in 2007.

The number increased in Sonora, too, the State Department's death registry shows. There were eight murders of U.S. citizens in Sonora reported to the State Department in 2010, up from four in 2007 and more than double any other year since 2002, the data show.

None of those murders occurred in Rocky Point, while four were in Nogales, Sonora.

Homicides have risen dramatically in the border city of Nogales in the past four years. There were 130 homicides in 2009, up from 116 in 2008 and 52 in 2007, according to Sonoran government official figures. Through July 2010, the latest figures available, there have been 134 homicides.

Being continuously highlighted in the warnings doesn't help Mexican business and tourism leaders trying to rehab the city's image, which has been severely damaged by a sharp increase in drug violence murders over the past four years. The National Chamber of Commerce in Mexico recently launched a campaign to encourage a positive outlook about Nogales, using the Spanish slogan, "Let's speak positively about Nogales."

Northern Sonora isn't the only section of northern Mexico mentioned in the warning. The State Department urges caution in Northern Baja California; Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua; Durango, Coahuila and Zacatecas; Monterrey and Nuevo Leon; and Tamaulipas. Sinaloa and southern Sonora are highlighted in a section about violence in other parts of Mexico.

The warning mentions Highway 15 in Sonora, too, which runs south from Nogales through Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregon and into the state of Sinaloa.

The new warning didn't affect Rocky Point on Friday, said Rosie Glover, director of the Rocky Point Tourism and Visitor Assistance Office. The hotels and rental houses were full of beach-goers enjoying Easter weekend, she said. "We've got a bunch people in town and everything is calm," Glover said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or