Alert throws wrench in Mexico plans
Rocky Point

Travelers need to “exercise caution” in Nogales and Rocky Point, an updated warning for Mexico travelers from the U.S. State Department says.

This is the first time Rocky Point, also known as Puerto Peñasco, has been mentioned in an official travel warning. Nogales has been mentioned before as a site of frequent shootouts, but the city itself has not been singled out like this by the State Department. 

“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 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 alert 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."

“Oh boy,” was Steve Schwab’s reaction to the news that Puerto Peñasco is now specifically mentioned in the State Department’s travel warning.

“I’m surprised,” said Schwab, owner of Sea Side Reservations, which manages 11 Puerto Peñasco resorts and more than 150 beach houses. “We haven’t had any major incidents.” 

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, he said. Schwab 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. 

Inclusion in the travel warning is the latest blow to the seaside town’s economy, which is based on tourism.

“The media has beaten Mexico down so much that it’s already in people’s mind that they are afraid to got to Mexico,” Schwab said. “This is certainly one more blow to the economy of Puerto Peñasco but i think the damage has already been done.”

The new warning — a step up from a travel alert — advises travelers to exercise caution in Nogales, Sonora, too.

“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.”

In previous travel warnings and alerts back to 2009, the city of Nogales, Sonora, was mentioned as one of the cities in northern Mexico where large gun battles have taken place and as one of the cities that have experienced daytime public shootouts.

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The new warning also instructs to avoid “non-essential” travel to the region west of Nogales in Northern Sonora.

“East of Sonoyta and from Caborca north, including the towns of Saric, Tubutama and Altar, and the eastern edge of Sonora bordering Chihuahua, are known centers of illegal activity,” the warning says.

State Department travel warnings are used to describe long-term situations that make a country dangerous. The latest warning says an estimated 34,612 people have been killed in narcotics-related violence since December 2006 in Mexico.

It says that there is no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted by criminals due to their citizenship but it still urges people to be aware of their surroundings and to be careful in unfamiliar areas. The number of U.S. citizens reported murdered to the State Department in Mexico has increased to 111 in 2010, up from 35 in 2007, the warning says.

“Bystanders, including U.S. citizens, have been injured or killed in violent incidents in various parts of the country, especially, but not exclusively in the northern border region, demonstrating the heightened risk of violence throughout Mexico,” the warning says.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com.