Violence in Mexico deters US students

Colleges cancel study programs amid warnings

By Marc Lacey
New York Times / June 27, 2010

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MEXICO CITY — From perfecting their use of the subjunctive in colonial Puebla to exploring the anthropological aspects of Tijuana’s gritty underside, US college students have long used Mexico as a learning lab.

This summer, however, far fewer will be venturing across the border, as universities and students alike fear the violence tied to drug gangs that have caught some innocents in the cross fire.

In March, two Mexican university students were killed at the prestigious Tecnologico de Monterrey when fighting broke out between Mexican soldiers and drug traffickers on the streets outside. Universities in the border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa have seen violence tread dangerously close to their campuses as well.

A direct result of the bloodshed has been the mass cancellation of study-abroad programs throughout the country, including those hundreds of miles from the most dangerous areas. Some educators on both sides of the border consider the reaction to be an exaggerated response.

“To make an analogy,’’ said Geoffrey E. Braswell, an associate anthropology professor at the University of California San Diego, “I would not have considered taking students to Mississippi during the early 1960s or to Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention, but other parts of the US were of course safe for travel. Mexico is that way.’’

This fall, Braswell plans to help students understand ancient Mesoamerica by visiting 28 archaeological sites and numerous museums in central Mexico.

No US students are known to be have been hurt in the violence, and Mexico is not the first country to find foreign students staying away. Israel, Kenya, and Haiti have all experienced the temporary shutdown of study-abroad programs after the State Department issued warnings about traveling to those countries.

The University of Kansas had 18 students ready to fine-tune their Spanish skills this summer in Puebla. Then multiple killings in distant Ciudad Juarez in March prompted the State Department to issue a travel warning for northern Mexico. The university canceled its Puebla program, geography aside.

As a matter of policy, the University of Kansas bans study abroad anywhere in a country with an official travel warning. The Kansas students were shifted to Costa Rica.

“It’s a blanket policy even if there are areas that are safe,’’ said Sue Lorenz, director of the school’s Office of Study Abroad.

California State University similarly banned all university-sponsored activities in Mexico after the warning in March.

But it allows the chancellor to issue waivers on a case-by-case basis for areas not specifically mentioned in the warning. About a dozen waivers have been issued. But Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego State University, part of the California State University System, did not make the list of safe locales.

Over the past 11 years, Victor Clark Alfaro, a lecturer at San Diego State University, has led field trips in Tijuana’s red-light district to let his students see firsthand how Mexicans regulate vice. He has lured smugglers out of the shadows and into his class.

Clark said that none of his students had experienced any dangerous episodes during their chaperoned study visits.

Clark noted that violence in Tijuana is down this year compared with the previous two years, when his classes were allowed. Still, in an indication of how subjective danger is, he defended the relative safety of Tijuana by saying, “It’s not Juarez.’’

Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, has had more drug-related killings than any other Mexican city in recent years. top stories on Twitter

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