The Mexican Gauntlet

By Miguel Perez

December 18, 2012 7 min read

If it was safe, you can bet a lot more Latinos would be taking long drives back to their homelands in Central and South America. But we know better. We know that in order to get there, we have to go through a gauntlet of crime and corruption known as Mexico. And so we fly home when we go back on vacation.

We've all heard the horror stories of all that can happen while traveling through Mexico, where you can be robbed, kidnapped, sold into slavery and even murdered, especially if you are travelling northbound while trying to reach the United States.

But on the way south, for American citizens, just trying to get through Mexico is a huge challenge. You have to go through a dangerous obstacle course of drug cartel wars and even corrupt cops looking for bribes.

On the Internet, travel advice sites are filled with tips and warnings about how you are to avoid driving at night, stopping in small towns, loading your car with valuable items, and looking like wealthy Americans. They tell you that if you drive an SUV, you have a much better chance of getting carjacked, and even better if your SUV is black.

It's crazy. In the 21st century, crossing Mexico is as dangerous as was crossing the American Wild West two centuries ago.

Most U.S. Latinos are aware of this danger, perhaps because we see it every day on the Spanish TV networks, and so we tent to avoid road trips through Mexico.

But many other Americans, perhaps unaware of the danger or perhaps seeking a little adventure, are finding out that driving through Mexico is indeed a dangerous journey.

Take the case of former U.S. Marine Jon Hammar, who has been held in a notoriously unsafe Mexican prison since August because he was honest enough to declare to Mexican customs officials that he was carrying an old hunting shotgun.

Hammar, 27, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was just about to start driving through Mexico, on his way to a hunting and surfing vacation in Costa Rica, when he was held in Matamoros and accused of carrying an illegal weapon. Ian McDonough, another Marine veteran who was traveling with him, was detained and released when Hammar admitted that he owned the gun.

Since he was not concealing his grandfather's vintage Sears and Roebuck shotgun, and since he was responsible enough to declare it, since all he was missing was proper documentation to carry that gun in Mexico, you would think the worse that could happen is that he would get fined and have his gun impounded.

Yet for the past four months, Hammar has been chained to a bed in a prison where the inmate population is ruled by drug cartels and from where other inmates have even sought to extort money from Hammar's family in the United States. He is charged with illegally carrying a weapon that is use by the Mexican military, although it is an antique .410 gauge shotgun.

Frankly, I'm not a gun advocate. But if there were a place where I would want to be armed to protect myself, it would have to be driving through Mexico.

And yet, instead of seeking ways to reduce the crime and corruption that foreigners have to endure while traveling through the Mexican gauntlet, the Mexican government apparently feels it is fighting crime by having this young American chained to a bed.

It's disgraceful. You would think they would be concentrating on the real criminals who are driving their country into a state anarchy. Yet Hammar's family and friends are now mounting a social media campaign to try to bring him home.

I just joined their Facebook group: www.facebook.com/FreeJonHammar

Ironically, while the unfair treatment of this young Marine finally is getting some justified media attention and exposing just one of the dangers of traveling through Mexico, there is a new State Department report explaining just how alarming the situation is for Americans thinking of trekking across Mexico — and it has received very little media attention.

In its latest travel warning on Mexico, issued on Nov. 20, the State Department first explains that, "millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day," and that "Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations," and that there is no evidence that crime organizations are targeting Americans. It notes that, "resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes."

But then it proceeds to explain that Mexico is in the middle of drug war with a "violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity," that crime and violence "can occur anywhere" at any time and in public places, and that, "the location and timing of future armed engagements is unpredictable."

"Gun battles have occurred in broad daylight on streets and in other public venues, such as restaurants and clubs," the warning states. "During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area."

It says that carjackers are bumping vehicles off the road at high speeds, and that U.S. citizens should cooperate with the rules of all road checkpoints, including some that are operated by crime cartels — where bandits have killed or abducted those who failed to stop.

The new Mexico travel warning, from the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, says that 113 Americas were murdered in Mexico in 2011 and 32 others lost their lives in the first six month of 2012, and that some of them were victims of organized crime, "including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery."

Citing the Mexican government's own figures, the report notes that, "47,515 people were killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico between Dec. 1, 2006 and Sept. 30, 2011, with 12,903 narcotics-related homicides in the first nine months of 2011 alone."

It's simple: Unless you are a glutton for punishment, unless you want to endure the lawlessness of the Old West, you should avoid driving through the Mexican gauntlet.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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