The border security wars in the southwest have taken a new turn — some private groups are advocating a U.S. travel ban to Mexico because of the increasing violence perpetrated by drug cartels.
Erecting a border fence to keep U.S. travelers out of Mexico would be almost as foolhardy and counterproductive as the recently abandoned efforts to build a high-tech fence keeping Mexicans out of the United States.
In the first instance, as the State Department makes perfectly clear, millions of "U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least 1 million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico." The warning then goes on to caution against travel to certain major cities along the border, and includes common sense advice for any travelers to any unknown areas —visit only legitimate business and tourist areas, be aware of your surroundings at all times, avoid isolated roads, avoid traveling alone or at night.
One would expect similar warnings for travel to any major cities — look at any Frommers or Lonely Planet guide for similar language, whether one is traveling in Western Europe or in the wilds of Central Asia. Indeed, most travel guides to major cities in the United States provide similar cautions.
Yet, not even the most conservative law-and-order politician would dare suggest banning travel to the entire state of Michigan because of Detroit and Flint, or the entire state of California because of Richmond, or all of Louisiana because of New Orleans, just to mention three states with some of the highest murder rates in the country.
Granted, there are dangers in Mexico. In 2010, more than 15,000 people were murdered in drug-related scenarios, an increase of almost two-thirds from the previous year. Some 111 of those murdered were U.S. citizens, up from 35 in 2007, and some were innocent bystanders.
The State Department's warnings are quite specific, however, and pinpoint the areas where the drug cartels are the most active. For the most part, the dangerous areas are not those usually frequented by U.S. tourists.
Although any right-minded person would hope for an end to such random violence, it does not appear that travelers from the United States face nearly the same quality or quantity of danger as Mexican citizens who may not have the financial freedom to flee the dangerous areas.
Halting tourism would only feed the cartels and other criminal activity, including the coyotes who prey on the undocumented.
In 2008, Mexico earned 13 percent of its GDP from tourism revenues. Approximately 80 percent of Mexico's international tourists come from the United States; one source estimates that U.S. tourists spent $13.3 billion in Mexico in 2008. Moreover, approximately 7 percent of the working population earns its living directly from tourism. To deplete the Mexican economy by halting tourism could only lead to fewer law enforcement efforts to control crime and greater temptations to engage in criminal activity, as well as greater incentives to cross the border seeking lawful employment.
Pumping up the Mexican economy may be the best contribution to ending the violence. The overwhelming share of the market for illegal narcotics is here in the United States. Rampant crime has always operated hand in hand with sales of unlawful substances — from the days of Prohibition to the present.
If we want to truly keep our citizens safe, we should use our resources to teach abstinence from illegal narcotics, and to finance police efforts to destroy the cartels' business.
Only by policing the border on both sides to quell the cartels' violence and power will citizens on both sides of the fence breathe freely and safely.
Durst is a professor specializing in immigration law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.