Cracking Open the Mysteries of the US Government’s “Travel Warning” System

We’ve all seen them: U.S. State Department travel warnings for countries far and near. But how do the experts determine the nature and timing of a warning for …

We’ve all seen them: U.S. State Department travel warnings for countries far and near. But how do the experts determine the nature and timing of a warning for a close neighbor like Mexico? Turns out that the process is a thorough one, yet relies on no standardized system for data collection or reporting.

“There is no methodology for how one is issued,” says Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a press officer with the State Department. “The factors that go into each one differ on a case -by-case basis and are deliberated upon keeping an abundance of caution in mind for the American traveler.”

This approach results in warnings being released according to no set time line – the last warning for Mexico was in July, and the one before that in November, 2012. These warnings are notable for their desire to err on the side of caution and to make no distinction between business travellers, tourists, and Mexican-Americans making frequent cross-border trips.

“Each of these are based on things that are happening on the ground and change from situation to situation,” says Jhunjhunwala. “You can get a feel for what each was based on by reading them.”

Within the State Department’s taxonomy, a Travel Alert refers to short-term conditions and is set for a finite period, whereas a Travel Warning is for a protracted situation, with a major contributing factor being limitations on the U.S. government’s ability to come to the aid of its citizens, as well the safety of U.S. government employees in-country. The warnings are impressive for their detail, providing specific recommendations of roads to avoid, as well more dangerous cities and states. But, given that they are gleaned from consular staff, media, and Mexican government sources, they can also read as a hodgepodge of information.

illustration for travel advisory“Generally, reaction is given to news items, with the State Department then conferring with embassy and consular officials on the ground,” says Steve Rudderham, who recently joined Accenture, in a global FAO role. “Their number one objective is to protect U.S. citizens.”

Rudderham has worked extensively in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, as well as in Guatemala and India. For him, the problem with travel warnings is that they can be headline grabbers, resulting in a lot of negative press, whereas on close examination the security profile of many places is not so worrisome.

“People have a perception of what Latin America is like, and it is often based on travel warnings,” he says. “I found this in Guatemala, where problems in remote areas negatively affected the perception of the capital, where a lot of business was going on.”

Statistics.. and Damned Statistics

Running comparative statistics up the flagpole can be dicey, because each source uses its own methodology, and can therefore have differing levels of credibility. There are many ways to break down crime stats, but one of the most reliable benchmarks is the murder rate per 100,000. This is because, unlike assaults or property crimes, murders rely less on volunteer reporting and, as a result, tend to be counted more accurately. As well, murder rates are strong cross-cultural reference points when assessing the prevalence of other crimes, which makes comparisons relevant.

“If you look at the murder rate for some large American cities like Washington and Detroit, and then compare it to say Bogota, Colombia, you’ll see it is comparable,” says Rudderham.

In fact, these large American cities are significantly more dangerous than some big Latin American metropolises. Washington, DC, had 17.5 murders per 100,000 in 2011. Detroit, sadly, is the most dangerous large metropolis in the United States, at 48.2 murders per 100,000. By comparison, Bogota had 16 murders per 100,000 in 2012 (safer than Chicago, at 19), and the most recent data for Mexico City (2010) reports only 8.4 murders per 100,000.

To be fair to the U.S. State Department, it does its best to offer localized assessments. In the example of Mexico City, there is no travel warning in place, just as there is no warning for Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. There is also no warning for Baja California Sur, Campeche, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and popular tourist destinations like Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan.

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Trouble on the Border

When reading the reports form the U.S. State Department, one message comes through loud and clear: the Mexican frontier with the United States is a hot spot for criminal activity. Given that many multinational businesses are active on the border region, assessing this level of risk is crucial.

“With a provider in Juárez, we will go through security steps when people are going over the border to the facility,” says Rudderham. “We will rely on local knowledge, but there is no additional cost associated with it. This is just about awareness.”

Rudderham says that large multinationals do an excellent job of collecting their own data and communicating with their employees internally. This results in practical responses as opposed to alarmist, knee-jerk reactions. However, he notes also that business people read government travel warnings. Consequently, when the State Department recommends that U.S. citizens should “defer non-essential travel to the state of Nuevo Leon, except the metropolitan area of Monterrey where you should exercise caution” – as it did in its last advisory – the business community can feel put-upon.

“If a person travels to Monterrey or Mexico City they will get an accurate impression,” says Rudderham. “It is now easier to do business in Mexico – economically, politically, and culturally. We are seeing a lot of Mexican cities push through, particularly in the IT world in centers like Monterrey and Mexico City.”

Overall, things appear to be getting better in Mexico; on a country-wide basis, the overall murder rate was 22 per 100,000 in 2012, down from 24 in 2011. And when reading through the tea leaves for a place like Monterrey, we can see the U.S. State Department’s “abundance of caution” is also plain common sense, given that it instructs U.S. government employees to avoid “casinos, sportsbooks, or other gambling establishments.”

As well, the State Department makes clear that there is “no evidence” criminal organizations have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality, and that the number of U.S. citizens killed in Mexico in 2012 was 71, down from 113 in 2011 – a drop of 37 per cent.That’s a strong trend that hopefully will continue in the years to come.

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