US: Study abroad continues despite Mexican violence

While continued updates to the US State Department's travel advisory were not enough to dissuade American universities and colleges from offering study abroad programmes in Mexico, the tragic death of University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) freshman, Jonathon William Torres Cazares, on 30 September might yet ring their knell.

American born Torres and one other victim were shot when the bus they were riding was hijacked, allegedly by members of Mexican organised crime in Matamoros, just outside Ciudad Mante in the southern part of Tamaulipas.

Although not part of a university outing, Torres' death serves as a macabre reminder of the severity of the situation in Mexico and the vulnerability of students in what still remains the most popular destination for American higher education study abroad programmes.

Offering condolences to the family, UTB president Juliet Garcia did note that the university had cancelled "all university-related trips to Mexico several months ago as a result of what we expected to be a very dangerous environment for a while".

The first warning by the State Department in March urged American citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to the three states in northern Mexico worst affected by drugs-related violence: Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. It also singled out the cities of Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Monterrey, Nogáles, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana as loci of gangland efforts to control access to American narcotics smuggling routes.

But since then, the violence has intensified, with one of its nadirs certainly being last weekend when more than two dozen civilians were killed in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana alone.

Already an earlier shooting outside the American Foundation School in Monterrey on 20 August led to the unprecedented move by the State Department to order the families of government employees back to the US, leaving the Consulate General in Monterrey a partially unaccompanied post.

Thus, backed by the oft-quoted statistic that nearly 30,000 people have died in drugs-related violence since President Felipe Calderón's decision to eliminate the drug cartels when he took office in 2006, American universities have responded decisively - although not necessarily completely cancelling programming options in Mexico.

For instance, the University of Texas at Austin has nominally suspended all study-abroad programmes, unless specifically petitioned through the university's International Oversight Committee. As the director of the Study Abroad Office, Heather Barclay Hamir, explained: "The current situation undoubtedly affects students' and parents' comfort levels."

Eager to encourage the maintenance of international collaboration, two leading proponents - the Center for Global Education at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Consortium for North American Higher Education Cooperation (CONAHEC) at the University of Arizona - issued a joint statement in March declaring that institutions should first review the situation and various impacts to students, faculty and granting organisations before making decisions to cancel programming.

Their concern was that a complete withdrawal or suspension of activities in Mexico could create an 'academic wall' between the two countries. They urged the development of creative solutions rather than the outright suspension of higher education programming.

"Mexico is one of the most important countries for the US," said co-author Dr Gary Rhodes of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

His colleague, executive director of CONAHEC, Francisco Marmolejo, emphasised that the areas of violence were localised and that "Mexico continues to be for the most part a very safe and friendly country". He added that the overall homicide rate of 14 per 100,000 inhabitants in Mexico was actually lower than in other Latin American countries.

I think it is a very good article. US universities have to look through information about the most violent cities in Mexico. I agree that not all cities suffer high homicide rates - there are plenty of safe and friendly places in Mexico to live in and study. We could not opt out of violence, as it exists worldwide, but we as educators or educational involved professionals can find ways to cooperate in promoting confidence to continue international education activities. I found the following link, I do not know how accurate it is, but it might be helpful to promote education in Mexico, in those safest cities:

Leticia Rendon

Congratulations on the effort to inform students about the situation in Mexico. I agree with Marmolejo´s opinion. Violence is limited to certain situations and places. I think the mass media should contribute to information but not create an environment of fear. It is not good for anybody to live with fear.

Genoveva Amador Fierros