After Mexican officials discovered eight bodies in Cancun last week, the US State Department issued a travel advisory for the country. Not surprisingly, the incident has caused some travellers to reconsider vacationing on the Yucatán Peninsula. However, security experts and tourism officials say the area remains safe for foreign visitors.
The incident took place in Cancun - located in the state of Quintana Roo - in a downtown neighbourhood miles from the tourist area of Zona Hotelera. Dario Flota, director general of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, said foreigners typically do not venture into this part of town. Most travellers congregate along the 22-km-long beach strip dense with high-rise hotels, restaurants and clubs.
"In general, there have been no incidents near the tourist area," he said.
At least one victim had been bound before being shot, while another was apparently killed while lying in a hammock, the Associated Press reported. Others victims were dumped on the streets, dismembered and stuffed into plastic bags, or left inside an abandoned taxi, according to the news agency.
It's not the first time this year that a Mexican tourist destination has been shaken by reports of violence. Last month, five people were killed and three injured in a shootout that occurred after gunmen ambushed police in Cancun, the Associated Press reported.
Flota said security forces keep a watchful eye on Zona Hotelera and Playa del Carmen, another popular beach destination on the peninsula. Federal police and Navy personnel patrol the beaches; the police and Army monitor the highways. The government has installed surveillance cameras between Cancun and Playa del Carmen as well as at the ferry piers, where visitors board boats to Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. Officials inspect bags and have used dogs for an additional layer of protection.
"The tourist zone is a much safer area," said Ben West, a security expert with Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm. "It has tighter security."
Cancun's limited access - one entrance, one exit - also helps keep dangerous elements away. (In Cozumel, the jungle acts as a security fence.)
"Cancun is easy to control," Flota said. "It is well-protected."
Visitors shaken by recent events can find some solace in the State Department's warning. The advisory does not include Quintana Roo, which is also home to Tulum, Riveria Maya, Costa Maya and Cozumel. The state's tourism board pointed this out in a strongly worded statement.
"There are currently zero US State Department Travel Warnings against any destination in the state of Quintana Roo and there are zero Travel Warnings against any international tourist destination in Mexico," it read. "Unfortunately, there have been episodes of violence between criminals in remote areas of Quintana Roo and elsewhere in Mexico. . . . The State Department travel advisory for Mexico does not include any tourist or beach areas and reaffirms that all major tourist destinations in Mexico are safe."
On the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's SafeTravel website, the page for Mexico states that "most victims of drug-related violence are Mexicans involved in or caught up as bystanders in criminal activity".
"However it is also possible for foreigners to be caught up in violence directed at others, such as shootouts in public places. Mexican authorities have made efforts to protect major tourist destinations such as Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cozumel."
To avoid risky situations, travellers should familiarise themselves with their foreign surroundings and avoid free-range roaming.
"It's about restricting your movements," said Matthew Bradley, regional security director at International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm. "You need to plan accordingly."
For instance, Bradley suggests visitors meticulously map out any excursions outside their resort, including casual strolls around town. He said drug cartels don't typically target tourists, but unsuspecting victims can get caught in the crossfire. They can also become victims of petty crimes, such as muggings and carjackings.
"Educate yourself about your destination," he said, "whether it's about crime or hurricanes."
In addition, Fato discourages visitors from drinking excessively, which can impair your judgment, and West reminds tourists to not play Superman: If held up at gun- or knifepoint, don't fight for your wallet; just hand it over.
The State Department also dispenses advice for visitors to Mexico: Use toll roads when possible, avoid driving at night and dress down. Also, stay alert when using a bank or ATM or hanging out at local bars, nightclubs or casinos.