January 13, 2018

On Jan. 10, the United States Department of State unveiled a new travel advisory system in which countries, as well as some individual provinces, are assigned a safety rating on a scale from one to four. The lowest level on the scale, Level 1, is reserved for areas in which the Department of State advises travelers to exercise normal precautions, while a Level 4 designation means that US citizens should not travel to the area. The State Department’s purpose of releasing travel advisories is twofold, in that they set guidelines regarding where diplomatic personnel may travel, and inform US citizens of where there are significant threats to security.

US State Department Updates Travel Advisory for Mexico

Since the rollout of the new Department of State advisories, perhaps the most attention has been given to the ratings assigned to Mexico. While the country as a whole is rated Level 2, “exercise increased caution,” the states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas were assigned the highest rating, Level 4, indicating that the Department of State believes US citizens should not enter those states at all.

While the rating system has changed, the new ratings themselves likely represent a desire by the Department of State to be more location-specific in its description of threats, rather than any major change in its overall assessment of them. Indeed, even prior to the issuance of updated ratings, the Department of State placed severe restrictions on diplomatic travel to Colima, prohibited government travel to Guerrero, and recommended deferring non-essential travel to Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas.

Security Concerns in Mexico

There are significant security issues in the Mexican states currently rated Level 4 by the Department of State. The nature of the threats faced by organizations and their personnel in these states are changing and, in some instances, worsening.

For example, two of Mexico’s largest drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs), the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación and the Sinaloa Cartel, are currently vying for control over Colima, leading to an alarming increase in homicides in the state. The fighting has taken a toll on the Sinaloa Cartel, as has the 2017 extradition of its leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Consequentially, the cartel is likely to begin to splinter into rival factions in 2018. This splintering will pose a threat to firms in Sinaloa, as such factions will find it difficult to maintain international drug trafficking routes, and will turn to extortion and kidnapping to generate revenue.

Likewise, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, two other major DTOs, have splintered, posing a severe threat in Tamaulipas, where the groups are based. Most trade between Mexico and the US passes through Tamaulipas, exposing many firms to DTO factions that highjack trucks and hide drugs in otherwise-legitimate cargo.

DTOs do not pose the only major threat in Guerrero and Michoacán: both states have seen the rise of so-called “self-defense” and “community police” organizations, which are groups of armed vigilantes who claim to fight against DTOs. These organizations, however, are vulnerable to being co-opted by DTOs interested in using them against their rivals, and they may clash with regular security forces. Indeed, a deadly firefight between a vigilante group and security forces occurred in Guerrero Jan. 7. While police claimed to be merely attempting to disarm an illegal organization linked to the drug trade, the vigilantes asserted that the operation occurred only after they had detained a former soldier who they accused of weapons trafficking. The incident highlights both the potential for vigilante-related violence in the state, as well as the lack of clarity as to the true motives of such groups.

Country Security Assessment Rating for Mexico

At WorldAware, we closely monitor travel advisories issued by the Department of State, as well as those issued by similar entities, such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom and Global Affairs Canada. These advisories, however, are only some of the many data points WorldAware collects and analyzes while reviewing our own country ratings. Our analysts, who have extensive in-country experience and maintain contacts within the expatriate business, government, and non-profit communities, produce intelligence from a variety of sources. Differing from the State Department, WorldAware intelligence is used by organizations to better understand potential threats around the globe and inform their risk management strategy and procedures. We understand that some organizations must conduct business in regions with significant security threats. We provide organizations with information on the nature of those threats and how to reduce exposure to them.

While the threats faced by organizations doing business in the Mexican states singled out by the US government are significant, WorldAware has been tracking the development of these issues for some time and are factored in when assessing Mexico’s overall security ratings. The current country security assessment rating for Mexico is identified as "high," and there are no plans to change this security rating in response to the US State Department's travel advisory.