Soldiers of Mexican Army patrol the entrance to Buenavista Tomatlan in May during an operation to search for criminals in the area called 'Tierra Caliente' (Hot Land) in Michoacan State, Mexico. Because of widespread violence, much of Mexico is now off limits to Marines and other U.S. troops looking to travel there. (Alfredo Estrella / AFP)
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Much of Mexico is now off limits to Marines and other troops looking to travel there, and one expert said it provides a clear message that the U.S. can’t rely on Mexican authorities to protect American military personnel.
Violence in Mexico has led to increasing travel restrictions for Defense Department personnel for several years. Twelve of Mexico’s 31 states are now on the off-limits list to troops, following a new directive issued by U.S. Northern Command.
“NORTHCOM’s directive mirrors the State Department’s travel warning,” said Maj. Beth Smith. That list was most recently updated July 12.
Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., recently posted a news release updating Marines on the additional restrictions. It listed Nayarit as the most recent Mexican state to be considered off-limits, unless executing official travel orders. Marines needing to travel to prohibited states for personal emergencies must seek permission from their command, the release states.
The State Department warns that cartel violence is on the rise throughout much of Mexico. That has led to increases in murders, kidnappings and armed carjackings.
Jorge Chabat, an international relations professor at the Center for Research and Teaching on Economics in Mexico City and expert on drug trafficking and U.S.-Mexican relations, said Nayarit is seeing an expansion from cartels from Sinaloa, a state to the north.
But all of the banned states have seen activity from criminal gangs during recent years, he said. The Zetas, which U.S. officials have called the most sophisticated and dangerous cartel in Mexico, have been prominent in several of the areas. Now other cartels are breaking off and moving into other states, he said.
“The list of banned states may seem very long, but it gives an idea of how serious is the security problem in Mexico,” he said. “Unfortunately this is something that will take years to fix.”
Institutions there are penetrated by corruption, Chabat added, and the problem will not be easy to solve since Mexico’s institutions have been weak historically with corruption leading to high levels of insecurity.
In addition to the 12 states restricted by NORTHCOM, six more have been labeled areas of concern. Baja California, just south of San Diego, where thousands of Marines and sailors are based, got that rating. So did Guerrero, farther south.
Chabat said he is surprised it wasn’t on the restricted list, considering several gangs and cartels are active there.
Raúl Benítez, a visiting professor at American University and author of several books and journals on Latin America, also said he was surprised some of the states are still open to troops. It is notable, he said, that Morelos was not prohibited considering the high-profile attempt to kill CIA officials helping train Mexican navy personnel there last August.