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Despite danger, UCLA students continue to cross the border

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>“Barriers Across the Border”

By Ann Du, Andra Lim, and Samantha Schaefer

Jan. 5, 2011 3:30 a.m.

MACLOVIO ROJAS, MEXICO “”mdash; Despite formal warnings from the U.S. State Department about safety in Mexico, the Fellowship for International Service and Health (FISH) has continued to trek across the border.

It’s not the only one making the journey. UCLA students have maintained connections with Mexico, whether they are part of a student group, a travel study program or are taking a vacation.

The Office of the Dean of Students & Campus Life sent a travel advisory in March 2010 directed at students planning trips to Mexico over spring break. Though the office has not sent any advisories since, it has issued a number in the past, said Phil Hampton, a UCLA spokesman.

The number of officially recognized student groups that travel to Mexico has decreased as violence has increased, said Kenn Heller, associate director of the Center for Student Programming. There used to be about five, and at last count, there are two at most, including FISH.

The group travels to Maclovio Rojas, Mexico, a rural town several miles from Tijuana. Residents said the area is safe during the day and in public spaces. But when night falls, safety becomes an issue. Women and children stay inside, while men only step outdoors in large groups and in familiar areas.

David Carreon, the founder of FISH, said he didn’t know much about the area when he first went to Maclovio Rojas. However, he said he wasn’t very concerned about the violence because he thought the conflict was largely between Mexicans, rather than involving Americans or foreign citizens.

Tourists and volunteers should be relatively safe in Mexico, said Octavio Pescador, coordinator for the Center for Mexican Studies at the UCLA Latin American Institute.

“They are perceived as benefactors offering time and effort to bring support to a particular community,” he said.

Still, the U.S. State Department issued a formal warning last September. This notification, which superseded an earlier one issued over the summer, was a direct reaction to a shooting that took place outside the American School Foundation in Monterrey, Mexico.

The State Department cites the border region as the most heavily affected by the drug war.

But over the past three to five years, Tijuana near the western border has been calmer than the border with Texas, which has a lot of drug cartels. Other safety problems near the border in the Tijuana region are ones that come along with any metropolitan area, such as petty crime, Pescador said.

Organized crime networks are less likely to target American citizens, he said, because they don’t want to attract the attention of American consulate authorities or the local law enforcement.

“Weaker groups are easier targets than someone with the backing and safeguard of U.S. citizenship,” Pescador said.

FISH members have never felt threatened in Mexico, but they suspended their trips last spring for the first time after the mayor of Tijuana discouraged travel to the area, said Ryan Tsuchida, chief executive officer of the group.

FISH frequently checks the travel advisories for the region and always goes to the same location with experienced group members and Spanish-speakers, he said. Additionally, they purchase Mexican car insurance and travel in tight groups, communicating with walkie-talkies once they cross the border.

Outside of student groups, students can travel to Mexico through the university with the Education Abroad Program. Because the universities in Guadalajara and Mexico City are far from dangerous border towns, University of California President Mark Yudof did not suspend the program, according to the EAP website. However, students are prohibited from traveling to certain regions, depending on travel advisories.

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