Texas
5:05 am
Thu January 10, 2013

Border Tourism Still Hurting from Drug Violence

For years now, Mexico has been going through turbulent times. Violence between the drug cartels and the Mexican Army is a daily occurrence in some places. But the country’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is set on repairing Mexico’s image and even restoring peace. That’s welcome news for border towns in Mexico -- and Texas.

Mildred Vara is from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, just across the border from Laredo. She lives in Austin with her husband and three sons. For years, the Varas drove back to Mexico as often as they could.

“We used to go every two or three months,” she said in Spanish.

But they stopped a couple of years ago. They were terrified when her brother-in-law was kidnapped. Vara’s sons never wanted to go back to Mexico.

Her brother-in-law was safely released eventually, but the fear remained.

“It’s mostly them,” she said. “But we did go to Nuevo Laredo on Dec. 24.”

Like the Varas, most Mexican nationals who could travel home for the holidays used to do so. But, like them, many have stopped. And this holiday season, many decided not to go.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, directly across from Brownsville, Texas.

“During this last holiday season we implemented a series of programs to welcome and protect our tourists traveling through the highways of Tamaulipas,” said Rolando Gonzalez Tejeda, a state lawmaker there.

But the tourists never came. Only 15,000 people crossed into Matamoros, a town that just five years ago would get 10 times that number of visitors during the holidays.

That frustrates Gonzalez Tejeda. “During the recent past, we had strong and serious safety problems,” he said. “But we have intensified our efforts through local government, through state and federal programs, and those types of problems have significantly diminished.”

On the U.S. side of the border, the visitors bureau in Brownsville is also reporting a decline in tourism there, not as severe as the one in Matamoros but still significant.

Mildred Vara agrees that recently things are somewhat better in Tamaulipas. That’s why she spent Christmas there. But she says it will take a while before Mexico’s new president can address the concerns of tourists enough to bring them back in droves.