The lure and risks of spring break in Mexico

As some college students opt for a week south of the border, government and university officials aim to raise awareness about drug and safety concerns.

The beaches of Cancún may be a more dangerous destination for Syracuse University spring breakers this year, but some students are less inclined to indulge in the typical week-long, alcohol- and drug-induced party than people think.

As of Aug. 21, Mexico passed a law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine and LSD. Mexico hopes that the new law will help thin out its overcrowded jails and allow police officers to concentrate on arresting the big-time dealers instead of the small-time users.

"I go to Mexico to experience the culture, have amazing Mexican food and go out and party for sure."
- Phil Geiger

The move has received mixed reactions from students and school officials in the United States.

“I think it’s smart," said SU senior Phil Geiger. "I think the U.S. should do that. If you take away the market for illegal drug trafficking, you don’t have to fight a war.”

Geiger has been to Mexico four times, including a bar-hopping stint with a friend in Cancún as a high school senior. 

“I love going on vacations for spring break," Geiger said. "I think as long as you’re responsible it’s fine.  I go to Mexico to experience the culture, have amazing Mexican food and go out and party for sure."

U.S. Department of State officials and some university officials are concerned that the lack of penalties for drug possesion and usage in Mexico will entice college students to travel to Mexico just to use drugs.

“I mean, I wouldn’t go to Mexico because of drugs, but I can see how it would get the attention of some people," said mechanical engineering senior Arda Isiksalan, who went to Mexico for spring break last year with several friends. "I’m pretty sure I could have gotten them there before, though.  Actually, I think it’s probably pretty easy to get drugs in the U.S., too.”

Isiksalan added that Mexico was the destination of choice because he and his friends weren’t 21.

"Our friends went to Miami but there wasn’t any point in us going if we couldn’t go to the bars,” Isiksalan said.

Last year, travel agencies were concerned that the violence resulting from the drug war would deter college students from spending spring break in Mexico. The U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert Aug. 20 advising against travel to Mexico due to the increase in violent incidents along the United States-Mexican border. The travel alert expired Feb. 20, but officials still fear that increased drug usage among college spring breakers will put them in more dangerous situations as their judgment is compromised under the influence. 

Security and safety standards in Mexico are not the same as back home and may have contributed to U.S. citizen deaths in the past, according to the U.S. Department of State travel publication, “SPRING BREAK IN MEXICO -- ‘Know Before You Go!’”

Nearly all U.S. universities have alcohol and drug awareness and education programs. SU's program, the Options Program, is a “free and confidential alcohol and education, referral, and assessment program” within SU’s Counseling Center, according to the program's Web site. However, SU does not offer any spring break-specific educational awareness besides the occasional generic advisory issued to the student body typically through e-mail.

“I am unaware of any university plans to dissuade students from going to Mexico for spring break,” said Patrick McPeak, SU's associate director of Judicial Affairs.

With a much closer location to the Mexican border, Texas A&M University has a full week of safety educational programming two weeks prior to the start of spring break.

“The reality is that some students choose to use alcohol and drugs over spring break," said Kristen Harrell, director of Texas A&M's Alcohol and Drug Education Programs. "Look at the MTV program, there are thousands of college students on that show. So we do some degree of education about alcohol absorption and consumption, alternative spring break options (and) drowsy driving. 

“We actually probably have more people going to South Padre Island (Texas) than Cancún, just because of the proximity. But we’ve definitely been seeing more people doing the alternative spring break options than in previous years.”

Harrell has observed over the years an increasing trend among students toward engaging in service-oriented projects during spring break, or simply going home over break.

“It’s a growing culture of the population, there’s more awareness,” she said.

Seeking out alternatives to a potentially risky trip south of the border may be a safer bet for students such as Geiger.

“I mean, I would never wander around Mexico drunk or cracked out," Geiger said. "It’s just not smart."

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