Mexican Drug War Threatens US College Study-Abroad Programs: State Department's Travel Advisory Compels Some Institutions to Withdraw Their Students from the Country for Safety Concerns

Article excerpt

For the past two years Cesar Villasana, an electrical engineering technology major at New Mexico State University, has traveled with a small group of his fellow engineering students to Mexico, where he has helped to build a water well for some 80 residents of Ruiz De Ancones and a bridge for the 150 residents of Las Boquillas.

"I almost feel as though we have been called to do this work," says Villasana, the secretary for the NMSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which has more than 350 projects in more than 45 developing countries, including renewable energy, sanitation and water. "Even though the work was sometimes hard, it was good because we were able to do things to help to make life better in this one part of Mexico."

Villasana, 25, would like to continue such efforts but if he does it will be without the official sanction and support of NMSU, which this spring announced that it would no longer participate in any school programs in Mexico.

The university made its decision in response to a U.S. State Department travel advisory issued earlier this year warning of growing violence in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Sonora and Tamaulipas.

That warning took particular note of violent confrontations between drug cartels and Mexican authorities that have resulted in more than 23,000 deaths, primarily in the six Mexican border states.

The travel advisory also said U.S. citizens in Mexico had been harassed in their vehicles and subjected to both robbery and violence on some highways in the northern border states.

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. with longstanding Mexican student exchange programs, as well as sponsored study trips to that country, have since pulled back their efforts, taking note of the State Department's warnings.

The University of Texas at Austin on April 3 ordered its students taking classes at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Monterrey, Mexico, to return to Texas.

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The University of Texas system, which includes nine universities and six health centers, followed suit with an order on April 23 pulling all of its students out of Mexico. That decision was made before a University of Texas at E1 Paso student and a former UT-El Paso student were gunned down in May on a highway connecting Juarez with Villa Ahumada.

"This was a very tough decision," says Christian Clarke Casarez, the director of international public affairs for UT-Austin, of the decision to pull students out of Monterrey. …