While student service trips are often marketed as a cultural learning experience, recent outbreaks of violence in Reynosa, Mexico, the location of Project Mexico, have some students questioning the safety of the environment in which they are learning.
Project Mexico was established at the College in 2003, and has since expanded to include two service trips each year with about 225 students participating nationwide. Every March and May, about 30 students from the College travel to the country to build permanent homes for impoverished families.
“The trips offer the chance to see all that effort come to fruition in a week of hard work, culture shock, personal reflection and community building,” Director of Student Volunteer Services Drew Stelljes said.
But recent events of violent conflict in Reynosa have raised questions about the safety of such service trips. An article published in the March 16 issue of the Washington Post described the region as a “Gulf cartel country,” where Los Zetas, the cartel’s “mercenary squad,” dominated local areas and created high tensions within the Mexican government.
Feb. 16, about two weeks before Project Mexico members arrived in Reynosa, a Mexican man with no apparent ties to the cartel was reported fatally shot reportedly by police for not cooperating at a checkpoint.
A travel alert issued by the U.S. Department of State on Oct. 24, 2007, cites Tamaulipas, the state in which Reynosa is located, for narcotics-related violence as well. Though the alert points out that U.S. citizens do not seem to be targeted in violence, it warns that kidnappings in parts of Mexico do not discriminate against Americans.
Dave Johnson ’09, the leader of the spring service trip, tracks such events regularly.
“While Reynosa is indeed located in Tamaulipas, that does not make it indicative of other places in the state,” he said. “I have never seen any resemblance of border violence in Reynosa.”
Stelljes monitors the State Department’s warnings for all service trips.
“The decision to cancel the trip to Kenya was a tough one, but the right one given the specifics of the Department of State travel warning,” he said.
The warning for Mexico, he said, does not warrant the cancellation of the trip.
However, the tension caused Faith Ministry, the organization that College volunteers work alongside, to issue a letter addressing the dangers.
In the letter, Faith Ministry’s Board of Directors acknowledges the outbreaks of violence, but goes on to say that, “We do not consider the current events as constituting a serious danger to either Faith Ministry volunteers or the residents of the colonias.”
“Ultimately, this violence is solely between the cartels and the government,” he said. “Neither wants to allow any local or U.S. citizen to be harmed; any of their support in the community or the U.S. would likely dry up very fast.”
Johnson attributes the recent media buzz to a rise in nativism in America.
“I think it’s broadcast too loudly in the media because Mexico and immigration have become hot spots of discussion,” he said.
Regardless, Project Mexico and Faith Ministry have numerous security measures in place for each trip: two advisors accompany each group of students their sleeping area is locked up at 10 p.m. each night and they are forbidden to go out after dark.
“People don’t go out after dark not because of drugs or violence,” Johnson said, “but because it’s a different country. I feel completely safe over there.”
Stelljes notes that, at any time, a student is allowed to discontinue participation.
“Every student is urged to communicate with his or her parent or guardian upon being accepted for a trip,” Stelljes said. “In addition to making the personal decision to travel abroad, the student is strongly urged to make the decision alongside his or her family.”
The tension in Reynosa is mostly a result of the Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s increased pressure on the drug trade in the region. Calderón has sent more than 1,000 troops to Reynosa, saturating the area with government presence. The troops are a common sight for Project Mexico members.
“The citizens of Reynosa know all about Faith Ministry and its work; groups from the U.S. are obviously not sent to some random area and left in isolation,” Johnson said. “In other words, it’s not a big deal, and it’s nothing to worry about for the time being.”