Service trip canceled due to drug violence

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April 14, 2009

4:54 AM

The Project Mexico team expected to spend part of May in Reynosa, Mexico, until escalating violence forced them to cancel their plans. The group’s earlier trip to Reynosa called Project Mexico Spring Break, was also cancelled just a week and a half before the members’ departure as the result of a crime wave in the region that has been tied to Mexico’s increasingly vicious drug cartels.

According to Project Mexico May leaders Jenna Ogden ‘10 and James Page ’11, the purpose of the trip was to focus on improving the housing situation in Reynosa, a city located close to the U.S. – Mexico border, through its partnership with the non-governmental organization Faith Ministries Church International.

Office of Student Volunteer Services assistant director Melody Porter had planned to go with Project Mexico May to Reynosa.

“It is very disappointing; however, the thing that strikes me the most is what a tragedy it is for the people living there,” Porter said. “Here, we can move on and find other ways to serve. They, on the other hand, are faced with this very scary violence.”

The status of Project Mexico for next year remains uncertain. The OSVS said it will not travel to that region of Mexico until the travel alert issued by the U.S. Department of State is lifted.
Project Mexico Spring Break, led this year by Lisa Pin ’09 and Kaitlin Gonzales ’09, was also cancelled.

“It is really unfortunate that the trip was cancelled this year,” Pin said. “Project Mexico is a great service trip.
We developed a really good relationship between the students here and the people, and we don’t want this organization to end.”

Aware of the violence in other areas of Mexico in previous years, OSVS had kept a close eye on newspaper articles from the region. Reynosa seemed safe until late February when reports of shootings began to appear in the city.

“There was a significant amount of violence in Reynosa, as well as the area we would be traveling through to get there,” Gonzales said. “Additionally, when we talked with our contacts in the area, we were told that civilians had been hurt in the crossfire.”

According to OSVS Director Drew Stelljes, the office always monitors the regions where service groups travel. The travel alert issued by the U.S. Department of State raised a red flag for Project Mexico.

“If a country [or] region is listed on the travel warning by the U.S. Department of State, students may not travel to the area as part of any university-sponsored service trip,” Stelljes said.

The organization leaders ultimately made the decision to cancel the trip citing the group’s safety as their utmost concern.

“Having been on this trip several times I am intimately aware of the mutually beneficial opportunity that this trip provides,” Stelljes said. “However, we will not put students or faculty in harm’s way.”

For Pin, the decision to cancel the trip was very difficult to make. She described feeling disappointed and frustrated, especially since she had developed a relationship with the community in Reynosa during last year’s trip.

“One of the ladies I met there said I was like her daughter, and I could come and stay in their home any time with them. I definitely bonded with them,” Pin said. “I wanted to be leader this year so I could go back and see them again.”

The team had also raised thousands of dollars for the trip, holding several fundraisers throughout the school year. Money that had been sent to Faith Ministries could not be returned and instead served as the students’ donation for the year. Pin and Gonzales are still working to get reimbursements for the team’s travel expenses.

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