For more than 20 years, spring break has been synonymous with a trip to Mexico for many members of Ashland's First Baptist Church.
Every March a bus filled with students and chaperones rolls south on Interstate 5, bound for the El Sauzal Orphanage near the city of Ensenada, in Baja California. Typically, the Oregonians stop at Tijuana on their way south — but not this year, said Dwayne Robinson, the church's senior pastor.
Violent attacks in cities along the Mexican side of the border, and the shooting death of three people associated with the U.S. consulate, led the U.S. State Department to issue a warning about travel in Mexico.
The warning urges U.S. citizens to delay "unnecessary travel" to parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states and advises U.S. citizens residing or traveling in those areas to exercise extreme caution.
Robinson said members of the church have talked to people in San Diego and others familiar with the situation in Mexico.
"We have done our homework," he said, "and we're not going to do dangerous things."
The warning notes that drug cartels "have retaliated violently against individuals who speak out against them or whom they otherwise view as a threat to their organizations. These attacks include the abduction and murder of two U.S. citizens in Chihuahua."
The State Department has authorized the departure of the dependents of government personnel from U.S. consulates in Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros.
Robinson said the annual trips always have been carefully planned.
"Even when we first started doing it, we were cautious," Robinson said. "We don't go out at night when we are at the orphanage, and we stay together in groups when we are in town. When we're in downtown Ensenada I feel safe. You just don't draw attention, don't go to party places and do your thing. I've talked to some local people and they're saying 'What's the big deal?' From their perspective they don't worry."
He said the coastal toll road in Baja California has several police checkpoints
"Because it's a toll highway, it's better maintained," Robinson said. "The military is there to check people. They may want to see what you have."
The church's big bus raises officials' curiosity from time to time as well.
"They have pulled us over a couple times," Robinson said. "They're sniffing for drugs, wanting to know what we are doing and where we are going. We say 'Yes, sir' and tell them we are Americans on a mission trip."
Despite the violence, Robinson said mission efforts continue in Tijuana. A 21-year-old woman involved in mission work in Tijuana wrote Robinson to encourage parents at the Ashland church to continue the annual trip.
"She said she feels safe," he said. "You just don't go to certain places, just like you wouldn't in the states."
AAA Oregon/Idaho issued a statement Wednesday suggesting that people going to Mexico travel with companions, carry proper identification and buy Mexican auto insurance if they're driving, because U.S. auto insurance is not valid in Mexico.
Several local travel agents said the violence has not cost them any reservations that were already made.
"I have had travelers call and mention they didn't want to go to Mexico because of the violence occurring in the border towns" said Marilyn Somics, owner of TravelHost in Grants Pass. "But I haven't had any cancellations because of what has been reported, and we've had cruises on both the west and east coasts (of Mexico). The resort areas are really important to Mexico."
She said "all-inclusive" resort packages, which cover food, alcohol, non-motorized water sports and entertainment, continue to be a big draw for travelers visiting Mexico.
"If you're off the beaten path or attempting to buy drugs, it might not be a good idea (to go there)," Somics said. "You want to be cautious anytime you are going to a place you haven't been before — even if you are in the U.S. It's a common-sense type thing."
Charles Brook at Express Travel in Medford said he hasn't had cancellations, but he noted that people who might have been interested in traveling to Mexico may have stopped calling.
"I was in Tijuana last year," Brook said, "but I doubt I would go back there right now. With the added worries of the drug wars, I wouldn't visit a border town any time soon."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org