ISU students share experiences in violent regions of Mexico

Taysha Murtaugh

Bart Fruechte was a long way from home when he heard the gunshots.

It was a Thursday night in April, and he sat alone in his dorm room at Tecnologico de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, where he was studying abroad for the spring semester.

Iowa State had seven students studying in Mexico last spring when the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning to the country due to drug violence.

“Travel warnings are issued when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country,” according to the Department of State website.

Fruechte, senior in finance at Iowa State, was experiencing a slight cold that night and had decided to stay in and study rather than trek to the library. Around midnight, he heard the gunshots.

“The military was following the drug cartel, and they met right outside of campus and the military accidentally shot two engineering grad students,” Fruechte said.

It was this incident, along with the State Department’s travel warning that prompted many U.S. universities to bring their students in Mexico home early.

“As a consequence of the travel warning, we informed students during Spring Break that we were suspending the program and that they should return home as soon as they were able to,” said Trevor Nelson, program manager for the ISU Study Abroad Center.

“We did that for programs in the north of the country, where the State Department indicated the greatest danger, and the programs farther south we allowed to continue until the end of the spring semester.”

Nelson said the Study Abroad Center watches the State Department’s warnings and alerts very carefully.

“In the event that a travel warning is issued,” Nelson said, “we make a decision whether it is safer for students to remain where they are or whether it is safer for them to return to the states.”

The Study Abroad Center helped the students reschedule their return flights, covering any extra cost, and awarded them full credit for the semester, which had been cut short by two weeks. All study abroad programs to Mexico are now suspended until the State Department travel warning is lifted.

“You could avoid the bad part of the town, and if you were careful and weren’t out too late and took taxi rides home, it was fairly safe,” Fruechte said. “You just needed to have street-smarts.”

Thousands of victims of drug violence in Mexico, including the Monterrey Tech graduate students who were shot, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“That’s what a lot of people are worried about,” said Ivan Gonzalez, senior in community and regional planning. “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Gonzalez and his roommate, Tito Alvarez, senior in accounting, are two ISU students who traveled to Mexico during the travel warnings, not to study abroad, but to visit family.

Alvarez’s family lives in Michoacan, and Gonzalez’s parents have a house in Chihuahua. Both Michoacan and Chihuahua have been featured in the news in recent months for the brutal violence that has swept the cities.

“I had heard some things on the news about the place I was going before I was there, so that’s why I was more freaked out about the situation,” Alvarez said. “Heads were found at the entrance of the town that had to do with a bunch of writings of the gangs that were there.”

Gonzalez said he and his family in Chihuahua were also very worried.

“There have been killings in their hometown, so they’ve been more vigilant,” Gonzalez said. “They’re always looking out.”

Both Alvarez and Gonzalez have been making the 20-hour drive to Mexico with family since childhood, but the current drug violence made the trips this spring and summer more difficult.

“It’s not the same as it was before,” Gonzalez said. “You’re always thinking about if someone’s following you or what’s going to happen. You never used to think about those things while you were down there.”

Gonzalez said he and his family avoided traveling during the night, especially when crossing the border, because that’s when a lot of kidnappings occur.

“These past three weeks that I was there, we got to the border about 9 [p.m.] and decided to stay on the United States side of it until it was dawn,” Gonzalez said.

Upon entering Mexico, both Gonzalez and Alvarez had to pass through several military checkpoints, where soldiers checked primarily for drugs and firearms.

“At the checkpoints I’ve gone through, you’re stopped by at least three soldiers,” Gonzalez said. “One of them goes around, one of them checks the tires, one of them talks to you. They ask you what you have inside, where you’re going, where you came from, and if they find you suspicious, they look through your stuff.”

Alvarez said he’d rather be stopped by the Mexico military than the Mexico feds.

“If you get pulled over by [the feds],” he said, “they try to usually screw you over and get some money or impound your car or make you wait for a really long time.”

Police in Mexico aren’t paid very well, so some are paid off by the drug cartel, Fruechte said.

“In a town I visited,” Fruechte said, “a mayor was kidnapped and tortured just because he was trying to cut down the corruption of the police force. It’s just really sad to see all the honest people and good people who are standing up for values and are getting killed.”

Despite sad stories like this, Alvarez said most of the people in Mexico weren’t as freaked out about the drug violence as the media portrays.

“I think they’ve gotten used to it,” Gonzalez said. “I know every single day in the newspaper while I was down there for two weeks, every single day it was over 20 people dead and decapitated.”

For those planning on traveling to Mexico, Alvarez said, “If you don’t need to go, maybe just wait until the warning is lifted, and don’t drive there.”

Gonzalez and Alvarez both suggest flying and sticking to touristy places and places away from the border.

“Yeah, it’s really bad,” Gonzalez said. “It’s almost a war zone on the border towns … it is gruesome, but I don’t think it’s a reason to stay away from the tourist places like Cancun and Acapulco.”