U.S. Warning Halts Americans' Studying in Mexico, but Europeans Are Filling the Gap

Dario Leon, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

A memorial honors two engineering students from the Monterrey Institute of Technology who were killed in March during a shootout between security forces and suspected gang members.
August 18, 2010

When the U.S. government warned Americans against traveling to the most violence-torn regions of Mexico in March, the impact on study-abroad programs in the country was immediate and severe.

Universities across the United States canceled research projects and warned their students against studying or even traveling in northern Mexico.

But six months later, a record number of students from other parts of the world are flocking to Monterrey, the northern Mexican city that has been a focal point of the drug war. In some cases, university administrators say, European students are even making up for the shortfall from the United States.

"Basically, the U.S. students are the only ones missing," said Jesús González Villarreal, director of international-student services on the main campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education.

Monterrey Tech, as the university is commonly known, is one of Mexico's largest and most prestigious private institutions of higher education. Some 60,000 students are enrolled at its 33 campuses nationwide, including some 4,000 foreign students.

But after the U.S. State Department issued its travel warning, the number of Americans enrolled at the Monterrey campus plummeted, from 67 a year ago to 13 this fall, Mr. González said. The total number of foreign undergraduates has dropped from 559 to 496 over the same period. But European enrollment actually went up slightly, from 366 students to 368 students, he said.

Meanwhile, the private University of Monterrey has a record number of foreign undergraduates—169—this fall, despite hosting just four Americans, said Thomas M. Buntru, the university's international-programs director. That's down from an average of 15 or 20 American undergraduates in recent semesters, he said.

"There are so many French, German, Dutch, and Spanish students that they have more than offset the drop that we have in American students," he said.

He and other administrators credit the intense—and often sensationalist—coverage of the drug war by the American news media for the contrasting reactions of American and European universities.

"I think they are overdoing it," said Mr. Buntru, who is German. "I've been to Spain, England, and Germany, and Mexico is hardly ever in the news. They simply don't get the same info or coverage of Mexico."

Mr. Buntru, who is president of the Mexican Association for International Education, said his colleagues at other universities in northern Mexico have also reported mass cancellations of American students. The association, whose more than 150 members from over 50 institutions­—both in Mexico and elsewhere—include the major players in international-student exchange in Mexico, does not keep exact figures on foreign-student enrollment. But the association is conducting a survey of its members to gauge the fallout from the U.S. government's travel warning.

Many American universities cited liability issues in recommending that their students avoid the most violence-torn regions of Mexico.

The U.S. State Department decided to upgrade its longtime travel advisory for Mexico to a travel warning after three people connected with the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez were gunned down by suspected narcotics hit gangs on March 13. The city, which lies across the border from El Paso, Tex., is at the epicenter of the turf war between rival narcotics gangs for access to U.S. smuggling routes.

Mexican officials argued that the city was not representative of the country as a whole.

Escalating Violence

However, American university officials are not the only ones worried about the escalating drug violence, which has claimed some 28,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on the narcotics gangs in January 2007.

In April, Mexican university officials and students met with President Calderón in Monterrey to express their concern over the impact of the drug war. The officials also presented the president with a proposal to involve the universities more directly in devising antinarcotics strategies.

The meeting came two months after two Mexican university students were killed in a shootout between security forces and suspected drug traffickers in Monterrey. The victims, both engineering graduate students at Monterrey Tech, were gunned down in March just outside the university's main campus.

Then, in May, two undergraduate students from Monterrey Tech's campus in the northern city of Torreón, in Coahuila, were shot dead by suspected drug traffickers, according to the government news agency, Notimex. The students were among eight people killed when the hit men burst into a popular nightclub and opened fire.

Since then, Monterrey Tech has beefed up security on all its campuses, including expanding police surveillance and increasing the number of security cameras in Monterrey by 50 percent. The university also provides free transportation for students living in nearby neighborhoods after dark.

"It's very important to recognize that there's a real security situation, but at the same time, to put things in perspective," said Jorge A. Lozano, communications and public relations director for the Monterrey campus.

He and Mr. González said Monterrey Tech had been in "constant communication" with American universities and with U.S. consulate officials to inform them of its security measures and to respond to concerns.

"We provide them with objective information on the situation," said Mr. González. But, he emphasized, "we respect their final decision."

Other universities are adopting similar measures, including requiring students to show identification before entering the campus.

Still, university administrators and government officials note that no foreign students have been killed in the drug war, and that incidents affecting Mexican students are rare.

Rodolfo Tuirán, Mexico's undersecretary of higher education, argued that American universities should take a more careful look at security in Mexico before canceling programs in the country.

"It's very complicated, and it's an issue of perception versus reality," Mr. Tuirán said in an interview. "It's clear that this is not a problem that affects the whole country."