OTTAWA (Canadian OH&S News)
The escalating threat of violence from drug cartels warring over nearby territory has forced an Ottawa-based white water rafting company to abandon its off-season plans in Mexico.
Esprit Whitewater Worldwide had been travelling to Mexico to take tourists rafting in the state of Veracruz, on the country’s east coast, for the last 17 years, said company owner Jim Coffey. This year the company will operate out of Costa Rica for its 18-week long winter operations, running from November to March.
“We lose a huge revenue source for our company in the wintertime, but we would be worse off if we didn’t make this decision and we were to have someone hurt or worse on one of our trips because we weren’t brave enough to say no,” Coffey said. The company usually operates with eight Canadian staff and a handful of Mexican workers during its winter operations, and hosts about 200 vacationers every year at a resort about two hours outside of the city of Veracruz.
Pointing to the spread of drug violence from the U.S.-Mexico border states into more southern areas of the country, Coffey said he acknowledges that there is an element of risk involved in white water rafting, but those are risks that the company and its guides have the ability to mitigate — the dangers to the safety of their workers and guests introduced by drug violence are another matter and entirely outside their control.
A new government will be taking over in December after Mexico held its presidential election on July 1, and the runner-up has challenged the results. Coffey said nothing he has seen indicates a change in leadership will help bring security to the area, which has been plagued by violence connected to the narcotics trade.
“We don’t want to start our season with the hope that ‘oh, things are going to get better’ and find out after the fact that it went the other way and got worse. We can’t afford to be the type of business that is reactive to an issue or problem in relation to people’s safety,” Coffey said.
Rival cartels coming too close for comfort
The move is not without precedent — last year the company had to suspend its operations after a rival drug cartel came into the region and, as a challenge to the existing gang and a way to announce their intentions to take over, dumped 37 bodies in the streets of the city of Veracruz.
Coffey said that while he has no concerns about guest and worker safety while at the resort, the company spends a lot of time travelling on the roads and guests are picked up in the major cities, where violence is most prevalent. And, with a new cartel trying to take hold of the city, he said it could mean one of the gangs gets pushed to the outskirts of the city — and closer to the resort.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises Canadians to exercise extreme caution in Veracruz due to high levels of organized crime, noting a surge in violence there and in other states dotting the country.
“There’s just too much insecurity around us to be able to confidently make that decision and say ‘hey, don’t worry, where we are is fine.’ It just takes one incident for it to suddenly be not fine,” Coffey said.