Pubdate: Mon, 15 Mar 2010
Source: USA Today (US)
Page: 17A
Copyright: 2010 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Chris Hawley, USA TODAY


About 43% of the Country's Hunters Are From the United States. Their
Prime Areas Have the Most Intense Violence.

LOS MOCHIS, Mexico - It was a fabulous day for duck hunting, quiet 
and peaceful except for
the occasional bang of a shotgun in a marsh near the Mexican town of
Los Mochis. Then Mexico's drug war intruded.

A police helicopter roared in over the mangroves, scattering the ducks
and hovering over the American hunters trying not to be seen in their

Suspected drug traffickers had killed six people, execution-style with
bullets to the head, near the marsh the night before. Now police were
searching for a possible seventh body that may have been dumped in the

"Oh, that's not good for business," guide David Warner said as the
helicopter clattered away over the marsh.

Across Mexico, drug violence is putting a damper on efforts to attract
American hunters, a form of tourism that ranchers and the government
have been trying to encourage in recent years as a way of bringing
jobs to rural parts of the country.

Hunting outfitters say U.S. travel warnings, along with news reports
about shootouts and massacres in Mexico, have driven down business by
60% or more this year. Each hunter typically pays $2,000 to $5,000 for
a three-day hunting trip, so it's a big loss.

"It's been terrible," said Javier Plata, an outfitter and vice
president of Mexico's En La Mira Hunters and Shooters' Association.
"It's really fears about the drug violence, not the economy. These
hunters are wealthy people, and they can afford the trip."

Last year was the bloodiest yet since President Felipe Calderon
launched a crackdown on Mexico's drug cartels in December 2006. Some
6,587 people were killed in drug-related violence in 2009, up 26% from
the 5,207 in 2008, according to an unofficial tally by the Reforma

Tourism by foreigners in Mexico was down 2% overall in the third
quarter of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008 (22.61 million
vs. 23.15 million). Hunting has been hit much harder because 97% of
Mexico's hunting preserves are in northern states where the drug
violence is most intense.

There have been no confirmed run-ins between hunters and smugglers,
and few reports of foreign tourists being affected by the drug
violence. Even so, the U.S. State Department is warning Americans to
avoid parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states, all prime
hunting areas for deer and other big game. Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, two
coastal states popular with bird hunters, have become battlefield
states for competing cartels.

"People see that stuff, and they're just not going to go," said Tom
Brown, who handles booking for Ojo Caliente Outfitters in Chihuahua
state. "We're way off (in bookings), and it's getting worse."

It's also a setback for the Mexican government, which has been trying
to attract foreign hunters in recent years.

Since 2000, the government has more doubled the amount of land set
aside for hunting, from 36 million acres to 82 million acres in 2010.

The number of hunting licenses granted rose 31% between 2000 and 2007,
from 35,631 to 46,650, according to the latest figures available.

About 43% of hunters come from the United States, drawn by Mexico's
wide-open spaces, later hunting seasons, and wealth of deer, mountain
lions and other game. Bird hunters can legally shoot 45 ducks a day
here, compared with six or seven in most U.S. states.

Bird hunting ended Feb. 28 in most Mexican states, and deer season
closed in January. Bighorn sheep, however, can be hunted into March,
wild turkeys into May, and wild boar can be hunted year-round.

Mexican lodge owners say the flow of hunters collapsed this

Only eight American duck hunters came to Plata's La Abundancia Lodge
in the eastern state of Tamaulipas this winter, down from 40-50 in a
normal year, he said. Plata said he had to lay off 18 of his 20
full-time and part-time employees.

In the western state of Sinaloa, the Patolandia hunting lodge cut
wages by 30% for its 15 employees, manager Nezahualcoytl Gutierrez
said. Gutierrez said he hosted about 60 American hunters this year,
half as many as normal.

Hector Betancourt, an ammunition seller who supplies about 60 hunting
outfitters across six Mexican states, said his sales dropped 60% this

For many lodges, the biggest losses were in corporate hunting trips,
said Bruno Taino, owner of the La Finca lodge in Tamaulipas. U.S.
companies frequently sponsor hunting junkets as a way of courting
clients or rewarding salespeople.

This year, many companies canceled because of worries over

"It's completely unjustified, because (traffickers) don't even want to
be near foreigners, especially not shooters," Taino said. "It just
creates problems for them. But when these companies see all these news
stories about killings coming out of Mexico, they get nervous."

There have been no confirmed incidents of drug traffickers harassing
hunters, said Gabriel Serna, a board member of Mexico's National
Wildlife Breeder's Association. But in October, bandits held nine bird
hunters from Houston at gunpoint and stole their gear near Villa
Mendes in Tamaulipas state. Taino said the robbery was related to a
dispute between land owners.

In February, gunmen ambushed a team of federal game wardens as they
were returning from a routine inspection of hunting areas in Sinaloa
state. The attackers held the officials on the ground for an hour and
threatened to kill them, according to an official report on the attack.

They eventually spared the men but took their sport-utility vehicle
and equipment, including night-vision devices and bulletproof vests.

Nevertheless, hunters who came to Mexico said the danger was mostly

"We've been coming here for years and haven't had any problems, so I
wasn't too worried," Billy Prine of Mobile, Ala., said as he watched
for ducks from his blind in the marsh near Los Mochis.

Outfitters said they are hoping for better luck next year. Bird
hunting begins in August, and deer hunting starts in October. The lack
of hunters this year should mean good hunting in the fall, Serna said.

"We've got people signing up for August, so that's good," he said.
"We're just hoping all those people will come back." 
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