Updated April 2023
Safety, Health, and Crisis Management on AUSM-Mexico Study Abroad Programs
The health and safety of study abroad participants is the highest priority for the Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM). A safe and educationally valuable program is constructed on several foundations: experienced staff, reliable and knowledgeable local partners, comprehensive pre-planning for emergencies, a solid educational program that keeps students occupied in intellectual pursuits, and family or community oriented contexts that occupy free time. Staff works closely with local partners to assess current health concerns and safety issues, and we adapt quickly to changing conditions and unfolding events. With years of experience taking groups to Mexico, the Autonomous University of Social Movements has the know-how, experience, local connections, and commitment to maximize the safety and health of participants.
AUSM staff conducts a complete health and safety evaluation before each semester, and we do additional evaluations whenever an incident in one of our regions calls for it. This includes analysis with our partner groups in each region and a review of U.S. Consulate updates.
Safety in Chiapas
The US State Department recommends “increased caution due to crime” in Chiapas. A similar recommendation covers almost the entire country of Mexico.
On April 28, 2023, the US Embassy issued the following security alert regarding violence in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, following a shooting:
The alert noted a large presence of armed individuals, military movement and gunfire in the Ojo de Agua neighborhood on 17 April. School and business suspensions were reported on 18 April; disruptions may continue in the near term. The embassy advises individuals to exercise increased caution if traveling in or around San Cristobal. Individuals should adhere to the advice of consular authorities and consult official sources for more information.
AUSM is monitoring this situation carefully. Our local contacts inform us the violence is related to a dispute between two criminal gangs over control of popular markets near the center of the city and in the Ojo de Agua barrio. This is the second incident of a similar nature over the past year (the first occurred on June 14, 2022) involving armed motorcyclists who occupy streets mainly in the Ojo de Agua barrio, both as a show of force and as a protest against enforcement actions by local authorities or actions by a rival group.
Previous to this incident, AUSM restricted our students to the UniTierra grounds during our time in the San Cristobal area because of concerns about Covid, particularly the possibility of introducing Covid into the indigenous communities where we spend most of our time. With the advent of the incident on April 17, our students can visit San Cristobal only as part of organized field trips, and only after staff evaluates the security situation.
UniTierra is located on the far northwest edge of San Cristobal, far from the city center and the Ojo de Agua barrio. It is a gated educational institution with guards posted 24 hours a day and is considered very safe. Oventic, where we spend most of our time, is located an hour north of San Cristobal de las Casas. It is also a gated community with 24 hour guards and is considered very safe. San Cristobal de las Casas is an international tourist destination which had been historically immune from organized crime violence. Local hotel and restaurant owners control city politics and it is unlikely they will permit the recent gang violence to damage their substantial interests in the tourist business.
Covid is present in Mexico. All students must be either fully vaccinated or recovered within the past year from a case of Covid. Students must use masks while traveling from the US to Mexico. Students will be instructed to use masks occasionally during visits outside of UniTierra or Oventic, but mask use is not required in this two communities.
Safety, Health, and Crisis Management
We take the safety of our students very seriously, and our record over the past ten years is evidence – no deaths and no serious injuries. We’ve had several medical emergencies, the most serious of which required emergency surgery for a pre-existing condition. The student complained of pains at 4 pm, and by 11 pm, she was in surgery. We can deal effectively and quickly with emergencies of this sort because we have strong local partners and transportation at each site. This also facilitates evacuation procedures in case of natural or political emergencies.
Anecdotal evidence and our own experience suggests that student behavior (and occasionally misbehavior) is a major cause of illness, injury, and other problems. Sometimes young people act as though they are invulnerable or reject the advice of more experienced leaders (any parent/guardian can attest to this kind of attitude). Staff members work to gain the trust and confidence of participants so that advice and guidance are taken seriously.
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to unfortunate incidents and can put our students and our program at risk. Alcohol consumption and use of illegal drugs are both strictly prohibited and may result in immediate expulsion from the program at the student’s expense. In part, because of the problems alcohol can cause, and in part because alcohol is prohibited in Zapatista communities, AUSM has a much more rigorous alcohol policy than most study abroad programs. The staff explains to students that this is a question of responsibility – toward homestay families, social movement organizations, and AUSM’s binational partner organizations – in addition to being a safety concern. The cooperative interaction of staff and participants is an essential element in the overall health and safety program.
Site-by-Site Safety Evaluations
San Cristobal de las Casas is a colonial city of about 100,000 in the highlands of Chiapas. As a major tourist center, the city attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year, mainly from the US, Holland, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. Because tourism is central to the economy, local police and politicians are careful to provide strong security. We are not aware of a single death of a foreigner over the past 18 years in San Cristobal.
Oventic is an indigenous community in the highlands of Chiapas. It has been and continues to be, one of the safest places we know anywhere in the world. In the past 18 years, there have been no student deaths or serious injuries in the region. The community itself has 24-hour security provided by local indigenous committees. There have been no reports of indigenous or military violence in the region over the past 18 years. The community has a large, reputable health clinic that can treat most common illnesses and medical emergencies. The clinic has two ambulances to transport people to the nearest major regional hospital located 15 minutes away for serious incidents.
AUSM staff carefully orient participants upon arrival at each site to avoid activities that may expose them to crime or danger. Orientation topics include how to avoid pickpockets, careful use of ATMs, taxis, and public transportation systems, the requirement that students always travel in groups of at least three, methods for avoiding and reacting to sexual harassment, street smarts, and local conditions concerning crime, health, and safety. We also discuss the sexual assault policy outlined below. Students are given emergency contact numbers to carry with them and are shown safe spaces in the city or village where they live. Students are actively engaged in academic classes and meetings with social movement organizations, spending time with homestay families, and attending cultural events during the great majority of their time.
Participants receive pre-trip orientation materials and an extensive orientation during the first week of the program, which includes:
• Orientation on gender dynamics and what to do in case of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
• Water and food. Participants have bottled or treated water available at all times.
• Advice regarding cleanliness and other preventive measures that can prevent illness.
• Orientation regarding emergencies and nearby medical facilities.
• A private discussion with each participant concerning pre-existing medical conditions.
• Orientation on specific health issues and conditions in each site visited during the program.
The U.S. Department of State Consular Information Sheet notes that “adequate medical care can be found in all major cities in Mexico.” San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas is one such major city. The indigenous community of Oventic is a rural community located in the highlands of Chiapas. Oventic has a free clinic that effectively treats most common illnesses and minor to moderate injuries, and the clinic’s lab also does clinical tests for common illnesses. Oventic is located an hour from San Cristobal de las Casas via paved roads. In emergency cases, the Study Abroad program has our own transportation available 24-hours for evacuation from Oventic to San Cristobal de las Casas.
Pre-departure health issues
AUSM is not licensed to practice medicine. As such, we do not make medical recommendations, including pre-departure vaccinations. However, we strongly encourage participants to consider a Typhoid vaccine. Salmonella bacteria are common in indigenous communities. A pre-trip Typhoid vaccine can help avoid a good deal of discomfort that results from salmonella infection, including fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. Salmonella is a common problem in Chiapas, and a number of our students have contacted salmonella during the study abroad program. For most healthy patients, symptoms last a few days to a week, after which most people recover quickly.
We strongly encourage participants to consult with their physicians before departure concerning vaccinations and other pre-travel health care options. We understand that ascribing to a particular school of medicine or religious belief may influence the ultimate decision regarding vaccinations and other health care procedures.
Student responsibility for personal health
Each study abroad participant must submit a health report based on a physician’s examination within the past twelve months. The exam should reveal any current health problems. The participant and physician should develop strategies for dealing with current health problems, considering that the participant will be spending three months in Mexico and may not have access to the quality of health care to which s/he may be accustomed in the United States. Participants who require regular medication, either prescription or over-the-counter, should bring sufficient supplies for the 13-14 week program. This includes eye care products. Participants who require, or who are likely to require, specific medications for their conditions must communicate with AUSM about the process for obtaining these medications in the host country. This needs to be done two months in advance of the beginning of the program so that appropriate planning can take place. This group includes students who need to know about managing diabetes, epilepsy, allergies, or other chronic ailments.
Mental health issues
Students who are in counseling or therapy, who have received treatment for psychological or emotional problems in the past two years, or who feel the need for these services should schedule appointments with their mental health professional before they leave to discuss the overseas program and the related issues of living and working in a new environment. Psychological counseling will not be easily available during the program in Mexico, especially counseling in English.
STIs and HIV/AIDS
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) exist in every society. Mexico is no exception, but they are not always discussed as openly and frankly as in the U.S. To protect participants and their partners, sexually active students should be certain they are disease-free before leaving the U.S. where diagnosis and treatment are relatively easy to obtain. Participants should take all appropriate precautions when involved in sexual activity.
Everything that students know about AIDS avoidance in this country applies in Mexico. Participants should be no less vigilant abroad than they are at home. Because discussion of STIs and AIDS is often less open in Mexico than in the United States, this may create an impression of freedom from risk. This is not true. Those participants who will be sexually active are encouraged to practice safe sex. Condoms are available in most pharmacies.
Alcohol and other drugs
As part of the Women’s Indigenous Law, promulgated in 1991, alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited in Zapatista communities. UniTierra is considered Zapatista territory, hence alcohol is also prohibited on the campus. Marijuana and other drugs that are banned in the United States are also illegal in Mexico. Penalties for possession or use of illegal drugs can be quite severe. Possession or use of illegal drugs is strictly prohibited and is grounds for immediate expulsion from the study abroad program.
All students must either purchase health insurance through AUSM’s insurance carrier or provide proof of their health insurance. At a minimum, health insurance should cover emergency hospitalization and emergency repatriation to the U.S.
The AUSM crisis management plan is designed to deal with unforeseen crises that may arise during the study abroad program, including accidents, natural disasters, civil unrest, political uprisings, physical or sexual assault, kidnapping or serious medical problems.
Evaluation of current conditions
Our current analysis of the political situation in the areas where we travel leads us to conclude that widespread civil unrest and/or a political uprising is very unlikely. Accidents and natural events cannot be predicted but must be planned for (see below). Kidnapping and other serious crimes affecting US students are rare, and we are not aware of a single case of kidnapping or death of a US university student in Mexico during the past 18 years. During the 18 years of our program, we have had two concerning incidents of sexual assault in which students were groped on the street in San Cristobal de las Casas with each incident lasting less than ten seconds – and no cases of more violent assault or rape. We had one case of a serious medical problem – a twisted ovary that required emergency surgery. A doctor affiliated with our program conducted the surgery and was able to preserve the fertility of the student.
Our crisis management plan is very important. We practice a careful and caring strategy for keeping our students and staff the safest: hope for the best, but always plan for the worst.
The AUSM on-site staff is responsible for crisis management. While under normal circumstances, we prefer to make collective decisions on major changes in the program, taking into consideration the wants and needs of students, during a crisis we expect students to follow the lead of on-site staff and ask questions later. On-site staff will do whatever is necessary and possible in a crisis to protect students. This responsibility may, at times, appear to conflict with the values or respect for the students’ individual choices. But in matters relating to personal safety and crisis management, the authority of on-site staff and AUSM will supersede the individual wishes of students. While every person responds to and deals with crises uniquely, there is little time “in the heat of the moment” for extensive discussions or negotiations. In a crisis, students are expected to respond quickly to the plan of action outlined by the on-site staff.
By their very nature, crises are unexpected events that take us out of our normal range of experience. Good judgment and flexibility are important in dealing with any crisis. AUSM relies on experienced on-site staff and local collaborating organizations to collect information and develop the specific elements that make up a comprehensive response to a crisis.
Sexual or physical assault
Unfortunately, in Mexico (as in the US), groping women by strangers is not uncommon, particularly on crowded public transport and tourist areas. According to US law, AUSM is obligated to report cases of sexual assault to the student’s home university. Students are oriented to:
- Always travel in groups of at least three people.
- Be aware of your surroundings. One of our groping cases happened at 2:00am on a side street in San Cristobal de las Casas where the victim was talking on a cell phone, which distracted her from her surroundings.
- Women in Mexico generally don’t wear shorts, low-cut blouses, or shirts that expose the midriff, and men generally don’t wear shorts or muscle shirts. Many Mexican women are accustomed to wearing a modest “commuter’s outfit” when traveling on public transportation.
- We ask students to do their best not to engage or respond to catcalls and to seek a safe public space quickly.
- Don’t use unmarked taxis. All taxis should have a photo I.D. of the driver and an official taxi license plate. Students are oriented to identify legitimate taxis in each locality.
- Avoid taverns and nightclubs that are known to be troublesome. Staff will orient students on known trouble spots.