- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

CANCUN, MEXICO (AP) - Tinkling drinks in hand, New Yorkers Lauren Levy and Jacob Schum settle onto lounge chairs a few feet from the Caribbean’s lapping waves. Levy adjusts her yellow bikini. Schum smooths his blue Bermuda shorts. They smile at each other and sigh softly.

“I’ve never seen turquoise water like this before. It’s a beautiful thing,” Schum says.

The couple had heard of Mexico’s cartel killings, casino firebombs, bribery and corruption. But like millions of other Americans craving a break this spring, these workaholics couldn’t resist the low prices, flowing drinks and sunny, 80-degree escape.

“We know not to leave the resort, drink the water or eat the vegetables,” says Levy. “We arranged for a shuttle from the airport, we wouldn’t get in a taxi. And yeah, we feel safe.”

Plus they got a great deal, adds Levy: Just $1,500 for five days, four nights _ food, drinks, airfare, transportation, everything.

While American tourism to Mexico slipped 3 percent last year, the country remains by far the biggest tourist destination for Americans, with about 20 million U.S. visitors a year, according to annual survey of bookings by the largest travel agencies. It’s as if the entire populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix all went to Mexico for vacation each year.

And for those Americans who do stay away, it appears that it’s also finances, not just violence, that’s to blame. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the economic recession forced 4 percent fewer Americans to travel abroad in 2011 compared with 2010.

While some can’t afford the trip, others do stay home out of fear.

The U.S. State Department warns of “gun battles in broad daylight” as Mexican drug dealers fight to control the lucrative trade in marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine that reaps an estimated $25 billion in U.S. sales each year.

Mexican officials say 47,515 people were killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico between Dec. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2011. Most were people involved in the drug trade, but the number of U.S. citizens murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.

Certain areas are more dangerous than others, the State Department says. Tourists are advised to stay near resorts and not to travel at night in the resorts of Acapulco and Mazatlan, for example. And in February, 22 Carnival Cruise Lines passengers were robbed at gunpoint during a shore excursion near the Mexico seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta.

Cancun, however, has remained relatively unscathed. And millions of Americans still come, especially during spring break, when the town becomes a weeks-long party.

Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials say the region is relatively free of violence because trafficking in the area is controlled almost exclusively by just one cartel, the Zetas, a brutal and high-tech gang founded by rogue Mexican Army special forces who deserted their units and entered the drug trade. In contrast to many other areas of Mexico, the Zetas are virtually uncontested in Cancun, Latin America security analyst Samuel Logan says.

“The area is safe because Los Zetas control the area and are too dug in for their rivals to fight them for it,” he said in an email.

Logan said the cartel maintains control over the region by shaking down business owners, forcing them to pay for “protection” or risk attacks. He said the cartel likely has far more weapons and power than local law enforcement, and that they’re likely paying off politicians and police.

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