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A rare snapshot of trips gone wrong

Times Staff Writer

Where, outside his or her home country and Iraq, is an American likely to get into the most trouble?

If getting arrested is your measure of trouble, the answer is Mexico. More specifically, it’s Tijuana, followed by Guadalajara, Nuevo Laredo and, across the Atlantic, London.

Iraq -- where American military contractors have been shielded from local laws since 2004 -- doesn’t come close.

That’s the upshot of a new tally by the State Department tracking arrests of Americans abroad last year.

The news doesn’t seem to be any surprise in Tijuana, where 520 Americans were arrested in 2006.

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“I’ve seen this happen ever since I was born,” Juan Saldana, marketing manager for the Tijuana Convention & Visitors Bureau, said with a sigh.

The State Department released the numbers, without comment, in response to a request by The Times. (The department declined to release any figures on how many Americans are incarcerated or where.) Drawing together reports from more than 290 cities worldwide, State Department officials counted 4,456 arrests abroad last year, up from 3,614 in 2005 but down slightly from 4,473 in 2003.

The top 10 cities where Americans were arrested and the number taken into custody:

1. Tijuana: 520

2. Guadalajara: 416

3. Nuevo Laredo: 359

4. London: 274

5. Mexico City: 208

6. Toronto: 183

7. Nassau, Bahamas: 108

8. Merida, Mexico: 99

9. Nogales, Mexico: 96

10. Hong Kong: 90

The numbers included no details on offenses or time in custody and may not be comprehensive, State Department officials say, because they generally depend on foreign governments and families of those arrested for information.

Officials say alcohol, drugs and possession of guns at border checkpoints have long been common causes for arrests of Americans in Mexico and Canada.

Canada has required registration of all handguns since 1934. Entering Mexico with a firearm or ammunition without prior written authorization can net you a prison sentence. (More information: www.canadianembassy.org/gov ernment/guncontrol-en.asp or www .travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/ cis_970.html.)

Elsewhere, the figures show 10 American arrests in Baghdad last year -- perhaps miscreant civilians without military-contractor jobs.

The figures also don’t mention Tehran, where authorities this year imprisoned three visiting Iranian Americans (with dual citizenship) for months on charges on endangering national security. All three denied the charges, and all were released last month.

Meanwhile, several cities with reputations for misbehavior by U.S. visitors yielded relatively low numbers. Amsterdam reported 32 arrests; Bangkok, Thailand, 20; Naples, Italy, 19In London, on the other hand, arrests jumped from 45 in 2005 to 274 last year; the State Department declined to say why.

In Toronto, the numbers rose from 18 to 183.

State Department officials could not explaination those changes either.

As for Tijuana, the news wasn’t all bad. American arrests there last year were substantially down from the year before, when 646 U.S. citizens were taken into custody. And those who misbehave amount to a minority among the estimated 15 million to 17 million American day-trippers and overnight visitors to Tijuana yearly.

“Especially on Friday and Saturday nights, we have a lot of underaged-in-the-U.S. kids coming over to drink here,” Saldana said.

“Some take one drink too many, and they may get a little rowdy and they may be arrested for that.”

Most Americans, Saldana said, can stay out of trouble by heeding some simple advice: “Follow basic, logical behavior. Don’t do anything in Mexico that you wouldn’t do in the United States.”

Further cautionary words come from the State Department, which reports that since the beginning of 2002, at least 21 American citizens have died in custody in Mexico and that “Mexican police regularly obtain information through torture.”

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chris.reynolds@latimes.com


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