March 12, 2008

American Students Face Int’l Law Over Spring Break

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Next week, many Cornell students will be fleeing to Mexico to enjoy their spring breaks. But when booking hotels and airfare, spring break dangers tend to be a distant thought.
According to the U.S. State Department, 2,500 American citizens are arrested abroad each year, more often than not on charges for narcotic possessions. Students in particular, enjoying the lenient drinking laws of their spring break destinations, have frequently been arrested for being intoxicated in public areas, for underage drinking and for drunk driving.
A press release from the U.S. State Department warns against the dangers of being unfamiliar with the laws of your destination: “Disorderly or reckless behavior can have serious repercussions. Acts that are legal at home in the United States could lead to arrest and prosecution in foreign countries.”
The State Department’s website stresses that students who break the law will not be exonerated because they are American.
“Some Americans go abroad assuming that local authorities will overlook such conduct because they are American citizens. This is simply not the case. Americans who violate the laws of the countries they visit may be arrested, and they could face severe penalties, including long prison sentences. In fact, some countries have mandatory death sentences for drug offenses.”
Furthermore, students who are arrested can face serious jail time.
“The importation, purchase, possession or use of drugs can incur severe penalties, including imprisonment without bail for up to a year before a case is tried, and imprisonment of several years following a conviction,” said the U.S. State Department’s website, “Spring Break in Mexico: Know Before You Go!”
Cy Ferenchak, the assistant spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said, “I think we want to make people aware of the fact that every country has laws and we expect travelers to obey those laws just like any traveler too the U.S. would be expected to obey our laws. The fact that you are a U.S. citizen will not carry any weight in a court of law. We advise people to be aware of their surroundings and of the regulations and law in the country they are visiting.”
A Cornell sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous, described a situation his father had been in on his vacation to Cancun:
“After going out drinking, this group of older business men were walking back to their hotel and two of the guys started to pee behind a building. The cops suddenly came out of nowhere and took them in a car and drove them away. They took them away to ‘shake them down.’ They ended up taking $300 in cash, a nice watch and $600 in traveler’s checks from the two men. This was in exchange for the cops not putting them in jail for two days,” he said.
At Cornell the penalty for public urination, a violation of the campus code, is a meeting with the judicial administrator.
There is a very significant difference in the severity between Cornell’s and Mexico’s punishments for misdemeanors.
A Cornell junior, who also wished to remain anonymous, told the story of her friend, who on spring break in Acapulco, experienced the same action:
“After a night of clubbing, my friend ended up going with a guy she had met that night down to the beach. They saw no signs about trespassing, but soon after they arrived on the beach cops surrounded them. The cops bartered with them a deal where the police would not arrest them if my friend paid them upwards of $200.”
Fernenchak declined to comment on bribery claims.
“The problem we have with providing data is that when people go oversees they do not have to report to the government or Consular about what happened,” he said.
The anonymous sophomore also mentioned a trip to Cancun, where a 21-year-old male he was traveling with went to buy marijuana on the beach from Mexicans. Within 15 minutes the police came up to him, finding the drugs, and demanding the man give them whatever he had on him.
When they found out he had nothing valuable with him, the police escorted him back to his hotel room where they demanded he get something to give to them in exchange for no jail time.
“Mexican cops can do whatever they want. They wait for you to make a move they can call you out on and they pump you for the stuff,” the student said.
Cailen Casey ’10, who is going to Mexico next week, expressed concern about his upcoming trip.
“The people at Cornell walk around so naively; we’re in our own little bubble. The juiciest thing that ever happens to us is when we get a campus alert e-mail once a month, but in Mexico its so commonplace for kids like us to targeted and messed with when we are trying to enjoy ourselves on vacation,” he said. “The naïve attitude at Cornell cannot translate into a spring break vacation in another country.”