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A Marine at the Entertainment Ticket Office looks over brochures that give tips on how to stay safe while visiting border towns in Mexico like Tijuana.

A Marine at the Entertainment Ticket Office looks over brochures that give tips on how to stay safe while visiting border towns in Mexico like Tijuana. (James B. Hoke/Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps)

WASHINGTON — Weekend trips across the Mexican border might be a thing of the past for servicemembers stationed in the southwest.

Over the last month, military bases along the United States’ southern border have issued new rules regarding travel into Mexico, requiring their personnel to get advance written permission to make the trip.

Defense Department officials said there is no force-wide ban on vacations into Mexico by military personnel, but they noted commanders at those southwest bases have issued new restrictions on their own because of increased violence and drug activity in border towns.

Those include a number of units that have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines and sailors stationed in California — at posts such as Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Twentynine Palms — and those at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona were informed of the changes over the last few weeks.

Master Sgt. Rhys Evans, spokesman for the I Marine Expeditionary Force, said the goal is to make sure Marines and sailors at those posts are aware of the situation in Mexico and have received some level of anti-terrorism travel training.

"It is important to note that this policy does not make travel to Mexico ‘off-limits,’ but it gives our commanders the necessary tools to promote safety and accountability," he said.

Since 2000 all Marines E-3 and below have been required to get permission to travel into Mexico. Now, Evans said, all personnel must get a liberty chit signed by an O-5 or higher before crossing the border.

Commanders at Fort Huachuca in Arizona issued similar restrictions in December. Angela Moncur, spokeswoman at Fort Huachuca, said so far troops there haven’t resisted the change.

"People are still coming in, getting their travel briefings and then heading out," she said. "We haven’t heard of any complaints because of this."

Commanders at Fort Bliss in Texas have designated eight Mexican border towns as off-limits to their troops, except in cases where leadership allows visits for personal or family emergencies.

Last fall, the State Department issued new travel warnings regarding escalating battles between police and drug cartels in Mexican border towns.

Mexican troops have been deployed to cities like Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez, and government agencies have reported confrontations with smugglers that involve grenades and heavy automatic weapons.

In a November report, U.S. Joint Forces Command officials compared the security situation in Mexico to that of Pakistan, warning that both governments could suffer a "rapid and sudden collapse" due to internal violence.

"The government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels," the 2008 Joint Operating Environment report states. "How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state."

Marine Corps spokesman Gunnery Sgt. F.B. Zimmerman said regardless of where Marines travel, commanders remind them to stay vigilant, travel with friends, and "always watch out for their fellow Marines to make sure they get back to their unit safely."

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