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Cruise Lines Cancel Mexican Shore Excursions after Ferry Explosion in Playa del Carmen

At least three major cruise lines have canceled shore excursions to popular tourist destinations in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula after a February 21 explosion aboard a ferry running between the Playa del Carmen and Cozumel and the subsequent discovery on March 1 of undetonated explosives on a tourist ferry operating between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.

The explosion, which injured 19 Mexicans and at least five Americans, was initially attributed to a mechanical malfunction but is now being investigated as a much more serious incident after the U.S. State Department confirmed the blast was the result of an explosive device. A Mexican news outlet reported that the vessel "was left with a gaping hole in its starboard side next to a passenger seating area." At least one source is reporting that a suspicious man with a backpack was seen hastily leaving the ferry shortly before the explosion.

El Universal reports that two days prior to the explosion, a "strange device" was found floating in the waters off the coast of Cozumel. The object was later determined to be an explosive device with a remote detonator. Government authorities disposed of it using a controlled explosion.

In the wake of the February 21 explosion, local media reported that Navy personnel found and defused two explosive devices on another vessel on March 1. A representative for the ferry line, however, would only confirm that one device had been found.

Late last week, an abandoned suitcase prompted the evacuation of a maritime terminal in Playa del Carmen, but it was found to contain only clothing.

This video reportedly shows the blast:

The ferries are all owned by Barcos Caribe, whose regular service between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen was suspended by Mexican authorities after the explosion. Mexican drug cartel leaders “El Pumba” and “Tata,” both associated with the Los Zetas gang, reportedly claimed responsibility for the blastAccording to maritime lawyer Jim Walker, Barcos Caribe "is associated with former Quintana Roo Governor Roberto Borge Angulo who acquired the ferry line while he was still in office." Borge became a fugitive and was later captured in Panama and charged with corruption after leaving office.

Witnesses say that a narcomanta—a message left by a drug cartel on a cloth banner—threatening the municipal president of Cozumel was found in a local church on the day of the explosion, reportedly delivered by three armed men.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico issued the following warning last week:

On March 1, undetonated explosive devices were found by Mexican law enforcement on a tourist ferry that operates between Cozumel-Playa del Carmen, Mexico. On February 21, an explosive device detonated on a tourist ferry in Playa del Carmen resulting in injuries, including to U.S. citizens.  U.S. Government employees are prohibited from using all tourist ferries on this route until further notice.  Mexican and U.S. law enforcement continue to investigate.

They followed that up this week with an additional directive prohibiting federal employees from traveling to Playa del Carmen:

We received information about a security threat in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Effective immediately, U.S. Government employees are prohibited from traveling to Playa del Carmen until further notice. The U.S. Consular Agency in Playa del Carmen will be closed until further notice.

In response to warnings, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Princess cruise lines have canceled tours that require a ferry ride.

John Heald, the brand ambassador for Carnival Cruise Line, released a statement saying that out of an abundance of caution, "we have cancelled all tours that make use of ferries and we strongly advise that ferries from Cozumel to the mainland be avoided. Guests with scheduled tours impacted by these changes will have their tickets refunded to their account."

"I have no idea at the moment how long this will be in place for but I will, of course, keep you posted and updated," Heald said.

Royal Caribbean passengers also received a notification about cancelations of ship-sponsored shore excursions. Passengers who had booked tours to Cozumel were offered refunds in the form of shipboard credits. Royal Caribbean also warned guests to avoid taking independent tours that involve a ferry ride.

The State Department issued the following recommendations for American tourists traveling in the area:

  •  Be aware of your surroundings and exercise caution.
  •  Purchase travel insurance that specifically covers you in Mexico and includes medical evacuation insurance.
  •  Contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate if you need assistance.

The FBI is assisting the Mexican government in the investigation into the cause of the blast.

Follow me on Twitter @pbolyard