A group of communications professors from Mexico, who had hoped for a few days away from the violence in their own cities, found themselves in lockdown yesterday on the UT campus.
The 20 professors visiting for a UT journalism seminar had looked forward to getting away from the violence in their own country for a couple of days. They never imagined they’d be confronted with violence in Austin too, when a 19-year old UT student strode across campus Tuesday morning with an AK-47 then took his own life in a campus library.
I had the pleasure of meeting the professors and journalists during a two-day seminar on “New Paradigms in Communications” sponsored by the Mexican Center of LLILAS at UT. And on Tuesday night, the Observer hosted a happy hour for the visiting journalists.
Many of the professors came from the Universidad Autonomous de Tamaulipas in Tampico. Currently, Tampico is under siege by drug cartels, like many cities in the state of Tamaulipas which is just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville and McAllen. Mexican news media does not report on the fighting in Tamaulipas, so little is known here stateside about what goes on there. There are also few U.S. outlets that cover the fighting there.
Tampico, a city of about 300,000 people, is the second most important commercial port on the Gulf of Mexico. In the past two years, however, its citizens have lived under a campaign of terror as the Zeta and Gulf cartels battle for control of the city. The city’s mayor has fled to McAllen and the police have been run out of the city by the cartels. There isn’t even a functioning city garbage pick up these days. People don’t go out after dark and people don’t like to drive trucks or SUVs anymore because they will be carjacked by cartel gunmen. Many people flew to Austin because it was too dangerous to drive the highways between Tampico and Matamoros.
So you could imagine they were looking forward to a little peace and quiet, which is why I was surprised by their response last night to the tragedy at UT. Instead of being frightened or even upset, they were astounded by the smooth way in which it was handled by UT and law enforcement.
The dean of the university in Tampico said he was impressed by how quickly an official response from UT was sent to students and faculty. “In Mexico, there might not be an official response for hours,” he said.
It’s difficult to disseminate any kind of information, because there is little communication with the Army, which is the de facto law enforcement in the region.
“This was a real learning experience for us in crisis communication,” the dean said.
The professors were impressed that they were able to carry on with their seminar yesterday at the edge of the UT campus at the AT&T conference center. Throughout the morning, UT faculty at the seminar received cell phone texts and email updates from university officials on the security situation.
Despite the tragedy yesterday at UT, the professors said they were still able to enjoy a break in Austin from the day-to-day stresses of living in Tampico. One professor said it was a relief, just to be able to go out at night in Austin and enjoy themselves without having to worry about “la mala gente.”
“It’s still a lot more dangerous where we come from,” she joked half-heartedly.