Murder in Mexico


I frequently vacation in Mexico, usually in Mazatlan, but also in Cuernavaca and Guadalajara. I lived in Mazatlan for a few months, studying Spanish and enjoying Mexican, and expatriate U.S. and Canadian friends. I have NEVER felt threatened walking the streets in downtown Mazatlan, even at 11pm. Of course, I take normal precautions of not wearing my 2 carat diamond ring or other expensive jewelry and I never flash large rolls of $100 bills. Naturally, I’m similarly cautious in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, New York, or Tokyo. Is there crime in Mazatlan? Of course. Are people killed on occasion? Of course. But murder is not rampant. Mexico–even in Ciudad Juarez–is not a war zone. Mazatlan is safer than most U.S. cities. (Even in the little town where I live, San Rafael, CA, we have occasional murders.) The few killings that take place in Mazatlan take place in certain areas of the city that are known crime, drug, prostitution areas, not where tourists or expatriates live. By no means am I saying that there are no killings in Mexico, but that they are mostly killings of competitor drug gangs, cartels, against each other. Or they are killings of officials or army personnel by the gangs

You would never know that Mexico is actually a normally safe area for tourists if you read the lurid “news” stories often carried in the U.S. press.

That’s why I was pleased to read this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mexico safer than headlines indicate

Christine Delsol, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, August 21, 2011

Quick – which national capital has the higher murder rate: Mexico City or Washington, D.C.?

If you answered Mexico City, you’d be in good company – after all, Mexico is a war zone, isn’t it? But you would be wrong, on both counts.

Based on FBI crime statistics for 2010 and Mexican government data released early this year, Mexico City’s drug-related-homicide rate per 100,000 population was one-tenth of Washington’s overall homicide rate – 2.2 deaths per 100,000 population compared with 22. (Drug violence accounts for most murders in Mexico, which historically does not have the gun culture that reigns in the United States.)

And while parts of Mexico can be legitimately likened to a war zone, drug violence afflicts 80 of the country’s 2,400 municipalities (equivalent to counties). Their locations have been well publicized: along the U.S. border in northern Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas states, and south to Sinaloa, Michoacan and parts of San Luis Potosí, Nayarit, Jalisco, Guerrero and Morelos states.

The flip side is that more than 95 percent of Mexico’s municipalities are at least as safe as the average traveler’s hometown. Yucatan state, for example, had 0.1 of a murder for every 100,000 people in 2010 – no U.S. tourist destination comes close to that. Most cities in central Mexico, outside of the scattered drug hot spots, have lower murder rates than Orlando.

It would seem fairly clear – fly, don’t drive, across the border into the safe regions. Yet whenever people say they are going to Mexico, the invariable response is “Aren’t you afraid?”

Media sensationalism accounts for much of the wariness. “Gangland violence in western Mexico” “Journalists under attack in Mexico” and “Mexico mass grave toll climbs” sound as if the entire country were a killing field. The story might name the state, but rarely the town and almost never the neighborhood. And some reporters apparently are confused by the word “municipality” – some of the killings reported as being in Mazatlan, for example, actually happened in a town miles away from the city – akin to attributing East Palo Alto’s slayings to San Francisco.

But the biggest factor may be that travelers looking for a carefree vacation simply find it easier to write the entire country off than to learn what areas to avoid.

The Mexico Tourism Board is working to change that. Efforts so far have concentrated on getting accurate information to travel agents, who funnel the lion’s share of tourism to Mexico’s popular destinations. Independent travelers’ primary source of information is the State Department travel alerts (travel.state.gov), which are finally getting better at pinpointing the trouble spots.

“We are trying to work with U.S. authorities in making these travel alerts specific and not general,” said Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, the tourism board’s chief operating officer. “Unfortunately, they have projected a somewhat distorted image.”

In the meantime, we have done some of the work for you. The chart above recommends destinations for various comfort levels and travel styles. If you’re totally spooked, there are places that pose no more risk than Disneyland. If you’re open-minded but don’t want to take unnecessary risks, we have places safer than Miami, New Orleans or Washington, D.C. For fearless travelers, these sometimes dicey destinations are worth the extra caution.

Tips for traveling safely in Mexico – or anywhere 

Mexico safety tips

Your most important tactic for traveling safe, in Mexico or anywhere else, begins before you even decide where to go. Get familiar with Mexico’s geography; it’s a big country, and your destination might be hundreds or even a thousand miles from violence-prone areas. Keep up on Mexico coverage in major dailies, then do some focused research. Some sources:

— The current State Department travel warning (travel.state.gov) and security updates make a good start.

— The travel agents trade publication Travel Weekly has created a map that puts the latest travel warning in easily digestible graphic form (travelweekly.com/uploadedFiles/MEXICOMAP4.pdf).

— The United Kingdom Foreign Office Travel Advisory for Mexico ( www.fco.gov.uk; “Travel advice by country”) provides another perspective.

— Stratfor, a global intelligence company that advises government agencies and international corporations on security issues, is a reliable, up-to-the-minute source. Membership is expensive, but the website ( www.stratfor.com) makes some reports available for free.

Assuming you’re not headed for northern border areas, normal safety precautions that apply anywhere in the world will suffice. These are particularly important in Mexico:

— Don’t pack anything you couldn’t bear to part with; leave the bling at home.

— Carry only the money you need for the day in a money belt (not a fanny pack), and leave your passport in your hotel unless you know you will need it.

— Get local advice about areas to avoid.

— Don’t get drunk and stumble around dark, unfamiliar streets. Drunk or sober, don’t walk beaches late at night.

— Stick with taxis dispatched from your hotel or a sitio (taxi stand); if you go out for dinner, ask the restaurant to call a taxi for you.

— Drive during the day; if nighttime driving is unavoidable, use the toll roads.

— Leave a travel itinerary and a copy of your passport with someone at home. If you’ll be traveling in higher-risk areas, notify the nearest U.S. Consulate.

A final note: Don’t get rattled if you see armed soldiers patrolling the beach or manning highway checkpoints. They are young men doing a difficult job. On the road they’ll usually just ask you where you’re coming from and where you’re going; very rarely they will ask to inspect your trunk or your bags. I’ve never encountered one who wasn’t cordial and glad for a smile or a brief conversation.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:54 am | Permalink | Reply

    The Koch Brothers – Vanilla Takes A Stand

    Dear Marin Progressives,

    Hello there. My name is Robin Goodrow. I am an award-winning puppeteer from Sonoma County. I recently created a short five minute YouTube video with my puppet Vanilla, a four-year-old monkey, to encourage undecideds and young voters to vote and expose them to the Koch Brothers. It’s amazing how many people have never heard of the Kochs. Or think Charles and David have something to do with Coca Cola.

    Below is the direct link to the Vanilla Video. Vanilla is from my children’s television show, BUSTER AND ME, but this short video is NOT for young children. Vanilla gets a little feisty. Actually she’s not nice or polite, and who can blame her, when it comes to the issue of racism and corporate neglect Vanilla speaks her mind. But when you think of what she could have said, she is very tame!! Here’s the URL…

    Another way to get there is to go to YouTube and type in The Koch Brothers – Vanilla takes a Stand

    At the VERY end of the video is an amazing, and disturbing quote from Charles Koch. The nauseating arrogance!

    Also at the end of the piece Vanilla calls on all the puppets of the world to rise up and speak out. Two weeks after I made it, a Million Muppet March was announced. It will be in Washington DC on November 3 in response to Romney’s comments about canceling PBS and Big Bird. Thousands of puppets will be marching in the streets. Of course now Vanilla thinks it’s her announcement that caused it. I haven’t had the heart to tell her otherwise!!

    If you feel so inclined please share Vanilla with others in the vast Internet universe. And thank you for keeping the progressive torch alive. All the best,

    Robin and Vanilla (The Hundredth Monkey)

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