How Safe is Mexico?

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In January, it was reported that in the past four years 34,612 people have died in Mexican drug-related killings. Indeed, drug-related violence in cities south of the United States-Mexico border has caused the U.S. State Department to continue the travel warnings for Mexico. Even the state of Texas warned college students against spring break trips to the country. But, traveling south of the border doesn't have to be dangerous.

Our government advises against visiting very specific places where drug cartels are warring over the billions of dollars made yearly trading illegal substances into the United States, and the efforts by the Mexican government to put an end to the drug traffic. Unfortunately, after hearing "warning" and "Mexico," many Americans perceive the advisory for the country as a whole, which it definitely is not.

For your safety, it is important to know what cities and areas to avoid. The Jonas Brothers' decision to call off a concert last year in the city of Monterrey shone the light anew on the country's tragic explosion of violence in that region. As a result of this violence, in September 2010, the State Department ordered the evacuation of all minor children of U.S. government employees from Monterrey.

The Most Dangerous Places In Mexico
Despite the increase in drug-related violence, a closer look at Mexico shows that the country is actually safer than the headlines suggest. As a whole, Mexico's murder rate is surprisingly low: 14 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. When compared to Washington, D.C.'s 24 people per 100,000 inhabitants and New Orleans' 52, the numbers aren't cause for concern if you know where to avoid.

According to the State Department's warning, these are the places you should take extra caution.

Ciudad Juárez
The "Deadliest City in the World" has seen 130 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. More than 3,000 people were killed in Ciudad Juárez in 2010.

Gómez Palacio, Durango, and Torreón
Each of these cities has seen sharp increases in violence. In late 2009 and early 2010, four visiting U.S. citizens were murdered in Gómez Palacio.

Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Northern Baja California
These areas have seen spikes in the number of robberies, homicides, petty thefts, and carjackings. Even the stunning Copper Canyon, a major tourist destination in the state of Chihuahua, has experienced an upsurge in violence between drug traffickers. The popular beach resort area Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa has seen deadly shootouts on the road between town and the airport. Cruise companies have taken notice, with some dropping cruises to Mazatlán.

Tijuana and Nogales
Along with Ciudad Juárez, these cities have experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues. In Tijuana, there have been robberies of cars within eyesight of the U.S. border crossing booths.

Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros
Criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in these areas and in other border cities such as Tijuana.

Monterrey & Highway Travel
Travelers on highways from Monterrey and other parts of Mexico to the U.S. have been targeted for robbery and violence. U.S. government employees' dependents were evacuated from Monterrey as of September 10, 2010, following an August shooting just outside the American School Foundation and in light of the increase in kidnappings. U.S. Government employees are not allowed to drive on the highways north to the border.
The dramatic incident September 30, 2010 on Falcon Lake on the Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border is another sobering warning about the border states. American David Hartley was allegedly shot and killed as he and his wife were returning on jet skis from the Mexican side of the lake. It's now thought some members of the Los Zetas drug cartel mistook the Hartleys for spies from the Gulf cartel, with whom they are fighting for control of the area. In the grisly aftermath, the chief Mexican officer investigating the incident was beheaded.

In February, a U.S. government employee was killed, and one seriously injured, in a attack while traveling in a U.S. government vehicle on Mexican Highway 57 near Santa Maria del Rio, San Luis Potosi. Thus, Americans in the central Mexican cities of San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Leon, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende are advised to remain alert.

That said, the Jonas Brothers chose not to cancel their concerts in Guadalajara and Mexico City. The truth is that much of Mexico is still perfectly safe for U.S. travelers. While the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning, it concerns visits to very specific places, largely confined to the Mexican states along the border with the U.S., where not only drug cartel shootouts, but also robbery and kidnapping are very real dangers. However–and this a big however–the State Department very clearly says that most of Mexico is perfectly safe for U.S. vacationers, as long as they follow certain "common sense" precautions. Unfortunately, after hearing "warning" and "Mexico," many Americans go deaf and think the warning applies to the whole country, which it definitely does not. In fact, most Mexicans are warm and welcoming to tourists, and the country offers not just beautiful beach resorts, but magnificent pre-Columbian ruins and exquisite colonial cities.

In Mexico, as in any foreign country, travelers should be acutely aware of their surroundings. Don't stray from the well-known tourist areas, stay alert, and don't drink too much. Never walk alone at night, only take public transportation or drive on highways during daylight (and stick to the toll highways, called cuotas, which are better guarded), don't deck yourself out in expensive jewelry, and avoid large crowds and demonstrations. Before traveling to Mexico, make sure your cell phone works on GSM or 3G international networks, and memorize the Mexican version of our 911, which is 066. For the very latest on individual cities where there have been outbreaks of violence, check the U.S. Embassy Mexico Security Update.

"The news media prefer to report horrible events rather than address the reality; Mexico is, in general, a very safe country–with the notable and news-making exception of Juárez and other border towns–and has far less violent crime than any large U.S. city," says Barbara Erickson, one of more than a million Americans who lives safely in Mexico.

According to Erickson, a San Miguel de Allende resident, "one would have a greater chance of being hit by lightning than being shot or kidnapped by a drug lord's gang."

Another plus to our relations with those living south of the border is American companies successfully conduct business in Mexico. "I have clients traveling to Mexico regularly to film and to do photo productions and we have never had any problems," says Clare Beresford of World Locations in Hollywood, a company that scouts locations for movies, commercials and photo shoots." World Locations has sent people to Mexico City, Mérida, Zihuatanejo, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta and Careyes, among many destinations.

Tourism from North America is a significant part of Mexico's economy. In 2008, foreign visitors (22.6 million of them, 80 percent of whom were from the U.S.) spent $13.3 billion in Mexico, making up 13.8 percent of the country's GDP.

But in 2009, Mexican tourism was hammered by the U.S. recession and the swine flu epidemic. Cruise ships briefly canceled trips to the country, and many restaurants and archaeological sites were briefly closed. The revenue from foreign tourism dropped 15 percent to $11.3 billion. Tourism appears to be rebounding, but not if fear keeps U.S. citizens away.

We've drawn up a list of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations and rated them one to five, five being the highest cause for concern, and one being the safest.

Fear Factor: 5
The State Department listed several cities as not advisable to visit, including Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros. The worst of the bunch is Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The city has been the site of some of the most gruesome murders in an already shocking drug war. In January, 15 teenagers at a party were slain, and in March, three people with connections to the U.S. consulate were murdered in two separate incidents while riding in cars with their children, two of whom were wounded. Over the past ten years, the city has uncovered the bodies of over 400 women whose bodies were dumped in ditches or vacant lots, victims of sexual homicides. Until things get under control, this is not the time to venture over the border for some shopping or pozole.

Fear Factor: 1
Cancún is one of Mexico's most popular beach resorts, which averages around four million American visitors per year. In 2009 a retired Mexican general investigating corruption was assassinated by drug traffickers, but that's been an isolated event. Over-consumption of alcohol by younger tourists is a problem, and there have been rapes. But on the whole, Cancún is extremely safe. "The leading cause of foreign tourist deaths in Cancún is heart attacks, car accidents and accidental drowning," says Canadian writer Marlo-Renay Heresco, a Cancún resident. "The key to success when traveling or living abroad is exercising common sense." The Riviera Maya (the Yucatán coast stretching south from Cancún) has little to fear beyond sunburn. The island of Cozumel off the Riviera Maya is a popular, very safe destination for cruise ships, where problems are the occasional purse-snatching or picked pocket.

Fear Factor: 1
Although many people visit Chichen Itza on day-trips from Cancún, Mérida is the gateway to comprehensive exploration of Uxmal and other significant Mayan ruins scattered across the state of Yucatán. Mérida is a quiet, charming city, and the main ruins have well-organized tours and visitors' centers, as well as guards. In addition to hotels in Mérida, the Yucatán has a number of Colonial-era haciendas that have been converted into small resorts. Mayan villagers are welcoming. Here again, it's not a good idea to drive on unlighted roads at night, but central Mérida's busy Colonial-era streets are safe to stroll at night. "Mexico is a large country. Deciding not to travel to Mexico because of violence is like saying you won't go to New York because of a murder in Denver," says Mérida resident Ellen Fields. "Yes, there are places in Mexico where violence is on the rise. Where I live, Mérida on the Yucatán Peninsula, and the nearby Mayan Riviera, has not seen this violence and is a very safe place to visit or to live."


Fear Factor: 1.25
No one thinks twice about visiting our nation's capital, and the same should go for Mexico's capital. In 2009, Mexico City had a homicide rate of eight for every 100,000 people, while Washington D.C. had a rate of 24 per 100,000-three times higher. Visitors to Mexico City should exercise the same precautions taken in any of the world's big cities; sticking to busy, central areas and remaining aware of one's surroundings. It's very important to take only radio-issued taxis or taxis from official stands, never the "libre" (independent) or Volkswagen cabs, as there have been many instances of robbery and kidnapping. Don't walk at night except short distances on busy streets. This is an exciting city full of museums, art galleries and fabulous restaurants, not to be missed. Most people include a visit nearby to the majestic ruins of Teotihuacan, which are well patrolled and perfectly safe, with a visitor's center and organized guides.

Fear Factor: 1
"I feel as safe here as anywhere I have ever lived, and so do my neighbors and friends," says Barbara Erickson, who's lived in San Miguel de Allende a number of years. "San Miguel is as lovely as ever." This arty town is popular with Americans, who stroll its lovely colonial streets, dine out and browse the art galleries without worries. This is true of all of Mexico's stunning colonial cities. In some cases, though, the countryside around them may be iffy. The State Department has issued a warning against travel within the entire state of Michoacán, where violence by the drug cartel La Familia has escalated. And Taxco, the renowned silver city 99 miles southwest of Mexico City that is a popular tourist destination, 55 bodies were found in an abandoned silver mine, and 15 people were killed in June 2010 in a shootout between the army and drug traffickers. But Guanajuato, Querétaro, Zacatecas and the rest of the colonial cities are all well worth visiting.

Fear Factor: 1.25
Mexico's sophisticated second city is both a colonial gem and a major center for shopping that's regularly combed over by interior decorators from the southwestern U.S. There's also a lively art scene to enjoy, with art galleries and museums. But Guadalajara is a very large city, with the attendant need for caution, and it's best to stick to the central city tourist areas and leafy upscale neighborhoods like the Zona Rosa. A popular side-trip is past fields of blue agave to the town of Tequila, where tequila distilleries can be visited and the wares sampled from such famous brands as Cuervo and Herradura. This is completely safe, but again, don't overindulge. In May 2010, 50 armed criminals set up an "official" roadblock and robbed drivers traveling on the toll road between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. A car that attempted to escape was shot at and a woman wounded.

Fear Factor: 1
Oaxaca city was the site of a teachers' strike in 2006 that led to some violence and, unfortunately, the shooting of an American freelance journalist. As a result, the city has been tarred as unsafe, although nothing could be farther than the truth. The colonial city center, the nearby ruins at Monte Albán and the surrounding crafts towns like Teotitlán del Valle are well-traveled and very safe. "There is a lot of hysteria in the U.S. about everything from drugs to flu in Mexico, but after five years in Oaxaca with my husband and daughter, I have to say that these issues have not even remotely affected us," said an American expat. Oaxaca has a thriving art scene and one of Mexico's most highly-regarded cuisines. The Oaxaca coast, including beautiful, well-developed Huatulco and the little surfing mecca of Puerto Escondido is very safe, although swimming along the coast must be done with caution (check with your hotel), as some areas have rip-tides.

Fear Factor: 1
Ixtapa is a resort area developed by the Mexican government, and its big resorts are extremely safe. Neighbor Zihuatanejo is a former fishing village that reeks charm and has some upscale hotels and lovely outdoor restaurants. Many Americans live in "Zi" including famous American fashion designer Betsey Johnson. This is another spot where your biggest problem will be sunburn.

Fear Factor: 1
The lovely cobble-stoned hillside fishing village that was "discovered" after the filming of Night of the Iguana has spread at a dizzying rate, so that there are many Vallartas, including the original (still charming) town, the Marina and Nuevo Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta is filled with art galleries, which regularly throw open houses, gourmet restaurants and hotels in every price range. There are also the kinds of bars which encourage patrons to over-indulge, and that's never a good idea. Downtown Puerto Vallarta is safe to stroll, but never late at night after the festivities are over, and it's not a good idea to venture too far off the beaten track. In August 2010, a live grenade went off inside a bar just outside of downtown, and 15 people required hospitalization. Thousands of Americans live here, and love it. The Costalegre coast, stretching from Puerto Vallarta to Manzanillo in the south, is very safe, as is the newly-named Costa Nayarit (a series of bucolic fishing villages) to the north. The rest of Nayarit is considered so unsafe that the state government ended the school year early in 2010.

Fear Factor: 2
Acapulco in recent years has undergone a major revival. Once Mexico's most fashionable resort, it had gone a bit seedy, but now has regained much of its glamour. Unfortunately, it has recently been touched by drug-related violence, and although most of it has been on the edges or outside of town, some bodies have been found on a street lined with nightclubs, including the bodies of police officers. In April 2010, three bystanders were killed in a shootout between police and drug traffickers that took place in broad daylight in an area heavily visited by tourists. It's especially important these days to be alert to your surroundings here, and stay away from nightclubs known to attract the narcotraficantes. That said, the possibilities of being caught in a drug shoot-out are on the extreme end of slim to none.

Fear Factor: 1
Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and the "Corridor" of resorts that stretch between them are like a backyard for residents of the southwestern U.S. Thousands of Americans live here on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula and in the artsy little town of Todos Santos, 45 minutes up the Pacific coast from Cabo San Lucas. It's a world away from Tijuana's troubles. Some visitors complain it's too American in Cabo. The region is very safe, with good highways and busy downtowns. Visitors should stay out of unlighted side streets and stick to the well-traveled tourists areas, where shopping, art galleries and a big choice of restaurants make straying unnecessary. Swimmers must exercise extreme caution-the waters are treacherous and it's important to know where it's safe to swim and where not to even wade very far.

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