“Mexico: The Place You Thought You Knew.” The tagline for Mexico’s Tourism Board might as well read: “Mexico: Don’t Believe All Those News Reports, Okay?” But the tourism industry doesn’t have as much sway over the American public as the media, which tends to sensationalize even the smallest stories, turning potentially isolated incidents into full-on pandemics. In other words, it’s an “if it bleeds, it leads” style of reporting that can sometimes make problems seem much bigger than they are.
But is that the case with Mexico, a country that faced a swine flu outbreak in 2009 and is currently facing a bloody, drawn-out war among drug cartels? The country may have recovered from swine flu, but narcotics-related violence is only increasing. The U.S. Department of State maintains that the victims of such violence are almost always involved in drug trafficking (i.e., not vacationers lounging on a beach in Cozumel) and that these incidents are located mostly near the border towns. But that hasn’t stopped people from thinking twice about booking vacations to any part of Mexico.
Certainly, there are dangers big and small wherever you choose to travel. If you focused only on crime statistics in the United States, for instance, you might wonder why anyone would risk his or her life to come here, too. But the stories about beheadings and grenade attacks are scary enough to make many people wonder whether traveling to Mexico is especially treacherous, even for those of us not looking to score drugs or infiltrate powerful cartels. Just how in danger are tourists who venture south of the border?
The Drug War Escalates
“Poor Mexico,” says Jonathan Klein, owner of San Francisco’s Now Voyager Travel. He says that requests for vacation packages to Mexico have declined since the swine flu outbreak last year and, not surprisingly, that the drug cartel violence isn’t helping matters, either. “The biggest problem with news reports and the advisories is that they exaggerate the danger, or at least people exaggerate it in their heads, or they extrapolate it to the whole country.” The advisories he refers to are courtesy of the State Department, which issued a warning as of August 2010 to avoid multiple regions in northern Mexico. The report also cautions that cartel violence is spreading to other cities.
Some take this to mean that the entire country is one big battleground, which isn’t the case, Klein maintains. “Mexico’s got a lot of great places, and it’s really too bad that they’re getting slammed with all this bad news,” he laments. Of course, that isn’t to suggest that parts of Mexico don’t pose real dangers to tourists and locals alike. In their quest to rule the trafficking routes between the United States and Mexico, powerful drug cartels are brutally attacking both each other and law enforcement officials in border areas. Since 2006, when President Calderón started his fight against drug trafficking, the State Department reports that an estimated 22,700 people have died as a result of the war, and that includes only the reported deaths. Even scarier, current trends suggest that more people will die in 2010 than in the previous year.
According to a 2010 Washington Post story, police and military troops make up only about 7 percent of that alarmingly high number. But while almost all of the casualties were part of the drug trafficking industry, that doesn’t mean innocent bystanders haven’t been killed in grenade attacks and shootouts as well. The cartels have started specifically targeting people outside of the industry, perhaps as a way to thumb their noses at President Calderón. The State Department warns that kidnapping is becoming more frequent in Monterrey, to the point that the children of U.S. officials working there are being pulled out of the city. And in April 2010, a female employee at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, as well as her husband and the husband of another consulate worker, were murdered. As if that weren’t gruesome enough, she was four months pregnant at the time.
Where It’s Worst
Juárez, located in the state of Chihuahua, is easily the most dangerous city in Mexico right now. Far more people have been killed there than in any other area in the country; the State Department reports that more than 50 percent of American deaths in 2009 occurred in Juárez and Tijuana. But it also lists other regions near the border that tourists should watch out for, including Tamaulipas, Durango, and Nuevo León. Violence seems to be trickling into the south and along the coast as well, with outbreaks in Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Guerrero. Acapulco, a popular tourist destination in the state of Guerrero, was host to a shootout in April 2010 between police officers and members of a prominent drug trafficking organization. Three bystanders were killed.
Given incidents like these, not to mention the increasingly severe and disturbing tactics the cartels are employing to gain power (public beheadings and executions being the more common ones), it’s no wonder tourism is suffering in Mexico. In August 2010, Mexicana Airlines, Mexico’s biggest airline, declared bankruptcy and ceased all its operations. Some U.S. universities have canceled all school-related activities, including popular study-abroad programs, as a precaution. And if you check out online travel forums related to Mexico, you’ll find that the majority of questions center on matters of safety: whether it’s safe to travel to Cancún, whether Mexico City’s rife with danger, and so forth. But conflict abounds in the answers to these questions, with comments ranging from “I feel completely safe here” to “Cross the border, and you’re as good as dead.”
Knowledge Is Power
In reality, not all regions of Mexico are equally dangerous for tourists. Just as you wouldn’t equate Detroit or Chicago with a sleepy ’burb in Kentucky in terms of safety, you shouldn’t assume that horrific border violence means that all of Mexico is a no-man’s-land. As of right now, areas heavily populated with tourists and farther away from the border are the safest bet—think Cozumel, Cancún, and the Yucatán region. However, visitors should exercise caution in these areas as well, since high tourist populations attract thieves, con artists, and other unsavory characters looking to take advantage of people.
Wherever you are in Mexico (or anywhere, really), it’s always important to be mindful of and educated about your surroundings. That means staying in safe parts of town and among trusted companions, especially late at night, and steering clear of taxis and other forms of public transportation not regulated by the government. Checking out the State Department and U.S. embassy websites prior to travel is also a good idea.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely protect yourself from danger, either abroad or at home. Foreign tourists in Mexico aren’t generally the targets of menacing drug cartels at the moment, but they can still be casualties of their war. It’s impossible to predict these “wrong place at the wrong time” situations, but you can certainly reduce their likelihood by staying away from regions the State Department lists as most hazardous. Otherwise, don’t discount the rest of Mexico’s vacation potential just yet. “I don’t see any reason, from what I’ve seen, to be nervous about it,” Klein advises. He suggests checking out Cancún for its sandy beaches and archeological sites, or Mexico City for more of an urban outing.
When I expressed surprise at his suggestion of Mexico City, which is known for its high crime rate, he reminded me that it’s just like any other large city in the world. There are safe areas and areas best avoided—same as in the country itself. Just make sure you know which are which before you book a flight.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons