Let’s Talk About Safety in Mexico

When I saw the CNN article my heart sank. “American Adventurer Missing in Mexico,” the headline blared. I had never heard of Harry Devers before, but it looks like he was a kindred spirit; exploring Latin America via motorcycle and writing about his experience. He’s been missing since January 25, last seen in a war-torn part of Mexico.

My heart sank for Harry, I really hope they find him unharmed. It also sank becaues I knew what was coming next: the never ending debate about whether Mexico is safe for tourists.

The comments confirmed what I feared (someday I will learn to stop reading cnn comments). I skipped over the massive, seriously inane debate about whether the US should invade Mexico, and all of the comments deriding the guy for quitting his job to travel. Still, nearly every other comment was about how dangerous Mexico is, how insane it is to travel there, how stupid this guy must have been.

It wasn’t just the idiots over at CNN though. Actual travel bloggers in one of my facebook groups echoed the same sentiments like they were truths. I shut the computer and looked out the window. Down on the street a handful of kids were playing with a hose, splashing each other and shrieking. A dog frolicked happily in the dry riverbed below them. Our landloard, Zach, was blasting a Beatles song from his smoothie street shop.

It didn’t seem incredibly dangerous outside. So, while I’ve been avoiding the topic because honestly, it seems like common sense to me, I guess it’s time. Let’s talk about whether or not it’s safe to travel to Mexico.

Let’s Talk Statistics

I’m not an expert, so I am going to quote liberally from my favorite article on the safety of traveling to Mexico by Robert Reid. After agreeing that yes, the murder rate in Mexico is three times that of the United States, he points out that the more pertinent stat is the amount of murders perpetrated against tourists.

According to FBI crime statistics, 4.8 Americans per 100,000 were murdered in the US in 2010. The US State Department reports that 120 Americans of the 5.7 million who visited Mexico last year were murdered, which is a rate of 2.1 of 100,000 visitors. Regardless of whether they were or weren’t connected to drug trafficking, which is often not clear, it’s less than half the US national rate.

Unfortunately the United States is not the bastion of safety certain people sometimes tell themselves it is. People are shot here on a near constant basis for absolutely no reason whatsoever. In just the past year or two there have been well publicized incidents of people being senselessly murdered while at the movies, in school, at work or watching the Boston Marathon.

In the end, the safety of Mexico is highly dependent on where you go, just like in Colombia, Brazil and yes, the United States. As Reid points out:

New Orleans, host city of next year’s Super Bowl, broke its own tourism record last year with 8 million visitors. Yet the Big Easy has ten times the US homicide rate, close to triple Mexico’s national rate.

Crimes against tourists are highly reported and emphasized by US press, so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the world is a scary place. Reality is of course more nuanced.

Let’s Talk Experience

So now that we’ve seen the real statistical danger of being a tourist in Mexico, let me tell you about my everyday reality, as someone who has spent the last four and a half months living here.

Mike and I live in a peaceful surf town on the west coast of Mexico called Sayulita. It’s small, but popular with both international and Mexican tourists. In the past month the most discussed criminal activity has been how to deal with bars that play their music too loud. It’s not perfect, there is the occasional break-in etc., but I am pretty sure this small town in Mexico is the safest community I have ever lived in.

The Mexico I see everyday is incredibly warm, not just in temperature but in terms of the fun, happy and welcoming people I get to meet every day. Mexicans have to be some of the most friendliest people in the world. Our day to day life is colored with impromptu parades, town sponsored baseball games and the occasional town concert.

In the evenings people of all ages congregate in the plaza. Groups of teenage boys huddle together drinking giant bottles of Coke while younger kids play tag or skateboard. We have no fear walking home at night here, no concerns over being mugged or even pickpocketed. Imposing police trucks patrol the streets in the evening but the only time I’ve ever seen the officers in action was to preside over a fender bender. 

Compare this to when we lived in Buenos Aires, when we were constantly on guard against pickpockets, crooked cabbies and counterfeit money. Where one of Mike’s relatives was literally taken hostage while buying pet food during our stay. I liked Buenos Aires but there was a level of tension there that I don’t feel here.

How come hardly anyone ever asks me whether it’s safe to travel to Argentina?

Let’s Talk About Evaluating Risks

I spent quite awhile looking through Harry Dever’s instagram feed as I wrote this. His pictures are amazing and his adventures are numerous. Over the past few weeks it looks like he passed through Mexico City and Guanajuato, both places I hope to visit soon. His last picture is a colorful sunset in Morelia, Mihoacan, and that is where the two of us diverge.

Mihoacan is not an area I would travel to in it’s current state. Drug cartel activity in the area is out of control, so much so that authorities are deputizing vigilantes in hopes of bringing some order to the area. The US State Department warns against travel to Mihoacan, and current news articles seem to reinforce that idea.

I’m not judging Dever’s choices because I think everyone needs to evaluate the safety risks they are willing to take. Still, Dever’s disappearance in Mihoacan is not a comment on the safety of Mexico as a whole, it’s a comment on the safety of traveling in that particular state. Simply reading about this on scary incident doesn’t give you enough information to make a balanced decision.

The bottom line is that Mexico is an enormous country. Writing off Mexico because of a murder in Mihoacan is like writing off the United States because of the crime rate in New Orleans. The areas of Mexico you are most likely to travel to as a tourist are safe. Literally millions of people, more than twenty million last year, visited without incident.

So come to Mexico! Or don’t. More tacos for me. Just don’t let fear override your decision making skills.

Do you think Mexico is safe for travelers?

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