Is it safe in Mexico? The question I get asked every day here. My answer is, as an American ex-pat, heck yes! Not having to worry about my personal safety is one of the reasons I enjoy living in Mexico. Perhaps it comes from my being from the US, statistically in a class all its own regarding violent crime. You guys have cities these days with apartment buildings that have higher crime rates than we do here in the state of Quintana Roo, combined! Some have intersections that can say the same. And you guys are afraid to come here? Did you know Miami has a per capita murder rate 5 times that in Cancun, Washington DC, 10 times? Seriously, you guys are afraid to come here? I frequently ask my guests to tell me what port they stop at that week they would guess has the highest violent crime rate. The first guess is usually Belize or Honduras and all of course agree when I tell them it is the home port city in the US. They always say things like, “well, sure if you throw in New Orleans, (or whatever port city they are from) but I didn’t know that counted.” The thing is that you can use almost any American city these days and get a higher violent crime rate than almost any city in Mexico. It would be laughable actually except that the false image in the minds of Americans regarding safety in Mexico is hurting the economy and has driven an even larger wedge between two neighbors who really know very little about one another anyway.
When I say I feel safer in Mexico than in the US, I mean that in the overwhelming parts of Mexico where I travel, I feel safe from violent crime. Like any country, it has areas where you should not go because the violence is higher, increasing your odds of becoming a victim. In the US, these areas used to be in parts of certain large urban areas only. These days, violent crime is everywhere. Throughout the urban areas, as well as the suburbs and even into some rural areas. In most cases, we know where these places are and reduce our chances of problems by simply staying out of those areas. The same can be said of Mexico.
Mexico also has areas people should just simply stay away from because they are some of the most dangerous in the world. Juarez has the highest murder rate of any “ not at war” city in the world. These don’t-go-to places are limited to the entire US border and spot places like Acapulco and a few sections of some of the large urban areas. Because of the drug demand in the US, the border area has become where the drugs are stopped and the majority of the problems begin. The violence in these areas is very real and I tell everyone, stay away from the border! Having said that, one must understand, almost all the remainder of the country is remarkably safe from violent crime. Anyone who knows this culture knows that it is a very non-violent, non-aggressive and unarmed culture. The only people who have guns are the bad guys and they just for the most part, just shoot each other. The undiscussed truth is that of the thousands of drug related deaths since President Caulderon’s declaration of war on the drug cartels, very few were non-combatants. Of course some were and it is very unfortunate that they, as well as Mexican soldiers and police are dying fighting this war, and thankfully that number is getting smaller. However the overwhelming majority of the deaths have been bad guys killing bad guys. Not something that directly affects most of us who live here or those who visit.
The puzzling thing is that how can such a misperception happen? How can so many Americans ignore their own huge safety issues and focus on a problem that actually does not exist in most of Mexico. Perhaps … TV! Oh, the little talking box again.
It is very funny that I so often have to tell my Mexican friends that in my 50 years of living in the US, I never saw a shooting, a Vin Diesel-like car chase with an exploding climax, never saw a street shoot out, never saw a car jacked, never knew anyone who got held up by an Uzi-toting 12 year old crack head and never knew anyone, who even knew anyone, who threw a baby in a dumpster. All of that happens, but it is not the norm and very few Americans have ever even witnessed any of these sort of things. That is, however, the image Hollywierd and their news media has left as “normal USA” in the minds of the average Mexican. Most laugh and think, “well they just don’t know the US.” True enough! Then I have to tell my American friends the same thing. I don’t know a single person who even knows anyone who has been killed in a violent drug related crime.
The reality is that you guys live in a country where 24 hour news has become big money. If CNN and Fox and the gang reported the truth, which is that 99.9999 something% of Mexico got up in the morning, went to work and school, came home, played soccer, did homework and watched TV; well nobody would buy the soap or erectile dysfunction medicine they sell for 28 minutes each hour of each day. If it bleeds it leads in the US and the drug crime we have here certainly gives the media in the US plenty of footage for that.
The fact that we are having this “drug war” here in Mexico actually reinforces my argument that Mexico is actually a very safe place for the most part. As a country of basically law-abiding and non-violent people, there has never actually been the need for a law enforcement apparatus like we have in the US. The poorly trained, equipped and paid Mexico police, something that until just recently with the demand for expensive cocaine and heroin replacing the century old marijuana industry, seemed to be enough to maintain law and order in the way Mexico saw fit. Nobody got hurt, the right people got rich and the tiny, poorly funded government stayed that way. Police, and government people in general, all “subsidized” their incomes by taking “propinas or mordidas”. It was and is as natural as rolling your food in a tortilla down here. Weird for us in the US but it always seemed to work for Mexico, at least until real bad guys came to town in the form of “cartels”. All of the sudden, Mexico has found itself unable to deal with a real modern day bad guy and the result is that just a few thousand people who are participating in this activity, are allowing the media to paint the entire nation of Mexico with a single broad brush, creating a completely opposite image of what almost all of Mexico actually is.
For those who do not really know much about the drug business here in Mexico, it is important to understand that the overwhelming majority of the cocaine and heroin, the drugs that people are getting killed over, are not from Mexico. There is no economic carrying capacity for those drugs in Mexico. What sells on the street in LA for $150, sells for $5 in Mexico City, and the only reason it is there is small amounts fall into the system as it travels across the country toward the US. No domestic market for those drugs in Mexico. Those are drugs made in South America and intended to be sold to the high demanding/paying US market. The Mexican cartels are more middle men who work the drugs into the US. Many are part of the older marijuana smugglers, some are new but all are very well armed and have millions of reasons to be violent. The disturbing part of this is that these cartels have begun to now produce methamphetamine and crack cocaine, so a small domestic drug industry has begun here. Again, to satisfy the high demand from the US market with a high return on investment that can’t be found in Mexico. If you have to sell your drugs to people who make $10 or $15 a day, well, just do the math!
Mexico has about 120 million people and almost every single one of them, have nothing to do with any of the drug business. Just a few thousand bad guys have found a perfect place to make money selling South American poison to US druggies. They can do so because the traditions of corruption and a weak law enforcement apparatus, combine with a modern well equipped bad guy and you get where we are today. But it is important to understand that Mexico, with a few exceptions, is a very safe and friendly country. Americans need to push themselves away from the 24 hour news and keep it all in perspective. I suppose, like any country, you can have a bad experience in Mexico. No shortage of shake down cops, gas station rip-offs, stolen cameras and “bad tacos”. You should worry about all those when you come here. What you should not worry about is your personal safety. Just like the US, stay out of the bad areas, and know those before you visit. Pay attention Gringos, you’re missing out on some fun down here!