Since the US travel warning was placed on Quintana Roo this week, I have been emailed, private messaged, called, you name it, all wanting to know, “what the heck is going on down there”. Well here in Mahahual/Costa Maya, the answer is nothing. We, in the southern part of the state, are not included in that warning, and why would we be? We’re Mayberry Mexico! But, since I have live here for 10 years, I’ll tell you exactly what is going on in the Cancun/Riviera Maya area, where the travel advisory was placed.
To really understand though, one must begin with the fact that the law enforcement apparatus in Mexico is woefully unprepared for dealing with this problem. Prior to organized crime, the only thing police were needed for were very minor problems, almost all of which were non-violent and no guns were ever involved. Because of this, the tradition of poorly paying police began and still exist today. To be simple, police just do not get paid enough to risk their lives, trying to stop heavily armed bad guys with their poor training, equipment and back-up. Would you risk getting shot for $100 bucks a week?
Poor pay is what breeds large scale corruption, and because Mexico has the second lowest average worker pay in Latin America, corruption finds a home very easily here. Police are no different than anyone else. Some, and it only takes a few in the right spots, find turning a blind eye, or even actively helping, drug networks is more profitable, and safer, than fighting them. Many of the people at the top of the local distribution networks are former police, who decided the drug industry just paid too much more than police wages. And from there, the local network connections are made and the tradition of corruption continues. Asking the Mexico police to stop the illegal drug trade, is like asking a cop in Afghanistan to stop ISIS.
However the violence itself, although very real, is not really much of a danger to tourists. My guess is you are far less likely to be a violent crime victim in Mexico, Cancun or anywhere, than in most places in the US. This is especially true of certain areas in the US, most of which, people there know to stay away from. If you don’t go to the parts of towns with high violent crime rates, then you will almost always not be a victim. Applying that same logic is all one needs to do to be safe when visiting Mexico.
It is important to remember, almost all the people killed in violent crimes here are related to the distribution of illegal drugs. I read the paper every day and I see, very graphically I might add, who is killing who here. And without exception, all are involved, in some fashion, in illegal drug sales. At the top of the network are the actual cartel people and these people do not want anyone, tourist or otherwise, to get hurt. Violence is bad for their business, and at that level, most seem to understand that. The problem is that to distribute their products, they need a local sales network, and for this, they employ local street gangs. Nothing good can come from that.
Don’t get me wrong, cartel guys kill plenty, but not at the street level. They kill corrupt police, and government people who double cross them or cheat them on some sort of previous arrangement. I’ve heard interviews with cartel people who say they are just trying to do business. Illegal business has of course, illegal rules and laws that they go by. Nothing personal they say, it is just how they have to do business. It’s not like they can turn a corrupt official into the police or the Better Business Bureau. You agree to work with them in a certain way, and then don’t and it costs them money, their rules kick in, not the laws of any government. Like Mom always said, “Son, don’t ever get into bed with dogs if you don’t want to get fleas all over you.” Mom is a very wise lady, but Mom never lived in a country with the second lowest wages in Latin America. Desperation, and sometimes greed, are powerful things, and this is especially true, when you are dealing with poorly paid people.
Which takes me back to the travel advisory and how people in the US should perceive this. The report is, as always, well done and accurate. The problem is the media of course does a bad job of explaining it. It is not telling people to not come to Mexico, or even that it is unsafe for tourism, work or education, and says as much in the opening of the general statement, as well as the part on Quintana Roo. What it says, accurately, is that there has been a spike in violent crime, and that people who come here need to be aware of that, and just as they do in the US, stay away from specific places.
Almost all the statistical violence is in areas of town that are actually far from the tourist area. It is mostly in the neighborhoods, where the gang members live. When there is violence in the tourist areas, it becomes big news and the gets lumped into statistics that are mostly from these other areas. I think I saw there had been almost 170 murders in the state in the first 6 months of the year, double from last year, and a staggering number indeed. I don’t know the actual number, but from my memory, it is around 10 to 15 of those, and again, all bad guys getting shot by other bad guys, that were in areas where there are actually tourist. Not a good number, but not nearly what a number like 170 might cause the mind think, and so the result in the media is, when combined with a State Department Travel Advisory, an image that is not at all accurate.
Just as the advisory says, people just need to be aware of what is happening in the area, and avoid places and situations that might put you in harms way. So let me advise you on how to do this and to do so, you must understand the two places in the tourists areas where all the violence occurs.
The first is inside clubs, where people buy and consume lots of drugs. These clubs are now the places the local distributors are fighting for in their turf wars. The club owners are really unable to do anything about it either. If a dealer says he wants to sell drugs in your place, most have always allowed it to happen quietly, assuming the tourist was getting what he wants and all were happy. They just do not need problems, it it has always worked best. Unless of course another dealer decides that is his turf, and then boom boom, there we go with a club shooting. There have been two club shootings in the tourists areas and both were very high profile events, at very large venues. If you go to clubs in the area, only go to smaller places, where volumes that could be sold are too small for dealers to find profitable. Also, only go to places you are told by a reliable source, drugs are not sold. Most locals know where those places are. People don’t get shot on the beach, snorkeling, in the water parks, or any of the typical tourist places. They get shot in places people sell drugs. If you don’t want to get shot, or watch someone get shot, don’t go where they sell drugs.
The other violence, and perhaps the most horrific, in the tourist areas has been against vendors who sell small quantities of drugs from their vendor stands. Their stands are always right along high traffic ares, like 5th Avenue, and because of turf wars, and unpaid debts, hit men have walked up in working hours and shot vendors right in front of strolling tourists. Horrified tourists have witnessed events like this several times in the last few months, but again, this is not violence directed at innocent tourists and none have been victims. Just terrified, and that was enough to justify the warning in and of itself.
It would not be accurate to say there has not been any violence in the tourist areas, but what little has been there, as the advisory says, has not involved tourists. Only people involved in drug dealing. And all this must be kept in some sort of perspective, because my guess is a similar number of violent acts have happened in places like Bourbon Street, the Las Vagas Strip, and South Beach, where some crazy guy shot up a disco not too long ago, and are places that are still filled every day with tourist who don’t think much about the violence there. And those places certainly have not had travel warnings placed on them. The reason for that is simple. In those places, just like here, thousands and thousands of people come every week, and practically every one of them do not encounter any violent crime, and in the process, have a great time. And that is the reality here, and what you will find if you do as the travel warning tells you. Be aware of what is happening and stay away from places where these things do happen.
At the end of all this, far from the shine of the Riviera Maya’s tourist area, is a terrible and violent period for our state. As I said, in the parts of town where most locals live, not where they work, is where almost all the crimes are happening. Local people are the ones who are concerned, and rightfully so, if people from the US stop coming. Having tourist stop coming, and the economic fallout from that make an already terrible problem, even worse for the local people. They, unlike the tourist who come here and consume the drugs being sold, have to stay and live with the consequences of the violence that the failed war on drugs has produced, a topic far beyond the scope of this blog, but one I’ve written on in the past that you can read here. The increase in violence in Quintana Roo is exactly what I’m talking about in the blog, in that the violence caused by making these drugs illegal, is far worse for all, than the actual drugs themselves. Don’t take my word for it, ask a local.
So if you are planning to vacation here, don’t change that plan because of security concerns. Really, many, many people were here yesterday and saw nothing but tequila shots. Same will happen today, and tomorrow. Just do like you would do in the US. Stay away from places where drugs are typically sold, and avoid the people who sell them. Again, just do as the travel advisory says, which is not that you should not come to Mexico at all, but that you should just be smart about it, because here, just like the US, things are not like they used to be. But you can still enjoy what people have come here for decades to enjoy, like the amazing culture of food, music, history and a natural environment like none other. The faces will still smile at you, and the “Bienvenidos” signs are still there, so no worry, you can still safely visit the area that has always been called paradise, and that I just call, home.