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Danger in Mexico?

Travel Safety Reputations Die Hard

Are your worries based on old assumptions, sensationalist news, or meaningless statistics?

What images come to mind when you hear “Mexico City?” Fantastic food and 135 museums, or kidnappings and murder? Ancient ruins and cutting-edge architecture, or scary taxi drivers and armed robbers?

Does the following fit your preconceptions?

Mexican authorities report that more than 1,800 people have been killed in the city since January 2008. Additionally, this city…experienced more than 17,000 car thefts and 1,650 carjackings in 2008.

The statistics in that quote from a U.S. State Department warning were scary indeed and may continue to be, but they’re not about Mexico City. They’re from much smaller Ciudad Juarez, ground zero in a drug gang war that is raging out of control along the U.S. border. These days, it’s far safer to be in the Western Hemisphere’s biggest metropolis than it is to be in the countryside of Chihuahua.

The problem is, old reputations die hard and most people spend more time watching political pundits and celebrity gossips on TV news than they do reading about what’s really going on around the world. For those who only get their news from television, Mexico City is not a place you want to visit on purpose. Meanwhile, they haven’t learned enough to know that Moscow averages 15 murders a day, but nearly any Mexican resort area is quite safe. They don’t know that you’re quite unlikely to get robbed in Colombia any more, but The Vatican qualifies as pickpocket capital of the world.

Danger / No Danger in Mexico

I recently spent 10 days in Mexico City and have to admit I too had my preconceived notions about how dangerous and downright tough the place would be. Walking around the areas where most tourists spend their time, however, felt as safe as strolling around Manhattan or South Beach.

There is indeed plenty of crime in Mexico, just as there is plenty of crime in the United States. In both places though, that crime is not equally distributed.

You often hear statistics like, “200 Americans have been killed in Mexico since 2004,” or “one American dies every week in Mexico,” but without any context as to what that really means. Roughly 17 million U.S. tourists visited Mexico in 2008. That’s a mighty big number. If you put that many people in one place it would be the fifth-largest state in America! In that context 70 deaths a year would make a large state’s governor pretty happy.

The State Department maintains a database of Americans who died on foreign soil, along with their causes of death. The Houston Chronicle dug a little further into the story and found that only 70 of those 200 people killed in Mexico were innocent victims of crime. Many were “victims labeled hitmen, drug dealers, human smugglers or gang members, based on published investigators’ accusations. Others were drug users or wanted for crimes in the United States.”

So in other words, the incidences of an American tourist getting killed by a criminal in Mexico over that four-year period were roughly 70 people out of 58 million visitors. That equates to 1 in 842,857, or 0.0000012 percent. To put that in perspective, those odds lie somewhere between your chance of dying in an airplane crash (1 in 659,779) and being killed by flesh-eating bacteria (1 in 1,252,488).

But it gets even better. The Houston Chronicle noted that most of the slain Americans were killed in just three cities—the border towns Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo. So if you avoid the border areas where heavily armed drug cartels are at war, your chance of being a victim of violent crime decreases to a statistical point near zero, down there with deadly snakebites and the plague.

Getting back to Mexico City, on that State Department list referenced above I found exactly one U.S. citizen homicide in the capital—from 2006. You’re probably safer spending a week in Mexico City than you are going to a convenience store in your own town. As the last Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) report on Mexico City stated, “There is no evidence to indicate that criminals are specifically targeting U.S. citizens.”

Reasonable Caution vs. Irrational Fear

Some travel safety articles advise you to check in with people who actually live in a city to see what they think about the crime situation. Unfortunately, old perceptions are hard to shake with locals too. The fear of the unknown often doesn’t extend much past the weekly wander. Most wealthy residents of Mexico City would never dream of taking the Metro, for instance, and in their mind it’s a moving den of thievery you should avoid at all costs. Once you get down with the riders yourself though, physically and figuratively, you find it’s as safe as the subway anywhere else in the world. (And the cars arrive more frequently too.)

Upper crust Mexico City residents repeatedly warned me to avoid the historic center after dark, even though none of them had actually been there after dark or knew anyone who had. I strolled around in the evenings despite their advice, spending five of my nights in hotels near the Zocalo. It can get a little dead at night on some blocks, yes, but I felt as safe there as I do walking in my own neighborhood at home and there were plenty of tourists and backpackers around. If you ask the Centro hotel clerks about safety in the center, they just laugh. “This is a very different city than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” one manager told me. “But the people who never go out past their own neighborhood, their head is stuck in time.”

As in any big city, simple precautions will lower your risk even more. Keep your money tucked away under your clothes, not in a pocket or, even worse, a wallet sticking out of a pocket. Most middle-class locals have no qualms about flagging down a regular taxi on the street during the day, but they’ll spend the extra couple dollars to call a registered sitio taxi at night. And leave the nice watch at home. As the OSAC report says, “Criminals select victims based on an appearance of vulnerability, prosperity or inattentiveness. Ostentatious displays of wealth are magnets for thieves in Mexico City.”

No, I’m not saying Mexico City is a bucolic paradise with no threats to your safety, but if you watch your evening news, you’ll surely agree that your home city is not one either. Be smart and be cautious wherever you go, but don’t let unfounded fears keep you from exploring the world around you. That place you’re avoiding because of last decade’s news might become your favorite spot on Earth.

TIM LEFFEL is the author of some classic books on budget travel and travel writing. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet. Tim also currently resides full-time as an expat in Guanajuato, Mexico.

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Travel Writing 2.0
Tim Leffel's World Cheapest Destinations
Tim Leffel and Rob Sangster's Traveler's Tool Kit