We've all heard the news.
Severed heads in Ciudad Juarez, Durango and Mazatlan.
Bodies hanging from bridges in Zacatecas and Morelia.
Grenades thrown into nightclubs in Guadalajara and Monterrey.
There's no denying that Mexico does not have the greatest reputation in regards to safety and security. The drug war has wreaked havoc on the country, resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths since the year 2006. Last year, 2017, was the drug war's bloodiest year on record, with over 20,000 drug-related murders.
What does all this mean for a tourist looking to head down south in 2018? Is Mexico safe?
Is Mexico Dangerous?
Statistically? Yes. Mexico is indeed dangerous. Last year, Mexico was ranked the 22nd most dangerous country, just one spot behind Venezuela, and six Mexican metropolises currently rank among the world's 50 deadliest cities.
Towns and cities near the border, as well as cities on the Pacific and Caribbean coast, have been hit hardest by the violence. States like Veracruz, Guerrero, Nuevo Laredo, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Baja California have all seen huge upticks in murder rates, kidnapping and violent crime.
Luckily for you, Mexico is a big country and there are still plenty of safe places to visit - it's high ranking is mostly due to drug violence, not random crime.
We'll get into that shortly.
Places to Avoid
According to the US State Department, tourists should avoid non-essential travel to the following regions:
The border areas of Michoacan and Zacatecas
Michoacan (except for Morelia and Lazaro Cardenas)
Sinaloa (except for Mazatlan and Los Mochis)
It also advises against driving highways or isolated roads at night, as US citizens have been victims of carjackings and highway robberies. There are a few additional warnings, but the above areas are the main ones you'll want to avoid.
For more detailed information, check out the US State Department website.
Fortunately, there are plenty of places in Mexico that are safe. In the following popular destinations, you shouldn't have many problems.
Cancun/Playa del Carmen/Tulum/(drug violence has increased, but it's safe for tourists)
Cabo (drug violence has increased, but tourists are rarely victims)
As you can see, many of the destinations most frequented by foreign travellers are, for the most part, still safe for foreign travellers. Folks can still enjoy many of the country's beaches and major cities without concern.
What About Mexico City?
In the 90s, Mexico City had a terrible reputation. Express kidnappings were common place, the murder rate was sky high and the extreme level of pollution was causing health problems.
It wasn't a pleasant place to be.
But, Mexico's capital has made incredible strides since then. Crime and violence have decreased, and pollution is not nearly as much of a problem as it once was.
Mexico City is now safer than many other major cities in Latin America - Bogota, Cali, Rio de Janeiro and Guatemala City - all have much higher rates of crime and violence than the Mexican capital.
For the most part, Mexico City is safe for tourists. But there are some areas you'll want to avoid.
In order to stay safe in Mexico City, I recommend you stay in one of the following neighbourhoods:
San Miguel Chapultepec
A few areas you'll definitely want to avoid include:
Centro can also sneak up on you - while it's safe around the presidential palace, it's very easy to walk down the wrong street into the wrong neighbourhood. A friend of mine living in Centro was robbed twice near her house over the span of about 4 months.
Guadalajara is another major city that is more or less safe for tourists. It is best to stay around Chapultepec or Providencia - centro can get ever-so-slightly dodgy at night.
How to stay safe in Mexico
There are a few simple measures you can take in order to stay safe in Mexico. To add to some of the ones I covered above (not travelling to places with warnings from the state department, not travelling on highways or isolated roads at night), here are some simple steps you can take to ensure your personal well-being.
- Rent an apartment with a doorman or with a sufficient security system in place (i.e lots of locks!)
-Stay in a hotel in a safe, well-lit area of town
-Don't walk around alone at night - especially if you are unfamiliar with your neighbourhood
-Take UBERS instead of taxis when you can (most big cities in Mexico have UBER)
-Don't buy drugs (if you must take drugs, get a trusted local friend to handle the transaction)
-Avoid getting too drunk in public
-Don't carry credit cards
-Leave the expensive jewellery at home or in your hotel/apartment
- Avoid taking the metro at peak hours (because of pickpockets...this is more for Mexico City)
If you observe basic precautions such as these, it is very unlikely you will be victimized here.
You're also going to want to be careful on buses. Keep your carry-on bag on your lap at all times. Many tourists have been unknowingly robbed on buses, so be vigilant. These thieves are on a whole other level of skillfulness. You may think you'll feel someone's hand in your bag under your seat, but chances are you won't.
What to do if you find yourself in an unsafe situation
If you feel discomfort in a particular neighbourhood, trust your instinct and go back the way you came. You may get an unsettled feeling in your stomach if your body senses you're in danger. Trust this feeling.
If you cannot get out of the neighbourhood, walk with confidence. Head up. If you see a fella sizing you up, stare back at him. Don't break the gaze and don't look at the ground. These folks are looking for easy victims. It won't be worth it for them if they think you might put up a fight. Try to hail a cab outta there as soon as possible.
If you get confronted by a robber or robbers who demand you give them your wallet or phone, don't fight back because they may be armed. Simply say OK and hand over your belongings. Do it quick, but not too quick, or they might think you're reaching for a knife. Don't look the criminals in the eye. Even if it's one guy and he's small, these people normally don't work alone. If you try to fight him or run away, you simply don't know in which doorways his boys are lurking. It's better not to take the risk.
I recommend carrying $25-$100 in cash. It's not too much to lose, but it's enough that the guys robbing you will be satisfied and not cause you harm. So, no less than $500 pesos in your wallet at any given time, and no more than $2000 unless absolutely necessary.
Usually, a robbery of this nature will be without violence. Just comply. Don't carry anything you're unwilling to part with, chalk it up to bad luck and move on. Being robbed as a tourist in Mexico is not a very common occurrence.
*Note: I want to stress that it's VERY important that you don't fight back. Chances are that the guy robbing you will be armed with (at least) a knife. Even if you think you can take the dude in a fight, don't take the risk.
Whether or not Mexico is dangerous depends on where you are, what you are doing and who you ask. Of course, locals living in Tamaulipas will have a different opinion that locals living in, say, Ajijic. The former is one of the least secure places in the country, whereas the latter is one of the safest.
The question of "is Mexico safe?" is complicated. It has some of the most insecure regions in the world, but then again, it has cities that report lower crime rates than Denver or Kansas City.
What I can tell you, though, is that after nearly two years living in Mexico City, and months travelling all over the country, I have never had any issues regarding security. The worst thing that has happened to me has been getting ripped off by a cab driver or two.
It's easy to think that the country's increasing levels of drug violence mean more insecurity for tourists, but it isn't exactly true; they really are two separate worlds. Increasing violence along the border doesn't mean that a traveller can't enjoy spring break at one of Mexico's numerous beach resorts, or that a retiree can't live a nice, quiet life in San Miguel de Allende or Manzanillo.
In closing, I would say don't worry about it! If you have concerns about visiting Mexico due to crime and violence, you should put those fears to rest. There are too many pleasant and beautiful places in this country that shouldn't be ignored.
Book a ticket in 2018 and see for yourself!
Until next time,