By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Murders in two very different places have been making headlines lately, and they appear to be leading both tourists and people in the travel industry in two very different directions when it comes to making vacation plans. Every weekend, Chicago media outlets report on murders and shootings that occurred, and the numbers—sometimes in the double digits—tend to shock many. In the past few months, a surprising amount of violent crime has occurred in the popular Mexican resort areas of Cancun and Los Cabos. This is leading to polarized views over the wisdom of vacationing in Mexico, as well as a dangerous tendency to compare crime rates and trends across the border as a way of demonstrating that Mexico is safe to visit.
Mexico’s Drug Wars
In early April 2018, several news outlets reported that 14 people had been murdered in six separate incidents in Cancun in the span of only 36 hours. Most of the deaths appeared to be drug related, and neighbors told Mexican media outlet Notacaribe that the deceased were involved in drug sales for years. But the incident that really shook up the tourism sector was the attempted murder of a beach vendor in broad daylight on the Cancun resort strip by two men on jet skis. Although the shooters weren’t targeting tourists, the location indicated a shift might be occurring in cartel and gang operations.
Historically, Mexican drug cartels and local gangs have avoided engaging in high-profile criminal behavior (i.e. public violence in tourism zones) because it draws too much attention from media and law enforcement. However, the rise of criminal groups like the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación has demonstrated that more and more, drug traffickers and less concerned about their public profile and causing harm to innocent people. Fortunately, tourists are still considered collateral damage in Mexico’s drug war and not targets. And while it’s tempting to point to news of mass shootings and murders in U.S. cities as a way of supposedly demonstrating that Mexican tourist areas are safe in comparison, it’s very dangerous to compare crime rates in the U.S. and Mexico without context and understanding.
Chicago – America’s Murder Capital
According to a tracking system used by The Chicago Tribune, 151 homicides have occurred in Chicago in 2018 through April 29—a 22 percent drop from 2017. The population of Chicago is approximately 2.7 million, which places this year’s homicide rate at 5.6 per 100,000 people (the most common way of analyzing murder rates). New York City saw a huge drop in homicides from 2016 to 2017, and with a population of 8.5 million has a homicide rate of 3.4 per 100,000. Conversely, the population of Tijuana in Mexico is approximately 1.8 million and that city’s homicide rate is the fifth highest in the country at 100.6 per 100,000 people.
If you want to compare apples to apples in the context of safe travel, you have to compare the crime statistics of popular resort and vacation areas in Mexico and the United States—not resort areas to large urban centers. According to the Mexican daily El Diaro , the Mexican resort area of Los Cabos tops the annual list of most deadly areas of Mexico, compiled by the Citizens Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice. Los Cabos has a homicide rate of 111.3 per 100,000, with Acapulco not far behind at 106.6 per 100,000. Through April 13, over 100 people were murdered in Cancun, which has a population of just over 600,000 and an overall murder rate of 16.7 per 100,000—much lower than other Mexican cities, but three times the statistical murder rate in Chicago. Honolulu’s homicide rate in 2017 was 7.2 per 100,000, Orlando’s was 9 per 100,000, and the rate in Miami Beach in 2016 was 7.2 per 100,000—all lower than Mexico’s most popular resort areas.
Statistics aside, one also has to consider the overall security environment in and around popular vacation areas in both countries. Every major U.S. city has dangerous neighborhoods where both tourists and locals alike would be well advised to steer clear. However, the primary point of comparison to note between Mexico and the U.S. is the response of the police and emergency services to a violent incident.
Reporting Crimes in US and Mexico
If an assault or murder happens anywhere in the U.S., people are likely to call the police and tell them what they saw or heard. Investigations are conducted, evidence is gathered, suspects are apprehended, and trials occur. Fundamentally, if you get hurt at Disneyland or in the Grand Canyon or on Waikiki Beach, the authorities will help you. In Mexico, only 25 percent of crimes are reported and only 5 percent are successfully prosecuted because everyone is afraid of (often fatal) retaliation by drug cartels and criminal gangs. Reporters in Mexico don’t use their names in bylines or report the names of suspects. News blackouts are common, and corruption rates within Mexican municipal governments and police departments are sky high.
While the U.S. State Department issued several travel advisories in March for Playa del Carmen (near Cancun), it has not specifically warned U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cancun because the “homicides appeared to be targeted, criminal organization assassinations.” Per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the increased level of recent violence in the resort town probably is due to the escalated turf war between a group of alleged gunmen loyal to Leticia “Doña Lety” Rodriguez Lara, who has ties to El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel, and the rival cartel, Los Zetas. Lara was a former federal police officer before she allegedly started running the drug gang. She was arrested in August 2017, but her organization continues to operate.
U.S. tourists and travel agents alike will continue to be divided over the wisdom of choosing a Mexican resort city for their next vacation. Ultimately, it’s up to the traveler to decide. But making a decision based solely on side-by-side comparison of U.S. and Mexico murder tallies, as opposed to murder rates in conjunction with context and analysis, is dangerous because it results in a flawed understanding of the actual security situation in each location.