Is It Safe To Travel To Mexico?
By Laura Begley Bloom
Is Mexico safe? That’s the question many travelers are asking in light of the recent, horrific news of the brutal murders of nine Americans who were gunned down in a remote region about 100 miles from the U.S. border. The chilling incident comes on the heels of other highly publicized murders, including an American couple who was murdered this summer in Guerrero in front of their 12-year-old son, and 27-year-old honeymooner Tatiana Mirutenko, who was killed last December when she was caught in stray gunfire while emerging from a Mexico City bar.
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Last year, Mexico had the highest number of homicides in the country’s history, with an average of 91 deaths a day — and 2019 is on track to break the record. Drug cartels and criminal organizations are running rampant throughout the country, with lethal results. Federal crimes in Mexico also increased by 18% in 2018, including the possession of weapons, drug trafficking and kidnapping. And according to the U.S. State Department, more Americans are killed in Mexico than in all other countries combined: 196 U.S. died there in 2018, with 67 murdered, 66 dying from an accident and 23 drowning.
So what is a traveler to do when faced with such grim statistics?
Carlos Barron is a 25-year veteran of the FBI who spent time investigating major Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Barron retired in 2016 to start US Traveler Assist (USTA), a safety and security company that provides American travelers with expert in-country resources and on-the-ground fixers. “Millions of Americans go to Mexico on vacation every year, so if we play the numbers game, the number of incidents are very small,” points out Barron, who is a real-life version of Liam Neeson in the movie Taken. “When I’m asked if Mexico is a safe place to go travel on vacation, my response is yes.”
Barron says that the biggest danger if you’re traveling to Mexico is not the drug cartel violence, but rather, being too distracted while you’re on vacation that you do things that you wouldn’t do at home. “I know it seems like — 25 years in the FBI and this is what you’re telling me? But at the end of the day, personal safety comes down to common sense,” says Barron.
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The U.S. State Department currently has a travel advisory warning for Mexico with a level 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, meaning “exercise increased caution.” But some parts of Mexico where drug cartel violence is at its worst are on a no-go list, with a level 4 advisory for locations like Michoacán (where the most recent murders took place), Guerrero and Sinaloa.
There are places that are clearly dangerous, like the border towns. But even some of the bigger resort destinations — Acapulco, Los Cabos, Cancun — have had issues. Luxury resort destination Los Cabos has been called the murder capital of the world. An attack in a bar in Cancun in February killed five people, and last year, eight dead bodies were discovered just outside of Cancun’s hotel zone. And on the beaches of Acapulco, people have been getting gunned down in broad daylight while tourists lounge on the beach nearby.
“Acapulco is a perfect example,” says Adam St. John, CEO of Sitata, a travel health and safety platform that uses machine learning technology to monitor global happenings around the clock to keep its users informed about events in advance or as they happen. “This was once a world-renown tourist hotspot, but reports are that is now history and the city is now known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world due to violent crime. This highlights the need to be well-informed before you decide to make a holiday purchase. If you still decide to go there, it would be prudent to keep a low profile.”
Crimes against women are also on the rise in Mexico. In 2018, the number of slain women was up, with 861 deaths compared to 735 in 2017. The state of Mexico — which is home to Mexico City — recorded the most killings of women with 110. And Sitata’s St. John points out that “female travelers should remain very cautious as violence against women is very high in several parts of Mexico and [has been] known to have taken place in secluded resorts, too.”
But according to Suzanne Sangiovese, the operations manager for the Americas at Riskline, a global travel risk intelligence company that provides independent country/city risk assessments as well as a 24/7 alert messaging system, it’s still safe for women to travel to Mexico right now but with some common sense and personal safety precautions in mind.
“While Mexico does suffer from high crime and homicide rates — undoubtedly linked to the drug trade — many areas of the country are still safe to visit, even for women,” says Sangiovese. “The vast majority of cartel-related violence that occurs in Mexico is geographically limited in its intensity, with narco-traffickers targeting each other, Mexican authorities or entities that stand in their way. It is rare for such violence to specifically target a female traveller or tourist unless she was caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
That said, Sangiovese points out that there have been reports of female tourists being sexually assaulted in resort areas, including in Cancún by staff members or other guests, while taxi drivers and security personnel have also been implicated. “Most of the assaults occurred at night or in the early morning on deserted beaches and in hotel rooms,” says Sangiovese. “Women should take precautions in resort areas, where it’s often easy to let their guard down.”
Despite it all, including the dissolution of the Mexico Tourism Board due to budget cuts in May 2019, tourism to Mexico has still been on the rise. More than 44 million visitors are expected to visit Mexico in 2019, a 5.6% increase from 2018.
But Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5W Public Relations and crisis management expert, says that the country should still take heed. “Given the way this tragic situation in Mexico has unfolded and the media attention it has attracted, officials should be wary of the hit tourism may take,” says Torossian. “Unless the government does some serious damage control and works to assure the public that they are taking this recent tragedy seriously and doing everything in their power to make the country safe for travelers, it is likely that many travelers will begin cancelling their plans.”
Here are some safety tips to keep in mind if you’re heading to Mexico:
• All the experts agree that education and advance preparation are key. Check the U.S. State Department’s tips and warnings. Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts (this will also make it easier to locate you in an emergency). And always leave your itinerary and copies of important documents with a trusted person at home.
• “Travelers should take the time to inform themselves about the destinations they intend to visit. Do your research to understand the local health and safety situation. Drug-related crimes are more prevalent in the north and north-eastern parts of Mexico close to the border with the US. Banditry along highways is also a big security risk, particularly in the southern parts of the country. Mexican security forces carry out regular patrolling on these roads to prevent criminal activities, but coverage remains inadequate and travelers remain vulnerable in isolated and remote highways, particularly at night.”—Adam St. John, Sitata
• “Do not walk alone at night, especially in unfamiliar neighborhoods, desolate areas or beaches, due to the risk of violent crimes, including sexual assault.”—Suzanne Sangiovese, Riskline
• “Never leave your drink unattended or accept drinks from strangers or new acquaintances that you have not seen poured. Be cautious about accepting invitations to join a new acquaintance in non-public places.”—Suzanne Sangiovese, Riskline
• “Keep a low profile. Stick to your resort area, do not dress in flashy or expensive clothes, and leave your accessories at home. Do not make yourself an easy target for theft. It can also be a good idea to check with your resort about recent events.”—Adam St. John, Sitata
• “Machismo culture still prevails in some parts of the country and women may receive unwanted attention from men, ranging from open displays of catcalling and staring to physical groping, including at day time. It is best to ignore these advances or confrontations and walk away. Dressing ‘down’ and being more low-key, especially outside cities, can help avoid unwanted attention as well.”—Suzanne Sangiovese, Riskline
• “Taxis and public transport are among the most common places for harassment in Mexico. Only use official and registered taxis or reputed radio cabs and avoid public transport, especially at night, to limit exposure to possible cases of harassment. Some cities may have women-only taxis, operated by a female driver; consider using these companies, especially if traveling at night. When available consider sitting in women’s only sections in public transport due to recent reports of harassment on public transport.”—Suzanne Sangiovese, Riskline
“ Have emergency telephone numbers in your cell phone and your WhatsApp. Don’t just land in the airport, take an Uber to your hostel and start exploring. Take time to think.”—Carlos Barron, US Traveler Assist
• “Be smart. Be with somebody (the buddy system). Keep your head on a swivel and always be alert. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right.”—Carlos Barron, US Traveler Assist