We are hearing in the news, almost daily, that Mexico is not a country to travel to right now and that it has very high numbers of COVID-19. This article isn’t about COVID-19 though which isn’t going away anytime soon, in spite of all the travel restrictions imposed and the vaccinations being doled out. Instead, I thought I would talk about safety, and crime in Mexico-how dangerous is it, and how it pertains to travel.
The latest research from the Canadian Embassy to Mexico is telling us “Exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico due to high levels of crimes and kidnappings.” This is not really new – crime (homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery) has been rampant for a long time and the cartels are as active as ever. However, it is suggested that because of the pandemic, there is an increase.
We are being told to avoid non-essential travel, especially to the following areas:
Colima with the exception of Manzanillo
Coahuila, except for the southern part and below the Saltillo-Torreon highway corridor
Durango, except Durango City
Guerrero, with the exception of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Taxco
Guanajuato* – Highway 45 between Leon and Irapuato and the area south of and including Highway 45D between Irapuato and Celaya
Michoacán, except Morelia city
Morelos – the Lagunas de Zempoala National Park and surrounding areas
Nayarit – an area within 20 km of the border with Sinaloa and Durango, and Tepic City
Nuevo Leon, except Monterrey
Sinaloa with the exception of Mazatlán city
Sonora, except Hermosillo City, Guaymas/San Carlos, and Puerto Peñasco
*Guanajuato had 213 recorded murders in just 15 days in 2019-2020.
All of these are cautioned against because of crime (the area of Tamaulipas has both crime and kidnappings). According to the Government of Canada Travel Advisories, you are in these locations at your own risk and if at all possible you should make an effort to leave. The United States is issuing similar warnings.
Having said that, there are many travellers to some of these locations that claim they have felt completely safe; the big thing is to exercise caution and not take any unnecessary risks and maybe to heed those in power.
Controlling Crime in Mexico
Crime is a major concern that plagues Mexico because of the drug trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine (meth), fentanyl, heroin, and marijuana playing a prominent role, especially between Latin America and the United States. Where there are drug cartels and gangs, there is organized and violent crime. A low conviction rate contributes to the high crime rate with many being unreported.
The majority of crimes are assault and theft but the United States-Mexico border had almost 30,000 homicides in Mexico in 2017. Many murders go unsolved with only a small percentage of perpetrators actually being apprehended and convicted. Homicides in 2019 reached a high of 35,000.
The Mexican cartels also have ties with Colombian drug traffickers.
Domestically, Mexico is producing large amounts of opium and marijuana, amphetamines, and synthetic drugs such as crystal. Many youths are consuming marijuana, crack cocaine and meth.
Which brings us back to our earlier question, “why can’t crime be contained or controlled in Mexico?” The answer is corruption at all levels of police, judiciary and government officials. Each police force has different levels of jurisdiction and authority which makes policing difficult. On top of that, the pay is very low (the equivalent of $285-$400 U.S. per month).
When they are forced to take a bribe or be killed, it is easy to see which choice is being made. In areas where drug trafficking is prevalent such as the northern border of Tijuana, police are paid off to protect the very ones perpetrating the crimes – the drug traffickers. It is not unheard of for a Mexican police offer to fabricate evidence against someone in order to make the ‘problem’ go away.
In November 2020, gangster Big Mama was arrested but released after a short stint in prison. It is speculated that the gangster is a link between the group La Union Tepito (operated by Óscar Andrés Flores Ramírez) and officials in exchange for protection, information, and immunity from prosecution through bribes.
Several administrative irregularities were found in an agency created by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. It was designed to return seized goods, including cars, jewellery, and mansions from illegal activities to the rightful owners. It is alleged that the assets were re-stolen by Mexican officials.
Violence against Journalists and Women
Since 2006, over 90 journalists have been murdered or have disappeared, (nine in 2020) in Mexico while very few cases have been brought to justice – 90% of journalist killings remain unsolved. Press freedom is under attack by not only the cartel and criminal gangs but the elected officials globally. Because of this, journalists live in fear of retribution.
Since 2007, homicides against women have been increasing, with Mexico being rated the 16th highest by 2014. For a woman to report violence or sexual abuse means she will be ostracized and treated with very little respect. Iztapalapa, Mexico City, has the highest rate of rape, physical abuse and violence. During the Mexican Drug War (2006-present) women are being raped, tortured and murdered.
Mexicans Feel Unsafe
Government data shows that there is an increase in homicides and crimes as a result of the pandemic.
Furthermore, one out of every ten crimes is reported in Mexico with only one out of 100 cases reported actually being sentenced.
The 2016 data shows that 72.4 percent of Mexicans feel unsafe in the state of Mexico, Mexico City, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Guerrero, Zacatecas, and Pueblo (the least safe).
Recruitment of Children
According to AMLO (President López Obrador), children are recruited at an alarming rate because gangs can’t find sicarios (hitmen, hired killers). In January 2020, 19 eight to 15-year-old armed, masked children were recruited to act as community police, performing rifle drills in a township in southern Guerrero state.
Nine Killed in Attack
In Guanajuato state, 9 people were killed at a wake, allegedly by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel because the Cartel thought the dead man was linked to a rival gang, the Santa Rosa de Lima. Even though the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima gang was captured, the Sinaloa cartel has stepped in to support them with a turf war against the Jalisco cartel. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is considered one of Mexico’s most violent cartels.
San Miguel Allende is located in Guanajuato and is a popular retirement spot for Americans, at this time a deadly spot!
$63 million Drug Seizure
A stash of fentanyl, crystal meth, heroin, and marijuana was recently found in an abandoned trailer in the Tierra y Libertad neighbourhood by Juárez police, the Mexican military, and drug-sniffing dogs. No arrests were made.
New Data from an NGO
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) which is an NGO (non-governmental organization) claims that Mexico’s violence is getting worse with over 35,000 homicides in 2019, much of them related to gangs and cartels.
In spite of the capture of El Chapo (Joaquín Guzman) who is considered to have been the most powerful drug trafficker in the world and former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, there are at least 37 cartels still active in Mexico.
The top four most powerful groups are the Sinaloa Cartel (most of the north-west area), the Jalisco New Generation (CJNG – the Tierra Caliente region), The Gulf Cartel (north-east, centred around the border state of Tamaulipas), and the Los Zetas Cartel (north-east).
Whatsapp is Helping the Cartel
The Cartels have a secret weapon in their arsenal – Whatsapp! Because of its high level of encryption, Whatsapp is used for organized crime, murders, drug shipments, and murders of police offers based in Mexico. The cartels feel safe that they cannot be traced with wiretaps and the Sinaloa cartel used Whatsapp to make a blatant offer of 200 pesos to whoever would help free Ovidio Guzman (son of El Chapo) in Culiacan.
Secret escape tunnels used by the cartels keep cropping up with the latest one in May 2020 at the Cieneguillas prison in Zacatecas. Twelve inmates, serving sentences for drugs, kidnapping, murder and firearms tried to escape. Described as 50 meters long, and 1.6 meters high, the tunnel was located in a wing of the prison. This is not the first issue with tunnels at this prison – 53 prisoners escaped in 2009 aided by bogus law enforcement.
Another tunnel was found by the military running beneath the Rio Grande connecting the cities of Matamoros (Gulf Cartel), Tamaulipas, and Brownsville, Texas. The tunnel was equipped with a generator, water pump, hoses, and ammunition. It measured 1.5 meters high and 80 centimetres wide. Over the years, more than 150 tunnels have been discovered leading into Mexico with the majority being in Arizona and California.
The search for one missing child in July 2020 led to the discovery of 23 children, infants to 15 years old, during a home raid in San Cristobal de las Casas, a tourist destination in Southern Mexico. They were reported to have suffered psychological and physical abuse.
It is estimated that 16,000 to 20,000 Mexican and Central American children are trafficked for sex in Mexico and child sex tourism continues to flourish in areas such as Acapulco, Cancun, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juárez.
With tourism taking a major kick recently, it is good to know that there are still some popular areas that are generally considered safe for travelling such as Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and the Riviera Maya.
Yes, there was a recent grisly discovery – 8 bodies outside of Cancun’s beach hotel zone but… the Government feels this is targeted and that turf wars between criminal organizations have resulted in crimes where innocent bystanders have been killed or injured.
Safety Precautions You Can Take
So now you are probably thinking ‘who wants to go to Mexico?” While these statistics are daunting, there are many great reasons to visit Mexico and many places are still considered quite safe as long as you take precautions and use common sense. Whether you are on a short vacation or living an ex-pat lifestyle, here are some tips that will make your stay in Mexico much safer.
Do your research. If the area is declared unsafe, then you should avoid it. As mentioned earlier, crime is rampant in several areas of Mexico so don’t go looking for trouble.
Be sure and let the family know your travel plans – where you are going, how long you plan to be away, and how they can reach you if they need to. Have an emergency contact number with you at all times.
Be careful disclosing where you are staying to strangers, even Mexican law enforcement.
Keep a list of local emergency numbers with you, such as 911, etc.
Never carry large sums of cash with you. If possible carry it in different locations, maybe some in your purse and some in a front pocket. Don’t carry anything in your back pockets. This is a great target for pickpockets. Very deep front pockets are best. Fanny packs that are carried in front are better than to the side, or your back area. Women carrying purses should wear them crossed over their shoulders if possible.
Use registered taxis or local buses. If you are staying at a resort/hotel, ask them to get a cab for you. Sometimes there are shuttle services offered.
Speaking of resorts, you should not let your guard down – don’t wander outside of the resort alone, keep doors locked and don’t open them to strangers, and read any safety policies the resort may have. If you lose your room key, report it right away and ask to be moved to another room as an extra precaution.
If you have a car, make sure it is in working order with plenty of gas. Avoid travelling at night if possible and always try to take main roads and streets.
Avoid walking alone at night. My husband and I have been coming to the same area for three years and I still don’t go out alone at night. When we are together, we try to be home before dark as much as possible.
Carry copies of your government documents and photos at all times and leave your originals in a safe place or safety box (if in a hotel or resort). We actually bought a small safety deposit box – sure it could be scooped up and taken but we also take precautions to keep it out of sight.
The same can be said about your valuables such as jewellery. Keep those at home in a safe place. Don’t flaunt your wealth!
Keep your cell phone, or other gadgets tucked out of sight when not using them – purse or a deep pocket. If you are staying outside of a resort/hotel, keep your laptop/computers/e-readers out of plain sight. You never know who could be passing by your windows and find the temptation too great.
Get travel insurance. It is a wise precaution to make sure you are covered for emergency medical treatment or evacuations, illness or injuries.
Don’t use ATMs on the street. Ask around where there are reputable ones that are associated with a bank, a hotel, or a large grocery store. I once used a street in an area where there were a lot of tourist shops and I did not get my money. However, upon checking the transaction later, I noticed I got scammed out of $97 – good thing my bank came to the rescue and reimbursed me.
Speaking of ATMs, when using them be wary of your surroundings and tuck your money away immediately. When you have to use the cash, be as discreet as possible, even going to a washroom if you have to.
Don’t stand out. Dress like the locals if you can so that you are not screaming ‘tourist!’
Drink your alcohol in moderation and keep your eye on it. Always be aware of your surroundings and never leave drinks unattended.
Avoid busy clubs, bars or events, especially at night and if you are alone.
If you are a long-term visitor (ex-pat), join a group on Facebook. The information you will learn will be invaluable and save you much time researching on your own. These groups share everything from the best taxis, restaurants, local bars, markets, shopping places, etc.
Be a conscientious driver. Don’t speed or draw attention to you and your vehicle. If law enforcement pulls you over, they could be paid by the cartel, or are just looking for a few bucks to put in their own pockets.
LEARN BASIC SPANISH.