I’ve been dying to write this post for a while now, because its title is a question that’s been posed to me so many times this year: “Is Mexico safe for travelers?”
After spending eight months in Mexico an in 12 of its 31 federal states, I’ve had a lot of time to observe and experience the different levels of safety in the sprawling country. I feel really strongly about sharing an honest image of the enormous, breathtaking country to which I’ve dedicated most of 2015, and also about giving people a realistic idea of what their safety concerns should be there.
So, that said, my answer to the question “Is Mexico safe?” isn’t a simple one. It’s either 1) yes, of course; or 2) no, of course not; depending on what “safe” means to you, which “Mexico” we’re talking about, and when.
Thinking with thoughts (instead of images)
Just as the media industry has managed to brand ‘Africa’ as one big country of impoverished cannibals warring over territory and tribal feuds, television and pop culture in the West have crafted an image of Latin America as a land of violent drug cartels, exporting lazy emigrants who come to suck off our developed welfare states. Mexico is no exception to this image — in fact, in the United States and much of Europe, it epitomizes it.
If I search “Mexico news” on Google Images, I come up mostly with pictures like the ones below: guns, mobs, and dead bodies.
These images aren’t fabricated — Mexico is and has been suffering from political corruption and clashes between organized criminal groups, and large swaths of the country ought to be declared human rights disasters and even failed states.
But that’s not the whole story. If we search instead “Mexico holiday”, we get images more like these ones, with pristine beaches, nightlife, music, margaritas, and beautiful architecture. It’s the Mexico of Cancun and Chichen Itza and Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara that we often forget is the same country as that other Mexico.
Both of these kinds of images are real, but neither are the real Mexico. One promotes the image capitalized upon by the Western news media, and the other is the image that fills the pockets of travel agencies and real estate firms in the Mayan Riviera.
I spent most of my time in between, in what I would very carefully call ‘the real Mexico’, but I also passed through both of these extremes, one at the beginning of my trip and one at the end.
What makes Mexico dangerous?
Mexico is a different kind of ‘dangerous’ than many other developing countries. In contrast to most of the rest of Latin America, you could make the (complicated, unwieldy) generalization that the cities are safe(r) and the areas between them are where the danger lies. Of course there are cities like Juarez, Ciudad Victoria, Acapulco, and Culiacán that are basically deathtraps for the foreigner who doesn’t know how to navigate them, but these cities are dangerous for the same reason that the rural areas and intercity travel can be so risky.
There are two primary causes of violent crime in Mexico. The first one is the nearly universal source of violence and social strife: income inequality. Mexico’s high per capita income and Human Development Index are misleading, as it has the second-highest GINI coefficient (measure of income inequality) of all OECD countries. The expats and travelers I met in Mexico often commented that “Mexican rich is a special kind of rich” — there’s an enormous upper class that can go toe-to-toe with their superrich neighbors in the US in terms of ridiculous spending and political influence, and only a small middle class buffering it from the even larger 52% of the population that lives in poverty.
Take 1 part haves to 2 parts have-nots. Add obscenely large portion of political corruption. Bring to boil, stirring repeatedly.
The other problem is a symptom of economic inequality, and that’s drug violence, organized crime, narcotrafficking, or whatever else you want to call it. I explained this phenomenon with more nuance in an earlier post, but the basic formula for Mexico’s most extravagant media-catching violence happens when different rival cartels decide they both want control of a particular city or trafficking route (like a highway, port, or federal state), or when the military and federal police — very frequently unironically referred to by Mexicans as a ‘cartel’ — decide to ‘wage war’ on one of the cartels. The result is normally a several-years spike in civilian casualties followed by relative peace when one cartel has secured the area under its control. Monterrey is probably the best example of this.
The importance of place in Mexico
The local tourism industry in the State of Tamaulipas (bordering part of Texas) isn’t exactly booming. Most of the state is overrun by the Zeta cartel, and three-way shootouts between the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the federal police and military are literally slaughtering cities like Reynosa, Ciudad Victoria, and others.
In contrast, Yucatan State has violent crime rates lower than those in the rural United States and Western Europe. Cancun and the Mayan Riviera are so gentrified and Americanized that it’s hard to associate them with the images of drug violence you saw above.
The truth is, there are two Mexicos, or actually many Mexicos. There’s the Mexico of cities like Monterrey, once the most dangerous city in Mexico and just years later a beacon of safety in an otherwise precarious region. There’s the Mexico of Michoacán and Guerrero, where economic inequality and ethnic tensions have led to extremist uprisings targeting the government. There’s the Mexico of states like Morelos and San Luis Potosí, where keeping a low profile is pretty sure to get you home safe, or the Mexico of Chiapas, where you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than a bullet.
For the sake of practicality, I want to break down my experience in Mexico into the arbitrary categories of safe, unsafe, and upside-down question mark. For the most part, I’ll only speak of the states I’ve spent time in in Mexico, and these lists mostly follow a geographic order of north to south rather than most to least safe.
The safest parts of Mexico
- Monterrey: The first city of the North of Mexico is now a haven of safety and stability in an otherwise unpredictable region. From 2010-2012 it was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but today one can explore the city center and barrio antiguo even at night, where you might find a couple hundred people playing music and dancing in the macroplaza.
- San Luis Potosí: San Luis Potosí is a sort of sleepy Central Mexican city where not much seems to happen. While there are some rougher neighborhoods around town, you can tread the main drags mostly worry-free.
- Querétaro and Querétaro State: Querétaro is considered by many the safest city in all of Mexico, and there’s really no special trouble to speak of throughout the federal state that shares its name.
- La Huasteca/Sierra Gorda: This mountainous region straddles the states of San Luis Potosí and Querétaro and is one of the most enchanting and under-visited parts of Mexico. Your biggest fear here should be running out of gas in the long stretches of mountain roads between towns.
- Hidalgo State: Poor and not as developed, but peaceful. Pachuca is considered a very safe city, and there is plenty of nature to explore.
- Puebla, Oaxaca, and Chiapas States: These are three of the poorest (and most-backpacked) states in Mexico, but they’re safely removed from most of the drug violence that some of their equally poor neighbors are subject to. This year Oaxaca has been subject to some civil unrest, mostly instigated by the powerful and farcically corrupt Mexican Teachers’ Union, but so far (September 2015) it hasn’t become epidemic like in Guerrero and Michoacan.
- Quintana Roo State: To be blunt, this whole chunk of the Mayan Riviera is an American colony. The real estate developers and local tourism industry in places like Cancun and Playa del Carmen make sure you don’t have anything worse than pickpockets to worry about here.
The less safe parts of Mexico
I explicity avoided all of these except Tamaulipas. My advice here is based on months spent researching organized crime in Mexico, information from travel advisories from various departments of state/ministries of foreign affairs, and most of all dozens of conversations with Mexican citizens, including internally displaced persons.
- Tamaulipas State: Don’t go here. I can’t say it any more strongly: if there is one part of Mexico to avoid right now, it’s here. I planned my route through Nuevo Laredo very carefully, but I don’t think I would do it again. It is generally considered the most corrupt of the Mexican states and the cartel in power, Los Zetas, is known worldwide for its viciousness and attacks on civilians. These guys make a huge chunk of their income through ransoms and human trafficking, so your Western face just looks like a big dollar sign.
- Northern border states (Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, Durango, and Sinaloa): The Sinaloa cartel reigns supreme through most of this side of Mexico. They focus almost exclusively on the drug trade and haven’t been known to single out Westerners or tourists, but the general unrest and lack of rule of law in this region makes it risky. If you speak good Spanish, know what cities and especially which highways to avoid, and have a particularly strong reason for visiting this area, it might be worth it. Count me out though.
- Michoacán and Guerrero States: What Mexicans say about the state of Michoacan and Guerrero seems to vary more than opinions on other parts of the country. Guerrero is where the famous 43 students went missing last year, speaking to the insane levels of corruption in the state government. Michoacán seems to be largely run by the cartel La Familia Michoacana, who have branded themselves as protectors of the (poor/indigenous) people more successfully than any other cartel. At the heart of conflict and insecurity in this region is ethnic and economic strife, which means that, in theory, there is no special danger for foreign travelers. I personally would feel comfortable visiting Morelia, the capital of Michoacán just south of the border with Guanajuato State, but I think not much more.
The meh, yo no sé parts of Mexico
- Nuevo León and San Luis Potosí States: I traveled by bus through both of these big northern states, mainly via Highway 57, which (at least at the time) was the least risky of the three major routes south out of Monterrey. The danger here is presented primarily by the many highway checkpoints, which are nominally run by the police, but just as often can be Zetas or other narcos in police uniform. Kidnapping of Westerners does happen in these areas, but almost exclusively on overnight buses, and much more so on Highway 85 to the east.
- Morelos State: When I traveled to Morelos in May, the US State Department was officially warning to “exercise caution” in the state because of the “unpredictable nature of organized crime violence”. After reading the State Department warning (which includes advice on which particular cities and highways are considered high risk) and talking to a few folks in Mexico City who had recently been to or even lived in the area, my friends and I decided it should be fine for the weekend camping trip we were planning.
- Jalisco State: Jalisco is exemplary of how quickly security can change in Mexico. When I arrived in January it was one of the safest areas in the country, but in May it was suddenly in the news when a bus was set aflame, killing seven civilians. The US State Department quickly advised caution for “clashes between criminal organizations and government authorities, and related disturbances including barricades of burning vehicles blocking major roads and highways, are ongoing concerns that typically occur without notice”. Suddenly cities like Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta weren’t a vacation paradise anymore. However, by now (September 2015), things seem to be more or less back to normal.
Mexico City and the State of Mexico
The Federal District, with its 22 million inhabitants that spill over into the surrounding Estado de México, is a category of its own. The sheer size and sprawl of it makes for an equal diversity of safety conditions that can change from neighborhood to neighborhood, although the DF seems to be more stable over time than any of the other states. In general, I’ll always recommend it — in five months nothing bad happened to me, and I never once felt any less safe than I would in a huge city anywhere in the world. Here’s a breakdown of the areas I know well enough to comment on.
- Centro Historico: During daylight hours the worst you’ll face is a group of students asking if they can interview you for their English class. At night, it’s the kind of neighborhood where street smarts and walking along well-lit roads is recommended, like in any big city.
- Roma y Condesa: You may actually die from breathing in the essence of hipster that pollutes the air on every street. If you can stand the tattoos and ridiculous hair you’re fine. I lived in the Roma Norte neighborhood and loved every day of it.
- Zona Rosa: Zona Rosa is a fairly gentrified business district as well as being home to the gay neighborhood and Koreatown, so it’s quite an odd amalgamation of subcultures. I’ve heard it called dangerous, and I do know someone who was almost mugged there, but personally I feel it’s a bit safer than Centro and the most basic common sense is all you should need to avoid trouble. I spent plenty of time here and never had an issue.
- Polanco: The rich and the famous live here, and you can’t afford anything unless you are also rich and/or famous. Move along.
- Del Valle: Upper-middle class residential and office neighborhood. Perfectly safe, but dying of boredom could be a legitimate risk here.
- Doctores: Doctores gets a bad rap for being one of the most dangerous neighborhoods within the city proper, which it is, but take it with a grain of salt when you hear that it’s “dangerous”. If you go walking alone at night, you might get mugged, but unless you’re an outspoken journalist, don’t work yourself up into a panic. I spent several nights in this neighborhood watching Lucha Libre with small groups and never had an issue.
- Airport/TAPO: This seems to be a general ‘best practice’ for most cities in the Americas: avoid the neighborhood around the airport or bus station. The eastern edge of Mexico City probably fits in a little better with your image of a big Latin American barrio.
- Southeast Mexico City Area/Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl: This is in general the most dangerous area of the Federal District and the Greater Mexico City Area. There are rumblings of organized crime, but for the most part it suffers from issues familiar throughout Latin American cities: poverty and run-of-the-mill violent and nonviolent crime.
- Coyoacán: One of the coolest neighborhoods in the DF. Locals will tell you that the rides there and back (one or two transfers on the metro from the city center) will kill you, but they’re exaggerating.
How to not be an idiot in Mexico
I’ve met two commonly recurring archetypal charicatures of travelers while in Mexico; for now I’ll casually name them ‘the American’ and ‘the European’.
The American is terrified of absolutely everything. One American I know (hint, he’s writing this post) nearly shat himself in Querétaro when he heard fireworks one night, because obviously popping noises in Mexico always signal guns and violence and impending doom. The American distrusts every offer of kindness from locals, because that drink has obviously been drugged so that guy can sell you/your organs to the local mob boss. That taco? Don’t eat it. It’s cat. Or maybe human. And it’s a terrorist.
The European is the equally and oppositely useless traveler in Mexico. He comes from a place where wandering around the city alone at 3:30 a.m. while completely obliterated drunk and searching for a döner place that’s still open is not only perfectly safe but routine. People are good and trustworthy, and crimes are scary made-up stories that usually take place in the US or Africa somewhere. He’s quick to tell you how dangerous Paris is though, because that one time three years ago a friend of one of his friends knew a girl who got her purse snatched behind the train station.
Both of these travelers need to pick a different destination. The American is going to completely isolate himself and miss out on one of the most promising countries in the world for travel, and the European is going to get manipulated into being a part of some white collar money laundering scheme (that is, yes, probably related to the drug trade).
If you tend toward the more American end of the spectrum, try to loosen up and reach outside your comfort zone a bit. Acapulco is currently the highest homicide rate in Mexico, with 104 homicides per 100,000 citizens. That translates to a 0.1% chance of being murdered in the most dangerous city in the country.
If you tend toward the European extreme, try to remember that Latin America is not Europe or any of the typical vacation destinations for Europeans. Marrakech and Bali seem exotic and wild, but they’re fairly safe and Westernized as well. Bad shit can happen to you here, so just try not to stumble into a Darwin Award.
So, is Mexico safe?
Acceptable answers to this question include:
1) Where in Mexico?
2) Last week or today?
3) Are you a journalist?
Remember that one of the main points of this post is that these situations change rapidly. Don’t assume that because Ciudad Juarez was a bloodbath five years ago that it will be next year, and just because Puerto Escondido is now a tourist hotspot doesn’t mean it can’t become the next Acapulco.
I recommend checking the travel advisories from two different embassies: my normal strategy for Mexico is to check the US State Department advisory, which is very thorough (with detailed security analyses of each federal state as well as specific cities and transit routes), but also highly, at times almost comically, alarmist, and compare it to another country’s equivalent. I normally use the Netherlands or Canada, both less prone to freakouts and exaggeration.
When in doubt — but also when not — ask some locals. Reach out to the Couchsurfing community or Facebook groups like Mochileros en Mexico. I’d say upwards of three quarters of the time, you’re gonna be just fine.
The point is to change your Mexican paradigm. Stop thinking of it as a dangerous country run by narcotraffickers and corrupt politicians. It’s a huge country with huge cities and huge stretches of countryside. Some cities are more dangerous than others, some neighborhoods safer than others. Just like anywhere else in the world. So do yourself an intellectual favor and tune out the images of machine guns and beach resorts, and just turn on your eyes and ears.