Letter from a Reader: Am I going crazy, or has Mexico?

Mexico with Mexican flag.

editor’s note: We love hearing from our readers, and sometimes the conversations that develop seem worthy of a larger audience. If you feel up to adding a comment, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Hi Carl and Lorena
I’ve traveled with you folks for the last twenty years, and have had
only wonderful fun on my trips there. Through all that time there
have been people most willing to tell us scary stories about bandits
and thugs and all those unfun things. By staying sober, checking
things out with locals, everything has gone well in my travels, that
include all sorts of backwoods and strange destinations.
Lately the stories seem to be reaching a fever pitch, with news of
30,000 dead in the drug wars, and I find myself starting to get
nervous. I used to dodge places like Culiacan, and sped through most
of coastal Guerrero because I’d heard stories about violence in those
places, now I’m hearing stories of violence everywhere. Even my
friend, Rolando, of Cuernavaca tells me of gun fights in front of the
hospital, and he  has clients ( he is some sort of counselor there)
who worry daily about kidnappings and gratuitous violence..
Now that I am getting older, I know that some of the stuff is just
plain hype, but I also want to look at the possibility that the whole
country has changed, and is not the peaceful, loving place that I
have known for so long. Am I going crazy, or has Mexico? It is so
hard to tell. I would like to go there permanently as I move into
retirement. Is it enough to just be savvy to travel in Mexico, or is
it getting genuinely dangerous?
Jonathon

Carl Responds:

Hello Jonathon,

First of all, we really appreciate your support of our book over the years.  It is no exaggeration to say that the long run we’ve had with The People’s Guide To Mexico is largely due to the support of readers like you and small independent bookstores.  So… Mil gracias!

It is obvious that you have “been around the block” in terms of Mexico travel. Mexico has experienced some serious ups-and-downs over the years but the narco violence we’ve seen recently is really without precedence.  Nonetheless, the practical, commonsense precautions you’ve used in the past still apply to current conditions.  The reason for this is that the “fever pitch” of bad news you mention almost always relates to violence between rival drug gangs, or between them and some authority, usually the Mexican Army or Navy.

As in past alerts raised about safety in Mexico, the actual statistics clearly show that tourists, visitors, and foreign residents are rarely among the victims. The narco violence would be more accurately described as a kind of criminal civil war.  (And unfortunately, it is often hard to know which side the “authorities” are on.)

Depending on where you travel you could see a lot more uniforms, including highway checkpoints and increased security on public transportation.  One measure that I’d add to our previous advice about street-wise safety is to always put caution first.  If something unusual seems to be happening on the next corner or if people are scurrying away, turn around and go elsewhere.  We can sometimes be drawn into dangerous moth-to-a-flame situations by curiosity.

I hope that this helps you make a decision about Mexico.  If you do move south, we ‘d certainly appreciate hearing about your experience there.

Saludos!
Carl & Lorena

Jonathon:

Yes, my plan was this time to go down near the border, and then find some travelers who have recently been there, and treat particularly the first part of the trip as if I were entering some of the areas that used to be so spooky, like Sinaloa  and Guerrero used to be.  Are there any particular words you could offer me about Chihuahua  which sounds like where a lot of the violence is centered? Any areas that still seem safe?  I realize this is a big request.
I’m really hoping that Mexico has the good sense to legalize the drugs in their country, and lets go of the battle.
I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated the common sense perspective of your book. It is very refreshing in a world where there is a lot of nonsense.
-Jonathon

5 Responses to “Letter from a Reader: Am I going crazy, or has Mexico?”

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  1. -El Codo- says:

    The “Narco Culture” has attracted many young men. The lure is one of becoming The Ultimate Macho – lugging around a machine gun, and grenades and for many the money is excellent. For others, the price is horrendous.

    But step back a moment if you would. At our hands is one of the greatest information resources in human history. The internet, chat forums full of chisme, stories, news and views.

    Mexico has an enormous number of expatriates, and overland travel tourists. Of course the numbers of the latter have decreased, but at least a hundred thousand strong, O.K.?

    We go to the store, we go to the beach, we visit friends, and shop in the big cities. Indeed we stay multiple days in those places. We live here in Mexico.

    Now with all the numbers, with all the vast army of news, and alarmist pundits who sit hunched over a keyboard waiting for the slightest rumor of harm to an American or Canadian to be whispered.

    Where are the stories? Where is the chatter?

    Yeah, it is tough at times to not fall victim to the mood that young Mexicans are slaughtering themselves by the thousands. The fact is, the Mexican military and federal cops have had to endure a steep learning curve. But the overwhelming percentage of them are brave patriots and some are dying doing their duty.

    I never forget that if drugs were legalized in Mexico. If they were made legal in the United States, the bad people down here would not say “OK you win, I’ll go pinstripe the burro and go down to the beach to take tourist photographs now”. These guys would not start bar tending and hacking taxi.

    I try my best to keep these things in perspective. Meanwhile some of the best neighbors on the face of the planet look northward and say “Where are my amigos? They are not coming this year and it’s going to be very, very hard for us “

  2. Carl Franz says:

    Ciudad Juarez is probably the most obvious place to avoid in Chihuahua, especially if you’re feeling a bit nervous. If you cross the border into Mexico at El Paso, just drive straight through CJ rather than hanging around or shopping. Or, take the cross-border bus from El Paso and go directly to the CJ bus terminal — express buses to Chihuahua City leave that terminal frequently.

    A lot depends on what you plan to do in Chihuahua. For general touring by car or RV, I’d avoid driving at night (which is hardly news to People’s Guide veterans). I’d also stay away from the immediate border zone if you’re planning on exploring back roads.

    In the Sierra Madre, I’ve always suggested going with a guide if you’re hiking anywhere beyond the most heavily travelled trails. When I worked as a guide in Batopilas, I always had a local man accompany me and my clients when we planned to go more than a few miles beyond the town. This precaution was strongly suggested to me by the townspeople, to avoid stumbling into pot or poppy operations. On one occasion, for example, I was warned that a particular trail was off-limits for a few days because a crop was being moved out by burro-train. I was well known there but a stranger probably wouldn’t get such a direct warning. For that reason it is important to listen closely to whatever the local people tell you and to take hints seriously. When someone says, “No, that’s not a good place, don’t go there”, I won’t go and I won’t press them for an explanation.

    The only other general warning I can suggest for Chihuahua is to spend as little time as possible in cantinas, bars and bordellos. Narcos love to party. When drugged and drunken they seem especially prone to opening fire on anyone who annoys them.

    saludos,
    Carl

  3. Jeffrey O'Brien says:

    If I can add my two cents, I’d like to say that over forty Canadians were murdered in Edmonton Alberta last year, earning it the nickname Deadmonton and one airline put downtown Winnipeg off limits to it’s employees. You would have to go back about ten years to find forty Canadians, who were not involved with drugs, murdered in MX. And as Carl and Lorena said, there is a large armed conflict going on. Mexico as a whole does not scare me, parts of Mexico I have put off limits to myself. And I say the same thing about peaceful, polite ol’ Canada, eh?

  4. Jeffrey O'Brien says:

    The word from my friends and family in MX is that Tamulipas is to be avoided. Several scary examples seem to bear out the local warnings.

  5. Jonathon says:

    Thanks all. For years I have avoided Juarez, although I hear that there are many fine people there. It sounds like the plan would be to wait till closer to the departure date, and then get the most current information. I have appreciated other spots on this website where people have written in with their recent experiences, and I hope these stories will keep coming. I’ve particularly enjoyed Chihuahua in the past, and love the Copper Canyon region, but also have used healthy discretion there in the past, and plan to continue.
    Jonathon