Are You Safe In Mexico?

A frequent contributor to this blog who spends a great deal of time in Mexico has suggested that I open up a discussion about personal safety. This might be my “least favorite” topic but it is also one that I’ve had to address frequently since I first began writing about Mexico almost 40 years ago.  Now, however, with the savage narco war showing no signs of cooling down, the issue is far more complex.

To get this discussion rolling, I’m hoping that those of you who have travelled in Mexico recently or perhaps live there now, will contribute your thoughts and personal experiences.  I want to emphasize “personal experience” because there’s far too much second and third-hand negative news about Mexico floating around these days to bother with it here.  In fact, I’ll be moderating this conversation to be sure that it stays on topic.
Do you feel safe in Mexico?  Have you changed your travel or retirement plans because of concerns about safety?  Would you recommend Mexico to a friend?  What kind of precautions do you take in Mexico?
Please comment!

24 Responses to “Are You Safe In Mexico?”

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  1. Art Jones says:

    This is one of my least favorite topics as well but it is a real important one as it probably deters more folks from enjoying Mexico than any other concern. I’ve lived in Mx now for about 15 yrs. Most of my time is spent in “el Centro Historico” of Mazatlan, Sinaloa. Personally,in that time, I have suffered the loss of two bicycles. One was parked outside an open air bar at Happy Hour w/out lock and chain , while I B.S ed w/my buddies a kid jumped on and peddled off at breakneck speed into the sunset. The other was taken from my front patio while my two useless bulldogs slept placidly nearby.
    As all know Mazatlan is located in the very heart and soul of Narco-maddness. It is also an important port city and tourist destination.Narco related violence happens here on an all too regular basis. Here are a few personal and unscientific observations .
    1) while narco violence happens all the time and hardly rates a paragraph in the paper or a mention on our local Gringo forum , violence againist foreigners , tourist or expat is EXTREMELY rare. It would make the papers forever.
    2)of the violence that does happen 90% or more is drug and/or alcohol related.
    3) most involved are under 30 yrs of age
    4) most happens after mid-nite.
    5)while most gunmen around here are not noted for marksmanship and a stray bullet can be just as lethal as a well aimed one, “collateral damage ” is NOT at all common.

    IMHO Gringos are at least as safe here in Maz as they would be in their own home
    town . If I thought I or my loved ones were in danger I would not be here. I would not hesitate for a minute to invite any and all to enjoy my adopted hometown.It’s really a unique and magical place.

  2. rio says:

    Living in San Diego I know people that travel to Tijuana on a regular basis with no problem. I also read an article recently in the weekly newspaper written by a young lady who went nightclubing to Tijuana with two friends; the only problem she had was that the driver of their vehicle came on to her and when she refused him he left . . . with the car. She and her girlfriend missed the last bus and were able to hitchhike back safely.

  3. Jeff O'Brien says:

    I have to agree with Art. Mexico is definitely in a bad cycle but I’ve been to Monterrey three times in the last year. Violence and danger are there if you look for them.

  4. Jeff O'Brien says:

    The famous ‘giant banners’ that declared war on one cartel or another and went up in Feb. i was there the previous Dec and July of 09. Again this July of 2010. There is increased media coverage of narco violence. Despite threats to the media by narcos, it is covered. I noticed no extra police or military from July of 09. There was a report of a mass grave found in a junk yard on the edge of the city. Reports are it was full of bodies, many identifiable by tattoos as narcos. Driving around full tilt with my girl, we were not so much as stopped for speeding. Malls and shops and parks were full, well into the night.

    There was a period around mid March when a mystery email or youtube page threatened big trouble and there were a few incidents and my friends that lived there avoided going out at night. That isn’t the case now even though media reports worse violence. Usually the same incident reported over and over and over.

    A cab driver was shot in the early hours of the morning around Macroplaza. Word is he WAS state police and was executed. Draw yur own conclusions as to why. I did hear many people avoid the back roads and highways leading to the border. Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo and Juarez are where locals say you don’t want to go.

    Sorry if I’m rambling, trying to get all my thoughts out. There were a few narco blockades late at night = people seem to have adapted and drive round. We all know Mexicans are fatalists, they accept what is going on and adapt.

    I would be concerned I will admit, about going off road and exploring. Monterrey proper seems to have less narco action than suburbs such as Garcia, Santiago and other small towns nearby.

  5. El Codo says:

    The advice offered in the very first People’s Guide, holds water to this very day.

    Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Durango are hot spots. Research before you travel there.

    Cities and very large towns have always been “less safe so to speak” than small towns or villages.

    Don’t camp in isolated areas. A Mexican family that you befriend will be your best bet to assist you in deciding whether an area is safe or not.

    Don’t take anything that you aren’t willing to lose.

    I’ll add these points: Shiny new 4X4 SUV’s are highly prized and the most frequently stolen motor vehicle in Mexico. Drive something five years old (but in good shape) and hide cargo under a tarp away from prying eyes. Don’t dress like you own sixteen square blocks of downtown USA. About that cargo mentioned above: Use things with handles and straps. Run a vinyl coated steel cable through those loops and handles and secure the cable ends in the grasp of a padlock. Same goes for spare tires. Buy a camoflage kit to hide an expensive dashboard stereo deck.

    Nothing beats the security of a hidden money pouch with elastic band running under the armpits with the pouch facing to the rear, meaning residing on your back.

    Purchase a cleap velcro and nylon sports wallet and load it with every imaginable expired credit card and business card you can think of. About fifty dollars worth of pesos makes it look believable. There is a very tiny chance that you will lose this wallet to a nefarious character of ill repute. By the way running a rubber band or two around the outside of anything you don’t want to have spill out of a pocket really works.

    My Timex tells time just as good as a Rolex.

    My digital camera takes 7.0 megapixel images and cost sixty dollars. I find a space launch telemetry size lens to be a burden not an asset. If I want a closeup of a cathedral I’ll walk a few blocks closer.

    Having driven border to border, around in circles, triangles and squares within the entire country I would have to say that I need to be vigilant. Very, very vigilant…

    Topes, speeding buses, jaywalking pedestrians, and wandering burros are every bit as hazardous as they were decades ago. A sunburn hurts every bit as bad on my gray haired head as it did when it had browner and more numerous follicles.

  6. D Vincent says:

    One thing I would mention for visitors to Mexican resorts…..check the drains in the pools before going in or allowing your children to go in. Many are not secure with updated drain covers and can literally suck you in or hold you down with pressures up to 600 PSI ! Many deaths have been documented. That and untrained “lifeguards” and hotel staff make it imperative to know CPR and basic first aid. Other than “be cautious” and watch your surroundings, enjoy yourself….

    • Carl Franz says:

      I want to thank you for giving us this very important safety tip. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent a lot of time on Mexican beaches probably knows that drownings are all-too common, especially during high holiday seasons. I know several gringos who have resusitated victims while crowds of helpless people stood by. Please take the advice above and learn CPR!

  7. Jeff O'Brien says:

    One time in Puerto Vallarta I saw a fully clothed and in distress tourist being helped out of the water by several police. They too became soaked and were visibly displeased. I have no doubt booze was involved.

  8. Capt. Sloopy says:

    My wife (from Jalisco) and I use to drive straight through from So. Cal. to Puerto Vallarta every year. When I got tired, I’d sleep in the back seat of our large 4×4 3/4 ton (15 year old) pickup. Last year, for the first time, we decided not to drive at night and stopped enroute 1/2 way for a motel in the downtown area of whatever city we were in at the time.
    We’ve never encountered any problems.
    However, what with the financial mess our country is in, major reduction in retirement assets and overall societal changes in MX, we are discussing selling our two lots in MX (one in Nuevo Vallarta and other in Punta de Mita), and stopping any plans for building and living full time in MX. Although my wife has extensive family there we will probably fly down and rent a car as needed rather than drive down again. I don’t see solutions to any of these major issues for many, many years to come. As much as I love MX, my dreams for retirement there have more or less been dashed.
    Sad, but true.

  9. Jeff O'Brien says:

    Curious what others see as solutions – or rather outcomes. I’ve heard everything from Mexico slipping into civil war to UN peacekeepers to martial law, military takeovers with narco approved general at the helm… the US will never legalize drugs so that is out. I can take heart that Colombia made progress against cartels and the mafia isn’t what it was in the US, so it’s possible to win wars on crime. Mexico rapidly dealing with corruption and poverty to choke off the supply of young narcos? Mexico becomes narco state and US miiltarizes and seals off the border?

    those are my thoughts, we can rehash the current events all day long – anyone else up for forecasting???

  10. El Codo says:

    The USA nor Mexico aren’t saying what they’re doing to thwart the sicarios but everything from drones from McDill AFB to undercover agents plus the nsanely massive supercomputers at Ft Meade have now turned their “eye” toward the cartels. Compared to the clannish xenophobia of islamic terrorosts regional drug gangs don’t stand a chance against such an avalanche of technology.

    Mexico’s biggest “weak area” is the corrupt administrative, judicial and local law enforcement systems.

    “I’ve been robbed!”

    “Shhh, you’ll bring the police”

    has been a bitter joke circulating in the country for a century or more.

    The cartels many times act like a local law enforcement and municipal court. Justice is swift, brutal and serves to be a strong attraction to camepesinos who know nothing other than utterly corrupt local cops and judiciary. It is precisely this point “What favors us more, gobernacion or los sicarios?” that is going to win or lose the war against organized crime.

    The fate of La Familia, perhaps the least dangerous of all cartels to the public but most challenging to the government would serve as a good barometer to observe with regard to the paragraph above.

    [January 2010, a robber terrorizes poor families living on remote beaches in Michoacan. The cops do nothing. Two weeks later a body is found washed up on a beach with a .25 caliber pistol jammed in its mouth. In a zip-loc baggie found in a pocket, was a note “We Mean What We Say”. The press was alerted by anonymous telephone call. The marines corroborated the story]. It is this kind of brutal justice that is winning the hearts and minds of many rural campesinos. Swaying these people to turn against their new advocates is going to be a long and bitter road for Mexican gobernacion.

  11. Paul says:

    I feel pretty safe in Mexico. I did have a gun pulled on me 2 years ago when I cut someone off on a remote road accidentally. I kept my cool & defused the situation. he never actually pointed it at me, just made sure I knew he had it. I apologized profusely, we shook hands & i wen ton my way.

    I take an RV down each year. This summer 2 seniors in a Class A disappeared, their motor home found burnt out. They are believed murdered. In Mexico? No, in Alberta, Canada. In July 4 people were shot dead in a campground. In Mexico? No, in Washington State. You have to keep things in perspective.

  12. Jeff O'Brien says:

    I used to be a bit smug to folks worried about MX. I’m aware that I usually spout cliches when asked now and draw the inevitable comparisons to the US. My answers tend to be the same as they always have been – use common sense, etc. I don’t want to be naive but don’t wanna be alarmist. Lots of sh*t has hit the fan lately, so things are NOT as they have always been – anywhere. But if you factor out the narco on narco crime, the rates go into more perspective. Murder rates up in Sinaloa – does that include prison massacres etc? It’s not an easy thing to talk about in a detached way and I HATE talking safety in Mexico. I love it more than my own country.

  13. Laura Gonzàlez says:

    I`m Mexican, I grew up in NorCal but moved to Back to Mexico and I`ve been living in Guadalajara for 6 years now. The only danger I have ever experienced first hand, I was sleeping in my living room and started hearing a lot of noise, I thought it was my neighbors so I ignored it, when I finally opened my eyes there was a guy leaning down trying to disconect eather the tv or DVD player would be my guess, as soon as he saw me he ran out, right after that I called 911…yes 911, this happend to me while I still lived in NorCal, in Sunnyvale, a city which had been rated one of the top 10 safes cities in ALL the US. And like I mentioned that`s the only danger I have ever expirienced first hand, nothing has ever happend to me here in Mèxico. I wish I could say there is no danger here, how ever I can`t lie, there is danger just like there is danger anywhere. Now the drug cartel war…yeah it`s an isue and it`s bringing more attention and negative comments to Mexico, but the reality is that the problems are usually just between the cartels and now the army who is fighting them. There are places to be avoided, I don`t even think expats would even want to be in those places however, an easy tip is probably if you hear live “banda” or “norteño” music, it is more likelly that cartels will be haning out there being that that`s the music they listen too. If you can`t tell the diference between banda/norteño and mariachi look it up on youtube or ask a mexican friend. I think security issues here are the same as in any country…it`s about avoinding the “bad” parts of town…which isn`t too hard to notice.
    I love living in Mèxico and couldn`t be happier about having have moved back, I feel totally safe here and really enjoy the city life and all the touristic places my country has to offer!

  14. Jeff O'Brien says:

    I’m going back to Monterrey this winter.

  15. jeff O'Brien says:

    Here’s one for everyone – shakedowns, extortion – storefront, not cops and at the border – anyone had a firsthand experience with it? I’ve heard of it from friends of friends of friends and it’s almost an urban myth it seems, although I’m sure it’s real. just don’t know anyone, local or gringo business owner, who has first hand exp with it.

  16. El Codo says:

    It unfortunately exists in many areas and is but one of several largely unheralded evils that “Legalize Drugs And Then Everyone And Everything Will Be Wonderful” advocates do not have a clue about.

    Extortion and protection rackets are a speciality of the “zetas” and Beltran Leyva groups and offshoots. Another facet to the issue is that the gangs do not permit activity on their turf without getting a cut of the loot.

    This is classic gangsterism and you can read difinitive parallels in any well-written account of America’s experience with the birth and growth of organized crime. With the US it was alcohol, with Mexico other illegal intoxicants.

    With the US and Mexico now partnering to resolve the crisis, you can bet your bottom peso that Mexico is examining the feasibility of instituting the exact same kind of investigation and justice systems that carved the heart out of the likes of Lansky, Capone, Gambino and others.

    Read my post above about parallel justice and enforcement systems. Luckily I had eyeball to eyeball contact with a detail armed with automatic weapons who were searching for mango orchard poachers and make it a point to not harrass or prey upon civilians (La Familia), and not los zetas or golfos.

    This is in my opinion not an issue that should scare or sway people away from Mexico. The criminals do not have free run of the country despite what some reporters and columnists would have you think. Nor is Mexico a minefield where a false step could mean disaster. It means that folks should pay attention to wisdom offered in forums like this one that are penned by people who actually spend a lot of time in Mexico and take the time to learn about the realities whatever they may be.

  17. jeff O'Brien says:

    Awesome, very well put!

  18. Capt. Sloopy says:

    Well, my voyage from San Diego to PV was sadly aborted earlier this year due to serious steering difficulties north of San Quintin, Baja, and when I returned my wife started having symptoms of MS or Devic’s Syndrome. That plus a serious cervical spine operation has placed her in hospital for past 6 weeks. Plans have now changed again and it looks like we’ll sell/rent the house out, have a major sale of just about everything and head south to be near her family in Jalisco. Having said all that, plus previous note on driving down, I think we’ll drive down again and stay at motel/hotel overnight. I’m with most of those that have commented as far as being aware of surroundings, etc. As soon as she is able, we’ll be heading south to live full time. I’ve pretty well had it with the states for reasons too numerous to list here. At least there I can handle the traffic, put up with the smiling faces, the honesty of most folks (a young lady actually ran two blocks one time to return twelve pesos she had accidentally overcharged me!) and the usual courtesies shown us and know once again that in the land of manana, it’s generally within a week or two. Viva Mexico!
    Hoping to be an expat soon…
    Capt. Sloopy

  19. Jeff O'Brien says:

    Will Monterrey be the final tip in the wrong direction if it follows Reynosa, CD Juarex etc?

  20. Capt, Sloopy says:

    On extortion….yeah, it happened to me one time…or rather, I allowed it to happen to me is probably the best way to describe it.
    It happened in Tecate, between Mexicali and San Diego. I had taken the toll road from Mexicali to Tecate as I needed to get to San Diego for a very important business meeting and the back up at Mexicali was several hours. I missed the street to get in line for the border and when I inadvertently turned right to follow the traffic to the end so I could get in line, I found myself suddenly on a one-way street. I immediately pulled into a driveway, hoping to turn around and take a different route to the end of the line. As I looked down the street to be sure it was safe to drive out, I saw a car approaching me with red and blue lights flashing. Sure enough it was a local cop. He told me to follow him around the corner which I did. He asked for my license and took it back to his patrol car. There, he made it look like he was on the radio. He returned and in broken English he told me I had violated three traffic laws. Going wrong way on a one way, parking on a no parking street and turning around on a one way street. Obviously, he could take care of the fines if I was in a hurry. I thought about it for a second and said yes, I was in a hurry and how much was it. He asked how much I had! I had already secreted some money between the console and the seat and opened my wallet. I took everything out and showed him. It was about $115 USD. I offered it to him and he asked if I could get more. I said just a little bit but I’d have to be in CA to get it from the ATM as I used a small local bank. He told me not to show the money out in nthe open but put it in some paper he handed me. He took it, returned the car, pretended to be on the radio again and finally returned with my license. “You’re free to go, Senor.” he told me, smiling. That has been my one and only time I’ve been in a situation like that after more than 100 trips to MX and driving in Baja, Sonoroa, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. As I left, I felt sorry for the officer, Tecate and Mexico, in general, for being in such a state of disarray that allows this to happen. Nice young fellow but I guess with the Holidays arriving soon he needed some spending money for his family.

  21. El Codo says:

    A hundred and fifteen dollar mordida? Awwwww jeeeeez, now when I have to go through Tecate the local transitos will be sharpening their incisors getting ready to pounce.

    Copy these words “VAMANOS A LA COMMANDANCIA”

    “Let’s go to the police station”.

    “Then say SINDICATURA” This is a anti-corruption league in city and municipio governments in Baja California.

    Mexican cops will bluff — up to a point. After that point is reached, they are dancing on corruption issues that are labeled “Gran Delito”. Hard core prison time.

    I NEVER drive around with more than a couple hundred pesos in my wallet anyway.

  22. Dave Wells says:

    I spent three months in southern Mexico in spring of 2010. We used public busses, spent 6 weeks in Oaxaca and surrounding area, then to the coast for 10 days, then to Juchitan on the Isthmus, east to San Cristobal for 4 weeks, up to Tehuacan (near Puebla) to visit friends, and back to Oaxaca. We had no problems of any sort. At one point, my wife left some valuable things in a bag on a bus seat and the bus left without us (our fault.) The bus employees called ahead, and all of our things were waiting for us in a secured baggage area when we arrived a few hours later. We saw no signs of drug-related violence (not to say there isn’t any, only that it wasn’t visible to us.) I love Mexico and hope to continue visiting for many years.

  23. jeffrey O'Brien says:

    Four trips to Monterrey this last year and much the same. There is drug violence but I saw not a thing. I acted like a traveler and not a tourist so common sense goes a long ways to staying out of trouble.