“’It’s a real shame for people to write off a whole country without looking at the map and at the statistics.’ Without a solid understanding of the geography (761,606 square miles) and the nature of the drug wars (internecine fighting), many foreigners assume that all of Mexico is a war zone. But it isn’t…”
“Of 2,500 municipalities (what we call counties), only 80, or fewer than 5 percent, have been affected by the drug war, which accounts for only 3 percent of all crime. Mexican cities are also safer than some urban centers north of the border: Mexico City, for example, has 8.3 homicides a year per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than Miami (14.1) and Chicago (16.1).”
Mexico: A guide to which parts are safe to travel to, and which are dangerous
By Andrea Sachs, Published: December 16, 2011
Pack your precautions for some areas that have improved substantially but still present slight risks.
Border town Tijuana has always worn a badge of dissolution, thanks to a spinning turnstile of partiers, drug suppliers and underworld denizens. But the government’s recent crackdown on the cartels has helped clean up the place.
“Tijuana is perfectly fine,” says Lopez-Negrete. “It has gone through a major renovation and transformation.”
Security experts agree on the metamorphosis but place an asterisk beside the town’s name. “It’s not as much of a concern,” says Weisz, “but that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be considered safe.”
As safeguards, avoid low-end bars and drink or eat only items that have been prepared in front of you. Also, travel during the day and plan your modes of transportation in advance.
Mexico City is a beast of a different nature. The capital city of 20 million people isn’t pocked with drug-related skirmishes, but it does suffer from endemic street crime. Pickpocketing, shake-downs and kidnappings are common occurrences.
“It is a challenge by sheer size,” Tarrago says. “There are no drug cartels, but it does have organized crime.”
Tarrago reminds visitors to hire cabs only from authorized taxi stands and hotels, to keep valuables well hidden and to avoid unfamiliar places at night. “Know where you’re going and be aware of your surroundings,” says the Mexican native, recommending the upscale areas of Polanco and Las Lomas.
Although Guadalajara is unraveling and has experienced drug cartel-related activity, the violence hasn’t spilled over to Lake Chapala, less than 30 miles southeast. Ringed by small communities, the country’s largest freshwater lake draws retired North American expats and migratory birds to its shores.
“The security situation is kind of fluid,” says Tarrago, “but it’s not really affecting normal travelers.” That includes the American white pelican.
Don’t visit unless you’re a commando
Drug cartels don’t target tourists; the battle is cartel vs. cartel and cartel vs. government. Yet sometimes innocent folks find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The best way to avoid this unfortunate situation is to not go there.
So where aren’t you going? The towns along the border with the United States and along the Rio Grande, a line more than 1,200 miles long. One of the worst is Ciudad Juarez, where the current murder toll of six or seven a day is considered an improvement, according to Walter McKay, a Canadian expat who maps the narco-murders and posts the results on his Web site, Policereform.org.
While you’re crossing off names, draw a black mark through the entire state of Chihuahua, which accounts for 14 percent of the killings nationwide.
“It has the most violence in the whole country,” says Tarrago, who also warns against Copper Canyon, a natural wonder that is larger than the Grand Canyon and is reached by high-altitude train. “It’s remote,” he said. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to go there at this time.”
On the west coast, red flags wave in the northern areas of Baja California. Despite increased security — “They are better than they were before,” says Tarrago — travelers may come across military checkpoints and potentially sticky situations.
“You have to drive through dangerous areas to get to low-risk ones,” says Weisz. “You’re putting yourself at the mercy of those risks.” The solution: Fly south to Cabo.
Southeast of Baja, Guadalajara hosted the Pan American Games in October without incident. Seems safe, right? But no. A month later, 26 bodies were discovered on a road not far from the Millennium Arches, an iconic downtown structure.
“About 80 percent of Guadalajara is safe,” said McKay, “but how would you know which part of the city to avoid?” An easy solution: Avoid it all.
Some areas are an easy call, such as destinations along the northbound drug routes and near ports, such as Veracruz (city and state), Monterrey and the resort town of Mazatlan.
But one destination now considered dangerous is tougher to fathom. In its heyday, Acapulco was the glittery playground of jetsetters and such silver screen royalty as Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. It later morphed into a spring break haunt. Now, its beaches are empty, its resorts devoid of guests — a casualty of heavy cartel violence. (To make matters worse, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck on Dec. 10.)
“Acapulco used to be a beautiful place to go to,” says McKay, “but you don’t go there anymore.”
The State Department advises Americans to “exercise extreme caution when visiting downtown Acapulco,” but thoughtfully provides an alternative: Diamante, a few miles south of downtown. That tourist area’s major selling point: “It has not been affected by the increasing violence” in Acapulco — a paradise lost, at least for now.