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A Realistic Look at the Dangers of Traveling in Mexico

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On February 8th the US Department of State intensified its travel warning for Mexico to include 14 of the country’s 31 states. This is up from the April 2011 warning that only advised against traveling in two states and parts of eight others. This recent communique from the state department slaps advisories all over the map of Mexico, but also clearly OKs some regions for travel while making pains to proclaim that even within states where they recommend people to “defer non-essential travel” that the tourist hot spots are generally safe.

The US Department of State seems to recognize the adverse impacts their warnings have on the economic stability of Mexico — which has an incredibly huge tourism industry — and in the midst of talking about homicides, gun battles, kidnappings, carjackings, and highway robberies, they seem proud when they say that many parts of the country are still safe to visit. But when I put the data from this recent travel advisory down on a map, the country became a bloodbath of advisories.

Mexico travel warnings by state, February 2012

The editors of VagabondJourney.com as well as a few of our correspondents have spent many months/ years traveling and living all through Mexico. This country has always seemed pretty safe to us, but we want to know, statistically speaking, how dangerous is Mexico, really.

How dangerous is it to travel in Mexico?

As just about anyone who has traveled in Mexico recently can pretty much attest, what you will probably experience here is a far cry from what is reported on the news, that this country is no more dangerous than any of its southern neighbors, and often feels far safer. In point, by Latin American standards, most of Mexico seems pretty secure. Talking about how dangerous Mexico is in San Cristobal de las Casas will get you laughed out of the room, as any sign of danger (or story of such) seems to have been checked at the outskirts of this city — and the same goes for most other municipalities across the country.

“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day,” runs the new US travel advisory to Mexico.

But “Mexico is dangerous” is a phrase that is often spoken with ease from abroad, and the adverse impact of this feeling on tourism is evident. Just because 50,000 people have been killed in narco related violence in recent years does not necessarily mean that there is a huge risk posed to tourists — and the stats back this claim up, as is shown below. In point, Mexico is a very large country, there is a lot of elbow room here — 761,606 square miles of it, in fact.

Only a handful of places in Mexico have known the drug/ gang war directly to any large extend. The news headlines of beheadings, murders, and kidnappings seem a world away from anywhere I’ve been during my combined 10 months of travel in this country over three visits. The horror that is published in the international and domestic press about Mexico stands in stark contrast to what I have ever observed or experienced.

It is truly surreal to sit in Mexico and read the daily news reports of mass graves, decapitations, and gun battles and compare it against the peaceful scenes which consistently surround you. There is no fear in most of Mexico, and many of the people outside of hot spots seem to respond to the waves of violence as someone in Indiana would to the gang crime of LA. Mexico is clearly a country that is large enough to contain different worlds, and these worlds seem relatively isolated from each other.

The statistical risk of traveling in Mexico

120 Americans were killed in Mexico last year. 33 were in Tiajuana, many were directly involved in the drug trade, a handful were government employees, a bunch were people who put themselves in compromising/ illegal circumstances, while others were just plain old expats and tourists. An individual’s behavior often creates a much bigger gulf between danger and safety than the place in which they operate, and the same can be said for Mexico. Many foreigners come to Mexico for tequila, sexo, marijuana, and it is my impression that these activities increase your risk of danger by 100 fold anywhere in the world.

Nobody knows how many Americans live in Mexico — estimates range from 600,000 to well over a million — and, according to the US State Department’s Office of American Citizens Services, roughly five million Americans visited the country last year. To use a very conservative estimate of these numbers, lets say that 5.5 million Americans were in Mexico at some point last year. Using these numbers, the murder rate of Americans in Mexico last year was 2.18 out of 100,000.

The official murder rate of the United States for 2011 was 4.8 out of 100,000.

The probability of an American being murdered in Mexico while living as an expat or visiting as a tourist is less than half the probability of being murdered during a one year stay in the USA. Statistically speaking, if you feel safe living in the USA for a year you should feel pretty safe visiting Mexico.

As was printed in a Washington Post article:

Of 2,500 [Mexican] 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). On a global scale, Mexico is safer than many of its neighbors. In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported Mexico’s homicide rate as 11.6 per 100,000, significantly lower than Honduras (60.9), Jamaica (59.5) or El Salvador (51.8).

2011 homicide rates for Latin America per 100,000 people:

Honduras: 86
El Salvador: 71
Venezuela: 67
Colombia: 33
Brazil: 25
Dominican Republic: 25
Panama: 20
Ecuador: 18
Mexico: 18
Nicaragua: 13
Paraguay: 12
Costa Rica: 11
Bolivia: 8.9

Global average: 7.6

(Source: List of intentional homicide rates by country.)

What these statistics do not show is the a discrepancy between people who were killed while involved in illegal or compromising activities and those who were otherwise innocent victims. If you keep your nose clean in any country by not getting involved in drugs, prostitution, excessive drinking in shady bars, politics, religion, government, or journalism — if you are just a run of the mill traveler digging the scene around you — the probability of being murdered will generally be far less than any national average.

Of the various top ten dangerous country/ highest homicide % per capita lists that are published each year, Latin American countries generally take up at least half of the available slots. More often than not, Mexico is not among them. It is my impression that Latin America is the most dangerous region of the planet for travel, but, even still, the individual risk a responsible traveler faces here is generally not very high. The statistical gap between a safe country and a dangerous one is often just a few ticks of percentage points. When it comes down to it, the probability of being killed in a dangerous country is not much higher than one that is perceived to be safe: you can get a knife in your back on any street on earth. Nowhere in the world is safe.

That said, there is perhaps no greater risk when traveling than feeling safe. When you know you’re taking a risk your wits are keen and your senses are sharp. The moment you feel as if nothing could happen to you is often when you allow pernicious influences into your sphere unchecked. One of the greatest dangers of traveling in Mexico is that it often gives visitors the impression of all out safety and coaxes them to drop their guard. Upon arrival here it is all too easy for travelers to look around at all the other tourists, see few to no signs of danger, and then simply chalk all the travel warnings and news reports up to fear mongering, chuck them by the wayside, and jump to the opposite extreme, get real loose, and open themselves up to unnecessary risks.

“I’ve really let my guard down here,” an American friend in San Cristobal de las Casas said to me once, “everything just seems so safe that I don’t even think otherwise.”

A realistic impression of the risks inherent to each situation you enter into is a prime factor in being able to mitigate danger and travel through to the other side. I do not read travel warnings to scare myself into avoiding certain places, I read them to ensure that I always stay alert — everywhere. Often, these travel warnings contain generous amounts of wolf crying which must be mitigated against first hand sources to get an accurate picture of what you’ll be facing when traveling.

Measuring and mitigating risks and adapting to them is a necessary travel strategy, but checking off an entire country as dangerous is fear mongering. Mexico still stands as one of 30 countries on the US Department of State’s travel warning list. It’s placed next to Iraq, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Libya, Somalia etc . . . On the whole, Mexico is not a safe country, but it is also not nearly as dangerous as it is made out to be for the average foreigner. For the traveler who avoids gangland hot spots, the police, minds their own business, and does not engaging in compromising or illegal activities, Mexico can be traveled just as safe as almost anywhere else in the world.

Mexican states with US travel advisories

Baja California (north)
Chihuahua
Coahuila
Durango
Nuevo Leon
San Luis Potosi
Sinaloa
Sonora
Tamaulipas
Zacatecas
Aguascalientes
Guerrero
Michoacán
Nayarit

List of current US Department of State Travel Warnings.

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Filed under: Adventure, Danger, Mexico

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap