I'd be lying if I said we weren't concerned about the security situation in Mexico before we left home. In the US it's hard to go two weeks without hearing a report of headless bodies hanging from freeway overpasses or newly discovered mass graves. It's news you can't ignore, and yet it's dangerously easy to sensationalize.
I did my fair share of homework before we left, until I got to the bottom line: common sense and a bit of research is all you need. We planned our route to avoid the problem areas and stuck to a few simple guidelines. And here we are 70 days after crossing the border. No problems. None. Not even a hint.
More than 150,000 U.S. citizens cross the border every day and at least one million U.S. citizens live in Mexico.1 The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that about 19 million U.S. citizens visit Mexico each year, for business and pleasure.
In 2010 a total of 22.4 million tourists visited Mexico from around the world.2 Tourism in Mexico has declined slightly the past few years, but it is difficult to say whether this is entirely a result of the increased cartel violence. The declining global economy has negatively affected tourism in almost every country.3
While concrete crime statistics are difficult to come by - and even more difficult to trust - it is widely acknowledged that the murder rate per capita in Mexico is lower than the U.S. Furthermore, almost all crime indicators in Mexico have decreased in the past twenty years.
According to the U.S. Department of State, 111 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico in 2010. Of those, more than one third occurred in the two border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.4 To put this in perspective, an average of 400 people are killed or injured by lightning every year in the U.S.5
The media, the Mexican tourism industry, and to a lesser extent the U.S. government do not provide enough perspective on which to base a decision. Everyone knows there is a problem, but finding reliable information and unbiased advice is nearly impossible. Who do you believe?
One thing is certain, to say Mexico is completely safe would be both naive and unwise. For the past seven years the Mexican government has been waging war on drug cartels. This has caused turf wars between cartels which has resulted in many civilian casualties. In some places in Mexico violence has become an everyday occurrence.
However, Mexico is a large country - as big as the entirety of western Europe. It's not accurate to say that the cartel violence is widespread. Violence in one city does not mean one should avoid travel in the entire state or country. As a reference, in response to the U.S. State Department's Travel Advisory, Travel Weekly has published a safety map of Mexico which you may find helpful. A word of caution however, the situation changes rapidly and most online resources are quickly out of date.
Ask yourself whether you would you recommend that a friend avoid going to Pennsylvania because crime in Philadelphia is high? Would you tell them to avoid coming to the U.S. because several people were murdered in Washington D.C.? This is how many Mexicans feel about the perceived problem of cartel violence in their country, especially given that there is no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted by criminal elements due to their citizenship.1
Rather than focusing on violence caused by the crackdown on drug cartels, it's much more sensible to focus on situations that are likely to cause problems for travelers. Not only does this include identifying areas in Mexico best avoided, but understanding more mundane - yet more realistic - threats that face travelers in Mexico.
The larger cities and states bordering the U.S. are the most dangerous. Crime rates in northern Mexico typically outpace the rest of the country and the cartel violence has further increased the problem. By forgoing travel to these areas, and other major cities where cartel influence is strong, you will avoid risks surrounding the cartel crackdown. However, even these places are likely to be perfectly safe if you follow some common sense guidelines.
A traveler's biggest concern in Mexico should be the lax safety standards. You are far more likely to be injured while in a vehicle or partaking in traditional tourist activities like diving, snorkeling, swimming, offroading or hiking. Road conditions are often poor, licensing standards non-existent and penalties weak and rarely enforced.
Petty crime is also a real threat in Mexico, as with any other place with a population of impoverished people. Pick pocketing, theft, vandalism and robberies do occur, although these are also mostly avoidable with a bit of common sense.
During our 70 days and 4500 miles of driving through Mexico we haven't had a single problem with crime or corruption. Quite the opposite, we've found police and military to be omnipresent and always professional and helpful. Shocking, considering that we are a carload of gringos who barely speak Spanish. It may be a bit nerve wracking to drive past make-shift bunkers and machine-gun-toting soldiers, but rest assured they are just doing their job, which does not involve harassing tourists.
Military checkpoints happen every now and then, but are not as plentiful as police checkpoints. We've probably crossed through 20 military road blocks. We were only stopped and searched twice, once in southern Baja and again entering Chiapas. They were looking for two things - guns and drugs.
The first time they checked our lockbox, fridge and poked around the back of our car. The second time the officers brought in a dog to sniff around. Both events were painless and took less than fifteen minutes of our time. The men were obviously only interested in searching for illegal weapons and drugs. No small talk, no bullshit, no bribes. These searches made us feel safer.
According to the crowd of (off-duty) police officers we found ourselves drinking with until the wee-hours a few nights ago, police corruption is still somewhat of a problem. But if you keep your head down and obey the rules there should be no cause for concern. It is illegal for a police officer to collect money, fines must be paid at a police station or by mail.
We were stopped at police checkpoints a few times, but they only ever asked where we came from and where we were headed. Most check points weren't stopping many cars and as soon as they saw our U.S. license plates they would wave us through. We've only ever heard rumors of problems with state police, although they seemed to us to be far outnumbered by federal and local cops.
Some may argue that our positive experience in Mexico was pure luck. We think that by following a few common sense guidelines and doing a little bit of research (not on FoxNews.com), we have managed to see much of what Mexico has to offer without tangling ourselves up in the country's drug cartel problems. In addition, every other traveler we have met in Mexico has reported no first-hand incidents of crime or corruption.
1US Department of State, Mexico Travel Warning, April 22, 2011 http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5440.html
2 Wikipedia, World Tourism Rankings, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Tourism_rankings
3 Jaltemba Jalapeño, Mexico Tourism Recovery Stronger Than Most, June 7, 2011http://jaltembajalapeno.com/2011/06/07/mexico-tourism-recovery-stronger-than-most/
4 US Department of State, Mexico Country Specific Information, http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html
5 National Weather Service, Medical Aspects of Lightning, http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/medical.htm