In the past six years, Mexico’s drug cartel wars have left nearly 50,000 people dead. In 2011 alone, 12,180 people were murdered. The killings aren’t always quick or painless either, and plenty of uninvolved bystanders have been caught in the crossfire, or, cross-beheadings, as the case may be. Yet, Mexico still poses as a desirable travel destination for many. Is there a way to travel safely to a land now known for its extreme violence – and is it worth the risk?
Maybe some recent stories can help answer that question.
Recently, twelve individuals – ten suspected gang members and two soldiers – were killed in a gunfight in Sinaloa, Mexico’s hardest-hit location during the six-year-long drug war. On April 29th, a known correspondent covering the narco wars for Mexican news magazine, Proceso, was found dead in her home in Veracruz, and, as expected, authorities believe she was murdered. It has gotten so bad that Mexico’s ex-president Vicente Fox labels the international war on drugs “useless” and an “absolute failure,” reports the LA Times.
But what does this have to do with tourism? A worthy question considering that for years Mexico’s tourist industry has weathered the storm while violence raged in the streets. But in 2011, leading tour operators and resorts reported a rapidly declining rate of visitors. Cruise ships have even canceled services to Mazatlán, a place previously known as the top of the resort hubs, but has since become the site of a turf war between drug cartels.
It’s hard for us travelers to ignore the frequent headlines of gruesome beheadings, dismemberment and the finding of open, sometimes mass, graves. But the Mexico Tourism Board is doing it’s best to cast a new light on travel in the country. By launching a new advertising campaign called the Mexico Taxi Project, they’re seeking to change perception on current conditions. The commercials are filmed via a hidden camera in a taxicab in which drivers ask visitors about their time spent in Mexico. Inevitably the tourists report the most fabulous times and a sincere desire to not return home, but instead extend the vacay or come back as soon as possible. The commercials are believable. They look like real people doing their traveling thing, but it makes you wonder about those who respond negatively. After all, it’s not just the cartels you have to be wary of. According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, police officers are increasingly being arrested for and accused of crimes including bodily injury, abuse of authority, extortion, and crimes against health. A recent Gadling article highlighted that even in the wake of magnitude 6.5 earthquake, crime has blocked efforts to create an app that would help predict future earthquakes and that Mexico’s “seismologists have been beaten up and threatened by armed assailants on the highways.”
For as bad as all this sounds, there are still places arguably safer in Mexico than here in the states. Gadling’s travel writer Dave Seminara, a frequent visitor of Puerto Vallarta, notes that of the city’s 255,725 population, there were 56 homicides in 2011, a rate which is rivaled by U.S. cities Miami, Cleveland, Oakland, St. Louis, New Orleans, Orlando, Las Vegas and Buffalo – places millions of people travel to each year.
So, is it reasonable to avoid an entire country because of homicide rates largely unrelated to tourism? In the end, it’s up to you. But if you like your head where it is (attached to your body), keep your wits about you and avoid the hot spots for drug war violence, sip that margarita on the white sand beach and hope for the best.
By Bryan Schatz