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Murder in Mexico: What's the Danger to an American Tourist?

7 MINS READFeb 19, 2019 | 06:30 GMT
Mexican marines patrol the beach of Playacar, near the seaside tourist resort of Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo State, on Feb. 14, 2019.

Mexican marines patrol the beach of Playacar, near the seaside tourist resort of Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo State, on Feb. 14. Common sense and proper situational awareness will keep most American tourists safe when they venture to Mexico over spring break.

(DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Mexico broke its record for homicides last year, and the dynamics that are driving that violence are unlikely to abate in the near future. 
  • At the same time, record numbers of U.S. citizens are either visiting Mexico as tourists or residing in the country, yet the number of Americans murdered in Mexico remains remarkably low. 
  • Still, violent crime remains a problem in Mexico, and visitors and residents should take measures to mitigate the risk. 

With spring break right around the corner, our Threat Lens team is once again in demand, as clients — along with a wide array of friends and family — are all wondering about the safety of a Mexican getaway for some spring sun. Of course, the concern is understandable. As our 2019 Mexico cartel forecast reported, murders in the country hit their highest rate ever last year and, worryingly, there's nothing to suggest that this year will be any different.

The Big Picture

Geography, economics and history have resulted in the United States and Mexico becoming tightly intertwined, with Mexico's manufactured goods benefiting the U.S. market and U.S. tourists helping Mexico's economy. Mexico's proximity to the United States, however, has also spawned powerful and deadly crime south of the Rio Grande — some of which can ensnare Americans.

Mexico's climbing murder rate has yet to deter American tourists from visiting their southern neighbor. Last year's U.S. tourist figures are not yet available, but it's safe to assume that the tally will come in higher than the 35 million that visited the country in 2017. The U.S. Department of State has issued warnings advising against travel to five Mexican states: Colima, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Guerrero — the last of which is home to the resort city of Acapulco. Despite this, the resorts of Cancun, Cozumel and Cabo San Lucas are already full of American tourists in 2019, and I expect they will be near capacity over spring break.

Someone recently reached out to me on Twitter, saying they had stopped visiting Mexico after becoming a Stratfor subscriber. Now, that's certainly not our intent in writing on this topic; after all, we prefer to take a "go, but" approach to travel security rather than definitely tell anyone not to go. It's the same story for Mexico, which is a great country to visit with incredible things to see and do. But, like anywhere else, there are risks, many of which can be avoided or mitigated. For the moment, though, let's take a closer look at the confluence of Mexico's growing murder rate and the rising number of American tourists choosing to visit the country. Because, ultimately, the threat may not be as great as feared.  

American Deaths in Mexico

Between June 2017 and June 2018, 238 Americans died in Mexico, amounting to 29 percent of all U.S. citizens who perished overseas during the period, according to the U.S. Department of State. But in terms of homicide, Mexico looms much larger in the figures: Of the 152 who were murdered overseas during the 12 months in question, exactly half died in Mexico. Naturally, however, the question of scale is paramount in interpreting the figures. The 35 million U.S. tourists who visit Mexico dwarf the number of their compatriots (1.5 million) who go to nearby destinations such as Jamaica. And while just six Americans fell victim to homicide in the latter, the murder rate for U.S. citizens is, per capita, higher on the Caribbean island than it is in Mexico.

To put things further into perspective, Chicago has a population of 2.7 million — about the same as the number of Americans that live in Mexico (to say nothing of the 35 million that visited last year). Last year, however, 561 people died in homicides in the Windy City, more than seven times the number of Americans who were murdered in Mexico.

A graph showing the cause of deaths for Americans in Mexico from June 2017 to June 2018.

In the end, the 76 American homicide victims are a drop in the bucket in terms of Mexico's overall total: 33,341. Moreover, a good portion of those murders occurred in border cities in which there are active cartel wars, such as Tijuana, Juarez and Reynosa. In contrast, just four occurred in tourist hotspots like Cancun, La Paz in Baja California Sur and Puerto Penasco in Sonora. Furthermore, many of the Americans murdered in places like Tijuana and Juarez were dual citizens or residents of Mexico who were involved in criminal activity — that isn't intended to minimize their deaths, but merely indicates that such murders have almost no bearing on the American tourists who visit Mexican resorts. And even in states with significant resorts in which the murder rate has increased, such as Quintana Roo (which is home to Cancun), the number of American tourists killed there remains quite small. Violence in Cancun, for example, is quite common — an attack on a bar there on Feb. 16 killed five people — but most of the violence occurs far from the tourist zones along the beach. Ultimately, Mexico's murder rate may have risen to about 27 per 100,000, but its homicide rate is still only about half that of Honduras or El Salvador.

Avoiding the Danger

That notwithstanding, Mexico patently does have a serious problem with violent crime, as evidenced by the many cartels that are fighting each other for control of the country's lucrative drug production areas, trafficking corridors and domestic narcotics sales. And then there are ancillary, violent criminal activities, such as fuel theft, cargo theft, kidnapping and human trafficking. Cartel members also tend to wield military-grade weapons, which they do not hesitate to use on rival gangs or security forces, often resulting in collateral damage.

Violence in Cancun is quite common — an attack on a bar there on Feb. 16 killed five people — but most of the violence occurs far from the tourist zones along the beach.

Because of this, the best way to avoid falling prey to criminal violence is to avoid places in which it is most likely to occur, such as strip bars and seedy clubs in which drug-selling occurs. Moreover, many foreign victims of crime in Mexico were drinking to excess, using drugs or staying out late at night. We recommend that tourists visiting Mexico stay at their hotel or resort grounds after dark and avoid drinking to excess or using drugs. In some of the drinking-related incidents, assailants spiked beverages with incapacitants such as GHB, Rohypnol or fentanyl, so we recommend you not accept drinks from unknown people or leave your drink unattended. What's more, it's a good idea to avoid going onto the beach after dark.

And speaking of the dark, avoid driving at night, even on the highways. That means that if you're flying into Mexico, schedule your flights to arrive during the day and use pre-arranged transportation to get to your hotel or resort, as Mexican taxis, particularly the illegal ones, can sometimes be used for express kidnappings and sexual assaults.

Before you go, minimize what you take with you on your trip, so that you can reduce your losses if you are robbed and lessen your temptation to resist an armed criminal. And if, despite all your precautions, armed robbers do confront you, do as they say, for they will not hesitate to use gratuitous violence if you fail to comply. In the end, your watch or your wallet is simply not worth your life. 

As the old adage goes, you're more likely to die or suffer injury in a traffic accident (or fire or other accident) than you are to suffer harm at the hands of a criminal. That's why it's critical to pack a stop-the-bleed kit and other first aid equipment, a good-quality flashlight and smoke hoods, as these items can literally be lifesavers. For the rest of the time, exercise proper situational awareness and common-sense security and you're unlikely to encounter many problems on your trip south.

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