Mexico is an exotic enticement with roundtrip airfare starting at $200 and all-inclusive resorts tempting travelers with photos of turquoise blue waters, sandy beaches, palm trees, and sunsets. “Cerveza, por favor!” At first glance, it appears to be the dream vacation for spring break, especially for people with a bad case of the winter blues.
State Department warns
The State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico advising U.S. citizens to carefully consider whether they should travel to Mexico at all. As of December 8, 2016, the warning states in part, “U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various Mexican states.”
The news is buzzing with information about Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s extradition to Chicago, Illinois in January 2017. According to the Chicago Tribune, El Chapo is accused of running “a three-decade campaign of smuggling, brutality, and corruption making a fortune of least $14 billion in assets.” El Chapo is pleading, “Not Guilty.” Mexican drug cartels are entrenched in a ten-year war. Homicides by drug cartels are at an all-time high and rising.
How seriously do Americans take the State Department’s warning? Apparently not very much. Said BJ, who remains anonymous, “It’s a warning like a stop sign. You can choose to run the stop sign or not. It’s a question of whether or not you get caught or have bad timing.” Another traveler remarked, “Well, I am going to Puerto Vallarta, I’m not anywhere near the Mexican states of Chihuahua or Juarez.” And another said, “El Chapo operated out of Chicago. Chicago has a high crime rate. I still go to Chicago.”
How serious can it be? The University of San Diego, Department of Political Science & International Relations published the Justice in Mexico Report in 2016. “Violence is lower in Mexico than elsewhere in the Americas, but average for the region.” The homicide rate increased 2.5 times from the previous five years.
Most North American travelers believe it’s safe to go to Mexico as long as you just stay at the resort. In the past few months, raging violence caused carnage in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. For the record, Puerto Vallarta is 1,675.5 km from Ciudad Juarez, where El Chapo operated. It’s a fair distance away.
The United States is about five times as big as Mexico. By comparison, Texas is about one-third as large as Mexico. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, Homicide Mortality by State: 2014 Report puts things in perspective: Texas had 1,389 homicides in 2014. Austin is the capital of Texas with a population of 900,700 in 2015 with 215.9 violent crimes according to City-Data.
State Department’s warning on Mexico reports:
“Gun battles between rival criminal organizations or with Mexican authorities have taken place on streets and in public places during broad daylight. The Mexican government dedicates substantial resources to protect visitors to major tourist destinations and has engaged in an extensive effort to counter criminal organizations that engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico. There is no evidence that criminal organizations have targeted U.S. citizens based on their nationality. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico do not see the level of drug-related violence and crime that are reported in the border region or areas along major trafficking routes.
U.S. government personnel are prohibited from patronizing casinos, sportsbooks, or other gambling establishments in the states of Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosí, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit.”
Using State Department citations and local news, here is a compilation of homicides and crime by region:
Aguascalientes, located in central Mexico, is reported “unsafe for intercity travel at night. United States citizens should exercise caution.”
Business Insider Military and Defense uses the words ‘only’ and ‘just’ to describe more than thirty deaths, “Aguascalientes in north-central Mexico.
Baja California, located in the northwest corner of Mexico, experiences a high rate of homicides, with an increase in homicides between January to July 2016 compared to the same period last year. Travelers are encouraged to be cautious, especially at night. Most of these homicides seem to be organized hits on targets by criminal organizations, but bystanders sometimes get caught in the crossfire of turf battles, including visiting United States citizens.
San Diego Union-Tribune reported, “With 636 killings in Tijuana through the end of September 2016 is shaping up to be the most violent year since 2010, and 89 homicides made it the deadliest so far
Baja California Sur
Baja California Sur, a little south of Mexico’s northwest corner, also experiences a high rate of homicides. The center of the violent activity seems to be the state capital of La Paz. Consider your travel plans carefully and exercise extreme caution if you have to visit La Paz. Ongoing acts of violence between rival criminal organizations have been known to occur.
Insight Crime published a heady article about the Jalisco Cartel making a violent push for Baja Sur, gunning down 15 officers, “Jalisco is the up-and-coming group that burst onto the national scene when its members killed 15 police officers [in April 2015.]” Also in the article, “Baja California Sur witnessed 232 homicides between February 2014 and February 2016, an 80 percent increase from the 129 murders registered during the two previous years. The state capital, La Paz, has become the 15th most violent city in the country.”
The Mexico warning specifically said no advisory for Campeche is in effect; however, a quick search for the OSAC (Overseas Security Advisory Council) Crime and Safety Report for Mexico revealed a medium threat:
“While the three states in the Peninsula (Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán) have not suffered the same level of escalating violence seen in other parts of Mexico, 2015 saw a significant increase in violent criminal activity in Quintana Roo, specifically in the non-tourist areas in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
“From 2014-2015, the state of Quintana Roo saw a 40 percent increase in homicides and a 43 percent increase in violent robberies. Additionally, Quintana Roo ranks 5th nationally in reported cases of extortion. * (Source: Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública). A recent study conducted by the Autonomous University of Monterrey ranks Cancun as the Mexican city with the highest levels of human trafficking activity for the purpose of sexual exploitation.”
The Yucatan Times reported in an article – Despite ‘safest state’ ranking, Campeche murder prompts calls for heightened security. (Profanity warning inside the article.) The article ends, “So far in the six-year term of Moreno Cardenas (Campeche’s governor), which began last September, there are already several high-impact crimes that have occurred in the state. Most are unresolved.”
The State Department has no advisory currently in effect for Chiapas. Chiapas is located in Mexico’s southeast-south central region. Even so, Mayor Domingo López González of San Juan Chamula and three associates were gunned down last summer during a protest over public resources.
Criminal activity and violence continue to be ongoing concerns for Chihuahua, located in the north-central region of Mexico. These problems are particularly severe in the major cities. Travelers going between cities are advised to use only major highways and to only travel during the day. There are several areas of Chihuahua where United States citizens are advised to avoid travel: Ciudad Juarez, within the city of Chihuahua, Palomas and the Nuevo Casas Grandes/Paquimé region, Ojinaga and Copper Canyon.
Business Insider reported in 2015, four states in Mexico had over 1,000 homicides — Chihuahua, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Mexico state.
Coahuila, in Mexico’s northeast corner, suffers from a variety of criminal activities. These include homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion and sexual assault. These are especially concerns along the highways between Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo. There is a huge hindrance to law enforcement activities in Coahuila, especially in the north of the state. U.S. citizens are asked to defer travel to all parts of Coahuila except Saltillo, Bosques de Monterreal, and Parras de la Fuente, all in the southeast portion of the state.
OSAC 2016 Crime and Safety reports, “Due to drug-related violence associated with Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO), U.S. government personnel are not permitted to drive between Monterey and the U.S. border. U.S. government personnel in Monterrey may travel by land to the states of San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and Durango, utilizing toll roads and may overnight in their capitals. Travel is permitted within the state of Nuevo Leon via toll roads. Travel to Coahuila must be done in an armored vehicle, and overnight lodging is restricted. U.S. government personnel must remain in San Pedro Garza Garcia from 0100-0600 (0500 if traveling to the airport).”
U.S. citizens are asked to defer all travel to Colima, which is located along the southwest border of Mexico. United States government personnel are even restricted from traveling between cities at night, and traveling within 12 miles of the Colima-Michoacan border.
Durango is located in central Mexico. There are travel warnings active for violence and crime along Durango’s highways. An active warning exists for U.S. government personnel not to travel outside of the city of Durango at night.
Estado de Mexico
Estado de Mexico is located in south-central Mexico. The U.S. DOS recommends United States citizens defer travel to the municipalities of Coacalco, Ecatepec, Nezahualcóyotl, La Paz, Valle de Chalco, Solidaridad, Chalco, Ixtapaluca, and Tlatlaya. There are high rates of crime outside of these regions’ major thoroughfares. If you have to travel in Estado de Mexico, stick to populated areas and stay in a secure place at night.
There is no State Department advisory in effect for Guanajuato. Guanajuato is located in central Mexico. Mexico News Daily reports, “Comparative figures to the end of July indicate intentional homicides were up 13% during the first seven months of 2016 compared to the same period last year, rising from 470 to 532. In the last three months alone [June to August 2016], Guanajuato has registered 354 of the 652 crimes on record in the first eight months of the year.”
The entire state of Guerrero is off-limits to U.S. government personnel except for the tourist areas of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. Guerrero was named the most violent state in Mexico in 2015, for the third year in a row. Self-defense groups in Guerrero operate independently of the government, often armed and installed at road blocks.
There is no State Department advisory in effect for Hidalgo. Hidalgo is located in east-central Mexico.
Areas outside the tourist track are at risk in Oaxaca, located at the southern tip of Mexico. United States government personnel are not allowed to use public transportation. They’re also not permitted to travel to the El Istmo region. Eight people were killed in a long protest by teachers over proposed educational reform in the summer of 2016.
Jalisco, in Mexico’s southeast, is suffering from instability. U.S. citizens are asked to defer all nonessential travel to the area. The Zacatecas border, intercity travel at night on Highway 80, is especially risky.
“U.S. government personnel may travel to Mexico City on federal toll road 15D, but are forbidden from stopping in the towns of La Barca or Ocotlan.”
Fighting between the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels is getting worse. Business Insider reports, “In mid-June (2016), 150 armed men descended on a small community called La Tuna in the central highlands of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, looting homes and leaving multiple people dead.”
U.S. citizens should defer travel to Michoacan – located on the southwest border of Mexico – unless it’s to Morelia, Lazaro Cardenas or the area north of federal toll road 15D. Travelers should exercise caution and avoid traveling between cities at night.
United States citizens going to Morelos in south-central Mexico should avoid visiting Huitzilac in the northwest corner of the state and Santa Marta, Estado de Mexico, including the Lagunas de Zempoala National Park and surrounding areas. These areas are considered dangerous.
The New York Times article, Why Cartels Are Killing Mexico’s Mayors is an eye-opener. In it, the Mayor of Morelos, Graco Ramirez, revealed that Los Rojo’s cartel had threatened 13 more Morelos mayors. She said, “They are using murder as a somber warning.”
United States citizens are advised to defer travel to Nayarit, on Mexico’s eastern border. Intercity travel at night and travel outside of the major highways is especially dangerous.
Nuevo Leon, on Mexico’s eastern border, includes some travel restrictions for United States government personnel. They may travel outside of Monterrey only during daylight hours and maintain a strict curfew.
There is no State Department advisory in effect for Puebla. Puebla is located in southern Mexico. A journalist was reportedly killed by organized crime in February of 2016.
San Luis Potosi
Non-essential travel to San Luis Potosi, in central Mexico, is discouraged. United States government personnel are asked not to travel outside the city of Zacatecas at night. In May 2016, highway kidnappings in northern Mexico prompted calls for U.S. review of security.
Sinaloa, on Mexico’s western border, is home to some of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations. Violent crime rates are high in many parts of the state. Non-essential travel is not advised, except to areas within the cities of Mazatlan, Los Mochis, and the Port of Topolobampo.
The Most Brutal Murders Linked to El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel – WARNING – GRAPHIC!
Sonora in north-central Mexico has been identified as a key region to the international drug and human trafficking trades. Travelers should avoid nighttime travel and use inter-city toll highways. Police corruption and police involvement in criminal activity are common. The army operates checkpoints along key highway routes, including Highway 15 in Sonora and Sinaloa.
There is State nor Department advisory in effect for Queretaro. Queretaro is located in central Mexico.
Quintana Roo is located in the eastern horn of Mexico. Travelers should be careful while they visit the areas south of Felipe Carrillo Puerto or east of Jose Maria Morelos. Cellular reception and the internet are virtually nonexistent in these areas, which would make it difficult to get in touch with emergency services.
Playa del Carmen is a popular tourist attraction. A gunman opened fire early killing and injuring several people, at the Blue Parrot Nightclub in January 2017.
There is no State Department advisory in effect for Tabasco, located in the southeast of Mexico. The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) continues to fight against both Los Zetas and Gulf cartel factions in Veracruz, Tabasco and Guanajuato states.
Tamaulipas is a prime location on the Gulf of Mexico. However, U.S. citizens are advised not to travel there. The rate of kidnappings is among the highest in the country, along with high rates of homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, extortion and sexual assault. An article forewarns, “Triple Murder of American Siblings in Mexico Highlights Unrelenting Drug War.”
Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Yucatán
There is no State Department advisory in effect for these Mexican states. Tlaxcala is located in south-central Mexico. It has been called a human trafficking capital.
Veracruz is located on Mexico’s eastern border. Vice News says, “Veracruz has transformed into one of the most dangerous and opaque states in Mexico, with hundreds of unsolved disappearances, rampant extortion, frequent kidnappings, and no fewer than 14 journalists killed in the past five years.”
Yucatan is located on the very tip of Mexico’s southern horn. It harbors the popular tourist destinations Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Tulum. Thump reports, “Pressure from cartels to allow drug sales at events is a something of an open secret among nightlife organizers in Mexico. A promoter from the Yucatan Peninsula told Reuters this week he had let armed men enter one of his events recently to sell drugs to maintain the peace.” Reuters reports, “At least five people, including foreigners, were killed and 15 were wounded early on Monday (January 2017), when a gunman opened fire at a nightclub in Mexico’s Playa del Carmen resort during the BPM electronic music festival.”
Non-essential travel to Zacatecas, in central Mexico, is discouraged. United States government personnel are asked not to travel outside the city of Zacatecas at night.
Borderland Beat reports, “The Cartel Del Noroeste (CDN) confirms the war that had been launched previously by their opponents, the Gulf Cartel (CDG), had finalized and warned that they will recover municipalities in Zacatecas.” (Caution profanity in the report.)
WARNING – Danger, perhaps you should heed it
A retired U.S. Department of State security specialist once told Depart Smart, “There are two types of travelers. Those that don’t know, and those that think they do.” Travel like it’s your first time and keep your alert on high.
Crime happens in America, too. Those criminals are brought to justice. It’s a whole different world of hurt when crime or homicide happens to you or someone you love in a third world country where cartels control the majority of Mexican states.
Thousands of U.S. citizens visit Mexico every year and enjoy the hospitality of the Mexican people. Here’s some weighty advice:
Do your homework. Search local news for crime reports. Download the Depart Smart travel safety checklist. It’s free. Then please, follow it. Safety is not an accident. It takes research, planning, preparations, and experience.
Seriously read US DOS Travel Warnings
These warnings are your tax dollars at work. You can find them at travel.state.gov. Register your trip with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov. Your emergency contacts can also register to follow alerts and warnings while you are away. Your U.S. Consulate cannot forewarn or assist you if they do not know where you are.
Use Google My Maps to drop pins on important locations like the U.S. Embassy, airport, private hospital, hotel, etc. Mark dangerous areas to avoid. Share this map with your emergency contacts.
Know your embassy
When you read country-specific safety information by the State Department, you will also find valuable information on how to reach the United States embassy by telephone, email or in person. If a given situation makes visiting the embassy risky, your consulate will let you know. Country-specific info also lets you know about healthcare. In Mexico, you may have to prepay for services, and it may be preferred to use a private versus a public facility.
Get travel medical insurance
If there’s an emergency and you have to evacuate the country or receive major medical attention, you can save yourself and your family heartache and potentially tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A reputable travel medical and evacuation insurance company will also have a 24×7 hotline, concierge and translation service. Travel insurance should cost about 4-8% of your trip.
Prepare your emergency contacts
Your emergency contacts and you should have a communications plan that includes seeing your face real time. Do they have passports good for six months beyond your return? Or, your itinerary and personal health information? What about power of attorney? It’s a good idea to ask them who would watch the house, pets or kids if they need to help you bedside in another country. Does your emergency contact also have support?
Keep your personal health record current
A personal health record is an online list of your recent surgeries, any allergies you might have, your medications and any other relevant medical information a care provider would need to know to make a quick decision about your care. It should be stored securely and electronically. Your emergency contacts should have a copy. The most important information on your personal health record should be translated into the local language.
Avoid political gatherings
Protests and demonstrations can turn violent quickly. It’s best to avoid them. While you’re visiting Mexico, steer clear of these gatherings and be aware of any roadblocks they may cause. Stay in touch with your local United States Embassy or Consulate for news updates.
Regularly check your credit/debit accounts
While you’re traveling in Mexico, you may be vulnerable to skimming scams or identity theft. Keep a close eye on your credit cards, never leave them with a waiter or cashier. Alert your credit card company that you are traveling out of town. Some credit card companies will insure your purchases, like your trip; it’s worth it to inquire. You may want to up your credit limit or decrease it. Some credit cards also have no fee conversions for charges.
Know your emergency number and U.S. Consulate
The emergency number in Mexico is 911. Can you trust it? Some Mexican police are corrupt. Vice News tells a story, “After being kidnapped by municipal police officers in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, Liliana (an elite member of the Mexican federal police force) and three male colleagues were stripped naked and tortured for three hours. Then they were driven to secluded woodland.” If you have become a victim of crime, your best bet is to contact your U.S. Consulate for advice and support. Carry their contact information with you. They can become your lifeline back home.
KNOWLEDGE is just information. Putting information into action in practical ways is powerful. Chicago may be a dangerous city – it’s interesting to note El Chapo’s influence in Chicago. U.S. citizens know to be wary and what part of town is riskier.
Mexico is an inviting enticement, like Chicago. Enjoying the genuine hospitality of Mexico’s tourism industry takes planning. Thousands of U.S. citizens have rewarding vacations in Mexico. Simultaneously, the United States State Department is seriously advising you to consider not traveling there at all, apparently with good reasons. Safe, rewarding journeys are not an accident. Always Depart Smart.