Is traveling to Mexico as dangerous as some people make it seem? (Photo: Thinkstock)
The drug-fueled violence that is growing in Mexico is getting too close for comfort for some cruise lines in Puerto Vallarta.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. recently canceled some Mexican ports of call by Celebrity Cruises’ Infinity and Royal Caribbean International’s Jewel of the Seas. Royal Caribbean tells Yahoo Travel, the calls were canceled “due to the recently experienced episodes of violent civil unrest, stemming from criminal gangs that have engaged in armed conflict with local authorities.”
Other cruise lines tell Yahoo Travel they’re adjusting their visits to Puerto Vallarta as well, as drug cartels in the state of Jalisco — where Puerto Vallarta is located — have stepped up violence there in recent weeks. One cartel reportedly shot down a Mexican military helicopter earlier this month, killing at least six soldiers. And last week, cartels used burning vehicles to block highways and carried out arson attacks against businesses throughout Jalisco.
This latest violence so near a popular cruise destination has brought up more questions about the safety of travel to Mexico — a popular tourist spot despite its long and bloody drug war.
Last week, the U.S. Department of State updated its Mexico Travel Warning. The extensive new report highlights the positive: Millions of Americans visit Mexico each year without incident, and many of the country’s most popular tourist areas remain safe for Americans.
Related: The 10 Weirdest Things to See and Do in Mexico City
But the State Department also has a disturbing new warning: The number of Americans murdered in Mexico went up last year, with 100 reported homicides in 2014, compared to 81 in 2013.
With drug groups openly battling law enforcement, as well as each other, in certain parts of Mexico, American visitors are sometimes among the victims of the violence. The State Department says, “While many of those killed in organized crime-related violence have themselves been involved in criminal activity, innocent persons have also been killed.”
The U.S. State Department has updated its travel warning for Mexico. (Photo: Thinkstock)
“Mexico is a large country with a very wide range of security concerns,” says Matt Hager, a senior intelligence manager for iJET, an international risk management company. “You really can’t look at Mexico with a single broad brush.” On one hand, he notes, “Mexico is a safe place. With reasonable precautions you can do business there and you can travel.”
But on the other hand, he says, “When you get out to some of the more challenging areas — some of the areas where there’s very significant drug-trafficking violence — then you get a lot more of a dicey situation.”
A bullet-riddled truck in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, for which the U.S. Department of State issued one of its more explicit travel warnings. (Photo: AP)
The bad news
The State Department advisory looks at all of Mexico’s 31 states and its Federal District (aka Mexico City). The new warning advises Americans to “defer all nonessential travel” to eight of those states (down from the 14 states the State Department red-flagged last summer), while advising visitors to exercise caution in 12 additional states. The remaining 12 were given the all clear.
“The hot spots are places along the U.S. border where essentially it’s very close to the drug markets,” says Hager. “So those are very popular and important destinations for drug traffickers.”
In fact, each of the Mexican states that border the U.S. got either “exercise caution” or the more serious “defer nonessential travel” warnings from the State Department. The biggest trouble spots: The state of Sonora (home of Nogales, Puerto Peñasco, Hermosillo, and San Carlos) was called “extremely dangerous for travelers” for its drug- and human-trafficking activity, and the state of Tamaulipas (which includes Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Tampico) got perhaps the State Department’s most explicit “stay away” order for its rampant violence against and kidnapping of American citizens.
Are tourist areas safe?
Don’t worry, vacationers: Cancun and many of Mexico’s other top tourist destinations are still safe. (Photo: Thinkstock)
The good news for Americans is that the State Department gave the all clear to some of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, including Quintana Roo, where Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen are located. The city of Acapulco is also deemed relatively safe, but the state it’s in, Guerrero, is not. (The State Department advises Acapulco-bound tourists to travel there by air or cruise ship only, to exercise caution, and to remain in tourist areas.)
As for Jalisco — where Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and Lake Chapala are located and recent violence has taken place — it’s under an “exercise caution” alert. However, the State Department is warning Americans to defer nonessential travel to eastern areas of the state that border the states of Michoacán and Zacatecas. (Puerto Vallarta is on Jalisco’s western coast.)
There isn’t a travel advisory in effect for Mexico City itself, but the State Department is warning Americans to steer clear of certain eastern portions of the greater Mexico City metropolitan area.
“Most of the tourists areas are relatively safe,” says Hager, noting that violent drug cartels — unlike international terrorists — don’t have much interest in targeting Americans who travel to popular tourist destinations. “On occasion, there are some U.S. citizens who get caught up in [the drug violence] because they’re in the drug trade themselves,” Hager says. “But the [drug cartels] are not targeting Americans.”
Should tourists worry about street crime?
Far more than drug wars, street crime is a big potential danger to tourists in some parts of Mexico. (Photo: Thinkstock)
While getting caught in the crossfire of a drug war isn’t generally something American tourists need to worry about in Mexico, street crime is another story. “Because the Mexican security forces have been focusing on the drug conflict, there are less resources to go around to combat basic criminal and public safety issues,” Hager says. “So you’ve had, on occasion, increases in extortion. You’ve had high rates of kidnapping. You’ve had a lot of robberies and street crime.”
Business travelers, in particular, are often victims. “There are a lot of areas — even in the wealthy and safest and most well-developed areas in Mexico City — where street criminals and muggers will be on the lookout for individuals who look like they’re wealthier than others,” Hager says. “In [Mexico City’s] business districts, you’ll find that at night, in the wrong moment, there can be armed robbers who are out looking for folks wearing Rolexes and carrying expensive purses.”
Is kidnapping a problem?
The State Department says that between January and November 2014, there were more than 130 reported kidnappings of American citizens in Mexico. U.S. officials warn of three types of kidnappings common in Mexico. The best-known type is the “traditional kidnapping,” where a victim is “physically abducted and held captive until a ransom is paid for release.”
Then there’s the “express kidnapping,” where a victim is temporarily abducted and either sexually assaulted or driven around to ATMs and forced to withdraw money.
The third form of kidnapping, which the State Department calls “virtual kidnapping,” is the most bizarre. The victim is contacted in his or her hotel room and, under threat of violence (“We’re watching you and will kill you if you don’t follow our orders”), is ordered to isolate himself or herself in that hotel room or in another hotel of the kidnappers’ choosing. The “kidnappers” then contact the victim’s family and extract a ransom for the “missing” traveler. “The person who’s been technically kidnapped has never met his kidnappers,” says Hager, “but, essentially, the ransom’s been extracted and the victim has put himself in their power.”
How to stay safe
Given the wide variety of potential crimes American visitors to Mexico may face, Hager has several pieces of advice.
Read and understand the State Department advisories
It’s not enough to know what states are dangerous in Mexico. Hager recommends researching what cities, neighborhoods, and even streets are safe. “It’s important to know where you need to know more,” Hager says.
Stay away from strange cars
“I have three important pieces of advice for people traveling to Mexico,” Hager says. “Know what car or taxi you’re getting into, know what car or taxi you’re getting into, and know what car or taxi you’re getting into.” He explains that many kidnappings occur when someone gets into a taxi that isn’t really a taxi.”
Getting a cab in Mexico? Make sure it’s legit. (Photo: Alvaro Sánchez/Flickr)
He recommends using a private car service or making sure you’re in a legit cab. “In Mexico City, for instance, it’s very easy to find legitimate taxis because there are these places called ‘sitios’ that are radio taxi stands where you can go and be very confident you’re getting into a regulated, legitimate taxi,” he says.
Cool it on the bling
“Think about the perception or the image that you project,” Hager says, suggesting travelers examine everything from the clothes they wear to the jewelry they flash. “If you’re projecting an image of affluence and conspicuous wealth, you are projecting an image of being an attractive target,” he says. So watch what you pack. “Do you really need the Rolex? Do you really need the Dolce & Gabbana bag? Can you leave those at home during your trip?” Hager says. “Think about whether it’s really necessary to bring your bling.”
Do you really need to wear your bling on vacation? (Photo: Thinkstock)
Stay in the tourist areas
Hager points out that even in Mexico’s safer, touristy areas, visitors might be tempted to venture out to get a taste of the “real Mexico.” That’s the easiest way to find trouble in what Hager calls unsavory areas. “Generally, if you stay in the all-inclusive resorts, there’s nothing to worry about,” he says, as long as you stay close.
Keep your room number to yourself
A number of kidnapping scams involve criminals contacting you at your hotel, so don’t announce where you’re staying or what your hotel room number is.
Don’t advertise where you’re staying to people you don’t know. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Be wary of ATMs
“When you go to make withdrawals, do it inside a hotel, or a bank where there are people watching and you have control of your environment,“ says Hager. “Going late at night and pulling cash from an exposed kiosk out on the street is a siren attracting attention from muggers.”
Resisting an armed criminal who demands your money or valuables could mean the difference between being the victim of a robbery and becoming the victim of an assault — or far worse. “If a criminal brandishes a gun at you in Mexico, that criminal is prepared to use it,” warns Hager. “I’ve seen too many tragic cases. So don’t resist. You can buy another Rolex. You can’t buy another life.”