Safety and Security in Mexico

Mexico – the land of kidnappings, drug gangs, shoot outs in the streets, massive criminal organizations in armed conflict with the corrupt police.  That type of sensationalism works well if you want to sell newspapers or get clicks on a “news” website.  The reality is that most of the country is very peaceful.  However, the states bordering the US tend to have the most security issues along with a few other areas of the country.

I took a look at the US Department of State Travel Advisory on Mexico and checked out each state we might visit on our trip.  The result?  All states we intend to visit have no listed security concerns except the Estado de Mexico.

US Department of State Travel Advisory for Mexico 
States we will visit:Advisory:
Guanajuato (Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende)No Advisory
Queretaro (Queretaro)No Advisory
Federal District (Mexico City)No Advisory
Estado de Mexico (Teotihuacan pyramids)Exercise caution
Puebla (Puebla)No Advisory
Oaxaca (Oaxaca)No Advisory
Tabasco (Villahermosa)No Advisory
Campeche (Campeche)No Advisory
Yucatan (Merida, Progreso, Chichen Itza)No Advisory
Quintana Roo (Cancun)No Advisory
Just passing through:
VeracruzExercise caution

Since we only plan on being in the Estado de Mexico to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids for the day and that area isn’t listed as dangerous in the travel advisory, our overall risk on the trip is low.  We will be passing through the state of Veracruz on a major highway while heading east toward Cancun, but don’t plan to stop.  I’m not trying to downplay the potential for violence in Mexico, but rather hope to present a realistic picture of the security situation.  Some areas present elevated risk of violence, other areas are okay.  We’re sticking to the okay areas.

I like to put things in perspective.  It isn’t as if we live in a risk free world.  Right here at home in Raleigh, the headlines show continuous episodes of gun violence, murder, robberies, gang activity and similar horrible things all the time.  At the time of writing this post, the headlines reveal two separate violent murders in the area (the first incident left several others severely injured from the shootout).  To phrase it in a more objective sense: 1,199,998 area residents were NOT murdered in the last week while two were.  99.99983% of us survived.  In Mexico, 122 million people are fine while several tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands are not over the course of a year.

From an international perspective, the USA is also dangerous, according to this travel advisory from the British government:

Violent crime, including gun crime, rarely involves tourists, but you should take care when travelling in unfamiliar areas. Crime associated with the illegal drugs trade is a major issue in Mexican states bordering Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Some foreign nationals have been among the victims of crime in the border regions, but there is no evidence to suggest they have been targeted because of their nationality. Research your destination before travelling, be vigilant, and follow the advice of local authorities.

What if this advisory said “exercise caution in the state of Michigan due to severe gang related violence in regions of Detroit”?  We would think it ridiculous. That’s the way I view travel advisories in Mexico – avoid the specific dangerous cities or regions mentioned in the advisories and use caution everywhere just like you’re at home.  But don’t skip visiting the country at all (whether it’s the US or Mexico) just because some areas have elevated risks.

Some general precautions go a long way like maintaining a low profile.  Leave the thick gold necklaces, sparkly diamond rings, and other flashy bling at home.  We are fortunate to not own any of that stuff (which is how we can afford to spend seven weeks in Mexico), so we are good on that front.  Don’t pull out wads of $100 US bills when trying to buy tacos from a street vendor.  Avoid pickpockets and petty theft by using money belts or keeping your real wallet hidden, only carrying what you need for the day, and having back up credit cards in another location.

 

Actual real safety concerns in Mexico

What concerns me the most?  Food poisoning, water born pathogens from contaminated drinking water or fresh fruits and vegetables, and motor vehicle accidents where we might be the pedestrian victims.  Roughly in that order.

There’s a good chance someone will get sick at some point while we’re in Mexico, and for that there are antibiotics, rest, hydration, and doctors.  To avoid catching a bug in the first place, we can skip really dodgy street vendors.  But food-born pathogens don’t always discriminate based on appearance or status of the restaurant.  If it’s a busy establishment, that’s usually a good sign that the restaurant hasn’t killed it’s local fan base and the food turns over quickly enough to avoid spoilage.

Water quality is highly variable across the country and even between one hotel, apartment, or restaurant and the one next door.  We’ll stick to bottled water for drinking unless it’s patently obvious that the tap water is safe (like filtered water in a nice hotel).  Lucky for us, bottled water is cheap and ubiquitous (and often ice cold).

While we’re walking around, we’ll have to keep our eyes open and hold hands with the three year old while crossing busy streets.  We walk along our fairly busy streets at home so all of the kids (and adults) are accustomed to avoiding errant drivers and crossing the street carefully.  Practice makes perfect?

 

Are we crazy?

No, just adventurous.  Nothing in life is risk free.  It all comes down to assessing the risks and ensuring you avoid or mitigate any risks you can.  Being an objective educated risk taker is a good strategy in life generally and applies to traveling overseas just as much as it does to choosing a long term investment strategy, where to live, or what to do for a living.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with this gem from Go Curry Cracker about his friend’s visit to Guatemala.  They will kill you for your shoes!  And this other one: Gunshots! Or is it just fireworks?

 

Other posts on Mexico at Root of Good:

Trip Summary

Cost of Seven Weeks in Mexico

 

 

What do you think?  Are we crazy?

 

 

45 comments

  • Go for it. Have fun and enjoy yourself. You have a better chance of something bad happening to you in the US

    • Every week there are murders, robberies and assaults right here in my own metro area. You definitely don’t need to stray far from home to get into serious trouble.

  • That’s a great attitude to have when travelling. You guys are going to have a ton of fun!

  • Enjoy your trip. Count the number of Cemex trucks you see so we can all evaluate its prospects as a stock.

  • Not crazy at all. The news in general really pisses me off since they are compensated by more viewers/readers for inflated headlines which draw crowds. Scaring travelers, residences, and people thinking of investing their money.

    • Exactly. Of course you can’t make headlines like “no one was shot this week and life remains pretty okay across the city for over 99% of the residents”.

  • You can buy a great portable water filter (meant more for camping) for under a hundred bucks. Use it to fill all your own water containers and you should be fine. Certainly cheaper and more environmentally friendly than having to buy bottled water for 7 weeks. I have the Katadyn Vario and its excellent.

    • I thought about a water filter but think it’ll be more trouble than it’s worth. I think most (all?) of the places we are staying have free 5 gallon water jugs or filtered tap water. And if not, we can always boil a big pot of water to purify it against water borne pathogens (that’s how they did it when I stayed in a home stay for 6 weeks). When we’re out and about during the day, we’ll definitely have to buy bottled water but can probably save some by buying the big 1.5 liter or 1 gallon bottles/jugs if that is cheaper than the 500 ml bottles. We would probably go for a filter if we were planning on being away from civilization for long periods of time, but as it is, we’ll be staying in the city virtually the entire trip other than day trips.

  • As a parent I would be most concerned about medical care. I have a crazy five year old and I would have to assume he would need some type of care during the seven weeks. How accessible is medical care? Do they have minute clinics? What if it’s a serious medical issue? How is the care? Living in the states we get very accustomed to quality care that is close by. Every since I became a parent, I think this way. Ha!

    • I know we will be staying near hospitals (as in a mile or two away) for around 90% of the trip. There are local doctors all over, and they often speak English from what I’ve heard. Quality of care isn’t too much of an issue as long as you have cash (or a credit card). There’s always the chance that something horrible will happen in the middle of nowhere and we’ll have to deal with that, but it’s a possibility that could happen in the middle of nowhere, USA as well.

      I think there’s a high likelihood we’ll need a doctor or at least a pharmacy at some point, and there’s google for that. Or we can ask our apartment hosts who their preferred doctor/clinic is.

  • Thanks for this post that puts risks associated with traveling into perspective, glad to see you’re not joining in on the fear mongering. Think you’ve got it well covered.

  • My husband and I have the exact same perspective when it comes to traveling. It has allowed us to experience the road less traveled and go off the beaten path on our trips. I think it’s also great that you’re exposing your children to such experiences; my travels with my parents to many places allowed me to appreciate the diversity in this world. You guys will have an awesome time!

  • Yeah, when Mr PoP and I went to Mexico in 2009 to elope, some friends and family were convinced we would catch the pig flu, then get kidnapped, raped, and murdered. They gave us Cipro and Tamiflu to guard against what they could, but also really wanted us to take guns… Umm… no. Bad idea on so many levels. In reality, we were going to a very expat-friendly community and never felt unsafe, but also didn’t make it a habit of flashing large wads of cash/fancy jewels or being disrespectful to locals. Common sense prevailed!

    • That sounds like a very scary version of Mexico! 😉 It’s really not that bad down there, and there are a lot less guns on the street than there are in the US.

  • “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine it’s lethal” Paulo Coelho

    Sounds like you have a good plan. Just use your head and have fun ,just like at home.

  • I don’t want to sound like a fear monger, but I have traveled the world over for the last twenty+ years and have found Mexico to be one of the dodgier places I have been. A lot of less spectacular but still violent crime, in particular robberies – goes unreported. You are generally very safe in the main pedestrian and tourist areas of towns, but outside of those areas, for example in the countryside on the outskirts of towns or near the smaller villages, tourists can quickly become targets. Note that Oaxaca, while not on the State Department advisory list, was reported by NGO’s as having the highest rate of violent crime in Mexico, for 2013.

    https://justiceinmexico.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/sjp-oaxaca-is-mexicos-most-violent-municipality-in-2013-guerrero-the-most-violent-state/

    What I find as annoying as being over-paranoid, is many people acting like Mexico crime is totally over-hyped. Where in any part of the world outside of maybe Nigeria or the Congo, would you hear of an incident like what happened in Iguala in 2014?

    No reason to be paranoid, just use common sense. If you want to explore outside of the well established tourist areas, make sure you check multiple local sources on how safe it actually is and understand the risks. Mexico is a fascinating, beautiful country with loads of wonderful people – just be smart when traveling there.

    • I’m with you on the Iguala 2014 event. 43 students were murdered for those not familiar with it. Crazy.

      Thanks for the reference to Oaxaca, since we’ll be there for 2 weeks. I dug a little deeper into the link you provided. I couldn’t pull up the actual study at the NGO that completed it. And other criticism from those very familiar with Oaxaca were surprised by its findings and also noted that the same think tank didn’t mention Oaxaca city in their 2014 report of the worst 50 cities in Mexico. They also said the 2013 study weighted certain crimes, like murder, particularly high in their index, and 2013 was particularly bad in Oaxaca. So it might be that 2013 was really bad but other years not as bad.

      There was also a murder of a US citizen almost 10 years ago. He was a journalist filming armed rioters (aka borderline warzone reporting) and I believe that was a period of big civil unrest in Oaxaca. Note to self: avoid filming armed rioters. Scratch that – avoid armed rioters. 🙂

      From reading comments about that 2013 report, it sounds like it’s people in the drug trade or other locals involved in the worst of the crimes and at least in the more tourist areas that we’ll be in, there isn’t as much violence against tourists (unless you consider pickpocketing violent). We’ll definitely keep our eyes open, and I’ve heard Oaxaca is more prone to protests than other areas so we’ll be vigilant if the situation changes.

  • That’s always the approach we take when traveling–be cautious, don’t fling money around, and be aware of your surroundings. Other that that, we don’t worry too much. Sounds like you’ve done your research on regions, which is smart. And, you make a great point that nowhere is perfectly safe. Plus, life would be pretty boring if we only did the “safest” things.

    • Crap. I can’t waive my money around like an obnoxious American tourist? What’s the fun in going then?

      I was reading about some restaurants in Cancun and the reviews were full of complaints from Americans that they had to use pesos at the restaurants there. Or accept a really crappy exchange rate. What a surprise, you have to use local currency when you’re in a foreign country. 🙂

  • I agree that people tend to exaggerate the risks of travel. By far the biggest cause of deaths abroad is road traffic accidents. Yet the same people who are all, “What about drug gangs?!” seem to be the same ones on Facebook with holiday shots of them on scooters not wearing helmets when they are clearly available.

    Interesting that you should say “What if this advisory said “exercise caution in the state of Michigan due to severe gang related violence in regions of Detroit”? We would think it ridiculous.”.

    I’m British and I booked a flight to LA and the travel agent said (yeah, it was 2001, haven’t been in a travel agency since!), “I’m not able to book this flight until I read you a disclaimer about gun violence and gang related crime in LA”. Seriously. So different nationalities perceive risk differently. I am genuinely terrified every time I go to the States and see a gun on anyone, police or otherwise. It’s just not what I’m used to.

    And last year when I was in New Orleans the concierge drew a line on the map and said, “You do not cross this line, except in a cab, ok?”. I was with my husband so it wasn’t even a single female traveller thing. I have never had anyone say that to me in Europe (and I don’t know if that’s because the risks are lower here, or tolerance for risk is lower in the US), but, you know what? I love the States and visit frequently. I always note what the locals say though, first and foremost, and I only crossed that line in a cab!

    • Ha ha, LA is pretty sketchy in parts. And I’ve heard the same advice about New Orleans in the area around the most touristy parts (French Quarter). Simply stated, there are a lot of guns here. The good guys and the bad guys have them (sometimes bad boys – we had a 14 year old shoot a 17 year old in the middle of the street next door to us 10 years ago). I don’t think a week goes by that we don’t see gun deaths in the news even in our not-huge city.

      And you’re right about the risks of traffic accidents (as moped riders, passengers in taxis or buses and as pedestrians). That kind of thing is more likely to happen than an injury from an armed robbery or similar type crime.

  • I don’t know, I lived in New Orleans, before and after Katrina, and never had a problem with crime. I’ve been all over the world including north & south of India, most of SE Asia, multiple countries in the Middle East – never had a problem. And then boom…..Mexico, I was robbed at knifepoint, with my wife before noon in Oaxaca de Juarez last October. First and hopefully last time I go through that. Local police and the American consulate were absolutely worthless in follow through help.

    Mexico has major issues. Bury your head in the sand if you choose to. I totally embrace travel as a method of broadening your horizons but you need to be aware of situational dynamics. You can enjoy your trip to Mexico and not have any problems – I seriously doubt water and food will be issues at all.

    • In America that robbery would be with a gun and you might get shot.

      But seriously, there’s always that risk. Every day I pull up to a traffic light (here in the US), there’s the potential for carjacking at gun point. Home invasions happen, people die. It can happen stateside or abroad. Travel enough and it’ll eventually happen to you (or us).

      I’ve spent a little over 3 months in Mexico already and have never been the victim of violent crime. A stomach bug, a couple of pickpocketings, and someone pilfering cash out of our luggage was all we suffered.

      I hope I don’t seem like I’m burying my head in the sand here. I did the research, looked at what areas are the worst, and don’t plan on visiting those. We probably won’t be out late at night that much (3 kids and all) and won’t be stumbling drunk in the streets (much). Knifepoint robberies in broad daylight can happen (your experience is a prime example) but they are rare enough to not bother me to the point of never traveling to Mexico.

  • The vast majority of Mexico isn’t a problem from the safety perspective, it’s the border towns that are questionable. You’re not going anywhere near the border towns though 🙂 I lived on the US side of Reynosa, and things were questionable 15 years ago before the “major” drug wars started up. But you’re right, even in the border towns, keep your eyes open, flashy stuff hidden and you’ll likely be fine. The worst you might end up with is a corrupt police officer, and since you said you’ve been in Mexico before, I assume you know how to deal with that situation.

    • Good to hear your perspective.

      We thought Nuevo Laredo was pretty sketchy when we were there in 2000. Definitely not any good vibes there and that was pre-gang warfare. We crossed the Rio Grande on foot which was neat. Not sure I would do that again today. 🙂

  • You’re right. Life isn’t risk free. You just have to be aware of your surrounding and pay attention to what’s going on. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. I’m really looking forward to the coming updates.

  • Great information justin, thanks for sharing.

    A bunch of my friends who don’t have kids just got back from a week long trip to mexico and loved it. Like you, i have 3 kids, so its great to see that you are still so adventures with them. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great information. We have chosen to avoid Mexico with the kids. It probably is riskier driving within 6 blocks of our house, but with all the amazing locations in the US unvisited, we will continue to avoid Mehico.

    It will be fun to hear how the trip went.

    • That might be a smart move! We also thought about a road trip across the US but figure it would be more stressful than the Mexico trip (especially with a 3 year old).

  • If I remember from a prior post, hasn’t your spouse lived in Mexico before? (Maybe I am mixing my bloggers up :)) I’ve always found that having an “insider” view is really the best way to visit adventurous places. We toured small mountain villages in the Dominican like this and had an amazing time – far better than if we went without that insider! You’ll have a great time. Have fun!

    • No, Mrs. Root of Good never lived in Mexico, but we traveled for 6 weeks in Mexico back during college. And I spent the summer before that studying abroad in Mexico, so we aren’t complete strangers to the country. Not exactly insiders, but we’ve got some experience there already (though it’s mostly 15 years old now!).

      I think the fact that we’ll be staying in regular Mexican neighborhoods will help us get off the beaten path and live a little more local. And we’ll be shopping for toiletries, groceries, and household goods so we’ll get a more in depth taste of local markets and stores.

  • Great post. I spent a few weeks in Mexico about 10 years ago, and my family was very scared for me. I had a great time, and I only felt insecure a few times. For reference though, I was really off the beaten path since we were climbing volcanoes.

    I think the same mentality around travel follows the early retiree’s attitude toward safe withdrawal rate. Some people stay in the US because they are afraid of the .01% chance of crime, and some people work all their life amassing huge nest eggs because they are afraid of the .01% chance of failure that wouldn’t be projected based on historical data (e.g., firecalc). Have fun!

    • Volcanoes! I’m hoping we catch a glimpse of 1 or 2 while we are there, though we probably won’t be climbing any on this trip with our 3 year old in tow (he would probably jump into the crater).

  • I just found your blog, recommended on Early Retirement Extreme. My husband and I bought a home in Guanajuato in 2005, and have spent part of every year in Mexico ever since. We constantly hear from other Americans, “But are you safe there?” (“Um, yeah. Safer than in the States, actually.”)

    (Another frequent comment: “Don’t they envy us?” “No, they don’t. They’re very happy with their own country and culture and lifestyle.”)

    Every year we explore a different part of the country, and we love it, because we find Mexicans to be friendly, warm and helpful, and travel is very affordable. A few suggestions:
    –having some Spanish helps a lot, although another nice quality about Mexicans is that they are very forgiving about language errors. Consider taking some Spanish classes or hiring a tutor in one of your stops.
    –we like to go where Mexican tourists go and eat from vendors that Mexicans eat from. We rarely get sick in Mexico.
    –traveling with children is an asset, because Mexicans are very family-oriented.
    –Mexico has terrific first-class buses that are efficient, comfortable, and safe.
    –check out the great magazine transitionsabroad. com. They have a wealth of info on Mexico (and everywhere else). If you want more info about Mexico, I’ll be happy to send links to several articles I’ve published about living and traveling around the country.

    • Hi Louisa!

      I’m glad we’ll be able to visit Guanajuato while we’re staying a few weeks in San Miguel de Allende. Those places have been on my travel list wish for a while.

      You have some great tips! I’m proficient enough in Spanish to get around (actually earned a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature 15 years ago). And Mrs. RoG does okay too. The kids will hopefully pick up some Spanish while we’re down there, too. Lots of their classmates and friends back home speak Spanish so it’ll be cool if they do learn more than they already know.

      I’m with you on the first class buses. That’s one of the most surprising things when I tell others about our plans in Mexico. The buses are so incredible. I’ll have to put some pics up on here because it defies logic that they are clean, comfortable, spacious, and well, first class. The longest bus ride for us will be Mexico City to Oaxaca at 6-7 hours. It’ll be during the day so hopefully we’ll get to see a lot of the countryside along the way.

  • Use your travel smarts and you should be fine without any scares. I loved the Yucatan and Quinata Roo. I can’t wait to hear about your trip and see the pictures!

  • RoG,

    It’s interesting how as a community, we as investors seem to recognize the “flip side” of media sensationalism. While people cringe at the thought of “Mexican drug violence”, we have the same things here at home if you go to the wrong areas.

    As a whole, most countries which inspire fear in the minds of the average American/Canadian are populated by decent, law-abiding people just trying to earn a living and raise their families.

    Enjoy the vacation,
    – Ryan from GRB

    • So true. I try to tune out the local news, but I see enough shootings, murders, etc that I know nowhere is perfectly safe and you’re often just a quick drive away from the not so great parts of town.

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