Traveling a corrupt country embroiled in turf wars

Yes, there are safety measures and resources you can follow to get the most out of your time in Mexico. Órale, vamos…

Philip Valenta, MSF
Sep 16, 2018 · 10 min read
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There is no denying that Mexico has more than its share of “safety concerns.” Forced disappearances by crooked politicians, law enforcement authorities, and organized crime members alike have reached “epidemic” proportions. The Los Cabos area, meanwhile, is in the spotlight not for its vacationing splendor but for having been named Mexico’s most dangerous municipality as of 2017 (it used to be Acapulco, Guerrero), as well as the most dangerous in the entire world according to number of homicides. At the same time, the state of Veracruz continues to be known as one of the deadliest areas to be a journalist in and it is currently the scene of discovery of yet another mass grave.

Elsewhere, recent, more generalized gun violence in the streets of the city of Guadalajara and state of Jalisco is being perpetrated by the likes of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel as it battles challengers to its dominance and challenges other groups all over the country for control of territory and routes. Then there’s the reality that some police are murdered for doing their jobs while certain other police participate in death squads or fabricate evidence and hustle locals and tourists alike for payouts and/or liberate them of their valuable possessions. All this while graft-oriented politicians at the highest levels blur the lines between public servant and croney extraordinaire.

In fact, more and more, the ravaged country is devolving into a generalized turf war involving multiple interested parties, including the national oil organization PEMEX. It didn’t always used to be this way, but that’s a story for another time. While tourists and expats are rarely targeted as part of the so-called “drug-related” violence that takes place in various parts of the country, it behooves all of us with a relationship with Mexico to stay aware and be mindful while out and about there.

There is no excusing the violence that occurs in Mexico or anywhere else in the world. There are, however, very real ways in which travelers, expats, really all of us can prepare ourselves to avoid harm while making good on our travel plans and taking advantage of opportunities to appreciate the incredible beauty of the country and its diverse people and culture.

Personally, the worst I experienced in my years living there included the brief and temporary collapse of the local bus system in Guadalajara as narcos commandeered individual buses and burned many of them out to create diversionary disorder and gum up traffic in order to help one of their own escape. I was also hustled twice by police officers at highway checkpoints for bribes while driving rental cars outside of Cancun and Mexico City.

Sadly, worse has befallen other outsiders. In 2015 — during my time in country — I learned that two Australian surfers, Adam Coleman and Dean Lucas, were killed at the hands of an apparent highway robbery gang in the state of Sinaloa while on their way to Guadalajara. It reminded me of a preceding tragedy I had been made aware of involving Harry Devert, a New Yorker whose body was found months after his reported disappearance in early 2014 as he traveled from the state of Michoacán into the state of Guerrero alone on his motorcycle on his way to the World Cup in Brazil.

At the time, I was taking Spanish classes at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco A.C. and my teachers knew Harry’s girlfriend, another former student (if I recall correctly). I first heard about him through them shortly after he went missing. I would later read the grizzly details online once his dismembered body had been discovered and identified.

To add insult to injury, in both cases there appears to have been foul play. Drugs were found around Harry’s body and motorcycle in a manner which suggested they had been planted. Regarding the two Australian surfers, it turns out that the police had lied about who had waylaid and done away with them. Basically, this is to say that Mexico can be a place where, even in death, the victims and their survivors suffer at the hands of the corrupt.

All of this being said, Mexico thrives on tourism and there is good reason why so many of us have fallen in love with the place. Airfares are reasonable and new routes connecting the country with others are being established all the time, making travel to and from increasingly convenient. It remains one of the richest places on earth in terms of cultural heritage, archaeology, natural beauty, art, and a peoples’ zest for life be it related to food, drink, dance, socializing, what have you. The country offers unrivaled adventure- and relaxation-oriented experiences, whether those take place in the jungle, the city, or at one of its gorgeous beach areas. The time has not yet come to give up on it.

Indeed, in spite of it all, no official authoritative body is suggesting we simply outright cancel our Mexico travel plans, either. The state of affairs is highly destination-dependent, but enjoying oneself is still doable. Not only are there pragmatic steps every visitor and resident can take to mitigate risk and ensure a good time , but it is also possible — and it pays — to stay informed before and during your time there, especially.

Those steps, along with some links to English-language resources where you can find pertinent travel alerts, warnings, and general safety information, are all outlined below. Finally, try to keep in mind that all countries are home to violence, there are areas in your own country you wouldn’t go to, either, and, at last check, Mexicans were still not shooting up their own schools. In other words, a dose of perspective is in order.

Many RV enthusiasts traveling through Mexico do so as part of larger, multi-vehicle caravans. There’s good reason for this. Besides the solidarity and close friendship that such trips can foster, it’s also simply a good deal safer. As part of a caravan, you are much less likely to be singled out as a target and stopped by anyone, be that a group intent on robbing or harming you or or opportunistic police officers looking for a payoff.

If you can’t travel as part of a caravan or aren’t moving through the interior of the country in your own vehicle, at least travel as part of a small band, if possible, if only other backpackers from your hostel.

I have traveled extensively throughout Mexico utilizing various means, including rental car, and this goes for the entire country: find a place to get some dinner and sleep for the night instead of driving late into the evening and early morning hours, no matter what region of the country you’re in. The later it gets, the fewer the cars on the road, including any patrolling police or military vehicles, and the more you stick out. Furthermore, the more time and greater the chance a criminal has to take advantage of you without interruption or risk of being witnessed or caught.

That said, I have never had a single issue traveling with a reputable long-range bus company at night.

Mexico has an extensive system of highways including cuota (toll) and libre (toll-free) ones. Stick to the toll highways, especially after sunset, even if taking them does not result in the most direct or efficient path to your final destination; they tend to be a bit safer as they have fewer access points, are in better condition, are well-lit, and tend to be more heavily traveled at night. Additionally, criminals may not want to go through the extra trouble to access such highways, especially if that means they’ll have to pass through toll booths and perhaps even pay themselves somewhere along the way for use of the highway in order to pursue their malevolent calling.

Take alternative routes to avoid traveling through certain hotspot states. These include many states in the north of the country such as Sinaloa where the surfers’ van was discovered, and Michoacán and Guerrero, where Harry Devert was traveling when he disappeared and was ultimately found. Yes, tourists do travel to particular resort locations in these states, including Mazatlán in Sinaloa and Morelia in Michoacán, but they often do so as part of larger tour groups or all-inclusive tourist packages arranged ahead of time complete with specific travel and schedule arrangements.

Understand that these states are conflict zones. Again, Guerrero’s Acapulco remains the world’s third most dangerous city for its average murder rate of more than two persons a day and the state of Guerrero is a Do Not Travel destination according to the US State Department. While the violence tends to be restricted to that occurring between mafia groups or narcos and government authorities, these states are less stable and that instability opens the door to all types of crime perpetrated by criminals not even personally connected with any of the cartels. Better not to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially where the likelihood of that happening is higher.

This goes for any area or time where a bribe-seeking authority figure, mugger, or dishonest hotel employee may seek to take advantage of you. The fewer pesos you have on your person at any given time, the fewer can be demanded of you or taken from you. On the flip side, having a little bit can get you out of an otherwise sticky situation. Both times I was shaken down by police for cash while living in Mexico, the mitigating factors included my party and I never having much cash on us, but having some, and it was always local currency, not dollars. In fact, just leave the dollars at home.

This isn’t Disneyland. Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, situations here can quickly take a turn for the worse. The vast majority of Mexico’s peoples live peaceful, (somewhat) secure lives, yet this country remains a place where one should remain aware at all times. Think carefully about how you’re acting and what you’re saying in public, and avoid doing things for the sake of convenience alone. Stick to the more energy- or time-consuming option in order to preserve your safety, and remember that your safety is ultimately your responsibility, not somebody else’s.

Staying with friends or family while there? They would love to show you around and can point out the seedier parts of any area to avoid. At the same time, they can show you sides of Mexico you’d never discover on your own.

Many country-level government agencies offer free enrollment in safe traveler programs, enabling you to share the details of your itinerary and contact info in order to receive travel alerts and warnings directly to your smart device or email. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), offered by the US Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs, is one such program in effect in the United States. By registering, you can additionally help the US Embassy, family, and friends contact you in case of emergency.

As always, it’s imperative that you pay heed to and follow all travel alerts and warnings issued by your respective government as if you were one of their own staff. Stay away from places they suggest steering clear of, and adopt their general stance. You really will be better off safe than sorry.

Below is a list of several international government resources in English offering up-to-date insight on Mexico, as well as alerts and warnings highly relevant to traveling or living there. (And while you’re at it, follow a respected journalist or few focused on the country or particular region of interest.)

  • Mexico, Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Presents a color-coded advisory view of the country as well as specific regions upfront, with categories from Exercise Normal Safety Precautions to Do Not Travel. Also included is information on laws, health, and the address of the Australian Embassy in Mexico City.
  • Destinations, Mexico, Government of Canada: Here you’ll find advisories, a security overview, entry and exit requirements, and information on natural disasters and the climate of the country, among other things.
  • Foreign Travel Advice, Mexico, Government of the UK: This site offers additional information on the topics of safety and security, overseas business risk, and travel and medical insurance, among others. You can also download a PDF map of the country or print their entire country guide.
  • Mexico International Travel Information, US Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs: In addition to links to alerts and warnings on Mexico through the eyes of the US, state by state, you can also find critical embassy messages; a few general points regarding travel to the country (the max currency you’re allowed to cross the border with, the length of time you’re allowed to stay as a tourist, etc); a country description; and more.
  • Twitter account of Duncan Tucker, British journalist based in Mexico and currently residing in Mexico City. From there, you may wish to follow those he retweets as well, including Stephen Woodman, another British journalist based in Guadalajara.

A close güera friend of mine just returned from an approximately two week jaunt through various parts of Mexico, including Querétaro, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Tepoztlán, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita, many of these locations which are in higher alert states. In the past, she has lived and worked in western Mexico as well as lived in southern Brazil. Blonde with paler skin, she sticks out like a sore thumb (though she speaks excellent Spanish). Her take was that, for the average tourist or expat, Brazil is still much worse.

She followed almost all of the steps laid out above to ensure she had another stellar trip to Mexico, including:

  • hanging out with her hosts;
  • not traveling at night;
  • staying away from known areas of danger, which means she followed the standing official statements of caution and guidance from her hosts;
  • carrying a limited amount of local currency on her person;
  • sticking to toll roads where possible when she did drive;
  • not going it alone;
  • not taking shortcuts or letting her guard down.

Here’s wishing you safe travels.

(My heart goes out to the survivors of Adam, Dean, Harry, and all other travelers befallen by harm on their journeys.)


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