Mexico is by far the most popular destination for US citizens, at least twice as popular as its nearest rival, Canada. And while the vast majority of visitors to Mexico have a perfectly safe and enjoyable time there, cartel-related violence – murders, kidnappings, carjackings and robberies – is once again on the rise across the country, and if your aim is to stay out of harm’s way while you’re there, there are a few factors to consider.
Places to avoid in Mexico
The US State Department has issued a Level 4 warning against travel to five parts of Mexico: Tamaulipas in the north-east of the country, and the Pacific states of Sinaloa (home to Mexico’s oldest and largest criminal organisation), Colima, Guerrero and Michoacan.
US border cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Piedras Negras remain trouble spots, but it’s important to remember that the map of cartel territory is constantly changing. The gangs are fighting not only for control of the drug trade, but also over a range of criminal activities, from illegal logging and mining to human trafficking and huachicoleo (the theft and illegal sale of fuel), as well as encroaching on legitimate businesses such as cattle ranching, fishing and farming (Michoacan is the world’s largest producer of avocados and the only state in Mexico fully authorised to export to the US market).
The global obsession with Mexico’s drug culture means that the extent of the impact of organised crime and political corruption on ordinary Mexicans often goes unreported. For those wishing to do their own research, the InSight Crime website is invaluable.
A further 11 states have been placed on Level 3 – “reconsider travel to” – status, bringing the total number of states on the blacklist to 16 out of 32. This should give prospective visitors pause for thought, as the US government has limited ability to provide emergency services in areas where US government personnel are banned or restricted from travelling.
Popular tourist destinations are usually far safer because of the effort and expense the authorities put into making them so, but in the last eight months two tourists were killed in a shooting in Playa del Carmen, four American travellers were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a beach in Cancun, and a California travel blogger and a German tourist were killed in the crossfire of a drug gang shootout in Tulum.
How to avoid becoming a crime victim in Mexico
As I once said to a friend, “Put your phone away. I’m not saying you’re going to get mugged, but if anyone in this neighbourhood gets mugged in the next 30 minutes, it’s going to be you”. As it turned out, he was right.
When travelling, whether alone or with friends, be cautious. There is safety in numbers, so avoid visiting remote areas that are unfamiliar to tourists. It’s also advisable to avoid driving overnight and stick to toll roads and first-class coach services between cities, as illegal roadblocks and highway robberies are becoming common in states such as Guerrero, Michoacan, Oaxaca and Chiapas.The rest may read like an idiot’s guide to not coming a holiday cropper, but it’s worth memorising:
1.Learn some basic Spanish
2.Do not dress to impress
3.Keep your valuables out of sightNever leave your drink unattended
4.Use car-sharing and ride-hailing apps instead of street taxis and public transport (which are particularly dangerous for female travellers).
Medicine and the law in Mexico
If you need to take prescription medication while in Mexico, make sure you have the necessary paperwork (doctor’s letter or prescription), but be aware that some drugs that are legal in your home country may not be legal in Mexico, and you may be arrested for entering the country with a controlled substance. Over-the-counter medicines widely used in the US, such as Actifed, Sudafed and Vicks inhalers, which contain pseudoephedrine, are prohibited. For more information, see our Mexico travel health article.
Don’t commit crimes yourself. Foreign nationals who commit illegal acts under Mexican law have no special privileges and are subject to full prosecution under the Mexican judicial system. Trafficking in prohibited drugs and possessing more than the legal amount for personal use are federal offences, and convicted offenders who are not eligible for bail face prison sentences of up to 25 years. It’s not uncommon for foreigners charged with drug offences to be detained for up to two years before a verdict is reached.