More than 30 people dead in three separate shootouts in bars and a pool hall. Corpses washing up on tourist beaches. Dogs seen carrying parts of dismembered bodies. These are just some of the recent news stories about drug cartel activity in Mexico. It makes for grim reading.
Despite this, Mexico’s appeal is still very strong. According to the latest annual report from travel data provider ForwardKeys on the most visited destinations, Mexico came in fourth, based on total air tickets booked. It also had the same number of tourist arrivals as 2019 – before the pandemic. Almost all the other top destinations had significantly fewer visitors in 2022 compared with 2019. Mexico is the most popular international destination for Americans.
It’s easy to understand this popularity: beautiful beaches, exciting cities, natural wonders, ancient ruins, 35 World Heritage Sites, a rich culture and history and delicious food. But should travellers be concerned about cartel violence, which has increasingly occurred in tourist hotspots such as Cancun?
Since early 2021, there have been numerous clashes between rival gangs in the city and surrounding areas, including a shooting on a beach in Cancun’s hotel zone in November 2021 that left two gang members dead. There are also other risks, including street crime, kidnapping and counterfeit alcohol.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in the UK advises against all but essential travel to seven Mexican states – Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Colima, Guerrero and Michoacán – with some exceptions, including the city of Acapulco in Guerrero when accessed via a federal toll road. It’s the same message for specific areas within three more states – Baja California, Guanajuato and Jalisco. However, there are no such warnings for the other 21 states or Mexico City, and nowhere it advises against all travel to.
The FCDO says that ‘drug-related crime and violence is prevalent and on the increase’, but that most visits to Mexico by the 500,000 British nationals who travel there each year are ‘trouble free’.
The Australian government recommends a similar level of caution, wanting travellers to ‘exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico overall due to high levels of violent crime’, with a higher level three (out of four) risk level of ‘reconsider your need to travel’ given to areas in eight states, including Acapulco – in contrast to FCDO advice.
The American government has four travel advisory levels. It says ‘do not travel’ to six states due to crime and kidnapping and ‘reconsider travel’ to seven states. It only gives its lowest level of advice of ‘exercise normal precautions’ for two states – Campeche and Yucatan.
The American government has four travel advisory levels. It says ‘do not travel’ to six states due to crime and kidnapping and ‘reconsider travel’ to seven states
The importance of tourism
While some areas are considered too dangerous for travel, tourism is of vital importance to the Mexican economy. Its government goes to great lengths to make sure tourist areas are as safe as possible, with increased security and dedicated police.
Travel advice generally reflects this – there are no UK, Australian or US warnings against travelling to the states of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, or Baja California Sur, where hotspot Cabo San Lucas can be found, for example.
“Historically, Mexico has done a fantastic job of protecting its tourism zones, so the well-known iconic areas are about as safe as anywhere with regards to tourism,” said David Mace, Executive Vice President of Product at American critical event management company FocusPoint International, which specialises in emergency response.
However, there’s more violence than there used to be, as criminal organisations seek to control territories with significant drug trafficking or consumption: “Unfortunately, in the past 10 years or so, there’s been a degradation of security conditions in these very tourist areas,” adds Mace. “A shootout between gangs in places like Cancun used to be unheard of. This tells you that the public sector is overwhelmed trying to control the violence, allowing it to spill over. Cartels also depend on tourism, so they don’t want to shoot tourists – but the rise in violence is going to affect them if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
While Mexico City is one of the safer areas, there are dangers associated with any big city. Its tourist areas are protected like those elsewhere, but travellers straying outside of these are more likely to experience street crime, as security is less tight. As it’s the capital, there are also more likely to be political protests and demonstrations. These can result in violence and disruption to transportation, putting travellers in danger.
While cartel activity is the issue that gets the most publicity, there are other dangers that can affect tourists more, as Jonathan Frankham, Europe General Manager at Australian global travel insurance company World Nomads, pointed out: “Cartel crime tends to be restricted to certain areas. An issue more likely to hit tourists is what is known as express kidnapping.
“You could be picked up by what you think is a licensed taxi, but it’s just a vehicle that has been borrowed by a criminal gang. They pick you up, take you to an ATM and force you to withdraw money or take your valuables. It’s seen an increase.”
Other risks for travellers include scams such as fake travel agencies offering services that don’t exist, and fake police who ask you to accompany them to a station or elsewhere so they can steal your money or valuables. Fake roadblocks are set up by criminal gangs to extort cash or steal vehicles, especially in rural areas. Additionally, there is also pickpocketing, ‘snatch and grab’ robbery and drink spiking.
Mexico is also prone to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, all of which create chaos that can result in crime, as authorities focus on public safety. Health risks include dengue fever, zika virus, altitude sickness and air pollution.
Another worrying risk to health is counterfeit or unregulated alcohol that has been produced illegally to keep costs down and maximise profits. At its worst, it can contain methanol – a toxic form of alcohol that can cause death or permanent blindness. Criminals may also use tainted booze to drug travellers and rob them.
More than 100 deaths from drinking tainted alcohol were reported in May 2020, after the pandemic led to a beer shortage, sales restrictions and economic hardship
Those affected included tourists. In 2017, a 20-year-old American woman, Abbey Connor, was found unconscious in a swimming pool at a resort near the popular destination of Playa del Carmen, after drinking what was thought to be tainted alcohol – she later died. Numerous reports of other tourists blacking out or becoming ill at resorts in and around Playa del Carmen and Cancun followed.
According to Mace, this could be the result of bootlegging operations by organised crime: “Hotels buy from a supplier and serve the drinks, but don’t know it’s counterfeit. They may get a common brand of tequila, such as Don Julio, but it isn’t really that brand.” Alternatively, they could be buying illegal alcohol to cut costs.
Although tourist areas don’t tend to be the most dangerous, business travellers could be visiting any part of the country – and are therefore exposed to more risk.
The interior, and areas that border the US, are the most dangerous
“The interior, and areas that border the US, are the most dangerous,” said Mace. “Border areas are the epicentre of organised crime in terms of drugs and people. Those on business may have exposure to them – perhaps visiting an assembly plant or farmland, for example – so they would need to ensure extraordinary security for travel.”
On the other hand, these trips could be safer in some circumstances. “If you’re a business traveller, you’re going there for a specific purpose and are more likely to be in urban areas,” pointed out Frankham. “Leisure travellers are exposed as they have free time. Business travellers are usually going for a short period, with a specific goal of meeting certain people, who are probably known to them beforehand.” The general message is to take your personal circumstances into consideration, especially if leaving the relative safety of your accommodation for evening entertainment. Common sense is of course imperative.
Safe for most
Media reports and warnings around safety issues in Mexico can certainly be worrying for travellers, but the reality is that most will have no problems during their visit and are very unlikely to get caught up in cartel crossfire.
What’s clear is that Mexico continues to be popular with travellers, who feel the benefits of visiting the country outweigh any risks
“Incidents involving tourists are a very small minority,” said Frankham. “There has been an uptick in reports of shooting and violence, but the targets are not tourists – and the Mexican government is keenly aware of the importance of the tourist industry to their economy, so there is an increased police presence in these areas as a result. Travellers should make sure they’re aware of what’s going on around them and be respectful of local habits and customs, so they don’t make themselves a target.”
What’s clear is that Mexico continues to be popular with travellers, who feel the benefits of visiting the country outweigh any risks. As long as they’re made aware of the potential safety issues they could face and how to protect themselves, they should mostly be able to travel without incident.