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IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO MEXICO?

At Book of Mormon Tours, we have been taking escorted group tours to Mexico and Guatemala for more than forty years.  In fact, we are the pioneers of the Book of Mormon tour concept.  In recent times, we have often been asked, “Is it safe to travel to Mexico?”  Below are several recent articles and internet links to answers to that question: (http://isitsafetotraveltomexico.com accessed March 30, 2012)
 
“The U.S. State Department’s Updated Travel Advisory for Mexico” (25 February 2012)
The U.S. State Department issued its most recent Travel Advisory for Mexico in February, highlighting the areas of Mexico that are safe for travel.  Those areas include:
Baja California South, including Cabo San Lucas
Parts of Southern Mexico including Campeche, Chiapas
Central Mexico including Estado de Mexico, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Leon and Hidalgo, Puebla, Queretaro
Mexico City
Oaxaca including Huatulco and Puerto Escondido
Quintana Roo including Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Riviera Maya, Cozumel and Tulum
Tabasco including Villahermosa
Tlaxcala
Yucatan including Merida and Chichen Itza
 
States to avoid or to exercise caution in include:
Chihuahua
Tijuana
Coahuila
Durango
Nuevo Leon
Sinaloa
(Editor’s note: none of our tours visit these states.)
 
As both Travel Mexico and State Department point out, every year, millions of travelers from the United States cross into Mexico for business, pleasure or educational purposes.  From Travel Mexico:
“In fact, over 150,000 U.S. citizens venture into Mexico on a daily basis. The Mexican government spends a considerable amount of resources to protect tourists from both the U.S. and other countries. As a result, resorts and other tourist destinations do not have the type of drug-related crime that is seen in the border regions or along the primary trafficking routes. Plus, the State Department has found that there is no evidence that any organized criminal group in Mexico has targeted U.S. citizens based on their country of origin.”
 
“Playing It Safe In Mexico in 2012” (26 December 2011)
A recent article in The Washington Post offers a great, updated guide to traveling safe in Mexico, along with a fair compendium of facts, statistics, and quotes from official and non-official sources. An estimated 4.7 million Americans visited Mexico from January to October 2011. From the article:
 
“Of 2,500 municipalities (what we call counties), only 80, or fewer than 5 percent, have been affected by the drug war, which accounts for only 3 percent of all crime. Mexican cities are also safer than some urban centers north of the border: Mexico City, for example, has 8.3 homicides a year per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than Miami (14.1) and Chicago (16.1). On a global scale, Mexico is safer than many of its neighbors. In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported Mexico’s homicide rate as 11.6 per 100,000, significantly lower than Honduras (60.9), Jamaica (59.5) or El Salvador (51.8). Without a solid understanding of the geography (761,606 square miles) and the nature of the drug wars (internecine fighting), many foreigners assume that all of Mexico is a war zone. But it isn’t.”
 
Violence by and large is limited to specific areas, and unrelated to tourism.  The article suggests areas that are safe to visit, areas to visit with caution, as well as areas to avoid.
 
Safe to Visit
Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Campeche, Merida, Tulum, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, Leon, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas, Oaxaca.
 
Go with Caution
Avoid traveling alone and at night in Tijuana, and beware of street crime in Mexico City.
 
Places to Avoid
Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Copper Canyon, Baja California, Guadlajara, Veracruz, Monterrey, Mazatlan, and Acapulco
 
Says U.S. and Hampton, VA expat Margo Lee Shetterly – who relocated to Mexico with her husband 6 years ago:
“There’s a big gap between perception and reality.  It’s a real shame for people to write off a whole country without looking at the map and at the statistics.”
 
You can read the full Travel Advisory for Mexico at the State Department’s website, here. http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5665.html
 
“Mexico is Safer than the Headlines Suggest” (30 August 2011)
Christine Delsol of the San Francisco Chronicle asked recently, “Quick – which national capital has the higher murder rate: Mexico City or Washington, D.C.?”
 
If you happen to base your answer on recent headlines and news coverage, your answer will probably be Mexico City. But in fact, Mexico City’s drug-related-homicide rate per 100,000 population was one-tenth of Washington’s overall homicide rate in 2010. These kinds of statistics continue to justify Mexico as a safe travel destination by and large, but are ignored by the mainstream media.
 
While parts of Mexico are indeed plagued with drug-related violence, these parts have been well-publicized and are easy to avoid, as the article relays. On the flip-side,
“More than 95 percent of Mexico’s municipalities are at least as safe as the average traveler’s hometown. Yucatan state, for example, had 0.1 of a murder for every 100,000 people in 2010 – no U.S. tourist destination comes close to that. Most cities in central Mexico, outside of the scattered drug hot spots, have lower murder rates than Orlando.”
 
As Delsol points out, while it’s fairly clear what travelers should do when visiting Mexico – fly (don’t drive) across the border directly to safe regions, it seems that tourists would rather just write the country off as a whole, than bother with figuring out which places to avoid – even if it means writing off great vacation spots and even greater discount deals.
 
“Investigation shows U.S. – Mexico Border is Safer than Critics Say” (18 July 2011)
Despite the bloody picture that many U.S. politicians have painted – a USA Today special analysis found that rates of violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border have been falling for years, even prior to the U.S. security buildup.  It looks like those famous quotes from U.S. politicians, such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s warning that human skulls were rolling through her state’s deserts, and Rep. John Culberson’s (R-Texas) claim that violence on the U.S. side of the border was “out of control” run counter to police reports and violent crime statistics.
 
In fact, the USA Today analysis found that U.S. border cities are statistically safer on average than other cities in their states, and that murder, robbery and kidnapping rates were all on the decline. The analysis drew from more than 10 years of detailed crime data reported by more than 1,600 local law enforcement agencies in four states, as well as federal crime statistics and interviews along the border from California to Texas.
 
As USA Today points out, the appearance of an out-of-control border region continues to have wide-ranging effects including:
 
Stalling efforts to pass a national immigration reform law, fueling stringent anti-immigration laws in Arizona and elsewhere, and increasing the amount of federal tax dollars going to build more fencing and add security personnel along the southwestern border.
 
San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez said some of the money going to border security should instead be going to expanding the existing ports of entry and adding new ones to allow the state’s already-hurting economy a chance to recover. But, he said, the image of a lawless border makes it impossible to even discuss the topic.
 
“When you’ve got the national rhetoric about illegal immigration, you can never get to a conversation about legal immigration,” Alvarez said. “Effective border crossings and better regional economics don’t sell newspapers.”
 
“A Sobering but Fair Take on the Safety Debate” (28 June 2011)
Former Mexican resident and educator Allan Wall gives a fair take on the Mexican safety debate at Mexidata, acknowledging Mexico’s violence problem and the sobering statistics of deaths in border towns like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. He also acknowledges that more Americans were killed in cartel related violence in 2010 (reportedly 108) than in years past, and that those numbers may be under-counted due to reporting complications such as dual citizenship and people who simply disappear.  However, he makes the point that, of those killed, many are involved in criminal or cartel-related activity – and that overall, the number of deaths does not quite match up to reports of rampant violence or of the whole country being in chaos.  Says Wall:
 
“Let’s say for the sake of argument that up to 300 Americans die annually in Mexico.  Each one of those deaths is a tragedy.  But 300 deaths would still be a fraction of the estimated 15 million Americans who visit Mexico annually.  So statistically, the chances of an American tourist being killed in Mexico are not very high at all.”
 
Wall urges Americans to make up their own minds about whether to travel to Mexico or not, but to make an informed decision.  He recommends the U.S. Travel Advisory as a fair and reliable source, and says, “In any city you visit, it makes a difference as to what part of town you are in, and in what sorts of activities you are engaged.”
 
“In Perspective: Safety in the U.S. Versus Mexico” (31 May 2011)
There’s been a lot of news coverage about violence in Mexico, very little of it bothering to note that Mexico is a huge country with thirty-some states and that a) almost all of that violence is narco-related and b) you can count the number of tourists affected on one hand.
 
Here is another interesting article that provides needed context to violence statistics in Mexico, as well as compares safety statistics between Mexico and the U.S.  The official number of 111 U.S. citizens who were killed in Mexico last year may seem scary at first, but this was out of the almost 8 million U.S. citizens who visited Mexico last year.  In comparison, Boston, Las Vegas and Orlando also had 111 murders last year, and almost 1,000 U.S. citizens were killed in Puerto Rico (a country that gets far less press).  The statistic becomes eve more grounded once other facts are presented, namely, that a third of those 111 murders happened in just 2 cities and almost all of them were involved “in illicit vocations, usually the trafficking of guns, drugs, or people across the border.”
 
“CNN Travel on Why You Should Go To Mexico” (11 May 2011)
Robert Reid’s recent article for CNN Travel discusses Mexican tourism’s big PR problem – what we all know, the escalating drug war and gory media reports of violence. . . .
 
Reid says, “We tend to lump all of Mexico – a country the size of Western Europe – together,” citing how a border incident involving the death of a Colorado tourist in 2010 prompted the Texas Department of Homeland Security to issue a travel warning for all of Mexico.  The fact of the matter is that most of central and southern Mexico sees less violence than many U.S. cities, and residents remain miffed at the public’s fear of their quiet communities.
 
Offering “jungles, deserts, volcanoes, beaches, coral reefs, ancient pyramids, living pre-European cultures and some of the world’s most satisfying cuisines,” not to mention proximity and value, Mexico remains a great travel destination with a very bad PR problem.
 
“Violence Figures in Mexico Compared to Other Countries” (1 April 2011)
The Catalist’s statistics-driven analysis of violence in Mexico provides a more accurate assessment of Mexico than many of the sensationalistic and non-contextualized news reports.  A website created to “empower the Mexican-American relationship,” the Catalist used international indicators for measuring violence in a country – the number of violent deaths per 100,000 people – to compare figures of Mexican violence with those of other Latin American countries and U.S. cities.
 
They found that, in fact, Mexico is one of the safest countries in Latin America, having lower numbers of violent deaths than popular Latin American destinations like Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.  In comparing Mexico City to other U.S. cities, Mexico City came out on top in terms of safety.  With 9.8 violent deaths per 100,000 people, Mexico City had fewer deaths than U.S. cities like Houston (12.5), Phoenix (12.6), and Los Angeles (17.1).  While troubled Mexican cities like Ciudad Juarez have much higher violence statistics, they also account for most of Mexico’s violent deaths.
 
These figures not only help put reports of Mexico’s violence in context, but also paint a picture of what is true in many countries.  Some parts of countries can be more dangerous than others, and should be avoided.  Mexico as a whole is not plagued by violence, but travelers should be aware of dangerous cities to avoid.  Just as people in the U.S. might encourage travelers to take advantage of Chicago, while avoiding Detroit – people in Mexico would encourage tourists to experience Mexico City, while steering clear of Ciudad Juarez.  The article also acknowledges that sensationalistic news reports that don’t provide the whole picture unfairly hurt the cities and communities of Mexico that are safe, by driving away tourism and investment.
 
“The Contrarian Traveler Calls for More Responsible Travel Warnings” (31 March 2011)

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Acknowledging that official statements like that carry weight for both business and leisure travelers, Greenberg, who was traveling in Mexico during the time the statement was issued, felt it was irresponsible.  Citing his own trip which stretched from Oaxaca to Chihuahua to Mexico City and encountered zero problems, he relays the fact that business travelers he found in Mexico were not worried about safety issues.  Because business travelers tend to be more savvy and streetwise travelers than vacationing tourists, they also tend to exercise more common sense regarding travel conditions.
 
Greenberg points out that the often used statistic that 64 Americans died in Mexico last year does not specify the cause of deaths and thus, is a misleading statistic.  He presents some facts to contextualize the worry those statistics seem to generate.
An overwhelming majority of the crime is in the northern part of the country.
The distance between Tijuana and Cancun almost matches the distance between Los Angeles and New York.
An overwhelming majority of the crime is drug related, and it is generally cartel versus cartel.  Americans aren’t targeted.
 
“Peaceful Merida, Rich with Tradition and Social Capital” (24 March 2011)
The beginning of 2011 saw a return to media fanfare about violence in Mexico amidst more drug trafficking related deaths.  And with the sensationalism comes another round of voices who want to speak to the Mexico that they know and have experienced.  One of those voices, writer Edith Wilson, addressed the controversy in The Washington Post at the beginning of March, speaking earnestly about the southeastern Mexican town of Merida, where she recently traveled for a month.
 
Merida, the capital of the Yucatan state with a population of one million and famous for its Mayan ruins, provides an example of an average city recognizable in any American state.  Violent crime is low, free WiFi can be found in public parks, and families gather in the streets for cultural events, like a recent festival which brought in Colombian rock star Juanes to play an outdoor concert.  Says Wilson:
“I just spent a month wandering its clean, civilized streets, often by myself, and I’ve never felt safer or met nicer people. This is the Mexico rich in social capital, tradition and culture that we should cherish and defend, and that is almost blotted out amid news of drug violence.”
 
In her article, Wilson praises what she experienced in Merida – a wealth of social capital and rich culture, “where the community, rich and poor, gathers in public; and where pride in local culture feeds adherence to values that serve the needs of all” – and urges readers to not be blinded by the Mexico they see in the media.
 
“The Real Worries To Have When Traveling To Mexico” (18 March 2011)
Back from a writer’s conference in Puerto Vallarta, travel writer Susie Albin-Najera took a moment to reflect in writing on the country’s safety. As a travel writer, she is frequently asked about safety in Mexico, and her answer is always yes it’s possible to run into violence, but is it probable?  No.
 
After another pleasant stay (Albin-Najera is a frequent traveler to Mexico) she felt compelled to compile a list of what travelers should really worry about when traveling to Mexico. Some of those include:
You might overeat at the endless Sunday brunch and get heartburn.
You might get acid indigestion from too much fresh squeezed lemonade.
You might get sunburned and have to spend extra money buying aloe vera gel.
You might lose your hearing if you are sitting next to a 26-piece mariachi band.
You might have a hard time deciding whether to go to the beach or get a massage.
 
The Drug Wars
There is little doubt that the drug wars are escalating in Mexico. But is it safe for the average tourist? The mayhem is for the most part localized---by far the most violent is near the U.S. border at Cuidad Juarez, Chihuahua. Most of the victims are involved in organized crime and the drug trade in some way, as well those guilty by association, such as judges, policemen, and newspaper reporters. The mafiosos are not targeting tourists and, given the negative effect the drug wars are having on Mexico?s third-largest economic activity, the government is doing everything possible to protect them. (From http://www.mexicoguru.com/safety-in-mexico.php, accessed March 16, 2012)
 
Traveling Safely in Mexico (by Mike Harris)
You don't have to look far for warnings about travel in Mexico. There are reports of thefts, robberies, even rape. There are stories of car-jackings and muggings, extortions and set-ups. If you listen too hard or too long, you might never leave home again.
 
Newspaper publishers love to report misdeeds. Except in the travel section, a story about travelers arriving at their destination safe and sound would be undeniably boring. Yet it’s true that crime---violent crime---occurs in Mexico just as it does throughout the world. And certain areas of Mexico are experiencing heightened crime.
 
Drug cartels battle each other for territory. Mexican president Felipe Calderón has declared war on the drug trade, and intimidation, kidnappings and killings---of police officers, politicians, and recently, even musicians---have taken an alarming upturn, especially in border areas. For the average tourist, however, violence and mayhem can almost always be avoided by following a few basic precautions.
 
Rule #1
Travel during the day. Criminals are like cockroaches … they love the night. Evil-doers can be identified by witnesses. This tends to irritate them! During daylight hours, you and other drivers are more visible to the vast majority of law-abiding, peace-loving Mexicans who welcome your presence. Buses as well as cars are less likely to be messed with during the day.
 
Rule #2
When encountering the police or the military at checkpoints on the major highways, treat them respectfully and professionally. A few civilities such as “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” go a long way in producing a hassle-free experience. Some of these officials come from humble backgrounds and are not as worldly as the average foreign traveler. Don’t flaunt your educational superiority, real or imagined.
 
Rule #3
When taking taxis in major cities (especially Mexico City), check with your hotel staff or other knowledgeable locals about any areas (or cab companies) to avoid. There are places and circumstances in your own city that you should avoid, and chances are you heed your own advice! Seek out the counsel of locals in foreign cities you aren’t familiar with.
 
Rule #4
When possible, travel in groups. The old saying “There’s safety in numbers” was coined for good reason.
 
Rule #5
Be aware of your surroundings. While enjoying the colors, sights and smells of a new environment, keep your eyes peeled. Enjoy being a tourist, and use this as an opportunity to learn of the people: their mannerisms, their charm, their beauty…as well as the cunning of the rare but dangerous ne’er-do-well. You needn’t be paranoid. But a little extra awareness goes a long way.
 
Goodness is everywhere. Unfortunately, so are miscreants and dangerous dirt bags. Expect the best but prepare for the worst. Mexico is a beautiful country full of beautiful people. No need to stay home and triple bolt the door ... not yet, and hopefully, not ever.
 
“Our Neighbors, the Real Mexico” (8 September 2010)
Steve Blow writes in a recent article in the Dallas Morning News called “Opening our eyes to the real Mexico,” that “As neighbors, we really need to get better acquainted.”  He is talking about his fellow Texans.  When people ask him where he vacationed this summer, his reply – Mexico City – receives raised eyebrows or “air sucked through teeth,” as he puts it.  He doesn’t blame them, considering they are simply reacting to the headlines these days – of which people from Texas are particularly susceptible to.  He says:
“And if headlines here were all I had to go on, I would probably think of it as a land of unmitigated savagery, too…We think of Mexico as a country under siege. And in a few specific places, I suppose it is. But in the vast, vast majority of places, life goes on at its own sweet pace.  Mothers and daughters still walk arm-in-arm along shopping streets. Young couples cuddle on park benches.”
 
This is the Mexico he hopes Americans will become more acquainted with.  His political standpoint is that “A more complete picture of Mexico could help us reach common-sense compromises” regarding immigration reform.  His personal standpoint is that missing out on a country he calls “kind, cultured, modern, ancient, delicious, exciting, fascinating, mysterious, inviting, vibrant” based on a few violent areas, would be a shame.
 
Mexico is a country rich in history, culture, friendliness, and cuisine.  Join us on a tour to these marvelous neighbors to the south and enjoy their hospitality, beautiful scenery, exciting history, and enhance your understanding of the Book of Mormon as you walk in the footsteps of the ancient prophets you have come to know and love through the pages of Nephi’s record and “Let the Book of Mormon change your life…Again!”® 

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