The Travel Warning for Baja remains the same, if not a little outdated. The news is the increased vigilance for Baja California Sur, specifically the state capital of La Paz. I take a look at the realities and if and how it should affect your travel plans to the peninsula.
Updated January 2, 2015: The latest Mexico Travel Warning issued by the United States Department of State was released on Christmas Eve, 2014 and unfortunately my hometown of La Paz, we got a lump of coal for Navidad.
What I have dubbed "Mexiphobia is rampant in the northern media for a number of reasons and there are certainly places in Mexico, like Detroit, Baltimore and New Orleans in the US, that are probably best avoided. But Mexico is a large country and the #1 destination for tourists and Americans choosing to live abroad. Here I take a first hand, realistic and on the ground look at what it means for traveling and living in Baja. I'll leave the rest of Mexico to another author.
There were several changes to the warning this time, including mention of the problems in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where 43 students disappeared in route to protest a speech by the governor's wife, which has been seen prolifically in the domestic and international press since its occurrence. But for the first time the city of La Paz has gained a specific mention for violence.
It bothers me when I read stories on major news sites like CNN that describe 'a country in chaos" following the disappearance of 43 students in southern Mexico. It just isn't true, the populace is now taking the bull by the horns and people are standing up, protesting and demanding change. Many are suffering disillusion at having reverted to the conservative government party of the PRI, which ruled Mexico for decades. It looks like the problem was less evident before because PRI either ignored enforcement or was even in bed with the cartels.
I first authored this Mexico Travel Warning in Perspective article back in 2006, back before it was advanced from an "Advisory" to a "Warning". The Mexican drug war is said to have initiated in 2006and resulted from the power vacuum caused by the damage done to the Arellano-Felix organization. The arrests disrupted the power balance and the Sinaloa cartel tried to muscle in on the Arellano-Felix territory. The eastern cartels then moved against the Sinoloa cartel who became occupied with their new 'war'.
An estimated 110,000 people have died as a result of this drug war over the last decade, a vast majority of them have been directly tied to either police or cartel activity or were immigrants to Mexico, used for processing and muling the products. Of that number only a handful of North American" innocents" have been engulfed by the violence and Mexico remains the #1 foreign destination for US tourists, with more US visitors in a single day visit London has in a year. Almost twenty four MILLION Americans came to Mexico in 2013, making it one of the top 10 world wide destination annually and statistics indicate 2014 will have beaten that number..
Being an Aware Tourist
Although tourists anywhere are at greater risk for petty crimes, like pick pocketing and hotel room thefts, statistics show that you are more likely to be murdered in your home town than on vacation in Mexico, by a significant margin. There are cases of North Americans making headlines as victims in Mexico and Baja, but remember, nearly 2 million North Americans live in Mexico and a majority of them on the Baja peninsula. So, there are bound to be a few international headline worthy stories every year.
Legal and trial reforms accellerated in Mexico
Mexico is on the path of prosecution and court reform, to make the system much more similar to the US justice system, with assistance from the United States. The process is suppose to be completed nationwide by late 2016. But, because of the issues currently facing Baja California Sur, which I will cover in a just a moment, the change over will be completed in the state by mid-year 2015. The changes, including jury trials, will make the system more transparent and less susceptible to corruption.
In the Northern State of Baja California
Things got pretty dicey along the border back in 2007-08, as the homicide rate in Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Mexicali skyrocketed. When the Federal government moved in and replaced a large percentage of the Tijuana police department there was a surge in what appeared to be men in police uniform robbing and extorting tourists along the highway in the border region. At one juncture Philadelphia and Tijuana, being about the same size and fighting similar drug wars had nearly the same homicide statistics. President Calderon even sent the military in to restore tranquility and through 2012 things slowly settled down, although the homicide rate remained above the US average for similar sized cities.
The Travel Warning Text for Baja California:
Baja California: Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada and Mexicali are major cities/travel destinations in the state of Baja California – Exercise caution in the northern state of Baja California, particularly at night. Criminal activity along highways is a continuing security concern. According to the Baja State Secretariat for Public Security, from January to October 2014 Tijuana and Rosarito experienced increasing homicide rates compared to the same period in the previous year.
While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours.
Tijuana has changed dramatically in the last decade with the introduction of WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) requiring passports to return to the US. The blocks of blanket salesmen and strip bars have been replaced to a great extent to up scale restaurants and galleries. Because less than 28% of Americans hold a passport and few would buy a $110 passport to save $4 on a Mexican blanket. The change in Mexico's antibiotic rules, now requiring a prescription and equalized pricing on other pharmaceuticals also has decreased day-trip traffic to the border areas. But the city has taken the opportunity to move 'upscale' and now sports more nice restaurants and art galleries than ever before and appeared as a whole new city on my visit one year ago this week.
As to the statement about concerns along the highway and driving at night, that is old news from back in '07 and '08. The greater risk derived from driving at night is that of hitting a cow in the road, a pickup in front of you with no tail lights or driving off the road with no shoulder. The BajaInsider has always recommended avoiding driving at night for those larger and more common reason.
But all that reassurance said, the border areas do remain statistically more dangerous than say, San Diego on the other side of the line, yet safer than very dangerous cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Washington DC or New Orleans. However, once a crime is committed the rate of property recovery and/or prosecution remains embarrassingly low throughout the country.
Change in the status for Baja California Sur
In 2010 the State Department began specifying the travel warning by state, and Baja California Sur had enjoyed the status of 'no warning'. Unfortunately, in this advisory that has come to an end.
The Travel Warning Text for Baja California Sur:
Baja California (Sur): Cabo San Lucas and La Paz are major cities/travel destinations in the state of Southern Baja California – Exercise caution in the state capital of La Paz. According to the Department of Interior of Mexico, in 2013 Baja California Sur registered its highest homicide rate since 1997. Many of these homicides occurred in La Paz, where there has been an increase in organized crime-related violence.
First, let me point out that the major tourist destination for more than 30,000 visitors per week in Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo) has not seen this spike in homicides. The majority of the increased number has occurred in the capital city of La Paz/ The "battle" for the city of La Paz appears not to be a state-side traffic issue, but one of control of the local drug market. In the very recent past the state had around 8 to 10 homicides per year, most of them were domestic violence or neighborhood disagreements gone out of hand. But beginning in 2013 the number jumped to over 50 and now in 2014 we have exceeded that number by another dozen. Something has changed.
Whether you like to admit it or not, suppressing crime in any city is a spoken or unspoken agreement between police and organized criminals to 'keep it outta sight' or "we will come down on you - hard." That bond has apparently broken down here in La Paz, the city of peace. Fifty four drug related homicides have been committed in the city since July, when a hit was made on a cartel's summer party in Los Planes, just outside La Paz. There have been a half dozen other related incidents in the areas surrounding La Paz this year including Las Planes, Pescadero and three bodies found in a burned car on the road to Constitución, just north of La Paz.
There have been a variety of allegations as to why, ranging from the current president's change in crime fighting tactics (or lack there of, as some will say) to a change in that unspoken agreement between the state governor and the cartel of preference. But a turf war between has certainly erupted between two groups seeking to control the local market, rather than the trafficking routes which are the problems in border areas.
Is there reason to be frightened?
I live in La Paz, and have for more than 14 years, do I feel in greater danger today? I think the answer to that is yes and no.
We'll start with the "no". All of the increased number of homicides are directly associated with cartel "employees". All but three of the homicides were discovered as 'body dumps', tied tortured and murdered in a secluded location. Nearly all of the dead covered in the newspapers had "from Sinaloa" following their name. The police chief has had attempts on his life and one police officer was killed this summer, but that was not believe to be tied to cartel activity and some laid that one at the feet of the mayor and police chief over a separate political issue.
As to the "yes", I wish I could tell you that no innocents were harmed, but in November a 7 year old boy was struck in the leg and a young woman and her 8 month old suffered minor wounds in December. The 7 year old was wounded in a neighborhood know for drug dealing, on the very corner where I myself have witnessed "transactions". Of the later two, the police believe it was the father, who had a record for drug possession who was the target and was walking with them. In October there was a car to car gun battle just blocks from the La Paz civic center depositing more than 80 shell casings as a result. Other than that incident, the violence has occurred in impoverished or non-tourist neighborhoods.
I think the best way to sum it up was an observation I made when first moving to La Paz from San Diego, where there had been an incident in a fast food restaurant. I was in a San Diego restaurant when a balloon popped and a few people actually hit the floor in fear. A few weeks later a balloon popped in a La Paz McDonald's and nobody even blinked. Today, I think much of the La Paz populace would find themselves a little more on edge and would tend to checkout the origin of a popping balloon or a string of firecrackers with a little more interest. Do I feel insecure in my daily routine in La Paz? No.
What is being done
The good news from all of this is, unlike decades past where the attitude was 'that is the way it is in Mexico', the citizens of La Paz are furious. There have been marches and rallies demanding a solution to the problem and restoration of tranquility to the City of Peace. The police force cleaned house in November, dismissing a large number of officers for failing drug tests. The military upped it presence by 2000 army regulars in November and a large number of federal police and 50 new patrol cars have been assigned to the region.
There is increased vigilance at all points of entry to La Paz, including the airport and the ferry terminal. The local police have initiated check points for unregistered cars (which have been a common denominator in many of the shootings, stolen from Sinaloa) and the enforcement on no tinted windows on the front or rear doors of domestic or foreign cars, to make it easier for police to spot the scofflaws. (at some locations they will remove your window tints on the spot) The local travel industry is panicked that the inclusion in the travel warning will cost the city its burgeoning reputation as a tourist destination and the may cause cancellation of the 16 cruise ships which are scheduled to visit in 2015.
Summing up the Travel Warnings for the Baja Peninsula:
The situation in Baja California (north) has changed little in the last couple of years, certainly it is slowly working its way to the better. In Baja California Sur the situation has deteriorated, specifically in La Paz, more than 90 miles north of the popular tourist destination of Cabo San Lucas. Would I recommend not visiting La Paz or changing your travel plans? I think that would be a little silly considering the real facts and it would hurt those that are trying hardest to remedy the situation.
The BajaInsider's Editorial Position
Finally, there are those that would say, because we are a travel and living in Baja 'good news' magazine, that we are sugar coating the situation. To that I would have to respond an emphatic "BULL HOCKEY!" The content of this article is factual and concise. Our researchers check a variety of news sources daily and I have been compiling the articles and stats daily since the problem accelerated in July.
Both James, the publisher and myself, as editor, have declined to publicize businesses we consider to not be in the interest of the environment or community, informed our readers about mining that could destroy the Baja beauty and exposed and educated our readers on the corruption and how to deal with it in the local police. We both love Baja and have called it home for many years and want those who come to visit or come to join us to live in this beautiful region to share our love for Baja. Our credibility for both your benefit and that of our sponsors has been of paramount importance to us since day one.