Is there a Civil War Raging in Mexico?
Mexico is in a state of civil war and the central government is on the verge of collapse. Violence and lawlessness reign in the streets. On a recent Sunday morning news program former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said Mexico “is in a state of civil war.” Movies like “Once upon a Time in Mexico” lead North American movie goers to believe a military coup in Mexico is imminent.
Is all this true? Is Mexico’s central government on the verge of succumbing to the drug cartels?
From the perspective of 20 years of travel in Baja, 10 years of living in Mexico and travel through the interior - categorically, no.
The Perception of Violence in Mexico
“(CNN) -- A shootout in a border city that leaves five alleged drug traffickers sprawled dead on the street and seven police wounded. A police chief and his bodyguards gunned down outside his house in another border city.”
Battered by headlines like these, it has been years since Mexico has had a ‘normal’ tourist season although 2010 has been a definite improvement over the previous years. North Americans have always had a bit of “Mexiphobia”, possibly resulting from the different language, culture or ethnic extraction. Either way, Mexico and the United States have never been really ‘good neighbors’.
The murders and beheadings of police and civic officials in Mexico sends a chill through the bones of tourists. North Americans find this particularly abhorrent, as the killing of a police officer is punishable by death in many states..
Headlines tell of drug related violence in Mexico spilling over into the U.S. and Canada. When in fact it is business of drug consumption in the U.S. is the cause of the violence and social issues in Mexico. Nearly all the money and most of the weaponry of the cartels are from the United States.
Mexico and the Cartel War
Mexico has been at war with the Cartels since President Felipe Calderón. took office. The Cartels are also at war with each other, competing for the lucrative U.S. drug market. But, according to a U.S. State Department report Mexico is making headway against the cartels.
“Mexico’s aggressive campaign to combat drugs and confront major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) continued at an ambitious pace in 2009. The Mexican government reaffirmed its commitment to limit the flow of drugs and combat DTOs by dedicating more resources and personnel to the effort. The results are clear: a number of significant DTO leaders and key associates were captured; and the government continued to dismiss officials co-opted by the traffickers “
It is the government’s progress that has forced the cartels into more drastic and violent acts.
The Reality of the Statistics
The same day as the CNN headline above a cop was shot in the head in San Diego, 6 people shot it out with police in Atlanta, two died and 3 were found dead in a meth lab in Philadelphia just to name some of the incidents of that day.
Mexico has a population of 107 million or about 1/3 that of the U.S. In 2009 an estimated 9635 persons died in the drug cartel struggle in Mexico, all but a few were ‘direct combatants’. For comparison during the same time period almost 40,000 people died in the U.S. from homicide and direct and indirect drug related causes.
Of those 9635 drug related homicides, 2400 died in Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua. Cd. Juarez is opposite El Paso, Texas. Twenty three Americans were killed in Cd. Juarez in 2009 and that number nearly doubled so far in 2010. I would not visit Cd. Juarez.
Map of Cartel areas of Influence in Mexico. Note the absence of activity in Baja California Sur.
New Orleans is one of the most violent cities in U.S. with 64 murders per 100,000 people. Cd. Juarez is the most violent city in Mexico with a blood curdling 171 per 100,000. Ciudad Juarez is 575 miles north east and across the Sea of Cortez from Cabo San Lucas. Being afraid of vacationing in Baja because of the violence in Cd. Juarez is like not visiting Washington D.C. for the violence in distant New Orleans.
Baja California Sur is one of the safest states in Mexico with 3 murders in 2010 so far. Two were domestic violence. The latest State Department Travel Warning for Mexico outlined specific areas of violence to avoid in Mexico. Baja Sur was notably absent from that blacklist.
The murder rate in the United States in 2009 was about 5.6 per 100,000. In Mexico in 2009 it was about 3 times that, or 15 murders per 100,000 or about 16050 total murders. A vast majority of those killed were ‘direct combatants’ leaving just 6608 non-cartel war murders nation wide. That is a murder rate of 6 per 100,000 or nearly the same as the U.S.
Closer to home in Baja, there have been cartel related murders in Mexicali and Tijuana. In 2009 Tijuana cartel murders dropped about 30% from 844 deaths in 2008 to about 580. This is directly attributable to law enforcement efforts on both sides of the border. To date none of these events have involved tourists.
In world wide comparison Mexico doesn’t even rank in the top ten dangerous places to visit. Puerto Rico, a very popular travel destination, lead Mexico with 23 murders per 100,000 and El Salvador was the leader of the pack with 71 murders per 100,000.
Is traveling to Mexico more dangerous than staying at home?
Not if you are a cigarette smoker! To put the numbers in perspective, you are more likely to die of a smoking related illness in the U.S. this year than be murdered in Cd. Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico! You are also more likely to be killed in a drunk driving accident within 20 miles of your home than even witness a violent event on vacation in Mexico.
At most popular travel destinations in Mexico and throughout Baja you will find host providers eager and ready to show you a wonderful time. Select your destination wisely and now may not be the time to ‘experience life on the edge’ and venture off the beaten tourist track.
Is it safe to travel in Baja?
In 2007 several headline robbery/abductions took place in the state of Baja California involving tourists. Murders in Tijuana jumped 40% and the military moved in and disarmed the police and investigated the corruption. Federal authorities were prompt to react. Although it has been more than 3 years since these events it may be some time before TJ becomes a trusted tourist destination again.
Just south of the border cities like Rosarito Beach, Ensenada and San Felipe have made efforts to not only resolve the issues in their area, but communicate the safety of their region more effectively to the traveling public.
Driving Baja is one of the world’s great RV destinations in the winter months. We have received several emails regarding driving Baja and folks wary of highway bandits. Be more concerned about the lack of gas stations in the 275 miles from El Rosario to Guerrero Negro or hitting a 1200 pound bull in the highway after sunset than that of being accosted on the highway.
From a personal perspective here in Baja California Sur, an evening walk long the La Paz Malecon is still delightful and safe.
Tips for a safe and enjoyable trip to Baja California or Mexico
First, don’t seek employment with a drug cartel. Your life expectancy will diminish significantly. Since you need to become a citizen before becoming a police officer or elected official we don’t need to worry about those risky options either.
Americans are notably oblivious to their surroundings, mostly because of our intrinsic level of safety at home. We are not saying crime does not exist in Mexico and every city has an alley where your wallet is worth more than your life. Protect yourself and remain aware of what is happening around you. If you are new to Mexico, remain in the traveled tourist areas. If you are a seasoned traveler, be a little extra cautious in your explorations.
Shop your vacation. Because of the economic situation most travel providers are going to be delighted to play host to you and may offer excellent pricing. A rare few may try and make up the season’s tourist shortfalls by gouging one particular customer. By getting more than one quote on your travel plans you can be assured the best value.
Protect against petty theft. As with anywhere in these challenging economic times an unattended purse becomes more attractive. Change your dollars to pesos in advance or withdraw money from an ATM for the best exchange rates.
One example of the press tilt on this issue is a single inflamitory line from a recent article, "No governmental institution can survive such a crisis (line break) unchanged." Of course not! To defeat the problem existing agencies will need to modify and improve tactics to gain the upper hand. This doesn't mean, as the words intone but do not say, that the government agencies will be over come by the cartels.
Now that you have some facts, assess WHY the media and politicians are touting these half truths. Take a moment to step back and reveal what snake oil they are peddling. Question the true grasp of international affairs of those that have declared there to be a civil war in Mexico. We are here to let Chicken Little know the sky is not falling.
Relax and enjoy your vacation. As we have shown here, you have a better chance of being struck by lightening in your own back yard than becoming the victim of drug violence on your Mexican vacation.
by Insider Editor