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How Safe is Mexico for Expats?

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How safe is Mexico for expats? If you live in the country or are considering becoming an expat there, personal safety in Mexico is an issue that should be a concern. But how much of a concern?

In November of 2015, Mexican authorities found the bodies of two missing Australian surfers in a burned-out van on a back road in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, home to the Sinaloa drug cartel. Mexican police arrested several low-level drug dealers for the crime, but none were affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel.

The story received major attention from U.S. media and once again fueled the public discussion on how safe it is to travel to or live in Mexico.

Mexico is by far the number one tourist destination for Americans, given its proximity to the U.S., weather, history, culture and the warmth of its people. Those ingredients, plus a much lower cost of living, has made Mexico also the number one destination for American expats, representing and estimated 11 percent of all American expats in the world, according to the 2010 Mexico census.

Most expats in Mexico believe that the U.S. media blow crime in Mexico out of proportion, particularly as it affects their daily lives. Their common theme is that crime is primarily confined to major cities and specific regions of the country – particularly the U.S. border – where drug cartels are competing for dominance. Crime statistics seem to support that view.

Overall, Mexico’s homicide rate is one of the highest in the world with an average of 21.5 reported homicides per 100,000 people, far higher than the 4.7 per 100,000 in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization, which bases its data on aggregated 2012 statistics, the latest available research. Canada’s murder rate is much lower, just 1.6 per 100,000 people. But homicide rates are much higher in areas that experience drug violence.

We looked at the global Homicide Monitor 2015 produced by the http://homicide.igarape.org.br Igarape Institute, a Brazilian think tank that breaks out murder rates by city and by country based on the most recent aggregated data, which was 2012 for Mexico.

The border city of Juárez experienced a homicide rate of 61.1 per 100,000 people, which was three times the national average. Another border city, Nuevo Laredo, was even higher, registering a rate of 135.8. In Culiacán, located about an hour north of the resort city of Mazatlán and home to the Sinaloa drug cartel, the murder rate was 51.8 per 100,000 people.

Image credit: Brandon Bourdages | Shutterstock
Credit: Brandon Bourdages | Shutterstock

By contrast, Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán and the home of many expats, reported a homicide rate of only 2.2 per 100,000 people. Aguascalientes, a central Mexico highland city of over 1 million, had a homicide rate of 4.2.

To put the homicide rates in Mexico in perspective, the murder rate in Washington D.C. is about five times higher than the U.S. average of 4.7, which is higher than Mexico’s overall homicide rate. Oakland, California’s homicide rate is 19.5 per 100,000 people, almost equal to Mexico’s country average.

The U.S. Department of State also makes the point that crime in Mexico varies widely by location.

“Millions of Americans safely live, work and take vacations in Mexico every year,” the U.S. Department of State said. “However, organized criminal groups continue to produce significant levels of violence throughout parts of the country. The northern half of Mexico is considered a higher threat area, primarily due to organized criminal conflicts and competition for drug trafficking routes to the U.S.”

The U.S. Department of State also said that recent statistics show violence is on the rise in central and southern Mexican states, particularly in Guerrero, Michoacán and the State of Mexico.

We asked personal security expert Juan Garcia for his take on how safe Mexico is for expats. Garcia is the owner and chief instructor of High Risk Security Services, a New Jersey-based firm that specializes in personal security training.

“There are certain areas of Mexico that are more dangerous, just like in the U.S.,” he told us. “If you are selling drugs or working in the human trafficking business, you will find violence. But if you are working for a company, starting a business or if you are a retiree, there are no more security concerns in Mexico than here in the United States. It depends on where you travel or live. Along Mexico’s border with the U.S., crime is high, but Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and other major tourist areas are generally safe. You really have to break down the safety issue not only by country but by specific areas within the country.”

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Garcia said expats worry most about highway and ATM robbery and home invasions, not homicide.

“Expat home invasions happen because criminals know that they have money and nice things in their homes, probably jewelry and extra cash and credit cards,” he said. “ATM robbery also is still a common trend.”

Garcia believes that good personal security planning starts with a comprehensive checklist.

“Begin with a threat assessment for the country,” he explained. “What do you have to be worried about? And by the way, the assessment is not just for crime but also for natural disasters that may affect you. Develop an emergency response plan that has answers for these questions: Do I have all my documentation? Where am I going to live? Do I have a checklist for my home? What kind of home do I have? What kind of windows and locks? How far do I go from home to work? When I go to work, where do I park? What happens if I get hurt? Who will take care of the children? Who do the children call?”

Garcia underscored that step one should always be making checklists and breaking them into these four categories: emergency planning, residential requirements, vehicle requirements and documentation needs.

Planning for personal security begins with research. Garcia thinks the U.S. Department of State is the best place to start.

“They have personal security information specifically for Mexico and a section where you can register with them if you will be traveling within the country or are a temporary or permanent resident. The U.S. embassy or consulates in Mexico are very good additional resources.”

He offered a final piece of personal security advice to expats living in Mexico or those contemplating a move.

“You must have the proper mindset,” he advised. “It starts with awareness and understanding of where you are going. What are the conditions there? Do your research and make your personal security checklist. Plan for that one catastrophic event that happens less than 3 percent of the time, but still could happen to you. Always start with a commitment to having a personal security mindset and lifestyle.”