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The Truth About Personal Safety in Mexico

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You may have seen news stories last month based on a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) entitled “Mexico’s Spiraling Murder Rate.” The report claimed that Mexico’s international homicide rate last year topped 23,000, second only to war-torn Syria. But behind the numbers there is a different truth about personal safety in Mexico and how it affects expats.

IISS – a United Kingdom-based non-profit organization that specializes in global security issues – released its Armed Conflict Survey 2017 and immediately grabbed headlines around the world for reporting that intentional homicides in Mexico jumped by nearly 23 percent from 2015 to 2016, primarily as a result of the country’s “war on drugs” that began during the Calderón administration a decade ago.

The report drew criticism from some media outlets, including one of the U.K.’s leading newspapers, The Guardian. It reported that Mexico’s foreign and interior ministries said, “The country’s homicide rate of 16.4 murders per 100,000 residents was significantly lower than several other Latin American countries.” That number is consistent with data reported by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s International Homicide Statistics.

The Guardian went on to say that although the war on organized crime has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since it was launched, “large swathes of the country are unaffected by drug violence.” In fact, tourism in Mexico grew by 9 percent in 2016.

So what is the truth about personal safety in Mexico? Should you be alarmed at the IISS report that equates Mexico’s level of violence with the civil war that is raging in Syria? Are the U.S. media and others sensationalizing crime in Mexico?

personal safety in Mexico HX Security Group
Jack Harary

To find the truth behind the numbers, we interviewed Jack Harary, the managing director of Mexico City-based HX Security Group, one of the leading security consulting firms in Mexico.

We first asked Harary to respond to the IISS report. “While it is true that Mexico has become more violent, it is important to note that somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of those 23,000 homicides in 2016 were the result of organized crime, but the remaining ones were common-law homicides,” Harary said. “Mexico typically ranks 25th globally with regard to the homicide rate per capita. While it is necessary to recognize that violence – and homicide in particular – is a serious problem in Mexico, the IISS report compares apples to oranges.”

Harary said the primary targets of crime in Mexico are residents of lower-income neighborhoods, especially in larger cities. Assaults, burglary and armed robberies are typical crimes found in these areas. Middle-to-upper-income residents may be targeted by criminals in public settings, or less frequently, in their homes. Organized criminal groups can also be a problem for small business owners.

Most crime in Mexico follows a regional pattern. There are several factors that affect these patterns. For example, cities located along the U.S. and Guatemala borders are important to criminal gangs for the smuggling of narcotics and weapons, as well as high levels of human trafficking. Major ports are important to criminal organizations for the illicit import of narcotics from Asia. Another factor that facilitates higher crime rates is densely settled urban areas, like Mexico City and Guadalajara. According to Harary, high levels of police or governmental corruption in particular areas, such as the states of Guerrero, Mexico, Michoacán and Veracruz, also lead to higher levels of crime.

We asked Harary the question most important to expats living in Mexico and those who are thinking about moving to Mexico: Which areas of the country are the safest or most dangerous for expats?

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“Well, fortunately, most of the areas frequented by expats are relatively safe when compared to the national average, and especially when compared to the highest crime regions across Mexico,” he said. “The safest areas of the country are Campeche and Yucatán. Querétaro, Tlaxcala, Puebla and Guanajuato are relatively safe for expats, but not necessarily for locals. Baja California, Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit also are safer areas.”

As for the most dangerous areas of Mexico, Harary said expats should avoid the northern border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas, the rural areas of Durango, northern Sinaloa, southern Michoacán, most of Guerrero, southeastern Oaxaca, southern Veracruz, rural Tabasco and southern Chiapas. However, it is important to note that there has been a notable surge in violence in Baja California and Jalisco over the last two years.

The most common crimes that affect expats are residential burglaries and thefts carried out by housekeeping staff. Less frequent crimes include armed robbery, home invasion and sexual assault. Rarely are expats victims of kidnapping. Even extortion is less prevalent among expats than Mexico’s national average.

How can expats protect themselves from crime in Mexico? Harary believes it is crucial that you remain aware of your situation at all times.

“Criminals constantly scan public settings for potential victims,” he said. “They are generally skilled in the identification of the times and places when and where you are most vulnerable. What criminals consider “high-value targets” may be watched for several days. You can limit their surveillance by being aware of suspicious individuals or vehicles and by avoiding a predictable pattern of activities or movement. In almost all cases, local police are generally aware of who is involved in criminal activity in the area, and often they are complicit.”

To guard your personal safety in Mexico, Harary recommended that expats:

1. Carry government-issued photo identification at all times.

2. Avoid obvious displays of wealth and keep laptops and other electronic equipment out of sight, especially while in public.

3. Make certain your vehicle is in excellent working condition and always has sufficient fuel.

4. Avoid any unnecessary travel after dark.

5. Avoid disclosing travel plans to those you do not know well, including Mexican law enforcement personnel.

6. Stay up to date on local information in areas that show an increase in crime, including where you live or plan to travel.

7. Stay on main highways and streets whenever possible.

8. Drive defensively and monitor any potential obstacles in the road ahead. Be prepared to take an alternative route.

9. Drivers should try to maintain sufficient space around their vehicle when stopped at traffic lights to avoid being boxed in.

10. Avoid nightclubs, bars and similar entertainment venues because they are often attacked by rival gangs and are hotbeds of criminal activity.

11. Be especially cautious when stopped by local law enforcement personnel. They may be on a cartel’s payroll.

Unfortunately, ineffective law enforcement and an over-burdened judicial system in Mexico has led to what Harary called “an extremely high level of impunity,” which is defined as the number of crimes that occur without punishment by the criminal justice system. Less than 1 percent of all crimes in Mexico are punished within the judicial system.

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The government is working to improve personal safety in Mexico by implementing a program to evaluate local police forces across the country. The program attempts to identify vulnerability to corruption and provides certification of police officers. Not yet a success, the program has identified areas of the country where corruption is most prevalent.

The truth is, there are personal safety concerns in Mexico, just like any other country, and they may be increasing as the government continues to battle the cartels and the cartels battle each other. But there are many states and communities within Mexico that are no more dangerous than those you left behind in your home country. As you did there, be aware and stay safe.