The Real Travel Story for Mexico

I just finished up a Transitions Abroad article about danger and safety in Mexico and Mexico City. Since people who never paid attention to the country before and have never even been outside a resort there are telling everyone else to avoid Mexico, I thought I’d chime in sooner rather than later. The best coverage of the situation can be found at the blog Travelojos, where Steven Roll has been documenting the ugly coverage (including from ignorant blowhard Bill O’Reilly) and linking to comments from people on the ground who really do know what they’re talking about.

Here’s the fundamental problem when it comes to talking about safety, travel, and Mexico: most people are terrible at understanding statistics. This seems to go double for TV newscasters, who will take a sensational soundbite over a reasoned bit of logic any day.

Once I dug around in the actual data, most of Mexico is far safer than my own home town–and my own home town is right in the middle of the U.S. pack in terms of crime.

You often hear something like “200 Americans were killed in Mexico in the past four years.” But if you really look into those numbers you find that all but 70 of those victims were either criminals or were part of a drug buy gone bad. So around 70 completely innocent tourists died—out of 58 million visitors over that time period.

That equates to 1 in 842,857, or 0.0000012 percent. To put that in perspective, those odds lie somewhere between your chance of dying in an airplane crash (1 in 659,779) and being killed by flesh-eating bacteria (1 in 1,252,488).

But it gets even better. Most of the slain Americans were killed in just three cities: the border towns Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo. Things there are truly out of control and it’s a war zone. But if you avoid these border areas where heavily armed drug cartels are at war, your chance of being a victim of violent crime decreases to a statistical point near zero, down there with dying from a deadly rattlesnake bite or from the Bubonic Plague.

Exactly one American on the State Department’s list of deaths was killed in Mexico City over a four-year period. ONE! As best I could tell, everyone who died in the popular resort areas either drowned, wrecked a vehicle, or committed suicide, and again that’s out of millions upon millions of visitors.

So next time Aunt Millie tells you it’s unsafe to spend Spring Break in Mexico because she saw it on Fox News, tell her to go watch her own local news tonight instead and report back on how much bleeding is going on just on the other side of town. The truth is, you’re more likely to get caught in the crossfire of a local robbery at a convenience store than you are to suffer harm in Mexico—unless you walk around wasted in Tijuana and try to score some coke…

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  1. jim johnston

    Thanks Tim. For those of us who live here, it’s painful to read the news these days about Mexico–and the distorted conclusions taken from it. Thanks for bringing some clarity to the issue.

  2. Chris

    Great article, Tim! I totally agree! If you only look at the traffic accident statistics of Spain for instance, nobody would visit this country, however, despite these numbers, it continues to be a favorite vacation destination.

  3. Brona

    Hi Tim
    Interesting article – I checked it out because my brother is off to Mexico soon and I’ve been hearing so many bad reports (even here in Australia), so reassuring that he should be safe. Was shocked to read about Nuevo Laredo – I was there a few years and although I felt a bit unsafe (lots of drug offers), overall I quite enjoyed it

  4. Ron Mader

    It seems that every couple of years the ‘is mexico dangerous?’ question makes the round. Rarely does it receive the thoughtful answer you’ve provided here. Good work and see you in Mexico, Tim.

  5. jamie

    Great post Tim (though now I’m feeling a little anxious about flesh-eating viruses).

    I lived for 6 months in Mexico, and traveled all over the country on buses—often alone—and survived just fine. It’s a beautiful and diverse place that’s often overlooked for being so near.

    Misleading headlines aside, virtually any place can be as dangerous or as safe as you make it.

  6. Steven Roll

    Tim, thanks very much for mentioning Travelojos. If we were in the pre-Internet days, most of us wouldn’t even have access to the State Department’s Travel Alert. We’d have no blogs etc. written by people who actually live in Mexico. We’d have to take the major news outlets’ word for it. Scary to think about.

    Also, I’ve noticed that at least one pretty major travel blog advised people not to go to Mexico, and then a few days later posted something about a destination in Mexico. If you truly believe it’s so dangerous, why would you post something about why people should be visiting the country?

  7. T

    Hey. I stayed at that hotel in the picture when I was in Puerta Vallarta. It’s La Buenaventura I think and it’s pretty decent. Plus you can easily walk to the more impressive grounds of the Crystal Hotel next door. If you snorkel do it SOUTH of town. North = sewage.

  8. tim

    T- I stayed next to the Buenaventura, but this photo isn’t from there. It’s the Reef Yucatan Resort on the Gulf coast, about an hour from Merida (Telchac Puerto). Depends on how far north you go for snorkeling. Punta Mita area is fantastic. Water is too cloudy around the bay though, you’re right.

  9. kyle

    Great article! Seeing as I know people who are worried I might catch a flesh eating virus while traveling, the stats might not convince them, but what can you do?

    I think the reality is that Guatemala and Honduras are far more dangerous for travelers than Mexico, but no one ever warns you about going there. From meeting other travelers, we heard way more stories about those 2 countries and we heard nothing bad about Mexico. Of course, they’re all pretty safe with some basic precautions but I think the reason Mexico gets singled out is because many Americans have vacationed there. If there was an American who got killed in Tegucigalpa, for instance, it wouldn’t make the news.

  10. Beth Whitman

    Tim – great article and stats. I had dinner with a group of college students from TX last week who said their school was strongly encouraging students not go to Mexico for Spring Break. I bristled and then pointed out that the violence was along the border – they disagreed. I didn’t have this info to back up my argument but I’ll be sure to reference this in the future.

  11. Jen

    My family (husband and 3 kids ages 10, 7, and 3) and I just spent 7 weeks traveling in Mexico and we never felt unsafe. We weren’t in the border areas — mostly Mexico City, Puerto Escondid and Oaxaca — and had an amazing time. We’ve had lots of people express concern about our travels there, even calling us irresponsible to take our young children there, but Mexico is a wonderful place to visit. Thanks for a great article!

  12. Bunnygotblog

    Mexico is a beautiful place.You are going to find crime everywhere you go.

    This article points it out perfectly- yellow journalism is blowing the facts up,out of proportion.

    Great article.

  13. Eric Mindling

    I’ve spent 17 years living in and traveling ALL over Mexico, from urban Mexico City to very remote rural Oaxaca. I could write a thick book on all the amazingly generous, friendly and helpful people I’ve met. I don’t think I could fill a paragraph with unsafe moments.

  14. New Age Travel

    Thanks for the great post Jim.

    We are just back from 6 weeks in Mexico. We travel at least twice a year there and find it safer than many place in the U.S.


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