Travel Safety in Perspective: USA vs. Mexico

Zacatecas - older than Boston, and safer

There’s been a lot of news coverage about violence in Mexico, very little of it bothering to note that Mexico is a huge country with thirty-some states and that a) almost all of that violence is narco-related and b) you can count the number of tourists affected on one hand.

Meanwhile, according to the FBI, “An estimated 15,241 persons were murdered nationwide in 2009” in the United States of America.

Officially, 111 U.S. citizens were killed in Mexico last year, a third in just two cities. Almost all of them were involved in illicit vocations, usually the trafficking of guns, drugs, or people across the border. This is 111 out of close to 8 million visitors, with nearly 1 million of those being part- or full-time residents choosing Mexico over the U.S. or Canada.

You know who else had 111 murders in one year recently? Boston. And Las Vegas. And Orlando. Are any tourists scared of going to those places?

Meanwhile, almost 1,000 U.S. citizens died in Puerto Rico. Nobody running the news desks cares about Puerto Rico or has an incentive to make people scared of Puerto Ricans (by nature, they can’t be “illegal immigrants”), so this isn’t widely reported.

Then there’s the U.S. proper, which can’t get a State Department travel alert because it’s, well, not a foreign country. How’s your city doing in comparison to Mexico when it comes to the annual numbers?

Atlanta  – city, 80 murders. Atlanta MSA (metropolitan statistical area), 325 murders
Baltimore – 238 city, 298 MSA
Boston – 50 city, 111 MSA
Dallas/Ft. Worth – 210 city, 310 MSA
Detroit – 365 city, 447 MSA
Houston – 287 city, 462 MSA
Indianapolis – 100 city, 111 MSA
Jacksonville, FL – 99 city, 120 MSA
Kansas City – 100 city, 163 MSA
Las Vegas – 111 city, 133 MSA
Los Angeles – 312 city, 768 MSA
Miami  – 59 city, 377 Miami to Boca Raton corridor
New Orleans – 174 city, 252 MSA
New York City – 471 city, 778 MSA
Orlando – 28 city, 111 MSA
Philadelphia – 302 city, 436 MSA
Phoenix – 122 city, 302 MSA
San Francisco – 45 city, 292 MSA
St. Louis – 143 city, 210 MSA
Washington, DC – 143 city, 325 MSA

To put things in perspective, the murder rate in the Yucatan state of Mexico is 2 per 100,000. That’s about the same as Fond du Lac, Wisconsin or Evansville, Indiana. Mexico City’s is 8 per 100,000. Despite being one of the most populated cities on the planet, that’s on par with Albuquerque, NM. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt scared in Albuquerque…



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  1. Dave

    Your points about Mexico being a large country and the murders mostly drug-related are well put. People do tend to irrationally fear the unknown and/or the sensational such as terrorism and the reporting of the violence in Mexico even if they are low-probability events.

    Having said (or written) that, comparing it then to murder statistics in certain cities in the US is also misleading. I live in downtown Baltimore, which has a high murder rate, but most of those are gang and drug related as well. I am also familiar enough with the city to spend my time in places where my chance of getting murdered is less than drowning in my bathtub. If I go to Mexico, where I don’t know the area or the language, it is much more likely in my opinion to be a victim of something I don’t want to be a part of.

    • tim

      Dave, you’ve just supported my point. Good “neighborhoods” of Mexico encompass entire states, whole huge areas that welcome hundreds of thousands of tourists with no incidents. With very few exceptions, the “bad neighborhoods” are as easy to figure out as the ones in Baltimore or Detroit. But since the U.S. populace in general is so bad at geography beyond their own respective little bubbles, they go into turtle mode instead, afraid of the big scary world outside their own 30-mile radius of home. In reality, they’re far more likely to get shot and killed on their own home turf, be that Baltimore or Houston or Tuscon.

      • Randy

        Well said.

  2. PKL

    Great, well-reasoned post. But what’s the point?

    Americans are scaredy cats to begin with. Then mix in geographical ignorance and, as documented by the Freakonomoics people, an almost total inability to calculate risk. Add a thick, frosty layer of media, government and security industry fear-mongering.

    A few Americans can be reached on this topic by fact and argument. A vanishingly small few, so low in number I wonder if it’s worth it.

    • tim


      Current estimates are that around a million Americans live in Mexico at least part of the year, about half going beyond the snowbird stage and living there permanently. The way this year is shaping up tourism-wise, there will probably be around 8 to 10 million visitors from the U.S. total. So thankfully it’s not a “vanishingly small few” that has learned to read a map. Despite the Fox News drumbeat, tourism is up both of the past two years in Mexico.

      There’s probably an equal percentage that really shouldn’t leave their gated community. Ever. But that’s another story.

  3. Br1an

    I don’t agree that this is a reasoned post – I see the point you’re trying to put across however your use of numbers is not balanced. I cannot help but need to know how many people – total – were killed in Mexico? And then, flip-side, I think how many Mexicans were killed in the USA and how many tourists in all were killed in each territory?

    PS it’s Puerto Rico not Puerto Rica.

    • tim

      Typo fixed Brian. Thanks for the catch.

      Bodie, it’s a given that more Mexicans are killed in the U.S. than Americans killed in Mexico just by the fact that so few Americans have died south of the border. As an American (or Canadian) traveler, your chances of dying there are about the same as being killed in a plane crash or being struck by lightning. Or on the upside, of being dealt a royal flush in poker. Very very unlikely. That’s the point.

      • Mike

        The Mexicans who are killed in America aren’t killed by Americans, by and large. No, they are illegal immigrants who are killed by other illegal immigrants. Brian’s question has still been unanswered—-how many people were killed in Mexico? Isn’t is something like 25000 in the last couple of years?

        • tim

          Mike, back on topic please. We’re talking about Americans killed in Mexico as opposed to Americans killed in the USA—your second and third question are irrelevant. The point is, tourists are at more risk going on a fishing trip and facing the weather (or driving to work at home) than they are traveling around Mexico and facing narcos.

    • Eleanor

      Don’t trust the Mecican numbers.

      • Tim Leffel

        In my three years of living there, I found them to be accurate and the State Department agrees.

  4. Bodie

    I would bet that there are more Mexicans killed in the U.S. than Americans killed in Mexico. I wonder what those stats are.

  5. PKL

    Depends on how many of those expats and visitors are of non-Mexican descent. If a lot, that’s a convincing stat.

  6. Julie

    I’ve been traveling in Mexico and the people here think it’s an underhanded push to make Americans scared enough to take a vacation and spend their money in the U.S. instead of Cancun or Los Cabos. That’s why you don’t see the stats on crime in Miami or Orlando compared to those places. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s hard to argue the way the country is being portrayed in the news. There has to be SOME hidden reason, they think. Otherwise why is this news week after week?

  7. Angela

    After living in Mexico for 25 years, 10 of those years as a newspaper reporter, I have observed that most of the deaths of Americans/foreigners is by participating high risk behavior…pickiing up someone at the beach and taking them home, going swiming loaded, falling off balconies drunk (quite common)driving drunk, buying/selling drugs, drunk and loaded picking a fight with another foreigner or w/Mexicans. Plus older foreigners, men especially, come here to die…
    The US State Department issues many ´CYA´(cover you a**) warnings that are not true or valid.

    • ken hingey

      very well put coment. We have lived here going on 8 yrs, from the gun totin state of Ok. use to have guns everything ,, now clearly , we feel safer here in PVR than anywhere USA., still like guns, but time to stop letting kids and gangs of kids have them,. too bad all we do is complain, and not get anything done to fix the problems….voting does not do much good anymore, no matter what country your from or live in..When the majority get tired of being tired of their elected officials only taking care of their self interests, the people will get off their butts and do something them selves.

  8. Sheila

    I have been to Puerto Vallarta every winter for the last 10 years and I was unable to go this year because of a conflict in scheduling. I will not allow this to happen again! I will be back in PV next year! When my girlfriend warned me that it was dangerous, I told her that when they start shooting passengers as they come off the plane, I will not make my annual trip – otherwise I will not miss spending the winter in PV again. And if, inadvertently, something does happen, at least I will die happy and among friends – or that’s how I see it. See you next year!

    • Veronica

      Hey Sheila,
      I am agree with you, Puerto Vallarta is a great place and at least you will die happy like you said jiji. Don´t worry I sure you will be fine. Have an amazing trip to PV next year!!.

  9. Bonnie

    LOL Shelia…………you´re right to go on living and knowing you wont´be shot coming off the plane! . I´ve been in Sayulita for 5 straight years with only one return to the US and have traveled up and down the coast weekly, into the mountains, soon to central and south Mexico and I haven´t been killed yet. I read the San Francisco Chronicle site daily and am appalled at mothers shooting their teens, killing their twins with samauri swords, Oakland shootings, pedophile incidents, bodies found hither and yon, today one in the trash and would I not go to my home town? You bet I would. The US needs to STOP THE PANIC. These fears are OVERBLOWN and ridiculous. If North Americans have any humanity they will see that the poor are getting poorer here with the decrease in tourism, that out of desperation, the hungry are forced to cross the border for money for their families to survive, that we are all ONE in this world and we need to stop it now. It must be about keeping tourism money home and the media has done a great job in doing so. It is so sad.

  10. Lettie

    Amen to Bonnie, you nail it is all about $$ trying to lift the recession not letting the tourist money out by over blowing the whole “cartel”s” deal, they are not even call cartels in Mexico that was Colombia by the way…
    I’m seriously disappointed people can actually believe all this overblown media circus about Mexico, lets me know how ignorant really we can be, and in 2011 that is sad. we are globalized in so many ways, but in the most important we are seriously lacking globalization… this plus people have no idea about other culture and other people and have themselves a very sad opinion about it, not even knowing , they NEED to have a wrong opinion….
    I wonder what will happen if I will tell in the Mexico news, don’t go to U.S., there is a terror warning, oh wait IT IS ONE.. and they are still coming here, so please STOP it and grow up as World, we are one and as Bonnie has it, you do not hurt one without hurting all including yourself, sad.. why instead don’t we learn about each other and our WONDERFUL differences…??
    Yes there are problems, but not as bad as in LOTS of bad areas, and not so bad areas ALL over the World…
    The WARNING sign should read, or let know, “If” you are looking for drugs, or acting on them on any way, YES do not visit Mexico you might get shoot…!!! “IF” you are planning to go to Mexico to get drunk and make an embarrassing seen, YES you might get in trouble with the Mexican police or other people, be careful..!!! “IF” you are planing on doing something you wouldn’t do at home, such as wondering off with a stranger on a strange language Country and unknown territory, YES YOU WILL GET IN TROUBLE…!!! please stay with your group or ask the hotel/guide stuff….. “Hellloooo… you know this much at home, why is it SO common to forget this somewhere else..??”
    Seriously most issues regarding tourist are due lack of common sense and stupidity, seriously, so WHY blow it out of proportion now AND against Mexico and All Mexicans… I LOVE Mexico, I’m 1/2 and 1/2 and love going in adventures and get to know my people and beautiful natural places, and have NEVER seen any tourist in trouble not other then the norm, or for lack of common sense as I say, have never seen a “cartel, call in Mexico narco harassing tourist just because… unless they are trying to buy drugs from them… I have meet people unwanted, and still they get in trouble because THEY are troublemakers, not because of narcos…
    Please do not open the Pandora’s box any bigger, something could come out and bite….
    Sorry if I got carried away :-S

  11. Hans

    We are a retired couple, originally from The Netherlands and live in Mexico for the past 10 years. We have no reason to stay here, if this was not a wonderful place to be.
    So..come and pay us a visit.

  12. Jen

    Who in Mexico is counting? I don’t doubt the US State Department numbers, I do doubt Mexico’s ability to correctly report casualties. I doubt mass graves would be stumbled upon if Mexico was on top of it’s reporting murder statistics.
    That said I feel as safe at my home in Mexico as I do traveling in the US. In a perfect world Americans would concern themselves more with how their country is involved in the drug, gun, and money laundering trades that contribute to the tragedy in Mexico. I still see and Us vs them ideology in these articles and that startles me.

  13. Josh

    We live in La Paz, Baja California Sur and absolutely love it. It is a safe place with an abundance of natural and cultural wonders. I can´t think of a place in the US that offers this combination of great weather, safety, outdoor recreation, culture/food, natural amenities, convenience and advantageous cost of living. This place is so far from the warzone portrayed by the US media it is incredible.

    • Deborah

      Hi, Josh. Just saw your comment about living in La Paz. My husband and I are considering coming to La Paz from December through March. We have traveled often in Latin America but this will be our first long-term stay. Would you be willing discuss your experience living there via email? Thanks in advance!

  14. John de Waal

    We used to come down to Mexico when the weather up north was becoming raw and realized that we were not thinking by not living here full time. And that’s just what we did eight years ago and we haven’t regretted one minute of it. Living on social security, we find the economics here far better, the medical help outstanding, the weather incomparable (National Geographic rates our area one of the two very best places in the entire world), and the people absolutely lovely. We understand that the drug people made their presence known in our area, but we have never noticed anything. We’re in the Chapala, Jalisco area and if you want a good place to live, than you cannot do much better than here.

  15. dixie

    I have lived in the same area as John for the last 3 years and think this is the best. Lived in Nicaragua before this, but prefer Mexico over any other country, and I have lived in many.

  16. sean

    Totally misleading, a waste of time. Google mexicoevalua…

    • tim

      Sean, if you’re going to make those kinds of negative comments, at least back it up with a real link.

  17. Cheryl

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt scared in Albuquerque…

    Dude, I lived in Alb. for 6 weeks last year. I left because it was way worse than Mexico City (where I returned to). In 4 days, someone tried to break into my apt. twice – I’ve never experienced that before. I think you’ve never actually been to Alb.

    Other than that, interesting article, but as stated, those who need to read it never will. :(

    • tim

      Well, I’ve been to Albuquerque Cheryl, but I haven’t lived there. Nice city, but like any in the U.S. it’s got crime to contend with.

  18. Andrea

    Lived/worked in Mexico’s tourist areas for almost 15yrs and ALWAYS felt safe.
    Love Mexico and the people. I think it just comes down to common sense and prevention … no matter where you live.
    I’m in Toronto Canada right now and the news talks about kids going to school with guns, teens killing each other, and murders going on right on the street over from where I live … and I’m in a really GOOD neighborhood!!
    News is news and that’s the media’s job … to keep us in ‘fear’ … they’re doing their job!
    Live smart, live good, live to serve and that’s what you’ll get in return.

  19. dana

    i lived in puerto vallarta,well nuevo vallarta for the last 5 years,why i moved from uk,because here in vallarta is no of the safest places on the planet,the uk crime was geeting out of controll,too many rules,
    Now i am in realestate thank you for this we can fight back by forwarding this to every agent in the bay whom can send it out to there data base,


    • anne

      i was a realtor before. What requirements do I need to work as realtor in Puerto Vallarta? Thanks for any reply!

      • tim

        Anne – You need to be able to fog up a mirror when you breathe on it.

  20. Michy

    I have lived here in Cancun 15 years and it’s only when I travel overseas – which I frequently do – do I witness crime. Many of my friends here on the beach are from the uk and Canada too and everyday we celebrate how well an easy decision has worked out .

  21. joanne

    Have been in Puerto Vallarta for 3 years and love it. I have an amazing life with many friends…live in a condo with a bay view that would cost 5-6 times more in the USA. The weather is amazing too (yes, it gets hot in the summer but I have AC…and the winters are perfect!) Sunsets, beaches, town are beautiful. My dollars go much further here and I feel safer here too. The restaurants rival those found in any big city–my last guest is still raving about the food here ( the water is pure–I drink it right out of the tap)…my friends who come here for the first time can’t wait to come back and seem shocked that it is so safe after hearing he news about how dangerous Mexico is. With the exception of seeing my children and grandchildren I probably wouldn’t return to the US often…the last time I was there I couldn’t wait to get back to my paradise.

  22. ken hingey

    I would be more worried about the crooked police in the southern states, than any drug lord. read about those facts. Grew up in Ok. and have visited most states, and many countrys, nothing compares to the violent crooked cops in Ok,, at least not yet….FYI… they are not all bad,, only about half..

  23. Erin

    As an American expat that has lived in Mexico for the past eight years, I feel very blessed to say that my family and I have never been directly affected by the violence in Mexico (knock on wood). That being said, you have to use your head in Mexico, as you should do anywhere, and try not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I always tell my family and friends that visit to leave their diamond wedding rings at home and to leave passports and large amounts of cash in the hotel safe when they are here. You would think that would be common sense, but to some people it is news. I am more worried on a daily basis of getting hit by a car (toca la madera) because people in Mexico City SUCK at driving and have no regard for the safety of the people around them, and there are entirely too many damn cars on the road. But I digress…. I think there need to be more articles like this making people aware of the need to educate oneself before forming an opinion. Do I feel safe living in Mexico City? Yes, for the most part. Do I drive to unfamiliar places by myself? No. Do I walk the streets with expensive jewelry on? No. I use my head, I have learned to speak the language, and I have learned, for the most part, what not to do. Would I trust a Mexican cop farther than I could throw him? No. The key here is to mind your own business and stay out of trouble. Is that really so different from anywhere else in the world? I think not.

  24. Geoff

    If you want to experience the real Mexico, not the Mexicoland of the major resorts or the insanity of the border towns, you should consider coming to our little town in Guanajuato, Mineral de Pozos. You can support our art project with the children of the town by making donation that will give you a fabulous place to stay for a week or a weekend. Check it out at


  25. Victoria, Bucerias, Mexico

    The previous comment from the writer Dave, doesn’t make sense to me. He said it like it is, the reason for the crime in his town is similar to Mexico. But the justification that it is different because one does not know a place, can also be held in the reverse, if I were to decide not to go to Baltimore because it is largely drug-related crime. As a previous travel arranger and long-time hotel executive, I think common sense for travel anywhere should be the rule. I would not walk an unpopulated beach in Honolulu, Greater L.A. or anywhere in the world alone at night. I wouldn’t go into a seedy bar with questionable characters in any of those places either. Human instinct tells us what the wrong situation might be. The stats to me are highly interesting and very comparable in my opinion.

    I am pleased to report, as a 12 year resident of the greater Puerto Vallarta area, we have had happy tourists visiting all season who have consistently commented on their feeling of safety and a rewarding vacation experience. They have seen through the slanted media reports.

  26. Russ

    Nice article, I will subscribe now as I found this on facebook. 28 years part time and 5 full time (not retired) running a business in the State of Sonora in the town of Puerto Penasco we deal with the questions everyday (safety) we all find it silly when we hear how all of mexico is a war zone and the media is beating this message into the American head.

    Thats Ok we love our beach town. When I need to go to the States it is only 1 hour north but I dont stay too long as Tucson and Phoenix crime scares me to death…….

  27. Carlos

    There’s a state-by-state rundown on the site that has the number of homicides for each state in Mexico. Yucatan state had 2 in all of 2010. Baja California Sur (where Los Cabos is) had 10. How many states in the U.S. had only that many homicides last year? Or Canada even? I’m guessing none, even the sparsely populated ones.

  28. Kelly

    Thank you! This is really interesting. To the last comment (Carlos). Canada’s total in 2009 was 610 – for the whole country. Now that’s for just under 34million ppl but still. That’s less than NY or LA. Toronto, around the size of Chicago, had 60.

    • tim

      Kelly, some provinces of Canada have a homicide rate better than that of the Yucatan state of Mexico, according to these stats:

      Prince Edward Island appears to be the safest place in North America. Secret’s out now.

      Some provinces have a rate per 100,000 that’s worse than many states in Mexico though, so it’s a mixed bag. Fortunately Canadians seem to be more level-headed about all this. We’re running into zillions of them here in Mexico this year—maple leaves on hats and backpacks everywhere you look on the coasts.

  29. marci

    Up to end of May 2011, we have had over 611 murders in Monterrey Mexico.That is for 5 months!
    there had been numerous kidnappings, during May there were 8 in the most affluent area of the city, also in May we had 59 daily violent armed robbery of cars.We also had armed robberies at restaurants like Chilis and in supermarkets.
    Oh, and they just left a man with his head cut off in my way home.

    Say what you like, but comparing crime stats from any city in the States cannot be done, Specially by the fact that if you are a victim in U.S. you know police will help you, in Mexico police help the crimminals.

    • tim

      No tourists are going to Monterrey. Or Ciudad Juarez. Or Nuevo Laredo. And they probably shouldn’t be going to Tijuana. Or inner city Detroit or St. Louis for that matter. My point was, and still is, that in the Mexican areas where foreigners go on vacation, they’ll be as safe as they would be in their home city.

  30. Linda

    Here’s a really good Travel Weekly interview with Mexico’s President Calderon, with more stats showing how silly this all is.,-Calderon-bets-on-tourism/

  31. eric

    Been to different cities all over Mexico 26 times in the last 6 years and have never had anything negative happen to us. For selfish reasons I’d love to keep this wonderful country to myself and shut it off from the inflow of other expats and unappreciative outsiders -but I understand this country needs tourism dollars. I’m in the process of buying
    a vacation home in one of my favorite Mexican cities. I often fantasize about leaving the U.S. altogether and moving to MX full time – it does feel safer, the people seem friendlier. I absolutely love it. But hey, if you are afraid to visit or buy property in MX – then more for us open-minded, kind, polite, intelligent folks to enjoy!

  32. Teddi

    Firstly people, are you aware that Mexico is part of North America? Ignorance is a huge part of the problem. This fall will begin our 30th year RVing in that wonderful country. We have never had a problem and love the country and its people. We have learnt the language because we could –even our dog knows Spanish.
    Viva la Patria

  33. Mike

    Nice opinion piece. But true data is never misleading like written word. Next time you should look at hard data and not add simply what makes your article more appealing.

    • tim

      The thing that stands out for me looking at that page is how safe most of Mexico is compared to Guatemala or Brazil, or the arctic regions of Canada for that matter. Or tourism magnet South Africa.

      Plus of course there’s the issue of reported stats. No way Russia or the warring countries of Africa have fewer murders than many others on that list. But in those cases and many others, the government isn’t as forthcoming as Mexico’s about sharing data.

  34. Mario

    Mike, I went and looked at that link you supplied. If you scroll down to the Mexico part and click through to the state breakdown, in has the same info as in this blog post. So I’m not sure why you’re saying to look at the hard data. Take out the three border states and Mexico looks pretty good. Where there are assault rifles from Texas coming across in huge quantities (something the NRA if fighting hard not to change today—see the Houston Chronicle news), there are a lot of murders. In the rest of the country, not so much.

    • Mike

      Mario—-Nice attempt to smear the NRA, when it was the ATF who was funnelling weapons into Mexico. I’m sure you’ve heard about “Operation Fast and Furious”.

  35. Jeremy

    Some nut job just shot a bunch of kids in a Texas roller rink yesterday, killing five of them. I’ll take my chances in Mexico. It’s safer traveling there than just living life in the U.S.

  36. Maksym

    There is no difference between travel safety in USA and Mexico. The most important thing is to be prepared for your travel. If you track the current situation of your travel places and prepare for possible dangers before your travel then you will be in safety during your trip.

  37. tim

    Well, the “third world country” tag is part of the perception problem. Mexico is one of the world’s 20 largest economies and it’s about to pass a bunch more European ones as that fiasco there unfolds. It’s a huge country with a large population, so there’s plenty of poverty, but the middle class is getting bigger every month.

  38. Miguel

    I read somewhere last week that New Orleans has a higher murder rate for this year (50 per 100,000 people) than all but two cities in Mexico. And one of those is Ciudad Juarez. I think the other was Nuevo Loredo or some other border town. Not a big tourist town like New Orleans is.

  39. Lord Wayne

    These stats would be more relevant it you print the murder rate of tourist in the US compared to murdered tourist in MExico.

  40. Scott

    Come on people. The mexicans that are killed here are usually gang related. The mexicans killed in mexico are a lot of gang and drug related stuff. But when there are reports of Mexicans saying that if U.S citizens come to their area they will be beheaded. There are more U.S citizens that have been held for ransom in Mexico than Mexicans being held for ransom in the United States.

    • tim

      Please back that up with a link Scott. I haven’t seen any evidence of American citizens being held for ransom (or the urban myth American beheadings) in any legit news outlet, on either side of the border.

      As for your other point, nowhere in the world do poor people emigrate to a country poorer than their own. So the Americans moving to Mexico are generally wealthy (by their standards anyway) and are doing it because of a better quality of life. Mexicans coming here are doing it to make more money than they can at home—legally or otherwise. Crime seldom moves downward to neighboring countries with a lower GDP. There’s no purpose in Mexican drug gangs operating in Guatemala, for example, except to keep the drug pipeline moving. The U.S. is where they get their weapons and their cash.

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