Mexico – Tropical Paradise or Violent Hell?

Mexico is a topic I touch on a lot.  After studying in Guadalajara last summer, I became addicted to Mexican culture, food, music, and people.  Because of the shared border between Mexico and the U.S., the country receives a lot of press coverage in Canadian and American news.  And most of the news we hear about Mexico ranges from the questionable to the bad to the downright shocking.

But how true are the stories?  Do travelers to Mexico really have a lot to worry about?

When I was preparing to leave for Guadalajara last spring, a number of friends and acquaintances were surprised to hear that I would want to go study in inland Mexico.  “Be careful; don’t get yourself killed!”  Sure, most of these comments were made lightheartedly, but the message behind them was clear: Mexico isn’t safe.

After spending some time in “real” Mexico (not the tourist-dotted resort towns), my perspective on the country shifted.  I’m no longer willing to laugh off the comments about getting kidnapped or caught up in Mexico’s drug wars. I find them exaggerated and unfair.

To see what I mean about the negative reputation that Mexico has garnered, take a look at some of the reader comments posted on a typical CBC news article about Mexico’s latest drug-related activity:

“Just another Canadian casualty in Mexico. Why anyone would travel there is beyond comprehension.”

“I think it’s safer to vacation in Afghanistan.”

“Even if it’s free, no way would I go on vacation in Mexico. The last few years it seems there’s always a story about a Canadian being arrested, blown up or beheaded.”

For me, these types of comments are ignorant and infuriating.  Yes, problems exist in Mexico — I’ll be the first to admit that.  The country’s government and justice system are corrupt and questionable, and there is an incredible amount of drug-related violence in certain areas.  But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantastic, relatively-secure travel destination.  I came across an article today that will help put things into perspective:

“Here’s the fact that I feel is most relevant — for travelers — and most often ignored: Mexico is big. It’s the 11th most populous country in the world, with 112 million citizens. It’s roughly the size of the American Midwest.

Given that, is it fair to regard the country as one homogenous war zone? Should travelers be advised to avoid the country as a whole?To me, that’s like telling someone not to visit Mt. Rushmore because Detroit has a problem with violent crime.” 

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

While Mexico does have a lot of violence, most of this is restricted to the Northern border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.  Granted, recently there has been an increase in violent activity further south.  The week before Pam and I traveled to Guadalajara this February, some one set off a grenade in a club in Guadalajara, killing six people.  I have to admit, this made me a little uneasy.  But last year I went to Jakarta in Indonesia, where, the previous summer, a suicide bomber had set off bombs at two upscale hotels, killing seven tourists.  I’ve been to London, where the subways bombings killed 52 people in 2005.  Violent acts can happen anywhere.  Just look at the gang-related violence that took place a few weeks ago in Kelowna, B.C.  If that had taken place in Mexico, people would have used it as another excuse “never to travel to the country.”  Yet, I highly doubt that people will stay away from B.C. because it’s “full of gang-violence.”

Mexico is not a first world country, and as such, it has more problems than we are used to in Canada and the United States.  But compare it to most other “developing nations” and you will see a similar set of problems.  We just happen to hear a lot more about Mexico’s problems because of our proximity (physically, culturally and economically) to it.   

My conclusion?  Mexico is not a perfect country to live in.  But no country is.  If you are smart and careful while you’re traveling, you’re no more likely to run into trouble than you are in most other countries.