How safe is Mexico? How safe is Baja?
I’m posting this blog post in response to the concern for my safety that my friends expressed when I told them I was taking a road-trip into Baja California.
I wanted to answer the question “How safe is Mexico?” for myself. I felt it was safe, but I wanted facts to prove to myself and to others that I shouldn’t let fear prevent me from exploring Baja. I was eager to take advantage of the fresh seafood, fine wines, and new wave of cuisine I experienced during a group trip to Tijuana in 2011.
Part of why I’m writing this blog is to encourage people to visit Baja. Anthony Bourdain is doing this on a grander scale with his episode of “No Reservatoins” that covers his exploration of Baja Norte.
I used three (3) sources to establish for myself that I’d be safe on my trip:
* Mexico – What Everyone Needs to Know (a book)
* U.S. State Department
* Advice of Mexican American friends who frequently travel to Baja
Oxford Press created the “What Everyone Needs to Know” (WENK) series to provide accessible overviews of important worldly topics. For each book they recruit an expert in the field to share their knowledge. For the book on Mexico they asked Roderic Al Camp to write the book. Dr. Camp serves on the Advisory Board of the Mexican Institute of the Woodrow Wilson center for International Scholars at the Smithsonian Institute. He organized the book around central themes important to understanding Mexico.
The book begins with current events and then dives into recent and historical developments that shaped the country that Mexico is today. It’s an easy read and only 176 pages, but it greatly broadened my understanding of Mexican political philosophy and structure.
The book opens with a chapter on “Security and Violence” – squarely hitting on the topic each of my friends hesitantly broached when I told them I was driving my own car into Mexico. This startled me as it was apropros of the latent perceptions of safey in Mexico that the American media has washed across the American psyche. I’m interested in your comments on the responses you’ve received from family and friends that you’ve shared your travel plans with. My bet is they either express concern, or joke,about your safety.
The first chapter arms you with information about why there is drug cartel violence in Mexico and where it is most prevalent. It basically points out the same areas that are highlighted by the U.S. State Department. The U.S. State Department provides travel advisories indicating what regions are truly unsafe by suggesting you cancel all non-essential travel (e.g., Juarez where 36% of drug-related homocides occured in 2010), where concern is warranted (e.g., Baja California is listed as use caution when travelling), to areas where there is no cause for concern (e.g. Oaxaca).
Most of my friends view travel to Cancun or Cabo San Lucas as safe (with a small amount of lingering concern), but thinking about even passing through Tijuana or spending time in Ensenada seems unsafe to them. The facts are, there are some extremely dangerous border towns in Mexico where inter-cartel violence is absurdly high, (e.g., Juarez at 39% of homicides). It is so high in fact that it inflates national homicide numbers. My understanding is that concern about your safety is a local, not a national issue. Official records show that 80% of homicides occur in just 6% of Mexico’s 2,456 municipalities.
There is violence in Baja California primarily in Tijuana. The State Attorney’ office reports that Tijuana had 476 homicides in 2011. Compare this to 199 homocides occuring in Los Angeles. My takeaway is that outside of Tijuana there are few drug-related kilings. My Mexican American friends and reading lead me to believe that cartel violence in Tijuana is similar to gang violence in Los Angeles – the shootings are between active participants (or opponents) of the drug trade. The U.S. State Department states that although 34 U.S. citizens were victims of homocide in 2011, the majority of these kilings appear to be related to narcotics trafficing (i.e., not touristas).
My Mexican American freinds and the Baja Mexicans I’ve spoken to associate violence with Tijuana, but not to the remainder of Baja Norte. They view Tijuana as “the big city” similar to how we might view Los Angeles or New York City. Therefore, if you plan a trip to Valle de Guadalupe or Ensenada, it would be more similar to visiting Paso Robles than Compton.
That’s what I’ve learned about Tijuana and Baja California in particular. I also want to provide some natoinal statistics.
The growth in the number of homocides in recent years in the country of Mexico can be intimidating:
* 2001 to 2004 ranged from 1,080 to 1,304
* 2005 1,776
* 2006 2,120
* 2008 6,837
* 2009 9,614
* 2010 15,273
* 2011 8,000
However you should put this in perspective of the U.S.
In 2010, 8,236 of the homocides occured in Juarez, so let’s recalculate 2010 excluding Juarez
This shows that Mexcio is roughly as safe as the United States. When I further consider that most drug cartel related violence occurs in certain border towns I feel safe in Baja. In areas where there are a large number of drug-related homocides the focus is on cartel factions or politicians seeking to interfere with the drug trade. Therefore there is less danger for American tourists.
The drug-related homocides shown in the media have definitely made an imprint on the U.S. consciousness. Caution is appropriate when evaluating risk, but fear is not. Just a tinge of fear can produce complete inaction. Mexico has an abundance of experiences to offer. It’s a foreign country that’s accessible and affordable – especially for those of us lucky enough to live in Southern California. Did you know that the only city where there are more Mexicans living than Los Angeles is Mexico City? Therefore, Mexicans are not only our geographical next door neighbors, they’re also are literal next door neighbors. Let’s learn more about one another via travel.
As Angelenos we are seriously depriving ourselves of positive experiences when we let fear prevent us from exploring the geography of our state extending into Mexico. When we travel our spending contributes to Baja California’s economy as part of a virtual cycle.