Oaxaca, Mexico–Safety 2009

The news is alarming and the media is giving hyper-attention to the drug cartel killings and kidnappings happening in the states that border Mexico and the U.S.  The media talks as if this was a universal problem across Mexico — and this makes me angry.  Yesterday, I listened to the Diane Rehm show on NPR while driving my car on the interstate.  Guests and callers talked about Mexico in sweeping terms and the more they talked the more  frustrated I became.  Parents called in asking if it was safe to send their college children to Mexico to study language.  I wanted to call or email the show (difficult to do when driving) to protest the perception promulgated that Mexico is not safe.   The situations hyped by the media are localized and most often between warring drug factions.  The very, very wealthy in Mexico City are concerned because they have always been at risk for economic kidnapping for ransom, and now with the increased drug violence, they are more at risk.  This does not trickle down to affect the average traveler like me or you.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article (a random WordPress link is below) by Jack Kurtzman saying that Mexico is on the brink of collapse and attributes this to failed state control of internal corruption and lack of economic well-being for its citizens.  In my view, his assessment is over-reactive and full of half-truths.  Mexico’s economy is closely tied to that of the U.S. and was healthy and on the upswing until our banking collapse.  NAFTA, too, has done muc to erode the Mexican economy and the well-being of its citizenry, making it more vulnerable to the drug masters on both sides of the border. The U.S. has as much responsibility if not more for the current state of border affairs.  The market drives demand in a capitalist economy and there is much demand for drugs in the U.S.

I’m not saying there isn’t a problem or that we shouldn’t be concerned.  I am saying that Mexico deserves our support and attention, and the worst thing we can do is over-react.  I also pose this for consideration:  For those of you who have not been to Mexico, ask yourself if you are influenced in your perceptions by popular stereotypes that portray Mexicans and Mexico with negativity, especially since undocumented immigration has been a hot political potato in recent years.

I live in Oaxaca in a Zapotec village part of the year, and travel back and forth from North Carolina several times a year, often by myself.  It is perfectly safe.  I travel by bus all over southern Mexico, from Puebla south, and it is perfectly safe.  Often, I will hail and take a taxi on my own, travel via local bus from Oaxaca to Teotitlan, and go to villages independently.  My Spanish is not perfect and I am definitely a middle age gringa.  I am not any more afraid than if I were to travel to Chicago, Los Angeles or South Bend, Indiana.   I am aware of my surroundings where ever I go, and take precautions by keeping my money and credit cards close to my person in a small bag that hangs across my shoulders.  I don’t wear expensive jewelry.  I don’t keep large amounts of cash on me and withdraw what I need frequently from ATM machines.

If you have travel plans to Mexico, please don’t change them.  It is a wonderful place with a rich culture, warm and generous people, and lively traditions.  Enjoy yourself.  I think the fear of the current economic crisis is instilling a fear in many of us that is permeating into other parts of our life … and this might be one of them.  Mexicans, and the Oaxaquenos who I know, welcome us and want us to have a great experience in their country.  Go… and have a good time.

Postscript:  this with sent to me and I thought it is worthwhile to share with you — more perspective on the Mexican safety issue…
BLOG: The Real Travel Story for Mexico by Tim Leffel
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, as the Houston Chronicle did, 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…
NPR News Report, March 18, 2009:  Phoenix, Arizona, has almost as many kidnappings and murders as Mexico City.

10 responses to “Oaxaca, Mexico–Safety 2009

  1. After living in Morocco for the past 9 years , and now having found and fallen completely in love with Oaxaca and decided to stay here, I can attest to the most positive things every one has said about this gorgeous , fascinating and friendly city. I know Sheri Brautigam, she is also very involved with the textile weaving community and does know Oaxaca and Mexico very well. This is a completely safe city , as is all of Mexico except the border cities , with both the U.S. and Guatemala. And the drug and violence is a direct result of the U.S. drug and firearm business . However it does not involve the law abiding American tourist or expat at all.

    Also as to the NAFTA, I have to strongly disagree with Joe Lindsay. The entire Swine Flu epidemic scare is a direct result of the absolutely illegal in the U.S. conditions that were a matter of record here in Mexico. The filthy conditions of a Smithfield Farms pig farm in Northern Mexico is where it all began. And was ignored for years. NAFTA has not been good for anyone anywhere except for U.S, company profits due to near slave labor savings and ignoring any U.S. guidelines for safety or cleanliness. I know this from Morocco as well.

    Do come to Oaxaca. Do not be put off by alarmist or paranoid (Fox type) reports of violence. Oaxaca is charming and clean and full of delightful educated and artistic people. They like us and make us feel welcome in a thousand ways here.

    I have been living here full time for two years and intend to stay.

  2. This is good information but there are a few problems.

    First, be very, very careful about taking cabs in Mexico, most especially Mexico City. People are robbed every day, occasionally murdered. Telephone for a cab, or take one from a hotel taxi stand whose driver is known. Don’t take my word for it, ask any Mexican.

    The statistics are correct, Mexico, away from the border, Mexico City, Michoacán, Sinaloa and a few other drug areas, is fairly safe. However, almost every one I know in Mexico City (Mexicans) seems to have been mugged at an ATM. Be careful. Go to the ATMs inside the banks or other safe places. Be careful about using the ATMs on the street.

    The nephew of a business associate of mine in Guadalajara was gunned down and killed on the Mexico City-Oaxaca highway a couple of years ago.

    It is not only rich people who are being kidnapped now, but any one perceived to be worth a little money. Many affluent Mexicans are relocating to the States.

    Also, if I may take issue with the “I didn’t get murdered myself so it must be safe” spiels you often hear from insouciant visitors to Mexico:

    I am 59, lived in Mexico as a teenager and have done business all over the country as well as vacationed. I speak Spanish well enough not to be identified as a foreigner.

    I have often seen foreigners misbehaving in Mexico and doing very imprudent things. They do not understand the danger they are in. Most especially, never, never, never NEVER have any thing to do with drugs or people using or selling them in Mexico. Law enforcement is severe, corrupt and US consular officials will have little sympathy for you if you’re caught or even set up.

    If possible, don’t go places alone. I read a British Embassy report that said in recent years UK victims reporting crimes in Mexico were invariably alone at the time. No exceptions.

    If you’re going to get drunk, do it in your high class hotel bar and not in dives (cantinas/pulquerías, etc.) or on the streets.

    The opinion stated that NAFTA has done much to erode the economy in Mexico is completely false. This has been analysed exhaustively by economists and they all concur that NAFTA has overall been significantly beneficial to Mexico. Any one who doubts this can google NAFTA Mexico.

    It is good not to make pronouncements about political issues like this in foreign countries, especially if you don’t know what you are talking about.

    I think most visitors will find most Mexicans to be disarmingly warm and kind. But there has always been quite a bit more violence there than even in the most violent parts of the US. Almost no murder cases are ever solved.

    I think that, in general, as a foreign tourist, you might actually be safer than a lot of Mexicans in Mexico.

    • What do you think? What have your personal safety experiences been while traveling in Mexico. All opinions are welcome. Joe Lindsay offers a perspective that I don’t totally share, however, it is useful to have a dialog about Mexico travel safety so we can each make a knowledgeable decision about travel based on our own comfort level. I do happen to agree with Joe about his comments regarding drug purchase and use — VERY risky business!

  3. Living here in New Mexico just across the border I can say that I’m not seeing WAVES of crime pouring over into our fair city. There are a few bad apples, some local gangs, but the folks of Mexican descent are lovely. I’m from the East Coast and have NEVER felt any “culture shock”–in fact, I have come to love the heritage I found here! Open minds finds open hearts!!!

    I have never really traveled to Mexico so I appreciate your information!

  4. We are thinking about going to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead in 2009, does anyone have any tips on decent apartment or condo rentals?

  5. Thank you for this article. I have been considering spending the summer in Oaxaca for almost a year now, but everyone keeps warning me against it. It’s nice to hear someone who lives there say it’s safe.

  6. We have traveled in various parts of Mexico with our son (now four) and had have had fantastic experiences there. We’re leaving for Oaxaca in a few weeks.

  7. Well, I haven’t really been read all these scary articles of the danger in Mexico, because for the last year and 6 months I have been living HERE as an English teacher trainer! It seems to be the first thing that American people ask me…..”Is Mexico safe?” Well, I would say I feel safer here than I do traveling alone in the states. Now I have my car here and I drove alone from Santa Fe, NM last Sept. and the only time I felt unsafe was when I got pulled over by a rude sheriff in Texas.
    Mexicans are very kind and caring people and will go out of their way to help you with whatever dilemma you are in. Missed you bus? Can’t find the ATM? Sometimes they will even walk you to your destination.
    So last year I traveled all over Mexico on public buses and the experience was very very comfortable, kinda like traveling with a large family. I have always been treated very very courteously and kindly here, more so now that I have gray hair.
    Of course there is serious violence going on in some sectors, but as I ask my friends…..
    Do you walk the streets late at night?
    Are you selling drugs or know people who are? Are you a police man fighting the gangs?
    If you are not doing any of these things ….then your chance of having a problem in Mexico is about nil. Come and enjoy this wonderful vibrant culture, relax, and take a break from the media!

  8. my wife amy and i traveled from mexico city to oaxaca to san cristobal de las casas to isla mujeres in december of 2008 without incident (actually people were exceedingly nice and helpful).

    in mexico city we took the subway (that was one of my favorite parts of the trip!). we traveled by bus between each city without any trouble. i’m sure mexico is dangerous in certain places at certain times but we never saw it. maybe we were just lucky?

    but when i watch the news in america everyday (for example: the growing numbers of racist hate groups) i realize that there is just as much danger here as while in another country.

    my experience has been that there are always things to watch out for with international travel but that most of the news about the danger of travel in mexico may just be fear of the unknown and hype.


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