Tag Archives: Oaxaca safety

Mexico Discourse: Safety, Drug Wars, and Fear

From Stephen to My Mother, age 94:

I very much enjoyed reading your email and the article about Mexico.  It is truly horrific. But so are the drug killings in this country as the drugs are dealt out. The same gangland shootings have been going on in the States, but here, the media’s white, and after a while nobody pays attention anymore.

Most of the people in Mexico are untouched by the violence, as are most people in this country.  Here and in Mexico, it’s largely the unemployed/unemployable despairing poor who run the risks of dying to make a way up and out.  We can never win the “war” on drugs. We need to legalize them immediately, thereby destroying the illegal manufacturing and transport industries that have grown up around them.  Your points about our nation being the cause since we’re the buyers of druga and the sellers of arms is a good one. Also about the thugs in the banks and on Wall St. And all the oil thugs, and the revolving door between corporations and the government, etc.

I wrote a colleague of mine who retired to Mexico last March on a one year trial. They are in San Miguel Allende, a mountain town north east of Mexico City, with a lot of Anglo expats, some in gated communities.  This is what I said and his response:

“Everyone here asks about the drug war and its impact on expats as the horrific slaughter mounts. What’s your experience and your take on the whole mess?”

He replied:

“In San Miguel one has absolutely no idea there’s a drug war going on with the exception that people are skittish about driving to and from the US.  When there is a visiting dignitary there are a lot of soldiers and body guard types in town but I have nothing to compare this to and it may simply be business as usual and nothing new.  For the celebration of San Miguel Day there must have been someone visiting town.  We counted 75 soldiers and bodyguard types walking home from our Spanish tutor and lots of streets around two hotels were roped off.  But this may be standard procedure.  People never talk about the narcoterrorism thing except to comment on the fact that people in the US are afraid to visit and tourism is down sharply and restaurants and boutiques are going out of business.

We went to Xilitla in the mountains east of here (above the Gulf of Mexico) to see Las Pozas, the 80 acre jungle mountain site  converted into a surrealistic park with amazing buildings and sculptures.  I’ll forward you some photos in a  separate email.”

The same thing is true in Oaxaca where the US market for drugs is destroying the local economy, most of which is based on tourism.  Local agriculture in the valley, both commercial and the smaller milpas people kept, have been made irrlevant by NAFTA: the price of US government subsidized corn and beans is well below the cost of locally produced Mexican corn and beans, so small farms are going under, just like in the States, and the land is being bought up by Mexican and US corporations. So the US has successfully exported monocrop pesticidal and herbicidal factory farms to Mexico.

Mexico and many other post-colonial countries may be rife with corruption, a residue everywhere of colonial occupation;  yet our country is not immune. We call it “bribery” in the third world. Here, we call it lobbying.

So, this has been enjoyable, but I need to get up, feed my pigs, thin my beets and carrots and focus on marketing my practice so some day I can retire.

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.

Cultural Preservation & Sustainable Tourism

The artists and artisans of Oaxaca depend upon tourism for their livelihood.  Now, almost two years after the APPO “troubles” tourists are beginning to come back to Oaxaca and that is very good. But there are still too few tourists and the economy is hard hit. The troubles hit the villages hard even though they were beyond the reach of political confrontation.  Many artisans have gone back to working the fields or have gone to other Mexican cities and El Norte to find work.  I know families who have moved away, left their homes empty, in search of work. As they put their artistic talents aside, the message sent to the children is that this livelihood may not be sustainable.  Children may begin to plan their own futures based upon these observations along with absorbing television and film messages of a better life somewhere else.  In the book, “The Unbroken Thread,” the authors talk about villages that are no longer weaving because the elderly craftspeople have died and with them, their extraordinarily beautiful work.  Do we have a responsibility to preserve this cultural heritage?  It is difficult in rural Mexico for most.  Talented workers earn about $15 USD per day.  Tourism will determine whether the artistic endeavors of individuals and villages survive, I believe.  And yet, we know that the impact of tourism can be devastating … creating a Disney-esque destination that loses its authenticity.  Indigenous people become actors on the stage of travel entertainment.  I raise this because each of us has a responsibility as we travel to Oaxaca or other destinations of treading lightly and leaving a small footprint.  I see tour buses full of elder hostel travelers, educated, with money to spend, interested in learning, and I know that they would be unlikely  travelers without this accommodation.  They benefit the local economies significantly.  Tour buses have influenced the construction of big houses on the highways where it is easier to pull in and unload a big group, bypassing other equally worthy weavers who live further down the road in the village, funneling the economic opportunities to those who can afford to build the big houses on the main road.  This phenomenon has happened in Teotitlan and it is now happening at in San Martin Tilcajete, where Jacobo Angeles has built a beautiful gallery on the road to Ocotlan that also represents work by talented colleagues from his village, too.  What is the more authentic experience?  What is most valuable to the people of a village and the sustainability of their culture?Not everyone has the ability or desire to travel independently and explore the back alleys of a foreign village where they don’t speak the language.  I don’t have answers.  I am only raising these questions for consideration.I want to say it again.  I want to shout it.  Traveling to Oaxaca is completely SAFE.  It is a wonderful international heritage city, a colonial gem.  It is at the crossroads of Mesoamerican history and culture.  It is the region where corn was first cultivated thousands of years ago — a gift to the world.  It is mountains, beach, desert and tropics.  I don’t want Oaxaca to become Cancun or Huatulco, but I do want tourists to go there because I want it to thrive.