Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Are Canadians Safe in Mexico?

Over the past few weeks, there's been a minor "moral panic" regarding the safety of Canadian tourists in Mexico. Are tourists safe? Should Mexico be avoided?

A great deal of information about the current situation in Mexico can be gleaned from reading the Mexico City English language paper El Universal. The paper can be accessed online at and then looking for the title bar (1/3 of the way down) called Secciones. The second selection of this drop-down menu is the English language version of this paper.

Generally, Mexico is a safe country for tourists even though the level of violence is very high in some regions. The level of risk is no greater in Mexico when it is compared to other destination countries— including the United States. But even so, tourists should be aware of some important events. The homicide level is as much as 20 times higher than Canada's, but the fact is that the vast majority of these murders involve intranecine battles amongst the cartel members. But there is the possibility that this violence may spread beyond the cartels and drag in more Mexican citizens and possibly tourists.

First, there is currently a major crackdown aimed on drug-cartels. This involved the deployment of Mexican army personnel to a few regions of the country, and it involves major operations in the States of Michoacan, Guerrero, Sinaloa, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua. There is a heavy army presence in the major cities and remote areas of those states. In some States (e.g. Sinaloa), army personnel have been murdered in cold-blood by narcosicarios (narco hitmen). In Acapulco, 7 police personnel were attacked and shot down in the past few days (Feb. 5 and 6th).

Second, President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa has authorized the extradition of several cartel leaders to the United States. These cartel leaders continued to give orders and run the cartels from within the Mexican prison system. The extradition was a controversial move because it appears to overstep the boundaries of constitutional law, and because there is a great fear in Mexico that the extradition will lead to the Colombianization of Mexico. Most Mexicans are very happy to have turned over the leaders of cartels to the Americans for prosecution of crimes they have been indicted for in the United States, but they are very concerned that this action will lead to a terrorist blow-back by the cartels in Mexico. When Colombia threatened to extradite cartel leaders (e.g. Pablo Escobar), the cartels in Medellin and Cali undertook a terrorist war targeting politicians and ordinary citizens in retaliation. Mexicans are worried that the cartels will imitate this Colombian response and escalate the violence— this time targeting ordinary people.

Furthermore, the removal of some cartel leaders to the USA has created a vacuum in leadership and there is power-struggle amongst the second-tier leaders. This is a brutal and nasty struggle, and there are many "ajustes de cuentas"— settling of accounts.

There is also a major repositioning amongst the competing cartels for "plaza" — turf. Acapulco is a major focus of these battles. In fact, the coastal area from Acapulco north to Ixtapa-Zihuatenjo has been the scene of some particularly grisly battles. Literally, there have been beheadings and torture that are on the scale of Iraq-Afghanistan horror.

Generally, Canadians are safe, but they should be aware that there is this backdrop of violence that is threatening to erupt. Unfortunately, Acapulco is one of the major battle grounds.

Travelers should look to the American sites for travel warnings and follow the advice given there.

On a different level, travelers should always be careful in taking taxis in the larger cities of Mexico. Ask the concierge at hotels to call a taxi from a "sitio" — a fixed taxi-stand or radio-dispatched site. At the major airports, use only the approved taxi services with offices in the airports. Never accept a taxi ride with someone who approaches you in the airport offering to give you a special fare.

People tend to let their guard down on vacation, and the best advice I can offer is to take the same precautions that you would take in any large city — including Toronto or Montreal. If you do this, you will have a safe and enjoyable vacation/trip in Mexico.