How safe is Mexico for travelers?

09/30/2012 12:00 AM

09/29/2012 7:36 PM

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of Mexico’s July 1 presidential election, won’t take office until December, and it’s unclear just how he’ll approach the drug war that has killed an estimated 47,000 people or more since late 2006.

But what if you’re thinking about a trip now? Is Mexico getting scarier or safer?

The answer depends on where you’re headed and when. It can’t hurt to look at recent findings by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies. The most recent numbers show a marked decline in drug killings this year.

In a new analysis of cartel-related killings reported by the Mexican daily Reforma, the institute has found 6,663 such homicides in the first 34 weeks of this year, a 23 percent decrease from the same date last year.

“That’s a huge difference over one year,” said David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute. “We’re expecting this to be the first year in at least five years, probably in 10 years, in which violence has fallen year over year.”

As the overall homicide rate has fallen, Shirk said, Nuevo Leon has emerged as the most violent state in Mexico, with 917 cartel executions as of Aug. 25. Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Coahuila were the other states with the most cartel killings, but their situations vary widely.

The homicide rate slowed dramatically in Chihuahua, Shirk said, while it was rising in Coahuila. The institute reported in the July issue of its “Justice in Mexico” news monitor report that Coahuila’s capital, Torreon, “now appears to be Mexico’s most violent city.” The report cited 419 homicides (of all kinds) in the first 6 1 / 2 months of 2012. You can read more about it at www.lat.ms/RVQOeW.

In its Feb. 8 Travel Warning on Mexico, the U.S. State Department also noted escalating trouble in Torreon. The State Department reported that the city “had a murder rate of more than 40 per 100,000 population between January and August of 2011.”

Depending on how the rest of 2012 goes, Shirk said, Torreon’s rate may surpass that of Ciudad Juarez, the much larger capital of Chihuahua state, which has been known in recent years as Mexico’s murder capital.

For a deeper view of the drug war’s evolution, prospective travelers can look at “Drug Violence in Mexico,” an institute report from earlier this year by Shirk, Cory Molzahn and Viridiana Rios (www.lat.ms/PoiZf2), which includes state-by-state homicide statistics.

Even as killings were increasing and spreading to new corners of the country in 2011, the report found, several states remained above the larger fray.

Yucatan, Campeche, Tlaxcala and Baja California Sur (which includes Los Cabos) “have been largely free of violence, with fewer than 15 cases of organized crime homicides during the year,” it said.

Despite the daunting numbers overall and troubling violence in some tourist cities, including Acapulco and Mazatlan, Shirk said, “there are lots of places that tourists like to go that are safer, in terms of homicides, than lots of places in the United States. You’re safer in Cancun than you are in Gary, Ind., if your sole measure is homicide statistics.”

By the same measure, he said, “if you have to choose between a vacation in New Orleans and a vacation in La Paz, you’re going to be safer in La Paz.”

The next question, of course, is how things go as the year advances and Pena Nieto takes over the presidency from Felipe Calderon.

Pena Nieto’s party, PRI, was voted out of the presidency in 2000 after seven decades of uninterrupted rule, including allegations of deal-making with major drug traffickers in exchange for peace and payoffs.

In a July interview with the Los Angeles Times, he provided few details about how the war on drugs would be fought but said, “We will widen the fight on organized crime, fighting drug trafficking, but also put a special emphasis on the crimes that generate violence in society. … Sadly, what people today feel is fear, they feel frustration, they feel an absence of results.”

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