The Associated Press
Mexico City - Decapitated bodies dumped on the streets, drug-war shootings and regular attacks on police have obscured a significant fact: A falling homicide rate means people in Mexico are less likely to die violently now than they were more than a decade ago.
It also means tourists as well as locals may be safer than many believe.
Mexico City's homicide rate today is about on par with Los Angeles and is less than a third of that for Washington, D.C.
Yet many Americans are leery of visiting Mexico at all. Drug violence and the swine flu outbreak contributed to a 12.5 percent decline in air travel to Mexico by U.S. citizens in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, a blow to Mexico's third-largest source of foreign income.
Mexico, Colombia and Haiti are the only countries in the hemisphere subject to a U.S. government advisory warning travelers about violence, even though homicide rates in many Latin American countries are far higher.
"What we hear is, 'Oh the drug war! The dead people on the streets, and the policeman losing his head,'" said Tobias Schluter, 34, a civil engineer from Berlin having a beer at a cafe behind Mexico City's 16th-century cathedral. "But we don't see it. We haven't heard a gunshot or anything."
Mexico's homicide rate has fallen steadily from a high in 1997 of 17 per 100,000 people to 14 per 100,000 in 2009, a year marked by an unprecedented spate of drug slayings concentrated in a few states and cities, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. The national rate hit a low of 10 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to government figures compiled by the independent Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies.
By comparison, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates of between 40 and 60 per 100,000 people, according to recent government statistics. Colombia was close behind with a rate of 33 in 2008. Brazil's was 24 in 2006, the last year when national figures were available.
Mexico City's rate was about 9 per 100,000 in 2008, while Washington, D.C. was more than 30 that year.
"In terms of security, we are like those women who aren't overweight but when they look in the mirror, they think they're fat," said Luis de la Barreda, director of the Citizens' Institute. "We are an unsafe country, but we think we are much more unsafe that we really are."
Of course, drug violence has turned some places in Mexico, including the U.S. border region and some parts of the Pacific coast, into near-war zones since President Felipe Calderon intensified the war against cartels with a massive troop deployment in 2006. That has made Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, among the most dangerous cities in the world.
"The violence, homicides and cruel and inhuman assassinations, which fill the pages of our media, make us feel that there has been much more violence since this war against drug trafficking," said Bishop Miguel Alba Diaz of La Paz, a vacation city at the tip of the Baja California peninsula.
Mexico's violence is often more shocking than elsewhere in Latin America because powerful cartels go to extremes to intimidate the government and rival smugglers.
In just one week in December, the severed heads of six police investigators were dumped in a public plaza, kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva died in a two-hour shootout with troops at a luxury apartment complex in a resort city and gunmen slaughtered the family of the only marine killed in that battle.
In the new year, it's become even more grotesque. Three weeks ago, a victim's face was peeled from his skull and sewn onto a soccer ball. Days later, the remains of 41-year-old former police officer were divided into two separate ice chests.
Authorities say the vast majority of victims are drug suspects, but bystanders, including children, sometimes get caught in the crossfire.
Mexico has the same problems with corrupt police, gang violence and poverty as other Latin American countries with higher homicide rates. So why the decline in murders?
Experts say while drug violence is up, land disputes have eased. Many farmers have migrated to the cities or abroad and the government has pushed to resolve the land disputes, some centuries old.
During the height of the Zapatista uprising in the mid 1990s—a rebellion fueled by land conflicts—southern Chiapas state had a rate of nearly 40 per 100,000 people with 1,000 homicides a year. By 2008, that fell to 8 per 100,000 people with 364 killings.
De la Barreda attributes the downward trend to a general improvement in Mexico's quality of life. More Mexicans have joined the ranks of the middle class in the past two decades, while education levels and life expectancy have also risen.
Critics of Calderon's drug war say his frontal assault on cartels is giving Mexico a reputation as a violent country but doing little to stop the drug gangs' work.
"It's a bad international image that affects foreign tourism and foreign investment," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a sociologist at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University who has studied the drug war.
Drug violence has encroached on the resort towns of Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. The millions of foreign tourists who visit each year are almost never targeted, but a handful have gotten caught in the crossfire. In 2007, two Canadians were grazed by bullets when someone fired into a hotel lobby in Acapulco. In January, a Canadian couple was shot and wounded in a robbery attempt just outside Zihuatanejo.
The U.S. State Department travel alert says dozens of U.S. citizens living in Mexico have been kidnapped over the years, and warns Americans against traveling to the states of Chihuahua and Michoacan.
Chihuahua, home to Ciudad Juarez, had a horrifying homicide rate of 173 per 100,000 in the city of 1.3 million, or more than 2,500 murders last year.
Michoacan, famed for its Monarch butterfly refuge, Day of the Dead celebrations and picturesque colonial capital, is now also widely known as the place where five heads rolled across a dance floor. Drug violence is blamed for many of the state's 660 killings last year.
But in many parts of Mexico, villages are more tranquil than ever—a fact that retired nurse Marilyn Wells struggles to drive home with her American friends back home in LeMars, Iowa.
"'We're OK, there's no problem,'" Wells said she tells friends about the home she bought four years ago in Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. "I don't feel any less safe down here than I did before."