John McWilliams traded a Victorian home in Galveston, Texas, 13 years ago for a bed-and-breakfast in this village of cobblestone streets and later a three-bedroom abode overlooking Lake Chapla, where an estimated 20,000 U.S. and Canadian expatriates — split roughly equally between the two nationalities — reside during the winter months.
He also traded insecurity for tranquility, having suffered three robberies back in Texas. Even with Mexico's organized-crime violence now encroaching on the region, McWilliams and his partner of 40 years, Earl French, maintain, "We feel safer here than there."
McWilliams and French formed part of a foreign relocation wave in which retirees began moving to Mexico, taking advantage of the cheaper prices, idyllic climate and welcoming local culture.
Not to mention opportune real estate investments.
The financial crisis diminished the relocation trend as aging Baby Boomers were left with lower home prices and smaller retirement nest eggs. Organized-crime activities now threaten to diminish the trend further — and violence has flared in Chapala (the municipality containing Ajijic) and its environs.
Graves known as narcofosas were discovered last November, while thugs with guns and grenades later attacked the local police chief's home.
Blockades known as narcobloqueos, in which gunmen hijack and torch vehicles, have occurred on the Guadalajara-Chapala highway.
Such stories appear to have fazed few expatriates, and many compare the violence to random attacks in high-crime cities north of the border.
The U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, 40 miles north of Chapala, recommends against driving the Guadalajara-Chapala highway at night, one of the "nerve-rattling tidbits" of information that El Paso native and real estate agent Tony Harries says U.S. citizens receive.
Some residents ignore the advisory.
"I worry more about animals on the highway" than violence, says Christy Wiseman, a retired teacher from Reno, adding that Mexican friends express concerns about her driving the road at night.
Concerns from worried relatives are common.
"My mom worries about me living in Mexico," says 14-year Ajijic resident Ada Huff.
"I tell my mom, 'I worry about you living in Miami.' "
Expatriate enclaves such as Chapala date back decades but became especially popular over the past 15 years with retirees seeking affordable and culturally interesting locales.
An annual chili cook-off highlights the Chapala social calendar, while a local supermarket sells imported staples with English labels such as $8 bags of Oreo cookies. A Tea Party chapter formed here before the last U.S. election. Annual property tax bills run about $200.
Property prices soared with the increasing popularity — and subsequently tumbled. Nowadays, "For sale" signs are commonly spotted.
Visitors in past years bought homes within days of arriving, recalls retired geography professor David Truly, who has studied the region and resides in Ajijic.
"This place was being hawked as if it were perfect," he says.
Truly foresees a new wave of interest in the region forming as retirees bring their elderly parents south for assisted-living programs at less than half the U.S. price. Many expatriates, he adds, "could live anywhere in the world" and look past the negative headlines.
Canadians, whose housing market has remained stable while currency has soared, are one group looking past the headlines and still wintering in Ajijic, hotelier Michael Eager says.
But some observers such as Debra Lattanzi Shutika, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia who has studied expatriate migration to Mexico, question whether foreigners have fallen in love with their Mexican lifestyles and failed to grasp the seriousness of the drug war.
"Most are so addled by their love of Mexico that they would be hesitant to see the dangers," Lattanzi Shutika says.
Some Americans living in Chapala express concerns over insecurity, along with their compatriots' cavalier attitudes.
"What's going on here isn't just urban crime," says Linda Herrin, a Colorado native, adding that she and others have developed backup plans in case the violence gets too close.
Northern California natives Michael Mclaughlin and Anita Lee encountered a narcobloqueo last fall while driving through Michoacán state, where thugs with guns and gasoline cans ordered them out of their vehicle. They escaped unharmed.
"I'm glad we already sold the house," Lee says, explaining that the sale provided the option of moving more easily.
Stories of rising violence troubled Richard and Reta Brey, who sold their lakeside home and moved to Seattle after 12 years in Mexico. A month after moving, a local police officer whom they previously had house-sit their Mexican property was abducted and murdered, Reta says.
"We know people who want to leave (Mexico,) but can't sell," she says.
McWilliams and French, whose Ajijic business provides tours for prospective residents, say they know of similar situations for Americans residing stateside.
"They can't sell their homes" to finance a move to Mexico, French says.