Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

How safe is Mexico for tourists?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 |

Q&A with security consultant Walter McKay


After the violent deaths of two Canadians in Mexico, tourists are asking if the country is safe to visit. Covered bodies are seen lying on a street next to the beach at the Mexican resort of Acapulco, Aug. 16, 2011. Two men were shot dead by unidentified gunmen, according to local media. (Reuters)

By Daniel Schwartz, CBC News

News stories this week about Canadians killed in Mexico have people asking whether the country is safe to visit.

Robin Wood from Salt Spring Island, B.C. was gunned down during a home invasion in Melaque on Jan 2. Three days later, Ximena Osegueda, a University of British Columbia student, and partner Alejandro Alvarado were found stabbed and strangled with their hands tied behind their back near a beach in Hualtulco.

The Mexican government is expecting 2012 to be a good year for tourism. In fact, Mexico is expecting 52 million tourists to visit its five southern states, thanks to the misguided hype about 2012 and the Maya calendar. That compares to 22 million foreign visitors to all of Mexico in 2011.

CBC News contacted Walter McKay in Mexico City to ask him about safety concerns for tourists in Mexico. A former Vancouver police detective, McKay is now a security consultant in Mexico, where he moved six years ago.

As well as consulting for individuals and businesses operating in Mexico, McKay has a website that maps and tabulates narco-related killings in the country. The results show Mexico had 18,601 murders in 2011. That's about 51 per day, up from 37 per day in 2010.

(The map at the bottom of the page shows the cities in Mexico mentioned in this story.)

CBC News: How safe is it for tourists visiting Mexico?


Walter McKay: There are areas that are very dangerous, like Ciudad Juarez, but there are also states like Campeche and the Yucatan that have had only one murder in the whole year, but that doesn't make the news.

For the year 2010, Ciudad Juarez had almost 300 people killed per 100,000. It's horrifying. But it's not a tourist area.

What people from Canada want to know is, if I go to Cancun or Puerto Vallarta or Merida, am I going to be running through a hail of gunfire? And the answer is no.

If you are a tourist and you come down here with the kids to Puerto Vallarta every summer and you stick to the tourist areas, then you're fine.

Has the violence been getting better or worse?

Generally, it's getting worse. There was a very high increase in narco-related violence due to organized crime and this drug war that [President Felipe] Calderon launched in December 2006. It spiked exponentially in 2010 and 2011. In 2007, it was an average of nine or ten people per day and last year it's up to 51 people killed each day.

Where do you see it going in the next year or so?

It's about as violent as it can get. When that many people get killed in horrific manners — decapitation, burning, bodies dissolved in acid — you can't get much worse than that.

The violence has now spread out from Ciudad Juarez as the cartels fight for different areas. The declining violence in Ciudad Juarez is because one side is winning. I think, what you are seeing is the dominance of one gang taking over because you've got more members on the same team now.

Other areas — ­Culiacan, Puerto Vallarta , Jalisco ­— are starting to heat up. These are now battlefronts.

In 2010 there were some 15,000 execution-style murders. This year it's 18,600 so it's worse than last year.

What tourist areas of Mexico are the safest?

The east coast, Cancun, Merida, are still fine. Veracruz is a state I would avoid. When you have gangsters dumping 35 bodies on a freeway in the middle of the day, that just does not give me confidence about the city or the state of Veracruz.

Oaxaca, all the beaches along there are secure.

If I wanted to be absolutely safe, I would go to Cancun. Los Cabos, Baja California as a state, is fairly free of violence.

The murders of the two Canadians were in places on the Pacific coast. What about other places on the Pacific side?

There is some activity in Puerto Vallarta but I think it's still safe if you stick to the tourist zones. Part of this is the tourists aren't particularly targeted. The overall level of violence we see is the organized crime groups fighting against each other over turf, for money.

They're not going to target tourists, they don't want to shoot themselves in the foot. They own a lot of these businesses, and a lot of this land and they don't want to see that revenue dry up, either.

What about the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area?

That area had been quiet but in the last eight months it has been heating up because of what's happened around Acapulco, following the killing of [cartel boss Arturo] Beltran Leyva and the splintering of the gang into several different factions that are now fighting for control.

Acapulco had up to ten killings a day there for a while. Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo — ­a three to four hour drive north — have an average of 5-10 people killed in that area each month. Some days you'll get four or five bodies showing up. So there is activity there.

The Mexican tourism industry often points to crime rates in other Central American and Caribbean countries, which have very high murder rates.

That's fair enough. For example, Mexico City has a murder rate that's lower than many American cities, Chicago or Miami, for example. I live in Mexico City and I've lived in Los Angeles and they both have areas you avoid. There are areas as a tourist you wouldn't go.

Although I did backpack through Mexico in 2001, I wouldn't advise backpacking through Mexico these days. Calderon's initiative of waging this war is creating a culture of violence. Within this new culture, when you have problems, you solve them with a gun or you solve them with killing people.


These people are realizing that the security forces, the justice system, basically, grant them immunity because they're just not solving any of these crimes.

For the most part, everybody is law-abiding; but those who aren't really have no deterrent. And if you're a young tourist, you've got a backpack, you've got some money or you just look out of place, you're looking like a target, like a walking ATM machine and they are going to withdraw cash from you as soon as they can.

How reliable are the government's crime statistics?

That's a very good question. The government had promised to be transparent and to release reports about what's happening in the country and they released a report that 35,612 people have been killed between Dec 2006 to Dec. 31, 2010. But they haven't released anything since.

The statistics now are from newspapers.

That's the impetus for my providing the data on my website. I have three volunteers who help me scan all the local media in the country and we post anything related to the narco-violence on my map. Then you can link to the story from there.

If you are a tourist and, say, you want to visit Puerto Vallarta, you can click on my maps back a few years, or even to yesterday, and see what's been reported in the media and know what everybody else knows as a local. You don't have to take the government's word. And how can we take their word when they haven't released a report in over a year now?


Please visit Walter McKay's website to view a day by day, accurate, interactive drug war map.

Additional related notes:

I went to Mexico and didn't get killed







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48 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

B. Garza says

To the person who keeps posting "Why does a brown kid have to pay for a white mans prohibition."

You need to stop trying to let the cartels off by saying this is all the white mans fault. Look at the real cause of the violence. These cartels are ran by Mexicans who must have no love for Mexico or her children. They only love themselves. You also need to come out and tell us what your are really trying to say. Have respect for yourself and take blame for your own actions. These cartels are the killers. We need to stick together to fight against them. Stop trying to start a racial divide with your comments of brown kids paying for white mans prohibition. We are all children of God and as brothers and sisters that share this planet we must fight this violence and ignorance.
I was born in Mexico and came to the US when I was 8. I still have a lot of family in Mexico. I have a lot of Mexican pride. I remember where I came from. I also know where I am going. I will succeed in this life. I am not going to blame others for my failings.
You sound like a racist hater. You keep posting your hate message. Tell us who you are.
White mans prohibition indeed. I bet you wish all drugs where legal. I bet you sit at home smoking your weed and wishing you where making thousands of dollars smuggling drugs and people across the border. I bet you dream of raping those women who are trying to come to the US to find work. But you are to afraid to act on your urges because of your nightmares of the white man coming to your house and takeing you to jail. Where you will be the one to be raped. Ha, I got you pegged. I know who you are. I suggest you get off the drugs and ask God for forgivness. Get those thought out of your head. Take control of your life. Stop trying to fight against what is fair and right for all people. This world doesn't revolve around you. Respect, Love, Justice.

Anonymous said...

GO TOO BADIRAGUATO SINALOA MEXICO TOURIST BEST PLACE IN MEXICO BY FAR BEAUTIFUL LANDSCAPE AND SCENERY

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Reporter Ovemex

I almost got killed in Guatemala. After, Guatemalans told me about almost getting killed in Brooklyn, LA, Idaho, on and on.

Around here is pretty violent. The US is a violent country.

Would I travel to Mexico today? Yes I would. I love Mexico. But like a lot of people I have less money now. I go see my family these days

What cracks me up is Mexican Nationals and US folk criticizing each other about violence in our respective countries. We both have horrendous violent histories.

In the end the human, despite some grace, is a greedy, short sighted bald monkey caught in a cycle of corruption and violence. We are a stupid version of the Ferengi (Star Trek). Significant space travel, forget about it. We can't escape the gravity of our corruption.

If the misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar turns out to be correct it is no great loss. The ancients predicting the end of man wasn't prophecy. They looked around and saw us destroying everything in our path and correctly deduced that some day it had to end.

Peace ......(as if was possible)

Anonymous said...

Only a FOOL would go anywhere near Mexico if they didnt have to...

Anonymous said...

I was just over there and its pretty dam safe and calm well at least to the area i went too. i did drive through Monterrey and saltillo two heated places. gracias a dios we didn run into any banditos with taco breath.

Anonymous said...

I just returned from my third trip to Afghanistan, that does not in any way it would be smart for me to take my family there on a vacation...

Anonymous said...

January 12, 2012 12:33 AM
Estas pero bien pendejo guey,
it is what it is, and i stand by my comments.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain why Huatulco is on the not safe list? i think that's an error. For that matter, Guadalajara? come on.....

Anonymous said...

I'm just tired of reading -in the most part- all non sense comments. That yes are personal opinions, but , just reflect a tremendous lack of knowledge and common sense. What is happening in Mexico is so complex that not even US intelligence can't crack down, an why is that
It all balls down to free commerce and it's biggest contributor. An insatiable DEMAND for dope. I would really like borderland to post an article on what I happening on this side, with consumption rates and most important who is consuming dope.

Now, as at as safe places to visit here's this link on crime statistics in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Www.endoftheamericandream.com/archives/10-facts-about-crime-in-the-united-states-that-will-blow-your-mind

Anonymous said...

@ B. Garza .Well spoken hermano,i too keep seeing that comment and wonder what kind of person keeps blaming a whole race.Most of the poster's on here will be the "white man",and they are just as appalled and concerned as everyone else at what the Mexican people are enduring.As you can see from his reply you cannot win against an idiotic blinkered racist,be they white,black,or purple,because that is the bottom line,he's a racist.How could anyone see what is going on in Mexico,and not feel for them?As for blaming the "white man"it shows how idiotic and bitter this dude is."Put a name to yourself the one who keeps writing it,so we can ignore you"Oh its that crank again.
B. Garza,keep down bro.

ajulio said...

Mexico is safe if you are at the right place at the right time.

Luck has something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

No need to go to Mexico! Plenty of great places to tour in the USA! Sorry Mexico my dollars at one time would be spent over there ya no mas! Peace!

Anonymous said...

I have had four friends travel to Cancun in the last two months. All said they never felt unsafe and they didn't see any violence. It's hit or miss in Mexico. There are certain " tourist " spots that are still safe, go out during the day but don't get crazy at night. Is it the same as the old days, where you could party all day and night, well no.

Now there are certain hot spots, you shouldn't travel to at night and have a higher chance of being " kidnapped, caught in a cross fire, or killed by confusion "

That is certain parts of Chihuahua, Coahulia, Nuevo Leon, Tamps, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Michoacan to name a few. These are hot spots, there is known violence there.

Parts like Acapulco, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta etc...You can travel there, enjoy yourself and come home safe.

Anonymous said...

Dont worry man nadie va a extranar los 200 dls que you use to spen there. Si supieras que casi a quien veas en las calles de mexico tiene mas dinero que tu.

Anonymous said...

WALTER McKAY is full of sh**!! Everyone knows that Mexico is a dangerous place 2 travel, he is safe cuz he stays in very secure place with security all over..U might get lucky and travel down there and b safe BUT Y RISK IT???? So i suggest u vacation somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

@ OP - killer article (no pun intended) Thanks for posting!

I, for one, would not take the Mexican prepared statistics without multiple grains of salt.

Concerned Mexican said...

Yes, there are good areas in Mexico, just as there are bad. Just like there are good people and bad people. Mexico, is safe...but not what it use to be. I can name places in the USA with high crime rates as well Detroit, Chicago, etc. Just be safe.

1. Don't draw attention
2. Don't carry large amounts of money, as a tourist you are expected to have some money.
3. Avoid bad areas
4. Avoid going out at night if possible.
5. The most important..... Enjoy Mexico to the fullest! Talk to the locals, enjoy the music, arts and craft. The wonderful landscape.

Anonymous said...

This shit will never stop until drugs are legalized or the white man stops consuming mountains of cocaine !!! Also the DeA and CIA are directly involved in drug smuggling. It is in the United states oligarchy's interests to keep it's citizens drugged and subservient, with a druged out population the new world order can get away with much more with much less opposition ... People must study unholy alliance created by the cartels and the white house .... Study the Iran contra scandal and the CIA crack cocaine epidemic causes by the CIA And cointelpro in the inner-cityies of the united states in order To squash revolutionary groups such as the black panthers .... We are all living an illusion and it's up to us to lift the veil don't be brainwashed by corporate news and don't believe the war on drugs it is a facade!!!

Anonymous said...

First off...If I'm going to go on vacation, I'm not going to choose a location, where there is a chance I'll be in harms way! I don't care what "other" people have experienced because the fact remains their experience doesn't apply to me. Second, my money is better spent elsewhere..peace of mind..where I don't have to look over my shoulder. Bottom line, call it what you will but tourism in Mexico has declined significantly, as a direct result of the drug war. Still, I think if you stick to the tourist spots and don't wander off the beaten path..I'm sure it's safe. Me, personally..I'm not willing to take that chance. I like my head, where it is!

Anonymous said...

La Paz is in BCS, a hop skip and a jump away from Sinaloa. The worst of the worst was captured there (EL TEO). The biggest captures of the AFO also occured in BCS. If you go to Cabo you might get a glimpse of the Word's most wanted man, but don't worry, it's safe. Just like Las Vegas, gangsters don't want to defecate on their own doorstep, they might step in it later!

Anonymous said...

Moved to Chapala, Mexico from the states in August and couldn't be happier. Feel very safe.

Anonymous said...

A Massacre in Mexico: Parts I & II Jan 12 2012
A Massacre in Mexico: What Really Happened to the Hartsells? Part I
Written by Gary Moore
Relatives pleaded. Did she really want to drag four adolescents on a nostalgic holiday trip into Mexico’s drug war?
oneoldvetdotcom

Anonymous said...

Indeed I have family in la Paz and they all say it's really safe, my cousin was visiting Los Angeles recently and even told me you can leave your motor running while you run into the store for a few minutes and no one would steal it. Also my exgirlfriends family is from Jalisco and Tijuana , she used to always tell me she feels safer in Tijuana than in south central LA.
People need to stop living in fear and live life to the fullest, just be careful, empower your self with information and be aware of your surroundings.

Anonymous said...

Is it safe for Mexicans to visit USA?

Anonymous said...

just spent 2 weeks in chihuahua and the closest i got to dying was from all the alcohol i drank

Anonymous said...

Yes it is...our cops dont work with cartels to kidnap citizens...

Anonymous said...

January 12, 2012 2:59 PM

only if you avoid Arizona LOL

Anonymous said...

Yea, Mexico is about as safe as a thief working in a bank!!
What a stupid ass question!! Of course Mexico is not safe dumb ass!!
You guys need to have your heads examined or replaced or both!!
Have a good day!!! Dumb shit!!!

Anonymous said...

Hahaha goodone! Lmao

Anonymous said...

BB readers need to understand that tourism, in particular all the resorts, are just large scale cash laundromats. The locals in Cabo always joke about the new mall, and make a very astute observation. "Ever notice that no one has any shopping bags". An art store, or a jewelry store for example, can claim to have sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise, and then pay the taxes. Now the owner can by property etc. and put the assets on the books, all legal and proper. Without any tourists things would look suspicious. THE CARTELS NEED TOURISTS TO HELP KEEP THE CASH LAUNDROMATS IN BUSINESS. Tourists just need to understand the basics, which is as follows.

Cops are on the take, and work for the cartels. They are going to jack you up no matter what. Just always use a taxi, never rent a car, don't carry cash, and don't get blind stinking drunk and then walk around in the middle of the night looking for some fun. If you are the only person available to jack up, your going to meet every dirty cop in town, no matter where you go!

Anonymous said...

I am a white female and I moved from the US to Acuña, Coahuila and love it here. There is violence here as in other places in Mexico, but the same rule applies as in other cities. mind your own business, avoid traveling after dark, don't flash money and enjoy yourself. I hear and see more violence on my trips back to the states than I do here.

Anonymous said...

I am a white female I moved from the Texas to Acuña, Coahuila and I love it here! We have violence just as other parts of Mexico, but the same rules apply (mind your own business, don't flash money, avoid travel at night). I hear and see more violence on my trips back to the states than I ever see or hear of here in Acuña.

Anonymous said...

Haven't been to MEX. Since 96'.. No matter & worries, I still have to go this year..Hopefully I don't encounter any Z...

Anonymous said...

Mexico is the best Country in the world just because their is Cartel Related violence doesnt mean you cant enjoy yourself.

Anonymous said...

http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=546927&highlight=mexico+safe

This is a thread that consistently states that Mexico is definitely safe. I dunno. Too many stories, first-hand, of Americans being killed, robbed, etc.

What do you think? Are these guys right?

We no long visit Mexico after going there twice a year for 15 years (time share).

Phil in Atlanta.

Anonymous said...

If Mexico was safe we wouldn't be writing here.

Anonymous said...

Chapala??,Campeche?? La Paz?? Merida?? CAN ANYBODY TELL ME WUT CARTELS R WORKING DOWN THERE??

Anonymous said...

As far as "safe" is concerned, Mexico is safer than the USA - by far. The cartels are not after you - gringo turistas. For the most part, they are thugs killing other thugs, and their associates over turf wars. It's fairly difficult to get weapons in Mexico - unless you import them from USA. I am sick and tired of so called "security experts," like this guy, "Walter," opining on the obvious for his own personal profit. Statistically, Mexico is much, MUCH safer than USA. Of 2,500 municipalities (counties), only 80, or fewer than 5 percent, have been affected by the drug war, which accounts for only 3 percent of all crime. Mexican cities are also safer than some urban centers North of the border: Mexico City, for example, has 8.3 homicides a year per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than Miami (14.1) and Chicago (16.1). On a global scale, Mexico is safer than many of its neighbors. In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported Mexico’s homicide rate as 11.6 per 100,000, significantly lower than Honduras (60.9), Jamaica (59.5) or El Salvador (51.8). Without a solid understanding of the geography (761,606 square miles) and the nature of the drug wars (internecine fighting), many foreigners assume that all of Mexico is a war zone. The Third World War is a war of information - or lack of it, so welcome to the war.

Anonymous said...

It is not a matter of which city is dangerous..... the majority of the violence in the USA the offenders are givin long prison terms more than mexico can say about its justice system... you keep the murders on the streets wtf do u think is going to happen....

Anonymous said...

January 13, 2012 4:41 AM

stop smoking meth. Mexico is not by any stretch safer than the United States

Anonymous said...

If Mexico is safer than the US, why are people risking death in the desert to work and live here? I don't see Americans beating a path to Mexico, risking life and limb to go there for security and prosperity. You are truly delusional to even suggest Mexico is safer than the US. In the US, law enforcement actually solves crimes. There arent thousands upon thousands of people that disappear with the police shrugging their shoulders saying they don't know where they are. Sure, people in the US are murdered and buried, but you don't hear about discoveries of mass graves every week like you do in Mexico. There aren't groups of men throwing granades into crowds of people and you don't have trucks parked in the middle of highways containing 30 plus dead bodies. Also, you don't have barbarians beheading individuals and leaving heads and bodies in the middle of the street and again no one being brought to justice for it. Mexico is filled with serial killers, kidnappers, and rapists that commit evil deeds with no fear of retribution. So when you say Mexico is safer than the US, you are just sadly mistaken.

TRIPS AND FOOD said...

we went to Haultulco in 2007 and it was great we went to the club down town and we walked so we had a great time with the kids while we were there i liked it very much...

Anonymous said...

Is mexico safe? No, don't care who says otherwise, it is not. Take a look around and you see dead people and shootouts everyday. Even tourists are getting killed. So no.

Anonymous said...

If you are kidnapped, robbed, raped, skinned alive and decapitated in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, it's likely the murderer(s) will be tracked down, caught, tried and executed (or spend life in prison).

If that happends to you and your family in Mexico -- and there's a good chance it will -- you'd better understand that the killers will never be brought to justice.

That's a sad fact.

NOTE: Omaha had very few decapitations last year (for those of you who foolishly believe that the USA is more dangerous than Mexico).

Anonymous said...

ordinary people and tourist are not safe in mexico to many sadics they will make anyone disapear.

Anonymous said...

Cool and thats why not you but your compadres can come over to the USA and spend not 200 but a few dollars more and and stimulate our economy! Aguevo!

boxerdan said...

Chichen Itza was a center of pilgrimage for the ancient Maya for over 1,000 years. The Maya name "Chichen Itza" means "At the mouth of the well of the Itza."

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