THE FLIP SIDE OF MEXICO: RISKY

It is painful to say it but an alarm must be sounded for those people in Europe, the U.S. and South America who are fond of Mexico and its sunny beaches. These are getting increasingly dangerous. Having been several times to Cancun and the enchanting Riviera Maya, let me extend a piece of advice. It you must get a sun tan, drink tequila and eat chimichangas, do it at a resort that is fully protected. There are many such resorts on the Riviera Maya, with accommodations that range from comfortable to luxurious. Tourism is prevalently American in the winter months, as the influx from the States has exploded due to the expansion of the Cancun airport. Unfortunately, so has crime.

Before 2017, Cancun was relatively safe but killings increased in the first eight months of 2018 when 342 homicides were recorded in Cancun, about 1.4 killings a day in a city of 750,000. The highest homicide rate, however, has been recorded in Acapulco, with 103 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world. Such an horrendous statistic is the work of drugs and extortion gangs. In Cancun, in April, nine people were murdered in a 36-hour spell. In August, police found eight bodies strewn on the streets after a cartel murder spree. One month later, two Mexican marines were stabbed to death in Cancun. In total, during the first three months of 2018 more than 100 people were killed in Cancun alone. The situation has gotten so bad that the Mexican government opened a 2,850 member police base just north of Cancun but it is unclear whether the military police will be patrolling the beaches.

The U.S. State Department spokesman let it be known that “although most of the homicides appeared to be targeted criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens”. The spokesman added, ominously: “Shooting incidents injuring or killing bystanders have occurred”. The list of precautions to be taken in Mexico is a very long one. It starts by discouraging driving on isolated roads to keeping car doors locked and windows closed, especially at traffic lights. Theft is quite common particularly on public transport and at bus stations while passengers have been robbed and assaulted by unlicensed taxi drivers, including in Mexico City. One bit of advice is extremely important: don’t leave food and drinks unattended in bars and restaurants. Travelers have been robbed or assaulted after being drugged. A final warning is the most obvious: dress down and avoid wearing expensive jewelry and watches and limit the amount of cash in your pocket.

The year of 2018 was the bloodiest in Mexico’s history. In the first six months, homicides rose by 16 percent, with 15,973 killings reported, compared to 13,751 in the same period in 2017. In particular, the coastal state of Quintana Roo, home to resorts like Cancun and Tulum, saw crime rise by 132%. The state accounts for almost half of Mexico’s tourism income. International resorts on the Pacific Coast, such as Acapulco, have lost most of their visitors. The most dangerous state in Mexico is Colima, also on the Pacific Coast, with a homicide rate of 80 per 100,000. By comparison, El Salvador and Honduras, two of the deadliest countries in the world, have homicide rates of 60 per 100,000. As a nation, Mexico rates at 22 homicides per 100,000, just behind Colombia and Brazil at 27 per 100,000.

Mexico is the eighth most visited country in the world. As an industry, tourism employs nine million people and accounts for sixteen percent of the national GDP. As its Secretary of Tourism has said: “We Mexicans cannot afford to have tourism slow down”. American tourists constitute the bulk of visitors to Mexico. In October 2018, Mexico received 668,000 American tourists, compared to 642,200 in the same month in 2017. Besides spending their vacation time in Mexico, Americans come as medical tourists and ex-pats living in the country.

Finally, tourists have to be very careful about what they are drinking in Mexico. An investigation found out that dozens of tourists had become ill over tainted tequila. Mexican authorities busted two distilleries that produced tequila with dangerous levels of methanol. Travel experts warn tourists to exercise caution and be more aware outside of gated resorts. The ones who put themselves in danger, mostly in bars, are the students who flock to Mexico during spring breaks.

In spite of troubling statistics about crime, the Mexican government is showing undeterred optimism about the future of tourism. The election of the socialist President López Obrador spoke well about stability and encouraged investors to resume the private sector funding of new hotels and the opening of airline routes that had stalled before the election. For sure, what will continue to drive and increase substantially tourism to Mexico is the favorable dollar-peso exchange. Mexico is indeed a cheap country for American and European tourists. In sum, carpe diem in Mexico but be alert.

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