Mexico is one of the world's great travel destinations and millions of visitors travel safely here each year. Yet drug-related violence and widespread media coverage of Mexico's insecurity have severely impacted its tourism industry. Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have been engaged in brutal fights against each other for control of trafficking routes, and the Mexican government has deployed military troops and federal police across the country. Much of the worst drug-related violence has occurred in the border region. In a late 2010 travel warning, the U.S. Department of State urged U.S. citizens to defer unnecessary travel to Michoacán and Tamaulipas, and to parts of Chihuahua (particularly Ciudad Juarez), Sinaloa, Durango, and Coahuila. The state of Guerrero, including Acapulco, has been affected by drug-related violence. The level of violence in Monterrey has also increased, and there have been numerous incidents of violence in the city of Cuernavaca, near Mexico City. The Mexican government is working hard to protect visitors to major tourist destinations, which do not experience anything like the levels of violence and crime reported in the border region and along major drug-trafficking routes, mainly in the north.
In most places, it's uncommon for foreign visitors to face anything worse than petty crime. The risk of pickpockets and petty theft rises considerably during the winter high tourist season. Always use common sense and exercise caution when in unfamiliar areas. Leave valuables and irreplaceable items in a safe place, or don't bring them at all. Use hotel safes when available. Avoid driving alone, especially at night. You can generally trust a person you approach for help or directions, but be wary if someone approaches you offering the same. The more insistent a person is, the more cautious you should be. Stay away from areas where drug dealing and prostitution occur.
The U.S. and Mexico share a border more than 3,000km (nearly 2,000 miles) long and Americans comprise the vast majority of tourists to Mexico. Due to this close and historically intertwined relationship, we recommend that all travelers read the U.S. Department of State travel advisories/warnings for Mexico (www.travel.state.gov). The U.S. Department of State encourages its citizens to use main roads during daylight hours, stay in well-known tourist destinations and tourist areas with better security, cooperate fully with Mexican military and other law enforcement checkpoints, and provide an itinerary to a friend or family member not traveling with them.
Stories of murder and mayhem are making all the headlines about Mexico these days. Stories of assassinations, kidnappings, and shootouts sell newspapers but are of no help evaluating the risk in traveling through the country. They are newsworthy in that they document the gravity of the problem Mexico faces in gaining control of its borders and ensuring public safety. But the best way to understand the risk of traveling in Mexico is to read the U.S. Department of State travel warnings (www.travel.state.gov).
The current situation has changed the way I travel in two ways beyond the usual precautions -- such as not flashing a lot of money, not wearing an expensive watch, keeping aware of my surroundings, and not driving on the highway at night. These changes boil down to two objectives: Avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and avoid the possibility of mistaken identity. The first is largely met by not lingering in Mexico's northern border states (including Durango and the interior of Sinaloa), where most violence occurs. The second minimizes any risk of being held up or nabbed by kidnappers, and it is achieved by looking as much like a tourist as possible. Kidnappers in Mexico don't target tourists. They have targeted resident foreigners with family in Mexico or businesspeople who have associates because they need someone to demand a ransom from. The risk here is from small-time gangs who act opportunistically. (Serious kidnappers aren't a threat because they won't do anything without planning and surveillance.) In the last few years, small-time gangs have increased. The best way I know of to avoid this risk is not to carry a briefcase or satchel. What's more, by hauling around a backpack, you will automatically escape scrutiny because businesspersons in Mexico never use them. The backpack (mochila) in Mexico is a strong cultural identifier. It's associated with students and counterculture types, so much so that the word mochilero has come to describe hippies.
Crime in Mexico City
Violent crime is also serious in the capital. Do not wear fine jewelry or expensive watches, or display any other obvious signs of wealth. If you do not have local friends who can help guide you around the city, ask your hotel staff to help point you in the right direction. Muggings are common by day and by night. Theft is even common at the Benito Juárez International Airport, where items such as briefcases, cameras, or laptops are common targets. To avoid theft upon arrival, incoming passengers in need of pesos should use the exchange counters or ATMs in the arrival/departure gate area, where access is restricted, rather than changing money after passing through Customs. Metro (subway) robberies are frequent in Mexico City.
Avoid the use of the green Volkswagen Beetle and libre taxis, many of which have been involved in "pirate" robberies, muggings, and kidnappings. These taxis are also common in incidents where passengers are "hijacked" and released only after they are forced to withdraw the limit on their ATM bank cards. Always use official airport or radio taxis (called sitios) instead. Tourists and residents alike should avoid driving alone at night anywhere in the city.
Crime in Resort Towns
A significant number of rapes have been reported in Cancún and other resort areas, usually at night or in the early morning. Women should not walk alone late at night. Drug-related violence has increased in Acapulco and Mazatlán. Although this violence is not targeted at foreign residents or tourists, visitors in these areas should be vigilant in their personal safety. Armed street crime is a serious problem in all the major cities. Some bars and nightclubs, especially in resort cities such as Cancún, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Acapulco, and Tijuana, can be havens for drug dealers and petty criminals.
The U.S. Department of State offers specific safety and security information for travelers on spring break in Mexico: www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/spring_break_mexico/spring_break_mexico_5014.html. It is also advised that you should not hike alone in backcountry areas nor walk alone on less-frequented beaches, ruins, or trails.
Kidnapping, including the kidnapping of non-Mexicans, continues to occur at alarming rates. Although visitors are less likely to be targeted, those who believe they are being targeted for kidnapping or other crimes should notify Mexican law enforcement and their respective embassy or consulate, and should consider returning to their home country immediately. The U.S. Department of State states the following: "So-called express kidnappings, that is, attempts to get quick cash in exchange for the release of an individual, have occurred in almost all of Mexico's large cities and appear to target not only the wealthy but also the middle class. Kidnapping in Mexico has become a lucrative business, whether the kidnappings are actual or "virtual." A common scam throughout Mexico is "virtual" kidnapping by telephone, in which the callers typically speak in a distraught voice in a ploy to elicit information about a potential victim and then use this knowledge to demand ransom for the release of the supposed victim. In the event of such a call, it is important to stay calm, as the vast majority of the calls are hoaxes. Do not reveal any personal information; try to speak with the victim to corroborate his/her identity; and contact the local police as well as the Embassy or nearest consulate." Also avoid hailing taxis on the street and use sitio (radio) taxis instead. It can be useful to travel with a working cellphone, as well. This is good advice for all travelers to Mexico.
Travelers should exercise caution while traveling Mexican highways, avoiding travel at night and using toll (cuota) roads rather than the less secure free (libre) roads whenever possible. Fully cooperate with all official checkpoints, the number of which has increased, when traveling on Mexican highways.
Bus travel should take place during daylight hours on first-class conveyances. Although bus hijackings and robberies have occurred on toll roads, buses on toll roads have a markedly lower rate of incidents than second-class and third-class buses that travel the less secure "free" highways.
Bribes & Scams
As is the case around the world, there are the occasional bribes and scams in Mexico, targeted at people believed to be naive, such as telltale tourists. For years, Mexico was known as a place where bribes -- called mordidas (bites) -- were expected; however, the country is rapidly changing. Frequently, offering a bribe today, especially to a police officer, is considered an insult, and it can land you in deeper trouble.
Many tourists have the impression that everything works better in Mexico if you "tip"; however, in reality, this only perpetuates the mordida tradition. If you are pleased with a service, feel free to tip. But you shouldn't tip simply to attempt to get away with something illegal or inappropriate -- whether it is evading a ticket that's deserved or a car inspection as you're crossing the border.
Whatever you do, avoid impoliteness; you won't do yourself any favors if you insult a Mexican official. Extreme politeness, even in the face of adversity, rules Mexico. In Mexico, gringos have a reputation for being loud and demanding. By adopting the local custom of excessive courtesy, you'll have greater success in negotiations of any kind. Stand your ground, but do it politely.
As you travel in Mexico, you may encounter several types of scams, which are typical throughout the world. One involves some kind of a distraction or feigned commotion. While your attention is diverted, for example, a pickpocket makes a grab for your wallet. In another common scam, an unaccompanied child pretends to be lost and frightened and takes your hand for safety. Meanwhile the child or an accomplice plunders your pockets. A third involves confusing currency. A shoeshine boy, street musician, guide, or other individual might offer you a service for a price that seems reasonable -- in pesos. When it comes time to pay, he or she tells you the price is in dollars, not pesos. Be very clear on the price and currency when services are involved. An ATM scam involves ATMs in questionable locations where card numbers are "skimmed" and information is copied, money stolen, or cards fraudulently charged.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.