Unsafe in either country?

How alarmed you should be by crime in the U.S. or in Mexico? It can be a matter of perspective

The abduction about ten days ago of four Americans driving across the border from Brownsville, Texas to the Mexican city of Matam0ros, left two of them dead in addition to a Mexican bystander, and restarted the narrative of Mexico as a lawless jungle dominated by drug cartels dueling with each other or with Mexican law enforcement.

Indeed, the U.S. State Department has issued warnings that traveling in Mexico is completely safe in only two out of its 32 states—not that such warnings have any effect on the flow of American tourists. Last year, almost 26 million U.S. tourists visited Mexico, 10.6 million of them arriving by car. Even more are expected this year.

The Mexican government reacted to the kidnapping/murder news with surprising alacrity and within a few days, the victims were located, and the cartel responsible turned over five of its own members and apologized for the botched-up operation. Their surreal act of contrition in effect went something like, “we meant to kill four people, but our guys screwed up and killed the wrong ones. Our sincere apologies.”

In reality, the Matamoros tragedy is but a blip on the yearly, and so far uncontrolled, drug war in Mexico, recently over control of the fentanyl trade, most of it headed to the U.S.

In 2021, there were 43,964 homicides reported in Mexico, a figure slightly lower than reported in 2019. But before you let out a sigh of relief, consider such numbers are a form of statistical magical realism: A large number of murders, kidnappings and other crimes in Mexico go unreported, and over 94 percent are never resolved. Most likely the numbers are much higher.

So after 17 years here, aren’t Stew and I terrified to live in Mexico? The answer is no, largely because we’ve never been victims of or directly involved in a crime here. And also because we look at crime here through a spyglass as, I suspect, do millions of Americans in the U.S., particularly those living in cities with high homicide rates. Crime can seem alarmingly close or reassuringly distant, depending on which end of the spyglass you choose to look through.

To our eyes, San Miguel remains a calm and picturesque oasis even though it’s located in the state of Guanajuato, which has one of the highest rates of drug-related killings and violence in Mexico. For now, we avoid Celaya, Irapuato and other reportedly dangerous Guanajuato towns, and instead dine and play here or in the nearby city of Querétaro, which is still considered safe.

In addition, expats have a repertoire of self-defense, or self-delusional, tools to deal with the perception of crime. When driving to the U.S. border avoid side roads, we hear, or any roads at night. Go through border-crossing “X” which is safer than “Y,” according to someone who drove to Texas a week ago.

Stew and I used to drive to the U.S. through the rather deserted Colombia International Bridge rather than Nuevo Laredo, which is supposed to be high-crime. Or not. Some expats feel safer driving to the border in caravans of three or four cars, as if the sight of a line of elderly gringos nervously clutching the steering wheel of their cars is going to scare away bandidos along the way.

Whatever: Anymore Stew and I fly to the U.S. and avoid the wear-and-tear, mental and physical, of driving 10 or 12 hours, including four or five pee stops and maybe an overnight stay along the way.

Ultimately, expats soothe their nerves by viewing the bloody mayhem caused by the drug war through the end of the spyglass that makes it appear as something taking place in remote areas of Mexico whose names we often can’t even pronounce.

Have gun, will travel. (NYT)

Though the specifics and statistics of crime may be different, Americans north of the border may be guilty of their own self-delusions. Crime in Chicago, for instance, looks quite distant if you live in a high-rise along Lakeshore Drive, or in placid community in the North and Northwest Side of the city. Only when an acquaintance is a victim of a carjacking or a mugging in an otherwise “safe” area of the city do the mental alarms go off. Those are luxuries not available to residents of the South and Southwest Sides, where gang warfare and homicides are on the menu practically every weekend.

Although the drug trade plays an outsize role, crime in the U.S., doesn’t seem to be driven by any one specific factor, such as geography or drug trafficking, but it’s rather more random and arguably frightening, the result of a gluttony of weapons, and the growing tribalization of the country along racial, ethnic, political or even religious lines.

If you’re Hispanic or Black, that can be reason enough for a crazed xenophobic or racist lunatic to kill you at a Walmart (El Paso, 23 people dead, 2019) or at a grocery store (Buffalo 10 dead in 2022). Or if you’re Jewish for an anti-Semite to gun you and your family down while attending Shabbat services (Pittsburgh, 11 people dead, including some Holocaust survivors, in 2018). Or if you’re gay and dancing with your friends, someone can get you too (Orlando gay bar shooting, 49 people dead, 2016) Or most tragic of all, losing your child while attending school (Uvalde, Texas, 19 kids and two teachers killed).

Numerically, homicides are much higher in Mexico (26.6 per 100,000 population in 2021) than in the U.S. (7.8 per 100,000 in 2020). However, the U.S. rate was by far the highest among highly developed countries, the next highest country being France which reported only 1.35 homicides per 100,000 in 2020.

One common thread to the violence is that neither the government of Mexico or the U.S. seems to have any clear strategy for stemming it . When confronted at a press conference after the Uvalde massacre, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott just mumbled something about “mental health.”

What does that mean? Are Americans more deranged than people from other developed countries? If so, what can be done about it? Is Texas going to appropriate funds for more mental health programs?

No answers. Next question.

18 thoughts on “Unsafe in either country?

  1. If the US did government warnings about cities in the US, no one would dare go to the US.
    BTW I read somewhere in the news that the four Americans who were abducted all had criminal records in the US. Was it really a case of mistaken identity?


    1. Thank you for your comment. I remember a time in Chicago that two young women were seen by the police wandering in the direction Cabrini Green, at that time a pretty dangerous area. The cops told the women something like, “You must be from out of town and not know where you’re going” and with that he offered them a ride back to Michigan Avenue. I hadn’t heard that the four Americans had criminal records. A friend of mine, male, mid-70s, had a tummy tuck in Celaya and he said the convalescence was awful and very painful, though he didn’t get abducted by the cartels.


  2. othmarsingen

    I spend half the year in Mexico City, and I have never felt unsafe, even in my partner’s neighborhood which is a somewhat scruffy working-class area. I take the precautions that I would take in any big city, and I do not wander in the “barrios bravos”, the rough neighborhoods. And likewise, in spite of the constant reports of mass shootings in the U.S., I am not shaking in my boots here in my home in suburban Cleveland.
    As terrible as the statistics are, the probability of being a homicide victim would be (if I am doing my math correctly) .026%… and probably a lot less for a cautious, gringo, senior citizen who has never used illegal drugs in his life.
    By the way, on my last trip to Mexico City, my partner and I tied the knot on Valentine’s Day… the first step (and probably the easiest step) toward permanently moving to Mexico City this year.


    1. It all depends on your familiarity with wherever you are. I know Chicago quite well and where to go and where not to go. Drop me off in Detroit or Baltimore, and I’m not sure I would so well. Congratulations on your nuptials! Best wishes for a long and happy life together! I still hope we can all meet in CDMX one of these days. Al


      1. othmarsingen

        ¡Muchas gracias! I would enjoy meeting you both also. I will be in CDMX again most of April. After that I don’t know what the schedule is going to be for buying the condo where I stay and selling my house in Ohio. If you have any plans to go to CDMX you can always leave a comment on my blog…


        1. Jeff

          We live in a rural area between Irapauto and Pénjamo. When we first moved here a few years ago, I used to read the State Department travel advisories, but soon learned that they were over-the-top. I feel safe when shopping in Irapauto. I have never stopped in Celaya because of the bad press, but drive through it when visiting SMA. I bet there are some nice, safe places there too. I have read about numerous murders in SMA, but we will continue to make the drive over occasionally. We drive over to La Piedad, MCO occasionally as well. Otherwise we travel via autobus or flying.


        2. We were just talking to someone yesterday who has family in Irapuato that he visits practically every week and he said also that despite occasional incidents, it’s perfectly OK. Celaya always has seemed a little dicey to us, including a couple of times there were army Humvees, vehicles set on fire, etc. So we don’t go there. There have been murders in SMA, specifically around our ranch, but they involved drunks fighting with another etc. So keep coming to SMA. Thanks for your comment.


        3. One problem with the news reports is that they refer to murders and mayhem in San Miguel de Allende. It usually turns out that the violence didn’t happen in the city of San Miguel, but rather in a small town in the MUNICIPALITY of San Miguel de Allende.


        4. Will do so and look forward to meeting you both. Have you thought of attending the Pride parade in Guadalajara? We’ve been going to the one in CDMX, but may try Guadalajara this year.


  3. Anita Anderson

    Good words, valiant journalist! 

    Sent from my iPhone Anita Jane Anderson 


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  4. norm

    Yesterday’s Akron paper had a story about three people being bound, shot in the head and tossed on a country lane out in the more rural suburbs. Today the story was that a fourth bound up dude got away and told on the shooter. The killer was a 58 year old gangster, some kind of established drug dealer who was working in Youngstown, some forty miles away. The killer was an old Akron drug dealer who had got a little warm so he moved to Y-town. The dead men were all from Youngstown. It could be a TV episode. The homicide rate in Youngstown and Akron are over 20 per 100,000. There are areas in Youngstown that I would never consider going to without a few firearms in the car. And why would I even think about going there at my age?
    Now Cleveland, it is tricky. The good parts and the bad parts can be just two blocks apart and around the corner-I hate going to Cleveland-the gang bangers are out of control.
    All that said, in my different times in Latin America over the last 40 years, I can count on one hand the times my danger radar started beeping. Drunks are the number one hazard. I booked a room in a place that had a whole separate building full of US Special Forces in Trujillo Honduras-too close to the spear head for me. I was on one of those drive to the end of the blacktop vacations. It was time to turn around.
    I agree with your point, to stay out of harm’s way, act your age and stay away from the frisky part of the population.


    1. Damn, Norm: You missed your call. You should have been a crime reporter. When I got out of school, my first job took me all over Ohio, Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo and all those towns looked run-down but not that dangerous. What you describe in Akron and Youngstown is pretty scary. Why is that? Did the employers move out of town? Chicago is pretty much like Cleveland, but in a much larger scale. Two-thirds of the city is safe but on weekends parts of the rest are like Somalia, gangs shooting at each other. Now they are having mayoral elections, and both candidates are talking about crime this and that, but I doubt there are any short-term solutions. I traveled through Central America too, and like in Mexico, I developed eyes on the back of my head for when it was time to get the hell out and go somewhere else. Glad we got out of there alive. Thanks again for your comments. Spot-on as usual. Al


  5. Gillian Schofer

    Any traveller or person considering living abroad has to balance the risk vs pleasure equation. Staying home is obviously the safest, and most boring, option. Florida, despite the crazy politicians we produce, has safe and unsafe areas and most of us can distinguish between them. The Tampa Bay area where we live, and St Petersburg in particular is a liberal island in a conservative state with all the cultural activities and vibrant lifestyle we need. Yesterday we were in Lahore, Pakistan avoiding the mayhem and political riots. We lived in Chile under Pinochet and were tear gassed, chased by water cannon and had our daily life restricted by military decrees. Are we reckless, stupid, no, we are curious and adventurous. Are we going to go home and sit on the couch. No, not yet. In our mid 80s we have much to see and do.

    But we do seriously miss San Miguel, after owning a house there for 18 years, and never felt unsafe. Hope to get back soon.


  6. I felt neither safer nor in more danger in CDMX earlier this month than last time I was in town. That said, warnings of dangers in various parts of Mexico have increased, and I know a couple of folk who have returned to Mexico City from various parts of Guanajuato because the narco shoot outs became somewhat intrusive.


  7. Crime is a serious problem here and NOB. But I couldn’t help but laugh at your phrase, “…as if the sight of a line of elderly gringos nervously clutching the steering wheel of their cars is going to scare away bandidos along the way.”

    My own personal tip for crossing the border in a car is to try to do it early on a Sunday (before 8:00 AM). The late “John Calypso’s” theory was that even the bad guys take Sunday off. But even if you need to cross some other day, I still think that very early is likely the safest. Bad guys aren’t known for their early-to-bed, early-to-rise lifestyles.


    Kim G
    Roma Sur, CDMX
    Where we’re going to soon publish a post on just this very topic.


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