Mexico: Breaking Bad Press

Lost in the hyper headlines are the lesser-known victims of Mexico’s drug war: empty resorts, restaurants, shops and beaches.

“Sit wherever you like,” said the bored waiter, waving his hand across an empty restaurant in the Central Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende.

“We don’t stock those anymore, no demand,” the Puerto Vallarta shopkeeper told us about a sold-out T-shirt.

“I’ve written a new song,” enthused a strolling musician in Patzcuaro, whose excellent CD we’d purchased the year before. “That’s terrific, but what are you still doing here playing for pesos in the plaza?” we asked him. “We thought you’d be a famous recording artist by now.” He shrugged, smiled wanly as he gazed across the sleepy square. “I’m struggling to feed my family.”

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Waiters at the swanky Le Kliff restaurant in Puerto Vallarta have time instead of trays on their hands.

These are some of the softer victims of the media hyperbole that continues to crush Mexico. You rarely hear about them, but they are real and they are hurting, through no fault of their own. Their country has been hijacked by not only drug cartels but by a voracious news cycle that paints only part of the picture, leaving the rest to a fearful imagination.

Log on to just about any travel forum or message board and you will invariably see a post from some jumpy tourist asking the question: “Is it safe to go to Mexico?” Paralyzed by reports of beheadings, kidnappings and extortions, the wary traveler desperately looks to strangers on a message board to reassure him that a trip south won’t end with a return trip north in a body bag. Then, when he gets the green light, he summons up his courage, hops a plane . . .  and drops into a land of sunshine and palm trees, warm waters and friendly faces. He gazes about him and sees parents walking their kids to school, shopkeepers sweeping their stoops, office workers having lunch on the plaza, tourists sipping cervezas on the beach while players dive for a volleyball in the sand. The hype doesn’t mesh with reality. The question then becomes, “Why the scare tactics?”

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The exquisite Ristorante Il Mare, overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay, is devoid of diners.

There’s long been a theory making the rounds that Canadian and American governments have conspired to ratchet up the fears of travel to Mexico to keep their citizens — and their dollars — at home (a ruse enthusiastically embraced by an insatiable media forever hungry for headlines). They try to dupe you into taking “staycations” in your own city, where you’re guaranteed to be safe from attack. Because your city is crime-free, right?

Of course there’s violence in Mexico, I’m not disputing that. Of course there are homicides — an estimated 22 per 100,000 in 2012, according to Mexico’s Statistics and Geography Institute  — but they are almost entirely drug-related. More than a million and a half Canadians vacation in Mexico every year and only a handful even witness a crime let alone are casualties of one. The only innocent victims seem to be those brave souls in law enforcement, who put their lives on the line every day for the princely sum of approximately $8,000 a year, according to the country’s Public Safety Ministry.

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A military boat cruises Manzanillo Bay in front of Las Hadas resort.

I’ve been traveling to Mexico for decades — hell, I even got married here. Since 2010, I’ve spent half the year here. I’ve driven thousands of kilometers from north to south, east to west. Have I ever felt unsafe? No. Not on a secluded beach, not driving from one state to another, not walking back alleys after dark. I have, however, felt uneasy in my hometown of Vancouver, a city with many back alleys I wouldn’t dream of walking after dark.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the cool mountain air in the state of Michoacan, ground zero for the launch of the war on the drug cartels declared by former president Felipe Calderon in 2006. To get here from the coast, I had to drive through an area called Tierra Caliente, literally translated as “hot land.” It’s also referred to as dangerous land, for good reason. Occasionally, I noticed rough roads that deviated from the highway, leading up into the hills. If you were reckless enough to follow them, you might come upon the prime growing fields (and their protectors) for marijuana and, possibly, mobile labs for the lucrative methamphetamine, the drug of choice controlled by the state’s La Familia carteI. I, of course, did not take the detour. Just as I would not take a dangerous detour in Vancouver, or Los Angeles, or New York, or New Orleans or Toronto. Instead, I cruised along the well-maintained freeway without incident, listening to satellite radio documenting a litany of murders, rapes, break-ins and dismemberments. In Canada. Should I warn Mexicans not to go?

Barra De Potosi

A string of beach restaurants in Barra de Potosi cry for customers.

Read beyond the sensational headlines and you’ll find the truth: the murders they’re talking about are targeted. There’s a turf war going on among the rival cartels; they don’t care about tourists. Well, that’s not entirely true. They do care about tourists; some of the cartels have a stake in many of the businesses tourists frequent. If, however, you happen to be where you shouldn’t be, you just might get caught in the crossfire. If you happen to be a small-town thug from north of the border who’s misguided enough to think you can do business with the big boys, chances are your headless body will be hung from an overpass. If you’re merely a pasty-faced sun-seeker on a two-week holiday, the only danger you’re likely to encounter is a fierce hangover from one too many margaritas.

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Right this way, no waiting (or waiters) for a table at San Pancho beach restaurants.

The country’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, campaigned on promises to curb violence and corruption, and create more programs and opportunities for young people to steer them away from a life of crime. An admirable platform, no question, but the jury’s still out on his progress. I think, as long as there’s a market (which is overwhelmingly American) and the lack of cojones to quash or at least control it, there will always be a brisk trade of drugs flowing north, weapons flowing south.

Should that deter you from vacationing in Mexico? Let me save you the time perusing message boards: No. No more so than booking a trip to Brazil, China, Jamaica, America or Canada (all of which contain some of the world’s most violent cities). Just keep your head down and your nose clean and you’ll have many a Happy Hour. Mexico’s waiters, vendors and crooners will be glad you did. And so will you.

Salud.

8 Responses to Mexico: Breaking Bad Press

  1. Smoky says:

    You would have to agree over 50,000 murders is a little out of the ordinary. Canada and USA do have their murders but I don’t think it’s anywhere near 50,000 just drug related. Wars and revolutions aside 50,000 + is a lot of dead people!

  2. Absolutely, 50,000 is too high, that was partly the point. The innocent Mexicans who have nothing to do with this stat are the ones who suffer the consequences, economically mostly. But the bigger point was that the murders are targeted; if you’re not involved in the drug trade, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be in danger, let alone even witness anything. And yes, Canada and the US have their murders, and the ones that are not drug-related make me a lot more nervous…

  3. TOM CARLSON says:

    This is not the Mexico of ten, twenty or twenty seven years ago.
    Have driven Atizona to Puert Vallarta, 40 trips, over 27 years. The last five years have not been fun, Stops for no reason, or road blocks for hous at Ciudad Obregon.
    Tom Carlson

    • KR says:

      Agreed in large part, Tom, as simply reflective of my suggestions below.
      Though JFTR, various “stops” throughout the republic ARE for a reason!! The federal military is on OUR ‘side’ amigo, and are initiating such requisite stops in avid attempts to control drugs and arms trafficking, not to mention in equally avid search for known criminals, cartel members and to curtail stolen vehicles.
      And while we encounter such welcome stops throughout the republic on our frequent travels, we personally have never been stopped “for hours”. On a 50/50 basis that we’re even “waved-over” at all, such stops (for us) are normally but a quick 10 minute “look/see” inside our vehicle to confirm that we’re not transporting contraband, as well as verifying vehicle ownership (Thankfully IMHO!).
      And while admittedly a bit of a hassle on occasion, it certainly is but a mandatory “sign of the times” as referenced below.

  4. KR says:

    Charming article.

    Though, as an avid “Mexicophile” for over 45 years, including a 24/7 resident for the past 15 (with a Mexican wife-n-family), I can assure you that widespread criminal activity is unquestionably on an unprecedentedly widespread and escalating scale these days, and thus is certainly not to be down played by ANYONE whatsoever.

    In such regard, IMHE 1st hand, to but continue to willfully bury factual reality, and to decoy into echoing and promoting the viewpoint that México’s current woes are largely the fault of the Foreign Press, is demonstrably, hence patently ludicrous!

    In truth, Mexico’s woes are the “fault” of insatiable North American drug appetite, PERIOD.

    But, there is no doubt that increasing areas of México are indeed dangerous, with local populations gripped in caution and underlying fear of equally increasing organized criminal activity and control. And such maneuvers for “control” go FAR beyond mere drug cartel activity solely……. Yes, FAR beyond.

    And while it is ESSENTIAL TO NOTE that foreigners and foreign tourists definitely are NOT the essential target of such activity, there is also NO doubt that foreigners simply “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” is a growing possibility…… with numerous recent examples……. amid the filtering effects of the larger Global Economic Crisis that has finally eeked its way into Sleepy Paradise.

    This week’s “taking back” of the ENTIRE town of Lázaro Cárdenas in Guerrero (México’s 2nd largest port) by hundreds of required Mexican Navy personnel and armed Federal Army troops surely speaks for itself as but the latest effort to again return México to a civilized and safe living environment for its lovely people.

    Should these escalating realities deter tourism? I think NOT 100% to common tourist destinations. RE-READ THAT!

    But, to down play “reality” and to NOT alert visitors to the absolute need now to stay hyper aware and overly vigilant in areas off-the-beaten-tourist-track, or even famed tourist destinations now, is IMHO 100% irresponsible.

    The Escalated War for control of México itself visibly wages on, with President Calderon’s and now President elect Pena Nieto’s underestimate of just how pervasive throughout México the ‘Black Economy’, spawned and controlled by MANY different factions of organized crime, actually IS……. hence an enormous challenge to defeat.

    Entonces, vayan con Dios a TODO…… y con La Prudencia Deservada ahorra, amigos.

  5. Robin says:

    Thanks for your comments. I did not downplay the severity of the situation in Mexico. Of course there’s violence and the country’s innocent citizens often get caught in the middle. It’s a situation that’s slow to resolve, if ever. But this was an article in a travel section directed toward tourists. And tourists will rarely, if ever, encounter any major crime. Yes, they may be stopped in a roadblock — we have often been — but that is routine, it means they’re on the lookout for the bad guys. The country’s troubles are a different subject for a different section. I was simply pointing out that the hysteria with which the media reports on them, as it relates to tourism, is often not warranted.

    • KR says:

      “I was simply pointing out that the hysteria with which the media reports on them, as it relates to tourism, is often not warranted.”

      Well…… maybe, Robin!! Though admittedly, I rarely peruse foreign “newspaper” travel sections, and I merely responded here as a recently referenced link from our local internet site, Zihuatanejo. net.

      And while I personally found the Sun article to be somewhat less than “hysteria” factually, I also believe that “an informed public is a healthy public”, where the right to know certainly is a valuable imperative to making mature personal decisions…… each according to his own…… in The Information Age.

      As such IMHO, justifiable “precaution” and “alertness” certainly DOES have merit these days for both MX locals AND tourists alike.

      And OUR hearts certainly DO go out 100% to ALL the various México vacation destinations currently struggling to “hang-on” during these increased periods of visibly waning tourism. We have many loooooong time amigos in many different destinations who garnish our sincerest regards, and with whom we chat at length on these relative matters during our frequent travels.

      Though in truth, I personally believe that such waning MX tourism has much more to do with the continuing El Norte economic “realities” AND hefty air fare hikes TOO over the past year alone (creating less passengers, hence less available / convenient direct flights), than ANY media reporting can even remotely “claim credit for”!!!

      And again, my intent is BY NO MEANS to deter tourism at ALL!!

      Quite the opposite in fact, as “Bienvenidos ala Tierra del Mar y Sol” should be a call echoing LOUDLY throughout The Halls of Moctezuma……. albeit with Eyes Wide Open!!

  6. TOM CARLSON says:

    KR., i FEEL you know your area and travels very well. Everything mostly accurate.
    Actions the MX gov’t has taken, regarding nationalizing their car, increasing fees by aduana, rising gas prices and the airlines gouging, up to a point WHATEVER THE TRAFFIC WILL BEAR.

    TOM CARLSON

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