“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.”
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?”
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.
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?
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.
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.