Road Safety in Mexico
Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have received multiple inquiries about the safety of driving from the US and Canada into Mexico. Dorothy and Bill Bell recently sent us this article, and we thought it worthy of sharing with our readers. Dorothy and Bill have lectured about Mexico Road and RV travel in colleges, RV Shows and private seminars throughout Western Canada and the US. They have traveled to all 31 Mexican states over a dozen times and are considered experts on road travel in Mexico. The following article synopsizes their experiences and opinions about road travel to and throughout Mexico. We hope you enjoy it!
American and Canadian "snowbirds" are making up their minds whether or not to drive by car or recreational vehicle to their place in the Mexican sun. Recent travel warnings by both the Canadian and American governments and negative media reports have generated a tremendous interest and concern over travel safety issues in Mexico, making the decision even harder.
Response to our first report on Road Safety in Mexico overwhelmed us. It generated over a thousand inquiries and requests for more detailed information on road safety in Mexico. The following is our best assessment and contains answers to many of the questions that have been posed to us.
We live in La Penita de Jaltemba Nayarit. It is a small community one hour north of Puerto Vallarta. The town is predominantly populated by Mexicans and has a very large "snowbird" community that both flies and drives here annually. There are only a few of us expats that live here year round. Despite the continuous reports of violence in Mexico, our day to day lives continue much as they have done for the last five years. We go to the market, restaurants, and bank as we have always done and we feel very safe.
We differ from most locals and tourists in that we travel by road thousands of kilometers a year in Mexico. Most gringos and Mexicans do not travel as much as we do. We love to travel and would hate to stop traveling because we were frightened. Although we are not too scared to travel, we are significantly more careful than we have been in the last twenty years of traveling throughout Mexico.
We are retired and make a small income from Mexican Road logs and advertising on our website. We would leave Mexico in a moment if we thought our lives were in danger, the risk was too great or the stress was too taxing. We would hate to leave, however, because we love our current life in Mexico. We love the people and culture. Our income is not dependent on Mexico tourism and nothing ties us here except our love for the country and our community.
Mexico is enchanting. It is not the cost of living that continues to attract us, but rather the way of life. We enjoy the warm climate, friends, sand between our toes daily, golfing, fishing and outdoor activities. Our lives are significantly simpler than they were before we retired here seven years ago... much less complicated.
We find most Mexicans honest and hardworking. They have a love for family and a love for life. We count many as friends and trusted colleagues. There are bad apples and good apples in any barrel, but for the most part there are mostly good apples where we live. The country is historically intriguing. We cannot get enough of the pyramids and colonial cities, the pageantry of parades or the small and large fiestas and local celebrations. We envy the Mexicans’ deep family roots and love our family and kids just that much more through their example.
We feel safer in our little town and in most places we visit here than we do when we travel and visit many cities and towns north of the border. Having said that, we recognize that things have changed in Mexico. The Mexican underworld with all of its horror (and ALL countries have an underworld) is brimming to the surface.
We have given daily thought on how we should advise people regarding road travel and safety in Mexico. While we know a great deal about driving in Mexico, the highway system, rules of the road etc., we are NOT experts in law enforcement. If you think we can guarantee safety, protect you and your loved ones from anything hazardous on the road…well, you’ve come to the wrong people. We can’t do that in Canada, the USA or Mexico.
We do however have common sense and with our Mexican driving experience, we can tell you when we think something is fishy, not quite right or altogether wrong.
If you have traveled before to Mexico, then we believe you will not see anything different from your previous visits. We have traveled thousands of kilometers during the summer of 2010 and have not seen anything untoward. We have gone out at night to restaurants and bars but, as always, stick to the more savory side of town. Exercising common-sense precautions, as we would in any place unknown to us, we have been and felt completely safe.
During the past few months, we have talked to senior Mexican authorities, those involved in the tourist sector, hotel and RV Parks as well as gas station attendants and friends and family. Everyone has uneasy and trepidation feelings. We are definitely NOT saying no problema…..we are saying WE HAVE HAD NO PROBLEMS.
Here is our unabashed, take it or leave it assessment on what is going on in Mexico:
- Mexico is going through some radical social changes
- There is indeed a drug war
- There are car hijackings
- People are getting killed
- It is highly unlikely that you will personally experience any of the above
Radical Social Changes
Mexico has been a devout Catholic country for centuries. Things are changing rapidly and within one generation. We have many Mexican friends who come from families of twelve children or more but who themselves only have one or two children. We laugh and say that their parents didn’t have television, which is not only funny, but also partially true... technology and the Western culture it represents are changing Mexico.
In Mexico City, the capital leads the country on social and law reform. Abortions and same-sex marriage have all been legalized within the last five years. In other words, there has been a tremendous upheaval of what was once considered normal societal conventions.
Living next to the most powerful and rich nation in the world is tough. Many Mexicans have traveled North in search of a better life and are willing to work illegally at almost any job to put food on the table and to reach for the American dream. Other Mexicans have opted for illegal activities in Mexico, including drugs and drug related crime. It is hard to pass up an illegal act when you desperately need money to feed a family or deal with a sick relative. To paraphrase a drug gang’s recruitment billboard, “Are you tired of eating rice and beans? Come join us.”
There is a drug war
Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico, has declared war on those drug gangs (many who have been recruited from the military) and the gangs are fighting back against police and military forces. They steal cars and trucks with tinted windows that can drive fast, get away quickly, while protecting their identity. People are being killed, it's true, but generally those people have had something to do with the drug trade or the fight against the gangs. Some innocent people have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this is the rare exception.
As avid road travelers in Mexico, we have never seen a carjacking, a phony road block or a murder. We have crossed using the Tijuana, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo and Nogales border crossings during the summer of 2010. This summer alone we have traveled nearly 10,000 miles without incident.The only difference we can see at the borders between this year and the previous years is that tourist traffic has been significantly reduced. There is no evidence to show that tourists are being targeted. The reported violence generally takes place in border areas and in isolated spots throughout the country. And it is true, some tourists have been caught in the crossfire or wandered into a horrible situation.
How many innocent people are we talking about?
It is difficult to know who to believe when it comes to crime and statistics. Many Mexican newspapers are prone to exaggeration, sensationalism and often bear a stronger resemblance to the National Enquirer than the New York Times. Awhile ago, we explored a joint venture with a Mexican newspaper, and during the discussion, we asked why they had so few ads. “We have many ads,” said the editor. "The governor paid for this story, this restaurant paid for this one…” In other words, stories could be purchased and not every story in the paper was the result of honest journalism. Some have said that the drug gang killings of Mexican newspaper reporters is a result of their unwillingness to run a particular story or their willingness to publish stories about rival gangs. As a result of our experiences, we are very skeptical of articles written in many Mexican newspapers.
Should we believe the articles in Canadian and US media? We look closely at where they get their information, and is their source is a Mexican newspaper, who try to determine who they talked to and if the crime was reported to authorities. We look closely to see if there is an anti-Mexico bias in the story. As in Mexico, we don't always believe what we read in US or Canadian newspapers either.
The US embassy has issued a detailed and chilling travel advisory. The Canadian Embassy has also written a travel advisory, albeit less detailed and therefore less alarming. We take these reports seriously and agree with many of the warnings. However, we think it wise to compare these warnings and the underlying facts to facts and statistics for similarly sized US or Canadian cities.
CarJackings in the USA and Canada
The only carjacking statistics that we could find are from a 2004 US Department of Justice report that stated there were 38,000 carjackings annually in the USA, 74% in which a weapon was used. We believe the sheer volume of weapon related car-jackings in the USA puts the Mexican situation into perspective. (Those USA numbers seem alarmingly high to us, but we do not boycott travel in the US because of it.)
Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, has always had a lot of visible guns. Most jewelry stores and banks, for example, hire armed security guards to stand in front of stores to protect the business. It has been this way since we first started traveling in Mexico twenty years ago. The military has always had semiautomatic rifles at roadside military checkpoints. While we were not comfortable at first with military checkpoints, we have become used to them and realize now that they are harmless as long as you are not the person or people they are looking for... and we're not!
It is always best to follow the rules of the country when you are a visitor (and even when you're not!). We stop at checkpoints or pullover when policemen come up behind us with flashing lights. We are always respectful when talking with the police or military, and have always found them respectful when they speak to us. They are after people involved in the drug trade, not your average mom and pop expat heading down the highway.
People Do Get Killed
We have no doubt that people are getting killed and that the true numbers are escalating. The gangs do not want to give up their lucrative trade routes and territories. They are professionals who are trained to shoot and kill their enemies, the rival gangs and any legitimate police or military that might get in their way.
Here's our advice, based on our years of experience:
- Travel if you feel comfortable. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are 100% safe. While it is VERY likely that you will NOT experience anything out of the ordinary, there is no point in going if you are going to be too nervous to enjoy yourself.
- If you are flying, when you arrive at your destination, take an authorized taxi from the airport.
- Don’t have anything to do with drugs. Stay away from places that look risky. Frequent tourist places that are in open, well-lit areas of the destination. Ask the desk clerk at your hotel if you are in doubt.
- Take buses that travel in daylight hours.
- Drive out of border areas as quickly as possible. Make your first overnight stop as far away from the border.
- Drive on the main highways well into daylight hours. While we used to start at 6 AM, now we start our day at 8 AM. We quit earlier too, and of course, we don’t drive at night.
- If possible, drive with another vehicle. This will give you confidence, if nothing else. If there is a breakdown, you will have immediate support.
- Get a Mexican cel phone. But a "pay as you go" phone to assist you if there is an emergency. Put the emergency number 078 for the Green Angels (Angeles Verdes) for help with vehicle breakdowns, or 066 for general emergencies on your speed dial. The cheap cellular phones cost about $30 USD.
- Don’t display your wealth. A big stuffed wallet doesn’t impress anyone, but it does make you a target. Have one wallet with 500 pesos or so in smaller bills. Tuck away any other cash that you carry with you. Don’t bring your precious jewelry or any other items with you on your trip that you cannot afford to lose.
- If you are in an RV, don’t boondock. Not at a Wal-Mart. Not at a Pemex. Not at a beach. Stay only at official campgrounds.
- Have a plan in case you run into an “unauthorized roadblock”.
Our Plan for an Unauthorized Roadblock
We always try to have a plan for the worstcase scenario. We figure our lives are worth more than our processions, so we have adapted the following plan for ourselves in case of an assault via an unauthorized roadblock:
- Don’t try to outrun or break though the barrier.
- Keep your hands on the wheel or on the dash in a visible manner.
- Don’t stare or otherwise appear that you are trying to identify the culprits.
- Wait for instructions to get out of the vehicle.
- Hand over anything they ask for.
We would suggest that this plan would be good for any country… Mexico, Canada, the USA or Europe. We do not know or have not heard or read of anyone who has been hurt if they pose no resistance.
Road Travel Forum
To assist road travelers, we have set up a bulletin board forum. We are not interested in the immigration debate, gun control or whether you think there is a conspiracy to keep folks from traveling in Mexico. The forum is for people who want to travel to Mexico and want the best and most recent advice possible about road conditions and safety.
In this forum, people are responsible for their statements, so we do not allow anonymity. We encourage people to contribute. If you subscribe to this board, we expect you to participate, which includes writing your own road report and submitting it as soon as you get to your destination.
To participate, please go to www.mexicoroadtrips.com and sign in. Let us know when you are crossing and if you want company. Report back as soon as you arrive at your destination. Have a pencil and paper while you drive to take note of authorized roadblocks, or anything out of the ordinary. There have been many floods this year. Let others know about detours, broken-up roads and other natural hazards.
But most of all, have fun and enjoy traveling in Mexico!
You can read more about Dorothy and Bill Bell at their website www.ontheroadin.com.