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Monday, March 21, 2016

Is Mexico Safer Than America?

Originally published 2008
It was among the most brutal homicides in recent memory. On a sunny Sunday afternoon last fall, two men jumped out of an SUV and set Marcial Sanchez on fire. The 52-year-old factory worker was engulfed in flames and burned over 70% of his body. He died hours later at a hospital. No one who saw Sanchez’s killing reported it to police. [1]

If you were to read this, would you think twice about planning a vacation to that city? Unfortunately, these are the stories filling the pages of newspapers across America.

It isn't just in major cities in the U.S. that recent spates of violence, often attributed to teens and young adults, have sparked concern. A top official has warned parents to find out whether their children are carrying knives, after attacks killed 14 teens so far this year, including an 18-year-old actor. There have been at least 28 teen murders throughout the country in 2008.


Does this sound like a country you would want to take your teenagers to or a place you let them go for Spring Break? Probably not. But what if you knew the first headline refers to an event in East Los Angeles and the second, to a trend in England?

Of course, anyone planning a vacation or contemplating a move weighs many factors when deciding where to go. Travelers want to feel safe. How can anyone really know whether they will be safe in another city or country?

Take the example of Mexico. There have been many sensational headlines published about the murders and kidnappings in Tijuana. It is true that there are drug cartels in Mexico, known police corruption, and a great deal of violence surrounding the drug trade. However, confrontations tend to occur outside of resort and tourist areas; even in places close to Tijuana such as Rosarito, very rarely experience violent crime. Many Mexicans, as well as Americans living in Mexico, believe that the reports of violence are over-stated, causing more fear among potential travelers than is necessary.

“The recent media trend seems to be to link any crime or police action to the entire country, which is similar to having an incident in Los Angeles reflect on the entire United States,” says Ron Raposa, the international public relations representative for Rosarito Beach. He adds, “The coverage varies some from media outlet to media outlet. But in general, the U.S. media in recent months has presented coverage of Baja California and Mexico that lacks perspective, balance and sometimes accuracy.”

IS MEXICO SAFER THAN USA?

The U.S. State Department put out a warning about the violence in Mexico. The report states that 128 Americans were killed in Mexico between January 2005 and December 2007.

Looking more closely at the data, Rosarito Beach, Ensenada, Mexicali, San Felipe, Tecate and Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point) only had 42 homicides in the last three years combined. Those are the largest tourist areas of Northwest Mexico, excluding Tijuana. In Los Angeles County, there have been 103 murders in the last six months. In 2007, there were 324 homicides in L.A. County. People in Los Angeles would probably say that there are certain unsafe areas to avoid. People living in Mexico would say the same thing.

More detailed statistics indicate that he murder rate per 100,000 people in Mexico is about 13. Recent FBI statistics show the murder rate in Baltimore is 43.3, Washington DC is 29.1, and Detroit is 47.3. Surprisingly, the murder rate per 100,000 in New York is now 6.1 as crime diminished significantly during the administrations of New York Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

The Mexican government, federal and local, looks at crime and the drug trade seriously, and is taking major steps to stop violence and end corruption. President Felipe Calderon has sent federal troops to help local and state police crack down on crime and the drug cartels. Part of the problem is police corruption, which Calderon has addressed head on. Last year, all of the police officers in Tijuana had their guns tested and federal troops patrolled the city. After weapon testing and other screenings, such as lie detector tests, the better police officers returned to their jobs. The same type of screenings occurred in Rosarito

In recent months, in Sonora, Mexico, two reporters were abducted and killed because of investigations into the cartel. On the day of the second abduction, the federal authorities arrested 100 policemen suspected of corruption and working with organized crime.

Bad press is having a negative impact on SCORE, Baja’s staple off-road racing series. Sal Fish of SCORE International has been shopping for Mexico races in the state of Sonora and Sonora is pulling out all the stops to have off-road racing in its state. Baja California racing is seriously on the ropes, with racers bailing on the SCORE series and ever-increasing public reports of organized crime in Baja California, Mexico.

Raposa explained,

Baja has brought some of the problems on itself. Police extortion of motorists in some areas went uncorrected for far too long. Corrupt and corrupting criminal cartels wielded pervasive influence along the drug routes leading into the United States. But, now Mexican federal, state and city governments have joined together in a serious effort to end that. This has led to shootouts that, while not affecting visitors, U.S. media often links to tourist safety. They are separate issues.

Rosarito Beach has done much to make tourists safe. Raposa describes the first step in Mayor Hugo Torres attempt to create a clean police force. After extensive screening Rosarito has replaced 40 of its 150-member police force and has also created a special tourist police force. Twenty of its best officers are assigned to patrol tourist areas, offering both protection and assistance. An ombudsman office and tourist assistance office have been created. In addition, 300 residents have volunteered for a citizen-watch program in tourist areas. Raposa says,

Raposa has spent a lot of time in Rosarito, which he recommends as a vacation destination. He says, “I have been visiting here for 30 years and lived here full-time for three, all crime-free. I would say it is comparable to any major tourist area in the U.S. in regards to the safety (of) visitors.”

He adds, “Use common sense and be alert as you would in any area with which you were unfamiliar. Avoid situations and areas that seem to present increased risk. Both the state and Rosarito tourism offices have websites with extensive safety tips and other valuable information.”

Tourism in Baja during Spring Break may have decreased somewhat this year, but it seems to be improving. Says Raposa, “There has been a gradual rebound as people realize that Rosarito is not a dangerous place to visit.” The main affected cities of Rosarito, Tijuana and Ensenada are working together on tourism and safety.

On the other side of Baja, San Felipe is trying to deal successfully with the reports of violence affecting tourism. Mayor Hazael Sierra says, “I believe the bad image has been the cause of many tourists not coming to visit us, but when they do, they go home with a really good impression.” The Mayor says his city is working on, “Cleanliness, security, and organization of local events.” He adds, “I believe that there is still a lot to do, but we are beginning and I believe that this is all going to get better.”

Traveling South of the border is no different than visiting other foreign destinations and tourists rarely encounter dangers if they follow the law in Mexico.

Travelers to Baja needing help or advice are encouraged to take advantage of the assistance available. Dialing 078 from any phone in Mexico will immediately connect the caller with the Department of Tourism toll-free. You can also visit the website for more information at: http://www.discoverbajacalifornia.com

[1] Quote from Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2008 on LA Gang Violence.