Friends from up north occasionally comment to me that some day they will visit "when Mexico is safe again." They ask me questions indicating that they watch way too much screaming-match, sensationalist entertainment masquerading as news, leading them to believe that I undoubtedly live in a carefully guarded, walled resort community, and that if I do venture out accompanied by a bodyguard I have to avoid the bodies littering the streets on my way to the store.
The reality, I reply, is that most of them, especially those residing in the U.S., live in much more dangerous communities and spend a greater portion of their time tending to personal safety and security than I do. [Here's the place where nearly everyone asks me, "really?"] Yes, really. The only time I hear or see anything about the criminal violence now occurring in some isolated parts of Mexico is when I expose myself to the news. ["Really?"] Yes, really.
I live in Mèrida, Yucatàn, which like any city approaching a million inhabitants, has colonias where the uninitiated should go with care. As one would anywhere else, you figure out the lay of the land and act accordingly. But in my neighborhood there never to my knowledge has been a home burglary or assault since I bought my home in 2003. I don't live in an exclusive "foreigner area," fancy condominium complex or gated community. I live in an inner-city, largely working-class neighborhood and have good, Mexican neighbors. I have left my house for weeks at a time, with never a problem. I come and go free of worry; I lock my doors, and if I am going to be gone after dark I leave a light on. That's it.
A contributor to the Facebook page of The Truth About Mexico recently commented that, "digging into comparative statistics shows that the (approx) 70 biggest cities in the USA all have per capita murder rates higher than Mexico. Near the top of the list is Washington DC, for which I read a very revealing comparison this week -- a private citizen is more likely to suffer a gunshot wound in DC than is a soldier in Afghanistan. An honest State Department should warn citizens to avoid DC (and every other big city) ... and travel to Mexico where they would be safer!"
I do not know where these statistics came from so I have not checked them, but a look at a couple of different online sources for murder rates for US cities and for the country of Mexico reveals it is probably very accurate. And it rings true. I travel within Mexico, am acquainted with quite a few people in various parts of the country, and I do not know anyone who has been directly affected by the kinds of events seen in the news.People here have become more vigilant, but in my experience are less suspicious, and more relaxed, honestly helpful and friendly than people in the States. People here generally are not running around scared, or staying barricaded in their houses. On the safety front, Mexico is little different than, for instance, living in California. I have friends living there who like it, feel secure, and go about their daily business despite the fact that there there were about 6.6 murders per day in the state, according to official statistics for 2008, the most recent data I found, and that gang violence is routine in parts of Los Angeles and other cities. These residents know where not to go, and how to reduce the risks of being victims. Although the violence is a sad reality and we wish it did not happen, it does not directly affect most people. Typically, victims are people involved in the buying or selling of drugs or sex, in crime, are people who get drunk or drugged, and those who go places, do things or hang around with people they know are dangerous.
It's the same in Mexico. The violence is mostly limited to some known areas, and usually involves criminals and their clients, corrupt officials who collaborate with them, or honest officials and soldiers who are fighting them, and occasionally people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just as I would avoid sections of those 70 major U.S. cities (and then some), I wouldn't go hang out in the area of Mexico's border states or Mexico City right now. In cities and areas I do not know well, I ask questions and take care. I dress modestly and do not call attention to myself. Most of Mexico is no more dangerous than the United States, statistically mostly less so, if one just uses common sense.
I always tell the curious that the current drug-gang-related violence affects me about as much as a disturbance in Los Angeles or Miami used to when I lived in Alaska. That's really the truth. Of course when we hear of people murdered and situations that are dangerous and out of control in far away places, it is cause for concern; it doesn't however, much affect us. Around Yucatàn we do see more police patrols and highway checkpoints now than we used to, and there are army patrols in the towns and on the highways as well, but the principal effect this has had on most people is a brief slowdown in traffic. I continue to walk around downtown Mèrida at any hour of day or night without worry. I lock my car doors, as I would anywhere, and drive just about where I please. I don't do those other things that get people into trouble. And life here is pleasant, friendly, safe and secure.
The facts that frequently get lost in the U.S. news media coverage of the situation are that most of the drug gang violence in Mexico is a result of the insatiable market for drugs north of the border and the importation of illegal weapons from the United States into Mexico. Refreshingly, this was admitted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Mexico this week.