Safety — México
Despite sensational and disturbing news reports, México is a safe place to visit and the likelihood of encountering problems while traveling there is minimal. Even in México City, with its grim crime statistics, the threat is comparable or only slightly greater than in major US cities.
Along the northern border, cities -- such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Nuevo Laredo p-- have been getting a lot of negative press because of drug-related violence. The violence is the result of turf wars between drug traffickers and sometimes the police. It is almost unheard of for an ordinary traveler to fall victim to this violence.
The real problem is one of perception, not reality. The media, particularly the witless television news in the US, likes to focus on sensational stories, and, no doubt, the stories coming out of México about the drug wars are sensational. Even though these stories are real, they do not reflect the everyday lives of most Méxicans or the experiences of travelers visiting there. Imagine a different situation, where all you knew about the US was a steady stream of news reports on the grisly crimes committed there. Just think how skewed your view of the US would be. The reality is that Méxicans, just like everyone else, get up in the morning, go to work or school, come home, don't get murdered day in and day out doing it. But that, of course, is not news.
That said, of course, just like everywhere else, there are places and situations in México that are not safe. But using a little common sense and caution should ensure a safe trip.
State department and foreign affairs offices issue travel advisories and warnings about many countries that are updated periodically and posted on the websites listed below. Because they are issued by government agencies, which are usually overly cautious, these official statements always make México sound more dangerous than it is. To better judge the risks of traveling to México always review the travel advisories and warnings of several countries, not just your own. Travel advisories and warnings should help inform the decisions you make while in México, not sway whether to go or not.
In the event of trouble while traveling in México, the best thing to do is stay calm and contact your country's embassy or consulate, they will act as an advocate and intermediary for you. To help support them in these roles, most governments suggest registering with them before leaving on your trip or upon arrival in México at your embassy or consulate. For convenience, some country's websites allow registering online. Also listed are the services these governments provide their citizens in case of emergency abroad.
- Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). www.dfat.gov.au, www.smartraveller.gov.au.
- Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca, www.voyage.gc.ca. The department publishes a fine travel brochure Bon Voyage for free.
- Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs. www.dfa.ie.
- United Kingdom, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. www.fco.gov.uk.
- United States, Department of State. travel.state.gov.
The best way stay safe while traveling in México is to try and blend in as much as possible. Méxicans generally dress conservatively. In beach cities and resorts casual dress is socially acceptable and exposed skin on the arms, legs, and midriff for both men and women is fine. In the rest of the country, in particular the interior cities, dress is much more conservative. Men never wear shorts and woman are usually completely covered. Exposed skin there would definitely stand out. No matter how you dress or try to remake the way you look, you're still going to look like a gringo. Nevertheless, the more conservative you dress, the less attention you will draw to yourself.
Being aware of your surroundings is important to personal safety. If you accidentally find yourself in a place or area that does not feel safe try not to look or act like a mark. Walk away with your arms and hands loose at your sides, not crossed in front of you. Don't act cocky, just project confidence.
Check guidebooks and maps in restaurants or in shops, not on the street.
Solo travelers should always let someone know their whereabouts. Going out late at night in groups is safer than alone. If possible hook up with other travelers and stay on busy, well-lit, streets.
Travelers are especially vulnerable to theft when in transit because all their possessions are with them.
Here are some strategies to help lessen the risks:
- Travel in the daytime if possible. Traveling at night makes you more vulnerable to theft because perpetrators take advantage of the cover of darkness.
- Keep your main stash of valuables: travelers checks, debit and credit cards, the bulk of your cash, passport, and important papers in a money belt or in hidden pockets.
- Carry only a small amount of cash in your wallet or pockets for your incidental in transit expenses and keep it separate from your main stash.
- As a emergency back up store a small amount of cash (say USD$50-100) and photocopies of all your important documents in your bags.
- The storage compartments underneath buses are usually secure.
- Still, if you want to keep your bags with you store them right next to you, NOT in an unoccupied seat in front or behind. A patient thief will wait until you dose off and rifle through your unattended bags. Never let them out of your sight.
- This is less a safety issue and more of an annoyance, but representatives of hotels will sometimes accost travelers arriving at bus stations and claim their's is the only place available with vacancies. Don't believe it and steer clear.
Traveling by bus in México is generally safe, though this hasn't always been the case. In the past, buses had a well-deserved reputation for being mechanically unsound, and drivers were known for driving recklessly. Recently, the government has begun to regulate the bus companies more closely, and their overall safety record has improved considerably.
The biggest risk in traveling by bus comes from being ripped off by pickpockets at bus stations. Pickpockets, often operating in groups, like to work among the chaos of the crowds, always looking for an easy mark. A foreign traveler who is flustered, bumbling about with his luggage is a magnet for pickpockets. Projecting a confident airs—even when you're not feeling particularly confident—signals that you are not to be taken advantage of. The less you look like an easy mark, the less likely you are to be targeted. Keeping this in mind and following these easy rules will lessen your risk of being a target of theft:
- Always keep your bags and purses in front of you, never to your side or behind you. And it goes without saying that you should never, ever, leave your bags unattended.
- Most bus stations have a luggage storage area, called a guardería, consigna, or equipaje, where bags can be checked. Expect to pay around Mex$50-100 per day per item. They're usually not open 24/7, so be sure to check their hours. Sometimes smaller bus stations and bus company offices (where buses drop-off and pickup passengers) do not have formal storage areas. In these cases, bus company staff can sometimes be persuaded to look after luggage for short periods of time.
- Luggage is generally safe on buses, whether stored in overhead bins or checked. Still, it's best to separate valuables and easily replaceable items into different bags. In a small carry-on bag put all valuables—such as money, passport, and camera—which should be kept on your person or within arms reach, not in an unoccupied seat in front or behind you, at all times. Otherwise, a patient thief will wait until you become distracted or dose off and then rifle through it. In another larger bag put easily replaceable items—such as clothes, extra shoes, toiletries—to be checked or stored in overhead bins. Keep in mind, just because a bag fit in an overhead bin on the flight down, doesn't mean it's going to on a bus. If there's any question about whether a bag is too large, go a head and check it. Moreover, be sure to label every bag and, if checked, get receipts. Also, it's prudent to watch checked bags go in a bus' storage area and to make sure they're not inadvertently removed during stops along the way. If, after having taken all these precautions, your checked bags are missing, as long as you've held on to your receipts, the chances of recovery are good. Generally, bus line and bus station workers are trustworthy and will conscientiously try to find your bags. Once your luggage is found, be sure to tip whoever was responsible.
- Representatives of hotels will sometimes accost travelers arriving at bus stations and claim theirs is the only place available with vacancies. Don't believe it and steer clear of them.
- Although rare, buses are sometimes targeted by robbers at night on remote stretches of highways. Taking the bus during the day, especially along highways with known problems, will significantly reduce the risk of being robbed. Highway robbers tend to not target vehicles on major toll roads and expressways. Because first-class buses usually take these routes, they are less susceptible to being robbed than second-class buses, which usually take less direct, more remote, routes.
|Méxican police have a reputation for being corrupt. In reality, police corruption in México is probably no better or worst than in a lot of places. Nevertheless, the police are poorly paid and minor graft in the form of bribes, known as mordidas (bites), are considered a perk of the job. For a traveler being shook down for the first time this is often difficult to accept. Yet as system, in its own way, it more-or-less works. It might help to think of these bribes as informal fines and a convenient way to avoid further entanglement.
||A propina (tip) is similar to a mordida. Offering a propina in México is common and helpful in motivating the bureaucracy and other gatekeepers of Méxican society to expedite a task. A propina is not required to get something accomplished and its offer is entirely of your own initiative. It is impressive though how fast a seemingly daunting task can be turned around on a dime by offering a tip.|
Be cautious if approached by someone identifying themselves as a police offices. If there is any question in your mind as to whether this person is a police officer ask to see their badge and take their name, badge number, and patrol car number if they are driving one.
Should you be arrested your first call should be to your nearest embassy or consulate. Most will at a minimum arrange an English-speaking attorney for you. You can be held for up to 72 hours before charges have to be brought.
If you are a victim of a crime obviously your interaction with the police will be different than if you are accused of a crime. Still consider whether reporting the crime is worth the substantial hassle inherent in dealing with the police. This is especially true of robbery, since the chances of recovering your valuables are nil. Unfortunately most insurance companies will insist on an official police report before they'll reimburse you for your loss. So if you have travel insurance or some other policy that will reimburse you for theft while traveling and you want to be reimbursed you'll need to file a police report.
Many cities with substantial visitors maintain a special tourist police force. If available this should be your first contact if you do decide to report a crime. At a minimum you may be able to get them to write up an official police report for insurance purposes and avoid the hassle of the dealing with the municipal police.
Most travelers' enjoy a presumption of innocence back home if accused of a crime. In México, it is the opposite. México's justice system is based on the Napoleonic Code and the accused are presumed guilty until they prove otherwise. This is not a system you want to get ensnared in and by all accounts Méxican prisons are grim places. Travelers are well-advised to comply with Méxican law or risk severe penalties.
Listed below are some of the most common reasons travelers get entangled in the Méxican legal system and how to avoid it.
México has an abundance of naturally occurring psychoactive plants that indigenous people have used in ritual for thousands of years. The two most common are Peyote cactus and Psilocybin mushrooms. Both are powerful hallucinogens. Peyote has been used for at least five thousands years in central and northern México and the Desert Southwest of the US. Psilocybin mushroom use has been dated as far back as 200 AD, mostly in the south and central regions of the country. Possession of either plant is illegal. The police generally tolerate traditional use by indigenous Méxicans, non-indigenous Méxicans and foreigners are prosecuted.
Marijuana (mota) is not native to México and has no ritual use in any indigenous cultures. Used widely by Méxicans as a recreational drug, it is illegal and penalties are severe for possession of amounts greater than the legal limit for personal use. Even though it is not native plant, marijuana thrives in México, and is grown mainly in the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Michoacán, Guerrero, and Oaxaca and in the Yucatán peninsula. The primary growers are well organized and heavily armed crime syndicates looking to export to the US. As an illegal cash crop marijuana is highly lucrative. This has made México a major battleground for the US government in its ill-conceived War on Drugs.
Cocaine use and smuggling are a huge national problem in México. Use of powder cocaine is widespread and growing. Crack has taken hold in México City and northern border cities. Both forms are illegal and penalties are severe for possession of amounts greater than the legal limit for personal use. Partnering with Méxican crime syndicates, Colombian cocaine cartels have made México a major transshipment point in moving their product to US markets. This is a serious problem for the Méxican government. As the crime syndicates become more powerful they pose a challenge to the authority of local governments, especially in Guadalajara and the border cities of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.
In August 2009 México decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The new law sets out maximum amounts for personal use: marijuana, 5 grams — about four joints; cocaine, 0.5 grams — about 4 "lines"; LSD, 0.015 milligrams; methamphetamine, 40 milligrams; and heroin, 50 milligrams. Anyone caught with drug amounts under those limits no longer faces criminal prosecution. For the first two possession charges users are encouraged to seek drug treatment. After a third charge drug treatment is mandatory.
This new approach represents a significant change from the zero tolerance policy and harsh sentences for personal use México has pursued at the insistence of the US government. Rather than act as a deterrent, the previous harsh sentences enabled corrupt police to shake down casual users and addicts for bribes by threatening long prison sentences if they didn't pay up. Decriminalizing personal use should give the accused greater legal protection.
Illegal drug use is the main reason foreigners have serious trouble with the police and possession of amounts greater than the legal limit for personal use are aggressively prosecuted and penalties are severe. Méxican law does not distinguish between the possession of marijuana and harder drugs like cocaine and the same harsh penalties apply. Persons convicted of smuggling drugs face long prison sentences. Claiming ignorance of Méxican law will get you nowhere. There is little your embassy or consulate can or will do beyond helping find an English speaking lawyer and acting as a intermediary with family or friends back home.
Because they pose a flight risk foreigners are never released on bail, even for minor possession charges. If you are eventually found innocent you could still find yourself in a Méxican jail for a long time until your case is heard and a verdict is reached.
The bottom line — it's not worth it.
Be careful bringing large amounts of prescription drugs in or out of México. If the Méxican police believe the amount is excessive or the medications are being abused they can make an arrest. To avoid questions about the legality of prescription drugs carry them in the original container wrapped with the prescription.
Any medication classified as a controlled substance by the Méxican government must, by law, be purchased with a prescription written by a physician licensed to do so in México. There are many medications in travelers' home countries that are not consider controlled substances in México. To find out if a medication is considered controlled in México consult with a Méxican pharmacist or a physician.
By Méxican law, foreign prescriptions cannot be honored by a pharmacist in México. Getting a pharmacist to sell a controlled substance without a Méxican prescription is still illegal. Méxican police can arrest the purchaser and the pharmacist and charge them with possession and sale of a controlled substance. Purchasing a controlled substance without a legal prescription in México is a serious crime for both the purchaser and the pharmacist. The sentence for possession of a controlled substance is steep, ten months to fifteen years in a Méxican prison. That said, this is rarely enforced. Most pharmacies will dispense most medications without a prescription.
Americans take millions of trips annually to Méxican border-cities to purchase cheap medications. Be aware that the quality of the medications dispensed in Méxican pharmacies is suspect; studies show that 25% of medications are substandard or counterfeit. Be especially careful when buying medications from pharmacies along the border. There are news reports of Méxican police in cahoots with pharmacies extorting money from customers who purchased medications legally.
Every countries' laws differ for bringing prescription medications purchased while abroad in to the country. Travelers should check with their customs office for specifics.
American citizens need to present valid US and Méxican prescriptions at the Port of Entry to prove they are legally entitled to possess the medication in the US and the medication was purchased legally in México. Check the US Customs and Border Protection website: www.cbp.gov for more details.
The legal drinking age in México is 18, but it is rarely enforced. Excessive drinking and public drunkenness by tourists is a significant problem, particularly in border cities and resort areas like Cancún during spring break. Méxicans do not find public drunkenness by foreigners amusing. It is also against the law and could land you in jail. Drinking to excess, particularly when you are alone, leaves you vulnerable to violent crime. Be especially careful in border cities where there have been numerous cases of drunk foreigners being attacked, robbed, or raped.
Bringing firearms, ammunition, or any instrument considered a weapon by the Méxican government in to México is illegal without a permit previously issued by the Méxican authorities. Violations may result in a stiff prison sentence. Accidental violations or being unaware of this prohibition will not spare you from penalties.
Most violations involve US citizens with illegal weapons driving automobiles or piloting private yachts south of the border on vacation. The prohibition extends to Méxican territorial waters. A sea vessel passing through Méxican territorial water, but not planning on putting in to port, is not exempt. Because of media reports in the U.S. the incidences of violations are way down. To inquire about getting a permit contact the nearest Méxican embassy or consulate.
According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms 90% of the weapons used by the Méxican drug cartels are bought in the US legally and then smuggled illegally in to México. Given the government's recent hard-line stance with the cartels and the concomitant increase in violence, the Méxican army and police have been even more diligent in trying to stifle the flow of illegal weapons from the US.
México prohibits the possession or export of most species of wildlife and any products made from them. Products made with protected wildlife are prevelent in México's markets. Tourists, unaware of their illegal contents, often buy them as souvenirs only to have them confiscated when leaving México or entering their home country. For minor transgressions the penalty is usually confiscation while in severe cases a stiff fine may be levied from Méxican authorities or the authorities back home.
Be suspicious of products that include:
- sea turtles
- fur from spotted cats
- native birds
- black coral jewelry
- stuffed animals
- crocodile, caiman, or iguana leather
- animal skeletal remains.
México considers all pre-Colombian artifacts to be part of its historical heritage and the property of the state. The possession or export of these objects is a crime. Anyone possessing or attempting to take these objects out of the country could get stiff fine or a stay in a Méxican prison. Most travelers' home countries respect international conventions on trafficking in antiquities and will confiscate these objects and may prosecute the offenders as well.
Pickpocketing and other kinds of petty theft are the crimes travelers are most at risk of. By taking a few simple precautions travelers can lessen the risk of losing their cash and valuables.
Try not to look too affluent. Never wear expensive jewelry, designer clothes, or display anything that signals affluence or attracts attention.
In case of emergencies, it is prudent to travel with at least two credit or debit cards, cash, and traveler’s checks in multiple denominations.
It is important to divide up cash, cards, and travelers checks. When out for the day carry only enough incidental cash, say Mex$200-400, for the day's expenses and leave all other valuables in a hotel safe.
Consider buying an inexpensive second wallet for incidental cash, tourist card stub (visitors are required to carry it at all times), and photo id, preferably an old one. In case of robbery, only a cheap second wallet and some easily replaced cash and possessions will be lost.
Never leave valuables: passport, credit and debit cards, traveler's checks, cash, jewelry, cameras, and laptops in a hotel room if there is a safe (caja fuerte) available. No matter how secure a hotel appears, it is vulnerable to theft. Many nicer hotels have in-room safes secured with an electronic lock and accessed by a private PIN code. If a hotel does not have a safe, a decision will need to be made whether it is better to take all valuables or leave them in the room.
Always carry the main stash of cash and valuables out of sight in a money belt separate from incidental cash. Loose-fitting pants with zipped interior pockets can be used in lieu of a money belt, as long as the valuables are not noticeable.
Always be inconspicuous with cash. Display as little of it as possible when paying for something and never count it in public.
Never carry valuables in a fanny pack. Doing so broadcasts where the loot is.
To secure individual lockers in hostels use a personal padlock, not one supplied by the hostel.
Always be aware of surroundings and any suspicious behavior nearby when withdrawing cash from ATMs If unsure, walk away and find another machine. Only use ATMs in the daytime or at night when other people are around.
Also be protective of credit and debit card information when using an ATM. If an identity thief obtains a card's number, expiration date, and PIN code they can make a duplicate card and use it to withdraw cash from ATMs. Card information is most vulnerable when used in outdoor ATMs. Identity thieves have been known to set up hidden cameras to acquire card information.
The safest ATMs are secured behind doors that require cards to access them. Barring that, look for ATMs in public places such as bank lobbies or shopping malls. Don't be alarmed if police or armed security guards are standing around an ATM. Most likely, the machine is being refilled. This is standard practice.
When a credit or debit card is used for payment in a restaurant it is usually gone for a few minutes. During the card's absence an identity thief, using an easily obtainable card skimmer, could scan its vital information. Paying with cash or a using a prepaid debit card such as Visa TravelMoney is the only way to guard against this.
To expedite the replacement of traveler's checks in case of theft write down check numbers. Also make photocopies of important documents such as passport, driver's license, and birth certificate.
Pickpockets, often operating in groups, like to work among the chaos of crowds in places such as bus stations, airports, and markets always looking for the easiest score. The less one looks like an easy mark, the less likely they are to be targeted. Always carry bags or purses in front, not to the side or behind. And, of course, never leave bags or other belonging unattended, not even for a second.
There are a few common schemes pickpockets employ to relieve a mark of his valuables. By being aware of these schemes, they can be spotted before they unfold and thwarted. One common ploy is for a pickpocket to distract a mark while another picks his pocket. Another old favorite is to take a razor blade and slice open a mark's bag and quickly make off with the loot. A more violent tactic is for two thieves to immobilize a mark by pinning his arms to the wall while a third rifles through his pockets. And finally, there is the straightforward grabbing of a purse or bag and sprinting off before a mark has a chance to react.
Muggings do occur, but they are rare. If held up, do not confront a mugger; hand over wallet or purse immediately. Like all thieves, muggers are looking for an easy mark; stay out of deserted areas in cities or any other mugger friendly place.
Buses, RVs, and cars — particularly those with foreign license plates — are sometimes targeted at night by highway robbers on remote stretches of highways.
Robbers have been known to masquerade as motorists broken down on the side of the road, hitchhikers, or police. Another ploy is to the signal the mark there is something wrong with their vehicle and to pull over. Consider carefully before pulling over and picking up a hitchhiker or helping a motorist who appears stranded. Nevertheless, the police do setup legitimate checkpoints and you must stop for them.
Buses are occasionally robbed by people who board them posing as legitimate passengers. The police sometimes randomly search passengers, particularly along highways where robberies are known to occur.
Driving or taking the bus during the day, especially along highways with known problems, will significantly lessen the risk of being targeted.
Highway robbers tend not to target vehicles on major toll roads and expressways. First-class buses are considered less susceptible than second-class buses because they will take the faster more direct toll roads and expressways while second-class buses usually do not.
Highway Robberies have been reported on these highways in recent years:
- Hwy 200, (P), Pacific coast from the state of Michoacán through the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca to Huatulco.
- Hwy 2 & Hwy 15, (X), Mexicali to Agua Prieta, along the border with the US in the states of Baja California and Sonora.
México has some of the world's great beaches. If you go to the beach, be sure to enjoy yourself. Still, there are some dangers you should be aware of.
Depending on conditions all of México's beaches can have high surf, strong undertows, or riptides. This is especially true for the Pacific coast. Always inquire as to the conditions of the surf with a lifeguard if one is available or with locals before going in the water. If there are flags flying be aware that the international conventions are not always adhered to. Ask a lifeguard what the meaning is for the beach you are on.
Do not leave your belongings unattended while in the water. It is common for thieves to grab unattended valuables and run off with them.
Avoid going to the beach at night alone if its safety is unknown. Although not common, tourists usually walking alone in the evenings and the early morning hours have been attacked or robbed on secluded beaches. Inquire with locals about the safety of secluded beaches.
Always park legally, preferably in a well-traveled area. In large cities use a steering wheel lock and never leave anything of value in plain sight. If available, always park overnight in an enclosed parking garage that is locked or has a watchman.
In México City, do not hail a taxi on the street unless it is absolutely necessary. Robberies and physical assaults by persons posing as taxi drivers is not unheard of. Always have the front desk call for a taxi or find a sitio (designated taxi stand) when out.
Hitchhiking is dangerous and not recommended in México, particularly in the north along the border with the US. Travelers who do decide to hitch should be aware that they are taking an extreme risk and consigning their safety to a stranger.
That said, hitching is a common way off getting to some out of the way places that are not served by buses.
If you do decide to hitch, do it in pairs and let someone know your plans. Women in particular (even in pairs) are at greater risk of robbery, violent crime, and sexual assault. A safer combination would be a man and woman hitching together.
Some other rules for hitching:
- If for any reason you feel uncomfortable about the situation back out immediately. This is not the time to be concerned about about someone else's feelings.
- If your ride is a commercial vehicle offer to pay them an amount equivalent to the bus fare.
- Find out where the driver is going before getting in. Do not state where you are going first.
- Sit next to the door with your bags at hand in case you think you need to leave in a hurry.
- If you become worried about the situation pretend to be carsick to get the driver to pull over and get out.
- Only get dropped off in or near a city, town, or village not some remote area.
- Do not hitch in areas where highway robbery is a known problem.
The months leading up to presidential elections in México tend to be volatile with lot of demonstrations. The next presidential election is scheduled for July 1, 2012. Travelers should expect to encounter widespread demonstrations during this period. Foreigners visiting México on a tourist visa are prohibited from engaging in political activity of any kind. Doing so violates the terms of the visa. The police can arrest, fine, or deport violators.
In June 2006 in the city of Oaxaca a non-violent public schoolteachers strike for higher wages turned violent when the police fired on strikers without provocation. The conflict soon escalated when hundreds of civil society groups and tens of thousands of their supporters took to the streets for seven months in a massive show of solidarity. Vicente Fox, México's President at the time, eventually responded by sending thousands of Federal Police to regain control of the city. The conflict was widely reported in the international press and several countries issued official travel advisories against traveling there. Because of the negative attention the tourist industry collapsed and the state economy, heavily dependent on tourism, was devastated. By 2008 the political situation had stabilized and tourists have begun to trickle back. The root causes of the conflict: continued poor economic prospects for many and the political corruption of the PRI, the states dominant political party, have not been resolved. Thus non-violent protests, usually on or near the Zócalo, are still breaking out sporadically. These protests are not being repressed by the police and pose no threat to tourists, only a minor inconvenience.
With the demise of the major Colombian drug cartels in the 1990s, the Méxican cartels have stepped in to fill the vacuum and now dominate the market controlling 70% of the flow of illegal narcotics to the US. The cartels function both as transit operators for cocaine produced in Colombian and as local producers of marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin, all destined for primarily US markets.
The US State Department estimates that 90% of the Colombian cocaine entering the US passes through México. México is also the main foreign supplier of marijuana and a major supplier of methamphetamine to the US. Although responsible for only a small percentage of the heroin produced world-wide, México supplies the US with a large share of the heroin its consumes. Estimates of the cartels' earnings from drug trafficking range widely from a low 13 billion to a high of 48 billion US dollars annually.
In December 2006 incoming Méxican president Felipe Calderon stepped up the pressure on the cartels by bringing in the army. The cartels responded with a massive counterattack against government forces killing hundreds of police and army personnel. The government's war with the cartels has disrupted the power relationships between the cartels pitting them against each other. The death toll among all parties as of 2009 has reached 12,000 and continues to climb.
Unless foreigners are somehow associated with the drug trafficking they are never the targets of drug violence.
Kidnappings for ransom in México have been well publicized. México holds the dubious honor of being second only to Colombia in kidnappings. Hollywood has even produced a major film Man on Fire based on the topic and set in México City and starring the actor Denzel Washington. Usually a family member of a wealthy Méxican is kidnapped and held hostage until a ransom is paid. Tourists are never the targets of kidnappings for ransom. Kidnappers are interested in the path of least resistance to a big payoff. They're aware enough to know that most tourists don't have wealthy families who can pay a big ransom. And even if a tourist is clearly affluent, the logistics of getting the money in to the country is just too complicated, especially when there are lots of easier local marks to be had.
Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, México is one of the most seismically active places on earth. The Pacific Ring of Fire accounts for 75% of the earth's active and dormant volcanoes, along with about 90% of the earthquakes, including 80% of the worst earthquakes ever recorded.
Geologically, México sits atop the North American tectonic plate, near its points of collision with the Cocos and Pacific tectonic plates. The movement and stress from the interaction between these three tectonic plates makes México prone to major earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Although the entire country is at risk of seismic activity, the most active and likely region to be struck with a major earthquake is the southern half of the country, especially the Pacific coast from the state of Nayarit all the way to the border with Guatemala.
México's last major earthquake was on September 19, 1985. The epicenter was located just off the Pacific coast about 215 miles (350 km) from México City. Measuring 8.1 on the Rickter scale, it killed nearly 10,000 people and caused between 3-4 billion USD in damages in México City.
Don't let the fear of earthquakes stop you from visiting México. You should, however, know how to respond in the event of one.
First, remain calm and immediately take steps to protect yourself.
Outside near a building in the drop zone of debris is the most dangerous place to be while an earthquake is in progress. Poorly secured facades crumbling and glass shattering from windows is often the first debris to fall. Consider this area a danger zone and steer clear of it. If already outdoors, move away from buildings. If indoors, stay there until the shaking stops.
If you are...
- Indoors: Do not try to go outside. Move as few steps as possible to take cover under a sturdy table or desk and hold on to it. The table or desk may move with the shaking, move with it. If nothing sturdy is nearby or available drop to the floor against the wall and cover your head and neck with your arms or go to a doorway. Try to steer clear of walls with heavy objects hanging on them, windows, tall furniture, or anything that looks like it may fall on you while the shaking is going on. If in a modern building constructed to withstand a major earthquake moving to a doorway is not any safer. In older buildings the doorway is safer because the walls are more likely to crumble.
- In a high-rise: Follow the same procedures as Indoors. To evacuate the building once the shaking is over use the stairs not the elevators. The sprinkler system or fire alarm may be activated by the shaking.
- In bed: It is best to stay in bed. Place a pillow over your head for protection.
- Outdoors: Move to an area clear of buildings, power lines, large signs, trees, and other potential hazards if it is safe to do so.
- Driving: Drive away from bridges, overpasses, power line, signs and other potential hazards. Pull over to the side of the road, stop, set the parking brake, turn off the engine, and stay in the vehicle until the shaking stops. If a power line falls on the vehicle, stay inside until a trained person removes the wire. When driving is resumed, watch for breaks in the pavement, fallen rocks, and uneven and damaged traffic structures, such as bridges and underpasses.
- In a stadium or theater: Stay in your seat and protect your head and neck with your arms. Do not try to leave until the shaking is over. Then walk out slowly watching for anything that could fall in the aftershocks.
- Near an ocean shore: Try and estimate how long the shaking lasts. If the shaking is severe and lasts 20 seconds or longer a tsunami may have been generated by the earthquake. Evacuate away from the the coast or to higher ground immediately, do not wait for an official warning. Move 2 miles (3 km) inland or to higher ground (not a structure) that is at least 100 feet (30 m) above sea level. Walk quickly, rather than driving, to avoid traffic, debris and other hazards.
- Below a dam: Dams, in particular earthen, can fail during a major earthquake. Catastrophic failure is unlikely, but if downstream from a dam inquire immediately about official evacuations that may have been ordered.
Hurricanes & Tropical Storms
México's Gulf, Carribean, and Pacific coasts are all vulnerable to hurricanes and strong tropical storms. The hurricane season is from June 1st to November 30th with incidences of storms peaking in early to mid September. It's not just the coasts where storms are a danger, a hurricane or a tropical storm that makes land fall and moves inland quickly looses its high winds but it can produce torrential rains and heavy flooding hundreds of miles from the coast.
The odds are slim that your visit will be effected by a major storm so you shouldn't let a concern of hurricanes stop you from visiting during the summer or fall months. If you do travel to México during the hurricane season check the weather reports periodically to stay abreast of any developing storms and their expected land fall. The U.S. National Weather Service National Hurricane Center's website: www.nhc.noaa.gov is a good resource for up to date information on storms developing in the Atlantic, Carribean, Gulf of México, and Pacific Coast of México.
México is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and has several dozen mostly dormant volcanoes. Occasionally one will belch ash or rocks and some lava will flow but these eruptions do not represent a threat. The last major eruption was the Colima Volcano in 2005 that sent an ash plume 3 miles (5 km) above the rim. No one was injured.