FAQ: Cartels

What is a cartel?

The term “cartel” is used to describe factions of organized crime in Mexico, similar to “the Mob” in the USA. In keeping with the methods used by organized crime everywhere, Mexican cartels earn their money by carving out territory and performing illegal activities within it. From time to time the borders of these areas are redefined through hostile takeovers, resulting in surges of violent crimes in those areas. It’s not unusual for a particular area to be defined as “dangerous” one year and “peaceful” the next.

Should I be afraid of cartels?

If you are part of their underworld, involved in drugs or street crimes, then yes you should be very afraid. But if you are like most foreigners who come to visit or live in Mexico and don’t participate in that world, you have nothing to worry about. Going after innocent foreigners, no matter how spicy a story it makes for local and international news media, is just not good business for cartels and so they rarely would do such a thing without some purpose or reason behind it. Take your mother’s advice; mind your own business and you can live a perfectly peaceful life in Mexico.

What about collateral damage?

Again, your risk is determined by your own level of participation. Hang out in a known cartel cantina getting drunk on tequila and snorting coke in the restroom and you could well end up as collateral damage. But going about your daily life presents little to no risk. Even when things heat up, compared to the US or Canada, there is a very big difference in the way Mexican cartels exhibit violence. In either of those other countries your odds of being in the middle of a mass shooting or sniper attack may be minimal, but they do exist in more than fractional numbers. If someone is targeted, their aggressors often drive by spraying a hail of bullets into the restaurant where that person is eating and injuring dozens of bystanders. However, Mexican cartel tend to be very surgical. With none of that sloppiness, they will walk brazenly into that same restaurant and put a bullet between their target’s eyes at close range. Sure it’s still frightening, but no one else gets hurt. If you had to choose, which would you rather be sitting next to?

Where can I be safe from cartels?

The short answer – nowhere, and everywhere. As mentioned earlier, situations are very dynamic and no one can tell you with any certainty that any specific area is either safe or unsafe. It’s a moving target. Just a few short years ago authorities were warning US citizens to stay away from Puerto Vallarta and not to travel the roads in that region. Today I saw someone post a comment that Puerto Vallarta is the safest city in Mexico. Is it true? Not likely. Just that one person’s perception based on how it feels to them and probably without knowledge of the recent history. The state of Baja Sur was in a similar situation about two years ago and I read a report yesterday from INEGI that it’s now one of the safest areas in the country. The moral of the story is, live your life without participating in that world and if there is a surge in activity in your area, just wait it out.