Organized crime exists in every country in the world. In Mexico these organizations are known as “cartels” but despite the media hype and nonsensical rhetoric on the internet, they are really no different than organizations of this type anywhere else. Their purpose is to make money and they do that through a combination of territorial control and illegal activities. The main thing to remember about Mexican cartels is that if you are not part of their underworld, you are not of interest to them.
Mexico is a poor country with a vast gap in its social structure. The rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. The unfortunate ones on the lower end of the scale often find it necessary to obtain their income through illegal means. Sometimes it’s to feed a drug habit; sometimes it’s to feed their family. Whatever the reason, petty theft is perhaps the biggest threat to personal security that foreigners face in Mexico. Like it or not, foreigners are viewed as rich. Compared to most Mexicans, this is arguably true and makes you a target for someone who seeks to balance that inequity. Smart foreigners don’t flaunt their wealth. They don’t have flashy jewelry or cars and don’t leave attention-getting tips. They protect their property and in doing so, make themselves less of a target. But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you can leave your car or house unlocked and not pay for it.
Your home is your castle, and in Mexico sometimes it’s necessary to defend that castle. Knowing ways to secure your home and what to do in case your perimeter is breached is something every home owner should know.
As mentioned above, being flashy means being vulnerable. As a foreigner you already stand out through your appearance and your actions. Mexico is not inherently unsafe but just like in any city in North America, you should practice restraint and use common sense. When you’re out in public, do not put yourself in situations where you are vulnerable, like being wasted on a dark beach in the middle of nowhere or spending the entire night in the local cantina. Your personal safety is up to you, regardless where you travel in the world.
Travel in Mexico is safe, whether by road or by air. Many horror stories exist on the internet but few are factual. It’s absolutely astounding how many stories start out with “I heard…” and contain no facts. But one of the really true things is the recommendation to not drive at night, not because of bad people, but due to the fact there is so much free range livestock roaming around. Also the weather in Mexico can change things in an instant. Flash floods can take out roads and bridges, leaving a gaping abyss that’s impossible to see at night. Even the toll roads (cuotas), which many people think are the safest routes, are vulnerable to these dangers. However, many people travel thousands of kilometers every year without incident. Like all safety issues, use common sense and trust your instincts.
Mexico has long had a reputation for corruption in government and business. Police are known to ask for roadside payment of fines (mordida) for real or contrived infractions. Businesses get things done, legally or illegally, for the right fee. Governments can be manipulated by cartels or big business interests. These are facts of life in Mexico and something you have to accept when living here. But it’s not unique to Mexico. Think hard about your own country and you’ll see many examples there too; they are just much better at hiding it. There are many ways to deal with corruption and we discuss some of them here.