Finally Some Good News on Travel in Mexico
Speaker's Corner: Drug cartels. Murders. The news is often bad out of Mexico. Peter Ferry journeys beyond the headlines.
10.16.09 | 10:21 AM ET
Poor old Mexico. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down! Just when the price of oil plummets, American jobs dry up, and the fear of drug violence cuts tourism in half, along comes swine flu to cut it in half again.
OK, it’s time for a little good news. In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lifted its recommendation against travel to Mexico; the swine flu isn’t so bad after all, and it probably didn’t come here from Mexico in the first place.
And now a little more good news. Drug violence is not a threat to ordinary tourists like you and me. This is according to the Mexican government, the U.S. State Department and me. Let me give you a little background.
I had driven to, in and around Mexico with impunity and pleasure, but that was years ago. Now I was planning two road trips, one from the border to central Mexico, another from Mexico City to Cuernavaca to Oaxaca and back, and my friends were alarmed.
“What about the drug war?”
“Aren’t you afraid of being kidnapped?”
No. At least I didn’t think so. The dangers of Mexico have always been exaggerated, and I have always taken them with a grain of salt. The drug trade is nothing new, and poor people have been kidnapping rich ones for money in the Third World and even in the First World (Italy) for a long time. Besides, I’m not rich.
Still, news reports in the weeks before I left caused my grain of salt to grow smaller. One said that President Felipe Calderon’s assault on the drug cartels had started a “civil war.” Another called the kidnappings an epidemic. A third compared Mexico to Pakistan and described it as a “failed state.” And an official at an Air Force base in New Mexico advised those in his command who planned to drive into Mexico to do so in broad daylight in caravans with cell phones at the ready.
I called Sanborn’s, the American insurance people who have been providing auto insurance for American motorists in Mexico for 60 years, and asked if they advised any special precautions.
“Only to stick to main routes and not to drive at night, but that’s mainly because of animals that wander onto roads.”
“Have you had problems with tourists being held up or hijacked?”
“No. We wouldn’t be insuring them if we did.” (A review of Sanborn’s rates indicates no dramatic increases in recent months or years which would likely have occurred if theft or damage claims had gone up.)
OK. I’d go, but I’d avoid Ciudad Juarez where the violence is the worst. I’d cross the border on a Sunday morning, the quietest time in any week, and I’d do it at Laredo, where the cartels recently seemed to have called a truce.
What follows are facts, anecdotes and opinions.
Here are the facts:
Mexican highways are excellent and well-marked. Most major cities are now connected by well-engineered toll roads that have limited access and are patrolled by federal police and Green Angels, motorist-assistant trucks manned by mechanics.
Customs offices are clean and customs officials are professional and efficient. Neither used to be the case.
Gas stations are also vastly improved. Almost all now include a convenience store and some even have food courts.
And the vehicle stock is better than years ago; gone are most of the lopsided buses and one-eyed trucks of the past.
Here are the anecdotes:
David Tramp is an American who has lived in Ensenada, Mexico, for three years and sells real estate. He drives his Hummer into California through Tijuana, one of the hotbeds of drug violence, about four times a month. Has he ever had or seen any trouble? “Never.” Does he have any advice for tourists? “Stay out of high-crime areas where there are drugs and prostitutes. Common sense.”
Fiona McNeill is a school teacher in her 60s with very little Spanish who is working in a Waldorf School near San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. She drove there alone in nine days from her home in Bend, Oregon, without incident except being short-changed in a gas station.
Ramon Morales is a Harley Davidson motorcycle mechanic who came to Mexico with his pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter when he was laid off from his job in San Antonio. Despite his Hispanic name, he has red hair and a Texas twang. His wife was reluctant to come. “Now I can’t get her to go home. Hell, I gotta get back and find some work.”
Then are the drug wars a figment of someone’s imagination?
Not at all, but they are not a problem for tourists. One traveler I talked to compares them to the turf wars of inner city gangs or the internecine cocaine wars of the 1970s and 80s in South Florida made famous in the television show “Miami Vice” and the movie “Scarface.” “People were dying all over the place, and no one stopped going to Florida.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew the same analogy on March 26 while speaking in Monterrey, Mexico.
Then is the press in the United States overreacting?
One observer I spoke with thought it is—at least in part in response to political pressure. Fanning the flames of the issue are the anti-immigration forces in whose interest it is to stir up fear of Mexico and Mexicans. “I think this is about ‘the fence’ that anti-immigration groups want to build from the Gulf to the Pacific. Almost no one who lives down on the border wants this wall,” he said. Indeed, Texas’s conservative Republican governor, Rick Perry, has opposed the wall, and Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano once famously said when she was governor of Arizona, “If you build a 50-foot high wall, somebody will find a 51-foot ladder.”
But alarmist news accounts continue. A headline on an article in the San Antonio Express News in February announced, “Mexican Murders, American Victims,” and led with the statement that “230 U.S. citizens have been slain in Mexico’s escalating wave of violence since 2003.” After some alarming claims, the article implicitly admits that two-thirds of those killed were involved in the drug trade or gang activity. Many of the others were in high-crime areas. In fact, only three of the 230 deaths have resulted in protests by the U.S. State Department, seeming to support the Mexican government’s contention that “Tourists wishing to visit cathedrals, museums and other cultural centers are not at risk.” Despite the Express News’ claim that its investigation “examined hundreds of records,” it failed to report a single instance of an ordinary tourist on vacation being murdered.
A CNN report on “Anderson Cooper 360” that aired on March 5 from Rosarito Beach in Baja, California, warned American students of the dangers of traveling to Mexico for spring break, reporting that 20 murders, including some beheadings, had taken place in the community in the previous year. Only late in the report and then parenthetically was it noted that none of the 20 murder victims was either American or a tourist.
I entered Mexico with considerable trepidation, sticking to toll roads and watching both my clock and rearview mirror. When I departed a month later, I did so at my leisure using secondary roads and leaving even these to explore the villages and countryside. As a motor tourist I did not feel threatened by the drug violence or kidnappings I had read and heard about. And I was able to take advantage of the very favorable exchange rate that has made Mexico once again the best travel bargain available while rediscovering that country’s charm, beauty and friendliness.
Should you go? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. As for me, I’ve already rented an apartment in San Miguel de Allende for a month early next year. I’m going back, and I’m driving.