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SPECIAL MEXICO ISSUE | TRAVEL INSIDER

Crime in Mexico: Is Risk Real or Exaggerated?

Security: Scattered statistics and anecdotes give pause to many would-be visitors. But accurate numbers are hard to come by.

November 15, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Is it safe? That was the question of the hour last spring, when a spate of crimes against Americans cast a harsh spotlight on Mexico, and Mexico City in particular.

Since then, President Ernesto Zedillo has announced a national anti-crime crusade. Tourism officials, mindful that tourist revenue has surpassed the oil industry as Mexico's leading source of income, have pledged to put more information on the table so that visitors will be reassured. They say that Mexico City's problems--which are often emphasized by anecdote, rather than hard numbers--have nothing to do with the calm found at sequestered super-resort areas such as Los Cabos and Cancun.

But the question of safety in Mexico is far from closed.

About 19.3 million Americans visited Mexico in 1997, roughly one in six of them from California. But that marks a decline of more than 2 million from the year before. The slow market is striking, with a booming U.S. economy and attractive prices. Stormy weather in some regions can be blamed for part of Mexico's slump, but another big factor is fear of crime.

In recent years, as the value of the peso has suffered and the long-standing dominance of the PRI party has been challenged, crime has risen rapidly in some cities. In Mexico City, tourists are warned in particular not to hail taxis and to be wary in the formerly tourist-friendly Zona Rosa neighborhood. But drawing hard conclusions from the statistics is tricky.

In a recent study of gun-related deaths in 36 of the world's wealthiest nations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an unusually high rate of shooting deaths in Mexico--but even higher numbers in the U.S. The study, published in April and drawn from 1990-1995 statistics, showed 14.2 gun deaths per 100,000 people per year in the U.S., 13 in Brazil, and 12.7 in Mexico.

The U.S. State Department reports that 29 U.S. citizens were homicide victims in Mexico in 1996 (with 22 of the cases still unsolved). The figure for 1997 was 29 again (with 21 unsolved). For the first eight months of 1998, the reported figure was 29 yet again (all unsolved). These numbers far surpass figures for all other foreign destinations, but far more Americans visit Mexico than any other foreign destination.

Unfortunately, the Mexican government releases so few crime statistics that observers are left to collect anecdotes and half-statistics.

What's a half-statistic? Here's a scary one: At the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, there are nearly 1,000 embassy employees, who are instructed to report if they are victimized by crime. In the last year, a spokeswoman says, nearly 10% of the embassy employees--people who speak Spanish, know the city and don't wear cameras around their necks--have been victimized by a pickpocketing, burglary, robbery or other crime. That figure doesn't focus on travelers and includes only a small group of people in the nation's capital, but the implications are dire.

Conversely, U.S. consulate officials in Baja California say the biggest problem for most Americans in increasingly popular Los Cabos is not robbery or pickpockets but the mordida ("the bite")--local police who materialize and pressure tourists for cash after an alleged traffic infraction or other minor offense.

Those small extortions began happening more frequently about six months ago and have persisted in such numbers, a spokeswoman said, that top officials from the Tijuana consulate have scheduled a visit soon to address the issue with authorities in Cabo San Lucas. (When faced with a mordida situation, tourists are advised to say they'd prefer to pay any fine at the local police station and offer to follow the officer there.)

Meanwhile, the half-statistics stack up. The U.S. State Department tallies reports filed by victimized tourists in the Mexico City consular district. Though insiders recognize that only a small fraction of American crime victims bother to make a report, the figures can hint at broader trends. Reported thefts, assaults and violent crimes against U.S. citizens (excluding murder) in the Mexican capital and surrounding region rose from 102 in 1994 to 140 in 1995 to 280 in 1996. Last year the figure edged up to 285, but some State Department officials say they don't believe that crime has leveled off.

Since late April, the State Department has warned that Mexico City crime "has reached critical levels," with several reports of uniformed police who stopped cars to ask for money, or who assaulted and robbed tourists walking late at night. Metropolitan areas other than the capital, the State Department said, "are considered to have lower but still serious" crime levels.

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities have gotten increasingly nervous about what Americans bring across the border--firearms in particular. The U.S. State Department notes the problem has existed for some time but grew thornier in recent months when Mexican authorities stepped up enforcement.

This year, through early November, the State Department had tallied 71 firearms arrests of Americans in its Tijuana consular district alone--a big jump from 28 for all of 1997. Authorities say most of the arrests happen at the border.

Entering Mexico with any gun, rifle or ammunition without written authorization (usually a permit from the Mexican Consulate in the U.S.) is a firearms offense. Sentences are stiff--up to five years for a single non-automatic weapon, up to 30 years in some other cases. Of 350 U.S. citizens being held in jails throughout Mexico, the State Department reports, 75 are there on gun charges.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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