How dangerous is Mexico?


The brutal killing of nine people in northern Mexico during an assault on Monday against Mormon women and children has had a great impact inside and outside the country. The massacre, whose perpetrators are still unknown, is only the latest in a series of violent and in some ways incredible incidents that have occurred in recent years in Mexico, a country with a very strong presence of criminal gangs linked among other things to drug trafficking.

The increase in violence, explained three journalists of the New York Times dealing with Mexico, has to do above all with the way in which criminal cartels have evolved in recent years and with the ineffective reaction of the state. Not all of Mexico, however, is dangerous in the same way, and some areas of the country, including many tourist areas, can still be visited without major problems and with the normal precautions and prudence required of every traveler.

Why has the violence increased?

Mexico has been a central country in international drug trafficking for a very long time, given its strategic position between the United States and South America. Until a few years ago the main Mexican criminal groups – the "cartels", which became known throughout the world for people like the drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known as "El Chapo" – dealt mostly with drug trafficking and were monolithic criminal societies. To try to dismantle them, the Mexican government adopted a particular strategy aimed at capturing the criminal bosses, with the idea that the head of the group would be dissolved, or at least weakened.

Members of the Mormon family attacked Monday in northern Mexico (Herika MARTINEZ / AFP)

The result, however, was different. The strategy adopted by the government has created a further fragmentation of criminal groups, which have become more violent and difficult to control than the original ones, and which have specialized in several illegal activities: in addition to drug trafficking, many cartels have begun to deal with extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, fuel theft and human trafficking.

The new illegal activities and the clashes between these new traffic control groups are not the only reason for the recent increase in violence in Mexico. Another factor identified by officials and experts was the change in political leadership that took place thanks to the state and municipal elections held in the country in 2018, when the new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was also elected. At a time when the old political class has given way to the new, he wrote the New York Times, the cooperation between corrupt state officials and criminal groups has been broken and a new phase has begun, mostly violent, aimed at concluding new agreements.

What are the most dangerous cities?

Not all of Mexico is equally dangerous. As explained in a detailed report published in April 2019 by the University of San Diego (California), the violence is mostly concentrated in some specific areas, where the main hubs of drug trafficking are found, in the northwest and along the coast Pacifica.

According to the report, in 2018, in the ten most violent Mexican cities, 33.6 percent of all the murders in the country were concentrated, while 24.7 percent of the murders were recorded in only five cities, the most dangerous: Tijuana , on the border with California, not far from San Diego; Ciudad Juarez, opposite the US city of El Paso, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, that is where the three cars were headed with Mormon families attacked last Monday; Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero, where in recent years there have been many cases of kidnapping and violence, including the case of the disappearance of the 43 students not yet resolved; Cancun, on the south-eastern coast, one of the most touristic regions of the country; and Culiacan, the largest city in the state of Sinaloa, where the eponymous sign referring to the drug dealer El Chapo operates.

Just under a month ago, in the state of Sinaloa there had been a violent episode that ended up in all the major international newspapers. The entire city of Culiacan had been held hostage for hours by an extended urban guerrilla war between the police and the army on one side and a powerful drug cartel on the other, which began after the arrest of Ovid Guzman Lopez, son of "El Chapo". The Mexican narcos had intervened by surrounding the security forces and forcing the release of Ovid Guzman Lopez, an epilogue that had greatly embarrassed the government headed by President Obrador.

Which places are considered safe enough for tourism

The most touristic area of ​​Mexico, in the southeastern part of the country, where the Mayan ruins are, the colonial cities and the beaches of the states of Campeche and the Yucatan, is quite safe. Merida, capital of Yucatan, is considered to be at the same level of security as European cities, as well as several other urban centers of this piece of Mexico. Even for the neighboring states of Tabasco and Chiapas, where many of the tourists who travel from Mexico City to the Yucatan pass, there are no particular reports of dangers: usually the warning for tourists passing through Chiapas in particular is that of don't leave the state roads, because there have been episodes of robberies against foreigners or requests for "tolls" in crossing rural communities.

As for Cancun, one of the five most dangerous cities in Mexico and the point of arrival or departure for those visiting the Yucatan Peninsula, there is only a little attention to pay, because the most tourist areas are quite isolated from the areas of the city ​​where violence is more widespread. There is also caution in Mexico City, where crime in recent years has increased but has not yet reached worrying levels.

Mayan ruins at the Chichen Itza archaeological complex in Yucatan (AP Photo / Eduardo Verdugo)

A different speech should be made instead for the state of Baja California, that is the first piece of the peninsula that extends south of San Diego and that includes Tijuana.

This area is also quite touristy, but unlike the Yucatan region it is more dangerous: according to data from the Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica, a government mechanism used to coordinate Mexico's public security, in 2018 Baja California was the Mexican state with the highest number of intentional murders (the Yucatan and Campeche the ones with the lowest number). Viaggiare Sicuri, a service of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which reports the risks of traveling abroad, includes Baja California, as does Baja California Sur, a little further south, in the list of states in which "it is recommended to be extremely cautious in case of displacements ».

The barrier that separates San Diego from Tijuana (AP Photo / Gregory Bull)

The other "at risk" states reported by Viaggiare Sicuri are Estado de Mexico, where the capital is Mexico City, Sinaloa, Sonora, Nuevo Leon, Coahulla, Chihuahua, Michoacan, Collma, Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Veracruz. The foreign ministry also recommends avoiding travel to the states of Guerrero and Tamaulipas, and to take the utmost caution when traveling to the state of Jalisco. Similar but more detailed directions can also be found on the US State Department website.

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