The issue of security in Mexico is given extensive attention, much of it focused on the high levels of violence stemming from the fight between the Mexican government and organized crime. This conflict, widely referred to as a “drug war” routinely features in the news media with explosive headlines accompanying graphic images of dead and wounded as well as increasingly armed security forces.

Is the security situation in Mexico spiraling out of control? Can companies operate there and send travelers and expatriates? 

The media coverage of the issue is at times similar to the ongoing armed conflicts in the world – like those in Iraq and Afghanistan – which makes many worry about the prospect of a civil war in the country often referred to as the U.S.’s “backyard,” as well as the site of significant foreign investment and business travel.

Late last year, International SOS published its Duty of Care and Travel Risk Management Global Benchmarking Study authored by Lisbeth Claus, Ph.D, Willamette University. One of the key findings revealed how 718 respondents from 60 countries perceived risks of various countries where they do business. In fact, Mexico ranked #1 in the survey – ahead of places like Iraq and other locations in the Middle East and Africa. The Top 5 are rounded out by Nigeria, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Fear of being targeted by violence or the misfortune of being caught in its midst is discussed in boardrooms and living rooms alike, with particular concern for those companies that operate in and travelers going to Mexico.

The gravity of the conflict cannot be understated or the effects on the country’s overall security environment ignored. However, a degree of nuance in understanding the threat as well as the likelihood of suffering an unfortunate event is critical at this stage. In reality, suffering through hold-ups on the street, personal robberies in hotels or, at worst, car-jackings are much more likely scenarios for travelers than the violence being discussed around the office. This nuance is necessary not only to assuage misguided fears but to concentrate on the most common risks faced by the traveler and prevent potential harm.

In essence, fear of the violence stemming from the drug war puts travelers at a higher risk of suffering an unfortunate incident because it might blind us from the risks directly in front of us. The following are three key misconceptions about the current security environment which affect travelers and their companies’ perception of the threat.

Misconception No. 1: The drug war is all-encompassing.

This stems from the belief that Mexico as a whole is affected by drug violence both in terms of the affected population and geographically. This assertion is wrong in two major ways.


The Victims

The drug war that we speak of today, in which the government of President Felipe Calderon has sent security forces including the Army, Navy and Federal Police to various “hot spots” across the country, began in earnest at the beginning of his term in December 2006. The total number of homicide victims presumed to stem directly from the conflict since December 2006 stands at 47,000 people, according to official figures. But most journalistic sources put the number at 50,000. This is an astounding number of deaths, but the statistics mask two important factors.

First, that the great majority of the victims are either presumed to be involved in the drug trade or form part of the security forces. Less than 10 percent of victims are considered to be innocent civilians. (The government officially puts this number at three percent.) Of this percentage, the number of innocent foreigners is considered negligible.

Second, Mexico is a populous country of 114 million people, and recent UN estimates the country to have a murder rate of 18 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. For comparison, Honduras has a murder rate of 86 deaths per 100,000; Venezuela, 67; and Brazil, 25.  

Therefore both the number of victims and the likelihood of a foreigner being affected, when put into significant context, is low.


The Geographical Spread

Although a substantial number of states in Mexico have seen important levels of drug-related homicides and armed confrontations, these do not represent a majority of the territory. The northern border states of Baja California, Sonora, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas have borne the brunt of the violence in the past six years. The western states of Durango and Sinaloa, part of the marijuana and heroin production zone historically known as Mexico’s “golden triangle,” are also affected. Most recently, the southwestern states of Guerrero, the central state of Michoacán, and the state of Veracruz, on Mexico’s gulf coast, have exhibited important levels of violence. While these 10 represent an impressive number of states, the country has 31 such entities in addition to Mexico City, a federal district. Even within the aforementioned areas, not all cities and municipalities are affected. A clear example is that the city of Juarez in Chihuahua has concentrated between 10 percent and 20 percent of the total number of homicides in the country as a whole.


Misconception No. 2: Dangers have risen in new areas and have fallen in the usual “hot zones.”

The severity of the drug violence and the increasing number of affected areas dominate international media headlines, leading to additional problems in the perception of the threat the environment poses to travelers in the cities they visit the most. As the public becomes accustomed to the stories of confrontations and executions in places like Juarez, the media have moved on to a more eye-catching story — the rise of violence in “peaceful” parts of Mexico.

While the fact is that serious problems face formerly benign environments it does not, however, mean that the traveler should be unconcerned about places that are home to “usual suspects” of insecurity.

Notorious acts of violence in the wealthy, industrial city of Monterrey in northeastern Nuevo Leon state have created extreme worry. Frequent illegal road-blocks or “narco-blockades” by drug gangs as a means to assert territorial control have been used with alarming frequency. Most notably, daytime shootouts and the fire-bombing of an upscale casino which resulted in 53 deaths have lead to a significant drop in travel to the city. Most international companies have begun to re-evaluate activities in the city which was once deemed one of the country’s safest. Such reviewed threat assessments are undeniably necessary when confronted by a rapidly changing security environment.

However, a danger of such a re-assessment lies in the comparative lifting of precautionary security measures in places where threats persist but may not command news headlines. Guadalajara and Mexico City, usual suspects in security threat assessments for travel in Mexico, are prime examples. Media coverage is not the sole culprit of a misrepresentation of the continued dangers in these key business locales. Local governments, cognizant of the shift in perception, have frequently allowed the myth to continue and often contribute to it. Authorities claim that both cities are more secure because shootouts and executions, the hallmarks of organized crime, are rare. Although it is true that these crimes have had a much lower incidence in Mexico City and Guadalajara, both areas are far from exempt of Mexico’s security problem. In fact, a classic concern, express kidnapping, shows signs of being on the rise in both areas.


Misconception No. 3: Mexican organized crime is more dangerous to the visitor than common crime.

As we are bombarded by gruesome pictures of the dead and tallies of their numbers the “old” worries surrounding traveler and expat security in Mexico have begun to fade. The menace of being targeted by a cartel attack or being caught in the midst of this has supplanted the concerns about kidnapping which so prominently featured in news about the Mexican security environment before 2006. Although long term kidnap for ransom has never threatened visitors to Mexico the same way that it did in other countries, like Colombia in the late 90s and early 2000s, the threat of “express” kidnapping in that same period featured as a top concern.

Express kidnapping, a crime akin to carjacking in which the victim is taken along with the vehicle and forced to retrieve money from a bank or ATM, began as a real threat in Mexico and has since spread across Latin America, most notably Venezuela. The fact that the victim is seldom targeted (as is the case in long-term kidnap for ransom) and more often attacked because the opportunity arises, making the crime one which requires less prior planning and skill. As such it is the common criminal and not the organized kind that perpetrates it.

At least to the observer, if not the victim, express kidnapping seems less menacing than a cartel shootout or a long, protracted kidnap for ransom. But this view ignores two major facts. First the likelihood of being caught in the midst of a shootout or being kidnapped by an organized crime group is infinitesimally smaller than that of suffering a street hold-up, car-jacking or express kidnapping. Second, the danger to life posed by the common criminal to his victim is actually higher than that of the shootout or kidnap for ransom.

The aim of the hold-up or carjacking is an immediate reward which does not depend on the survival of the victim. Kidnap for ransom, inherently, depends on the return of the victim to his family and alive. One must assume that a less experienced perpetrator is likely younger, nervous due to personal danger and poor planning, and potentially under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The action perpetrated by the common criminal is thus more likely to incur loss of life or injury, particularly if the victim attempts to resist. These facts remain salient in Mexico and are more likely to affect the visitor regardless of the more eye-catching perceived dangers of the drug war.


Dispelling the Myths

Mexico’s present environment of worsening security conditions is undeniable. Its complexity often results in confusion and fear among the foreign visiting population. A degree of rational analysis is necessary for companies sending travelers to Mexico. The same applies to the traveler in order to dispel the misconceptions that have developed out of this problem. Careful consideration is critical to ensure the right kind of prior preparation before travel. Correcting the aforementioned mistakes in the perception of the country’s security environment is the first step in developing smart travel strategies at the company or individual level before going to Mexico.