It was my birthday and I was in Chihuahua, the last place in Mexico that I wanted to be. The city had been all over the news. Worried about the number of students who head to Mexico for spring break, in March the U.S. State Department had issued a travel warning that strongly advised against travel to Mexico, stating, among other things, the following:
“Recent violent attacks have prompted the U.S. Embassy to urge U.S. citizens to delay unnecessary travel to parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states and advise U.S. citizens residing or traveling in those areas to exercise extreme caution. Drug cartels and associated criminal elements have retaliated violently against individuals who speak out against them or whom they otherwise view as a threat to their organizations. These attacks include the abduction and murder of two resident U.S. citizens in Chihuahua.“
Admittedly, I was nervous, but I had no choice. At the end of my Copper Canyon tour I was bound for the town of Zacatecas in central Mexico and the only reasonable way to get there was to take a bus from Chihuahua. And so, I gritted my teeth, steeled myself against fear, and stepped aboard a bus to Chihuahua, telling myself I’d be OK if I didn’t go out at night and took all the normal precautions.The bus arrived in Chihuahua at dusk and let us off in the central business district, next to an entire square city block that had been razed. Cars zoomed up and down the main boulevard but there were few pedestrians in sight. I looked across the barren lot to the lights of hotels on the other side and briefly considered picking my way through the chunks of concrete littering the site until common sense kicked in; I had only the name of a hostel I hoped would have a room available and no idea how to find it. Fortunately, at that very moment a taxi driver picked up my bag and ushered me to his vehicle.The ride was four whole blocks and he charged me $40 pesos, amounting to nearly $1 US per block, but since the driver waited until the hostel owner confirmed she had a room he was worth every last centavo.
The next morning I let myself out the double set of locked metal doors and headed out to investigate. By day, Chihuahua was a different place. I strolled the two blocks to the city’s massive cathedral and wandered around the central square. Women pushed baby strollers and children chased pigeons around the square. Office workers in crisp suits sat for a quick shoeshine before hurrying to their jobs. Tourists clustered around guides, straining to hear the history of Chihuahua over the din of traffic. Nowhere was there a hint of danger.
I crossed the street and leaned against the walls of the Palacio del Gobierno – the municipal offices of the Governor of the State of Chihuahua – hoping to take a photo of the entire Cathedral square, but try as I might I couldn’t catch a break in the pedestrian and vehicle traffic. I was about to give up when a young man approached me and asked if I would like to come into the Governor’s offices to take a photo from a second floor window overlooking the square. Jorge, who worked in the public relations office, ushered me into private offices where legislative meetings take place and threw the shutters wide, inviting me to take all the photos I wished. When I’d had my fill, he presented his business card and insisted I call him if I needed anything during my time in Chihuahua.
This type of courtesy was repeated time and again during my three day stay in Chihuahua. On my way back from a museum another young man who was washing cars on the street greeted me and we struck up a conversation. He had been a police officer in Copper Canyon until recently and he wanted to practice his English; he also gave me his number and told me to call if I needed any help. Back at Cathedral square, two teens insisted I take their photo, one posing like a muscle man, arms raised to flex biceps. “You tell everybody we are Chihuahuasenses!” they grinned. Even when I walked into the Quality Inn San Francisco Hotel unannounced, inquiring if I could see rooms in order to write a review, I was treated like royalty. Not only did I see rooms, I got a tour of the entire hotel was invited back to have breakfast in their restaurant the following morning. I heeded the warnings not to go out at night, but by day I walked the city center and never once feet at risk or even the least bit uncomfortable, leading me to reflect on our State Department warnings.
According to Forbes Magazine, which used the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program to compare murder rates in the for U.S. for cities with populations over 250,000, in 2006 the most dangerous city was Detroit, with 418 cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter (47.3 murders for every 100,000 residents), followed by Baltimore, with 276 cases in 2006 (43.3 murders per 100,000 residents). Overall in the U.S., the homicide rate is 5.4 per 100,000 residents. Homicide rates in Mexico, while certainly higher at 10.8 per 100,000 inhabitants (source Wikipedia as provided by a United nations survey), have been steadily declining since the 1980′s. According to the El Paso Times, “Mexico City’s homicide rate today is about on par with Los Angeles and is less than a third of that for Washington, D.C.” Considering that most violent crime in Mexico is directly related to drug trafficking and fighting among the cartels, and that when tourists are involved it is usually a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mexico may even be safer than the U.S. Elsewhere in the world, Brazil comes in at 25 per 100,000 residents and in Venezuela in 2008 the murder rate hit 58. Yet the State Department has no alerts for either of those two countries.
Part of the problem is politics; elected officials have to be seen as doing something about the war on drugs and so they blame Mexico, while ignoring the huge American appetite for illegal drugs that drives the Mexican trade. Sensationalist media coverage is also a culprit. I am frankly mystified. I have been traveling solo in Mexico for nearly two months and have not felt unsafe at any time. In fact, I recently noticed that surveillance cameras cover every inch of the Centro Historico (Old Town) in both Zacatecas and Guanajuato, and residents and hostel managers in most places I have visited confirmed that it was totally safe to walk around alone at all hours of the night. Certainly, there are places in Mexico that are best avoided; I would no more visit Cuidad Juarez, Matamoros, or Tijuana than I would go to Afghanistan or Iraq at this juncture. But a thorough reading of the State Department advisory gives the impression that the entire country of Mexico is unsafe and Mexican officials are rightly outraged. Consider this: how would we have reacted if other countries had advised against traveling anywhere in the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
Can bad things happen in Mexico? Of course. While I am not going to be buying drugs on the streets of Mexico, there is always the chance that I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught in a drug cartel gunfight. But I could also be shot down on the streets of Chicago or killed in an auto accident. We need to adopt a modicum of common sense regarding this issue. Mexico is a vibrant, gorgeous country with a rich culture and amazingly friendly people, and this is also one of the few places in the world where the U.S. dollar still goes a long way. Come visit Mexico. The rest of the world is here.