Personal Safety and
I guess everyone who comes to México comes with some concern about safety. Most of these worries grow out of inflated crime stories in the media in the USA and, maybe, old John Wayne movies. Those old movies don't describe a México that ever existed and certainly have no relation to modern México.
I have put together some FAQs about safety and crime in México that will help you form a realistic picture of life in modern México.
What about the drug gang wars?
The media in the USA frequently have stories about drug gang violence in México. These stories are sometimes overblown; nevertheless, the violence is real, and it is a major problem for law enforcement. These gang wars are turf wars -- gangs fighting each other over control of the drug trade. They have nothing to do with the general population.
Let’s look at what the drug wars actually entail. Wars, plural because it’s not just one war; rather it is several with different gangs in different parts of the country. These wars are three-sided – cartels fighting each other and the Mexican security forces – local, state and federal police, the army and the navy. The cartels are fighting each other for drug distribution routes to the USA. They don’t fight over local distribution because Mexico’s drug consumption is miniscule compared with the demand in the USA. The security forces are trying to stamp out the gangs and stop their fighting.
Because the main focus of the cartels is control of access to the USA, the majority of the action is occurring in areas adjoining the USA. While there is some gang activity in other parts of Mexico, it tends be sporadic and, generally, less horrific than the activities in the northern part of the country. There are many areas of the country were there is no drug cartel activity at all. Generally, the northern states where the activity is centered are of little interest to people moving to Mexico; although I have chosen to live in that area.
These Mexican organized crime leaders use the most sensational techniques, particularly decapitations with messages on the bodies for rival drug lords. Recently they have begun to produce videos of their horrific acts. They post these videos online and force local TV stations to broadcast them. The purpose is to scare people.
How does this affect visitors and those of us who live in México?
The honest answer is hardly at all. In the years I have lived in México, the drug wars have had no impact on my life whatsoever despite the fact that they do occur in my city and the surrounding area. I have written about the drug wars in my area here. Unless you are involved with illegal drugs, put drug gang violence near the bottom of your worry list.
There have been some car-jackings along the highways in northern Mexico, but they are not common. Usually, the targeted vehicles are late model pickups and SUVs. Nevertheless, thousands of vehicles travel these highways every day without incident. You are more likely to encounter trouble in parts of Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit or New York City.
Three rules for driving: Never drive on the highways at night. Always stop at road blocks and do as you are told. And never argue with a man holding a gun.
You will encounter road blocks from time to time. Some are agricultural check points just as in the USA. Others are army check points looking for drugs and guns. Once in a great while the blocks are set up by local outlaws for the purpose of robbing travelers. No matter what kind of road block, the rule remains the same: stop and don’t try to run the block because you may be shot if you don’t stop.
This information is presented, not to frighten you, but to inform you of the true conditions in Mexico, especially northern Mexico; and to assure you that your chance of encountering any trouble of this nature is very, very small.
What are the chances of being killed in México?
The US State Department has done a study of non-natural deaths of US citizens in México for the years 2005 - 2007. In that three year period, there were approximately 18 million visits by Americans. Only 668 died from other than natural causes. This table shows the breakdown of those deaths.
The majority of the deaths were caused by automobile and airplane accidents. A large part of those were pedestrian deaths. In the USA, the pedestrian has the right-of-way in the street -- cars must yield. In México the rule is reversed -- the car has the right-of-way, and the pedestrian has the responsibility to stay out the way of the cars. This simple lack of knowledge of the rules of the road, no doubt, accounts for many of these deaths.
Two things to consider to put the homicides in the proper perspective:
1. 128 murders out of 18 million visits translates to about one murder for each 140,000 visits. Name one city in the USA with a murder rate that low.
2. Two-thirds of these murders took place in the northern border cities (Tijuana, Juarez, Nuevo Lerado, etc). It is generally believed that most, perhaps all, were drug related. Most of the other one-third occurred in other areas of heavy drug activity. A few were the result of old fashion bar room brawls.
It is clear that an American not involved with drug trafficking (or bar fights) has almost no chance of being murdered in México.
Drive, walk and swim carefully and stay away from drugs, and your chances of a non-natural death in México are just about zero.
What about non-lethal crime?
We can divide that into two groups -- person on person crimes and police misconduct.
Lets take police misconduct first because that is the one you are more likely to encounter. Whether you are visiting or living in México, the chances are that only police you will ever have any contact with are the traffic cops (tránsitos). You have probably heard that bribing the traffic police is common in México, so lets talk about that.
I have been living in México since 2000, and I have encountered the traffic police in two accidents, three true violations, and four phony stops. The accidents and two of the violations were handled in a very professional manner with not a hint of wanting a mordida (mordida = the bite, bribe). For the other violation (no front license plate), he wanted 50 pesos (about 5 dollars); he settled for 20 pesos. The four phony stops cost me 20 pesos, 5 pesos, 0 and 0. The only two times I have paid at a phony stop happened when I was new to México and didn't know how to handle the situation. My last phony stop occurred in 2003. Since then my city has cracked down on such behavior by the tránsitos.
The quest for mordida happens all over México, but it is not rampant. And many people never suffer phony stops. Let me be very clear -- tránsitos on the take are more common than in the USA, but not all cops are crooked; most are hardworking, dedicated, honest, very under-paid people.
What should I do if I'm stopped for a true violation?
If you are interested in paying a mordida to be done with the matter, wait for him to bring it up. Do not make an offer first because it's a crime, and you just might be talking to an honest guy. If he wants a bribe, you'll be given the opportunity "to pay the fine now" or "buy me a Coke." "Buy me a Coke" is the most commonly used request for a mordida. Sometimes you'll hear "lunch" or "soda" instead of Coke.
The two main arguments in favor of the mordida are:
1. The traffic police are woefully under paid, so the bribe is just a road tax, and it helps the guy to feed his family.
2. The bribe usually, but not always, will be less than the fine. Some tránsitos will gamble that you don't know the actual amount of the fine and will tell you some very large number to make their mordida demand sound like a good deal.
If you pay the mordida, you don't have to make a trip to the office to pay the ticket. The ticket will not be at the office until the next day, maybe two days. If you are traveling away from home, this delay can be very inconvenient and costly, so the mordida becomes both convenient and cheap. You can't just skip out on the ticket because part of the drill is the officer takes your license, and you can't get it back until you pay the ticket or the mordida.
The argument against the mordida is basically a moral one.
It's against the law; it's morally wrong. The most effective way to stop police misconduct is to refuse to be a party to it. You can always refuse his requests for a bribe and insist on having the ticket. Always be polite and respectful, but firm in your resolve not to pay a mordida.
What should I do if I'm stopped when I know I did nothing wrong, a phony stop?
When confronted by a tránsito with his hand out after a phony stop, you again have the choice of paying the mordida or insisting on having the ticket. In this situation, the tránsito is only interested in making money. When he realizes you are not going to pay, he will not want to waste any more time with you. He will almost always send you on without a ticket. If he persists, demand to be taken to the station to speak with his boss. This will end the encounter. Again be polite and respectful. Don't get angry or force him to lose face -- those can be a very bad moves.
The amount of the mordida is usually negotiable if your Spanish is good enough. I carry a 20 peso note in my wallet along with my driver's license with no other money in the wallet. I can show the officer that 20 pesos is all I have. One time I was able to beat a tránsito down to accepting a 5 peso coin (US 50 cents). Boy, was he angry, and I could hardly keep a straight face. Later I learned he lost his job because he tried his scam on the wrong person.
Finally, it comes down to a question of what your time is worth vs. how you feel about the impropriety of paying a bribe. If you have an encounter with a hungry tránsito, don't be up tight, go with the flow and recognize it for what it is -- a new adventure with the culture of México. It's a game -- if you win, he loses by wasting his time; if he wins, it will cost you a few bucks. It's not a big deal. It certainly is not worth worrying about. And you may never even meet a hungry tránsito.
I have babbled on about this because it is an important cultural difference between the USA and México.
What will the tránsitos do if I'm involved in an auto accident?
This question is answered at length here.
Are tránsitos 'real' police?
Yes, they are real police with regard to the rules of the road, and they can arrest you; but they are not the regular police (policía preventiva) who deal with crimes. In most cities, the tránsitos are a separate police force with their own chain of command and bureaucracy, even different uniforms. They don't deal with criminal matters, and the regular police usually don't deal with traffic matters.
If you have a car accident, you call a tránsito. If you are mugged, you call the policía preventiva. So in the next section, when I talk about police, I mean these, not the tránsito force.
(There are many layers and types of police in México. If you are interested in pursuing this, read here.)
Person on Person Crime:
Personal crime includes a wide range of things people do to each other almost always in hope of monetary gain. Pickpockets, purse snatching, mugging, scams, kidnapping, car jacking, burglaries, rape, etc.
All of these things happen in the USA as well. There are no statistics to indicate whether these things are more common in México than in the USA.
You will hear people argue that México is more dangerous than the USA. Well, that's a pretty broad statement. México City is probably a lot more dangerous than East Overshoe, Iowa. But so is Chicago. I think you'll find that small town México is not all that different from small town USA -- close knit, conservative and slow paced. Likewise, large city México is not that different from large city USA -- diverse, impersonal and fast.
The point is that the same things can happen to you in the USA or in México. You should take careful precautions when you go out in public in both countries. It seems that some people leave their common sense behind at the border. Always remember that you are instantly recognizable as a norte americano. We are commonly viewed as being rich, so the criminal element is drawn to us like ants to sugar. This does not mean that you are in danger of bodily harm, but it does mean that your purse, billfold, camera or jewelry is in danger of sprouting legs and running away if you don't exercise common sense and pay attention to what is going on around you -- again, just like when you visit away from home in the USA
Mexicans, by and large, are friendly people, but they also tend to be reserved in public, not likely to interact with strangers. When a stranger suddenly gets quite friendly, be on guard.
For example – the Mustard Bandits: The Mustard Bandits are really just pick pockets with a clever rouse. Their standard M.O. on the street is to squirt mustard on an unsuspecting passerby and then run up yelling "Bird Shit!" and pretend to help the victim wipe off the mustard, usually on their back and at the same time relieve them of their wallet or purse. There are variations on this scam such as inside a store squirting water on the victim’s head then pointing to the ceiling as the source of a leak and lifting valuables while the mark is distracted. Usually they work in teams with one or two "helping" the mark, while another lifts the valuables.
The police are not likely to be interested is pursuing these non-violent crimes; it is widely regarded as a waste of time to try to report this kind of personal crime. The police will be interested in personal violence, home invasions/burglaries, car thefts, and kidnappings.
Personally, I have been victimized several times in the USA, but never in México. I can say quite honestly that I feel safer in living in Lerdo than I did living in Los Angeles where my house was burglarized, or Chicago were my apartment was burglarized and my car stolen, or Boston = burglary, or Little Rock = mugged, or Memphis = burglary and car stolen. Maybe I had a little dark cloud over my head in the USA that went away when I moved to México. :-)
When do I need a police report?
If you lose property which is insured -- camera, laptop, jewelry -- your insurance company is going to want to see a police report. If you lose important papers -- passport, car permit, etc -- you may need a police report. Sometimes it is a major pain to get a police report of what they consider a little thing, so you may need to be very persistent. Reports of car accidents are usually forthcoming from the tránsitos without undue pain.
Kidnapping is a serious problem faced by wealthy Mexicans. It rarely is a problem for Americans, except there have been a few cases of tourists being forced to withdraw money from an ATM in the evening and then held until after midnight when a second withdrawal could be made. Unlike in the USA, murder is rarely a part of kidnapping in México.
One place where kidnapping differs greatly from the USA is with children. They are not abducted for ransom as adults are; they are stolen for their own value to be sold for adoption.
Of course there are pedophiles and rapists, as there are everywhere. The police will be very interested in pursuing these crimes. The chances of catching the perp, however, are not very good. Pepper spray is legal.
There are two scams to watch out for at gas stations.
1. Not resetting the pump: The newer gas pumps automatically reset to zero before the gas flows, but the old pumps have to be reset manually. Be sure to observe if the pump has been reset to zero before the attendant begins filling your tank.
2. The money switch: You pay with a 500 peso note, you're distracted by another guy washing your windshield, and then you notice the guy you paid is holding up a 50 peso note. No amount of protesting will convince him that you tendered a 500. Or maybe a 200 peso note morphs into a 20. While this scam is not real common, it does happen.
How can I avoid this scam?
I never say "fill it up." I always specify a peso amount, usually 200 or 300 pesos. I try to pay with exact change. Sometimes I have a 500 I want to break, so I make a little to-do about handing over the bill, so it is very clear to the attendant that I know and he knows I am handing him a 500. I have never been scammed.
I always trade with the same station at home. It is unlikely that they would try to scam a regular customer. On the road I am very careful to watch what the attendant does.
Torn or defaced peso notes are no longer legal tender. The law says they are not supposed to be spent, and you can refuse to take one. If you end up with such a bill, take it to a bank where it can be exchanged for a good one. Some banks do the exchange promptly and easily, others can make the exchange a pain. (Dealing with banks seems to be the same everywhere.)
Counterfeiting is a problem from time to time. All peso bills have a metallic thread embedded in the paper to foil counterfeiters. If a bill lacks this thread, it is not legit.
Real estate and other contractual scams are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that in buying real estate or building a house or any other legal matter, you need to exercise great care. Scams in these areas are more common than in the USA, and often they are hard to detect in advance. "Let the buyer beware" scarcely expresses the warning strongly enough.
This page is a work in progress, I'll be adding to it from time to time, so check back later.