I received an email the other day from someone who, understandably, is worried about going to Mexico in light of the violence and crime that is so widely reported. Anyone traveling to Mexico probably, hopefully, has at least asked themselves "is it safe?".
An excerpt of the email is below, and as always any identifiable info has been removed to protect the innocent, less their friends and contemporaries know that they associate with me:
I am actually planning on heading down south as I too have a Hans Christian 36 :) I am planning on doing Mexico and want to surf Baja and eat lobsters down there, but was getting a lot of grief from family about it being so unsafe these days... I almost decided to bypass Mexico and go to Hawaii, missing out on Baja altogether.
Then I found your blog and looked at the great photos and thought Mexico is still safe - just look these people are totally doing it!
Please, if you have a little time, please give me your opinion of the overall safety there now.
When we lived in San Diego some South Korean friends were at our boat for dinner and expressed how they were not going to Los Angeles because of the violence there: they had seen the homeless man who was set on fire and burned to death, they had heard the gangster rap music of the 90's, they had seen the movies, and they knew the drive-by attack rates.
Charlotte and I tried to explain to them that there are many people living quite safely in Los Angeles and that they were really far off in their threat assessment. Personally I'm much more worried about getting into a car accident driving back and forth from San Diego to Los Angeles than I am ending up in the crossfire of a gang war. But people as a rule generally have terrible skills at identifying and prioritizing risk, usually magnifying the unknown threats and minimizing those they have already come to terms with.
To answer your question, dear reader, the reality of narco cartels in Mexico is multifaceted, nuanced, and quite far from the typical US image of the situation. To be fair, it's also pretty far from Mexico's image of the situation.
First and foremost, the number of your typical-westerner-bystanders being involved in cartel violence is quite low. These are not gangs as much as businesses, and nearly everything they do is fueled by the desire to protect and expand their revenue. The ballpark income of Mexican cartels is $64 billion dollars annually: these are not motorcycle meth gangs in leather jackets.
Before I came to live in America's southerly neighbor I definitely had the (egregiously wrong) paternalistic view of Mexico where whatever they built could never be as good as what America has done and whatever their problems are it's nothing that some Predator drones and a few DEVGRU guys couldn't wipe out. This is simply untrue and anyone who thinks along these lines does not understand the depth or breadth of narco trafficking.
Ending up in the crosshairs of a cartel can happen in a number of ways: you could be a politician, a rival cartel member, a business operating in controlled territory, or even simply someone with skills a cartel has deemed helpful and wants to employ. But the odds of that happening to you as a barely-Spanish-speaking tourist on a boat is remarkably slim. The reality is that you (and I) have little to offer them in terms of benefit or threat. Note that when looking up "American citizens killed in Mexico", you will be wading into the sea of Mexican-American nationals. The twin daughters of the world's most powerful narco cartel are in fact Americans, born in Los Angeles: immeadiatly after they returned to Mexico so now you tell me, are they Mexican cartel affiliates, American citizens, or do they exist in some nebulous in between?
There are places you can go, most of which aren't on the Pacific coast (or on any coast) that will crank up your odds of problems. If you emailed and said you were going to backpack through the trafficking corridors of Durango and then set up a drug rehab clinic in Juaraz, yeah: there's a decent chance you're going to end up in a bag before the year is out.
But to provide a parallel in the United States, there's a difference between working in the San Diego golf course industry versus being in San Bernadino county creating bulk pseudoephedrine: both of those paths set you at wildly different courses of running into a rather violence prone set of individuals. To the untrained eye however, someone might simply see the entire state of California as dangerous because if you can get into trouble making a meth precursor then surely maintaining the putting greens in La Jolla is equally as terrifying.
One of my favorite books on the subject of Mexican narco cartels is Ted Carpenter's The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America. That sets up a pretty good base of knowledge for understanding the violence spurring aspect of the Mexican-American "head hunting" campaign where rather than introduce systemic solutions to narcotics trafficking, the current enforcement model targets cartel senior leadership (a.k.a. "king pins").
These senior cartel leaders generally are the least violent (of very violent people), and when they are removed from power intense fighting follows in their wake: lieutenants fight each other for control, splinter groups form, and rival cartels smell blood in the water and move in to capitalize on perceived weakness. This is precisely what happened in Tijuana with the decapitated Tijuana Cartel, and in Juarez with the also aptly named Juarez Cartel. In both instances the violence spikes were directly tied to the fall of the senior leadership.
The headhunting enforcement model is roughly akin to hoping that by killing the CEO of Coca Cola and Pepsi, you will thereby stop people from making and drinking soda. Undoubtedly the supply will be disrupted temporarily, but a lower supply and maintained demand only causes prices to soar and bolder actions by those who can manufacturer and sell. But people don't like nuance, and voters generally root for the guy who managed to put a bruised up "drug kingpin" in front of the cameras with a pile of narcotics and gold plated weapons on the table in front of him, flanked by scary soldiers in ski-masks.
Why this matters and why you should be aware of it, dear reader, is because traveling through Baja and the Nayarit area, you're going to be smack dab in the Sinaloa Cartel's operating range. The Sinaloa cartel is the largest narcotics organization in the world and easily the most powerful in Mexico. Formerly the Pacific Cartel, it controls the territory these days that a typical Mexico-Pacific sailor will encounter from Ensenada to Puerto Vallarta.
So with all the corpses dangling from bridges and faces sewn onto soccer balls and kicked into government buildings, here's a less ghoulish tale that shows some nuance.
Every Wednesday there is a market here in sleepy La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and there is always the pirated movie stand. $20 pesos for a movie, buy 5 and get your sixth for free. Last year I picked up Shrek, Act of Valor, and some other titles from the stand and walked away. One of the kids working there chased after me and hauled me back, explaining that I hadn't picked my sixth free movie and that he still owed me one. Even better, he said if any of them didn't play to make sure I brought them back next week for a refund or exchange.
I bring this up because my money, and the money of everyone who's purchased a pirated movie in Mexico, goes directly into the coffers of the area's predominant narco cartel. The police don't turn a blind eye to pirate movies because they like Toy Story 3 and want others to get it at a fair price, these illegal markets exist (and are operated with terrific customer service) because of the powerful cartel influences. The cartel gets its cut and as a result the pirate movie vendor doesn't have competition in that area and doesn't get hassled by the local police.
Narco trafficking is a major aspect of Mexico: you simply cannot have a conversation about business or politics without the subject being brought up. In some places the effect is obvious, in others the impact is more subtle. It's incredibly naive for anyone to imagine they are immune to the footprint of cartels, but likewise it's Chicken Little-ish to think you personally are that relevant to a cartel or that the razor thin chance of ending up in a cross fire, which can happen in Kansas City as well, is anything more than distantly remote.
The take away points I would offer up, and I wrote this in my book as well (cough cough), are:
- Be careful if you buy drugs. Lots of people buy weed in Mexico, and honestly the cartels are there to sell and make money not to hassle or endanger their customers. But the local shit-head taxi driver you ask might try to fleece you for some cash before he takes you to his connection. If you want to score some weed, make friends with a local first.
- Until you know areas well, stick with remote villages or well trodden areas of cities that have a defined gringo footprint (La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Turtle Bay, Loreto, Los Cabos, Mazatlan, etc).
- Don't get caught with drugs in Mexico. It's actually not as illegal as people think: most states have legalized minor posession but the Mexican military has wide latitude and the local municipal police can still hassle you. There is quite a bit of distance, especially on the mainland, between what's on the books and what happens in the street.
- Lookout for enforcement actions that rattle cartel leadership. If El Chapo Guzman were ever caught or killed (and we were in a Sinaloa area) we wouldn't leave town instantly but I'd be much more alert and avoid sketchy situations than I otherwise might.
- Read some books on the subject and familiarize yourself with the patterns, targets, periphery, and cycles of narco violence.
Mexico is neither safe or dangerous, and it is obtuse to oversimplify such a complex country into those definitions. Your safety and experiences are entirely dependent on where you are and the choices you make. With a bit of light reading (that is actually pretty interesting), staying up on the news, and having a genuine interest in learning about the situation you can make the danger of Mexico be as remote as that of your own home town.