Mexico and crime:
It ain't necessarily so

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Mexican flag"Canucks Targets In Mexico: Feds" read the inch-and-a-half high headline on the front page of the Toronto Sun in March of 1998. Inside, the story screamed "Muggers Targeting Canucks," with a subhead that added "Ailing Mexican peso blamed for rise in attacks on tourists."

Being concerned about travel and crime in Mexico, a place near and dear to my heart, and being a Canuck who travels there as often as possible, I read on with consternation. But as usual, it was typical hyperbole and yellow journalism. 

The article was about one mugging, not several, not a crime wave, and offered nothing to indicate Canadians were generally at risk or targets any more than any other tourist in any part of the world. It turned out that two Canadian teenagers carrying $400 in cash were on the streets of downtown Acapulco at 3:30 a.m. (a major urban area of more than two million people). They got mugged.

A mother of one of the 17-year-olds assured reporters they weren't out there trying to buy drugs, just off to a local sandwich shop. The Mexican police, however, say they were looking to score drugs. You have to wonder what two gringo teens were doing on the streets of a large Mexican city at 3:30 a.m. with all that cash in their pockets. I also wonder what sort of mother would let them roam the streets of a foreign city with that much cash at that hour. What sort of "sandwich shop" requires an outlay of $400? I think the responsibility lies with the mother more than the muggers.

In my trips to Mexico, I seldom carry more than $50 in my pocket at any time. I wouldn't carry $400 around the streets of Toronto at 3 a.m. Heck, I wouldn't carry it around Collingwood at that hour (and it has nothing to do with going to bed by 10 p.m...). Common sense says you don't carry a lot of cash anywhere at night.

The article then tied in a story about another Canadian tourist, a 22-year-old, who was beaten unconscious and robbed, apparently while out trying to buy drugs in Florida.

Wait a second.

What does Florida have to do with Mexico? They're about 2,000 miles apart and completely different countries. They're completely unalike in almost every aspect I can think of except perhaps the availability of beach sand.

Does the reporter think that because some Canuck gets mugged in Florida that muggers in another country get some sort of telepathic message to attack Canadians who are beside an entirely different ocean? Is this some sort of Jungian criminal synchronicity?

I don't see this sort of thing as responsible journalism (but very typical of the Sun's coverage). A lot of readers will infer from this story that Canadian tourists have big bull's-eyes painted on them, making them targets for every lowlife and petty criminal south of the border. This story suddenly had all the credibility of a Hardcopy report.

But the Sun also quoted a Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) spokesperson as saying "We have seen the number of crimes increase in Mexico recently...because of difficulty in their economy." DFAIT is pretty conservative and they wouldn't likely make such a statement if it weren't true. Right? The Sun would never misquote them, after all, right?

Well, the Mexican economy has been in trouble ever since I started going there (no, not because I started going...after 15 or so years, I've determined the peso was designed to plummet). The peso was seriously devalued in 1994, which led to all sorts of ongoing turmoil (and, yes, increased crime). But Canadians like to travel to places where our paltry dollar is good for something. And a week at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico is often less expensive than just the airfare to almost any Canadian city. Most of us refer to our own currency as the 'Canadian peso...'

But my experience - and that of everyone I know who has visited, retired to or emigrated to Mexico - is that the country is safe, as long as one is duly cautious and alert. In fact, my worst experience has been fending off gangs of timeshare salesmen armed with offers of free breakfasts. (These people never sleep. They wait in dark alleys and bus kiosks and leap out at any hour, morning to midnight, to assault you with brochures and friendly smiles... scary...)

Being curious (and a reporter...), I called DFAIT to ask if Canadians are, as the Sun said, "targets."

"That was a misquote," said Valerie Nostel, DFAIT media relations officer. She also told me the bit about the economy being at fault was "taken out of context" (gasp - not the Sun!).

"Canadians are not targets," she told me. "Foreigners perhaps, but not Canadians in particular."

She admitted that the devalued peso had meant a subsequent increase in crime, mostly in urban and isolated areas - like Chiapas. And more Canadians are travelling to Mexico, so there are more of us in these areas.

But, she added, "Less than one per cent of Canadian travellers ask for consular assistance." That includes reporting a lost passport, asking for directions and help and reporting crimes.

Yes, there is crime in Mexico, probably more of this sort than in Canada. In a country where the average wage is about $3 a day, you have to expect it. There's crime in Canada, too, so let's not cast the first stone here. Frankly, I've felt safer at night in most places in Mexico than in Toronto.

There are some dangerous places to visit in Mexico. There are dangerous places in Canada, too. I lived in Montreal when the FLQ was blowing up mailboxes, which was pretty scary. I left shortly after the feds called for martial law and sent in the troops. I lived through the dying-in-the-streets Collingwood cryptosporidium epidemic (that's a joke... listen... hear the laugh track? Another case of yellow journalism... this time the Star was at fault). I lived through the Sixties when every hippie was a target for every cop, greaser, redneck and biker. Every country can be dangerous, so common sense is required. Take precautions - like not carrying around $400 in the middle of the night in a foreign city.

True, you're more likely to be carjacked on a deserted highway in the mountains of Mexico than on any rural road in Canada. And you should never drive at night in Mexico. But you're equally or more likely to be carjacked or robbed in downtown Miami. There are gangs in Toronto that prey on visitors (swarming by gangs of bored, vicious suburban teens was popular in the Beaches district when I lived there - no, not because I lived there - attacking anyone simply because they were consuming oxygen). Some suburban shopping malls and subway stops are such popular hangouts for teen gangs that they've scared away businesses and customers. Even staid Ottawa has seen drive-by shootings and drunken Russian diplomats driving onto sidewalks, killing pedestrians.

I've never heard of a drive-by shooting in Mexico, although we've had several in this country. And I've never read about 11- and 13-year-old Mexican school kids shooting up teachers and fellow students. Shoot-your-teacher-and-classmates seems to be a popular American pastime for pre-teens. Where do kids get the guns? Having your child and his/her teacher and classmates murdered by a fellow student using his father's easily-obtained automatic rifle seems a far more likely scenario. And far more frightening.

Susan and I have three basic rules when travelling anywhere:

  • First: never dress like victims. Don't wear expensive jewellery, clothing or carry expensive cameras or camcorders. These things only attract attention. Don't look rich, don't flash gold and diamonds. If you want to show off, do it in the safety of your hotel.

  • Second: don't take anything on vacation you can't afford to lose. It's not just crime: you can lose or break things as easily. The sand, the heat and the humidity can wreak havoc on electronics. So can dropping your laptop into the pool. Anyone stealing our knapsack will get a dog-earred Spanish dictionary, some bottles of water, maybe a Mexican newspaper and a few trinkets from the market. And maybe a small, inexpensive auto-focus camera.

  • Third: don't carry large amounts of cash with you. Use travellers' cheques, and cash one or two as required. Leave the bank card in the hotel safe unless you need to use it right away.

I'm not going to be Pollyanna about this, because Mexico can be unsafe, especially Mexico City, one of the largest - and poorest - urban areas in the world. Crime is ubiquitous there. It's dangerous. But so can just about everywhere, and tourists are inviting targets in poor countries where the monthly wage is less than what your running shoes cost. But let's not get carried away with the scare tactics. Canadian's aren't targets, although some are victims. Tourists, from what I can see, are still quite safe in Mexico's resort areas.

In 20 years of visiting Mexico, the worst I've ever received was a bad sunburn and a few hangovers. No muggings, no dysentery, no stolen backpack, wallet or belongings. I may have been the victim of hard bargaining in a market, but that's the worst of it. In our experience, Mexicans are as honourable and honest as anyone, and generally more polite and courteous than North Americans. Don't let yellow journalism spoil your holiday plans.

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People's Guide Guide to MexicoIf you want to learn more about the heart and soul of Mexico, not just the tourist stuff, read Carl Franz's wonderful book, 'The People's Guide to Mexico' published by John Muir Press. It's entertaining, witty, informative and thoroughly delightful. Even if you don't plan to go south, read it just for the sheer fun of it. It provides an inside look at the country, something no hotel-and-golf-course tourist guide will give you. Franz talks frankly about the food, the people, the water, the officials, the roads - and far from making me want to stay away, it makes Mexico far more real, far more appealling and much more human. The latest edition is the 25th anniversary edition.

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