The U.S. State Department’s new travel advisory warning Americans about the risks of traveling to Cancun and Los Cabos should not be taken too seriously. Compared to some crime-ridden U.S. cities – or the deaths from recent U.S. mass shootings – these Mexican resorts look like safe havens.
The Aug. 22 U.S. travel advisory added the two Mexican tourism resorts, which get millions of foreign tourists a year, to their list of dangerous places around the world. Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, the states where Cancun and Los Cabos are respectively located, have seen a surge of shootings between rival criminal groups in recent months.
In both cases, the State Department advisory says that “while most of these homicides appeared to be targeted, criminal organizations (and) turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured or killed, have occurred.”
The warning came as foreign tourism to Mexico rose by 12 percent this year, including an 11 percent rise from the United States, according to Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism Enrique de la Madrid. About 60 percent of foreign visitors to the country come from the United States.
Granted, homicides have risen sharply in Cancun and Los Cabos, and are rising across Mexico. A growing U.S. demand for heroin is leading to greater turf wars among drug cartels. Also, the extradition to the United States of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has triggered a bloody power war within his Sinaloa Cartel.
Cancun’s state of Quintana Roo had 169 violent killings during the first six months of this year, up from 65 during the same period last year, according to Mexico’s National Public Security System. Los Cabos’ state of Baja California Sur reported nearly four times more slayings than last year during the same period.
But when you compare these figures with homicide rates in major U.S. cities, they look small.
While Cancun’s murder rate is 20 people per 100,000 inhabitants and Los Cabos’ is 14 people per 100,000 inhabitants, the equivalent rates for some big U.S. cities is significantly higher: 52 people per 100,000 inhabitants in Baltimore, 50 in Detroit and 20 in Washington, D.C., according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice figures.
In numbers of murders, Quintana Roo’s 169 murders during the first half of this year were about half of Chicago’s 328 people killed over the same period, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional association of police chiefs and sheriffs.
The drug violence in Cancun and Los Cabos drew big headlines recently. There was a June 15 shooting in Cancun that left one dead and two wounded, and another shooting on Jan. 5 in nearby Playa del Carmen that left five people dead. And in Los Cabos this month, another violent incident left three people dead.
Those are frightening events that deserve to be taken seriously. But they should also be put in context: If you are alarmed by these gang wars in public places that resulted in a handful of deaths, you should also remind yourself about the 49 people who died in last year’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
To their credit, Mexican officials didn’t go ballistic over the latest State Department travel advisory. Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism de la Madrid said his country sees it as a “wake-up call” for Mexico to be more effective in combating organized crime.
As a frequent visitor to Cancun and the Riviera Maya cities, I am often asked by friends whether it’s safe for them or their children to travel there.
Here’s what I tell them: No place is entirely safe, including any major U.S. city or any small town where a psychopath armed with an easily accessible semiautomatic gun can shoot down dozens of people. In almost any place today, you run the risk of being an innocent bystander caught in the wrong place. It’s just that the State Department doesn’t spell out dangers in U.S. cities. They should.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.