Decoding the Travel Warnings for Mexico issued by the US State Department

Puerto Vallarta (PVDN) – Americans frequently choose Mexico as a vacation spot. However, due to headlines about crime in Mexico that resulted in American tourists getting hurt or killed, some travelers have become concerned about their safety when considering trips to the southern border.

The U.S. Department of State issues travel advisories for all countries worldwide, warning American travelers of potential safety risks. However, it treats Mexico differently, issuing advisories for individual states and Mexico City instead of one for the entire country.

These advisories are categorized into four levels, ranging from least severe (level 1) to most severe (level 4). For level 1 destinations, you can follow normal precautions. For level 2 destinations, increased caution is advised. For level 3 destinations, travel should be reconsidered, and for level 4 destinations, travel is strongly discouraged.

The State Department considers several factors, including crime, terrorist activity, civil unrest, health, natural disasters, weather conditions, and current events to determine the level of a travel advisory issued. Additionally, the department imposes travel restrictions on federal employees as part of these advisories and recommends that tourists follow the same guidance.

Mexico is comprised of 32 states, which include the capital district of Mexico City. Among these states, only two have received a level 1 advisory from the U.S. State Department.

Six states have been issued with a level 4 “Do Not Travel” warning, including Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. For example, in Guerrero, federal employees are allowed to stay in downtown tourist areas of Taxco but are prohibited from visiting other parts of the state, including Alcapulco, Zihuatanejo, and Ixtapa. Michoacan’s federal employees are only permitted to travel to Morelia but are not allowed to visit the rest of the state, including the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. In Sinaloa, travel within Mazatlán is limited to the Zona Dorada and historic town center, while other areas are off-limits to U.S. federal employees. The reason for these level 4 advisories is mainly because of the widespread crime and high rates of kidnapping in these states, except for Guerrero.

Tamaulipas, located along the Gulf Coast and the U.S. border, is where the four Americans were kidnapped in March. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico reports that they were attacked in their vehicle while in Tamaulipas, having recently crossed the border from Brownsville, Texas, into Matamoros.

Seven more states have received a level 3 “Reconsider Travel” warning: Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, and Sonora. Although federal workers are not restricted from visiting tourist areas in Baja California, including Tijuana, Ensenada, and Rosarito, the State Department is concerned about the high number of homicides in non-tourist areas of Tijuana. Copper Canyon in Chihuahua is off-limits to federal employees.

However, there are no travel restrictions for other tourist areas in level 3 states, including San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato City in Guanajuato, the Guadalajara metropolitan area, and Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco. The western half of the U.S.-Mexico border is composed of Baja California, Sonora, and Chihuahua.

All the remaining states, except for two, have received a level 2 “Exercise Increased Caution” warning due to high crime rates. Tourist areas within level 2 states that the State Department does not restrict travel for its employees include Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo, Mexico City, Teotihuacán in Mexico State, Los Cabos in Baja California de Sur, and Nuevo Vallarta in Nayarit. Only two states, Campeche and Yucatan, have received a level 1 “Exercise Normal Precautions” advisory, with Yucatan being home to Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mérida.

Are tourists a target of violence in Mexico?

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico reports that thousands of U.S. citizens visit Mexico during spring break each year, and the majority of them travel safely. According to officials, criminal groups like cartels or gangs are unlikely to actively target travelers. However, as in other popular tourist destinations, someone who flaunts their wealth and draws attention to themselves could become an easy target for petty thieves.

Tourists can reduce the likelihood of being targeted by staying alert to their surroundings and avoiding behaviors that call attention to themselves.

Although there is no evidence of criminals specifically targeting foreign or U.S. businesses and personnel, criminals often target victims based on their perceived affluence, vulnerability, or lack of awareness, according to OSAC. In terms of cartel violence, personal safety is most at risk in cases of wrong-place/wrong-time incidents.

The Canadian government warns that robbers in Mexico have followed victims who exchange or withdraw money at airports, currency exchange bureaus (casas de cambio), or ATMs. Travelers should avoid withdrawing or exchanging money in public or easy-to-see areas of the airport.

The State Department cautions that robberies and assaults on passengers in taxis not affiliated with a taxi stand are common. Instead of hailing taxis on the street, tourists should use regulated taxi stands or application-based services such as Uber or Cabify.

According to OSAC, hasty cash transactions on the street could leave travelers cheated with counterfeit or shoddy goods, out-of-circulation valueless currency, or incorrect change. Tourists may also fall victim to ATM skimming and credit card fraud. As a precaution, OSAC advises using ATMs in bank branches during business hours and requesting portable credit card terminals from establishments to charge a credit card in your physical presence.

Are Puerto Vallarta and other tourist areas in Mexico safe?

Jalisco, the home state for Puerto Vallarta, are designated as ‘reconsider travel, however, the State Department adds a caveat to their warnings for Jalisco.

Violent crime and gang activity are common in parts of Jalisco state. In Guadalajara, territorial battles between criminal groups take place in tourist areas. Shooting incidents between criminal groups have injured or killed innocent bystanders. U.S. citizens and LPRs have been victims of kidnapping.

However, the State Department follows its warning of Jalisco with the reminder that Puerto Vallarta doesn’t fit within the overall assessment of the state. There are no restrictions for the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area, Puerto Vallarta (including neighboring Riviera Nayarit), Chapala, and Ajijic.

Most violence that is warned about in the State of Jalisco is due to activity in the north east of the state with the border of Zacatecas, while Puerto Vallarta rests on the west coast of the state.

The British government acknowledges that Mexico is working to protect major tourist destinations. Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department notes that these areas have not been immune to the violence and crime experienced in other parts of Mexico.

Although no place is entirely free of crime, the tourist zones of popular destinations are typically safer than other parts of the cities. The Canadian government advises its citizens to stay in tourist areas when traveling to Mexico. The State Department recommends avoiding downtown Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen after dark and instead staying in tourist areas and along well-lit pedestrian streets.

Cancun attracts the most international travelers to its airport than any other city in Mexico, sometimes two to three times more than the next most popular destination, Mexico City. As Cancun is particularly popular, the State Department and other officials typically give specific advice for travel to Quintana Roo, which also includes Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya.

Due to crime and kidnapping concerns, the State Department has issued a level 2 advisory for Americans, recommending that travelers exercise increased caution while in Quintana Roo. According to the British government, there is currently an increased police presence in the Cancun area, including in the city’s Hotel Zone.

Although criminal organizations do not typically target tourists in Quintana Roo, the State Department, the British government, and the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), an American public-private international security partnership for U.S. companies and organizations, all agree that there have been incidents in which tourists were injured or killed after getting caught in the crossfire of rival groups.

Regarding Mexico City and the surrounding State of Mexico, the State Department advises travelers to remain vigilant and use additional caution, particularly at night, outside of frequented tourist areas where police and security patrol more routinely. Petty crime occurs frequently in both tourist and non-tourist areas, according to the State Department.


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