How to live in Mexico; Crime and violence in Mexico

One of the biggest concerns people have about moving to Mexico is all the cartel violence they keep hearing about, so I want to dedicate this issue of ‘How to Live in Mexico‘ to the issue of violence in Mexico.

I am not going to sugarcoat the facts. Cartels operate everywhere in Mexico, including in Puerto Vallarta. Just last year they chased down the ex-Governor of Jalisco in a Puerto Vallarta restaurant and murdered him. A few years ago, cartels erupted in violent attacks on banks and gas stations in Puerto Vallarta, throwing molotov cocktails through business windows and shooting down a helicopter from the State Police. Shortly before that, they executed the Chief of Police in Puerto Vallarta on the sidewalk of Old Town, a major tourist area of the city.

In Mexico, cartel violence is more common in the border states, and in central and southern states of Mexico, such as Guanajuato and Michoacán, and increasingly along the border of Jalisco and Zacatecas. Cartels and organized crime operate in every corner of Mexico, it’s just a fact. But it’s also important to remember that Mexico is a huge country.

All violence and death of innocent people are tragic and a loss to the people who love them, but violence isn’t unique to just Mexico, it exists in every country. On the world peace index, Mexico ranks at 2.6 and the US ranks a score of 2.4, meaning the violence in the USA is comparable to that in Mexico. As far as total crimes, Mexico registers 14 crimes per 1,000 inhabitants, where the USA registers 41 crimes per 1,000 inhabitants, 3 times more than Mexico.

Did you know that the most violent city in the US is Anchorage, Alaska? It’s true! There are 12.46 violent crimes per 1,000 residents in Anchorage (source), compared to Chicago with 9.48 violent crimes per 1,000 residents (source). We don’t hear about the massive violent crime in Anchorage. I am going to give my theory on why we don’t hear about the violence in Anchorage. It’s about race. Chicago has an African-American population of nearly 30%, while Anchorage has an African-American population of 5%. As long as the media focuses on crimes by black and brown people, it’s a lot easier for people to believe the rising population of minorities is dangerous, without the media actually saying the words out loud. That’s why cartel (Mexican/Brown) violence is always front and center in the US while not telling people about the dangers of Anchorage, Alaska. Mexico sounds really dangerous while Anchorage seems like a wholesome family town. That’s my theory, take it or leave it. This is an opinion piece.

I have traveled to every State in Mexico over the past 12 years. I moved to Puerto Vallarta at the height of cartel violence. Not only did I move to Puerto Vallarta, but I drove from Asheville, NC to Vallarta, crossing the border at Nuevo Leon, and traveled the highway they call the highway of death because of the violence and kidnapping along that exact route that I traveled at the height of cartel violence.

The only time that I truly felt concerned for my life during my drive was when I decided to stay the night in Laredo, Texas. It was getting to be evening time and I wanted to cross the border with plenty of daylight ahead of me to get through to border states and arrive in Zacatecas before nightfall. Laredo, Texas was probably the scariest city I have ever visited in my lifetime, and I have traveled a lot. I literally slept on the floor of my hotel room because I was afraid that someone was going to shoot through my windows when I was sleeping.

Do you want to know how many dead bodies I have seen in Mexico? None. Do you want to know how many acts of violence I have witnessed? None. Do you want to know how many of my friends have witnessed a violent crime? None. After 12 years and 32 states, nothing. Not even on the highway of death.

While some innocent people do become victims of cartel violence in Mexico, they are rarely the intended targets. Cartel violence is almost exclusively between cartel groups fighting for control of areas and distribution. There is no advantage to the cartels in targeting foreigners. Many of the areas where cartels operate have agreements with local, state, and federal governments not to target innocent people or foreigners in exchange for operating with impunity. Some local governments even pay cartels with taxpayer money to keep the peace in their cities.

If you are concerned about becoming a victim of cartel violence, my number one recommendation to protect yourself is don’t get involved in the drug trade. If you are moving to Mexico for retirement and living your simple life by the sea, your chances of becoming a victim of cartel violence are less than 1%, in fact, closer to 0%.

However, petty crime is another story in Mexico. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a country where half the population lives in poverty would have a petty crime problem. I have been robbed twice in the past 12 years. Once in Puerto Vallarta and once in Guadalajara. I never blame the victim, but the truth is, there were things I could have done to avoid being a victim. On both occasions, I was out late at night walking on dark roads without lights or traffic. In Guadalajara, I was walking back from a nightclub (intoxicated) when I was robbed. In Vallarta, I was on a dark street just a block from my house talking to a friend who was having a personal problem at the time. My street was very dark at night. Both times could have been avoided by not walking on dark streets at night, and not walking home intoxicated. I learned those lessons and now I am 8 years victim-free in Mexico.

Foreigners are the preferred target for petty crime in Mexico because of the assumption that foreigners are rich and they never report being a victim of a crime. However, there are some pretty easy steps you can take to greatly reduce your chances of becoming a victim of crime.

Don’t walk dark streets

If a street is dark, there is no traffic, and you don’t see other people walking the street, there is probably a reason. Don’t walk dark streets where there aren’t any cars, other people walking, or signs of activity. At night, choose a taxi or uber, even if it’s just a few blocks. And double up on that recommendation if you have been drinking.

Don’t carry cash

I am a card only person. I never have cash and I use uber so they can charge my card and I don’t need cash for transportation. If a restaurant, bar, or store does not accept cards, I am not a customer. It’s that simple. Both times I was robbed, the robbers were disappointed to find an empty wallet.

Don’t call attention to yourself

Be as local as possible. Don’t flaunt your wealth, or pretend you have wealth that you don’t have. Foreigners are a primary target for theft, and a foreigner wearing the best clothes and jewels is a thief’s jackpot. I recently read an op-ed in a news publication from an American family that was living in Mexico but returned to the US because they were robbed too many times and wanted to warn Americans of the danger. In the article, the family bragged about how much money they have, how expensive their house was in Mexico, all the Mexican staff they hired to care for the house, and they just didn’t understand why they were always the victim of crimes. I assume because they bragged about their wealth in their local community the same way they did in their op-ed. Don’t brag about your wealth to a crowd of people living in poverty and then complain that someone took advantage of you.

Don’t carry your visa

If you are an expat living in Puerto Vallarta (or wherever in the world), don’t carry your visa with you. Carry a copy if that makes you feel more comfortable. In all honesty, in my 12-years living in Mexico, no one has ever asked to see my visa, except the bank when opening an account. After my second robbery, and second stolen visa, I stopped carrying it with me and it’s never been an issue.

Get two passports

When I renewed my Passport at the US Consulate, I decided to order both a Passport Book and Passport Card. The card can only be used for land border crossings, not flying or cruises, but it fits nicely in your wallet and doesn’t have pages that can be torn. And if I get robbed or lose my wallet, I have a backup identification. My Passport Book stays in my desk at home.

Bottom Line

Mexico isn’t any less safe than the USA, or most other countries. Yes, there is violence in Mexico, as there is in every country around the globe. Yet knowing this, there are over 1-million Americans living in Mexico, not to mention the millions more from other countries around the world who have made Mexico their home, and are rarely victims of violent crimes. And by following common sense street-smarts, you can greatly reduce your chances of becoming a victim of petty crimes and robberies. These same common-sense rules can also protect you in the USA where you are 3X more likely to be a victim.


Ian Hayden Parker is the founder of PVDN and has been living as an expat in Mexico for the past 12 years. You can contact Ian Hayden Parker to suggest a topic for the next issue of How to Live in Mexico by submitting your feedback or question here.

How to live in Mexico is a new series of posts dealing with life as an expat in Mexico and lessons that have been learned over the last 12 years as an expat.

Next week: How to live in Mexico; Learning Spanish as an expat

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