Whenever I return to the U.S. and mention to a stranger that I live in Mexico he or she always seems to ask some version of the question “is it safe there?” Mexico’s reputation for mafia-related violence seems to be eclipsing people’s previous distorted ideas of what Mexico was. No longer do they think of mariachis, or drunks in sombreros or cheap beer or bikini-clad chicas running in the surf. Now they think Mexico is over-run by mafiosos running drugs and that every person here is in imminent danger of being executed.
More than 5000 people in Mexico were killed by organized crime in 2008. That’s a huge number. For the most part those murders took place along the northern border of Mexico, well over a thousand miles from Cancun. In the last couple of years Cancun has had a few murders that appeared to have been mafia hits. In each case the victims seemed to be carefully chosen, they either appeared to be members of the mafia or they were known to be fighting organized crime.
To my knowledge no tourists have been among the mob’s murder victims in Cancun. And given what I’ve seen of the way the mafia operates, I wouldn’t expect tourists to be among their victims. It doesn’t make sense.
Cancun offers certain advantages to organized crime outfits that might be moving drugs or illegal immigrants to the U.S. One advantage is simply Cancun’s close proximity to the U.S., another advantage is that Cancun has miles of coastline. For sure Cancun is a natural stop-over point between cocaine-producing countries in South America and the consumer market of the U.S.
Another big advantage Cancun provides to the cartels operating here is the fact that it’s so busy with tourists. By most estimates close to 5 million tourists come to this area each year. Tourist traffic provides cover at the airport, on the roads and at sea. And the numerous restaurants, bars and nightclubs here provide obvious places to launder money.
The way I see it the very successful tourist trade here is part of the reason that organized crime has been able to operate in the Cancun area. The mob needs the tourists to keep coming in order to keep their activities hidden and to wash their money clean.
Does this mean the mob won’t bite the hand that feeds them? No. But so far the few victims murdered here seem to have been chosen because they represent a threat of some kind to the mafia. And the way I see it tourists are not a threat to the mafia’s business, they are cover for it.
There’s another fact which is easily forgotten. Cancun is a city of nearly 1 million people. I think visitors who come to Cancun often don’t realize how large it is. How many murders happen in American cities of 1 million residents? Would you choose not to go to Denver or Miami or Portland, OR or Seattle because of the murder rates there? Of course not. Yet people are murdered in those places regularly. But the difference between Cancun and those other places is that Cancun is supposed to be perfect, Cancun is supposed to “paradise.”
Well guess what? Cancun isn’t perfect. But millions of people come here each year, enjoy their vacations and don’t suffer anything worse than a hangover and a sunburn.
So how do I answer people who ask me if it’s “safe” here? I tell them that I walk my dog alone at night without fear. I tell them that I forget to lock my house often. I tell them that I’ve never once been scared for my safety here in Cancun. I tell them that it feels as safe as any place I’ve ever lived in the U.S.