Despite soaring crime rates and dismal-sounding statistics, you are unlikely to run into trouble in Mexico if you stick to well-travelled paths. Even in Mexico City, which has an appalling reputation, the threat is not that much greater than in many large North American and European cities. Obviously there are areas in cities where you wander alone, or at night, at your peril; but the best precaution is common sense. The narco war, and the still simmering conflict in Chiapas, do not generally affect tourists.
Petty theft and pickpockets are your biggest worry in Mexico, so don’t wave money around, try not to look too obviously affluent, don’t leave cash or cameras in hotel rooms and deposit your valuables in your hotel’s safe if it has one (make a note of what you’ve deposited and ask the hotelier to sign it if you’re worried). Crowds, especially on public city transport, are obvious hot spots: thieves tend to work in groups and target tourists. Distracting your attention, especially by pretending to look for something (always be suspicious of anyone who appears to be searching for something near you), or having one or two people pin you down while another goes through your pockets, are common ploys. Razoring of bags and pockets is another gambit, as is the more brutish grabbing of handbags, or anything left unattended even for a split second. Mugging is less common than pickpocketing, but you should steer clear of obvious danger spots, such as deserted pedestrian underpasses in big cities – indeed, avoid all deserted areas in big cities. Use ATMs in shopping malls or enclosed premises, and only in daylight when there are plenty of people around.
Robbery and sexual assault on tourists by cab drivers are not unknown, and it is not a good idea to hail a cab in the street in Mexico City. Instead, phone for a radio cab or, failing that, take the next best option and get a cab from an official sitio. At night the beaches in tourist areas are also potentially dangerous.
When travelling, keep an eye on your bags (which are safe enough in the luggage compartments underneath most buses). Hold-ups of buses happen from time to time, and you may well be frisked on boarding to check for arms, since the bandits are most often passengers on the bus.
Drivers are likely to encounter problems if they leave anything in their car. The vehicle itself is less likely to be stolen than broken into for the valuables inside. To avoid the worst, always park legally (and preferably off the street) and never leave anything visible inside the car.
Mexican police are poorly paid, and graft is an accepted part of the job, though often difficult for foreign visitors to accept. If a policeman accuses you of some violation (this is almost bound to happen to drivers at some stage), explain that you’re a tourist, not used to the ways of the country – you may get off scot-free, but more likely the subject of a “fine” will come up. Such on-the-spot fines are open to negotiation, but only if you’re confident you’ve done nothing seriously wrong and have a reasonable command of Spanish. Otherwise pay up and get out.
These small bribes, known as mordidas (bites), may also be extracted by border officials or bureaucrats (in which case, you could get out of paying by asking for a receipt, but it won’t make life easier). In general, it is always wise to back off from any sort of confrontation with the police and to be extremely polite to them at all times.
Far more common than the mordida is the propina, or tip, a payment made entirely on your initiative. There’s no need to do this, but it’s remarkable how often a few pesos complete paperwork that would otherwise take weeks, open firmly locked doors or even find a seat on a previously full bus. All such transactions are quite open, and it’s up to you to literally put your money on the table.
Should a crime be committed against you – in particular if you’re robbed – your relationship with the police will obviously be different, although even in this eventuality it’s worth considering whether the lengthy hassles you’ll go through make it worth reporting. Some insurance companies will insist on a police report if you’re to get any refund – in which case you may practically have to dictate it to the officer and can expect little action. Other firms may be prepared to accept that you were robbed and the theft was not reported to the police, but they are quite within their rights to demand that you do report it, and you will need to check with them. The department you need in order to presentar una denuncia (report the theft officially) is the Procuradoría General de Justicia.
The Mexican legal system is based on the Napoleonic code, which assumes your guilt until you can prove otherwise. Should you be jailed, your one phone call should be to your consulate – if nothing else, they’ll arrange an English-speaking lawyer. You can be held for up to 72 hours on suspicion before charges have to be brought. Mexican jails are grim, although lots of money and friends on the outside can ameliorate matters slightly.
Drug offences are the most common cause of serious trouble between tourists and the authorities. Under heavy pressure from the US to clamp down on the trade, local authorities are particularly happy to throw the book at foreign offenders. While the law has decriminalized small quantities of cannabis (up to 5g), cocaine (up to 0.5g) and heroin (up to 0.05g), if you’re caught with quantities reckoned to be for distribution you can wave goodbye to daylight for a long time, and don’t expect much help or sympathy from your consulate.
Other naturally occurring drugs – Mexico has more species of psychoactive plants than anywhere else in the world – still form an important part of many indigenous rituals, most notably the peyote cactus (used primarily by the Huichols in the northern deserts). Though the authorities turn a blind eye to indigenous use, use by non-indigenous Mexicans and tourists is as strongly prohibited as that of any other illegal drug, and heavily penalized. Expect searches and even occasionally hotel raids by police if staying in areas known for peyote.
Mexico is a major staging post on the cocaine-smuggling route from Colombia to the US, and use of cocaine is widespread and growing, with crack a blight in parts of the capital and some northern cities. Also growing is the use of methamphetamine (“hielo”), which is manufactured in Mexico, especially in areas close to the US border. Heroin is also manufactured in some northern states. In this ever-growing and increasingly lucrative trade, powerful, well-connected cocaine- and methamphetamine-smuggling cartels, known as “narcos” have long fought over territory, with each gang having its own pet politicians and police in the states it controls.
The situation changed radically in 2007 when President Felipe Calderón declared war on the narcos, who turned their guns on the police and army as well as each other. Innocent civilians often got caught in the crossfire, and thousands of people a year were killed in incidents related to the drugs war, with the biggest hot spots in areas bordering the US, and in major drug-producing states such as Sinaloa, though nowhere was safe.
Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, initially changed tack, setting up a national police force, the gendarmerie, to tackle the problem. However, a surge in violence in Michoacán soon forced him to send in the army again.
Civicus, an international civil society NGO, stated in 2015: “Successive Mexican governments have ramped up the rhetoric about getting tough on drug trafficking. The result has been an egregious and sustained assault on human rights: it is estimated that 100,000 people have been killed in the drug war, and a further 25,000 ‘disappeared’. ”
Tourists are not usually affected, but June 2009 saw tourist hotels hurriedly evacuated as a two-hour gun battle engulfed a section of Acapulco. At the time of writing, drug-related violence was a particular problem in the northern states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Durango, and also in Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán and Nayarit. Armed clashes between security forces and drug groups may break out without warning, and you should exercise extreme caution outside of tourist areas in all of these states.