June 10, 2010

Drug Wars - Cancún is Safe for Tourists.

It was Monday morning and the blogosphere was buzzing. Bodies had been found near Cancún! Everyone should run away! Stay at home! Batten down the hatches! Hide under the bed! From the unsettling details of the original news sources, each blogger seemed to build upon the last person's blog, until a wave of hysteria had piled on heaps of fiction as fact. A casual reader would be forgiven for thinking that Cancún tourists were being collected up en masse, taken out to deserted places, then tortured slowly to death.

Er. No.

Let's try and gain some perspective here. Yes, there are drug wars in Mexico. However, Mexico is a very big place and it is important to note where these drugs wars are occurring. They are on the main route between Colombia and the USA. Colombia, where 90% of the world's cocaine is produced; and the USA, which is the main market for the finished product. For this, Mexico is best described as a thoroughfare, a highway, the delivery route. Other types of drugs might be home-grown/produced, but they are mostly all heading in the same direction - up into America. It is in the American border states where trouble flares. The American Government's current travel warning names three of them: Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. Cancún is in Quintana Roo.

Mexican states

Because maps don't really give you the scale of distance, let me clarify. Cancún is 2145 kilometers (1333 miles) away from Chihuahua.

Cancún is miles away from the flashpoints of violence.

You might point to the port in Cancún, then move upwards to highlight its marine proximity to the American state of Florida. This is very true, but also extremely problematic. If you read the previous blogs on the pirates of the Caribbean, you will have noted that they died out because the Caribbean Sea became too well policed for piracy to continue. This is still the case. There is a naval base on Isla Mujeres for a start. Plus Cancún relies upon tourism for its economy. Tourists only come if they feel safe. Therefore Cancún is one of the most heavily patrolled cities in Mexico. No city is totally without crime, but the crime rate in Cancún is very low. If you were a drug baron, would you prefer to move unmolested through the jungles and outbacks of central Mexico or run the gauntlet of police, armed forces and customs officers in Cancún?

Cancún is extremely well policed; its economy relies upon keeping tourists safe.

Of course, the sceptics will still be pointing towards those bodies in a cave, which most definitely did occur in Cancún. Yes, it did. The bodies have not yet been identified, but they are unlikely to be tourists. The big clue is in the fact that no tourists have been reported missing. Without an official word on the subject, any attempt to identity them or their murderer(s) is pure speculation. However, it is known that the victims were all Mexicans, which makes it unlikely that they were tourists. Even the lurid details are mostly exaggerated rumour, based on early reports getting it slightly wrong. The victims did not have their hearts cut out. They were stabbed repeatedly in the heart, hence their demise.

Now let us enter the world of speculation: The precedent of previous similiar situations (generally hundreds of miles away) leads us to assume that the six victims were members of a drug cartel themselves. That is how it tends to work. Gang-warfare. Horrific and stomach-turning, but it's gang against gang. It's point scoring. It's a power struggle. It's one cartel saying to another cartel, this is my territory and my livelihood, so go away. Now why on Earth would that point be made by targeting random tourists, rather than, say, one cartel's best delivery men and women? If anything, that's like killing off potential customers!

Cancún is completely safe, unless you're a member of a drug cartel. In which case, you already know the risks.

So why is the American government warning people to stay away from Cancún? Why is the media full of dark portents and dire speculation for the future? And why is there a wave of shrieking bloggers flailing in panicked print and telling us to flee?

American FlagTo address the first point, Americans aren't being officially warned against Cancún.

Please read the advice for yourselves: US Department of State Travel Warning: Mexico. Here are the relevant bits for the subject of this blog:

Some recent confrontations between Mexican authorities and drug cartel members have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico, but occur mostly in northern Mexico, including Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Nogales, Matamoros, Reynosa and Monterrey. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area. The U.S. Mission in Mexico currently restricts its U.S. government employees’ travel within the state of Durango, the northwest quadrant of the state of Chihuahua and an area southeast of Ciudad Juarez, and all parts of the state of Coahuila south of Mexican Highways 25 and 22 and the Alamos River. This restriction was implemented in light of a recent increase in assaults, murders, and kidnappings in those three states....

... U.S. citizen visitors are encouraged to stay in the well-known tourist areas.

In other words, the warning isn't for the whole country. It's for the border areas, right up in the north of the country. You are far closer to it in California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, then you are in Cancún. But if you are travelling, then keep to tourist areas. The message here is clear: the tourist areas are safer.

The first thing that any government does, when trouble strikes, is to remove their personnel from the area. The US Consul is still fully staffed in Plaza Caracol, Cancún. (Surely that is the best posting in the world? Imagine the scene: you've just been made a US ambassador and you're waiting to find out there. Will be it a warzone? Will it be somewhere cold or dull? No, it's Cancún. Hurrah!)

The papers are full of nay-sayers, because that sells newspapers. Have a read of Greenslade's Blog, The Good News About Bad News - It Sells for more about that. Though the crux of it lies here:

... peoples' interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life... Fear and poverty stimulate greater interest in news... Note how fear in developed countries, created in recent times by terrorism, also sells many thousands more newspapers.

In short, a headline screaming, 'Lots of Fun, Partying and Alcohol Happened in Cancún', is hardly going to be read, let alone reproduced across the blogosphere; unlike 'People Tortured to Death and Dumped in Cancún'.

As for blogs, many are reactive. This blog is reactive. It's been written as a reaction to the list of other blogs out there telling me that Cancún is now a hotbed of dangerous gang-warfare, with people dragged off the streets and horrificially murdered. *looks out of the window* Really? Because right now it's looking as chilled out as ever. Beautiful people lounging on white sands in front of a turquoise sea. Flip-flops clop-clopping as people drift along the boulevard without a care in the world. Sun rising in a cloudless sky. But what do we know? We only live here.

Cancun beach

Though you could have a look through the testimonials of other people who live and work here: Cancun is Safe! That's a website founded by a native Cancunese called Camilo, who became so tired of the smear stories about our amazing city, that he fought back with reality. Please avoid his website if you only like to read bad news.


  1. "a website founded by a native Cancunese called Camilo, who became so tired of the smear stories about our amazing city, that he fought back with reality. Please avoid his website if you only like to read bad news."

    LOL! Spot on! Thanks, thats exactly what happened. I became tired of all the negative media backlash, saw that no official authorities were doing much, and decided to do it by myself and 2 associates. We are all Cancunenses and have regular jobs, too. Cancun is Safe is our side project, which until this moment has been 100% informative and free. Kind of a "non for profit" I guess.

    Many thanks for mentioning us, I'll be glad to link back to your blog and your excellent blog posts too! Keep up the great work!

    Cheers from Cancun,


  2. Hey Camilo, great to see you here. :D

    I, for one, am very glad that you and your friends are creating the Cancun is Safe site. It's like a breath of fresh air in all the doom and gloom originating from the media. Go you! And thanks for the link back too. <3

  3. We are going to Cancun in soon and someone (from Mexico) told my bf it was dangerous in Cancun and that they found tourists bodies and to "pray" while we were there. So obviously the bf was freaking out... I just wanted to thank you for writing such an informative piece. Hopefully it will put my bf's mind to rest.

  4. Anonymous - I'm glad that we were able to put your mind at rest. There is a lot of scaremongering out there, hence the need to write this in the first place. However, the sun is out, the sands and sea are sublime, Cancun is waiting and still no tourists have been targeted in the gang troubles.

    Enjoy your vacation. :D

  5. I have been many times in Mexico, but specially I have been Cancun and all I can say is that I LOVE IT!

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