Saturday, August 19, 2006

Crime in Mexico

"Mexico City?!," more than one friend exclaimed when I told them where we were headed on vacation. "Aren't you afraid of all the crime?" My definitive answer, "Uh, actually, no."

I've gotta tell you, I feel a lot safer traveling in Mexico than in any large American city. And statistics back up that feeling. From various estimates I've seen, Mexico City, which has a much-touted reputation for crime, averages between 2.1 and 2.5 murders per day. Let's assume the higher end of the range is correct, and that would mean about 900 murders per year occur in Mexico City. By comparison, Houston had 326 murders in 2005, down from more than 600 per year in the early 90s.

But then consider that according to the 2000 census Houston has around 2 million residents, compared to about 20 million people in Mexico City. If Mexico City's murder rate were as high as Houston's, they'd see an astonishing 3,200+ murders per year.

So where should Americans fear for their lives most when traveling? In Mexico, where there's no death penalty deterrent and a bad reputation for crime, or in Houston which sends more people to death row than any other city and whose mayor touts public safety as his top priority?

To make a truly fair comparison, it should be said that Mexico's national murder rate is about 14.8 murders per 100,000 residents, according to a recent article in the UNAM journal Voices of Mexico, ("Insecurity in Mexico,"Luis Gonzalez Placencia, October-December 2004, not available online) but most of those take place in a handful of border towns like Juarez, where hundreds of women have been murdered, and Nuevo Laredo where drug cartels are openly feuding in the streets. Traveling in the Mexican interior, you're much safer than you'd be traveling nearly anywhere in the United States.

While we were in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, I asked long-time resident Roy Dudley, who I dubbed in this vacation post the "unofficial mayor of gringo Xalapa," about crime in that city. He insisted there was virtually none, but given my interest in crime and punishment I pressed him a bit on the subject, to which he grinned and offered this reply (paraphrased from memory):
There's really not much, but I did hear a while back about one incident. A woman working as a street vendor came running down the block yelling 'Policia! policia!' and quickly several officers came to her aid.

'What happened?,' they asked her. 'I was robbed,' the woman exclaimed. 'A man stole all the money I made today and now I have nothing,' she sobbed.

'Where did you have your money?' asked the officers. 'Aqui' (here), she said, pointing down her blouse indicating she kept it inside her bra.

Puzzled, an officer asked, 'How in God's name did he steal your money from there?'

The woman replied, 'Well, I didn't know he had bad intentions.'
Like any other place in the world, when you're traveling you shouldn't carry lots of cash in Mexico, and always pay attention to your surroundings. In addition, cabs in Mexico City have a reputation for thievery and sometimes tourists have been targeted by cabbies for robbery or kidnapping, though hyped anecdotal accounts, I think, overstate the problem. But if you're worried about crime when you're traveling, you should fear visiting Texas more than visiting Mexico.

RELATED: CrimProf Blog points to reports that homicide rates are spiking in the U.S. nationwide.

CORRECTION: The initial version of this post incorrectly transcribed the statistics from the magazine Voices of Mexico. That version erroneously said Mexico experiences 14.8 murders per day per 100,000 residents. The actual number, now corrected in the main text, is 14.8 murders annually per 100,000. Grits regrets the error. (That's what I get for using stats I can't link to.)


Anonymous said...

"But if you're worried about crime when you're traveling, you should fear visiting Texas more than visiting Mexico."

I think that should read "worried about murder" instead of "worried about crime".

Consider this piece from Wikipedia-

"Violent crime is also a major concern; in 2003, Mexico had the second-highest number of kidnappings in the world, with some 3,000 reported cases. In taxis, a particular problem has arisen; individuals are sometimes kidnapped by unauthorized taxi drivers, in order to empty their bank accounts at ATMs. Victims are sometimes kept overnight in order to bypass daily withdrawal limits. Inside other transportation, mostly microbuses, pickpocketing is still a common activity, and Mexico City inhabitants take various levels of precaution to avoid being victims of this. As a general rule, if you are unaware of the route you are to take then you should only use official taxis from stands ("sitios") as these are closely regulated.

Police reform has also been a focus of the government for the past decade; there is a general sense of distrust against the authorities, as conventional wisdom holds that all Mexico's police forces are corrupt one way or another. This issue came to a head in November 2004, when an angry crowd in Tláhuac was whipped up into a frenzy and burned two undercover federal police officers alive [4] and seriously injured another, on rumors that they were kidnappers."

"Analysis of crime statistics in Mexico indicate that although the crime rate has declined over the last 100 years, there has been a significant upswing within the last two decades led by Mexico City. [citation needed] Since many crimes go unreported, the rates may be much higher than reported by the government. [1]

Rape is rarely reported or punished, owing to old social norms, minor penalties for the crime, and criminal laws. In some rural areas, penalties for rape may consist of a few hours in jail, or minor fines. [2]

Assault and theft make up the vast majority of crimes. While urban areas tend to have higher crimes rates, as is typical in most countries, the United States–Mexico border has also been a problem area. However, with increased awareness and resources, the crime rate along the border has declined faster than in the rest of the country. [3]

Drug trafficking
The United States is a lucrative market for illegal drugs. The United Nations estimates that nearly 90% of cocaine sold in the United States originates in South America and is smuggled through Mexico. [4] Mexico is the largest foreign supplier of marijuana and the second largest source of heroin for the U.S. market. The majority of methamphetamines sold in the United States are made in Mexico, and Mexican-run methamphetamine labs that operate north of the border account for much of the remainder.

Drug cartels
Mexican drug cartels play a major role in the flow of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana transiting between Latin America and the United States. These drug cartels often use Mexican-American gangs to distribute their narcotics.

Mexican drug cartels also have ties to Colombian drug traffickers, and other international organized crime. A sharp spike in drug-related violence has some analysts worrying about the 'Colombianization' of Mexico. [5]

Bricks of cocaine, a form in which it is commonly transported.[edit]
Domestic production of illegal drugs
Some illegal drugs are also produced in Mexico, including significant amounts of opium poppy, and marijuana in the western Sierra Madre Mountains region. [4]

Domestic consumption of illegal drugs
Marijuana, crack cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs are increasingly consumed in Mexico, especially by youths in urban areas and northern parts of the country. [6]

High levels of corruption in the police, judiciary, and government in general have contributed greatly to the crime problem. Corruption is a significant obstacle to Mexico's achieving a stable democracy. [7]

Corruption in the police force
The organization of police forces in Mexico is complex; each police force has a different level of jurisdiction and authority, and those levels often overlap. The Federal Judicial Police has responsibility for overseeing law enforcements across the entire country. In addition, there are several police organizations at the state, district, and city level. Since pay is generally poor (US$285-$400 per month), police officers are more likely to accept bribes to protect criminals or ignore crime entirely. [8]

Corruption plagues the various levels of police, and is frequently difficult to track down and prosecute since police officers may be protected by district attorneys and other members of the judiciary. The problem is especially pronounced in northern border areas such as Tijuana, where police are engaged by drug traffickers to protect and enforce their illicit interests. [9]

Corruption in the judiciary
A United Nations Special Rapporteur undertook a mission to Mexico in 2002 to investigate reports by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that the country's judiciary and administration of law was not independent. [10] During the course of his visit to a number of cities, the rapporteur observed that corruption in the judiciary had not been reduced significantly. One of the principal issues is that, because the federal courts operate at a relatively high level, most citizens are compelled to seek justice in the inadequate state courts. [10]

Additionally, the rapporteur expressed concerns about such issues as disorganization in the legal profession, difficulties and harassment faced by lawyers, poor trial procedures, poor access to the justice system for indigenous peoples and minors, and lacklustre investigation of many crimes. [10]

Violent crime against journalists
A significant trend of violent crime against journalists has appeared in the country in recent years. Although the problem has existed since at least 1970, 15 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000 alone. Few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. One of the more prominent cases was that of syndicated columnist Francisco Arratia Saldierna, a prominent and well-known journalist who wrote a column called Portavoz (or "Spokesman"). The column featured topics such as corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking. [11]

Arratia's murder, which was particularly brutal, and others like it, have sparked demands from other journalists that President Vicente Fox do more to enforce security and bring those responsible for the murders to justice. In 2004, a group of 215 reporters and editors sent an urgent letter to President Fox and other federal authorities, demanding that they address these concerns. The letter represented a massive communication effort coming from professionals from 19 of the nation's 31 states. The key demand was that violent crimes against journalists be made federal crimes, so they would be investigated and prosecuted by federal officers and not by local officials whom the letter claims could be the same people who commit the crimes.[11]

The effect of these crimes has been the voluntary self-censorship of many journalists, due to fears of retribution from criminals. The situation has earned attention from prominent global organziations such as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET). Amerigo Incalcaterra of the OHCHR advocated the protection of journalists and the preservation of freedom of speech, calling it "essential for the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law in this country". [12]

Crime in Mexico City
Mexico City's crime rate has begun rising again, after having previously peaked in the late 1990s. Mexico City's inner core has about 8 million people — about the same number as New York City. However, Mexico City's police force is only two-thirds the size of New York City's and is organized into several ill-co-ordinated forces.[citation needed] Policemen earn less than a quarter of their U.S. counterparts, so many officers turn to corruption to augment their pay. And even in the rare cases where criminals do get caught, the courts are often too corrupt and inefficient to punish them. [13]

Effects on tourism
A significant number of United States citizens visit Mexico; the U.S. State Department estimates it at 15 to 16 million per year. [14] Tourists visiting Mexico face a number of problems related to criminal activity, including:

Extortion by law enforcement and other officials.
Highway crime in which bandits prey on passenger vehicles and tour buses.
Kidnappings, particularly in northern border cities, Mexico City, and Chiapas. [14]
Taxi robberies and armed robbery.
Purse-snatching and pickpocketing.
Due to crime reaching a critical level in Mexico City and many other areas, tourism to Mexico has suffered."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

True, your life is in more danger in Houston than Mexico City. Rapes, too are more likely in the US. Your pocket is more likely to be picked in Mexico City, but I'll bet people's houses are more likely to be burglarized, e.g., in Houston. As Mr. Palencia wrote in the Voices of Mexico article, from a statistical perspective "there is a significant disproportion between the magnitude of the problem and the way in which it has been socially constructed."

I'm not denying that in a town with 20 million people, like any large city, there's crime - the "kidnappings" by taxi drivers, e.g., are essentially a form of mugging designed to get victims to withdraw money from an ATM before they're released. But if you stay out of unauthorized taxis in Mexico City (which is easy enough - the sitios are easy to access and public transport is cheap and simple to use), don't carry a lot of cash (also easy - ATM's are everywhere, have low fees and are often inside banks with plenty of guards and people around), and carry your wallet in a secure place when you're in highly touristic areas (for me, a front pants pocket, for Kathy, a passport pouch she wears around her neck)- especially places where the tourists are getting drunk - I stand by the assessment you won't see much crime, especially outside the capital.

As for the corrupt police, I don't deny it at all and it stems from ridiculously low pay. That's become a huge driver of crime problems on the border, which are without question WAAAY out of control. But how will that corruption affect the average traveler in the interior? If you're driving, the cost of la mordida (a "little bite," the bribe you pay to get out of a traffic ticket, is typically $10-$20 American, say friends in Mexico.) On the other hand, in US courts, traffic enforcement is seen as a revenue generator for the state and the smallest infraction costs you hundreds of dollars. That's a corrupted system, too, just in a different sense.

One caveat: The border towns are a different world. In Juarez, police officers have been implicated in the disappearance of some of the hundreds of women there, as I've written before, and in Nuevo Laredo the drug cartels have seemingly bought off every police agency in sight, military too, as hired guns. The border is no-man's land and none of what I've said about crime applies there, but it's really not true of the interior. Reasonable, fairly minimal precautions make Mexico a safer place to travel than the United States.

test blog said...


"According to, the per capita murder rate in Mexico is three times higher than the United States. The murder rate per million in Mexico is 130, while the murder rate per million in the United States is 42.

The number of murders last year in Mexico totaled 13,829.

The number of murders in the United States totaled 12,658.

The United States has three times the population of Mexico (approx. 300 million to 100 million)"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It is both true that Mexico's national murder rate is higher than the US, and also that Mexico City's murder rate is lower than Houston's. That's because most of the killings, especially in recent years are from the cartel wars, which tend to cluster at the border and along drug importation routes.

That said, since I wrote this piece - really starting about the time I wrote it - the cartel feuds have begun to affect interior states more directly. When new stats become available I fear we'll see Mexico's interior crime beginning to look more like the border states.

Anonymous said...

---"Violent crime is also a major concern; in 2003, Mexico had the second-highest number of kidnappings in the world, with some 3,000 reported cases. In taxis, a particular problem has arisen; individuals are sometimes kidnapped by unauthorized taxi drivers, in order to empty their bank accounts at ATMs. Victims are sometimes kept overnight in order to bypass daily withdrawal limits. Inside other transportation, mostly microbuses, pickpocketing is still a common activity, and Mexico City inhabitants take various levels of precaution to avoid being victims of this. As a general rule, if you are unaware of the route you are to take then you should only use official taxis from stands ("sitios") as these are closely regulated.---

A little misleading this wiki entry. It fails to note that most of those crimes listed as kidnappings are actually armed robberies. This was done by the feds in order to clamp down on these taxi robberies since a federal kidnap charge will yield a longer jail sentence than armed robbery.

No, that isn't meant to make anyone feel safer, but it is meant to show that these aren't like the kidnappings more common to FARC in Colombia or in Hollywood hype.

I've been using the green VW bus taxis for 7 years now in Mexico City. The worst that's ever happened to me is once, the taxi ran out of gas and I helped the poor driver push it to a nearby Pemex station. Got a little dirt on my trousers.

Anonymous said...

Houston was ARGUABLY more dangerous than Mexico City in the year prior to this blog piece, but if it was there's hardly anything in it and the guy's comparing apples with oranges.

This is another example of the curious practice that compares small US cities with much larger ones in other countries, completely bypassing the huge surrounding metropolitan area which, in fact, INFLATES the American cities' murder rate anyway. Despite this, the much larger foreign city will often have a higher murder rate than the US metro area that includes the core US city discussed in the first place.


Murders 2005:

Mexico City ('Distrito Federal' [city proper] - 8.8m) = 698 murders / 7.9 per 100k
Houston (metropolitan area - 5.2m) = 477 murders / 9.1 per 100k

I understand Mexico City's murder rate goes up significantly when including the huge metropole (N/A for '05) - so it may well have a HIGHER murder rate over a much larger area.

And yes, Mexico is more dangerous than the US, it's a sad fact of life.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You just gave us stats that show Houston's murder rate is higher htan Mexico City, then claim Houston is safer, contradicting your own evidence. That's just bizarre.

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