Traveling in Mexico: Security of mind
How safe is tourist travel in Mexico? This question rates among the most controversial on any Internet forum about Mexico. Crime is a complex subject woven deep in any country's social fabric. The following narrative was written in order to ask you; "How would you think, feel, or react in such a circumstance?" The answers you find could bring you closer to your own idea of the safety of tourist travel in Mexico.
Countless tales of robberies, corruption and crime in Mexico on the Internet prompted my wondering; what size of ransom would be demanded for a middle-aged Canadian woman in today's kidnapping market? Bill, my husband, reassured me that since this was Mexico, he would haggle over the price for my safe return. He certainly could wrangle a "precio reducido!" (a reduced price!) Muchas gracias!
Several years ago, I chose to fly to Manzanillo, Colima with Josh, 14, and Rose 12. The Playa de Oro airport lies thirty miles south of the two sister ocean side villages of San Patricio Melaque and Barra de Navidad, Jalisco.
Five years ago I had camped at the north end of the San Patricio Melaque beach with my family. As we were settling down in our small trailer on the second night, loud, abusive voices from our North American neighbours rent the peaceful fabric of the evening. Suddenly, a revolving searchlight glared through the windows as tumultuous voices shouted in Spanish. Tires ground into campsite gravel as the shadowy figures jumped into the departing truck. We decided to dress and investigate the commotion when quiet rapidly fell on the campground. Only the sound of waves lapping on the shore was heard, when Bill poked his head out of the trailer door. "What was that all about?" I wondered as I snuggled back to sleep.
The next morning, the neighborhood information grapevine hummed. Apparently, Greg consumed too many spirits during a birthday party. He and his wife began an abusive screaming match. The noise reverberated down the bay. Melaque's community police arrived in quick time to effectively restore the peace.
Greg had been unceremoniously dumped in the back of the police pick-up truck that sported the flashing light. He spent an uncomfortable night, sleeping it off, on the floor of a bare jail cell minus a bathroom. In the morning, his wife went to have him released. However, he was unrepentant of his "crime" so she left him there until evening. By now, campground popular opinion was shifting to support Greg! The public shaming seemed to make them a quiet couple for the rest of that week!
As reassured as I was by this incident of personal security, the security of things was another matter. Advice was given me to carry as few valuables into Mexico as possible. Petty theft appeared a rampant condition on the tourist path. Tourists displaying jewelry, bulging wallets, suitcases, cameras, loaded recreation vehicles and other earmarks of conspicuous consumption appeared as easy targets to the criminal mind.
Our trailer and its camping gear were targeted on a previous trip. Two conditions helped to contribute to the theft; the slipping of our mental guard and the erroneous thought that being "nice" provided low risk. We camped at a lovely spot on a coastal mainland beach for a week. Mexican friends warned us to lock up everything at night and never leave our campsite unattended. After a week in paradise, our mental guard slipped when we grew tired of packing up every evening. At 9 p.m. Bill, our little girl, Rose and myself were reading in our trailer. The boys, Richard and Josh slept in the dome tent on a concrete pad about twenty feet away from the trailer.
Richard's surprised face suddenly appeared at the window. "Dad, Mom! I think we've been robbed!" We jumped up and ran towards the tent. Two long hefty sticks lay scattered by the door. Richard told us that he awoke at the sound of the tent being unzipped. The two boys yelled and the thieves fled. As we surveyed our campsite, we discovered it stripped of all camping gear. The fishing rods, dishes, propane stove, broom, sandals, everything, gone! Further along our journey, other travelers related stories of similar theft.
Anyone, Mexican or foreigner alike needs to take common-sense precautions to prevent petty theft or robbery. Mexico's economic turmoil may drive the economically stricken population to robbery. I also suspect that tourist lack of respect of local economies or values may contribute to the situation. An element of sport may be involved, as some stolen goods are of little value. But I'm no expert on these matters!
Police reputation suffered extensively in Mexico. Everytime, when stopped by the police, I expected the mordida, the "little bite" or bribe. Instead I received cautioning advice like; "Get off this highway by night as sometimes there is trouble!" Or else the policeman gave me helpful traffic advice. Where were all the corrupt and violent police? I was pleased to miss their presence in small villages and towns. Always be aware of possible dangers and travel in self-defense mode. Police corruption cannot be denied but tales regarding it can flourish in a mutual climate of mistrust.
Banks provide a great incentive for robbery. Melaque's bank was robbed several times over the past years. According to my friend's grandmother who winters there annually, the bank was closed by 1997. I interpreted this information to mean that I needed plenty of small denominational traveler's checks tucked into a money belt.
Thus began the intimate ambivalent relationship between my money belt and myself. I had never worn one before or frankly, never known anyone to wear one. The waistline bulge left me feeling slightly pregnant my whole trip. Also a few mildly embarrassing incidents resulted when I had found myself short of money or needing vital identification papers. Mexican shortage of public washrooms or private telephone booths provided few places to perform the clandestine deed. It quickly necessitated figuring out how to "grope" myself discretely in public!
Imagine the surprise, when I spotted a brand new bank, sandwiched between two old businesses. The tourist couple in the line-up before me, confided that they had been here three weeks ago, and there was no bank! They traveled to the Copper Canyon and returned to find a new bank. No wonder, the smell of fresh paint still lingered! Within the first week's opening, shattered glass testified to an attempt made to liberate some cash! The bank remained open with its helpful personnel and brand spanking new ATM machine. And me, with this appendage strapped to my waist when all I really needed was a bankcard!
I wondered also, about the safety of long distance bus travel. My teens and myself made a safe return trip from Melaque to Guadalajara. Military police checked all identification of bus passengers both coming and going. Before travelling to Mexico, advice was given to make absolutely sure that I had photo identification of both children and also a notarized legal permission document from their father to travel. All my papers were in order and they were checked before I even boarded the plane in Vancouver, Canada. The military men routinely asked to see these identifying papers.
When my internet friend, Antonio strode across the plaza to greet us in Guadalajara, I half-expected him to be packing a pistol and surrounded by bodyguards. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that his car and home security were similar to standards conducted in any large North American city. His home failed to be a fortress under siege. My children commented about the prevalent armed police presence, in front of the schools, the banks and the department stores. Coming from small town Canada, anyone with a gun looks armed and dangerous!
I commented to Antonio, that his business fleet of motor cycle couriers revealed little security measures. Antonio replied that twenty-seven couriers had been robbed and the motorcycles stolen during his first year of business with this company. This past year, there had been only twelve. An improvement!
Our Guadalajara hotel was located in a quiet business section of the city. While at breakfast, someone entered our locked room and tore up the bedding seeking valuables. Tourists are understandably advised to check valuables in the hotel safe. As a first time hotel traveler to Mexico, even my trust level of using a hotel safe remained low. I clung to my uneasy relationship with my money belt.
When it came time to check out of the hotel, I found myself three hundred pesos short. "Darn!" I thought, " I forgot I tipped the chambermaid and paid for a large breakfast for everyone!" The two big burly security men at the front desk glared at me. "I'm not going to grope myself in front of these guys!" I mumbled as my eyes darted around looking for that non-existent washroom or telephone booth. "Psssst, Antonio, lend me 300 pesos quickly and don't ask any questions!" I whispered. Startled, Antonio reached in his wallet and produced the peso salvation. "You're great! I owe you one." I triumphed while handing the men the money. " De nada, amiga, you lent me money to tip the lady making tortillas at the restaurant. This is what friends are for!" replied Antonio. Later in his car while laughing about the incident, I felt safe to "grope" myself and repay my debt.
So how safe is tourist travel in Mexico? That's a matter of opinion. How "safe" did you feel when you imagined yourself disturbed by fights, theft and bank robberies? Did the negative feelings outweigh the positive ones about the friendly people, the lovely climate and good cheap beer? You're on your way to answering the question for yourself. Pack for security of mind as carefully as you pack your travel bag.