The Most Dangerous Places in Mexico
It should be noted that “the most dangerous places in Mexico,” with a few exceptions, really aren’t dangerous if you take some basic precautions and stay away from the dangerous areas of these “dangerous cities” or simply don't do things that would be considered dangerous anywhere.
Mexico City was once regarded as Mexico’s most dangerous city, but is today widely considered one of the its safest. Still, if you venture into the wrong neighborhood at night in Mexico City you’d be in far more danger there than taking a two week beach vacation in Acapulco or a pleasure drive through Monterrey.
The Mexican safety situation is not an easy topic about which to generalize as each location has its own particular set of variables and, in as much, the scope of most travel warnings often unjustly tars destinations that are perfectly safe. The case of Puerto Vallarta comes to mind. A perfectly safe destination in a state, Jalisco, that has been the subject to a U.S. State Department travel warning.
The Mexican situation is highly fluid where once safe places, such as Monterrey, can deteriorate quickly. One should always keep apprised of the news as the arrest or death of a major cartel leader could make once safe areas descend into disarray virtually overnight.
It is important to remember, however, that Mexico is a very large country and that only about 3% of its municipalities have been significantly affected by drug cartel violence. While this article is primarily about that 3%, it is important to maintain one’s perspective and remember the other 97% that seems to get so little attention these days.
One good thing that can be said about the current situation in Mexico, from the perspective of visitors, is that Mexican crime is organized and often highly profitable. Despite the high levels of criminal activity, tourists are seldom, if ever, targets of drug cartels. This is the case for a variety of reasons, the most noteworthy being that stirring up the U.S. public and making 300 million enemies is very bad for business. Drug cartels are keenly aware of this. As the U.S. steps up its direct involvement in Mexico’s Drug war, the risk of retaliation attacks against citizens of the U.S. increases, particularly in Zeta-controlled areas, but to date foreigners have not been targeted, anywhere.
That said, we have composed this guideline to inform travelers about which cities in Mexico are dangerous in fact and which are dangerous primarily only in the realm of U.S. media and along the way provide a bit of insight into why.
One of Mexico’s major industrial hubs, this border town could not be more of a contrast with its rather safe U.S. sister city, El Paso. One seldom hears about weekend trips to “J-town” anymore and that’s probably a good thing. Ciudad Juarez is not only a hot spot for violence due to the long war of attrition taking place between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, but more so because the city is home to numerous low-level and hyper-violent, U.S.-inspired street gangs such as Barrio Azteca as well as to rampant police corruption. While the city has many great attractions and was once a first-rate party town, today it would be best to avoid Juarez entirely.
The war between the Gulf Cartel and their former partners, the Zetas, rages on. While Monterrey is not a particularly dangerous place for passers-by or visitors, as we have witnessed with the recent burning of the Casino Royale, it is possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real danger in Monterrey, however, is for those that live and work in what is Latin America’s wealthiest city - especially business people, who are the main targets of kidnapping and extortion. All highways into and out of Monterrey are compromised and presently in the de facto control of drug gangs. If you need to travel to Monterrey, enter and exit via the airport and you should be fine. Avoid contact with police as the city has a major problem with corruption and many police and local officials are in the employ of drug gangs.
This once lively border town is now in the hands of the violent Zetas cartel. While short day trips across the border are probably fine, be aware that the “halcones” (lookouts, informants) will be watching and will observe you cross the international bridges. Avoid Boys Town completely (the city’s red light district). Nuevo Laredo is a major transshipment point for drugs and illegal immigrants and has been hotly contested territory in the past so violent flare-ups are frequent. Police corruption is rampant. Though violence has diminished greatly in the past year, the city remains a drug cartel stronghold and is not recommended.
During the 1980s Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as El Padrino, controlled the entire Mexican drug trade through his Guadalajara cartel. Much of Mexico’s present day violence can be traced to his fateful decision to decentralize by creating a number of smaller cartels that in the course of a decade would be at one another’s throats. The Sinaloa, Juarez, Gulf, and Arello-Felix (Tijuana) cartels are all first-generation decedents. Most recently, Guadalajara has become home to local splinter groups the Gente Nueva (a Sinaloa cartel offshoot), La Resistencia, and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation - the latter, whose stated mission is to keep other cartels, especially the Zetas, out of town. Violence has been periodic but Mexico’s second city has thus far avoided the fate of Monterrey. Guadalajara remains one of Mexico’s biggest prizes and in as much could descend into a state of siege if the more powerful Zetas decide to make a push for control.
Jolly, lively, and currently in the hands of the Zetas. While not a dangerous city, there have been increasing reports of violence recently. As one of Mexico’s major ports, this city is surely coveted by all the major cartels and in as much a nasty and protracted war could erupt here.
Update (September, 2011): It appears the Gente Nueva have arrived and upped the stakes considerably in Veracruz, dumping the bodies of 35 dead Zetas on a main thoroughfare in the Boca del Rio section as well as over a dozen murders in the following days.
Mazatlán has always been territory firmly in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel. Recent spikes in violence are a result of the Zetas and Beltran Leyva cartels unleashing a campaign of harassment against the Sinaloa cartel in its own backyard. Unless the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel is arrested or killed, Mazatlan is unlikely to deteriorate to levels of violence seen in Juarez as other cartels are unlikely to gain a permanent foothold though the city has a very large number of murders recently.
A case study in what happens when a city’s top drug kingpins are captured or killed. The conclusion seems to be out of control violence as disputing factions murderously compete for control. Just a few short years ago Acapulco was a very safe tourist resort with an impressive nightlife scene that went until noon the next day. Visitors would often find themselves in traffic jams in the popular Condesa district at 2:00 am. Today the local population doesn’t leave their homes at night out of fear. The Beltran Leyva Cartel that controlled the port city until 2010 has disintegrated into a hodge-podge of relatively unsophisticated street gangs that raise revenues primarily though local drug dealing, car jacking, kidnapping and extortion rather than international trafficking. Acapulco has suffered greatly as the leadership of once mighty Beltran Leyva mob has been all but whipped out over the past couple of years. At present, Acapulco finds itself being disputed by two ultra-violent gangs, the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA), which were once foot-soldiers of La Barbie and their mortal enemies, La Barradora, who are trying to take the city in the name of the Sinaloa Cartel (but whose ties to the larger cartel remain unclear) while remnants loyal to the last remaining Beltran Leyva brother play a minor role. These gangs are known for extreme, sadistic violence, a love of publicity, and frequent crimes against the local population. The police and local government in Acapulco are rife with corruption so it’s often unclear who are the good guys. Despite a murder rate that has swelled to some 100 murders per month, Acapulco has yet to register any violence against U.S. or Canadian tourists. The popular resort area of Acapulco Diamante, which is about 15 kilometers south of the city, has remained completely untouched. While Acapulco is not unsafe for tourists, the atmosphere is decidedly tense.
Zihuatanejo / Ixtapa
While violence is not a debilitating problem yet, this gorgeous tourist destination, sandwiched in between the hot spots of Michoacán and Acapulco, has seen a sharp uptick in murders and the trend appears to be in the wrong direction. It’s remarkable that it hasn’t seen more as the surrounding state of Guerrero has become a rather violent place while Zihuatanejo possesses many of the fundamentals that have caused Acapulco to deteriorate. A weaker local gang once controlled by La Barbie and the nearly defunct Beltrán Leyva Cartel are trying to defend their turf against takeover by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. It’s a small market with a decidedly non-industrial port so it seems that the Sinaloa cartel isn’t trying very hard. Its small size, efficient local government, and special attention from state and national tourism officials may allow it to avoid the fate of Acapulco. At the very least, its lack of name recognition in the U.S. may help it to avoid the bad publicity that has devastated the tourist economy of its neighbor to the south. Avoid the highways around Zihuatanejo.
The home state of President Felipe Caldarón and one of the first fronts in his administration’s drug war. Michoacán remains a dangerous place as the remnants of La Familia battle with splinter groups such as the Knights Templar. Extortion, kidnapping, and car-jacking remain widespread. The military retains a heavy presence in the state and violent clashes with drug cartels are frequent. Michoacán represents something of a success for the Calderón administration in so far as the strategy remains to break up large cartels into pieces too small to represent any direct threat to the authority of the federal government. Given the continuing level of violence, this strategy has proven to be a sharp double-edged sword. While the city of Morelia remains relatively tranquil, much of the surrounding state, especially the south, remains a hot bed for gang activity. The border crossing between the states of Michoacán and Guerrero is probably the scariest in all of Mexico with dozens of masked police toting machine guns as they look down emotionlessly as cars meander through the checkpoint.
The site of overt threats against U.S. officials by local drug gangs who should probably know have better. Suffers from much of the same difficulties as Juarez however the city appears to be under the thumb of the Sinaloa Cartel for the moment. Cartel violence due to incursions by other drug gangs remains a real and threatening possibility. Not recommended.
With the Arellano-Felix crew in full retreat having been defeated by the Sinaloa Cartel, the city has become much safer. However, Tijuana remains Tijuana and will continue to be a major transshipment point for drugs and human smuggling with all of the associated risks. Travel to Tijuana is fine, but caution is urged.
Reynosa, Matamoros & Tampico
Much like other Tamaulipas towns these two border towns and port city, respectively have been under constant duress due to the bitter war between the Gulf Cartel and their former enforcement arm, the Zetas. Much to the chagrin of virtually every Mexican, it appears that the Zetas are winning.
Much like Acapulco, Tepic is a city whose security situation is deteriorating rapidly due to intense competition between various cartels and splinter groups, among them the Zetas, La Gente Nueva, Betrlan Leyva, and Sinaloa groups.
Click here for a table of Mexico Murder Rates data by state for selected years from 2000.