I've been keeping up on this since I have lived in Acapulco on a full-time basis since 2003 and remember the day when it was paradise on earth. It still sort of is which is why this news leaves me with my mouth hanging open. My other adopted city, Mazatlán, comes in at #3. Talk about a dark cloud following someone around. I previously lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next stop, Boise, Idaho perhaps. Let's see if it follows me there.
The Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Publica y Justicia Penal (Citizen's Council on Public Security and Criminal Justice) published a report in October that projected that Acapulco will pass Juarez as not only the most violent city in Mexico, but the most violent city in the entire world!
Acapulco's murder rate for 2011 is expected to settle around 139.11 (murders/100,000 inhabitants) while the numbers for Juarez's are expected to drop to 118.46. It's not just the quality but the quality of the murders that really gives Acapulco a bad name. The two drug gangs battling one another for control don't seem to be satisfied unless they chop their rivals into bits and leave them on the street.
It's pretty inconceivable. Acapulco just doesn't feel violent the way many cities do, yet there are the stats. I don't dispute the statistics, Acapulco may indeed turn out to be the world's most violent city in 2011. It just doesn't feel that way when you're there. Primarily because the city proper lacks the random, petty street crime common to other destinations and the drug gangs - to this point - don't seem in any way interested in victimizing what remains of Acapulco's tourists.
Another fun fact is that Mexico will have 19 of the world's 50 most violent cities. Poor Mexico, so far from God yet so close to the United States as they saying goes. Pretty much all of this violence originates from Mexico's unique location with easy access to the U.S.
Interestingly, Cancún has made its debut on the list.
Below is a table with the projections for 2011. It's in Spanish, but the numbers should speak for themselves.
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.
Came across the article "An American Drug Lord in Acapulco" in Rolling Stone. Great piece. If anyone is wondering what went wrong in Acapulco, this article certainly provides some insight through a look at the infamous La Barbie. If anyone was at the center of many of the nasty innovations in the Mexican Drug War such as decapitations and posting videos online, it's La Barbie. It touches on many of the major themes.
Driving down Baja California, Mexico is one of those things that everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. The desert scenery is nothing short of spectacular, complete with winding mountain roads with panoramic views of emerald seas and every palm, rock formation, and desert vista the mind’s eye can envision. Most importantly, one gets that feeling of pure freedom that comes from being on a road trip in one of the world’s great wide-open spaces.
With the trip fresh in my mind, I thought I would create this post to let folks know what to expect, how to prepare, and some tips for your driving trip down the peninsula of Baja California including driving distances, road conditions, hotel recommendations, itineraries, tips, etc.
The good news is that the drive is beautiful (well, most of it anyhow), cheap (with the exception of two short toll roads between Tijuana and Ensenada there are at present no other tolls to pay) and you don’t need to deal with the headache of a car permit to drive your foreign plated vehicle down Baja like you do elsewhere in Mexico (though it would be very, very wise to get Mexican car insurance).
Is Baja California safe?
With all the bad news coming out of Mexico these days, many might wonder if driving Baja California is safe. The simple answer is YES – it is completely safe from the threat of drug violence and narcos. Even Tijuana has calmed down considerably.
While it’s quite safe in this sense, Baja has more than it’s fair share of the old fashioned type of dangers such as driving off a cliff or crossing paths with a wandering cow at 70 miles per hour – the road can be challenging and is not designed for timid drivers.
Road Conditions in Baja California
Probably the first thing one should know is that virtually the entire 1,060 mile trip from Tijuana (or Tecate or Mexicali) to Los Cabos or back is two lane highway with all of the typical headaches – passing in oncoming traffic, trucks throwing up rocks into your windshield, etc. – but add to that the whole host of typical Mexican freeway headaches such as killer speed bumps that seem to pop out of nowhere, mountains with blind curves, cows wandering out on the road, giant potholes, non-existent shoulders, road construction without proper planning for through traffic, etc.
I actually got my car stuck on the highway - that's right, stuck. There was no pavement, only loose dirt and traffic was moving along at a brisk 5 mph and boom... I got stuck on the highway - a true first.
Baja California’s Trans-Peninsular Highway was completed back in 1973. While B.C.S. seems to be serious about improving road conditions, it would seem much of the highway in the north hasn’t been upgraded since it was built.
As of 2011, the quality of the highway ranges from excellent to shit on a stick. Some stretches of road are divine (including much of Baja California Sur and the great stretch from Ensenada to Tijuana). Other sections are so bad that if your car isn’t made to handle off-roading, you run the risk of damaging your car - particularly several bits along the stretch between Guerrero Negro and El Rosario, most of which is just God-awful.
However, if you’re alert, have a well-maintained vehicle that can handle rough roads and you take it slow and go with the flow, it can be a great trip – a magical trip – and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost (well, except in Tijuana).
Tijuana – Ensenada
You’ll be driving on some very nice toll roads through geography that’s almost indistinguishable from Southern California in places. Once you get south of Tijuana, you’ll notice how Californiafied the developments start to become. If you want some Pacific coast real estate but can’t afford Malibu, this is where you should look. California and Mexico blur to the point indistinguishability. Playas de Rosarito is a great little beach town in between the two and there are lots of other great little surprises such as look-out points and beaches along the way. Except when navigating Tijuana, which isn’t the most elegantly designed city in the world, you’ll feel like you've still got one foot in Gringolandia.
Tips and Comments for Driving in Baja California
Returning to the U.S. from Tijuana can take a few hours of sitting and waiting. You might want to head over to Tecate which is the most laid back spot to cross.
Distances take much longer than they seem on the map. While 200 miles might not seem like a lot by U.S. standards, bear in mind when in Baja we’re talking Baja miles. While in the U.S. 200 miles would probably take 3 hours, in Baja it could take 6 more.
Plan on a three or even a four-day trip each way because of the obstacles, road conditions, and other Baja delights.
Much of the scenery is spectacular and, especially in Baja California Sur, is full of hidden surprises (of the good type) but make sure you don’t try to take it too fast and burn out your brakes – a serious problem with all the curves, dips, and valleys.
It’s all freeway, no pricey toll roads in Baja, which means both that it’s one of the most economical stretches of road in Mexico, but also that the roads are not nearly as consistently good as a typical Mexican toll so expect some bad stretches of road.
Expect winding roads with blind curves, hills and valleys, and virtually no shoulders - hence, little room for error.
The highways are virtually empty. You can literally go an hour or more without seeing another traveler and when you do, it’s usually a line of cars backed up on a twisty mountain road because they can’t get passed the tanker truck at the front of the line.
Gas up every chance you get. There is nothing – and I do mean nothing – for very long stretches so don’t expect a gas station and a Super 8 every 30 miles.
Don’t even think of driving at night. Really, don't even attempt it.
Your car will take some punishment. Last time I went they had portions of the entire road dug up – not portions as in a lane, but portions as in long stretches where the entire road was reduced to rock and dirt kicking up dust for miles and miles making it impossible to go faster than about 5 mph – you had to guess where to drive.
Livestock wanders onto the road. Apparently, Mexican cows haven’t yet learned the dangers of wandering onto the highway uninvited and (if you speak Spanish) you might hear the guys at the checkpoints talking about the latest cowicide.
You never know what’s around the next curve – a cow, a car stopped in the middle of the highway, a speed bump, a rough patch of road, rocks or other debris in the road, a guy walking, a kid on a bike, a truck barreling down at you in your lane, so… take it slow.
Be careful when going through any populated area, no matter if that population is no more than a single dwelling. It’s here where you’ll find those steep and unexpected axle breaking speed bumps.
Ensenada, La Paz, and Loreto are all proper tourist destinations and San Quentin is pretty sizable, while El Rosario, Mulgue, San Angel are really one-horse towns so don’t expect much in the way of options.
The roads in Baja California Sur are more beautiful and much better than the roads in Baja California. Though the road just north of La Paz is a bit challenging due to many dips and turns, BCS roads are mostly smooth and the bits that aren’t usually show evidence that someone is working on them so that in the near future they will be. Baja California Sur is definitely the highlight of the trip.
When traveling north, there are a lot of military check points. I think I passed through about half a dozen. Don't worry, they just ask you a few questions, make sure you're not packing 100 pounds of pot, and send you on your way. Nothing to fear.
If you're looking to do the full monty so to speak... all the way to Los Cabos, here is my suggestion:
Tijuana to El Rosario - Stop at Baja Cactus hotel which is a lot of hotel for $350 pesos – internet, hot water, comfortable beds. Next door to Pemex. Not one of our hotels, but one must give credit where credit is due.
El Rosario to Loreto – Loreto was an unexpected treat. Head to the Mission Hotel on the malecón and treat yourself to an ocean view room. Great rooms, perfect location. If you have a car loaded down with stuff, you can park in the secure back lot.
Loreto to Los Cabos (or La Paz) – don’t pass up La Paz. It’s a great little town that is too often overlooked.
Note: All distances are displayed in miles. Highway 1 is the highway serving the destination unless otherwise noted.
|33||40||Tecate (Highways 2 & 3)|
|71||56||72||Ensenada (Highways 1 & 3)|
|90||127||90||162||Mexicali (Highways 2 & 5)|
|164||237||201||152||121||*||San Felipe (Highway 5) * Depends on the route|
|405||393||409||337||499||285||*||221||184||108||43||Bahía de los Angeles (Highway 12)|
|1039||1027||1043||971||1133||919||*||855||818||742||677||720||596||506||460||421||336||261||245||113||68||48||San José del Cabo|
|1059||1047||1063||991||1153||939||*||875||838||762||697||740||616||526||480||441||356||281||265||133||48||68||20||Cabo San Lucas|
Can across this very interesting map of Mexico hotspots that you can view here which puts the situation into perspective.
A couple things to take away from this analysis:
- Most of the violence is concentrated in a handful of cities
- Many highways north are not considered safe
- Baja, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, etc. are all perfectly safe.
Mexico's Secretaría de Gobernación, which goes by the acronym Segob, recently published a map of the nation's most dangerous places in 2011. The statistics of which would be visitors should take note are that 80% of homicides take place in only 162 municipalities - Mexico has 2,456 municipalities meaning that 80% of the violence takes place in less than 7% of Mexico which is what Mexican tourism officials have been struggling to communicate. The most effected places reside along Mexico's northern border which are geographically close to the United States, but on average over a thousand miles away from many of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations.
They refer to the Sinaloa Cartel as "Pacífico" (Pacific) Cartel.
Click here to see the document at El Universal.