March 2, 2011

Expatriating to Mexico: Is It Safe to Go?

Combine a scary U.S. economy with a cheaper one in Mexico, which has the largest American expatriate population in the world, and it's no surprise that many are considering picking up and moving south of the border in the near future - for a least part of the time.  The health care is so much cheaper; it doesn't snow there; it's got all those beautiful beaches and tasty tropical drinks. 

However, the news these days is filled with beheadings, kidnappings, and Mexican police being gunned down on what seems like a daily basis.  Names of Mexican drug cartels are known to us now:  the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas.

Is Mexico safe for Americans now?

The State of Texas' Department of Public Safety has just issued a warning that no one should plan on taking their Spring Break in Mexico this year - it's just too dangerous, the state officials warn, what with all those drug cartels running amuk. 

Over at the U.S. Department of State, there is a long list of instructions and advice for students considering a vacation in Mexico, even giving information on various sites (Cancun, etc.).

Earlier this year, a similar release was issued by Texas against "Winter Texans" going to Mexico in 2011.  (Read the full release here.)  This warning was issued shortly after drug cartel gunfire killed a 59 year old Texas missionary, Nancy Davis, as she and her husband attempted to circumvent the cartel's road block on a Northern Mexico roadway not far from the Texas border. 

Review the U.S. Department of State website, and you will discover that there are "travel alerts" and "travel warnings."  Warnings are more serious:
  • Travel alerts "... disseminate information about short-term conditions, either transnational or within a particular country, that pose significant risks to the security of U.S. citizens. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups, anniversaries of terrorist events, election-related demonstrations or violence, and high-profile events such as international conferences or regional sports events are examples of conditions that might generate a Travel Alert."
  • Travel warnings advise of "... long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country. A Travel Warning is also issued when the U.S. Government's ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff." 
Mexico got a State Department travel warning back in September 2010. 

So, both federal and state officials are warning Americans that traveling is Mexico is dangerous - so dangerous, in fact, that it's not worth the risk.  However, this isn't the same information that you will find if you investigate the forums and blogs that deal with Mexico expatriating.

What the Mexico Expats Are Reporting About Being an American Traveling in Mexico

The Ajijic Real Estate News covers the region surrounding Mexico's Lake Chapala, where the largest American expatriate community in Mexico resides.  According to Daniel Steele in his post dated January 26, 2011, "Safety in Lake Chapala and Ajijic Mexico," everything is fine - Mexico has its "pockets" that you need to avoid, just like other countries do.  Of course, most of his post is suspect: he's trying to sell you Mexican real estate. 

There is a website dedicated to tracking criminal activity in this area:  the Lake Chapala Crime Watch.  Read it today, and you'll find that burglary and to some extent, robbery (where you're there when the criminal wants to take your stuff - burglary means he waits till you've gone), seems pretty high in the area.  Homes, cars.  The most serious thing I found there: a recent report of a man shooting a rifle with a silencer from a rooftop - not at any living thing, apparently. 

Barbie, who is responsible for, has a fact sheet for her fellow expats in Mexico, filled with tips and references.  She discusses the difference between tourist spots and other locations, as well as the US-Mexico border as a hotspot for cartel activity.  Barbie advises lots of common sense things, like don't throw money around so everyone knows you've got some; don't wear lots of bling; and don't drive on roads that aren't tourist-friendly - and don't drive at night.  You can follow Barbie's blog and contact her directly at

So, bottom line: is Mexico safe? Not entirely.  It's not the same as living in San Antonio, that's for sure. We don't have men shooting rifles from (yet).  I'm not worried about running up to the grocery store late in the evening here -  but I do notice there are signs on the lampposts warning me not to leave my valuables in my car. 

Crime is everywhere.  You have to evaluate the risk for yourself.  However, if my teenager were pondering where to spend Spring Break 2011, I'd be pushing for the Texas Gulf Coast, anywhere from Corpus to Galveston and steering clear of South Padre Island and its temptation to cross the border into Mexico.
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