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Do Cartels Kill Tourists? How to Avoid Cartels in Mexico

Susan Laurent
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by Susan Laurent

Mexico is a hit tourist destination — it currently ranks eighth on the list of most visited nations in the world.

However, the presence of cartels, which are in large part accountable for the violent crimes committed in the country, dampens its appeal.

But are innocent visitors ever targeted in these horrific cartel-driven crimes?

Short answer: Yes, but only to a small extent.

If Mexico is your dream destination, but your concern about safety makes you hesitant to travel there — we’re here to guide you.

Here’s an inside scoop on Mexican cartels and tourist homicide statistics, an overview of the areas that are safe to visit, and, most importantly: expert tips on how to avoid coming into contact with cartels in Mexico.

Mexico: A Tale of Two Realities

Street in Mexico

The clash between Mexico’s booming tourism economy and its struggle to eliminate organized crime illustrates the country’s duality.

In 2022, Mexico welcomed more than 38 million international tourists, with more than 60% of them coming from the United States.

The cities that welcomed the most international tourists by air to Mexico are:

  • Cancún (9.5 million)
  • Mexico City (4.2 million)
  • Los Cabos (2.2 million)
  • Puerto Vallarta (1.7 million)
  • Guadalajara (1.2 million)
  • Monterrey (271,000)
  • Cozumel (244,000)
  • Silao (206,000)

On the flip side, Mexico also suffered 42.888 homicides in 2022, with 58 of the fatalities being US citizens. Almost 80% of homicides were shooting incidents, followed by smaller percentages of homicides done by unknown means, deaths caused by sharp objects, and death by strangulation or suffocation.

The cities with the highest number of homicides in Mexico in 2022 are:

  • Tijuana (2,052)
  • Ciudad Juárez (1,111)
  • Benito Juárez (821)
  • Leon (714)
  • Acapulco (556)
  • Cajeme (550)
  • Morelia (536)
  • Celaya (498)
  • Culiacan (444)
  • Chihuahua (437)
  • Mexicali (426)
  • Irapuato (400)
  • Guadalupe (382)
  • Guadalajara (382)
  • Zamora (371)

Taking into consideration all the tourism and homicide stats we just mentioned, we can say that yes, tourists could die in Mexico. But, the numbers are minimal! Cartels recognize how profitable tourism is in Mexico so it’s in their interest for tourism to thrive. If they harm tourists, they are risking scaring away other visitors, jeopardizing their unlawful money-making activities and drawing unwanted attention.

Government’s Advice on Tourism in Mexico

According to the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory, if you want to have a magical time in Mexico there are certain states you want to avoid — the states that are known cartel basepoints.

These states are the main hubs of cartel activity, which means that kidnapping, homicides, drug distribution, human smuggling, sexual assault, territorial battles, are all very common.

If you want to minimize your potential exposure, stay away from Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, and Sonora.

These areas witness the worst of cartel violence, and if you encounter problems, it’s important to note that the U.S. government may have limited ability to help — in other words, you are on your own.

But hey, don’t get discouraged, as the U.S. State Department has given the “green light” to US tourists to visit a number of other states, which, in our opinion, are the absolute gems of Mexico.

The two safest states are Campeche and Yucatan. Here, the U.S. government advises tourists to practice nothing more than normal precautions — for example, being aware of your surroundings, keeping an eye on your belongings, avoiding walking alone at night, etc.

The other states considered safe to travel to are Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Chiapas, Coahuila, Hidalgo, Mexico City, Mexico State, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, Puebla, Queretaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosi, Tabasco, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz.

When journeying through these states, it’s advised that you exercise extreme caution. Though they’re generally safe to explore, the U.S. State Department points out that instances of crime might be a pinch more common here.

Stay Safe, Avoid Cartels — Your Guide to Exercising Extreme Caution When in Mexico

Stay Safe in Mexico

What does it mean to be extremely cautious when traveling to Mexico? First, remember that just because some states are considered safe to visit doesn’t mean there’s no cartel activity there.

In fact, it’s typical for gang members to sell drugs to tourists in popular tourist spots in Mexico. Sometimes, if members from one gang cross into another gang’s territory, it can lead to violence, and unfortunately, innocent people can get hurt.

These incidents are rare, but if you’re not careful, you might end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s what you can do:

The biggest tip we can give you on dodging cartels is sticking to tourist areas that aren’t specifically bars — that includes the resorts, popular beaches, and the city’s center. Everything outside of this may not be safe for you, especially at night.

We assume you’d like to go out for a drink or two, maybe go to a party, or eat a nice dinner at a restaurant overlooking the ocean. And that’s great — but what you need to be mindful of is someone putting a narcotic in your drink, which is a very common practice in overcrowded beach bars and clubs.

Another thing you need to be aware of on nighttime outings is to flee the scene the first moment you sense intoxicated people making trouble. You never know who may intervene in such instances and how badly it may end up. So, always be aware of your surroundings and react accordingly to what’s happening around you.

This is an obvious one, but consuming drugs is illegal in Mexico, amongst other things. Expect to be offered drugs, especially at party spots, so kindly refuse them and leave the place as soon as possible. The dealers offering drugs are basically members of cartels — and probably fully armed to react in case of an incident with the police, another cartel member, or troublesome tourists.

For female travelers, in particular, it’s safest to dress modestly and avoid wearing expensive jewelry. Robbers may be just around the corner, eyeing your valuables, waiting for the perfect opportunity to rob you (or worse). So always keep it “low key” — try to blend in, avoid carrying huge sums of cash on you, and save your pricey jewelry for another vacation.

And last but not least, use reliable taxi companies rather than getting into street taxis and public transport. We recommend DiDi and Uber. Make sure you travel during the day, and don’t go on the main highways, as there’s a greater possibility of cartel members pulling you over.

And that’s all there is to it. If you feel unsafe, don’t hesitate to call 911.

Conclusion

Do cartels hurt tourists in Mexico? Yes, but it’s not common. What can tourists do to stay safe? Easy! Avoid dangerous cities and pick safer ones — they can be even more beautiful!

Pay attention to your surroundings and be careful at night, especially around drunk or drugged people. Make sure you book reputable hotels and stay within close proximity to where you’re staying. If you venture too far, do not hesitate to call Didi or Uber Taxi.

Safe travels! May adventure be your compass and caution your guide.


About Susan Laurent
Susan Laurent
I'm passionate about world cultures, travel, and discovering amazing new places. I've spent years traveling the globe, very often alone, so I focus on providing important information about travel safety to travelers that I've gathered from first-hand experience.
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