Is Mexico safer than New Orleans?

Published 27 March 09 11:35 AM

Posted by Jason Clampet at 3/26/2009

I've been a big fan of Baja California ever since I lived in Los Angeles and began taking frequent trips to the peninsula. I'm not sure, though, how accurate my impressions of the place are now, considering that I spent all of my time there before the uptick in violence that began in 2008. From the recent press reports and the warnings coming from the State Department as well as TV talk-show hosts, you'd think all of Mexico was a death trap waiting to snap shut on you as soon as you cleared customs in Tijuana, Mexico City, Cancun, or Cabo San Lucas.

I got sick of sifting through all the "don't go to Mexico" stories out there, so I emailed Hugo Torres, the mayor of Rosarito, for some perspective. Rosarito, a 20-minute drive from downtown Tijuana, became a hot spot in the early 2000s for southern Californians seeking affordable second homes. It's also a popular weekend spot for college kids and soldiers from the San Diego area.

Torres has a few biases, to say the least: in addition to being mayor, his family has long owned Rosarito's most notable hotel (Sinatra, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth were a few of its guests from Hollywood's Golden Age). But he's not an idiot, which is why he's not going to say "come on down, it's safe" if he thinks that'll lead to San Diego surfer getting kidnapped.

Wine country between Rosarito and Ensenada

"The best way [to know what's going on] is to talk to our frequent visitors or some of the 14,000 expatriates who live here," Mayor Torres emailed me. "They know from first-hand experience that Rosarito is safe and welcoming, perhaps more so than ever."

"The inaccurate perception of insecurity here has greatly reduced tourism. That perception, along with the U.S. economic slump, also has deeply impacted residential building. Together, it has been a tough economic hit. About 5 restaurants closed in this period, so far, one hotel closed for previous problem aggravated by the current crisis.  Approximately 1,500 jobs have been lost."

A number of residential developments have been suspended or shut down completely, including a Trump condo tower that would have likely been a debacle with or without the violence and economic slump. Yesterday, Rosarito delayed until August a pro surfing contest that was to be held in April, citing a lack of sponsors and the need to wait until the media frenzy died down.

Torres trusts that will happen soon enough. "In general, the media that know us best and cover us most closely have presented the most accurate portrait. This includes, foremost, the San Diego Union-Triubune and also the Los Angeles Times. Pete Thomas, who writes the "Outposts" blog for the Times, has been excellent. Many of the sensationalized stories are done by reporters who seldom --- and sometimes never --- visit the area."

Like other Mexico boosters, Torres pushes the cartel-on-cartel violence story line. "The violence we have had has been primarily between rival factions of a drug cartels as more pressure is brought upon them; our visitors are not targeted nor is the typical resident affected. However, the inaccurate perception of insecurity here has greatly reduced tourism." 

A vast majority -- over 90% by just about any count -- of those that have been killed in Tijuana and other cities are related to the drug trade in one way or another. It's also true that the violence is so concentrated in certain cities that there is rarely spillover into nearby towns, let alone other states. Baja California Sur, which takes up the southern half of the peninsula and includes La Paz and the Los Cabos area, had one drug-related murder this year, making the area safer than just about any city in the United States. Torres and others have pointed out that New Orleans, which almost everyone in the travel industry encourages people to visit, ranked third in 2008 for the most murders per capita in the world -- just between Cape Town, South Africa and Moscow, Russia.

That doesn't mean people shouldn't be careful when traveleing there. "We'd give pretty much the same advice that works for travelers anywhere," Torres says. "Stay in the popular tourist and business areas and avoid ones where things like drug dealing and prostitution occur. That won't be hard to do."

Photo credit:
Guadalupe Valley vineyards
Photo by jasoncedit



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