Mexico. After years of inactivity due to Covid-19, American travelers are leaving and Mexico is once again one of their favorite destinations.
More than 21 million foreign visitors visited Mexico between January and July of this year. About 8 million of them are from the United States, according to government figures.
This is a 41 percent increase in US visitors compared to the same period in 2021.
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Mexico's rich culture, beaches, resorts, Mayan and Aztec ruins, and distinctive cuisine combine to make it one of the top 10 most visited countries in the world.
But there is a dark side to this beauty.
Mexico continues to make security headlines as drug-sponsored violence spreads from the white sands of Tulum to the Pacific coast.
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“My friends called me and said, 'I want to send my daughter to Cancun for spring break.'
Knowing this level of risk early is critical, experts say.
Like any country, there are dangerous places and places that can be visited without problems. Experts say that common sense is key when traveling to potentially hostile environments.
"Foreign tourists are completely safe," said Everard Mead, director of the Mexico-based peace organization Pacific Process.
“I mean, there are very few cases where foreign tourists are victims of violence and especially murder. Organized crime groups know that it is useless to follow them. City. And they just don't want it.
For those considering a trip to Mexico, here is a list of some of the most visited places by American tourists and what the experts are saying about each one.
Cancun and Riviera Maya
Cancun Airport is Mexico's most popular landing spot for foreign visitors, including more than 3.4 million US citizens between January and July of this year.
White sand beaches with turquoise waters, shopping centers, Mayan ruins and luxury resorts make it an excellent vacation destination.
Cancun is located on the Caribbean coast northeast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. South of the city, along the coast, the area that includes Tulum is known as the Riviera Maya, another hot spot.
However, there has been a growing threat of violence in the area in recent years.
The US State Department has issued a warning to Americans planning to travel there on August 17.
Tourists have been warned to "stay in well-lit pedestrian streets and tourist areas" after a shootout between rival drug cartels left local residents injured.
Last fall, two tourists died while dining in an air-conditioned restaurant in Tulum. A month later, guests at the Puerto Morelos resort were forced into hiding after gunmen arrived by boat and killed people.
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And in January, two Canadian tourists were killed in a luxury hotel in Playa del Carmen, and in the same month, the manager of a popular beach club was killed in the bathroom by two men who fled on a jet ski.
“When you see things like this happening, it is a sign that the cartels are fighting each other for control of these areas, not only for drug delivery routes, but also for street drug sales,” said the former federal marshal. Robert Almonte of the Western District of Texas.
Reporters from The Courier-Journal, part of USA Today, traveled to Tulum in July and witnessed the presence of drug gangs who left the area the next morning.
“(Tourists) go to spas and some of them take drugs. So they buy drugs and the cartels fight over the sale,” said Almonte.
Although many tourists have died in the Riviera Maya, security analysts agree that they are not the target of criminal gangs.
"Sometimes you just have to be in the wrong place," says Scott Stewart, vice president of Thorstone Global, a US security company.
But I have many clients who have businesses in Mexico. And if you are careful and know the risks in advance and have a plan to reduce them, you can definitely do it. Have a good time,” Stewart told the Courier Journal.
With 22 million inhabitants, Mexico City is one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world.
Its history makes it a special place. The largest park in Latin America, Les Chapultepec has more than 150 museums and numerous restaurants and bars that include a popular nightlife.
"I tell people that Mexico City is generally safer than beach resorts," says Almonte, who now works as a security consultant in Texas.
But even a city with such a population has its share of dangers. In Mexico City, local gangs working for powerful cartels control the illegal drug trade and use robbery and kidnapping to maintain their power.
Once again, the presence of law enforcement is greater than any other state.
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The US Department of State website advises travelers to "use caution when traveling to Mexico City due to crime."
“Violent and nonviolent crime occurs throughout Mexico City. Be especially careful in areas with police and security patrols, especially at night in areas with high tourist influx. Petty crime is common in both tourist and non-tourist areas,” the adviser said.
“In Mexico City, you have more police. So if I had to choose, I would go to Mexico City, not Cancun or Puerto Vallarta , ” Almonte said.
"The border is interesting because … if you live as close as California, you can leave Los Angeles and visit Tijuana in the same day," said Mead, director of Pacific Process.
Chula Vista, the northern city of Tijuana, borders the United States. Every day, approximately 100,000 people cross the border for work, leisure, medical treatment, etc.
The border towns have unique plots and customs. Tijuana has become a destination for Californians.
“I think it's amazing that the food and art in Tijuana is so vibrant. It's much less experimental and edgy than food and art in the United States," Mead said .
However, as tourism increases, so does crime.
“ There is a serious problem of violence in Tijuana, and it is an issue that many supporters of the region have tried to hide for a long time. And you can't hide it anymore," Mead said.
In August, members of the cartel launched a campaign of terror in the streets of Tijuana, burning cars and blocking roads. The US Embassy urged US government employees to shelter in place.
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“Consider moving to Baja California for crime and kidnapping,” the State Department said on its website.
"I think what happened was nothing new. It didn't mean a new level of violence. It was a new perspective. But this violence is there, and it is. It's been very stable in the world since 2017," Meade said.
Safety analysts agree that tourists are still trying to avoid collisions in Tijuana.
" …The violence is not directed at foreign tourists and visitors, not really, and that's a paradox," Mead said.
Many Americans have moved to or invested in Tijuana in the last decade.
" We have tens of thousands of people in San Diego whose health insurance covers everything in Tijuana. It's a multi-billion dollar industry and nothing bad has happened to them. Everything is fine for them."
On the other hand, there can be problems during the fall holidays, for example, if visitors are watching.
“ I think it's very stupid to buy and use drugs in Tijuana and Mexico”, Mide said.
"It's a very bad idea because if you get caught with organized crime or corruption, with marijuana or cocaine or whatever, the police have influence over you and that makes you very vulnerable."
More than 800,000 Americans visited Puerto Vallarta this year, according to government data. Located on the Pacific coast of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is known for its beautiful beaches, sports facilities, nature, and nightlife.
But it is also home to a very powerful potion.
The United States Department of Justice recognizes the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJGN) as one of the five most dangerous transnational criminals in the world.
What does this mean for travelers?
“Concerned tourists sit at the table where the target is. These cartels go there and they don't pay much attention when they go to kill their target,” Almonte said.
Unfortunately, innocent people were hurt, injured or killed.
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The American police recommend avoiding Puerto Vallarta. The State Department has suggested that trips to the state of Jalisco for crimes and kidnappings be reconsidered.
“If you think about it logically, you want to eliminate the need for organized crime,” Mead said.
“In other words, the things most travelers don't care about if you're in the right place, and the right places make great tourist spots. So if you're on the Malecón, you're close. Beach, you're fine," Mead told the Courier-Journal.
Only six states in Mexico have a "do not travel" warning from the US State Department, one of which is Guerrero, where Acapulco is located.
After becoming a tourist destination for foreign tourists, Acapulco became a city with a high murder rate.
However, it has become a destination for domestic tourists and a weekend getaway for the rich and famous. The beaches, food and nightlife are the main attractions.
“Acapulco is the only place I would really recommend to people who doubt. And I hate doing that," Mead said.
The state of Guerrero has a combination of high violence and political corruption, he said, "but also extreme poverty, which exacerbates the violence."
Analysts say that tourism in Acapulco has changed. Although foreign tourists still visit, this has decreased significantly in recent years.
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"A general guide to Acapulco is that if you live in the golden zone (the main tourist area or golden zone), you're fine. I think Americans often don't understand the huge disparity in wealth between southern and northern Mexico. And when combined forcibly, it changes the quality of security," Mead explained.
Almonte advises travelers to rent transportation before arriving in Mexico.
"Based on my experience and research, I recommend that you get the safest and most reliable transportation first, and I recommend that you do it through the hotel."
Almonte agrees that tourists visiting Mexican resorts should stay in the area.
"In other parts of the area, I don't worry about those cases, because the tourists are identified as tourists among the cartels and the gangs."
Also known as the "Pearl of the Pacific", this tourist city is located in the state of Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast of northern Mexico.
In the golden zone, beautiful residences, historic centers, deep blue seas, water sports and unforgettable sunsets attract tourists from all over the world. It also has a community of workers and retirees, including Americans.
Sinaloa is home to the violent Sinaloa cartel and is one of six "banned" states in Mexico, citing crime and kidnapping as reasons, according to a US State Department report. But US government employees only they will travel to Mazatlan by air or sea, "restricted to the Golden Zone and the historic center and must travel on direct routes between these destinations, airports and maritime terminals," the statement says.
As for the trip to Mazatlan, "all you have to do is do your research, understand the risk environment, understand your own risk threshold and what you're willing to accept," says Stewart of Torchstone Global.
"…If I were a tourist and I was visiting and I didn't have someone to guide me through the streets of the city at night, I wouldn't do it," Mid said of Sinaloa.
Carol Suárez is a Venezuelan journalist from Mexico City. He is a columnist for the (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @KarolSuarez_.
This article originally appeared on USA Today: Revisiting Travel? Security experts denounce violence in tourist areas of Mexico