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Is Puerto Vallarta Safe?

Published Jun 2, 2009 - (Updated Dec 3, 2012)

Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Spring/Summer 2009 issue.

Not a day has gone by in recent weeks and months for those of us living in Vallarta without coming across more disturbing news slamming the safety of visiting and/or living in Mexico, as well as a barrage of questions and concerns from friends and family living north of Mexico wanting to know how dangerous it truly is in Vallarta. Of course, these well-meaning people tend to gather their information from newspapers, television and online news sources, which often sensationalize the facts and images. Seeing graphic violence and not knowing the truth can be very unsettling, and any information taken out of context can easily blow things completely out of proportion. And so it has been with the issue of safety and security in our beloved Puerto Vallarta.

Recently, our editorial department became aware of an informative and proactive website, www.thetruthaboutmexico.com, composed of numerous legitimate articles, postings and links written by ex-pats to help dispel the myths about drug-related violence and put things into perspective for the rest of the world. This continually updated site concurs with what those of us living here already know. Overall, Puerto Vallarta remains a safe destination. Sure, there may be more of a military presence these days, but seeing armed law enforcement personnel riding around armed in the back of open vehicles has been commonplace for decades.

Are there drug wars along the Mexico-US border? Absolutely! Is it dangerous to travel in that region? Without a doubt! But it seems that in recent weeks, Americans and Canadians have been bombarded with extreme travel advisories about Mexico, making it sound as if the entire country is a war zone. To be completely honest, the farther you travel from the US border into Mexico, the less violence and the safer it is for Mexican citizens and foreigners alike.

Former CBS’ “60 Minutes” producer Frank Koughan, who has been living and working in Queretero, Mexico, since 2006, put it this way in his well-researched article “Spring Break in Mexico: Do the Math, Kids” on the “Truth About Mexico” website: “Consumers of American media could easily get the impression that Mexico is a blood-soaked killing field, when in fact the bulk of the drug violence is happening near the border.”

To visualize this in a different way, check out “Distances Between Tourist Destinations and High-Risk Areas in Mexico” on the same website. The user-friendly map of North America charts the distance between Los Angeles and New York to serve as a base of comparison while viewing traveling distances between border cities and a selection of Mexican beach destinations. Seeing how far away the major resort centers are from the border puts the safety factor into perspective.

Why then is this issue that is primarily localized along the Mexico-US border being generalized to encompass the entire country? There are countless points of view on this topic; however, one theory is that with the failing US economy, propaganda against Mexico is a way to scare people into staying at home and spending their shrinking vacation budgets in the United States as a way to help jump-start the economy.

But not all US government officials are condemning travel to Mexico. In a “Universal Radio” interview, Ana Maria Salazar (host of “Imagen News,” the only nationwide English news radio program in Mexico) asked US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “How safe is Mexico for the approximately one million Americans who may be living here?”

Clinton replied, “I think that any country in the world has crime problems and challenges. We want Americans to be informed; that’s why we issue information. But I see no reason why Americans should not continue to travel and enjoy Mexico. Just as there are parts of our country that you wouldn’t advise your visiting friend or sister to go to, there are probably parts of Mexico that fall into the same category. But I have no problem in recommending very clearly that Americans should continue traveling to Mexico.”

Do people die when they travel to Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter? Of course, they do! But Koughan did some digging around to find the facts and put them into perspective. He writes, “According to the State Dept, 669 Americans died ‘non-natural deaths’ in Mexico in the three years between Jan ‘05 and Dec ‘07, which accounts for 30% of ‘non-natural’ American deaths around the world. Sounds scary, but then Mexico also accounts for 30% of the foreign trips taken by Americans, so what do you expect?”

So with about 45,000,000 American visitors to Mexico during this period, those 669 deaths would indicate safe travel for 99.9986% of the visitors. And of those 669 deaths, 389 were due to accidents in car, plane and boat; 85 drowned; 15 died of overdose; and 61 committed suicide. Tragic, yes, but Koughan goes on to say, “According to the State Dept, a grand total of 126 Americans were murdered in Mexico during those three years, just slightly less than the 45,000 killed north of the border during the same period.”

It’s been said that “Common sense is not all that common,” but it takes just a little to stay safe in Mexico or when venturing out in your own city or town. With the impact of the uncertain economy around the world, there are simply going to be more thieves and scam artists wherever you go. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind. Only bring what you need when you go out. When vacationing, take advantage of hotel safety deposit boxes ­– or, at least, wear a money belt under your clothes for your passport and credit cards if you feel best keeping these items on your person. It amazes me how often I see people around Vallarta unconsciously displaying their credit cards, money and passports, making themselves easy targets for robbery.

Secondly, as Hillary Clinton mentioned in the above quote, there are places in your own neck of the woods that you would likely not go, or at least not go alone or at night, and Vallarta is no different. Taxis are relatively inexpensive in our city and are certainly a small price to pay to help ensure getting home safely. Overall, Vallarta is a very safe city, but why tempt fate? And no matter where you are, alcohol consumption impairs your judgment. If you overindulge in public anywhere in the world, you’re setting yourself up for potential problems.

Of course, finally and most obviously, you’re playing with fire if you’ve come to Mexico to buy, sell or use drugs. Although Napoleonic law has now officially been overturned, there still may be those who cling to the “guilty until proven innocent” belief system. Mexican jails are certainly not the “all-inclusive” venue of choice, and with the current war on drugs, you absolutely don’t want to be made an example.

With me a 50-something, single Canadian woman living in Vallarta, my family and friends have always touched base to make sure I’m safe, especially in recent months while following the television news. But I say, “You know, Mom and Dad, even if I were thinking of moving back to Calgary, after hearing about the recent gang-related shooting during daytime hours just a half block from our family business and the high-speed chase that ended violently in front of your Calgary home last week, I think I’ll stay in Vallarta a while longer!”


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