How Safe is Mexico for Expats?

Guanajuato, Mexico marketRecently International Living put Mexico in the #2 spot on their Best Retirement Havens list. That raised a lot of questions among future expats — what about safety? All we’re reading about (here in the US anyway) is how dangerous Mexico is and its problems with drug-related violence.

Last week, a friend of a friend decided to leave Lake Chapala. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an area near Guadalajara which has become an expat magnet with the biggest concentration of US and Canadians outside of those countries.

Not exactly a narco stronghold, one would think. But after a gun battle took place just a couple of blocks away from her home, this US citizen decided to leave.

Yet, statistically, Washington, DC has a much higher rate of violent crime than Mexico City, by a 4-to-1 margin. According to a Cleveland, OH magazine, the six biggest cities in Ohio have a higher rate of murder, rape, robbery and burglary than the six biggest border cities.

A website now exists called Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico? They claim that:

“more than 95% of Mexico’s municipalities are at least as safe as the average traveler’s hometown. Yucatan state, for example, had 0.1 of a murder for every 100,000 people in 2010 – no U.S. tourist destination comes close to that. Most cities in central Mexico, outside of the scattered drug hot spots, have lower murder rates than Orlando.”

In fact, living in Orlando, I know there are parts of town I shouldn’t go to, but I don’t worry about my safety at home or while I’m going about my daily business.

So who do you believe?

Recently I received this email from a friend. She and her husband have been dividing her time between Mexico and the US for several years. (Check out her website). She wrote:

We love Mexico. We just crossed the border with our truck at Nogales this afternoon (coming into the US). It was our 5th border crossing in three months, and probably our 20th border crossing in the past 2 years. We are going back down again about 4 days from now.

The best thing about Mexico is the people — they are universally warmer, friendlier and kinder than Americans. We are very rich as a people, but it seems to me that most of us feel we didn’t get what we deserved out of the American Dream. We were raised with huge expectations, and most people I know are frustrated they aren’t a little richer. There is no Mexican Dream, so the Mexicans are all dirt poor but are content with what they have because they never expected to get anything anyways. So they come across as generally much happier than most Americans.

They put family first and they work extremely hard (most work a six-day work-week). They are ingenious and creative in trying to find ways to make a living in a country that isn’t necessarily stacked in their favor. And they have exceptional medical care that is a fraction of the cost in the US. Just this week I heard yet another tale of a cruiser having a sudden major health problem (scratched and infected cornea), and how the Mexican doctors were amazingly caring, skillful and dedicated to making sure she recovered, all done for a mere pittance…

I have felt safe everywhere I’ve been in Mexico except Mazatlan, which in one neighborhood felt a little like Roxbury, Mass., though not quite as scary. We’re going back next week to spend another 7 months cruising the coast, and my biggest concern for my safety is getting caught in bad weather when we do one of our long overnight or two-night ocean passages.

The narco violence is very frightening. But last spring the Arizona Congresswoman and a bunch of other people were gunned down by a madman at a Safeway parking lot during a political even in Arizonat. So I could get shot in my own home state going food shopping on a Saturday morning. What difference would it make if I were shot in narco crossfire in Mexico instead? Statistically, for Americans, it is probably riskier to stay home than go to Mexico.

So who knows — I think Helen Keller got it right with her profound insight into just how safe this life we are living really is:

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of man as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

I would never encourage you to live someplace you feel unsafe. Just keep it in perspective — Americans get shot in shopping centers, post offices and restaurants, and our children get massacred in their schools. The difference is, we’re familiar with those places.

Fear — and fear-mongering — is big business. Don’t let it keep you from a wonderful adventure!


  1. Wow, this is a really good way to explain things, especially this part at the end “Just keep it in perspective — Americans get shot in shopping centers, post offices and restaurants, and our children get massacred in their schools. The difference is, we’re familiar with those places.”

    Familiarity is the key, I think. The better we know something, the more comfortable we are with it. And in the case of safety, we know where we’re most likely to have problems or not and work around them.

    • Thanks, Jodi. I guess my point is, if we can learn the places to avoid at “home,” we can learn the same thing in our adopted country. And sometimes terrible things happen even when and where they’re not expected.

  2. John Scherber says:

    Safety was a major chapter in my new book on the expat experience, LIVING IN SAN MIGUEL: THE HEART OF THE MATTER. It offers an intimate look at issues everyone thinking about settling in this historic town must consider. Health care, cost of living, crime, housing, and many others are answered with frankness and insight. Available in print, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and iTunes formats. There’s a sample on my website.

  3. Thinking you are going to have problems with the drug cartels in Mexico is like thinking you are going to get mugged by the Crips or the Bloods in the US. It is just plain absurd, out of touch thinking. The drug gang violence is committed within that community with very rare random violence seeping out. Keep in mind, gun ownership is illegal. I find that, in general, Mexicans are not nearly as aggressive as Americans are. The murder rate outside of the cartels is low and I have never had a problem down here with anyone. I live in Ensenada and have visited all parts of Mexico over the years.

    • FutureExpat says:

      Good points, Will. When I lived in Florida, we had an area less than 10 miles away from us that was considered very unsafe. I never gave it a thought…

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