Should travelers worry about being kidnapped in Mexico? Travel experts discuss safety in Mexico.
The high-profile case of four U.S. citizens being kidnapped in Mexico sent shock waves through the nation. Two were killed last week after getting caught in the crossfire of cartel violence in the border city of Matamoros.
Many are wondering what's next for the popular tourist destination, and whether Mexico is safe for travel.
The four Americans – one woman and two men from South Carolina – crossed the southern border for cosmetic surgery last Friday when a cartel shootout erupted.
Social media videos show the gunmen pulling the Americans from their car and driving away, all during daylight. Mexican officials announced Tuesday that they had found two dead. the other The two survivors were escorted back to the U.S.
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With 2 Americans dead in Matamoros: A cartel-scarred Mexican border town wonders what's next
Violence around border cities is not unusual and can involve Mexicans or migrants with little public attention, but it typically doesn't involve Americans. Officials said the abduction was probably a case of mistaken identity, but the FBI is investigating further.
Meanwhile, questions arose on how the Mexican and U.S. governments will respond, which could affect regular travel to Mexico. A heavy-handed response could likely mean "a wave of violence where it gets worse before it gets better," said Michael Ballard, director of intelligence at Global Guardian, a firm that specializes in travel security.
Currently, the travel advisory for Mexico warns Americans of crime and kidnapping. On Tuesday, White House press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the State Department takes it "seriously" when it comes to providing "clear, timely, and reliable information about every country in the world ... so they can make informed travel decisions."
Is Mexico safe to travel to?
In 2021, nearly 29 million American travelers headed down to Mexico. That same year, about 75 American citizens died by homicide in Mexico, according to the most recent U.S. State Department statistics.
Mexico is "a tricky place" when it comes to travel and safety because "the security landscape and the security dynamic is so different state to state and city to city," according to Ballard.
Unlike some other countries, Mexico's travel advisory assesses each state individually.
The agency issued a "do not travel to" warning for the Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas state because of violent crime.
"You probably don't want to go to one of these border cities" because cartels "contest these ports of entry pretty heavily and fight for their economic control," Ballard said.
When it comes to the "do not travel to warning," Jean-Pierre said, "We've been very clear about that. The State Department, again, has put that out. We urge Americans to read these alerts before traveling."
Popular tourist spots like Quintana Roo, Nayarit and Mexico City have warnings of "exercised increased caution when traveling to" and Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is, has a "reconsider travel to." Travelers can "exercise normal precautions" when traveling to Yucatan, which includes the popular attraction Chichén Itzá.
How likely is it to encounter cartel violence?
"I don’t think anyone can ensure 100% clearance on (avoiding cartel violence), unfortunately. We know that Mexico has been plagued by drug violence, and cartels are in many parts of the country, just as in other nations," said Vanessa Karel, a Latinx entrepreneur who founded Greether, a travel startup that helps women travel with fewer risks.
"However, it is well documented that some areas have a higher presence of violence. Please do your due diligence on which areas these are," she said. Steer clear of these areas and avoid taking part in anything drug-related, Karel advised.
Ballard agreed and offered this analogy: "Getting struck by lightning is a really rare occurrence, but if you are standing on top of a tree in a thunderstorm, those odds go up. That's how I view being in and around some of these higher-risk cities in Mexico, the border cities."
Getting caught in cartel activity is less common somewhere like Cancun than it is in Colima.
Because Mexico's economy heavily depends on tourism dollars, cartels "tend to stay away from harming or hurting Americans because they know the response would be pretty severe," Ballard said.
The Mexican government has also implemented several initiatives to maintain safety in high-tourist areas, like deploying tourist police forces to high-traffic visitor areas. These officers are easy to spot and usually speak English.
"Travelers will have fewer risks by staying at highly rated hotels, areas and booking tour guides to show them around," Karel said.
Should people be worried about being kidnapped in Mexico?
Being "in the wrong place at the wrong time" is the main risk for Americans and cartel activity, Ballard said. It's rare for Americans to be kidnapped by cartels for ransom.
He does warn of occasional "express kidnappings," which happen not just in Mexico but in other countries too. In this situation, a tourist who is likely drunk and wandering around downtown gets kidnapped, driven around to ATMs and forced to withdraw money. Usually, they end up being let go.
As long as you stay in resort areas and use common sense, it should be relatively easy to keep safe.
Check out USA TODAY's 17 travel safety tips from the CIA.
What should you do if you witness or encounter cartel crime?
If you do witness or encounter cartel crime such as an express kidnapping or carjacking, Ballard said, you should report the case to the U.S. Embassy or to the local equivalent of 911. "You definitely want to have a record of something like that out there." Unfortunately, response times can be slow depending on where you are, he said.
According to the State Department, if something happens, you'll probably be relying on local resources.
Global Guardian clients, he pointed out, have a 24/7 panic button on the Global Guardian app, which will connect users to a safe haven, like a hospital.
In some cases, he said, your response depends on the situation, and it may be best to cooperate.
Top safety tips
Karel's top rule for traveling to Mexico is "to plan on going to places that are designed for you to go. If you are trying to visit an area that not even locals feel comfortable going to, don't attempt it, and please, simply avoid it," she said.
She also advised people to have situational awareness. "We are concerned that travelers going to Mexico think they can go just about anywhere, especially when they don’t blend as a local," she said. Visitors "should be aware of how much they stand out and how little or how much they know about the area they are going to."
Here are some other safety tips when traveling in Mexico:
Travel during daylight hours and avoid walking around unknown areas, especially at night.
Don't walk around with jewelry or your head down looking at your phone because that makes you an easy target to get robbed, Ballard said.
"Please ask trustworthy travel businesses and, most importantly, check travel advisories and what the tourism boards say. T they are there for a reason, and a lot of us are fighting to make cities safer and more sustainable," Karel said.
Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service for U.S. travelers to receive safety alerts about their destination from the U.S. Embassy in real time.
Before departing on your trip to a high-risk area, the State Department recommended you share important documents and points of contact with someone at home, and create a communication plan if something were to happen.
Share your location via your smartphone with someone at home while you are abroad.
Consider purchasing travel insurance for kidnapping or ransom. Depending on the plan, it can cover ransom payments, emergency evacuation costs, and payment for any negotiations needed.
Contributing: Michael Collins, USA TODAY
Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is it OK to travel to Mexico now? What to know, how to stay safe.