Mexican drug cartel violence vs tourist safety

The damage to Mexico's reputation is bad enough but tourists who buy illicit drugs are mostly responsible for creating the context for this violence

Everyone, by now, has heard about the murderous drug cartels in Mexico and the violent havoc they are creating. Almost every week we hear about some new attack. Many thousands of people have been murdered, or got caught in the crossfire or simply disappeared. Violence occurs sporadically throughout Mexico and even involves corrupt political leaders and law enforcement. It is a desparately bad situation. The news reporting is portraying the entire country is at War and there is no safe place to travel.

"The grim and growing toll of disappeared in Mexico’s 15-year-old ongoing drug war has reached 85,000, according to the government". (Vatican News)

The real number may be much higher because many deaths and incidents are not reported. Most of these deaths are young men seeking a way to get out of poverty. These are deeply complex scenarios and, contrary to the news reporting, they don't have easy explanations. Here's why it is important for the news media to get it right.

All of this is severely damaging to the ordinary people of Mexico who are also victims in this criminal activity —along with the portrayal of it. Mexico is a large country with a population, in 2022, at about 127.5MM Citizens. (MacroTrends) The overwhelming majority of these people do not have any involvement in the drug trade and simply wish to go about their daily lives in peace. They too want to keep their families safe. Yet, ordinary Mexicans are forced to confront this reality on a daily basis and sensational news reporting only adds to this hardship. 127.5MM Mexican Citizens are being victimised at the hands of a few bad actors, along with tourists with bad intent and the media who are complicit in propagating an incomplete, and therefore false narrative. It turns out that the 'fun' in 'sun n fun', for a large contingent of visitors, includes illicit drugs.

At the same time, tourists are being warned to stay away from Mexico because of the drug cartel violence. But the reality is that Mexico still receives tens of millions of tourists. Visitors, it seems, are not heeding these warnings in very large numbers. So, why is that? And, are tourists at risk?

As far as the numbers of visitors to Mexico are concerned, this had been inching towards the 100MM mark before the Pandemic struck. In 2020, there were 97.4MM visitors but this dropped to 51.1MM in 2020, still a huge number. In 2022, Mexico was the seventh most popular country for tourists. Now that the Pandemic is mostly past, these visitor numbers should once again increase. These visitors generate huge economic activity for Mexico and many benefits.

"In 1995, tourism revenues amounted to 6.85 billion USD, or about 1.9 percent of the gross national product. This corresponded to about 85.45 million tourists at that time and roughly 80 USD per person. Within 25 years, the country's dependence on tourism has increased slightly. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales were $25.85 billion billion, 2.0 percent of gross national product. Thus, each visitor spent an average of $265 on their vacation in Mexico.

In 2020, tourist receipts plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the $25.85 billion (2019), only $11.45 billion remained. This is a 56 percent decrease in Mexico". (WorldData)

A better approach might be to view the exposure of visitors to Mexican violence in context. The real question, then, is how many tourists die by violence, and more specifically, by drug cartel violence? And, reports of such deaths, or even injuries, are still relatively uncommon. Most media reports do not discuss the relationship between gang violence and tourists exposing themselves to violence by buying illicit drugs.

The illicit drug problem in Mexico is huge. Some estimates of the drug trade in Mexico put the value of this trade somewhere between $15B to $39B. (Washington Post) Most of the consumers of these drugs are from the United States and Canada and the proceeds are fuelling this gang violence. The fallout from this trade is reaching into homes on a daily basis, impacting lives and families everywhere, not just in Mexico. But so far, no-one has been successful in stopping it, or even slowing it down. The sensational reporting, again, does not discuss the necessity of dealing with these highly influential, and highly destructive, criminal gangs. The reporting also does not discuss the problem of innocent victims being accidentally caught up in apprehension of these criminals.

In fact, the appetite for illicit drugs continues to increase. And the primary impact of the drug trade is damaging lives and livelihoods and killing people all over North America. Many more people are dying as a result of drug consumption than due to gang violence. If media reports discuss this fact, it is usually not in context. The popular media are more keen to broadcast the news about the violence because it creates great headlines - it is dramatic, attracts eyeballs and creates fear. But this climate of fear has not been enough to diminish the numbers of people visiting Mexico. It also has not been enough to diminish the drug trade or the gangs pursuing it. These things become merged together by the many tourists who are travelling to Mexico specifically to buy drugs.

Anyone remember Arlo Guthrie's 1969 song 'Coming into Los Angeles'? It became famous at Woodstock, with the verse:

"Coming into Los Angeles, Bringing in a couple of keys, But don't touch my bags if you please, Mister Customs Man".

Evidently the travel/drug connection had been well known for some time. But for the modern Arlo, 'drugs are out'.

The illicit drug trade is a destructive cycle. Buyers of illicit drugs, including tourists, fuel a violent competition to deliver the drugs. Authorities seem to turn a blind eye to this trade when so-called 'tourists' are involved because there are concerns that Mexico's reputation of being tourist 'friendly' may become tarnished. So, buyers —and dealers, are usually able to escape police detention and/or criminal justice. Police may also be complicit. If anyone is arrested for dealing, they are usually back on the street the next day, dealing, as described here ...

"Anywhere where there's tourists, there's selling drugs.
What happened last year here, they arrested 40 people in this market...
4-0? 4-0.
... selling drugs, all kinds of drugs, and it was a big thing on the media.
And now they are back in business, so you can buy any kind of drugs."
(Stacey Dooley Investigates: Crime, Carnage and Cancun, BBC Documentary, 2013; transcript only)

One would think that the risk of being killed in some sort of imbroglio might be enough to avoid getting involved. But, apparently this isn't the case and an illicit, drug fueled, free-for-all ensues. But the media doesn't see fit to talk about this side —the attraction to getting high to party side of the drug game. This is why, let's face it, a lot of tourists visit these places and are willing to put themselves in the path of danger. Instead, popular media broadcasts an alarmist message to a wider, disconnected, audience who can't see what is going on. The opportunity to reveal, and possibly, curtail at least part of the action has been lost and the violence continues to ramp up.

Some people may argue that anyone who travels to Mexico already knows that illicit drugs and cartel violence are problems but the pushback is that not everyone knows when a drug deal is going down or what risks are associated with a deal going bad and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The issues around the illicit drug trade are hiding in plain sight but the alarmist message has done it's work in creating alarm. Sadly, there is no further knowledge or understanding that comes along with this message and this is where the media is really failing it's audience.

The violence in the drug trade is directly related to its profitability which is the obvious attraction. The focus of the illicit drug trade is to push drugs to end users through street level dealers. These are the people who make the drugs publicly available. These lower level drug dealers are also the most likely to be victims of violence because it is the local turf wars that cause most deaths. It is rarely the drug lords who get caught up in this, as was the case recently. But, it would not be unreasonable to assert that the heightened level of violence by the drug cartels in the capture of Ovidio Guzmán was specifically intended to guarantee that the story made worldwide headlines. Popular media themselves may have been manipulated. But, the popular media does not place the violence in context and the reader/viewer often does not have the tools to do this on their own. Everyone will benefit from viewing the problem in a broader context. Nonetheless, it appears the bad guys are winning and this can't be allowed to happen.

The popular media rarely report:

But facts are facts. Youth unemployment is a fact. Gang violence is a fact. Drug dealing is a fact. Tourists' purchases of illicit drugs is a fact. And, there's millions of tourists in Mexico.

But it must be emphasised that, within a population of around 127.5MM people combined with a visitor population near 100MM, that's close to a quarter of a billion people, albeit changing from time to time. Add to this the number of drug consumers in North America, which may be 20% of the population. So, that's another 70MM people over 12 years of age —which is shocking in itself. So, in the context of nearly 300MM people, there are going to be any manner of problems that can be dramatised. It just turns out that drug cartel violence is an easy hit, so it gets fast and frequent headlines. Publication of news stories that simply highlight violence undermine the tourism industry, the economic benefits that visitors bring and miss the opportunity to better the situation.

But harsh treatment of obvious criminal activity may be the only way to allow the visitors who have no interest in buying illicit drugs a safer, and more liberated, experience. To end the violence, the drug buying also needs to end. So, for example, one way that Mexican authorities could easily put a dent in the tourist drug trade is by widely publicising that tourists caught in a drug deal will be arrested, then tourists would be deterred from travel to Mexico with drug purchases in mind. The Washington Post reports on this, where, Tourist drug demand is bringing cartel violence to Mexico’s most popular resorts. As the article states, this is becoming a huge problem:

"A major reason the cartels are here is because of the large demand for drugs, especially among tourists,” said Lucio Hernández Gutiérrez, the security chief for Mexico’s Quintana Roo state. “It’s a very difficult thing to stop".

Popular media, so far, have not cottoned on to this important detail. It is not known exactly how many visitors do this but it is thought to be a large demand. So a lot of tourists are placing themselves directly in harm's way and are, in effect, asking for trouble and endangering others at the same time. The consequences of fulfilling the need to get 'high' are not even a consideration. But, why Mexican authorities might not be interested in controlling this trade is also clear —these visitors inject a lot of money into the Mexican economy, legally and otherwise. Sadly, this may end up to be a zero-sum game because the money earned may evaporate in the fight against the violence.

The unknown, or wildcard, in this discussion is the visitor who chooses to engage in dangerous activities. Tourists can be protected but only up to a point. The tourists see themselves as above the law. But when they cross the line into committing criminal acts, then they have exposed themselves to the risk of violence at a much higher level —along with possible detention and prosecution but this is rare. In this instance, it is difficult for authorities to protect tourists from themselves. Nonethless, news reports don't make any distinction regarding this type of tourist. In the news reports, a tourist is a tourist.

But, if there were no market, there would be no trade. It may seem ironic, even counter-intuitive, that it is the tourists themselves, the ones who are buying illicit drugs, that are mostly responsible for creating the context for this violence. It is an ethical breach of journalistic integrity when popular media, for the most part, choose not to report on this connection. But the connection is clearly there.

In addition, the misguided attraction to the 'celebrity culture' associated with illegal drugs also needs to be framed differently. These people are engaging in criminal acts and this needs to be portrayed as the negative role model that it really is, regardless of social 'position'. Publicising a famous person convicted in a drug deal would certainly make international headlines. But, it should be clear anyway that celebrities also fall victim to their own drug consumption and there are many example of this.

Awareness campaigns directed at visitors, along with Citizens everywhere, to explicitly tell them that their buying illicit drugs is a criminal act and is the primary cause of the violence and news media must be part of this. To simply report the violence is missing the point, along with the opportunity to help fix the problem. News media are vital in solving Societal issues and are responsible to report fairly, accurately and comprehensively. So, if the media can't uphold their own ethical standards, why should anyone trust them?

It is also true that vigilance is necessary to protect from violence. Visitors and Citizens alike need to be safety conscious at all times and avoid contact with the drug trade to stay safe, or even to go to places where drugs might be traded, such as night clubs. Simply, if you're a tourist, don't buy illegal drugs. This will, in turn, reduce demand which will, in turn, reduce gang violence. Also, check the coverage in your travel insurance policy, because it may be void if the policy holder is shown to be using illicit or prohibited drugs and, remember, they have better lawyers.

Dealing with the impacts of drug consumption also needs to be at the health care level and not by the criminal justice system. The 'War on drugs' so far hasn't worked and never will. Nonetheless, many people carry criminal records for minor infractions that will impact them deeply, such as when looking for a job. This is also a drag on Society. Decriminalising probably would not help here because this would still not stop the illegal selling of these drugs.

Incentivising street level dealers and their customers to seek medical or psychiatric help does seem far fetched but this may also be a stepping stone to reducing the illicit drug trade. Nothing else has worked so new approaches to dealing with the street level market need to be promoted. Media also need to be engaged in this fight. The media also have a duty to elevate the publicity around a violent incident to use it as a segway to discuss these other methods to deal with this destructive cycle.

A similar story plays out all over the World. Mexico is but one example where the interaction between illicit drugs, gang violence and tourists coalesce in a very bad situation. Places like Thailand or Cambodia also fall victim. Courtesy of the drug cartels, illicit drugs are available everywhere. Some countries like Spain, with its party cities Ibiza and Barcelona, are cracking down. The reason that Mexican violence is so prominent here in Canada is because it is, more or less, right on our doorstep and Mexico receives millions of Canadian visitors. Just be very careful, avoid the places where illegal drugs are traded when you visit and you probably will never have any problems.

But this is not the only aspect to be considered. Importantly, tourism and crime fighting are closely linked. Improvement in one will contribute to improvement in the other. Why? Because motivated young people will be able to find more opportunities for personal advancement that are longer lasting and far less exposed to risk of violence. News media rarely make the connection between unemployed youth and these opportunities.

When one looks at the huge numbers of visitors, it should come as no surprise that some of these people are going to die, or possibly be exposed to violent confrontations, while they are on vacation. There are still many more people dying due to Covid, with more than one thousand Mexicans dying so far in 2023. More visitors to Mexico die from disease, old age and other causes than from drug cartel violence. The reality is that ordinary tourists are rarely ever victims of gang violence. It does happen, but it is quite rare given the numbers of visitors that go there. The fact is that other criminal acts, such as petty theft committed against tourists, are much more common, mostly non-violent and could happen anywhere. News media rarely report on petty crime and reporting about travelling safely is not seen as news. Generally, tourists are safe and especially, if they practice some precautions, are unlikely to ever be a victim of violent acts.

So, the news media are complicit in propagating an incomplete, and otherwise false narrative, regarding drug cartel violence and the role that tourists play in this destructive mix. There can be no facile approach to reporting because there are no easy answers. We all have the right to demand better news reporting regarding this terrible and out of control situation.

Mexico travel advice by Global Affairs Canada

The advice in the official travel advisory states: Exercise a high degree of caution (with regional advisories)

The regional advisories have become more specific over time, which is very helpful in establishing an accurate view of the situation in a country, in this case with Mexico and its drug cartel violence. People reading the advisory still may need to do a bit of research to understand where the violence is most likely happening or how it may impact them. So, one needs to read this advisory carefully. It may also be helpful to seek other advice, such as from a travel agent who has some responsibility to make sure their client has a safe journey and also may be helpful in getting out of a jam. Tour package travel is another option wherein companies will be more knowledgeable about safe destinations as well as being a constant connection should anything not go as planned. In any case, the fact is that tens of millions of tourists are travelling annually to Mexico and the vast majority of these visitors have a safe and trouble free vacation.

More on my views on this topic:

Fake News about Crime in the Caribbean, 2017

There is a pattern of the way stories about crime in the Caribbean region are promoted and promulgated. There is an 'inference' of a potential impact without this being stated directly, but it is enough to leave a negative impression.

Caribbean Tourism and Crime in the Age of Information, 2017 (PDF)

Crime, specifically crime against tourists, is a primary concern for every traveller and every destination. This essay is an exploration of the relationship between crime, crime reporting and tourism. It is well known that media reporting can dramatically influence public perception of places, especially outside one's own home region. This becomes significant in
decision-making when these places are are not well understood.

Especially when media reporting concerns crimes in these places, the perception of the place may become very negative. This perception of the place can turn many prospective visitors away.