Modern Mexico: The Real Story

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

If you turn on the news from anywhere in the United States you’ll only ever hear one story about Mexico: that it’s a dangerous place full of thieving Mexicans, dangerous criminals, bloodthirsty cartels and random acts of violence. You’ll only ever see Mexico mentioned when it’s in relation to some horrific cartel-on-cartel battle.

I am constantly fielding emails from people asking me about the violence in Mexico. Is it safe? Can I bring my family there? Am I going to be kidnapped? Are the cartels going to kill me?

Washington D.C. has a 31.4 in 100,000 murder rate as of 2010. That means 31.4 people in 100,000 are dying from a violent crime or murder. Cancun, Mexico, on the other hand, only has a 2 in 100,000 rate. Mexico City is a 9, which is exactly the same as New York City. On the international scale that governments use to define “dangerous”, the vast majority of Mexican cities and the country as a whole are as safe (if not safer than) the United States.

Ciudad de Juarez, the center of the cartel action, had a rate of 250 in 100,000 as of 2010. Juarez is without a doubt a dangerous place. It is one city.

Washington D.C. is without a doubt a dangerous place when compared to others. It is one city.

Neither of these cities define the rest of their respective countries.

Just because Washington D.C. has a high murder rate doesn’t make the rest of the United States a dangerous place to live or travel. And just because Juarez and the surrounding area has a high murder rate doesn’t make the rest of Mexico a dangerous place to live or travel.

The modern Mexico is a country that is slowly gaining traction and moving into the developed world. The economy is getting better, although the wages still aren’t what they could be. Thankfully, the Internet has allowed many educated Mexicans the opportunity to find work online via both English and Spanish channels, and that freedom and extra money is starting to be seen as young adults and professionals are beginning to fill the general population.

There is high speed Internet in every corner of the country. Massive plazas dot the landscape throughout all the major cities. Every major international car dealership is here. There are numerous international chain stores and restaurants. You can buy an iPad or computer anywhere. And just as there are back-wood valleys and places where rednecks and hillbillies live in places like Arkansas and South Carolina in the United States, there are plenty of undeveloped sections of the country where the Mexican equivalent lives. Simply, and without much in the way of modern amenities.

The modern Mexico is a country of great opportunity for the expat. The cost of living is extremely low, yet you can have every modern creature comfort you want, in every city. You can go from living in the mountains in places like San Cristobal or Oaxaca, or you can live on the beach in a place like Playa del Carmen or Mazitlan. Mexico City is the exact same as New York City in terms of crime rates, size, global banking opportunities, international corporation headquarters, universities, living conditions and beyond…but it only costs $12,000 to $15,000 a year to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle compared to the $50,000 a year you need to live in NYC.

Modern Mexico is not a place to be feared. The chances of you having something happen to you are the same as they would be living and traveling around the United States. People fire guns all the time in L.A. Gangs exist. Just as they do in NYC. And Mexico City. You could point your finger at any given city or country and find something that’s “not safe” about it. The key is knowing how much is propaganda and how much is actual truth.

Mazatlan

The unfortunate reality is that most Americans have grown up thinking of Mexicans in only one light: they are the garbage-truck drivers, the landscapers and yard workers, the street cleaners, janitors, farm hands and maids of the United States. They do all the jobs that the white, entitled U.S. citizens don’t want to do for themselves because “the pay isn’t enough” or because it’s a low-skill, manual labor job. The news in the United States only ever talks about Mexicans as they are involved in violent crime or cartels and drugs. As a result, the average U.S. citizen thinks that Mexico is a den of thieves, a country of starving natives who are willing to do anything for a dollar, who are born-and-bred criminals and manual laborers. They don’t know any better because they’ve been raised on a drip-feed of just how dangerous South of the Border is. It’s ignorance by simple lack of education, no different than a starving child in Africa who’s never learned how to do simple mathematics.

Yes, Jaurez and the areas north where the cartels are warring is certainly dangerous, but not because you will be singled out. It’s cartel-on-cartel violence, and the only risk would be ending up as collateral damage if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for the ordinary, average expat choosing to head to Mazatlan for a year to live with the wife and kids or for the modern poet looking to hole up in a mountain retreat in Chiapas for six months to get some writing done…Mexico is an absolutely safe and modern place to live, with everything you could ever need with a cost of living that’s very appealing and a friendly, passionate people who are full of the Latin zest for life and fiestas.

Plus, let’s face it…everyone loves mota, tequila, tacos, quesadillas, arrachera and ceviche :)

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.

12 Comments

  • Lo, Frank, great to know that you had a good time. I get those same questions often regarding safety; people just don’t realize because of all the Western propaganda.

    For Oaxaca, no; we don’t have a lot of information on that area.

  • Frank says:

    Hey Tim! Always enjoy your insights and you’re dead on. Did some travel through Central Mexico earlier this year and loved it – nice people, great food, fabulous architecture. And I always felt safe. I have some people who come to my blog and although they say they like my posts on Mexico, always say that they wouldn’t go there. I don’t get that.
    I’m supposed to be going to Oaxaca next April to visit my mom. Do you have any great tips/resources on this city and surrounding area?
    Cheers,
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Cheers, Cathy.

    Yeah…danger can exist in *any* country, it’s just that Western media *loooves* to blow things out of proportion to keep people scared and at home in suburbia, spending their dollars on the home turf rather than benefiting another country abroad.

  • Cathy says:

    Hi T.W.! Thanks for stopping by Cathy Trails, really appreciate it. You are absolutely right. All we ever hear on the news is the dark side of the moon, the worst of the worst which honestly doesn’t even happen all that much.

    Like you saw on my recent blog post, my family and I were just in Mexico and we did not run into one single thing. I was in Paris in January when there were bombs being implanted in the metro, in Bangkok in February/March when they found bombs implanted underneath taxi cabs and I am fine. Although tragedies do continue to occur every single day and in every single country – – we must continue to live because we will die someday. 😉

  • Yep! This is the reality of living in other countries as an expat. So many people don’t get it….beachfront property that you can rent for $250-$500 USD per month. You can’t find beachfront property for less than $3,000 a month in most cases in the U.S. or the U.K., but throughout Latin America that’s about the normal price.

  • Will says:

    Thanks for the recommendation on rental website.

    I’ve taken a look already and am amazed at the prices for housing. It’s incredible to see rent for about $250-400/month on rent near the beach. In the U.S. you can rent a parking space for that much!

  • @Will

    Sure….you can check out Viva Street, it’s one of my favorites for rentals in Mexico. You can see plenty of nice, furnished rentals for as low as 3,000 pesos per month, which is about 225-250 USD, give or take.

  • Will says:

    Any recommendations for Mazatlan apartments? Something good but not fancy.

  • And your ex-boss was playing right into the hands of Western Media and the Hotel Zone players.

    I live in the real Cancun, in centro. I’ve walked the streets at midnight, alone, for the past two years. I’ve never been pickpocketed, mugged or threatened in any way. There are only about 2 murders per 100,000 in the entire Quintana Roo area; almost nothing ever happens here. It is super safe.

    Now, granted, you can still get mugged walking alone at 3 in the morning if you have a ton of flashy jewelry/gadgets, but if you play it smart and look like just another flip-flop-wearing local, nobody ever bothers with you. Plus, you can get mugged in ANY city.

    My costs here are way less than $12,000 to $15,000, but I use those numbers to give the upper end. I live simply, so I don’t need to be out in the clubs spending $30-$50 per night on drinks/girls/parties. My bills haven’t gone above $800 a month for all but two of my months in Mexico so far, so I’m living here in Cancun for around $9,000-$10,000 a year. And Cancun is one of the most expensive places in Mexico to live.

    The bottom picture is Mazatlan. It’s one of the “Mexican” resorts on the west coast, off the beaten path for most tourists. There’s a lot of artists/backpackers/expats there, but not a lot of the Cancun variety of Spring-Breakers. Also one of the largest tuna producers in Mexico, so great place if you love fresh seafood.

    It’s also a couple hundred a month cheaper than Cancun if you know where to look. I was thinking about going up for for a “Live Like a Local” guide this fall if I don’t end up going to Santiago, so I’ve already researched quite a bit, and I have several local friends who have lived there.

  • Will says:

    TW:
    My ex-boss (what a great word, eh?) said that he was advised not to go outisde the resorts in Cancun because it was “dangerous.” After reading your article it was probably “dangerous” that he may spend his money elsewhere!

    $12-15k/ year is awesome. Maybe I’ll take a mini-test out to Mexico.
    What city is that bottom picture? Looks nice!

  • @ Micki:

    Absolutely. Yeah, some of the violence can be pretty bad, but it’s extremely isolated and only affects a very small part of Mexico.

    As far as Playa, Cancun, Tulum and the Riviera Maya go, this is just about the safest place in the whole of Mexico. It’s their cash baby, so they make sure things are safe here as anywhere else. It’s a lot like Margarita Island down in Venezuela. It’s a long, long way from Caracas and a totally different world.

    I absolutely love Mexico. I’ve never once felt threatened and I’ve never had any issues, knock on wood. As long as you do the common sense stuff (don’t leave the house with more than 20-30 in cash, no cards, no flashy jewelry, past midnight on dark streets, etc.) there are zero chances of anything happening to you. Or, I guess, in the case of Cancun, a 2 in 100,000 chance. Which is more than you can say of living in Washington D.C. for example =P

  • Thanks so much for this perspective! I’m from Canada, and it seems like every night the mainstream media’s running stories about cartel violence in Mexico (and to be fair, some of it’s pretty gruesome).

    But you’re exactly right. The violence is largely limited to specific areas, and mostly limited to members of the cartels.

    We spent several months in Playa del Carmen last year, and not a sign of a problem. All of the expats living there said the same…

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