Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Safety in Mexico - Letter to the Editor

The following was published recently in the Sierra Vista Herald as a letter to the editor and was in response to recent articles in that paper. The accompanying fact sheet was not published. With permission of the author, Ted Berns, the letter and fact sheet by Gary are reproduced here for your information. Well written and well said by both gentlemen.

I just finished reading your latest story regarding drug related violence in Mexico entitled "Mexico morgues crowded with mounting drug war dead". I enjoy the Herald and I know you strive for balanced reporting. However there has been a significant failure on the part of National and local media to objectively explore the real risks of violence for those, like myself, who enjoy travel to Mexico. I have read literally dozens of stories such as the one mentioned above, but have not read a single report from anyone who actually lives, works and travels in Mexico regarding the actual level of danger to persons not involved in illegal activity.
Certainly the drug wars currently raging in that Country are real and deserve attention. However I believe you do your readers a great disservice by only reporting one side of this story. The following fact sheet was recently sent to me by a friend who has lived and worked in Mexico for over 40 years. I have owned property in Mexico for ten years and regularly travel throughout the Country. I have never felt threatened or unsafe. To the contrary, I have found the Mexican people to be extremely gracious, kind and generous even when the attitude of foreigners is less than pleasant. I know many other Sierra Vista residents who have had the same experience. Tourism in places like San Carlos and Rocky Point has suffered greatly in part due to the economy and in large part due to the overblown fear caused by stories such as your recent "Mexican Morgue" article.
These irrational fears are a tragedy both for the Mexicans who depend on tourism for their livelihoods and for the Americans who are intimidated into avoiding a wonderful culture and people because of the actions of an extremely small criminal society. In these tough economic times, the weak Mexican peso offers incredible bargains for American vacationers. A great dinner for two at a nice restaurant can be had for less than $20 US and nice accommodations can be rented for under $70.00.
Perhaps most troubling about the one sided reporting of the Mexican violence issue is that it plays directly into the hands of the drug cartels who wish to destabilize the government and increase their own economic power. Is there drug related violence in certain areas? Certainly. Is it in any way aimed at foreign tourists or Americans engaged in legitimate activities in Mexico? No. Americans who use common sense should have no fear about traveling in Mexico or enjoying the many positive aspects of that Country and its wonderful people.
Special Mexico Travel Safety Advisory
CRIME in the USA vs. MEXICO:
Just about every country in the world is now experiencing increased crime rates. However, there are usually safe areas in every country where the crime rate is lower or non-existent. The U.S. State Department put out a warning about the violence in Mexico. The report states that 128 Americans were killed in Mexico between January 2006 and December 2008.
Looking more closely at the data for the northwestern part of Mexico, including Rosarito Beach, Ensenada, Mexicali, San Felipe, Tecate and Puerto PeƱasco (Rocky Point) had 42 Americans killed, from all causes (there were at least four suicides) in the last three years combined. Those are the largest tourist areas of Northwest Mexico, excluding Tijuana. In Los Angeles County, there have been 103 murders in the last six months. In 2008, there were 324 homicides in L.A. County. People in Los Angeles would probably say that there are certain unsafe areas to avoid. According to the latest FBI crime statistics, Phoenix, AZ is the kidnapping capital of the US. People in Phoenix would probably say that there are certain unsafe areas to avoid. People living in Mexico would say the same thing.

For more than a dozen years more than five major US Motor Coach Tour Companies travel the Mexican Copper Canyon route every week with around 40 older/retiree passengers per coach. They travel through Nogales to San Carlos, then through the Copper Canyon, then up through Chihuahua and Juarez. There is even one company that travels exclusively from El Paso/Juarez to the Canyon and back; the areas covered by news reports. That's over 7000 tourists per year.

In all those years, including 2009, there has not been one incidence of drug related violence against any of them.

Recent FBI statistics show the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Baltimore is 43.3, Washington DC is 29.1, and Detroit is 47.

Mexico, which suffered an especially violent year in 2008, recorded a murder rate of about 10 per 100,000 inhabitants. Life is statistically far more dangerous in the north.
More information from the latest 2009 US State Department Travel Advisory: While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business), violence in the country has increased recently........Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable........U.S. citizens should make every attempt to travel on main roads during daylight hours, particularly the toll ("cuota") roads, which generally are more secure.
Reports of violence are extremely overblown. Some recent visitors to Mexico say the reports of disorder have been overly exaggerated. Paul G. from Arizona said "I would definitely say that the impression that the Americans get in the media is more intense and hyped-up than reality." Richard L. from New Mexico said "Millions of people go to Mexico every year without any incident whatsoever. However, I never drive my car at night and I always use the toll roads rather than driving through towns and cities. It's faster that way, too." Henry G. from Nevada said "The situation is grave in some sense, but it's not that significant for most tourists......But people need to be careful and stay informed where the major incidences are happening." Nancy K. from California said "People who know Mexico will keep going. It is less expensive than many places, and it is easier to get there." She continued "But then, I'm cautious. I don't do stupid things. I dress appropriately and I'm not rude to people. I try to speak Spanish as much as possible," she said, "These are all the things that I do as a traveler anywhere." Looking at crime statistics, it would appear that Americans are safer in Mexico, especially Sonora, than they are in many parts of the United States. There is violence in Tijuana and other border towns, however generally the violence is Mexicans against one another (much like gangs or gangsters of 1930's Chicago prohibition), the vast majority of Mexico's murder victims are themselves involved in the drug trade. This is also true with kidnapping, it's not tourists or snowbirds. It's also important to remember that the rise in violence is due to the pressure being placed on the cartels and corruption by a Mexican President and new administration that is dedicated to clean things up and removing as much corruption as possible.
On a personal note, I have traveled to and from San Carlos for more than 40 years. We have always traveled the main Federal Highway 15 and used common sense. We follow the rules. Neither we nor our friends or customers, to our knowledge, has ever been the victim of any drug related violence. We are not experts and we can't tell anyone what to do, but we do personally travel back and forth.

*Please, add previous correspondence when replying

Mayor of Rosarito Beach Mexico speak out against US media

By Hugo Torres, Mayor
Rosarito Beach, Mexico

ROSARITO BEACH, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO---In Rosarito Beach, as in much of Mexico, we are fighting two battles these days.

One is against organized crime. The other is against misleading media coverage that wrongly implies that much of Mexico is unsafe for visitors and residents, and which is devastating our economy.Some reporters, stories and outlets have been responsible and balanced, including some of those who know this area best. Many, perhaps most, have not.

The war that Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has launched against drug cartels (which are fed in part by a $38 billion yearly U.S. drug market) is indeed a serious one, one of vital concern for both our countries.

We welcome and invite serious and analytical coverage of this struggle. Such coverage can be of significant help to both countries, which have much at stake. What we don’t welcome is inaccurate, sensationalized, unbalanced and unfair coverage, which provides no insight but only promotes fear and misunderstanding. There has been far too much of this and it continues largely unabated.

Some media reports are simply biased and inaccurate. They are from individuals or media outlets that have an agenda against Mexico and will publish anything to promote it, whether or not it is true. What is more troubling are reports from mainstream media that present an unbalanced, superficial and worrisome portrait of what life is like in Mexico, including Baja, California.

This is sometimes done because sensationalism sells; other times because of lack of understanding: many reporters never even visit. At other times, the situation in one city is presented as if it represents all of Mexico, a vast country.

Reports repeatedly talk of 6,000 drug-related deaths in Mexico in 2008. (That surely is a troubling number, as is the existence of organized crime and the corruption it has caused. We’ve had to work hard in Rosarito to clean it up and it is a continuing challenge.) But what the reports don’t mention when they talk of killings is that Mexico is an immense country of 110 million people.

The reports often don’t mention that while some law enforcement personnel have been killed, cartel members primarily are killing each other as it becomes harder for them to do business, as they fight each other for shrinking territories.

What the reports also don’t mention is that in 2008, according to MSNBC, the murder rate in New Orleans was much higher than that of Tijuana. (Yet you will not see many if any stories warning people not to go to New Orleans. Much of the U.S. media uses far different standards when reporting stories outside the U.S.).

More troubling, the reports seldom state clearly that 90 percent or more of the killings in Mexico are drug-related. The typical resident is not targeted, nor is the visitor. As in New Orleans --- as in gang wars in Los Angeles --- the tourist is not the target.

Yet, those who watch or read many sensationalized media reports in the U.S. have become afraid to visit our region of Mexico, where tourism has dropped more than 50 percent, a reduction that has caused painful economic hardship here.

Sometimes reports cite, out of context, the U.S. State Department alert concerning travel to Mexico, indicating it advises people not to go.

In fact, while noting that drug-related violence has increased recently in Mexico, the alert (not a warning) in part advises “common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate businesses and tourist areas.’ That’s good advice for travelers most anywhere.

The U.S. State Department also notes that “millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including thousands who cross the U.S. land border every day for study, tourism or business).” You can read the entire alert on the U.S. Customs website.

Our many frequent visitors and expatriate residents (we have 14,000 in Rosarito alone) are among those who speak strongly of feeling secure here. They know the situation first-hand --- not from media reports.

This is not to say that Mexico does not have some crime problems, or that no visitor or U.S. resident will ever be victim of a crime in Mexico. With more than 20 million annual visitors and hundreds of thousands of expatriate residents, a crime will occasionally happen, just as it does in the U.S. and other countries.

But that is rare here.

More typical is the experience of Jack Flynn, owner of the Professional Longboard Association, who is a part-time Rosarito resident and has been coming here for decades to surf. He never has had one problem. He encourages people --- including fellow surfers --- to come see for themselves.

A graduate-level public affairs class at Emerson College, a prestigious communications school in Boston, recently began doing a study on U.S. coverage of Mexico. Already it has found many instances of sensationalism and bias, including from some prestigious media outlets from which better should be expected.

No one at Emerson is getting paid for this project. It is being conducted because the professor of the class, Gregory Payne, saw a vast difference between life in Rosarito, where his family has a home, and what the media was reporting.

He simply could not recognize the safe and enjoyable Rosarito he knows first-hand from the one he was encountering in media reports. He knows that with recent changes, Rosarito probably is safer than ever --- despite the impression created by many media reports.

We hope the Emerson project, along with other efforts and the media’s self-examination of its own reporting, will result in fairer coverage in the future. In the meantime, please talk to those who know the area first-hand --- or visit yourself --- to get an accurate picture.

Right now, you’re not getting one from many media reports.

(Hugo Torres is in his second three-year term as Mayor of Rosarito, which he began in December of 2007. Since taking office he has reformed the police force, adding a special tourist police force, and an office for visitor assistance.)