News stories this week about Canadians killed in Mexico have people asking whether the country is safe to visit.

Robin Wood from Salt Spring Island, B.C. was gunned down during a home invasion in Melaque on Jan 2. Three days later, Ximena Osegueda, a University of British Columbia student, and partner Alejandro Alvarado were found stabbed and strangled with their hands tied behind their back near a beach in Huatulco.

The Mexican government is expecting 2012 to be a good year for tourism. In fact, Mexico is expecting 52 million tourists to visit its five southern states, thanks to the misguided hype about 2012 and the Maya calendar. That compares to 22 million foreign visitors to all of Mexico in 2011.

CBC News contacted Walter McKay in Mexico City to ask him about safety concerns for tourists in Mexico. A former Vancouver police detective, McKay is now a security consultant in Mexico, where he moved six years ago.

As well as consulting for individuals and businesses operating in Mexico, McKay has a website that maps and tabulates narco-related killings in the country.  The results show Mexico had 18,601 murders in 2011. That's about 51 per day, up from 37 per day in 2010.

(The map at the bottom of the page shows the cities in Mexico mentioned in this story.)


CBC News: How safe is it for tourists visiting Mexico?

Walter McKay: There are areas that are very dangerous, like Ciudad Juarez, but there are also states like Campeche and the Yucatan that have had only one murder in the whole year, but that doesn't make the news.

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Walter McKay, a Mexico City-based security consultant, maintains the website policereform.org, which tracks narco-related killings in Mexico. (Courtesy of Walter McKay)

For the year 2010, Ciudad Juarez had almost 300 people killed per 100,000. It's horrifying. But it's not a tourist area.

What people from Canada want to know is, if I go to Cancun or Puerto Vallarta or Merida, am I going to be running through a hail of gunfire? And the answer is no.

If you are a tourist and you come down here with the kids to Puerto Vallarta every summer and you stick to the tourist areas, then you're fine.

If you are going to frequent bars, if you are going to look for drugs, if you are buying or selling drugs, or involved in any kind of illicit activity, your odds of being affected by violence in Mexico are going to increase dramatically. If you are here to just drink beer and soak up the sun on the beaches, then you're fine.

Has the violence been getting better or worse?

McKay: Generally, it's getting worse. There was a very high increase in narco-related violence due to organized crime and this drug war that [President Felipe] Calderon launched in December 2006. It spiked exponentially in 2010 and 2011. In 2007, it was an average of nine or ten people per day and last year it's up to 51 people killed each day.

Where do you see it going in the next year or so?

McKay: It's about as violent as it can get. When that many people get killed in horrific manners — decapitation, burning, bodies dissolved in acid — you can't get much worse than that.

The violence has now spread out from Ciudad Juarez as the cartels fight for different areas. The declining violence in Ciudad Juarez is because one side is winning. I think, what you are seeing is the dominance of one gang taking over because you've got more members on the same team now.

Other areas — ­Culiacan, Puerto Vallarta , Jalisco ­— are starting to heat up. These are now battlefronts.

In 2010 there were some 15,000 execution-style murders. This year it's 18,600 so it's worse than last year.

What tourist areas of Mexico are the safest?

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Tourists walk underneath a pier in Cancun on Feb. 1, 2011. At the time, Mexico was seeking to overhaul its image abroad during a raft of bad publicity over drug-related violence, including beheadings and shootings, that has been taking a toll on the holiday industry. Foreign tourism is a key source of income for Mexico. (Gerardo Garcia/Reuters)

McKay: The east coast, Cancun, Merida, are still fine. Veracruz is a state I would avoid. When you have gangsters dumping 35 bodies on a freeway in the middle of the day, that just does not give me confidence about the city or the state of Veracruz.

Oaxaca, all the beaches along there are secure.

If I wanted to be absolutely safe, I would go to Cancun.  Los Cabos, Baja California as a state, is fairly free of violence.

The murders of the two Canadians were in places on the Pacific coast. What about other places on the Pacific side?

McKay: There is some activity in Puerto Vallarta but I think it's still safe if you stick to the tourist zones. Part of this is the tourists aren't particularly targeted. The overall level of violence we see is the organized crime groups fighting against each other over turf, for money.

They're not going to target tourists, they don't want to shoot themselves in the foot. They own a lot of these businesses, and a lot of this land and they don't want to see that revenue dry up, either.

What about the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area?

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Relatives of a young man killed by unknown assailants mourn at a crime scene in Acapulco on Oct. 18, 2011. McKay's website shows eight narco-related killings in Acapulco during the last week of 2011. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

McKay: That area had been quiet but in the last eight months it has been heating up because of what's happened around Acapulco, following the killing of [cartel boss Arturo] Beltran Leyva and the splintering of the gang into several different factions that are now fighting for control.

Acapulco had up to ten killings a day there for a while. Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo — ­a three to four hour drive north — have an average of 5-10 people killed in that area each month. Some days you'll get four or five bodies showing up. So there is activity there.

The Mexican tourism industry often points to crime rates in other Central American and Caribbean countries, which have very high murder rates.

McKay: That's fair enough. For example, Mexico City has a murder rate that's lower than many American cities, Chicago or Miami, for example. I live in Mexico City and I've lived in Los Angeles and they both have areas you avoid. There are areas as a tourist you wouldn't go.

Although I did backpack through Mexico in 2001, I wouldn't advise backpacking through Mexico these days. Calderon's initiative of waging this war is creating a culture of violence. Within this new culture, when you have problems, you solve them with a gun or you solve them with killing people.

Where to go in Mexico

Security consultant Walter McKay is often asked about safe locations for tourists in Mexico. Here's a list of some places that are safe, not safe, or somewhere in between.

Safe:

  • Cancun
  • Cozumel
  • Playa del Carmen
  • Merida
  • Campeche
  • Oaxaca
  • Mexico City
  • Los Cabos

Not safe:

  • Acapulco
  • Veracruz
  • Ciudad Juarez
  • Guadalajara
  • Chihuahua
  • Jalisco

(Editor's note: Huatulco was listed when this story was first published, and was removed from the Not Safe list on Jan. 27, 2012.) 

In between:

  • Puerto Vallarta
  • Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo
  • Tijuana

These people are realizing that the security forces, the justice system, basically, grant them immunity because they're just not solving any of these crimes.

For the most part, everybody is law-abiding; but those who aren't really have no deterrent. And if you're a young tourist, you've got a backpack, you've got some money or you just look out of place, you're looking like a target, like a walking ATM machine and they are going to withdraw cash from you as soon as they can.

How reliable are the government's crime statistics?

McKay: That's a very good question. The government had promised to be transparent and to release reports about what's happening in the country and they released a report that 35,612 people have been killed between Dec 2006 to Dec. 31, 2010. But they haven't released anything since.

The statistics now are from newspapers.

That's the impetus for my providing the data on my website. I have three volunteers who help me scan all the local media in the country and we post anything related to the narco-violence on my map. Then you can link to the story from there.

If you are a tourist and, say, you want to visit Puerto Vallarta, you can click on my maps back a few years, or even to yesterday, and see what's been reported in the media and know what everybody else knows as a local. You don't have to take the government's word. And how can we take their word when they haven't released a report in over a year now?

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Map of Mexico shows places discussed in the interview. (Ruby Buiza/CBC)