How safe are you at a Mexican resort?
A security expert advises travellers on what safety issues to look for
When security expert Walter McKay walked into a guestroom at the luxury JW Marriott resort in Cancun, Mexico, the first thing he spotted was a broken lock on the balcony door.
"The other balcony is right there. Only an eight-inch gap and you can hop right over," he said, pointing to the adjacent room. "And that's a crime of opportunity."
The four-and-a-half star hotel, to its credit, immediately fixed the door. But with more than a million Canadians heading to Mexico each year, the broken latch illustrates one of a number of security issues prospective guests should be aware of when visiting a resort.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, 32 Canadians were homicide victims in Mexico between 2000 and 2011.
So far this year, three Canadians have been killed. As well, Sheila Nabb, 37, of Calgary was found bloodied and unconscious in the elevator of her five-star resort in Mazatlan.
Second most popular destination
Despite the headlines, Canadians continue to flock south. The Mexico Tourism Board estimates1.6 million Canadians visited Mexico in 2011, making it the second most popular destination for Canadians after the United States.
While pointing out that Canadians who stick to the resorts and popular tourist areas are unlikely to face any major incidents, McKay offered some cautionary advice for travellers.
McKay, a former Vancouver police detective who is now a security consultant based in Mexico City, walked CBC News through some resorts in Cancun, describing the security features he looks at when assessing hotels. They include:
- The type of security used.
- Employee training.
- Security procedures.
- The level and types of crime in the neighbourhood.
McKay’s site analysis also focuses on features such as outside accessibility and whether doors to the resort are locked and in good condition. He notes where graffiti and debris – such as needle caps, condoms and wrappers – are scattered about the resort, checks for areas of concealment, night and day lighting and access to help.
Not all resorts offer the same level of security. All-inclusives, where guests are required to wear wristbands, may seem to offer more protection. But at one three-star resort CBC News was able to enter, walk around the grounds, gain access to the floors and the pool area without being stopped.
"I haven't seen a single camera here," McKay said. "But really visible cameras are a deterrent.
"Now you can see what happened in Mazatlan with Nabb is that you have a guy here, comes in, he doesn't even have to have a bracelet, because we don't. We have yet to speak to anybody or be challenged."
Geography plays role in security
Geography also plays a role in hotel security, as does the resort’s proximity to the local population.
The hotel strip in Cancun is located on a peninsula, keeping it far from the local population and making it a difficult target for crime. However, the hotel area in Mazatlán is centred in the city itself, giving the locals ready access, easy routes of escape and more chances for crimes of opportunity.
At the JW Marriott and its adjoining resort, the CasaMagna Marriott, guards at two 24-hour security gates check cars, record licence plates and ask people their room number or whom they are visiting.
"If the person does not have the room number and name of [guest], they don't come in," Marriott security manager Luciano Herrera said during a tour of the resorts.
But McKay said those measures — depending on the time and the resort's location — can be overkill.
"The reason it's there is because this particular hotel – this particular resort – is frequented by the very wealthy in Mexico," McKay said. "And this is the kind of security they expect, whether it’s needed or not."
The beach is another point of possible entry for criminals. Only one lifeguard each at the JW Marriott and CasaMagna keeps on eye on people walking into the resort.
"If this was Miami or you had the downtown core, then I'd be worried," McKay said, standing on the sandy shore. "But this is on a peninsula – basically one long beach of hotels."
The number of security cameras can also be a good indicator of the seriousness devoted to security measures by a resort.
The JW Marriott and the CasaMagna have more than 100 cameras between the two hotels, situated, often in plain view, around the lobby, hotel floors and the pool. (Herrera acknowledged there are some areas at the JW hotel room floors that are out of view of the cameras. He said they hope to have more cameras installed soon.)
Cameras can be effective deterrent
Recordings are kept for 20 days to help in crime investigations, McKay said, adding that while cameras can be effective as a deterrent, they're mostly there as an investigative tool.
"Generally you only catch bad guys after the [crime], so that's what the cameras are great for, so then you just backtrack. It doesn't stop crime, it just helps solve them later."
McKay praised the security detail of the two hotels – nearly 50 security officers staff the two facilities – with three people and a supervisor constantly making rounds. All staff must take a first-aid course twice a year.
"Good staff presence, lots walking with radios, which is a deterrent," McKay said during a walk through the pool area."
None of the staff carry weapons; authorities are called in to handle major security issues.
McKay said tourists should also be aware of the lighting of the hotel grounds and check for potential hiding spots in dark shadows or bushes.
"Have a look at the hotel during the daytime, but have a good look at night before you go out," he said, noting that but for a spot near the front garden the lighting at the JW Marriott was good. "It looks different at night – easier to get lost, easier to get confused. You'll see the darker spots."
Overall, McKay gave high marks to the CasaMagna and JW Marriott, calling the hotels a good example of sound security.
"Guys who prey upon tourists – this is a very hard scenario for them," he said.