Research on Moving to Mexico Fraught with Pitfalls
Conducting online research on moving to Mexico can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to the argument that you shouldn’t move to Mexico because it’s too dangerous. In spite of what people who actually live in Mexico say, it's easier to get scared than get the facts.
Like the U.S, by most all accounts Mexico is safe with the exemption of certain cities or neighborhoods. A few of the most dangerous cities in Mexico have always been dangerous, border towns like Cuidad Juarez and Tijuana for example.
Stories about Tijuana are the stuff of legend, dating back to when some of our grandfathers were young and coming down here to raise hell.
Honors shift from year to year somewhat in both countries. If a Mexican was investigating moving to the U.S., he would probably want to avoid Detroit (matching Tijuana as an American perennial favorite), Baltimore, Memphis, Birmingham, St. Louis and New Orleans.
New entrants in 2016 were Kansas City, Little Rock and Rockford, Illinois, all boasting over 1,500 incidents of violent crime per 100,000 people.
Latin America does have the distinction of being the most dangerous continent, and news agencies like to paint them all with the same brush, as when Fox News headline brayed last year, “Mexico Home to 5 of World’s Deadliest Cities” and went on to say the deadliest of the five was in Honduras, which of course is a different country, but what the heck, it was accurate enough for Fox News.
Knowing things change from year to year, one day I thought I might get a better sense of current conditions in other parts of Mexico from where I live and decided to check out some forums.
Almost immediately I ran into this one, posted by one Cozumel Deb (so we have to assume she lives in Cozumel, right?) in response to query “Should I move to Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlán?” She wrote
“Drug cartels killed Mazatlan, housing cheap because ex-pats lost their asses on real estate..there was a time when cruise ships would not even dock there..Safety first...Expat community's Lake Chapala & Ajijic are rated #1 expat location, near perfect climate...if you are more interested in ocean, Yucatan/QROO is the best.”
Ruh Roh! Since I live in Mazatlán and have for several years, the fact that drug cartels had "killed" Mazatlan came as big news. I did know that cruise ships indeed didn’t stop in Mazatlán between about 2009 and 2012.
I was so alarmed by the review that I called my associate, a property manager who has lived here for 12 years for clarification. If people were heading out, she'd know.
“No…I really never noticed any changes…..” she said (along with the tone that implied, “You of all people should know better….”). Elise is accustomed to silly inquiries about safety from skittish and uninformed new expats. She was probably more than a little surprised to get one from her partner who lives four doors down the block from her.
It's true there was abnormal drug violence between 2009-12. Two other big reasons cruise ships quit coming were high port fees and the H1N1 flu virus scare at about the same time. Factored together, they were enough for a three year halt, ending in 2012.
Still paranoid that all this violence was going on right under my nose, I called my Mexican friends and asked them if there was a conspiracy to keep murders and violent crime out of the news and expats in the dark. They too, seemed surprised by the question. Drug violence is not part of their day to day lives any more than violence would be part of your life just because your city had a housing project.
CozumelDeb´s post illustrates a number cognitive challenges that arise when you do research on where to live in Mexico. One of the hardest is resisting what is known as the “availability heuristic” or “availability bias.”
The availability bias is “a human cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate the probability of events associated with a memorial or dramatic occurrence”. Put another way it is basing a judgement on the most readily accessible or recent information, while not necessarily the most accurate.
For example, only bad (yet more dramatic) news about Mexico makes major American papers, and likewise similar stories are more enthusiastically passed from vacationer to vacationer. Those stories are more available (because they are more sensational) than realistic ones, giving them disproportionate weighting in our heads.
An estimated 1 million Americans live here, along with about 500,000 Canadians. You will meet many Europeans who like the sunshine too. While millions travel through Mexico every year for vacations, business or study, the rare incident has more journalistic legs than millions of people coming home in one piece and happy year after year.
Another challenge is that people don’t have a sense of how big Mexico is. If you were trying to research moving to Tampa, Florida, you wouldn’t trust information provided by someone who lived in Baltimore. You would want to talk to someone who currently lived in Tampa.
The fact that Cozumel Deb lives in the country of Mexico somehow gives her credibility in spite of the fact we wouldn't look to a New Yorker to tell us about Dallas (although a Mexican might.)
Another challenge is that the State Department warnings are for entire states of Mexico, which has 31 states and one federal district, but don't break it down by region or city. According to the State Department, the following are the most dangerous states (10) in Mexico.
- Baja California
- Coahuila -
- Chihuahua - Juarez is in this state
- Jalisco -
- Michoacán -
- Nuevo Leon -
- Sinaloa - Mazatlán is located in this state.
- Sonora -
Most of us would guess a big difference between living in Alexandria, Virginia, a few metro stops from Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, only two hours away.
Yet from afar, most of us don’t as quickly mark the distinction between Mazatlán, Sinaloa and Culiacan, Sinaloa. Culiacan is the capital of the state and does have more violence. It is about the same distance apart as Alexandria, Virginia is from Richmond, Virginia (the two of which in my opinion have nothing in common other than both being inhabited by human beings).
Even within the same city, we may not worry too much about crime even 10 miles away from our homes in the U.S. but worry about violence in even the same state if we are considering moving or visiting Mexico.
State Department warnings don't make any distinctions either. They paint the brush over an entire state even when the danger may be limited to a city, or even to just certain rural roads around a particular city at night.
A final challenge may be one of simple racism. Mexico is darker. Would you feel as intimidated in bar at one a.m. in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which tops the chart for European lack of safety, as you would in its Hispanic equivalent?
Where you are and how you act are the main factors in determining how safe you will be in Mexico. Research will provide scant little other than eliminating the most obvious bad choices.
Once you narrow down your options and eliminate those that are obvious, the only way to know how safe you will feel is to talk to people who actually live there and visit for awhile.
When you get there, make some friends, keep your eyes open, check how old the information is and above all, consider your sources.
"477 Days, 521 Mass Shootings" - a report from the New York Times following the Las Vegas shootings. And you're wondering if Mexico is safe.
According to this story, burros and cobblestones are the among the Top Ten Most Dangerous Things about Miguel San Allende, one of the most popular expat destinations in Mexico.
On a more serious note, traveling between certain cities in Mexico is undeniably less safe in Mexico and here are some tips. by Discover GDI (Guadalajara)
Up next: The retirement crisis and you, together at last.
I'm am a partner with Ventanas Mexico which provides insight and resources to those considering expat life in Mexico, including a guide on renting, "If Only I Had a Place."
I am also author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web, organized into lesson plans by level.