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Crime in Mexico: Is Puerto Vallarta unsafe for travelers?

My colleague Chris Owen has raised some good points about crime in Mexico in his piece on Saturday about the bus full of tourists who were recently robbed at gunpoint near Puerto Vallarta (PV), but as someone who has visited PV three years in a row, 2009-11, I'd like to offer another perspective on this issue.

Early reports of the incident left the impression that the tourists were robbed by a group of armed men in the city of Puerto Vallarta. But those reports were soon corrected to reflect the fact that the incident actually occurred in a remote jungle area well outside the city and involved a lone gunman, not a gang. Those early reports went viral across the Internet and the erroneous stories are likely to leave a lasting impression on Americans considering a trip to this region.

But a look a recent annual homicide rates in medium-sized American cities reveals that some have a higher murder rate than Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta- population- 255,725- homicides- 56 (2011) rate per 100,000-21.96
Miami- population- 399,457- homicides- 84 (2010) rate per 100,000- 21.0
Cleveland- population- 396,815- homicides- 88 (2011) - rate per 100,000- 22.2
Oakland- population- 390,724- homicides- 95 (2010) - rate per 100,000- 24.35
St. Louis- population- 319, 294- homicides- 144 (2010) - rate per 100,000- 45.14
New Orleans- population- 343,829- homicides- 199 (2011)- rate per 100,000- 58.0
Orlando- population- 238,300- homicides- 28 (2011)- rate per 100,000- 11.76
Las Vegas- population- 583, 756- homicides- 86 in 2011, 116 in 2010- rate per 100,000- 14.75/19.89
Buffalo- population- 261,310- homicides- 36 in 2011, 55 in 2010- rate per 100,000- 13.79/21.07

The tourists in Puerto Vallarta weren't harmed, and because murders are often gang or drug related, homicide rates aren't always an accurate barometer to gauge the overall threat level to tourists. But they do give you a general idea on the level of violent crime in a place.

I disagree with those who argue that bloggers and the mainstream media shouldn't report incidents of crime in tourist destinations like Puerto Vallarta. Chris is right to report on this and other incidents. But he writes that "this latest incident of crime involving tourists in Mexico adds yet another legitimate reason for travelers to stay away from Mexico or at least exercise extreme caution when visiting."

I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that travelers should avoid an entire country, especially a huge one like Mexico, which has 31 states and a population approaching 100 million, based upon one or more individual incidents in specific places. There were 199 homicides in New Orleans last year. Granted, the vast majority of them didn't involve tourists, but even if they had, would that mean that tourists should also avoid skiing in Vermont, visiting vineyards in Napa or seeing the Grand Canyon? I don't think so. There are dangerous places in Mexico, but there are also plenty of safe places as well.
And Chris obviously knows this as well, as this post about his trip to Mazatlan last October illustrates. His point that visitors should exercise caution is a good one-- travelers should always exercise caution in any city, pretty much anywhere in the world. But what does it mean to exercise "extreme caution?"

Does that mean that tourists should remain cloistered inside an all-inclusive resort afraid to go out without a bulletproof vest and a Glock tucked in their waistband? The truth is that you can build an anecdotal case against visiting almost any city in the world by finding examples of crimes that have been committed there. The tourists who were robbed have every right to be angry and I wouldn't blame them for not wanting to return to Mexico, but their story doesn't necessarily negate the experiences of millions of other tourists who have traveled to Mexico without incident.

I've traveled to Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding region with my wife and two small children three years in a row and we've always felt very safe, even at night, even in un-crowded non-touristy areas, like the working class neighborhood of Pitillal. That doesn't mean that bad things can't happen there, but I would return in a heartbeat. There is also a huge community of American and Canadian snowbirds in Puerto Vallarta, and all of the long-time winter residents I've met there over the last few years have told me that the city is pretty safe.

After noting the recent cruise passenger robbery incident, Owen notes, "crime is nothing new for Puerto Vallarta though." I don't think that crime is new for any medium-sized city anywhere in the world. Owen cites the case of a Canadian who was brutally murdered in Puerto Vallarta on May 30, 2011 as further evidence that PV is a dangerous place. But as others have noted, the victim wasn't a tourist- he lived in PV and operated a business there. Local police indicated that the crime scene seemed to indicate that the victim and perpetrator knew each other.

That doesn't reduce the impact of the crime but the fact is that violent crimes occur in even the safest of places. The Amanda Knox case, for example, played out in Perugia, a beautiful hill town in Umbria. Would you avoid visiting Umbria or the whole of Italy based upon the murder of one British exchange student?

Obviously the incident involving the Canadian expat and the tour bus robbery aren't the only crimes that have occurred in Puerto Vallarta and crime there and across Mexico remains a serious problem. But I think it's a mistake to seize upon a news report here or there and then make broad, sweeping conclusions about the security situation in the entire country.

The fact is that tourists have been robbed in probably every decent sized city in the world at one point or another, including American cities. The difference is that, in large U.S. cities, an armed robbery might not even make the paper if the victim isn't hurt. When I lived in D.C. (I'm now in the suburbs), I knew two women from my apartment building who were robbed at gunpoint, in separate incidents, coming home at night from the Potomac Avenue metro stop. Neither incident merited even a brief mention in the Washington Post.

Puerto Vallarta's economy revolves around tourism and Mexican officials are smart enough to know that they'll need to redouble efforts to prevent crimes like this one from occurring again. In the meantime, travelers who are concerned about violent crime should consider visiting smaller towns, rather than big cities- not just in Mexico but also in many countries around the world.

One place that I highly recommend is San Pancho, a lovely beach community about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta that is about as safe as Mayberry.

Photos taken by Dave Seminara. (1) Beach in PV, 2) the pool at the Westin- Puerto Vallarta and 3) the beach in San Pancho.)

Filed under: North America, Mexico, News

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