How safe is Central Mexico these days?

View of lovely San Miguel de Allende, from the Rosewood Hotel

In 2001, before 9/11, I set off on a 2-month sabbatical to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, to teach a dance class and take a well deserved break after completing a project on a global business theater in New Jersey.  I chose San Miguel because I had taken a Gabrielle Roth workshop at Escalon in Big Sur the year prior and wanted to further my studies.  One of my friends from Escalon had already moved to SMA and was teaching yoga.  She called me one day and said, “Hey Meags!  The dance teacher here is about to leave because she’s having a baby, why don’t you get your butt down here and teach for a while?”

After planning and whatnot, I arrived in San Miguel on June 29, 2001, ready to begin my two-month sabbatical and to get to know Mexico, a place I had not yet seen before.  It’s a beautiful mountainous town, not desert-ee or covered with cacti and lazy donkeys, but rather it’s considered to be the San Francisco of Mexico; it never gets too hot or too cold (well, not for too long because I certainly was hot and cold), has a bustling international artist community and has a big gay community.  Oh and Texans, plenty of Texans. Gay and straight.

I was not afraid of anything about this Mexican town yet had I listened to my mother, I would have never gone, which is why I have never listened to my mother.  Oh wait, there was one thing I was terrified of and that was scorpions.  My roommate didn’t even think of them; I looked for them all the time and guess what?  I found them all the time!  And usually in my bedroom! On the wall above me!  In the middle of the night!  I can still literally hear them stitching across the walls… even today the thought of it gives me shivers. Blaaaaah scorpions.  And fuzzy spiders. Ok I’ll stop!  But other that insect fears, I was totally at peace with this little town and all the new sights and sounds it offered.  I adored it.

Today there is a much bigger community of younger people as well, involved in all sorts of digital and technological art projects, but this community has dwindled compared to about 5 years ago.  When I arrived for the first time in my mid-thirties, I was considered one of the younger ones, but that would not have been the case had I arrived 10 years later at that age.  I was there this past March and saw how the town has exploded with people and construction, yet had also crumbled.  When the US has an economic sniffle, Mexico has full-blown pneumonia.  And the US had much worse a sniffle.  So many businesses have shuttered their doors, much like here, and people have packed up and returned to their homelands, including the people of Mexico.  When jobs are scarce here, the Mexican men cannot send money home so it’s a quadruple whammy of hardships in Mexico.

I’m not going to pretend to be educated on the exact reasons why the business of drug cartelling has exploded in Mexico, nor am I going to get into the stats of it, but it’s fairly obvious that this is where the money is in Mexico, if you can stay alive.  To read any mainstream news you would think that they are all killing each other throughout the entire country and hanging the bodies over highways so the public can see them die as they shoot them from hidden hillsides.  The stories of heads rolling into a night club or even night clubs being set on fire — now these stories make it to our media and it sends a chilling message that all of Mexico is completely corrupt and extremely dangerous.

Ever watch the 10pm Sunday night news in Chicago?  It’s a death toll of how many were shot or wounded in the city in the past few days; how many children were injured, buried, mourned.  It is perhaps the saddest time slot on TV, which is one of the reasons I don’t watch TV anymore.  The killings in Chicago are completely out of control; in a city that claims guns are illegal.  Does this news stop people from visiting Navy Pier? Water Tower Place? Wrigley Field?  No. No it does not.  It may stop some people from getting on a train to come to the City, but for the most part tourism is loud & lively in Chicago.  So while there are certainly precautions that need to be taken when heading off to Central Mexico, by no means is it a 24/7 blood bath.  Like it is on the South Side of Chicago.

The places that I would avoid in Mexico right now are the border towns and the main highways to move north/south through the country.  Although the violence is rather widespread yet focused on the northern part of the country, because this is the main and final push to get the drugs into our country and some would say it’s an all out war zone at the borders.  So avoid the border towns.  I wouldn’t even do a day trip there as many people used to so, it’s just not worth it.

I would no longer take a bus to Central Mexico as I have many times in the past, because of  the growing presence of the Mexican Army and Mexico Federal Police on the highways.  And the growing number of rogue police, army or cartels who impersonate these groups so you can never be sure who or what you are looking at — or dealing with.

Once on a bus to Phoenix in 2003, I was awakened in the middle of the night somewhere in the State of Chihuahua, by a machine gun nudging my shoulder, asking for my passport.  I did not flinch, I simply reached for my passport and handed it to the soldier.  After checking everyone’s passport, the soldiers hauled four Guatamalian immigrants off the bus and then we were on our way.  Looking back, I wonder why I wasn’t more freaked out.  I had never seen a machine gun before let alone be awakened by one.  But when I traveled the buses throughout Mexico, I always went into some sort of altered state, knowing that you have to roll with the punches becasue weird things happen out there in the middle of nowhere.  I have also driven through the country a number of times by myself and suffice to say nothing majorly scary or even close to heart breaking happened.  Today I would never drive through the country I once called home.

The buses and trucks that travel through Mexico are always being stopped and searched for drugs and immigrants, but these days you can’t be sure if the Mexican solider who is pointing a gun at you and asking to see your passport is an actual Govenrment official, a cartel dressed as a Government official or a Government official who has been paid off to act on behalf of the cartel.  Which is why it’s best to avoid busing around Mexico, a once very popular and economical way to travel the country, ever since the train lines were discontinued.  These days I would fly directly to the city I am headed for, and for San Miguel de Allende’s it’s Leon/Guanajuato Del Bajio or BJX.  Then take a taxi directly to your destination, because no one picks you up from an airport in Mexico, even if they are crazy head over heels love with you!

This past week, I learned of an incident of a Canadian couple that was severely beaten and robbed in their homes in San Miguel.  These incidents happen here and there and are never a story we want to hear but it’s especially sensitive when it happens to ex-Pats living in a foreign city.  One thing Mexico has always known is that you DO NOT MESS with the foreigners that are visiting or who have chosen to live in Mexico.  They are putting money into the country and economy and again you DO NOT MESS WITH THE TURISTAS.  But it happens, unfortunately. There is speculation — and only speculation at this time —  that it is a small group of disenchanted policemen that committed the crime.  So another couple has now returned to their homeland and the stories will be shared, as they should.

Would I go to Mexico today? Yes.  If I had the sufficient funds to get me from Point A to Point B directly, and had a secure and safe place to stay.  Do I want to go to Mexico right now?  No.  I think I’ll wait until things start to turn around.

I love Mexico and think it takes a LOT of hits for being a reckless, careless and violent country, but it is a big country, full of many people, places and things and you simply cannot place a generic label on a country of its size. It’s complicated.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s ugly,  It’s rich and it’s poor.  And unfortunately there are places in the country where violence is out of control, so just like the South Side of Chicago, I will avoid it for now.  But not forever!