An economic powerhouse, Mexico City produces just over 20% of the country’s total GDP and ranks as the eighth-richest urban agglomeration in the world behind Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris, London and Osaka/Kobe. Given the vast number of industries represented in the city — from banking to manufacturing and more — travel to the city is a regular requirement for many executives.
But it isn’t just business travelers who are flocking to the region. Leisure travelers are being drawn to the country in increasing numbers; international tourist arrivals grew from 23.3 million in 2010 to 39.3 million in 2017, with Mexico City and Cancún cracking Euromonitor International’s 2018 list of the top 100 most-visited cities in the world.
This interest is understandable. Not only is Mexico City home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites — as well as a subtropical climate that boasts comfortably moderate temperatures year round — it also earned the top spot on the New York Time’s list of “52 Places to Travel in 2016,” which claimed the city offers “some of the world’s best cuisine, museums and forward-thinking design.”
But how safe is travel in Mexico City? Despite growing interest in the city, safety and security concerns have risen significantly. So whether you have an upcoming trip scheduled or are in the planning stages of a Mexico City mission, consider the following guidance. Mexico City can be an incredibly rewarding destination for both business and leisure travelers, as long as you know how to balance safety and smarts.
Safe Travel in Mexico
The violent crime observed in other parts of Mexico is not necessarily indicative of conditions on the ground in Mexico City. That said, there’s still value in consulting country-wide reports from popular travel advisory services — such as the U.S. State Department’s Travel Advisory for Mexico, WorldAware’s Country Security Assessment Ratings or Drum Cussac’s Country Risk Reports — in advance of any international mission.
Since November 15, 2018, the U.S. State Department has given Mexico a ranking of “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution” on a scale of 1-4, where “1” indicates that travelers should “Exercise Normal Precautions,” while “4” means “Do Not Travel.” Currently, the State Department advises against travel in five Mexican states: Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas.
Also worth noting are the specific guidelines given to U.S. government employees traveling throughout the entire country of Mexico. Although the advisory notes that, “Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread,” throughout Mexico, it places the following restrictions on government workers: “U.S. government employees may not travel between cities after dark, may not hail taxis on the street, and must rely on dispatched vehicles.”
Consider following these same guidelines when visiting Mexico City. If the U.S. government won’t allow its employees to undertake these activities, there’s a good chance you should avoid them as well.
The Unique Case of Mexico City
Crime is, understandably, a concern for those anticipating travel to Mexico City — and this concern is warranted. According to the National Citizen Observatory (ONC), as reported by Garda, “Compared to 2016, incidents of violent robbery increased by 28.5 percent, business robberies by 13.1 percent, and theft targeting pedestrians by 11.9 percent in 2017.” And many believe criminal activity is widely underreported.
The city’s homicide rates are up as well. In May 2018, the Mexico News Daily reported that, “Mexico City has recorded its most violent first four-month period of any year of the past two decades with 382 intentional homicides between January 1 and the end of April.” Placing this statistic in context, this is 14% higher than the 335 recorded in the same period of the prior year.
A number of factors have contributed to this increase in violent crime:
- A growing drug cartel presence. Although local authorities have long denied the presence of organized crime in Mexico City, recent incidents — including the discovery of a banner announcing the arrival of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the dismemberment of two bodies believed to be associated with the Unión de Tepito organized crime group — cast doubts on this assertion.
- Costly corruption. In addition to fueling violence, corruption across Mexico “shaves an estimated two percentage points off Mexico’s gross domestic product per year.” New Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador successfully campaigned on an anti-corruption platform before his election in November 2018, though it remains to be seen how effective his initiatives will be. In the interim, protest activity in the city remains high, posing a potential threat to travelers in the vicinity.
- Vast overcrowding. With a population of roughly 21,157,000 in 2016, Mexico City ranks #7 on the United Nations’ list of the world’s most populated cities. Nearly 18% of the country’s population lives in Mexico City, contributing to overcrowding that’s reinforced by the geology of the area; because the city is essentially a basin surrounded by mountains, sprawl is limited. Criminals rely on the confusion this overcrowding creates to provide cover for their activities.
- Extreme income inequality. According to one estimate, “the wealthiest 1% of the populations gets 21% of Mexico’s total income.” Another suggests that “10% of Mexico’s richest concentrates 64.4% the country’s wealth.” This disparity plays out in Mexico City’s neighborhoods — although certain areas can be safe when the proper precautions are taken, others (specifically, the Tepito and Doctores neighborhoods) should be avoided outright.
- A highly conservative culture. Cultural Atlas reports that, “Broadly speaking, Mexico is a very patriarchal culture and men have more authority than women.” Female travelers using the city’s public transportation system report higher levels of harassment, abuse and sexual violence than in the world’s four other largest commuter cities, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll. And although gay marriage is legal in Mexico City, the city’s LGBT community generally keeps a low profile to avoid discrimination and violence amidst the prevailing views in a largely Catholic society.
All of that said, it’s important to keep these risks in perspective. St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit all had higher rates of homicide than Mexico City in 2017 (the most recent year for which annual data exists), yet few executives would refuse travel to these cities on safety grounds.
And although it’s possible that the city’s recent uptick in violent crime could increase its position on future lists, USA Today contributor Angelo Young notes, “A high homicide rate does not necessarily mean tourists and business travelers are at greater risk. Most of these murders are committed by locals against locals. Using common sense and general precautions foreign visitors are typically not exposed to these crimes in most of these cities.”
Ground Travel Preparedness within Mexico City
The common sense and general precautions Young describes must encompass ground transportation. Risk often increases around vehicles — an effect which is compounded in Mexico City by high levels of traffic and overcrowding. As a result, ground arrangements in the city can’t be left to chance or handled at the last minute.
Consider the case of Mexico City’s two most commonly-used airports. Despite a heavy security presence, both airports remain targets for opportunistic criminals — and each presents its own challenges to travelers.
The main public airport — Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez (MEX) — is both an older facility and incredibly crowded. Trying to exit the airport through the crowds of people waiting and the taxi drivers hawking their services can be both unnerving and potentially dangerous. Congestion at the airport is unlikely to let up anytime soon, given the recent cancellation of construction on the partially-completed New International Airport of Mexico City in Texcoco, Mexico.
Licenciado Adolfo López Mateos International Airport in Toluca — the main airport into which private jets fly — has its own challenges from a safety perspective. Not only is it located quite a ways outside of Mexico City (45 minutes to nearly two hours, depending on the time of day), it is primarily accessed by one road that travels through the city’s mountains. Since it’s no secret that wealthy, high profile travelers typically utilize this route, and the mountains offer few detour options, the route has become well known target for crime or even kidnapping.
Properly supporting travelers coming into either of these airports requires advance planning and preparing for contingencies. But ground travel safety is about more than proactive preparation. It’s also about familiarity with roads in the area and their dynamics, an understanding of what’s happening in the vicinity (both in recent history and in the current moment) and what “normal” levels of activity look like, and the combination of knowledge and savvy needed to avoid unfolding incidents or react appropriately if something does occur.
This level of skill makes working with local specialists in Mexico City — such as Groundwork’s ground travel risk mitigation service — to plan for uneventful movement around this world-class city, a must.
5 Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico City
In addition to taking the kinds of precautions described above, Groundwork’s team offers the following suggestions to travelers heading to Mexico City:
- Avoid wearing flashy or ostentatious items. These items can put you at risk of a robbery or carjacking. Be aware also that “flashy” has much lower threshold in Mexico. Nice watches, recognizable handbags, iPhones, engagement rings or clothing with visible logos — even items as common as Nike-brand shoes — should be avoided. According to one agent, it’s common for criminals to observe visitors as they leave nice restaurants or hotels, looking for these signals of wealth to identify potential robbery targets.
- Keep moving. In Mexico City, smart drivers keep moving because they know stopped vehicles — a common occurrence in the city’s crazy traffic — risk becoming targets. Local criminals often know where traffic will bottleneck, putting themselves in position to rob vehicles while they’re stuck on the road.
- Keep a low profile. Although black SUVs are still common in Mexico City itself (though not as much outside of it), don’t be surprised to see a reputable driver show up in a low profile vehicle, such as a white VW Jetta. The safest vehicles for travel in the city are typically those that discreetly blend in with common local cars.
- Avoid staying out past 10:00pm, and stick to main tourist areas and thoroughfares whenever possible. Kidnapping and ransom in Mexico City are most likely to occur when visitors leave the beaten path and are then compromised (for example, by splitting up to head home after going out with local colleagues or by having something slipped into their drinks). One common outcome in these cases is the “express robbery,” during which captors will escort their victims to various ATMs until they’ve cleaned out their bank accounts.
- Familiarize yourself with safe locations and local medical facilities. If you need to get off the street suddenly or require medical attention, where should you turn? Prepare this information in advance, or partner with a ground risk mitigation service like Groundwork that handles these preparations on every mission.
Should You Avoid Business Travel to Mexico City?
Mexico City boasts a rich, cultural history and a staggering number of business opportunities, making it an important destination for both personal and professional travel. And while safety risks exist, they can be mitigated through proper awareness and partnerships with the right travel and security vendors.
Don’t call off your trip to Mexico City due to overblown fears or sensationalized news stories. Travel smart, and enjoy all the benefits the city has to offer.
What other precautions do you take when traveling to Mexico City? Leave us a note sharing your suggestions below.
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Mr. Russell, Senior Director of Performance Improvement at Savoya, is responsible for recruiting, vetting and training Savoya’s Certified Drivers across the company’s current and future markets worldwide.