“It is an active volcano,” said Pedroza of Popocatepetl, the volatile volcano up which he led a group of American mountaineers a few weeks ago. “I was afraid that it was going to pour lava, but it stayed quiet.”
Mexico’s second-highest mountain is an apt metaphor for the country itself: Despite threatening rumblings, danger doesn’t always materialize. Sometimes it’s even all in our heads. Yet misperceptions dog Mexico, which has been seriously shaken by the ongoing turf battles between drug cartels and the frontal-assault strategy employed by President Felipe Calderon’s government.
“There’s a big gap between perception and reality,” says Margot Lee Shetterly, a Hampton, Va., native who relocated to Mexico with her husband six years ago. “It’s a real shame for people to write off a whole country without looking at the map and at the statistics.”
Without a solid understanding of the geography (761,606 square miles) and the nature of the drug wars (internecine fighting), many foreigners assume that all of Mexico is a war zone. But it isn’t.
“The episodes of violence are in very specific pockets,” says Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, chief operating officer of the Mexico Tourism Board, “and are unrelated to tourism.”
For proof, Lopez-Negrete rolls out the statistics, derived from a combination of government and non-government sources: Of 2,500 municipalities (what we call counties), only 80, or fewer than 5 percent, have been affected by the drug war, which accounts for only 3 percent of all crime. Mexican cities are also safer than some urban centers north of the border: Mexico City, for example, has 8.3 homicides a year per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than Miami (14.1) and Chicago (16.1). On a global scale, Mexico is safer than many of its neighbors. In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported Mexico’s homicide rate as 11.6 per 100,000, significantly lower than Honduras (60.9), Jamaica (59.5) or El Salvador (51.8).
But these figures don’t negate the fact that some places in Mexico are extraordinarily dangerous — so dangerous that they should be mummified in crime tape.
“We are very much focused on Mexico,” says Hugo Rodriguez, chief for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the State Department’s Office of American Citizens Services. “Providing U.S. citizens traveling to and living in Mexico with accurate information about the security situation there is a high priority for us.” The agency’s travel warning on Mexico, last updated in April, specifies the dangers by state, delineating the possible threats to Americans, 4.7 million of whom visited from January through October.