By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Most of the concerns expressed on social media platforms about safety and security when travelling in Mexico come from women. So, while this article does not specifically address this issue’s theme of women in politics, it is more than tangentially relevant. [Not being a Mexican citizen I am always reluctant to opine about anything having to do with politics and run afoul of the constitutional provision which prohibits foreigners from participating in the political process.]
Despite most published reports identifying women rather than men as the victims of crime (mainly at coastal resort areas), Oaxaca is a safe state for travellers; however, reasonable precautions should be taken. Mexican nationals are vigilant, and tourists should be as well. The former have been taught from a young age, while the latter need some instruction.
Kidnapping. The bad guys target the wealthy for ransom. While they may not be all that smart, they do know that kidnapping a tourist is no guarantee of a big payday. Thus they abduct those (mainly women and children) whose families they reasonably assume have significant financial resources. Some people flaunt their wealth by driving a Mercedes and wearing flashy gold jewellery. They and members of their families are the targets, not you. They live in large homes in wealthy parts of town. They own very successful retail and wholesale businesses. The proprietor of one well-known construction materials supply chain was kidnapped twice over the course of about 15 years. Presumably that target now has a 24/7 body guard.
My wife wanted to buy a Mini Cooper, the only small car she really liked. She wanted a red one. We live in a semi-rural suburb of Oaxaca. Most of our neighbors are of fairly modest means. Why draw attention to us? I suggested a grey Mini, and that the two stripes it comes with be removed by the dealership. While the Mini logo remains, the car otherwise does not draw attention. And while our house is large, it features traditional construction and exterior fencing concealed by tall bushy bougainvilleas. It looks modest compared to the modern towering white box style homes that have been built more recently by a few neighbors, the ones who park their black SUVs and fancy Audis in their three car garages.
Theft. The 80-year-old upper-class mother of a Canadian friend visited Oaxaca. I met with her to advise what to do where and when, and about safety. I suggested that she dress down. She responded that she always does when travelling, despite that at the time she was wearing designer clothes and gold earrings and necklace. Her male companion and I looked at each other in disbelief.
If a point-and-shoot camera will suffice, leave the one with the $3,000 lens at home. Alternatively, when walking through marketplaces, keep the camera in a non-descript polyurethane bag which you can purchase pretty well all over the state for 5 – 10 pesos. That’s what the locals use when out in the markets shopping. Sure, you’ll still look like a tourist, but will be less likely a target for thieves than the next sauntering visitor.
Listen to what the locals tell you. When in marketplaces be particularly careful in crowded areas or if groups of people, even women, appear to be too close to you. In a couple of weekly market towns near Oaxaca, swarmings by ladies have been noted. You’re brushed up against, and the next thing you know your wallet, purse or passport is missing.
Hold your camera and purse snugly in front of you and leave your passport in your hotel room (but keep photos of your tourist card and passport photo page with you). If you must use a backpack, carry it in front of you, snug against the chest. For a day excursion, only take as much cash as you could reasonably need, and one credit card. Surely you don’t need your Texas drivers’ license with you.
Assaults & Worse. Bad things happen to good people all over the world, all the time, in their home cities and towns. There are pockets of urban areas notorious for assaults and robberies all over the world, and here is no different. Typically, theft is the main motivation, so again, dress down and listen to what residents tell you. Ask about venturing out after dark, and if there are any particular areas you should avoid day or night. Women and youths seem to be the targets of robberies and thefts, likely because of a perceived lack of physical strength, and the former where sexual predators are lurking. For this, I suppose type of dress should be a consideration; the less someone considers you provocative, the less likely you will encounter problems. Call me out of touch or sexist if you like, but parts of the world are still largely misogynistic, so heeding a bit of advice may go a long way to avoiding trouble.
Epilogue. The state of Oaxaca is essentially safe and secure for both residents and visitors; men, women and children. If it wasn’t, I and many others who live here but were born and raised outside of Mexico, wouldn’t have elected to uproot and move. For most of us it wasn’t the climate or cost of living, but rather because of lifestyle, the multiplicity of rich cultural traditions, and safety. But we all exercise reasonable precautions, no more or no less than we did in the countries we came from.
For visitors, just remember that those who have cautioned that Mexico is unsafe, are probably people who have never visited the country and rely on sensationalistic media reports or paternalistic state department cautions in forming their opinions and providing fodder for their advice.
Canadian Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has been a resident of the state capital for 15 years, and frequent visitor for a dozen years prior.