Navigating Mexico: Cartel Violence and Tourists


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It is a question that is becoming more and more relavent among those considering traveling to Mexico for a vacation: Are tourists in danger from cartel violence at Mexican beach resorts?

 The answer is, yes and no, but mostly no. 

 A recent Washington Post story, titled “Tourist Drug Demand Is Bringing Cartel Violence to Mexico’s Most Popular Resorts,” has numerous fallacies in its logic and assumptions, and can be deceiving for those seeking answers to the above question. 

 The story makes reference to security footage taken of tourists at the $400-a-night Hyatt Ziva hotel just outside of Cancun running for cover in their bathing suits during a full-on shoot out in the hotel lobby.

The spectacular footage made its way to the U.S. evening news the next day with the conclusion that Mexican tourist resorts were unsafe.

The Washington Post article suggests that tourists’ increasing demand for drugs brought on the violence. 

Well, again, yes and no.

Supply is related to demand, but mainstream news, often manipulated by federal governments of both counties, presents a simplistic view of cartels being street gangs in a dispute. 

 What was accurate are the territorial operations of cartels.

A dealer in Mexico must have permission to work in certain areas.

Some beach cities even have foreigners who are dealers, as tourists often feel more comfortable purchasing from someone who speaks their language, but they operate under the same rules of purchasing the product exclusively from the “authorized” cartel and giving a percentage of sales back to that cartel.

The Cancun hotel incident referenced is really more of a one-off, but makes sense as an outside dealer cannot  just arrive and set up shop without permission. 

But as far as a tourist safety, for the most part, the opposite is true.

These territorial rules actually help to keep the peace.

Drug dealers, as well as cartels, want to be under the radar so sales are fluid. 

Cartels, were they legal businesses with a website, would not have anything about violence in their mission statements.

They are not about violence; they are about revenue, just like a bank.

The violence comes when their revenue is at risk.

In a similar situation, a bank would just raise interest rates to protect its revenue, while cartels use violence.

Cartels have no dedicated interest in tourists or grandmothers. They are strictly financial organizations. 

The logic of some of the mainstream media’s coverage focuses on the tip of the iceberg, the violence,.

But media rarely has access to the upper echelons of cartels, while some Mexican governors recently have appeared in photos with known cartel leaders.

Therein lies the powerhouses of these financial institutions with their army of accountants and lawyers who negotiate with state and federal governments, as well as legitimate financial institutions. 

Simply put, Mexico’s drug cartels already actively operate in all tourist cities and are not brought there by tourists’ purchasing habits.

Cartels already regulate prostitution, illegal arms, human trafficking, gasoline theft, certain aspects of construction and other key industries like avocados in the state of Michoacán, taxis, money laundering, political campaigns, land use and the list would be too long to finish.

The cartel reach in Mexico is bigger than what most would consider “big” business.

The violence that is on the evening news is a byproduct from differing cartels trying to make inroads into a new territory or the occasional pushback from the government to save face. 

At the street level, cartel members are mainly young men in their upper-teens and early 20s from impoverished communities with little education and next-to-no prospect for a fulfilling future.

In some more rural communities, children are kidnapped and forced to act as sicarios (hitmen).

Going after them does little to eradicate cartel violence.

The cartels themselves do not see these boys and men as human resources the same way a bank would view its employees because of training, loyalty and brand recognition.

For a cartel, they are a dime a dozen and replaceable.

Poverty is a good thing for a cartel. 

Poverty is also good for the government.

The very real and heartwrenching violence of Mexico’s homicide rate, a terrorific 33,410 murdered in 2021, is more about poor people killing other poor people, with an occasional tourist or grandmother caught unfortunately in the mix.

Also in 2021, 391 Mexican police officers were killed.

The only way the violence could be reduced would be for high-ranking government and military leaders to not be on the payrolls of cartels.

Then, the cartel violence would have to focus on a government that was not corrupted.

The current Mexican federal government and many state governments obviously want to mitigate the risks of not being able to govern and have opted to let the poor be the victims due to the absence of rule of law in Mexico. 

Just as the cartels have an endless supply of cheap labor thanks to Mexico’s high levels of poverty, the government benefits from that same poverty.

These impoverished victims are silent and basically powerless scapegoats, whose murders are rarely prosecuted because the pockets of the executive branch and military are often lined with cartel money. 

Yes, follow the violence, but more importantly, follow the money.

The money is the real driver, not the violence. 


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