How Dangerous is Mexico, Really?

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Consuming a steady diet of U.S. news would have you believing Mexico is hell on Earth when it comes to violent crime. On the other hand, if you immerse yourself in expat circles you’d be convinced there is zero chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in Mexico, as long as you don’t get mixed up with the cartels.

As you’ll see below, neither source is spot on… Before we dive into some hard numbers, there’s one key thing to understand about the risk of violence in this country.

Your choice of destination greatly influences the risk level you’ll face living in or visiting Mexico.

If you’re contemplating a vacation, retirement, or digital “nomading” in Mexico, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with the data. With an accurate understanding of the current situation, you’ll be in a better position to make informed decisions.



In this article you will learn:

    • Crime rate trends in Mexico and where crime is highest
    • The safest (and most dangerous) cities popular with expats and tourists
    • How violent crime in Mexico compares to major U.S. cities
    • Who is most at risk of violent crime in Mexico
    • Tips on how to protect yourself, whether living here or just visiting


NOTE: We cite official statistics and the most recent data available in Mexico and the U.S. for this article from Mexico’s Secretary of National Security (SESNP) and the FBI. Crime data in both countries is subject to undercounting, to varying degrees.


Crime in Mexico Dropped in 2023 for the Fourth Year in a Row

Crime of all kinds dropped a modest 1.4% in 2023. It marked the fourth year in a row that Mexico’s crime rate improved. One particularly bright spot last year was the murder rate, which fell 5.3% nationwide. Extortion and robbery also fell by 6% and 8%, respectively.

On the other hand, the rates of kidnapping and human trafficking, as well as domestic and sexual violence saw increases in Mexico last year.

Mexico’s Annual Murder Rate from 2015 – 2023

Murder rate in Mexico

As the chart above illustrates, the surge in violent crime over the past eight years is attributable almost entirely to increased conflict between organized crime groups.

Last year, an estimated 60% of all murders were related to organized crime, i.e. the drug cartels fighting each other. The rate of violence in Mexico unrelated to organized crime has been fairly stable since 2015.

In addition, it’s worth calling out that Mexico’s official homicide rate last year remains nearly 50% higher than it was back in 2015. But not all locations are in the same boat — not by a long shot.

Let’s take a look at crime rates by location.


Where is Violent Crime in Mexico the Highest?

As a general rule, you can expect high levels of violent conflict in states where no single cartel has total domination, as crime groups compete for control.

In the past few years, Colima, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Guerrero have been especially plagued by cartel-related conflict. In addition, states along the northern U.S.-Mexico border see perpetually high levels of violent crime over contested narco-trafficking routes.

The chart below breaks things down even further, showing the most violent cities in Mexico (limited to those with at least 10,000 residents) over the past year.

Murder rate in Mexico by city

In these places especially, people who have nothing to do with drug cartels are at higher risk of being caught in crossfire, if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mexico’s Caribbean beach resorts in the state of Quintana Roo (Tulum and Cancun in particular) have seen tourists killed at restaurants and beach clubs during drug cartel shootouts on multiple occasions in recent years.

Violence in Tulum, which most foreigners think of for its Instagram-famous yoga retreats, has escalated to such a degree that it now ranks as the most dangerous city in Mexico, based on killings per 100,000 residents.

That’s quite an accomplishment — and not something you’re apt to hear from the Mexico Tourism Board. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the states where two of Mexico’s most powerful cartels are based (Jalisco and Sinaloa) are relatively safe, if not exactly peaceful.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Yucatan (next door to Quintana Roo) has consistently ranked the safest state in Mexico over the past decade, for locals and foreigners alike. The Yucatan capital of Merida justly markets itself as Mexico’s safest city. And it’s a wonderful place if you can tolerate heat and humidity on par with New Orleans in August.


How likely are Americans to be Murdered in Mexico?

If a foreign surfer, beachgoer, or medical tourist is killed while visiting Mexico, you can be sure global media outlets will be all over the story for weeks. Plenty of “ink” will be devoted to how violent and dangerous the country is.

And yet, the numbers tell a different story.

Because the U.S. State Department is obligated to report on citizen deaths abroad only once every two years, the most recent official data comes from 2021-2022. In those two years, there were 393 “non-natural” deaths of U.S. citizens in Mexico. Of those, 121 were explicitly labeled homicides, or roughly 60 per year.

When you calibrate those numbers to the roughly 62 million visits to Mexico by U.S. citizens during that period, it brings the death rate for U.S. citizens in Mexico for non-natural reasons to just 0.6 per 100,000 visitors.

The fact is, in a typical year more Americans die in car accidents, drownings, and suicide while visiting Mexico than they do in violent crimes.

It also means that Americans are much safer in Mexico than they are visiting Washington, DC, Philadelphia, or Atlanta, which have murder rates above Mexico’s national average of 23 per 100,000.

So just like the old real estate adage, what matters most in Mexico is location, location, location.


How Safe Are the Cities Most Popular with Expats & Tourists?

As noted above, homicides in Quintana Roo have surged lately, and unfortunately, trends are headed in the wrong direction. The overall murder rate in QROO increased 13% over the past year, with cartel-related crimes up 21%.

The table below illustrates the hotspots for violent crime in some of the most visited destinations for foreigners in Mexico. It’s fascinating how little media attention this data has received. I guess it’s only the individual storylines that editors think will sell newspapers.

Violent Crime in Top Tourist & Expat Destinations Over the Past Year

Murder rates in Mexican tourist cities.

So, how do these numbers compare with violent crime north of the border?

It might surprise you to learn that you’re 4 times more likely to be murdered in Washington DC than in Puerto Vallarta and twice as likely to lose your life in Atlanta as you are in Mexico City.

To look at it another way… In Mazatlan, home to one of the world’s most feared drug cartels, your chance of being murdered is no different than it would be if you lived in Los Angeles.

Moreover, when visiting Cabo or Merida you’re safer than when visiting any U.S. cities shown in the table below.

U.S. murder rates in major cities


Who’s Most Likely to Be a Victim of Violent Crime in Mexico?

First and foremost, anyone involved with Mexico’s cartels in any capacity faces the highest risk of personal danger in Mexico. But they’re not the only ones.

Those working in the following professions are also at very high risk of becoming a victim of violent crime in Mexico.

    • Politicians
    • Journalists
    • Policemen


Anyone who followed the 2024 election cycle in Mexico knows how dangerous it can be to run for public office here, especially local offices. An astonishing 200 public officials and political candidates were killed during this year’s election cycle, the worst year for political violence in Mexico’s history.

These murders were the work of organized crime, as public officials not inclined to do the cartels’ bidding are frequently targeted for assassination.

Working as a journalist in Mexico is not much better. Mexico has consistently ranked the most deadly country for working journalists over the past several years if you exclude countries at war like Palestine and Ukraine.

In 2022, a record 14 journalists were murdered in Mexico. Last year, there was marked improvement with “only” 4 journalists losing their lives. Covering organized crime, government corruption, or the environment can be especially dangerous beats.

Perhaps even more troubling, those responsible for these crimes are virtually never held accountable.

The other profession that’s highly dangerous in Mexico is police work. A Mexican cop’s risk of being killed is roughly four times higher than for ordinary citizens

For Mexicans not involved in these professions, the risk of violent crime is much lower.

In other words, the bizarre situation of frequent and random mass murders in U.S. supermarkets, cinemas, concerts, churches, and schools simply isn’t a thing in Mexico.

This is key — and I think it helps to explain the paradox of U.S. expats feeling safer in Mexico, despite the overall murder rate being five times higher here than in the States. Unlike north of the border, killings in Mexico are generally targeted against perceived criminal, political, or security threats — and foreigners rarely find themselves in that mix.


How to Stay Safe Living or Traveling in Mexico

If you’re still reading this, you now know your risk of becoming a victim of violent crime in Mexico as a foreigner is pretty low. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay vigilant.

To reduce the risk of becoming a crime victim while living or traveling in Mexico, I offer the following advice:

    • Don’t sell drugs or go “Walter White” on the cartels while you’re here
    • Don’t walk alone at night, especially in popular tourist zones or after drinking.
    • Avoid overt signs of wealth, e.g. don’t wear expensive jewelry, watches, or flashy clothes when out and about.
    • Don’t road trip at night.
    • When traveling long distances drive toll roads whenever possible. (scams and car-jackings are far more likely to occur on the free roads)
    • Be alert when using ATMs, and avoid visiting them at night.
    • Don’t use your cell phone out on public streets. If you use one for navigation, find your route before getting on the street, or back into a storefront before using it.
    • Avoid camping outside of established parks and designated areas.
    • Learn basic Spanish (at a minimum) to ensure you understand warnings and can ask for help if needed.
    • Stay informed about current events.
    • Avoid political campaign events!


Sources: 

SESNSP (Mexico’s National System for Public Security), FBI, visionofhumanity.org

elcri.men/enBBC News, cpj.org

About Live Well Mexico

My name is Dawn Stoner. In 2022, my family sold our house and half of our possessions, then relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico. We now live here full-time.

Since then, we’ve learned how to navigate the real estate market, deal with the Mexican bureaucracy, and manage our finances as expats… all while having a pretty fine time!

I created this blog to help newcomers solve the everyday challenges of living in Mexico, because it isn’t easy figuring all this out for yourself.

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