It’s understandable. I live in country plagued by drug violence, corruption, and almost complete impunity. According to Global Peace Initiative 2016 study, Mexico ranks pretty low (14o out of 163 countries worldwide) in their peace index and it has risen and fallen among the top 10 most dangerous countries to be a journalist since the early 90s. But violence in Mexico has also been under the media spotlight for a long time now, particularly in the U.S., with only the bloodiest and most gruesome stories fit to print. This has led to lots of fear mongering about a country that has so much more to offer than its bad reputation implies.
Despite all the bad press that Mexico receives, when the New York Times named Mexico City their #1 place to visit in 2016, they were confirming something that many travelers to Mexico had already come to realize — that the country’s capital is an incredibly vibrant city bursting with culture and history, and is a must-see destination south of the U.S border.
But there’s still that nagging question… is Mexico City safe? The federal district has long been thought of as an oasis from the violence suffered by other parts of Mexico and for many years the city’s homicide rate was dropping steadily. According to data from the Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública (SESNSP) overall crime has been decreasing at an annual rate of 5% for the past several years. They report that in 2015 kidnappings, violent assault, and violent home break-ins all experienced major reductions from their 2005 levels by 66%, 26.84%, and 12.5% respectively.
But there has been an increase in violent crime in the city, with the current homicide rate at 14.24 per 100,000 inhabitants (based on the 8.85 million inhabitants in Mexico City’s 16 boroughs*), up from 10.15 in 2014. Particularly of interested is the rise in crime in specific in areas of the city that were previously considered safer neighborhoods such as in the Cuauhtemoc and Benito Juarez boroughs.
It sounds scary but if the murder rate here is 14.24/100,000, that means your chances of being killed are about 1 in 7,143. Take into account that you’re a tourist here for a short period of time and your risk level drops even lower. According to this 2015 report by the Brennan Center on the homicide rate in the U.S.’s largest cities, Mexico City ranks below Philadelphia (16.8), Chicago (17.0), Las Vegas (20.1), and Washington DC (24.1). Mexico’s capital is among 12 Mexican states that the State Department does not have a travel advisory in affect for.
You should definitely be careful traveling here, just like you would be carefully going to see the Willis tower in Chicago, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia or the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Mexico’s capital is no Copenhagen, but don’t let the headlines persuade you that CDMX is not worth the trip.
— In the past few years there have been increasing reports of “skimming” — people stealing credit or debit card numbers using card readers or machines installed in ATMs. There are several ways to give yourself additional security when using a card including opting for credit instead of debit so you don’t have to enter a PIN number, keeping an eye on your account for suspicious activity, using a card with a chip instead of a magnetic strip and being wary of any card readers or ATMs that look as though they have been tampered with.
— It goes without saying that you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times, but particularly in crowded places like public transportation during rush hour or a packed club or bar. Pickpocketing is a common occurrence here.
— At night stick to areas of the city that are busy and bustling, with lots of foot traffic and folks on the street. This isn’t that hard to find in Mexico City and you’d actually be surprised at some of the places that feel the most abandoned in the evening like certain parts of the Centro Histórico and Polanco, as well as upscale neighborhoods like Las Lomas de Chapultepec where vendors and foot traffic are scarce.
— You should learn a little bit of Spanish. This will translate into lots of benefits in lots of arenas, but safety-wise even a low level of Spanish comprehension will keep you from getting lost, being overcharged, or getting scammed.
— Try to blend in. You aren’t likely to see Mexico City residents carrying around massive backpacks, sporting Relox watches in local markets or wearing short shorts and flipflops in the middle of December. Be observant of those around you and follow their lead in how to dress and act.
— Women should use the women’s-only cars on the metro. The designated cars are usually the first cars on the train and only during rush hours. There are signs everywhere now denouncing sexual aggression, but it remains an issue. Sickos will try to take advantage on crowded metro cars, especially with unaware female tourists.
— Stay sober. While it’s tempting to go out and get shmammered on your vacation, stay sober enough to have a conversation, ask for directions and get yourself home with no problems. This is not an all-inclusive Cancun resort, this is a massive metropolis, don’t wear yourself as a hat.
— Look both ways. In 2015, there were 12, 321 traffic accidents, 748 of them involving pedestrians. Mexico City drivers are notorious for their wild ways, pedestrians aren’t considered much more than a nuisance.
I know that the common warning given to tourists here is don’t take street cabs, only “sitio” cabs or now Uber. The only issues I’ve had with street cabs is them trying to overcharge me or getting lost among the city’s thousands of streets and neighborhoods. Both things are sufficient reasons to use Uber, but don’t despair if for some reason you can’t. After taking hundreds of street cabs in this city I can say that the overwhelming majority are fine, just agree to a price or make sure their meter is running when you get in the car and ensure they know where you are going. You can always ask a restaurant or hotel employee to call you cab.
In my almost 5 years living in this city I have never been robbed, never been molested, never had a cab driver go rogue, and never had my car broken into (and it is always parked on the street). I don’t think I live a particularly tame lifestyle — although I do live in a decidedly middle class neighborhood — but it’s not flashy either, which helps. I often find myself in areas of the city that I’m unfamiliar with, but do my best to blend in and act like I belong. Rarely will anyone bother you, in fact in most cases you will find Mexicans’ reputation for being overwhelmingly friendly not misplaced.
Chilangos that grew up here tend to feel that the city is much more dangerous than expats I know that have lived here for decades. There are lots of reasons why people perceive their city as unsafe, so take local warnings into consideration but don’t let them dictate your every action. And don’t spend all your time worrying, Mexico City has too much to offer for your fears to get the better of you.
*based on information from an OPI representative that worked on the report used for this article.