After the murder of two U.S. consulate workers in Mexico's border city of Ciudad Juarez, many of you have written to me wondering whether it is safe to travel to Mexico. The answer is: If you are courageous enough to travel to Washington, D.C., you can safely visit most parts of Mexico.
Despite the escalation of drug-related violence in several Mexican cities, and the pictures of mutilated bodies dumped on the streets of Ciudad Juarez and other cities along the U.S. border, a dispassionate look at Mexico's murder rates shows that some parts of the country are indeed dangerous, but the country as a whole is safer than what the latest headlines suggest.
A new study by Brookings Institute Latin American expert Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica, helps put Mexico's violence in perspective.
According to Casas-Zamora's figures, based on United Nations 2008 data, Mexico's murder rate is nearly five times less than that of sunny Jamaica and about half that of Brazil, a country that was recently awarded the much-coveted 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Consider his data of Latin America's most violent countries: Honduras has a murder rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Jamaica with 60, Venezuela and El Salvador with 52 each, Guatemala with 47, Trinidad and Tobago with 40, Colombia with 39, Brazil with 22, Dominican Republic with 21, Panama with 19, Ecuador with 18, Nicaragua with 13, Paraguay with 12, Mexico and Costa Rica with about 11.5 each, Bolivia with 10.5 and Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, and Chile with less than 10.
Comparatively, while the United States homicide rate is lower than Mexico's, Washington, D.C., has a murder rate of 31 people per 100,000 inhabitants and New Orleans has 74.
"Violence in Mexico is concentrated in a few cities, mainly in Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Baja California," Casas Zamora told me in an interview. "In Ciudad Juárez, it's out of control. But in the country as a whole, it doesn't come even close to Washington, D.C.'s."
He conceded that Mexico's murder rates may have risen in recent months as a result of the cross fire between Mexican security forces and the drug cartels, and between the drug cartels themselves. But he added that they are still significantly below what they were 10 years ago.
Largely for demographic reasons -- Mexico's birth rates are dropping and large numbers of Mexicans have been migrating to the United States in recent decades -- murder rates in Mexico have been falling steadily for decades. They may have picked up only marginally over the past year, he said.
The U.S. State Department's latest travel alert to Mexico, issued following the killings of the two U.S. consular workers in Ciudad Juárez, says it has temporarily authorized the departure of relatives of U.S. consular workers in the Northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros, and advises U.S. citizens "to delay unnecessary travel to parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states."
As for Mexico as a whole, it says that "U.S. citizen visitors are encouraged to stay in the well-known tourist areas."
My opinion: Mexico is facing a dangerous rise in violence, and I would not advise you to spend your next vacation in Ciudad Juárez or any other place where the drug-related killings are taking place.
But Mexico is a huge country. To say that it's unsafe to travel to Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta or Cancún -- or that you wouldn't allow your children to spend spring break in that country, as Fox News' right-wing airhead Bill O'Reilly said last year -- is as irresponsible as saying that it's unsafe to travel to some of the biggest U.S. cities.
The State Department's travel alert, while correctly pointing out that the violence is concentrated in some Mexican states, should have put Mexico's national figures in perspective. It wouldn't be a bad idea if, from now on, it compared them with other countries' murder rates, and with that of its own home city -- Washington, D.C.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.