Safety & Crime in Playa del Carmen Mexico 2011: The Truth
Posted by Tony & Cheri on September 14, 2011
Read our most current blog entry about safety:
Safety in Playa del Carmen Mexico ~ 2012
We think it is time to again talk truthfully about safety and crime in Playa del Carmen.
The two acts of violence which took place over the last month in Playa del Carmen raised questions in many people’s minds about safety in this area. Unfortunately many of the people answering those questions have no real information and simply offer their own negative opinions about Playa. So it is time to do several things: talk about the sad events of the last month, discuss the use of the internet by ignorant people to fan anti-Mexico fears, and offer sources where truthful and factual information can be found.
Recent Acts of Violence in Playa del Carmen
In the last few weeks we have experienced two very tragic events here in Playa. First was the killing of a man from central Mexico whose business was involved with drug gangs. According to police he fled here to Playa hoping to avoid retaliation for something he did which angered the drug gangs. He was shot to death in his car near a restaurant in the north part of the city. No one else was injured, and the assassins have not been found.
The second and even more tragic incident was the murder of the Chief of the Tourist Police. This branch of the city police is charged with patrolling the tourist/resort zone. The Chief was killed while getting out of his car on Avenida Juarez, a main thoroughfare from the federal highway leading to the ferry dock. This was the second attempt on this officer’s life in the last year. No one has been arrested, and no evidence has been found to explain why this particular officer was twice targeted.
Those of us who live here in Playa have been shocked and saddened by these events. No one likes to hear of such violent acts happening in their home town. It is particularly horrible to see a young officer killed in the line of duty. The government, the local community and the expats who are guests here have all strongly condemned these crimes.
However these events touch more than the local community. The thousands of tourists who visit here each year want to know what this means for them. In truth, it has very little effect on visitors.
These were not random acts of violence involving innocent tourists. No attempt was made to target tourists or the resort area. There is no evidence that these crimes are related to or represent some sort of burgeoning crime wave. These victims were specifically chosen for reasons which we do not fully know. What we do know is that these crimes did not target, involve or touch tourists, and we know that there has been no subsequent outbreak of violence around the city. In short, these are isolated incidents that do not represent a continued threat.
Put it in Perspective
Still, despite the fact that these two acts didn’t involve tourists, some folks wonder if they are safe when visiting here. Many people have publicly spoken of their fear of coming to this part of the world and question if they shouldn’t change their vacation plans. We say: keep some perspective.
Crime–even violent crime–is a fact of life in just about every city in the world. So why do we consider one safer than the next? If it is the number of crimes, then Playa is most certainly safer than most as its crime rates are lower than many US cities.
If safety is predicated on the type of crime, again Playa still ranks as among the safest. There are no riots here. There are no mass shootings and no crimes involving groups of innocent people.
The fact is that people worry about safety in Mexico because they react differently, even unfairly, to hearing about a crime in Mexico than they do about crime elsewhere. For example, when this last summer began with the Memorial Day weekend, gang violence resulted in six deaths in Chicago and eight deaths in New York City. During the same weekend three police officers and four innocent bystanders were shot in Miami Beach.
Then summer ended with the horrifying act of a man with a high powered automatic weapon slaughtering five people in an IHOP restaurant in Carson City Nevada, while over the Labor Day weekend in New York City 13 were murdered, 2 police officers were wounded and 67 were injured by gunfire in 52 separate shootings.
Despite these horrendous acts leaving dozens of people dead and scores more injured, no one on TV or the internet told people to avoid going to New York or Chicago or Nevada. No newspaper article suggested people avoid the upcoming Broadway shows in Manhattan or skip going to the Bears games because of violence. And yet two isolated acts of crime in Playa are treated by many as the collapse of all law and order in that area. People worry that a trip to the Riviera Maya will turn them into victims, when in fact they may be safer here than in their own home town.
How did we end up with such a skewed perception of Mexico? Why do we have such an unbalanced view of crime in Mexico as opposed to crime in the US?
Not long ago it may have been because Mexico was the favorite whipping boy of a news media that feeds on sensationalism. But over the last year even they have come to acknowledge that the dangers of violence seen in Central Mexico do not extend to the peaceful shores of the Caribbean. However where the media left off, the World Wide Web has taken over. We think much of this anti-Mexico hysteria is generated by the ignorant and sometimes prejudiced people one encounters on the internet.
Opinions are Not Facts: Internet Forum Misinformation
In this time of instant gratification and access, most people turn to the internet for information. The travel industry is no different. Printed guidebooks have given way to web sites, chat rooms and forums where people can exchange ideas and opinions. And that isn’t a bad thing…except when opinion is taken for fact and speculation becomes a substitution for proof.
It has been our observation over the last few weeks that on certain internet forums dedicated to discussing Playa del Carmen, the intensity has been exceeded only by a lack of factual information.
On such forums, unless properly moderated, anyone can literally post anything, offering “facts” that have no basis in reality. The intentions of such posters are unknown. Perhaps they are attempts at making the poster feel important or perhaps they are intentional acts aimed to denigrate other peoples or countries. But even if we don’t know the reason for posting fantasy as fact we do know the effect…it creates false information that misleads people looking for the truth.
How Rumors Become “Facts”
We will give you some examples: Recently on a popular forum about Playa del Carmen hosted by a website called playa.info, a thread was started about a woman’s body found in the sea near the Playa shore with a rope tied around her. There followed several days of speculation by posters (the vast majority of who do not live in Playa) over whether or not she met with foul play. It was even suggested by someone with no facts or personal knowledge that her death might be evidence that the cartel had killed her and was moving into the area! Thousands of people read these baseless speculations until the woman’s son posted that she had drowned while swimming, and local fishermen finding her floating in the sea had tied her body to a buoy so that it did not float out to deeper waters before it could be brought ashore. No murder, no gang retaliation, no cartels moving into Playa. But for the thousands who read such irresponsible comments the damage was done. A simple drowning had quickly become the work of the drug gangs, and Playa was dangerous.
In other postings on playa.info about the recent shootings, it was suggested that the cartel would be coming after tourists next, that the drug war was escalating into Playa, and that everyone–but especially those with children–should avoid Playa to keep from getting hit by stray bullets. ‘The bad guys are moving in and they are not going anywhere’ was typical of the statements. Of course no statistics, articles or even governmental warnings were offered in support of these “facts.”
Sometimes People Just Make Stuff Up
A similar situation can be found all around the internet. On TripAdvisor.com (which bills itself as the largest travel industry website in the world), a forum dedicated to Playa del Carmen dealt with the shooting of the Tourist Police Chief by having many posters assert that most Playa businesses were paying protection money to the drug cartels. It went further. One individual posted that many businesses were closing “each day” because of drug cartel pressure.
We were surprised that while living here we had missed a daily wholesale loss of businesses. When we asked the individual for some facts or statistics or even personal knowledge about this massive loss of businesses in the area, his response was that he had been “told” of two businesses that closed. His story went from daily closings of many businesses to an anecdotal story of two unnamed businesses. Never mind that his original claim had been shown to be without basis, the damage was done. Other people had already picked up on his false claim and repeated it as “fact.”
In the same vein was the suggestion on the same forum that patronizing Playa businesses was just giving money to the drug cartels, since they all paid protection money. When we said we paid no such protection money and knew no one who did, the response was that we had to say that because the cartels would punish us if we admitted our support of them publicly!!! Seriously, that was the response.
The result is that people without knowledge created a new set of “facts,” i.e. the cartel is already in Playa; it controls Playa’s businesses; it puts those it can’t control out of business, and it silences the locals with fear of punishment if they talk about it. That is some scary stuff. Except there is not a single shred of evidence to show it is true. It is a fantasy which arises from a “common knowledge” (i.e. assumption and opinion) fed by too many viewings of the Sopranos rather than actual facts. Once again, irresponsible and ignorant people are painting a false picture of Playa that too many people see and believe.
In fairness to the forums we have just mentioned, they both have rules that prohibit inflammatory and false statements. Playa.info has barred further posting on a few of their most inflammatory threads, and TripAdvisor has done the same, actually removing some of the more outrageous posts. However neither forum moved to enforce their own guidelines for several days. The prohibition of these false statements was done hesitantly, at best. Why? Internet websites such as these two make money based upon the number of visitors to those sites. They sell more advertising, more tours and more vacation rentals and use the boosted statistics to seek new advertisers. So a controversial issue like crime, even if spinning out of control on their own website, is beneficial to them. Unfortunately, it’s not beneficial to others.
Not only do such irresponsible comments mislead the public seeking actual information, but they do serious and unwarranted damage to people and businesses here in Playa. Just a few days ago we spoke with a local business owner who said he had had $5000 US worth of cancellations in a single day, and that the people canceling specifically cited their reason as being the frightening stories about crime in Playa del Carmen they had read on the playa.info forum. And the damage is not limited to just this individual or his business. It in turn will cause damage to his employees, to their families and to the local businesses where they shop. It will also cause damage to other businesses such as restaurants, bars and tours that these visitors would have patronized had they not cancelled their trip. The casual comments and opinions of someone with no knowledge can be magnified on the internet to do real damage. That damage is not to drug dealers and criminals. That damage is to local Mexican families. We would ask everyone who posts on the internet to remember that.
For questioning these irresponsible and false statements, we and other members of Playa’s expat community have been branded by many on the internet as “cheerleaders” for Playa. It is said that because we have businesses that rely on tourists we ignore and hide the facts about dangers here. That’s not true.
What we really do is demand that dangers of traveling here or anywhere be discussed responsibly with facts. Innuendo, rumor, speculation and guesswork are not the foundation of responsible discussion. And such opinions should never be the basis of deciding whether you visit Playa or Miami or New York. When deciding where you can go to safely spend your vacation time you need facts. So the question is…where do you go to get real information…real facts…about safety in Playa del Carmen?
Sources for Factual Information
Luckily there are plenty of places where you can get both facts and some responsible opinions about safety in Mexico, starting with the governments of the United States and Canada.
The US State Department assists travelers with information about countries they may be visiting, including issues of crime and safety. When the US government feels an area may be dangerous to visit, it issues a travel warning (as now exists for areas in central Mexico). No such warning has ever been issued for Playa or the state of Quintana Roo. In fact the US government has consistently said that the Riviera Maya is NOT experiencing the drug war violence seen elsewhere. Click here for the US State Department’s web page regarding Mexico.
The International Affairs and Foreign Trade division of the government of Canada has a similar function with a similar result. While a travel warning has been issued to its citizens traveling to the central Mexico/US border area, NO warning exists for traveling to the Riviera Maya or the state of Quintana Roo. Click here for their web page regarding Mexico.
Of course many travelers want more than just bare bones ‘is there a warning or not’ before making a decision. They want an overall picture from an objective source. We suggest checking out major respectable news sources. We googled the following news sources regarding stories on Mexico safety:
- Travel Expert: Why You Should Go to Mexico – CNN Travel
- Mexico Safer Than Headlines Indicate – SF Gate (San Francisco Chronicle)
- The Mexico Quandary: Safety or Savings? – New York Times Travel section
- The Most Dangerous Places in Mexico — and Where it’s Still Safe to Travel – SF Gate (San Francisco Chronicle)
- Mexico Tourism: Is Cancun Safe for Visitors? – ABC News/Travel
- How Safe is Travel in Mexico? – Seattle Times
- Is It Safe to Go to Mexico? – Wall Street Journal Travel
- Is Mexico Safe for Vacationing? – FOX News Video
- New Travel Warning Spotlights Mexico Again – USA Today Travel by Kitty Bean Yancey
The New York Times, CNN, the San Francisco Chronicle, ABC News, the Seattle Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and USA Today all say the same thing: While there are parts of Mexico that are dangerous and should be avoided, the Riviera Maya is far removed from the drug wars and is a safe vacation destination.
The prospective visitor can also check with major travel writers around the country to see how they feel about safety in Playa and Mexico. An example is the respected travel author and expert Peter Greenburg, formerly of NBC News. (A note of full disclosure…we do not know Mr. Greenburg but he once gave our hotel a rave review based on the experience of one of his reporters.)
Mr. Greenburg recently made a statement about the hysteria over Mexico that goes directly to the heart of so many negative postings on the internet: “I’ll call a spade a spade here. Mexico has been seen in an almost racist way by Americans for so many years. They imagine dusty border towns, guys wearing sombreros and doing shoot ‘em ups. They see it how it was portrayed in the movies. If you couple that perception with the drug cartels or with the swine flu or with select crime reports, suddenly everybody starts running for the border.” Peter Greenburg’s web site has many articles about all aspects of the Riviera Maya, including safety.
Finally if you want to know what is happening here in Playa you may want to ask the people who live here. There are many well-written blogs by expats living in this area. Yes we are sometimes “cheerleaders” about Mexico. We live and work here because we love it here. Yet if anyone thinks we are blind to dangers or problems, they are mistaken. We are here with our children and our families. We walk the streets and go to the beaches. Does anyone think we would do that in the middle of a war zone? More than any visitors, we stay aware of the issues of safety here. If it weren’t safe for us, our families and friends we wouldn’t be here. Here are some of our favorite blogs and websites written by people who live and work here:
- A Canuck in Cancun
- Life’s a Beach: Daily Life and Real Estate in Playa del Carmen
- Gringation’s Blog
- Isla Mujeres: Gringo in Paradise
- Journey to Mexico Blog
- Cancun is Safe
And there are dozens more. Of course there is our own PlayaZone, the blog you are reading now. You will also find numerous Playa based pages on Facebook, including our own. On these blogs and pages you will find the voices of people who live here. And we might be worth listening to.
A Final Note
Mexico isn’t for everyone. And those who are interested in coming here often have legitimate reasonable concerns. We neither ignore nor condemn those concerns. We only ask that people seek out responsible factual information when looking for answers to their questions.
We will end on a personal note. We have been living here in Mexico for over six years. Before that we were regular visitors to this area for another seven years. In that time we have never been the victims of a violent crime. We have never witnessed a violent crime. The worst thing that happened to us was the theft of a backpack left unattended on the beach six years ago.
We realize there is crime here, just as there was in San Francisco when we lived there. Crime is sadly a part of life everywhere. But to us, Playa del Carmen is still a safe wonderful place where the pace of life is slower and the Caribbean beckons with warm blue water. It is our home and we feel safe here. If that ever changes, our readers will be among the first to know.
Happy travels to you all. And if you find yourself in Playa del Carmen, please stop by the Luna Blue Hotel & Bar and say hello.