Despite bloody headlines, Americans still flock to Mexico
Last year, a record 22.7 million visitors chose Mexico as a tourist destination, and only 7 percent of American retirees who live there or travel to Mexico have been scared off by violence.
Early last year, Joan Ward fell in love with this picturesque town of narrow cobblestone streets, scenic mountain views, and brightly-colored houses on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest.Skip to next paragraph
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A few months later, the retired business consultant traded her Minneapolis home for a place in Ajijic, where a mild climate, easy lifestyle, and attractive real estate prices have drawn thousands of Americans and Canadians to this swath of western Mexico for decades. Ms. Ward joined tens of thousands of Americans choosing to live abroad, some of them to reinvent themselves, others to fulfill a lifetime dream of living in a foreign country.
But living abroad has always entailed tradeoffs, and in Ajijic the typical considerations – like distance from family members – have taken on new dimensions. Since Ward bought her home, fellow expatriates have been kidnapped, robbed, and killed, and in May, 18 decapitated bodies were found stuffed in vehicles not far from her new residence.
“It’s particularly shocking violence here because of the way [it is carried] out,” Ward says.
The impact of violence, some of it drug-fueled, on this retirement community is clear: After the springtime massacre residents stayed indoors and streets emptied out, causing businesses to suffer. But slowly residents here say they are coming out of their slumber, banding together to fight crime and to hold onto the quality of life that drew them south of the border in the first place.
“I love being here,” Ward says, sitting outside an American-owned store that sells art, jewelry, and books. “I have no fears for myself.”
Tourism high, despite violence
Ward's view is not unique. While Mexico has grabbed headlines for the beheadings and mass graves that have been uncovered across the country, with 50,000 killed in drug-related violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006, tourism has not suffered. Last year, a record 22.7 million visitors chose Mexico as a tourist destination, according to Mexico's Ministry of Tourism.
In fact, only 7 percent of American retirees who live or travel often to Mexico have been scared off by violence, according to the International Community Foundation, while most are neither reducing the frequency nor length of their trips to Mexico. Ward, like other expats in Ajijic and surrounding lakeside communities, often compares Mexico’s violence to crime in the US – it can feel random, and much of it is out of one's control. Tourism has continued in part because violence has been contained. It has spread from a conflict largely concentrated on the US-Mexico border to several hotspots across the country. Places like Cancun or the capital, Mexico City, have been largely untouched.
That was true of Jalisco state, where Lake Chapala is located, too – until last year. Most analysts believe that a territorial dispute between the Zetas, Mexico's most notorious drug trafficking organization, and the “New Generation” gang affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, considered among Mexico's biggest groups, brought 776 drug-related deaths in Jalisco in 2011. Through June of this year, there were 352 deaths, according to the Mexican daily Reforma, which tallies national drug-related homicides.
The violence has gotten uncomfortably close to the retirement havens around Lake Chapala, which is 35 miles from Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. In May, two vans with 18 dismembered bodies were found on a road that connects the city to the lakeside region. A note reportedly signed by the Zetas claimed responsibility for the attack.