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.
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Earlier in the year, the arrest of one of the suspected leaders of the New Generation led to narcobloqueos, or roadblocks, snarling traffic in Guadalajara.Skip to next paragraph
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The Mexican government has long maintained that the vast majority of deaths mounting are between rival drug traffickers, and many Americans in Chapala agree.
“Most feel that the victims have had connections to the drug business or sometimes targets were part of an extended family and a message is being sent,” says David Truly, who has studied migration patterns in Jalisco.
“When these things happen many leave … but others understand the reality of the situation and that they are not at risk.... Why would the cartels want to target Americans?" says Truly, a retired geography professor. "This might bring more attention from the US."
Expats also provide jobs for locals, which perhaps insures them against becoming targets of drug gangs. Ajijic Realtor Michael Kavanaugh says expats buy homes and open businesses that employ many local residents, and those contributions don’t go unnoticed.
But it is the more generalized crime that has worried some, including robberies, kidnappings, and even murder.
According to US State Department data, 424 Americans were reported as killed in homicides in Mexico between 2006 and 2011, compared to 945 in all other countries in the same time period.
That certainly reflects the proximity of Mexico to the US and the frequency with which Americans travel here: Some at the border can walk from their hometowns and be in Mexico in less than ten minutes. But it also underscores the reach of violence. The number of Americans reported as murdered to the State Department nearly quadrupled from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011, according to the US State Department travel advisory for Mexico from February.
This week on the home page of the Guadalajara Reporter, an English-language news service, is a story about a couple found dead in their home last week, reportedly after a robbery. They were a German and Mexican couple.
In response to the uptick in violence, Ajijic's local police have beefed up their presence and created emergency hotlines for quick response. After a town meeting following the grisly murders in May, expats and Mexican residents created a task force to keep a watchful eye and improve security.
One retiree, Minnesotan Christopher Lane, recently attended a meeting in Ajijic where about 800 people gathered to hear the police captain counsel residents on how they can contribute to their security and assist police by reporting suspicious activity. In his neighborhood, people watch out for each other, Mr. Lane says. “It’s a very safe environment.”
Store owner Diane Pearl, who has lived in Ajijic for 10 years, agrees. “People look out for each other. Because I’ve been here long enough, I am part of the neighborhood.”
Most say that the community has continued to thrive. People continue to vacation and retire here not only because of the weather, but because of the affordability of housing. Mr. Kavanaugh, for example saw a drop in his annual property taxes to $240 from the $1,400 he paid in Alabama.
Although home sales are down, he believes that it is mostly due to the US economy, not Mexico’s violence.
“People can’t sell their houses [in the US] so they can’t buy houses down here,” he says. “But our rental business is up. Life goes on.”
'No longer invisible'
But perhaps it's the personal considerations that trump any fears of victimization. Ms. Pearl, the shop owner, says many people move to this community because they feel valued.
“I’m watching people that in the states would normally feel like throwaways because they’re 50 years old or over, where they find it hard to get jobs,” says Pearl.
She says the decade she has spent in Ajijic has been ideally tranquil. She has learned Spanish, stayed away from politics, and focused on running her store, which showcases folk art from throughout Mexico as well from the expat community.
“When people come down here, they’re no longer invisible. They’re considered vital, they are very much thriving with either artistic expression, literary expression, almost anything,” she says. “I feel very comfortable.”
– Sara Miller Llana contributed reporting from Mexico City.