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.
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.
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.
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.