Reporter's notebook: Why Mexico City airport shooting is so troubling

The shootout at Mexico City's international airport might be a rare event, but it's also a measure of how – and why – the perception of security in Mexico continues to plummet.

Tomas Bravo/REUTERS
Federal police officers stand guard as people watch outside where federal policemen were killed in a shooting at the airport in Mexico City June 25.Three federal police officers died in a shootout with suspected drug traffickers at Mexico City's airport on Monday, as panicked travellers scrambled to take cover amid the latest sign of encroaching violence in the country's capital.

The shootout in the food court, just after 9 a.m., in Mexico City's international airport Monday might be a rare event. But it's also a measure of how – and why – the perception of security in this country continues to plummet.

Visiting Mexico City is an intimidating prospect. So I almost always meet visitors at the airport, a friendly face who knows her way around, trying to prove that this big bad metropolis is misunderstood.

The few times I haven't been able to make it, I have never worried for my visitors' safety. I simply give them the one piece of advice they must always – always – follow: do not take a taxi from the street. Almost all express kidnappings (where victims are often picked up, taken to an ATM and forced to withdraw all of their money) happen in unauthorized cabs, and no targets are better than disoriented tourists. “Buy a ticket at the counter and walk directly to the taxi line,” I always implore.

That worked well enough for a while. But in 2009 something tragic happened. A French researcher arrived in Mexico City and changed over 4,000 euros at a cash exchange booth. Someone had been watching. And when the man drove away with a driver, he was followed. At a side street he was shot in the head, his backpack full of cash taken.

I started adding to my “do not do” list. “Don't exchange money or take it out of the bank machines,” I said. If I could make it to the airport, I would pay for the taxi back to my house. If I couldn't make it, I would send a far more expensive driver to pick up guests – someone who I could pay when my visitors arrived so they wouldn't have to exchange dollars or euros into pesos at the airport.

Now gunfire has erupted right inside the terminal. Apparently suspected drug traffickers in police uniform opened fire in the food court outside of Terminal 2 as federal policeman approached them and panicked passengers took cover under tables. Three officers were killed: two at the scene and one of gunshot wounds later.

So now what should I say? “Don't eat? Simply don't arrive?”

The truth is, I am not worried about any of my visitors being the victim of a random shooting (the same way I used to tell foreign friends they were highly unlikely to get carjacked if they arrived in Miami or shot outside of Los Angeles).

Still, the shootout Monday is troubling for Mexico for two reasons. It is another sign that drug trafficking violence, which has largely spared Mexico City, is coming ever closer. And while tourism officials have gone to great measures to reassure tourists that drug trafficking violence is not concentrated in the traditional tourist areas of the country, almost all visitors have to fly through Mexico City.

I am sure at least a few of those travelers will be scared off now, and opt for the Bahamas instead.  I am also sure of one other thing: there is no chance I will get out of picking up my mother from the airport on her next visit.

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