As a frequent flier to Latin America, I often get e-mails from readers asking the same question: Is it safe to travel to Mexico? How dangerous is Brazil? Should I allow my daughter to visit Colombia? I don’t blame them for worrying: there are enough contradictory statistics to confuse — and scare — anyone.
Just last week, as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and other cruise lines canceled calls to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, citing an escalation of violence in that resort city, two new reports making the rounds on the internet seemed to reach totally different conclusions about crime rates in Latin America.
The Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, think tank specializing in security issues, issued a “Homicide Monitor” about murder rates in 219 countries around the world, and said that Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world.
Latin America has only 8 percent of the world’s population, but concentrates 33 percent of the world’s homicides every year. Of the 20 most dangerous countries in the world, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean, it said.
While the world homicide rate average is of 6.2 murders per 100,000 people per year, the number of murders in relation to the same number of people is of 85 in Honduras, 54 in Venezuela, 41 in Jamaica, 35 in El Salvador, 34 in Colombia, 29 in Brazil and 19 in Mexico, according to Igarapé Institute figures.
Latin American cities are among the most violent in the world, it says. The most dangerous cities in the region are San Pedro Sula and Choloma in Honduras, Veracruz, Acapulco, and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico, Maceió in Brazil, and Palmira in Colombia, it says.
But if you browse the internet for crime rates around the world, some websites tell you a totally different story.
Howsafeismexico.com, a website that compares FBI homicide figures of large U.S. cities with Mexican statistics for Mexican cities, tells you that Mexico City is much safer than most U.S. big cities.
The website carries a chart showing that Mexico City’s homicide rate is of 9 murders a year per 100,000 people, compared with 15 murders in Miami, 21 in Washington D.C., 35 in Baltimore, 40 in St. Louis and 49 in New Orleans.
“While the media often portrays Mexico as the most dangerous place on earth, it is statistically quite safe,” the website says.
The problem with these statistics is that different countries, and different institutions within the same country, categorize “homicide” in different ways. Some include both intentional and non-intentional deaths, while others only count intentional deaths.
Asked what he would tell a confused would-be tourist to Mexico City, Igarapé Institute’s co-founder and research director Robert Muggah told me that his Homicide Monitor estimates Mexico City’s homicide rate at 12.2 murders per 100,000 people, which is indeed lower than that of several major U.S. Cities.
“You are at no more risk of dying of lethal violence in Mexico than you are in Detroit, Chicago or New Orleans,” he said. “But when it comes to kidnappings, assaults and robberies, there remains a level of risk that may be higher than in most U.S. cities.”
In Latin America, violence tends to be over-concentrated in very specific neighborhoods, among young males and occurs mostly on Friday and Saturday nights, Muggah said.
The good news, Muggah said, is that cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Colombia’s Medellin and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro have dramatically reduced their homicide rates. They did so by relying on greater citizens’ participation in security issues, and focusing their strategies on the neighborhoods that are at most risk, he said.
My opinion: The short answer to anyone wondering whether to vacation in Mexico or any other Latin American country is, “Look at the crime rate in the specific area you’re planning to visit. And don’t look just at the murder rates, but also into the kidnappings, assaults and street muggings.”
Unlike murders, which can be more easily counted because they involve people who are hospitalized or buried, kidnappings and muggings tend to be under-counted in many Latin American countries, because people don’t report them.
So, yes, it is safe to travel to most Latin American countries, and in many cases it’s even safer than visiting many U.S. cities. Just avoid crime hot spots, and try not to wear expensive jewelry. In other words, do the same thing you would do in your own country.