Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in the summer of 2012.
Before I left home for this trip across Mexico and Central America, a friend in San Diego warned me to be careful. “Watch out, David,” she said. “My mom was telling me she saw some scary stuff in the news about Mexico. She said they chop people’s heads off down there.”
* * * *
I stopped into a church to pray for a few minutes before boarding the bus from Oaxaca to Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.
This is a habit of mine, whenever I’m traveling. Before starting the next leg of my journey, I always find a cathedral (not difficult to do in Latin America, where ancient churches abound). I light a candle, say a prayer, clear my head.
Before this particular bus ride, though, I spent an extra minute praying. I kept thinking about the fact that I’d be traveling at night. And this was exactly what my friend in Mexico City warned me not to do.
* * * *
Before I left Mexico City, my friend said not to travel through southern Mexico after dark. “It’s not safe there like it is here in the capital,” she told me over coffee. “I’ve heard too many stories. Sometimes, groups of gang members board the bus out in the middle of nowhere. Once all the cholos are on board, they pull out guns and rob everybody blind. And that’s the least of your worries—you don’t want your bus to come across a ‘fake checkpoint’.”
“Fake checkpoint?” I asked her.
“The narcos—the drug traffickers—sometimes set them up on the highways at night. They dress in the uniforms of soldiers or Federal Police, and they stop the vehicles going down the road. If it’s a commercial bus carrying travelers, they might rob you. They might kidnap you. I’ve heard stories.”
This was all going through my head when I booked my ticket for Chiapas, and found out that the only available bus left at 9:00 p.m., long after sunset.
* * * *
I wouldn’t say I was terribly worried. I’d been to Chiapas before, multiple times. I had always found it to be a very tranquil place to visit.
Not to mention, the sort of “be careful down there” warning can be a very relative thing.
My friend in the Mexico City had warned me against traveling through Southern Mexico at night. However, my friends in Tijuana told me the same sort of things about Mexico City. “Mexico City is a dangerous place,” they said. “It isn’t tranquilo like Tijuana is.”
Meanwhile, my friends in San Diego are always warning me against going into Tijuana—after all, they say, I run the risk of getting my head chopped off anytime I cross the Mexican border.
For that matter, I know some people in northern San Diego who are terrified of the southern part of the city. They never venture into Barrio Logan, National City, San Ysidro. “What?” they tell me, incredulously. “Me, go into Barrio Logan? No way, man. I don’t want to get shot.”
I’d venture to say that, for some sheltered people in suburban Temecula, not even San Diego feels safe. And maybe the tendency continues, the further north you go. Maybe Oregonians are terrified of California, and Washingtonians are afraid to cross into Oregon, and Canadians never venture south into the savage United States, and Alaskans are afraid of Canada.
Maybe the paranoia continues all the way up to the North Pole. Then it flips southward again, once you start working your way down the tundra of Greenland. That’s when the Laplanders will warn you, “don’t go south into Norway. They chop people’s heads off down there.”
* * * *
As I boarded the dark bus, I thought of my Mexico City friend’s stories about traveling at night. I also thought of another warning given to me—by none other than the United States government.
The U.S. State Department regularly issues travel warnings for different parts of the world. The way they depict other countries is always interesting. Take a look at some excerpts from the current travel warning for Mexico, for instance:
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling in Mexico due to threats to safety and security posed by Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) in the country. U.S. citizens have been the target of violent crimes, such as kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery by TCOs in various Mexican states…
…gun battles have occurred in broad daylight on streets and in other public venues, such as restaurants and clubs. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area…
…while violent incidents can occur anywhere and at any time, they most frequently occur at night and on isolated roads. To reduce risk when traveling by road, we strongly urge you to travel between cities throughout Mexico only during daylight hours…
Pretty terrifying, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound like the sort of place I’d like to visit.
But let’s ask ourselves: is this a very accurate sketch of what the country is like? Is Mexico a place where—in the words of my San Diego friend—“they chop heads off down there?”
* * * *
Don’t get me wrong—violent crimes do happen in Mexico. And certain areas suffer more violence than others, especially the handful of states with a heavy presence of drug trafficking organizations. The “drug war” started by former president Felipe Calderón is a real thing—it left at least 150,000 people dead in its wake.
But would it be fair to say that Mexico is “a dangerous place”? And, if so, for whom is it dangerous?
* * * *
I’ve read the U.S. government travel advisories for several countries. A lot of them are exaggerated and one-sided, focusing almost exclusively on tales of danger and peril. There seems to be a central message: “it’s dangerous down there”.
But what if we applied the same criteria to our own country?
Suppose we focused on all the dangers a person might face in the United States, and wrote up a “travel advisory” for visitors. What might it look like?
TRAVEL ADVISORY FOR INDIVIDUALS PLANNING TO VISIT THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
“Gun violence is alarmingly common in the United States. Due to lax gun control standards, any citizen may potentially be carrying a firearm. Avoid prolonged contact with the natives unless absolutely necessary…”
“Tourists of a darker complexion are strongly cautioned against visiting the United States. Hate crimes against people without white / European features are common across the U.S.A. According to the country’s own Department of Justice statistics, more than 250,000 hate crimes take place in the U.S.A. each year…”
“Non-white visitors are encouraged to stick to major urban centers and areas with a heavy presence of tourists. Large sections of the southeast, including the states of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and others, are lawless, ungovernable, and to be considered ‘off-limits’ for non-white visitors. It should be noted that not even the President of the United States would be able to safely travel through many of these areas, were he an ordinary citizen…”
“Visitors of all racial complexions are forewarned that public shootings are common in the United States. These shootings are random, without any apparent political or social motive, and may take place at any place and time. Even apparently “safe” areas with low instances of crime—including suburban middle-class neighborhoods, public schools, military bases, and universities—have been the site of mass shootings. No part of the United States is to be treated as a “safe zone”.
If we applied the same standards to our own country, it would make the U.S. sound like a pretty scary place.
* * * *
Spoiler alert: I didn’t get killed on my nighttime journey to Chiapas.
In fact, the bus was cozy and luxurious. Most of the other passengers were European tourists heading south. They lounged around the plush seats in flip-flops and shorts, as comfortable as if they were on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.
I let myself relax. After grabbing a cup of coffee from the free refreshment bar at the back of the bus, I kicked my seat all the way back and plugged in the free headphones. I drifted off to sleep watching “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on my individual TV set.
The danger of traveling across parts of Mexico exists, of course. But for the most part, the people who experience this violence are not the folks who are the most paranoid about it—foreigners, like myself, who travel on an air-conditioned bus.
 [source: U.S. State Department website, last updated July 2014]
 Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Hate Crime Victimization, 2003-2011. Lynn Langton, Ph.D., Michael Planty, Ph.D., Nathan Sandholtz, BJS Intern. http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4614
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected] .
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