Mexico is “safer than the United States,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador declared in an impassioned response to growing criticism from Washington this week.
The numbers — mostly — don’t back him up.
From international safety rankings to murder, crime and kidnapping statistics, Mexico fares poorly in most cross-border comparisons, but the angry rhetoric and growing list of irritations on both sides of the border signal a rough patch is coming for two countries long linked by geography, demography, culture and trade.
Mexico’s national homicide rate in 2022 was 28 per 100,000 inhabitants, almost exactly four times as high as the U.S. national rate. Many individual American cities — including St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri — do have homicide rates in excess of Mexican levels, according to the World Population Review. But Mexican cities occupy nine of the first 10 places on a global list of the deadliest cities with populations of at least 300,000 not involved in war.
The U.S. State Department has issued travel risk warnings of various levels for all but two of Mexico’s 32 states, including six states with “do not travel” advisories and seven more with “reconsider travel” advisories.
The U.S. Institute of Peace, in a report released last month, cited the grim cumulative statistics for Mexico over more than a decade battling powerful armed drug trafficking cartels.
“Since 2006 in Mexico, more than 75,000 people have gone missing and more than 375,000 have been murdered,” the report noted. “This violence stems from heavily armed criminal organizations, a militarized security strategy, and institutionalized corruption.”
Even the 2022 Global Peace Index, which rates the world’s nations on a variety of factors including personal security, domestic and international conflict, and the degree of social militarization, puts the U.S. ahead of its southern neighbor in its more recent rankings. The U.S. came in 127th of 163 countries, edging out Mexico at No. 137.
Mr. Lopez Obrador, a left-wing populist who has had a rocky relationship with the Biden administration, made his claim at his trademark daily morning press conference Monday. He offered no hard numbers to back up his assertions, but pointed instead to what he said was the continuing crush of U.S. and foreign visitors coming to vacation in Mexico as a sign of the healthy overall security situation.
Asked in particular about the high-profile murder of two Americans caught in an apparent drug cartel shootout in Matamoros, the Mexican president instead turned on U.S. security warnings and what he said was an “anti-Mexico campaign” spearheaded by conservative U.S. politicians to justify a military intervention.
“Mexico is safer than the United States,” he insisted, citing both the increase in U.S. and international tourism last year and the growing number of Americans who have settled in Mexico. “There’s no problem traveling safely around Mexico.”
“This is a campaign against Mexico by these conservative politicians in the United States who do not want the transformation of our country to continue,” he added. “… This violence is not a reality. It is pure, vile manipulation.”
“These past years is when the most Americans have come to live in Mexico. So what’s happening? Why this paranoia?”
But it is not just conservative Republicans who are challenging Mr. Lopez Obrador’s claims to security and stability.
Just days after Mr. Lopez Obrador sparked bipartisan outrage in Washington by denying his country has played a role in America’s growing fentanyl abuse crisis, Democratic lawmakers are pressing the State Department to issue a warning about pills laced with the deadly synthetic opioid sold by Mexican pharmacies to unsuspecting Americans who travel across the border looking for cheaper medication.
Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. David Trone of Maryland pointed to California researchers who determined that northern Mexican drugstores are selling counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine. The pills are sold mainly to U.S. tourists and made to look like drugs such as Oxycodone, Percocet and Adderall, according to the team at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A separate investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that 71% of the 17 pills it tested from Mexican drugstores, or 12 of them, came back positive for more powerful drugs. Investigators found tainted pills in key destinations for Americans such as Tijuana, Cabo San Lucas and nearby San José del Cabo.
“These adulterated drugs place unsuspecting U.S. tourist customers — some of whom are seeking to avoid high pharmaceutical drug pricing in the United States — at risk of overdose and death,” Mr. Markey and Mr. Trone wrote in a recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “As an immediate step, the State Department needs to warn Americans traveling to Mexico of the danger they face when purchasing pills from Mexican pharmacies.”
The Biden administration says it is leaning on the Mexican government to crack down on the cartels, though Republican lawmakers are pressing for more, with some suggesting the U.S. military must get involved.
Mr. Blinken spoke Monday with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard about the crisis. The pair discussed “U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and joint efforts to disrupt precursor chemicals used to make illicit fentanyl and other synthetic drugs,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday.
Roughly 70,000 of the 107,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. were linked at least in part to fentanyl in 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available.
Travel ticks up
Mr. Lopez Obrador was on more solid statistical ground on his claim that American tourists are returning to his country in ever-growing numbers after the global COVID-19 pandemic largely shut down much of the travel industry the past two summers.
The country’s Tourism Ministry reported recently that the country recorded some 18.4 million international tourists coming to the country by air between January and November 2021, up 8.4% from the last pre-COVID year of 2019. Travelers from the U.S, Canada and Colombia made up more than 60% of that total.
Separately, the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization reported that international travel to Mexico was up 13% in 2022, an increase surpassed only by two countries, Romania and Turkey. Mexico rated 29th in the world on the WTO’s global ranking of overall international tourism spending.
But it is not clear how the current war of words between Mexico City and Washington and the heavy publicity given to incidents such as the killings in Matamoros will affect that traffic. And it is not just the federal government that is warning U.S. travelers about the dangers of going to Mexico.
The Texas Department of Public Safety issued its own warning on Friday about Mexico travel in the wake of the cartel kidnapping and killing across the border just days before.
“Drug cartel violence and other criminal activity represent a significant safety threat to anyone who crosses into Mexico right now,” department Director Steven McCraw said in a statement.
“We have a duty to inform the public about safety, travel risks and threats. Based on the volatile nature of cartel activity and the violence we are seeing there, we are urging individuals to avoid travel to Mexico at this time.”