Crime is not much different in Mexico than in other countries, and especially in large urban settings. Take the same precautions here that you would take when at home, or when travelling anywhere else. The following chart provides a quick comparison of Mexico with the United States:
Crime Rates Per 100,000 Inhabitants - 2004
Mexico United States
Total Crimes 1,503 4,119
Murders 13 6
Thefts 112 2,446
Auto Thefts 140 432
The Lake Chapala area still retains most of its small town, semi-rural atmosphere. People are what we would call up north, “God-fearing, law-abiding citizens”. And they will help you in whatever way they can. A tried and true formula if you encounter trouble or are victimized is to ask a Mexican – pick out a respectable-looking passer-by, tell them your problem and ask what they would suggest you do or where you should go for assistance. Chances are excellent they will get a car, take you wherever they’ve suggested you need to go and stay with you until they are satisfied you have been dealt with properly. They will also check in the next day to see how things are proceeding.
The following comments apply more to travel in the resort areas or the large urban areas of Mexico, but they are useful to keep in mind wherever you venture, at home or abroad. The Traffic and Enforcement sections are particularly applicable locally.
Thefts occur. You should dress down, avoid wearing or carrying expensive jewellery, and carry only small amounts of cash. Keep your luggage secure at all times. In resort areas, leave your passport and valuables in your hotel safe, not in your hotel room or on the beach while you are swimming.
Try to plan your withdrawals or exchanges of money at Automated Banking Machines (ATMs) or exchange bureaus (casas de cambio) during daylight hours only, and inside shops and malls rather than on the street. Keep your credit card in sight when paying.
Do not leave anything in your vehicle in plain sight, especially if you are parking off a main street. Use public parking lots as much as possible in larger urban areas.
Incidents of assault and sexual aggression against foreigners are low but have been reported. In some cases, hotel employees, taxi drivers and security personnel have been implicated. Avoid walking after dark, especially alone, and avoid unpopulated areas. You should only frequent bars and night-clubs as part of a group and avoid separating from the group. In cases of sexual assault, police authorities will require a medical examination.
Be careful accepting food, drinks, invitations or rides from strangers or recent acquaintances. Avoid leaving your food and drinks unattended in bars and restaurants. There have been cases of travellers being robbed or assaulted after being drugged.
Kidnappings occur only in large urban areas and not to foreigners. The most common practice involves thieves working in cooperation with, or posing as taxi drivers. The thieves force victims to withdraw money from ATM’s with their debit or credit cards in exchange for their release. Kidnappers target both the wealthy and middle class. Foreigners are not specifically targeted.
Criminals posing as police officers have approached tourists in large cities and asked for their passports or for foreign currency. There have also been cases of legitimate police officers extorting money from tourists or arresting tourists for minor offences. If this occurs, do not hand over your money or your passport. Instead, ask for the officer’s name, badge number and patrol car number, and proceed to the nearest Agencia del Ministerio Público or Tourism Office to file a complaint.
Avoid divulging personal information to strangers. Scam artists have gathered information on luggage tags in hotel lobbies and later convinced guests to give them their contact information in their home country. Once done, they have called parents of travelling foreigners to report that their child has been detained or hospitalized and have requested that money be wired to Mexico. If this occurs, parents or friends should request the name and number of the caller and contact their embassy or consulate to carry out a check.
The traffic police are a separate agency in Mexico, called Transito. It is common for drivers (including Mexicans) to pay a “mordida” or “instant fine” when stopped for a minor infraction rather than go to the trouble of finding the right government office at which to pay a fine. However, the pay-offs are typically in the $200+ peso range, and often the fine is only $50 - $80 pesos. If you were running a yellow or red light, not wearing a seatbelt or parking illegally, ask for the ticket -“Dame la multa, por favor.” Be aware that the Transito officer who stopped you for one offence will likely try to up the ante by quoting other offences that he subsequently notices with your vehicle or you. For example, if you answer a cell phone while your car is running, the officer will cite you for talking on the phone while driving. Similarly, if an officer stops you for making an illegal left turn, then notices you are not wearing a seat belt, he will use both of those infractions to encourage you to pay an “instant fine”. Do not hand over a photo copy of your driver’s license to a Transito officer, as that could be the basis for a more serious charge (and a larger “instant fine”). Also, these officers have no authority to check your passport or travel visa, and you have no obligation to surrender these documents to them. Similarly, they cannot confiscate your driver’s license, although some of the more unscrupulous try to take advantage of foreigners in this way. Do not allow them to escort you to an ATM to withdraw cash for the mordida. A good way to start a conversation with an officer who pulls you over is to take out a pen and paper and ask for their name and badge number – this will alert them immediately that you will report any wrong doing on their part.
Laws and Customs
If you are the victim of a crime, report it immediately to the Agencia del Ministerio Público nearest to the crime scene. No criminal investigation is possible without a formal complaint to Mexican authorities. You must present photo identification. It is especially important to report the loss or theft of your identification documents (to Mexican authorities and to the Embassy or the nearest consulate), in order to protect yourself should the documents later be misused.
You are subject to local laws. A serious violation may lead to a jail sentence. The sentence will be served in local prisons. Foreigners arrested or detained have the right to contact the responsible government office (embassy, consulate, etc.). Arresting officials have a responsibility to assist you in doing so. Consular officials can provide a list of local lawyers upon request.
If you make a statement, you should by law be provided with a translator. Avoid making any arrangements with police or court officials unless your lawyer is present. Do not sign anything in Spanish, if you do not understand the language, without first reviewing the document with your lawyer. The procedures required in legal proceedings or police investigations may be different from the procedures in force in your home legal system. Foreigners wishing to undertake such proceedings can expect to face long delays and additional efforts in order to resolve their case. Foreign governments cannot intervene in ongoing legal proceedings, unless requested to do so by local authorities. Such requests are rare.
In Mexico, a person can be detained throughout the judicial process until proven innocent or guilty. Bail rarely applies.
Penalties for breaking the law in Mexico can be more severe than in your home country. Penalties for drug offences are very strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences. Avoid involvement with illegal substances or those who deal with them. Don’t borrow a vehicle or pick up hitchhikers; drivers are legally responsible for their vehicle's contents, as well as for the legal status of passengers and the items carried by passengers. Do not accept any packages from strangers.
The Mexican government strictly enforces laws concerning possession, entry and trafficking of firearms. Anyone (including foreign armed forces personnel) entering Mexico with a firearm or ammunition without prior written authorization from Mexican authorities is subject to imprisonment. It is also illegal to enter the country with certain types of knives.
It is illegal to drink alcoholic beverages in non-designated public areas. The minimum age at which people are legally allowed to purchase or consume alcoholic beverages is 18 years old.
Participation in political activities (such as demonstrations) by foreigners is prohibited and should be avoided, as it may result in detention, deportation or the denial of future entry into Mexico.
It is illegal to possess archaeological artefacts or to export such items from Mexico.
On February 26, 2008, lawmakers approved new legislation that restricts cigarette smoking in public spaces. Violators will be heavily fined and sentenced to up to 36 hours in jail.
Enforcement in Mexico is a different matter. It is one thing to have good laws in place, but it is useless if they are not enforced regularly and equitably. The Mexican police forces are undermanned and underpaid. Therefore, they don’t always respond to what it seems they should respond to, nor do they necessarily respond quickly or effectively.
Speed laws on the roads are violated routinely. People driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol may or may not be tested properly when (and if) caught. Insurance for vehicles is a legal requirement, but don’t assume every vehicle on the road is insured. A house break-in may lead to a response the same day or not. And don’t even consider complaining to the police about someone smoking in a restaurant.