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How Not to Get Beheaded in Mexico

You are as likely to have your head removed against your will in my town -- Oaxaca -- as you are to be murdered by roving, machete-crazed gangs in Martha's Vineyard. In fact, you are a whole lot safer in the state of Yucatan than you are in Canada.
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I can't even remember when I last experienced the beheading of a close friend. Everyone assumes it must be a weekly, or even a daily event: after all, I live in Mexico. The truth, however, is that you are as likely to have your head removed against your will in my town — Oaxaca — as you are to be murdered by roving, machete-crazed gangs in Martha's Vineyard.

You protest: slavering butchers are thin on the ground in Martha's Vineyard. Ah, but we do not have beheadings in Oaxaca. To be honest, they're unconscionably lax about slaughtering tourists in this city. It just doesn't happen. There are whole great swaths of Mexico — some 95 per cent of the country — that are untouched by the drug war. In these places, tourists are annoyingly safe.

Take out a map. Mexico is rather large. To avoid all of Mexico because you fear drug violence, is like cancelling your trip to the Napa Valley because you hear that people are flying airplanes into towers in New York City. (I'm sure a lot of Europeans did just that.)

The homicide rate in most Mexican cities is simply not very exciting. People who read newspapers — they are legion — will tell you that Mexico City is Elm Street on steroids. No way they're taking their family anywhere near the Mexican capital. Yet these same people do not think twice about hauling their beloved brood to Disney World.

Disney World is in Orlando. Orlando, Florida.

What, you're not trembling? The rate of violent crime in Orlando is really something. At the theme park itself you might not encounter drooling gangs with machetes, but the likelihood of getting slaughtered is much higher in the city of Orlando than it is in Mexico City. The homicide rate in Mexico City is sub-terrifying: 8.3 out of 100,000. The rate in Orlando? Honey, you don't want to know.

If you're truly bent on living dangerously, hit the French Quarter for a shot of faux absinthe. New Orleans is leveling humans at a rate of 58 per 100,000. To be fair, that's an improvement upon the homicide record set in 1994: an awe-inspiring 85.8. No doubt champagne is flowing at the tourist board.

Don't get me wrong: I worship New Orleans. It's a lot safer than it used to be, and I

would not hesitate to visit. Still, Mayor Mitch Landrieu admitted — when discussing a local high school — that for part of last year, "a student attending John McDonogh was more likely to be killed than a soldier in Afghanistan."

Funny that people are not dissuaded from visiting New Orleans — or Disney World — by travel advisories that read like torture porn.

Oh, you do want to know that Orlando statistic? That would be 11.7, or 28 homicides in a population of 238,300.

Which is better than New Orleans or Baghdad, but way higher than Mexico City. Ironically, Orlando receives the same kind of hyperventilating press in the UK that Mexico suffers in Canada and the U.S.: to Brits, Orlando is The Mouse That Roared, Then Indiscriminately Dismembered.

The internet too offers exquisite advice regarding Orlando. Somehow, I suspect this is hyperbole: "Don't be surprised if your sleeping child has been taken right out of their hotel bed in the wee hours of the morning." I mean, come on. You have my permission to be surprised.

In fact, the capital of America is a much more dangerous place than the capital of Mexico: You are 10 times more likely to get beheaded on a school trip to the Lincoln Memorial than you are strolling through downtown Mexico City.

Okay, I'm lying. You are 10 times more likely to be murdered in a drug-related crime. (The rate of actual beheadings is suppressed by travel agents on both sides of the border.)

People ask me, regularly, how they can travel safely to Mexico. Here I have impeccable advice: follow this, and you're pretty much guaranteed to keep your head. Taking notes? Good.

Do not, under any circumstances, take a job with a major drug cartel. Just say no. You do not want to be a hit man, or a mule, or even middle management — that's how people get killed.

I mean it: that is how people get killed. Sunbathing, on the other hand, is oddly uneventful. Yes, there are a few places in Mexico that I would avoid, unless I were applying for that gig (which I urge you to reconsider). Most border towns are not the destination of choice, except I suppose when brothel-hopping, in which case I'm told a soupçon of danger is bracing (and well-deserved). Acapulco too has declined. It was once a town in which you had a good chance of having a bad time. It is now a town in which you have no chance of having a good time.

And Mexico City, while not particularly murderous, is somewhere to be very careful: petty crime is rife, and not-so-petty crime (kidnapping) is a real issue. I travel through Mexico City all the time, and even chose to live there fairly recently, but I take the usual precautions -- I restrict myself to taxis from official taxi stands; I don't use bank machines on the street; and I suppress the urge to wave my arms around and yell, "Rob the Canadian!" (If you would like to give it a shot, that would be: "¡Saqueen al canadiense!")

Lots of really nice cities are getting a bit hairy: Guadalajara, for instance. The San Francisco Chronicle has a useful list of places to avoid — mostly areas on the American border, and south along the Pacific Coast to the state of Guerrero. The Washington Post has another useful list: they add to this the entire state of Veracruz (which is very sad — it's lovely). These two guides will steer you clear of all the places you have been reading about, including the very few resort towns that have become dangerous: Mazatlán, for instance, and Acapulco.

Again, however, this is a tiny part of Mexico. "Of 2,500 municipalities (what we call counties), only 80, or fewer than five per cent, have been affected by the drug war."

Graphic anecdotes are hard to ignore, by design, but they are useless when trying to grasp the nature of a country that is not simply vast, but immeasurably diverse. You know how Los Angeles doesn't have a whole lot in common with an Amish community in Pennsylvania? Well, multiply that difference a thousand-fold when comparing Ciudad Juarez (a genuinely dangerous place) to a Maya village in the state of Yucatán.

In fact, you are quite a bit safer in this state — which includes the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal — than you are in Canada. The national homicide rate in Canada is 1.85 victims per 100,000. Sorry, kids, but that's a war zone relative to Yucatán: 0.5 in 100,000.

Mexico's homicide rate as a nation isn't even world-class. The country is in fact something of a sissy relative to the thugs in the neighborhood. Before avoiding Mexico, cross the following nations off your list: Honduras, El Salvador, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Venezuela, Jamaica, Belize, Guatemala, Bahamas, Colombia, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil... ah, but I'm boring you. I shouldn't be: All of these countries — and this is only half the list — are murderfests relative to Mexico. Some of these places are worse than Miami.

Let's put this in perspective. Imagine a nice family from Mérida planning their vacation in Canada. They do research on the internet, and decide that some things are just too risky. Tea at the Empress Hotel, for instance. Victoria, B.C. is the second most dangerous city in Canada? "Butchart Gardens" must be Canadian slang for "the place where people get butchered."

So our family turns elsewhere. Hmm. Probably best to avoid "Edmonton's Murder Belt." Aiee. We'll go east. Regina? Are you out of your mind? "Saskatchewan reported the highest Crime Severity Index, followed by Manitoba." How about the East Coast? Not if our worried Mexican family cares about that crime severity thing: "St. John's had the largest increase." This is awful.

At last, after carefully considering Prince Edward Island, our sensible family decides it is just not worth the risk. (After all, homicide in PEI has skyrocketed.) You would have to be a fool to leave Mexico.

All right, all right. The beyond-exponential increase in homicide associated with Prince Edward Island — when looked at closely — is not really that alarming. One whole person was killed in 2011. As opposed to zero, in the five preceding years. Prince Edward Island is hilariously safe. The Mexican government has been decent enough to refrain from issuing travel advisories, despite the crime rates in Abbotsford and Thunder Bay. Level heads have prevailed.

The truth is that most of Canada is almost as safe as Yucatán.

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