The U.S. Department of State Mexico Travel Warning states (italics mine), "We recommend that any travel in Mazatlan be limited to Zona Dorada and the historic town center, as well as direct routes to/from these locations and the airport." The Government of Canada has no special warnings for any neighborhood of Mazatlan itself. It does advise a high level of caution in all areas of Mexico.
Note that the Zona Dorada, where nearly all Mazatlan hotels and resorts are located, and the town center, including its wonderful Plaza Machado area, are where most travelers remain anyway.
Unlike in Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Puerto Vallarta, you are not recommended to venture into the surrounding countryside. If this concerns you, I especially recommend traveling further south to Puerto Vallarta, where travelers roam more freely.
Of course, you should take the normal precautions of an experienced world travelers by not flaunting valuables, staying sober enough to comprehend your environment, and the like.
United States government employees stationed in Mexico must take precautions far beyond those of normal travelers. Due to the U.S working closely with the Mexican government to eradicate them, drug cartels consider them enemies just as if they worked for a rival cartel.
Both the Canadian and U.S. governments recommend flying to resort areas in Mexico and not driving between the U.S. border and these. The many RVs you see in the Mazatlan area tend to travel in large conveys from the border in order to enhance their safety. Even they would not necessarily travel at night.
Traditionally, Mexican cartels have not targeted American and Canadian travelers, unless believed to be working for a rival cartel or for the U.S. government.
The U.S. State Department states, "Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day. The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality."
Moreover, cartels have not typically atacked each other in Mexican resort towns other than Acapulco. You might liken these destinations to neutral gang territories, where all are free to roam.
Nevertheless, this has changed somewhat in parts of Mazatlan, as well as in Acapulco, probably because of their proximity to intense cartel activities. This is almost certainly the reason the U.S. government cautions Americans to remain in just two areas of Mazatlan.
As the State Departments says, "One of Mexico's most powerful TCOs is based in the state of Sinaloa [the location of Mazatlan]. With the exception of Ciudad Juarez, since 2006 more homicides have occurred in the state's capital city of Culiacan than in any other city in Mexico."
The impact of the capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful in Mexico, and his recapture (after escaping) on January 8, 2016 remains unclear. Will his imprisonment bring a more peaceful Mexico or more bloodshed due to a power struggle? That remains unknown at this point.
I had not planned to write about safety issues while in Mazatlan. As with so many Mazatlan visitors, I mainly planned to relax. Most travelers come here to enjoy the beaches, perhaps surf some on the best waves on the Pacific Coast, play some golf, shop, and perhaps do some sports fishing.
However, sometimes events interfere.
After arriving in Mazatlan just as a Canadian and a local woman wounded by stray bullets away from tourist areas and several less serious incidents triggered cruise ship cancelations, I spent hours talking to Americans and Canadians who live in Mazatlan about security and other concerns there. Their help is hugely appreciated.
I observed the behavior of the many elderly foreign residents.
Some 7,000 Americans live in Mazatlan at least during winter plus Canadians whose estimates range from 2,500 to “way more” than the Americans. With sports bars featuring Canadian satellite TV and those “north end of North America” accents everywhere, the latter may be correct.
In Mazatlan, elderly foreigners wandered about the often not well-lit historic Plaza Machado area during the evening. They were out and about in all the tourist areas after dark.
Mexican nationals and others jammed the downtown “Old Town” shopping area well into the evening, unlike the situation in some American cities.
Foreign residents I met are not living in fear. No one I met, young or old, has any intention of leaving Mazatlan.
All but one foreign resident dismissed what one called “media hysteria” about crime in Mazatlan. One person alleged cruise companies were using the “Canadian incident” as a negotiation ploy to lower “remarkably high” Mazatlan port charges. (He did not reply when I mentioned that news reports said more than half the people on one ship refused to get off after the Canadian was shot.)
Certainly, there is support for the view that crime in Mazatlan has been blown out of proportion.
For example during 2010, 526,000-cruise passengers visited Mazatlan without experiencing crime according to Mazatlan Port Director Alfonso Gil Diaz in Seatrade as quoted by Associated Press.
Mazatlan ship cancelations in 2010 came after three incidents involving passengers. (The wounded Canadian was not from a cruise ship.) According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, one involved “an assault on a tourist as he left the terminal . . .. In another, a crew member had his computer stolen, and the third involved an attempted robbery of cruise ship passengers.”
Mazatlan increased security around its ship terminal.
While no group of states in the United States has crime problems equal to the Mexican states that border Texas, Ryon makes a valid point.
According to the United States Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, welcomed 16.4 million visitors during 2009. The number of people visiting DC remained high in spite of a poor economy. It would be difficult to find a more interesting city to enjoy than Washington, and I highly recommend it.
Nevertheless, Washington, DC, experiences an extremely high murder rate, as do Chicago and New Orleans.
In fact Chicago murders in 2012 averaged just shy of 42 per month. In 2015, they averaged just slightly lower than that.
When I first moved to DC, I lived in a neighborhood that remains some 99% American of African descent. According to Washington Post, this area had a violent crime rate as low as any mostly white DC suburb. In fact, its crime rate ranked lower than a great many suburban neighborhoods.
There were reasons for this. Most residents had lived there for years. They knew and looked out for each other. Because homes were built no more than two stories high, residents could easily see what was happening on their sidewalks and streets.
Local residents were not afraid to walk the streets. That in turn made the streets even safer.
These people lived in an alternative Washington, DC., one in which we felt reasonably safe and secure.
In an embattled city like Ciudad Juarez, I doubt that many people enjoy a stress-free evening walk, but at least in the tourist areas of Mazatlan they still do.
You see there is also “an alternative Mazatlan, an alternative Sinaloa” in the tourist areas, and at least at the moment that is good enough for me. It may not be good enough for you.
My view: Whether you are in Mazatlan or Washington, DC, stay where families and lots of other typical people are walking about.
In Mazatlan, remain where you notice all those elderly American and Canadian residents enjoying an evening without fear.
And of course with its position in Sinaloa, the Mazatlan security situation could change even more than it already has. In my opinion, Mazatlan seems significantly more vulnerable to a worsening of its crime situation due to cartel activity than resorts like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Nevertheless, the situation has remained fairly stable for some time.
The cartels do not care about Mexicans whose livelihoods depend on tourism. However, at least they do not target foreigners who are not involved in their types of activities.
At this time, I would feel comfortable returning to Mazatlan, but you may not.
On my last visit, I roamed all over Mazatlan by walking and taking local buses. Next time, I will stick to the tourist hotel areas along the beaches in Mazatlan and to the Plaza Machado/downtown area if the advisory still exists, and that is probably the best advice for you too.
I will also check current advisories before traveling on the sometimes lonely highway from Puerto Vallarta to Mazatlan, as I did last time.
With all these concerns, I know that some will say, "Why not just go to Hawaii?" Well, many of us love Mazatlan. We love Mexico. These days, we just have to be more prudent about it.
Above: Celebrities have come to Mazatlan since the 1940′s.
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