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The Problem with “Non-Natural” Death Statistics

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The Problem with “Non-Natural” Death Statistics

A frightening statistic that we often see repeated on the anti-Mexican, anti-travel, possibly racist, but certainly xenophobic “scare blogs” is the one about the number of “non-natural” deaths reported in Mexico. Some sites report that 27% (though we have seen percentages as high as 35%) of all “non-natural” deaths of Americans outside of their home country occur in Mexico. Those are big, scary numbers, and they are designed to elicit fear in the reader, to sell newspapers, and to perpetuate the myth that Mexico is some kind of lawless Wild West, inhabited by tequila-soaked gunslingers. The problem is, those numbers, well, kind of lie.

Here’s the trouble: To begin with, let’s discard those big, scary percentages, and figure out how many people we are talking about. It turns out that, in the last six years (or at least, until November, 2008), 1,300 American citizens have died in Mexico due to “non-natural” causes. [Source: US State Department]

To put that into perspective, in the year 2005, about 117,000 Americans died in America due to “accidents.” In the same year, 2005, 19,656 Americans died by “falling unintentionally.” 32,691 were killed by “poisoning,” and 4,248 were killed by “drowning.” [Source: US Center for Disease Control] Remember, this is in ONE YEAR, 2005.

What can we extrapolate from the above data? Many, many, many more Americans die in America each year due to “non-natural” causes than anywhere else in the world.

There is, however, something else that is misleading about the “non-natural” death statistics quoted on anti-Mexico websites, and that is the term “non-natural.” Did you know that, as reported by the US State Department, “non-natural” includes both drowning and motor vehicle accidents? In fact, when you actually look at the statistics, American deaths in Mexico are almost all due to drowning and motor vehicle accidents.

Why this high amount of drowning and traffic accident deaths? Because some people come to Mexico to party. And when they party, they drink. And when they drink too much, they forget how to do things like swim and operate heavy machinery. And even in that case, there are still far, far, far more drownings and car accidents in the USA, than by Americans in Mexico.

The problem with playing the statistics-comparing game is that, through careful wording and methodology, statistics can be used to prove almost any point. When used as a persuasive or argumentative talking point, this renders them pretty meaningless. There is something willfully disingenuous, though, in using the “30% of all non-natural deaths of Americans outside of the United States occurs in Mexico” phrase as the basis for argument or discussion about the relative safety here. There is something about that phrase that almost makes it seem like one in three Americans traveling to Mexico will be killed, and that’s simply not the case.

In fact, as an American living in America, you’re probably smarter to be worried about being killed by lightning, by a vending machine falling on you, or by alligators. These present much, much greater a threat, than travel to Mexico.

Be wary and question the motivations of those “sources” which use hysterical language, those which are operated by the grieving parents of accident victims, or those of the fearmongering media. Mexico is beautiful. Mexico is safe for tourists. And Mexico is right in your backyard.

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Biased News, Half-Truths and Fear Mongering Fuel Paranoia of All Things South of the Border

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Biased News, Half-Truths and Fear Mongering Fuel Paranoia of All Things South of the Border

Not the Whole Story

The U.S. media and federal government have stirred up a toxic cauldron media blitz that has been force-feeding U.S. citizenry only partial truths and irresponsible generalizations about the violence plaguing Mexico. If to be believed, the entire country of Mexico, some 109 million people, would be cowering in their homes fearful of venturing too far out lest they be caught up in random drug violence or kidnappings.

Mexico is the 14th largest independent nation in the world with crime per capita (based on 2006 statistics) of 12 per 1,000 people, ranking 39 in a survey of 60 countries. If one took the time to do a bit of research instead of believing the selective, if not deceptive reporting and scare tactics that have become the norm in U.S. mainstream media, and of which few of us ever question, we might be surprised to learn that based on statistics of non-violent crimes and violent crimes such as homicide, the U.S., at times, ranks neck in neck based on demographics and location, and in some categories, surpasses Mexico.

Random Acts Versus Non-Random Acts of Violence

  • Drug cartels in Mexico are rampant and the escalating drug violence has wreaked havoc primarily on U.S./Mexican border towns.
  • U.S. citizens are not primary targets in places such as Mexico City or other tourist destinations as many would believe. Kidnappings in Mexico City are largely of wealthy Mexicans who are held for ransom.
  • While U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in the past several years, they are not being singled out as media would have us believe.
  • Much of the violent crime in Mexico is Non-Random, i.e. targets are usually those involved in illegal drug trafficking or police and other government officials attempting to regulate crime in towns along the U.S./Mexican border.

If you look at the recent State Department warnings, including warnings specifically aimed at college students traveling to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, you will note that many of the warnings listed are not about drug violence or kidnappings, but the strong ocean undertow, potentially dangerous aquatic life, advantageous “petty” crime often perpetrated on inebriated tourists or those not exercising common sense as one needs to whenever traveling abroad – or for that matter – to any U.S. city where crime is more prevalent.

  • Most cities and towns in Mexico are safe and are not dangerous places to live or visit.
  • The drug violence is primarily isolated to the U.S./Mexican border.
  • Most guns used in the illegal drug trade and in acts of violence throughout Mexico have been coming into the country from the United States.
  • Anyone traveling to a foreign country should always exercise caution and do their homework before leaving.
  • You can be a victim of crime no matter where you are: abroad, in any U.S. city, in your hometown.

When one compares statistics and types of crimes worldwide, Random Acts of Violence are perhaps the most threatening and leave us feeling the most vulnerable. In the U.S., random violence is something to which we have either become accustomed or numb – whether mass murders on a college campus, an elementary school playground, neighborhood mall, or children being snatched from their beds and sexually abused and worse.

According to recent statistics, the homicide rate in Mexico is approximately 13 for every 100,000 individuals. FBI numbers list the murder rate for Baltimore as 43.3 to 100,000, Washington D.C. 29.1 to 100,000, and Detroit as 47.3 for every 100,000 citizens. Naturally, the handful of Mexican border towns, which are the areas experiencing the brunt of the wanton violence born of the illegal drug trade, have homicide rates that are not reflective of the country as a whole, but mirror the inflated numbers seen in the most violent U.S. cities and metropolitan areas.

We are told and indoctrinated to be “afraid of other” – to be fearful of the perceived unknown – Mexico, when in fact, we are far more likely to experience or witness a criminal act or be a victim of such in our own country.

Living or Vacationing in Mexico: The Ripple Effect

Mexico is a country with a staggering poverty rate that is only worsening due to the impact of a flailing U.S. economy coupled with irresponsible media fear mongering. In a country where much of the economy is sustained by the tourist trade, Mexicans are hurting as are expat business owners.

According to Wesley Gleason of Agave Real Estate, which was recently voted as the top real estate agency in the tourist town of San Miguel de Allende, business has been floundering. Naturally, this is a reflection of the housing and stock market decline in the U.S., coupled with the perception that Mexico is no longer “safe,” and fewer and fewer U.S. citizens are purchasing homes in the area. The real estate market here has been hard hit, some transactions in progress have bottomed out due to potential home buyers worrying about the continued decline of the economy, safety issues, or banks pulling out of loan negotiations or bypassing on loans all together. Katharine Hibberts of Premier House Rentals of San Miguel has seen the same decline. People, once only concerned about the economy are now twice as worried due to the U.S. media blitz about the “rife drug violence.” Unfortunately, they are not paying attention to where this violence is indeed widespread, and where it is not – and regardless if you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away from the thick of it, Mexico is now perceived as a lawless and dangerous land.

I’ve talked with many business owners in San Miguel, proprietors of small restaurants to tiny tiendas and shops selling goods from local producers to those from Oaxaca and other areas. They are all seeing the downturn, the lack of tourists, and the lack of revenue filtering in. Many of these business owners rely heavily on tourist dollars to make ends meet, provide food and shelter for their families.

In a city that prides itself on tourism and of which is kept afloat by these dollars, San Miguel is feeling the backlash. That said other tourist destinations throughout Mexico have been even harder hit – some coastal cities and towns once overrun by U.S. and Canadian snowbirds or college students on spring break – were and are nearly empty during the height of the tourist season.

It seems unfair, if not criminal, to “punish” an entire society or unjustly “label” a country based on generalizations and fear-mongering triggered by isolated incidents of violence primarily due to the illegal drug trade which is playing out along the U.S., Mexico border towns. Certainly not all, but most of the violent crime due to the escalating drug violence in Mexico is Non-Random – and this is something that U.S. citizens must understand and research.

As we were reminded when young, “don’t believe everything you’re told.” As concerned, insightful, intelligent human beings, it is up to us to further research and investigate anything that we are “told” or “warned” about – whether a doctor’s diagnosis, the foods we eat, the prescription drugs we take, or where we choose to live and travel.

The last couple of years, I have been living half of my life in Mexico; a choice born both of pleasure and economic hardship. Thankfully, with my computer in tow, I can work from most anywhere, and the cost of living is far less than in my hometown in Maine. In Mexico, I don’t drive a car and for six months of the year, I am “gasoline” free. I do not need to heat my rental apartment and what I pay in rent is nearly comparable to what I would pay to heat my home with oil during the winter and spring months in Maine. Food in my Mexican city runs approximately half of what I’d pay back home, a doctor or dentists’ visit, a fraction of the cost of what one would owe in the States.

I can walk to my local grocery store or produce market and come home with bags laden with mangoes and broccoli, papayas and fresh strawberries, whole grain breads, homemade yogurts and cheeses, nuts and dark Mexican chocolate and have spent pennies on the dollar when in comparison to shopping in Maine. The other day a huge, emerald green head of broccoli just trucked in from the campo cost me 30 cents, a bag of 13 eggs with yolks the color of sunflowers, cost 65 cents.

I can walk. I can walk most anywhere, day or night, unafraid. I feel even safer living here than I did when living in San Francisco, CA. I walk to shops, galleries, restaurants, live music in the jardin. I walk from one end of Centro to the other, often solo, at times with friends. If late at night and I feel it is questionable to walk alone, I’ll grab a taxi. I use the same rationale as I would when in any U.S. city or town, during any of my travels abroad.

I feel safe here.

No place is perfect. I am not delusional nor do I bury my head in the sand. Violence can happen anywhere. The strength and power is in being informed. Do your homework. Do not fall victim or prey to misinformation or half-truths, or news that is meant to propagate fear or paranoia.

Living fully and freely is often based on getting the facts – not relying on others to tell you how or where to travel or live – but taking responsibility for your own life by educating yourself, and only then, can you make a decision that is best for you, based on all the facts.

I love Mexico. I love the people, the culture, and the beauty of the land and the plethora of gifts it has to offer. I love the sense of family and community. The warmth and colors that pale the sun are simply icing on the cake.

I try to live my life with a healthy balance of common sense, education and information whether when living in San Francisco, Maine, or Mexico, traveling anywhere within the U.S., or the world. And hopefully, with that balance in tow I am able to live the life I choose – and live it well.

Note: This article originally appeared here, and is reprinted with permission.

Posted in GuanajuatoComments (3)

Apparently, We Aren’t the Only Ones Who Have Noticed…

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Apparently, We Aren’t the Only Ones Who Have Noticed…

I just read an article by Arthur Frommer, the famous travel book writer, who talks about how his daughter stood up to a popular Fox News host about the lies being spread about the dangers of visiting Mexico. You can read that article here:

But then I did as he instructed, and went to and searched on “Mexico”. Oh my goodness… the things that Fox News is reported to be saying about Mexico will make your toes curl.

And this morning, according to the L.A.Times, there is a report about Hilary Clinton’s recent visit to Mexico and Obama’s upcoming visit.

Things certainly are getting interesting….

Posted in YucatanComments (6)

Bullets and Bazookas

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Bullets and Bazookas

Come to Mexico City for your vacation, and you actually won’t be beheaded upon arrival at the airport. Nor are you likely to see anyone beheaded. There won’t be any narco gangsters waiting outside your hotels to kidnap you, or to inject you with vast quantities of cocaine. You won’t be stepping over scores of dead, mutilated bodies on your way to the pyramids. Sorry if this disappoints you. I know all those news headlines would have you believe otherwise.

Basically, if you turn off Fox News on your telly as you leave your home for your trip to Mexico City, that’ll be the last you’ll see or hear of the drug war in Mexico until you get back and turn your telly back on. The reality is that outside of a few border towns, which account for the vast majority of the drug war killings, everything and everyone is continuing as normal. Because outside of those towns, life is normal. I’ll give it to you straight. No spin. No bollocks. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News is lying. As are the others whose reports go beyond “misleading” or “misinforming.”

The truth. There are birds singing from the fronds of the palm trees. The Jacarandas are in bloom. Street vendors are selling fresh fruit and candies. The sun is shining, the sky is a glorious blue and the streets are bustling. Green VW Beetle taxis are shuttling people from place to place. Tour guides are showing off their city. There are lots of things happening on the streets of Mexico City. Pretty much everything but a drug war. So come pay this fabulous city a visit.

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There’s No Business…

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There’s No Business…

Last evening I was lounging on one of the lacy wrought iron chairs that decorate the drinks patio at our local playhouse. The Lakeside Little Theatre is a community endeavor that’s been producing plays in English for 44 years, more than enough time to have been the beneficiary of some of our local Sunset Boulevard types, thespians who got their big break on the LLT stage. And then died. As a result, our little theatre is an oasis of opulence. Actresses often wear real fur and 1950s Balenciaga that’s been bequeathed to the wardrobe department, and the prop department is full of Bierdemeier antiques, with an art collection like Sotheby’s.

The chimes had been rung and the house manager, decked out in a sequin /palazzo pants number that would have been perfectly appropriate at the Kennedy Center, was shooing in the audience; gay couples in skin tight shirts, ancient widows in mink stoles being pushed by their Mexican attendants, the tanned and platinum haired gang from the view properties up on the hill, and the tourists who innocently earn their derision by showing up in shorts and Hawaiian shirts.

I had a bit of time to kill before heading backstage to help change the costume of the lead actress in our production of Kiss Me Kate, and I always like the patio in the evening. Some combination of its location on the side of the mountain and lighting makes the sky look purple, and when it’s clear and starry, to look up through the palm trees and bougainvillea and giant saguaro cactus into the dark orchid sky is impressively romantic.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had received yet another squawking call from a potential client who was watching the Glenn Beck show on the Fox News Channel and wanted some inside information on the escalating violence in Mexico. He was worried and thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to retire down here after all, because according to Glenn Beck the country is imploding and the Mexican government is going to collapse within a year.

I promised him I’d look into it, which I did. I stuck my head through the gate in the wall that separates our front garden from the street. As I expected, an old lady with her stockings falling down was inching up the street, carrying a string bag with some fruit in it. My dog was sprawled in the sun in the apron of my neighbors garage. A couple of chickens were lethargically pecking in the yard of Thomas. (Toh-mahs, we say. I used that weird word order “in the yard of Toh-mahs” to avoid the hissing sound of Thomas’s, not because I now speak English as if Spanish were my first language. Although I can’t lie, I do that, especially when talking to Mexicans. For no reason at all, I’ll catch myself saying something like “The juice, can it be that you will put him on the table?”, in the hope that speaking gibberish is somehow closer to Spanish than regular grammatical English) A trio of hummingbirds droned at the orange honeysuckle vine that crawled over and through his fence. The fence of Thomas.

At the bottom of our street, the lake glittered, and at the top, the mountains drifted gold and craggy. I noticed a gringo, easily identified as a visitor, getting what he thought was an art shot of the somnolent beauty of a Mexican village street. When he looked at it later, he would wonder why he had taken a picture of a trashy vacant lot full of broken glass and weeds. It happens all the time. I went back to the phone.

“Um, not too much in the way of violence, Hugh”, I said. “I think it’s probably still pretty safe to come. If you don’t get murdered in the cab on the way to the Houston Airport, I mean.”

When the time came, I went backstage where the volunteer players- mature cupcakes who were delighted with the opportunity to cavort around the stage in racy chorus girl outfits while singing “It’s Too Darn Hot” –were waiting to go on. The stage manager pushed through hissing into her headset, “Goddamit, I don’t want those little brats sprawling all over the furniture,” referring to the adorable adolescent prop girls who were dressed as court jesters and who were prevented by the act of respiration from remaining still enough between acts to satisfy her. Violet and I got into position to change the lead from her opening act cocktail dress into the full Smithsonian quality Elizabethan regalia she wears in Act 2. On stage, a Mexicana with a voice like a bell sang “Hanohther Hoapnin’, Hanohther Cho!”

My friend Violet and I often work together on these shows, although her commitment to the theatre runs deeper than mine. She’s been involved with it since it was just a scratchy blanket slung over a clothesline at the Chula Vista golf club. There is a rumor that “Steel Magnolias” will be staged again, as the ten year period between reprising shows is about to expire for the second time. If so, Violet has a fair shot at playing all three generations of female leads.

I fell under Violet’s spell in my early days in Mexico, when I met her at an open house. She has waist length red hair which she successfully anchors into messy updos by stabbing it with any random office supplies or kitchen utensils that happen to be around, and she wears raffish whorehouse outfits of eyelet and denim with cowboy boots, over which her concha belts , seed bracelets, turquoise, silver, coral and fetish necklaces rattle like marbles spilling on a tile floor. I overheard her suggest in her syrupy drawl that the house would have a better chance of selling if the closets didn’t smell like “twelve mahls of beat up ol’ wolf pussy”, a phrase that so impressed me I’ve been following her around ever since. She is a bit of an iconoclast, and her contempt for tourists, smokers, fat people, dumb people, Mexicans, homos, drunks, old people, Canadians, and other realtors has lent a puzzling mythical quality to her success as a real estate agent. My fascination with her is the reason I’ve ended up with some expertise in the goings on backstage of our community theatre.

She and I talk about the sudden spike in perceived violence here in Mexico, why the coverage up North has increased so much. It’s hard to know how to respond to clients who are freaking out about the news stories they see. When Bruno and I moved into our townhouse in the most banal suburb in Northern Virginia, practically the first thing that happened was some crazy Indian cab driver cut his wife into pieces and put them into a suitcase which was later found in the Food Lion dumpster. In the space of five years we endured 9/11 and the Beltway Sniper, and when my daughter went to Virginia Tech, she had to cope with the massacre of her classmates in her freshman year, a tragedy that makes narco gangs killing each other seem refreshingly symmetrical.

When I walk home from the theatre at night, exchanging greetings with the teenagers who neck in the doorways, waving at Alfonso who runs the taco stand, trying to identify the smell of the evening air–orange blossom? jasmine?–and even nodding at our local drug kingpin, an amiable moonfaced boy who wears plaid cholo shorts and white athletic socks pulled up so high they look like nurses stockings—well. I know that somewhere under our big purple sky there’s a gunfight going on.

But it’s not here.

Note: This entry was originally published here, on March 8th, 2009.

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