An American named John Paul Abeel, 67, was found dead in Jocotepec on the western shores of Lake Chapala on Thursday, February 20. Mexican authorities are treating the death as a homicide – he was found strangled, with one of his arms severed – and three arrests have been made. This comes after the murder of a Canadian couple in nearby Ajijic, also on the shores of Chapala, earlier this month, and the murder of the American Bentley Main, who was stabbed to death in Chapala in March, 2013.
It is stories like these that have most expats who live or stay for extended periods of time in Mexico spending a lot of time answering a single question from friends and family back home: is Mexico “safe”.
In asking the question, there is an assumption that we all know what the word means, and that we share the same definition and risk tolerance (usually falling within a range that would be acceptable at home). Not so. There is also an assumption that we assess risk more-or-less objectively. Also not so.
What we do know is that many communities and some entire cities in the United States, and a few select neighbourhoods in Canada, are considered unsafe to the extent that many people won’t live there, and some may not even travel there.
So, while the US is considered safe, many Americans avoid parts of their own country that they consider to be high-risk. This is fair and reasonable: no one should insist upon a degree of risk that causes discomfort. For this same reason many Japanese tourists are terrified to travel independently in the United States, and for their own safety will only move about in organized tour groups. Americans and Canadians no doubt consider this to be irrational and absurd, just as many seasoned mexophiles consider the anxiety of their fellow gringos, many of whom have never set foot in Mexico, to be ill-founded.
Let’s be clear. There are many parts of the United States – not a few, many – where the murder rate per 100,000 is disturbingly high, and much higher than Mexican cities such as Guadalajara, Querétaro, Colima, etc. From any rational perspective, it makes more sense from a personal security perspective to live in the lovely colonial town of Querétaro, just north of Mexico City, than to live in Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cincinnati (need we go on?).
At the same time, there are parts of Mexico where the violence is so distressingly high that it makes the worst inner-cities of United States look like villages in Switzerland. This is the terror, and cannot be denied. Only a hard-hearted fool would deny the reality: Mexico is a country that has lost almost 80,000 people to its drug war, plus an uncounted number of “disappeared”. That is more than the American military lost in Vietnam, and these are citizens on home turf, not soldiers in a far-away conflict.
And, as the dementia in Mexico continues, abetted by corruption and incompetence amongst politicians and security forces at every level – local, state, federal, military – those communities that are close to the chaos risk getting swept up in the overall insecurity. This has been true of communities on the frontier with the United States, as well as (among others) parts of Veracruz, Guerrero, and Michoacán.
Lake Chapala is now one such community. Located 45 minutes outside of Guadalajara, Lake Chapala is in the state of Jalisco, and its north shore home to a fluctuating population of perhaps 10,000 foreigners, most of them Canadian and American. At four murders in the past year, that puts the rate at 40 per 100,000. If we compare that to cities (harder, given Chapala’s low population), then there are 38 municipalities around the world that are more dangerous, including Detroit and New Orleans (2011 data). That said, ten of the world’s most dangerous cities are in Mexico, including the tourist destination of Mazatlán, which sat with a murder rate of 68.94 per 100,000, in 2011.
But is there a Mexican City where we are seeing rates at 40 per 100,000 or above for foreigners? No. By this estimate Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and Mazatlán, among others, are all safer for non-Mexicans than the north shore of Lake Chapala, though again we must emphasize that Chapala’s small sample size makes it difficult to assess. Still, that is no excuse not to assess it. Smallness is no insurance: when entire villages were massacred in Guatemala’s civil war no one was arguing that the countryside was “safe” because the villages had small populations.
Chapala is an incredibly beautiful place, but it happens to be near the border with Michoacán, and is on the periphery of a conflict zone between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or “CJNG”), who are proxies of the larger, more powerful Sinaloa Cartel, and the fiercely independent Knights Templar Cartel (Los Caballeros Templarios) in Michoacán. How bad is this conflict? Authorities are still exhuming a “narcofosa” (mass grave from drug war killings) to the east of Chapala on the border of Jalisco and Michoacán, and at last count had recovered 74 bodies. This comes as another mass grave was just discovered on the Guadalajara-Chapala highway on February 21, this one with 15 human remains. Back in May 2012, 18 human remains were found along the same stretch of highway. And at another site northwest of Guadalajara 17 bodies have been recovered.
But it’s not about us!
The common wisdom is that the criminals “aren’t interested in gringos”, as if they operate within some kind of coherent hive mind. That is delusional, though it is true that it is safer in those locations where cartel control has been consolidated (witness the dramatic drop in killing in the once ultra-dangerous Ciudad Juarez, which is now firmly under the control of the Sinaloa Cartel). In areas where one cartel dominates, and all the various corrupt politicians and cops are in line, there is less danger to foreigners. Anyone who “heats up the plaza” with a hit on a gringo puts themselves at serious risk.
In an area where cartel activity is disrupted, however, there is limited retribution from the overlords, low public security, and more opportunity for criminals to freelance. (This is one reason why there is some concern that Mazatlán might see more activity now that the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader, El Chapo, has been arrested). It should be noted, too, that low-level, violent criminals in Mexico are not a sophisticated bunch, and are not thinking of whether or not they will be caught, or if the repercussions will be greater because they have targeted a foreigner. As it stands, over the past few years Chapala has seen a dramatic increase in break-ins, with little evidence that the local cops have been able to address the problem, or that the criminal element is backing off. Many foreigners now live in gilded cages, not certain to what extent they should trust their staff (and they all have staff of one form or another).
Anyone who is in Chapala, or who knows people there, is familiar with the stories. Friends of ours just returned from Ajijic, where during their visit an acquaintance had her wall-safe ripped out (this was after the double murder). Others were there during the killings, and reported on the high level of anxiety of their hosts, who were friends with the deceased couple.
“Almost everyone we know down there has either been broken into or an attempt has been made,” says another Canadian who used to winter on Lake Chapala (and who wishes to remain anonymous). “We had cash and my good gold watch stolen by a maid and the last year we were there the spare tire stolen from our SUV while we were in Mexico City.”
This Canadian believes that either the gardener or contractors working at the house were responsible, given that the car was parked in a gated spot.
She also knows people who were friends with the recently murdered Canadians, and had friends who witnessed the June, 2011, murder of Stephen Christopher Kahr, 69, who was shot in broad daylight while taking groceries out of his trunk. Mr. Kahr’s wife and son witnessed the shooting, and narrowly avoided being killed also. The family quickly sold their property and got out of Ajijic, never to return.
“If two sets of our friends had close neighbours murdered in the past two years I would say that murder is not that rare in Ajijic,” she says. “Our friends own two houses in Ajijic. Their neighbour was left for dead in his house. The Mexican strangled the guy but he just passed out, and came-to after the robber had cleaned out the electronics, cash and the truck. A neighbour gave the police a good description. Truck was found, empty, tires gone etc. Robber never found. There have been others but just not closely connected to our friends.”
Many Canadians and Americans own property in Lake Chapala, and have either made Mexico their home, or consider it to be their second home. They live well, and often participate in community organizations. On any given day you can sit in a coffee shop and hear only English spoken, with the average age well over 65. These gringos have committed time and resources to the community, and are not about to quit.
But as our Canadian friend says: “I don't know anyone at home who has lost friends to murder.” Now, sadly, very few gringos along the north shore of Lake Chapala can make that claim.
In the past year four gringos have been murdered along the north shore of Lake Chapala, three of them in the last month. With an estimated population of 10,000 foreigners, that puts the rate at 40/100,000, or over eight times the US average, which is 4.8/100,000. Canada was at 1.56/100,000 in 2012 (and yes, many Canadians consider the United States to be a frightening, dangerous place), and the onion gets shaved even further when we go to the UK and Germany, both of which are at about 1/100,000.
So, as a foreigner you are now 40 times as likely to be murdered in Chapala than the general population in Germany or the UK. But you are still safer than if you were a Honduran. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with a murder rate 78/100,000.
Will things get better in Chapala? We hope so, but the reality is that the security situation there has deteriorated significantly in the last few years, and shows no sign of improving any time soon.
(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)
(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)