Disappearing students, mass murder, a drug war - the stories of violence from Mexico do not seem to stop. This hasn't discouraged foreigners from traveling to Mexico for work or pleasure - but should it?
The Mexican Drug War is estimated to have claimed 150,000 victims since 2007, and considering all the confusion surrounding the disappearance of 43 students at the end of September, there doesn't seem to be an end to the violence in sight. The state is waging war against the drug cartels, which are in turn fighting each other – apparently in some regions even with the support of public authorities.
What sounds like very forbidding conditions hasn't stopped many foreigners from going to live in Mexico, although how many exactly is hard to say. In 2009, 8,900 Germans and 49,000 other EU citizens were officially registered as living in Mexico, but not everyone who works in Mexico must be officially registered as Mexican residents. Some estimates suggest that 70,000 German citizens live and work in Mexico, most of them for one of 1,300 German companies that operate there.
The number of applications for work visas continues to climb, according to the Mexican Consulate in Frankfurt am Main. But if the number of foreigners in Mexico is really rising, current statistics don't seem to show it.
The consulate in Frankfurt did, however, issue 24 visas for the resettlement of households in the first half of 2014 alone - twice as many as the overall average for the years 2008-2012.
Consul Hoarcio Saavedra interprets the development, saying: "Germans do not only go to Mexico for short-term jobs; more and more of them are opting to live there."
The tourist crowd is unimpressed
Mexican tourism seems to suffer only selectively from the drug war: According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 24.2 million people - mostly US-Americans - took a vacation in Mexico in 2013. This was ten percent more than in 2005.
And the number of Germans spending their vacations in Mexico is increasing rapidly, too. According to the German Federation of Travel Agencies (DRV), the number of German travelers to Mexico grew by nearly 50 percent from 129,000 in 2005 to 190,000 in 2013. This year it could be up to 200,000. It's difficult to give an exact number at the moment, as peak tourist season has only just begun, says the DRV.
Location is key
So the drug war apparently plays no role in the decision to vacation in Mexico. Rightly so, says Consul Saavedra: "The tourist areas are located far away from the drug routes." Of course, one should still be careful of one's wallet outside the resort, and avoid walking through dark alleys at night. But that's not any different in any other big city in the world.
Johannes Hauser, leader of the German Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City, is also careful to separate petty crime from organized crime: protect yourself from incidents by taking the normal precautions, and you will never even come in contact with the cartels. He says "Mexico is so big - most Germans who work here live elsewhere [from the cartels] and learn of the violence from the news, just like in Germany."
In fact, Mexico is almost two million square kilometers. This is more than five times the size of Germany. And the drug cartels are far from having equal presence in all areas, write the authors of an analysis from US think-tank Stratfor on the US semester "Spring Break," a time when US students tend to head south to celebrate time off school: "The center of the conflict is focused on the most coveted smuggling routes through Mexico," most of which are far removed from tourist areas. Particularly violent are the areas in which cartels are fighting for supremacy.
Not every vacation destination is safe
One such area is the state of Guerrero, where the 43 student teachers vanished, presumably murdered by the "Guerreros Unidos" (United Warriors) drug gang. The largest city in Guerrero is the legendary seaside resort of Acapulco.
Until the 90s, Acapulco was known as a seaside resort for the international jet set. Today, the city has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Instead of Hollywood stars as in bygone days, today the guests of the four-star hotels on the Pacific beaches are mostly Mexicans who make the four-hour drive from Mexico City. US tourists now prefer to relax 700 kilometers further north, in Puerto Vallarta or in El Cabo, at the southern tip of Baja California. Most Germans flock to Cancun, on the Caribbean Yucatan Peninsula, 870 miles (1400 km) east of Acapulco.
Are foreigners protected?
These areas, where the foreigners go to wind down, are generally considered safe. But the writers from Stratfor note an increase in violence there as well, albeit sporadically. In light of the fact that victims of the drug cartels have been almost exclusively Mexican citizens, one might conclude that foreigners have enjoyed the protection of the cartels - whether because they are affluent purchasers of drugs, or to avoid international attention, or because organized crime can launder its money through the lucrative tourism business.
But this is all speculation, the Stratfor authors warn: "Nothing in the behavior of cartels suggests that they deliberately keep tourists out of the firing line." Anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time should not hope to be spared just because they're foreign.