The thought of Mexico conjures up images of white sand beaches, colonial cities, and palm fronds swaying in tropical breezes. Mexico is a beautiful country with a dynamic history and is a fantastic holiday destination for travellers. It’s come a long way from being known as the setting for the ideal college spring break, perfect for backpackers looking for some of Latin America’s most wicked hiking spots and history lovers in search of Mayan ruins.
That said, certain Mexican states and cities are conversely infamous for cartel activity and violence. In January 2018, the US ordered a level 4 travel warning for the states Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacan, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas due to the danger posed to visitors. There are certain cities within these states as well as in others that should especially be avoided.
According to Time Magazine, The United States State Department has issued a level 2 travel advisory for Mexico overall, which recommends international tourists be more cautious while traveling.
Don’t let this discourage you from visiting Mexico, however. Aside from a few hotspots of crime, most of Mexico is safe for tourists. In fact, all of Mexico’s popular tourist areas are relatively safe, so whether you’re traveling for the beach or the culture, you can be assured you’ll be welcomed and safe.
20 Tamaulipas- Dangerously Close To The United States
Tamaulipas is the first state on the U.S.’s “do not travel” list. Located on Mexico’s Gulf side and bordering part of Texas, the state is ranked as dangerous as war-torn countries. Within Tamaulipas are cities Reynosa and Ciudad Victoria, the capital, both with their own respective travel warnings.
Visitors are encouraged to avoid even travel through Tamaulipas, since gangs often target tourist coaches and other passenger buses and ransom hostages. Its position on the U.S. border also contributes to the danger in the area as cartels strategically use border states to smuggle drugs.
19 Sinaloa - Best Known For Its Cartels
Sinaloa is notorious for its gang presence, often called Mexico’s drug capital. Sinaloa’s illicit-dependent economy extends as far back as the 19th century, when the Pacific port cities would import an exotic and highly valued product from China.
The Sinaloa cartel is said to be the most dangerous and powerful in the world, responsible for a huge number of lives lost in Sinaloa. Cities such as Mazatlán and Culiacán can look appealing on travel websites (and visually offer some amazing Spanish architecture) but beware of the region’s sketchy people.
18 Colima - A Previously Peaceful Paradise
Violence has been on the rise in recent years in Colima, which was once one of the safest and most relaxed states in Mexico. The tension developing in Colima is likely caused by the cartel nearby in Sinaloa, which introduced organised illicit activity and money laundering into many other nearby states, claiming territory across Latin America.
This cartel is extremely decentralised, meaning its power lies in smaller, local groups of gangs rather than with one kingpin controlling one area of territory. With any luck, local law enforcement will successfully deconstruct power among these small cartel sectors and illicit activity in Colima will drop away to its former low rate.
17 Michoacán - High Levels Of Sketchy Activity Just Outside Mexico City
Bordered in part by Colima and Guerrero, this state, like many others, takes in the overflow of illicit activity from other areas. Tourism to the state was a rich industry for years, and still thrives in some respects from its national parks, like the incredibly popular monarch butterfly winter migration home or the volcano Parícutin.
While cartel activity isn’t quite as prevalent in Michoacan as in the other 4 states listed on the travel advisory, robbery and armed violence still reach sharp peaks compared to the safer tourist areas in Mexico.
16 Guerrero - A State's Long Battle With illicit activity
Guerrero’s tumultuous history flip-flops from a highly desirable coastal holiday destination to the backdrop for a grim struggle against illicit groups. From armed gangs targeting local politicians to a shortage of police, leaders don’t have the structure they need to control illicit activity within the state.
Fractured cartel groups operating within Guerrero are extremely efficient in their management of politics and economics, and what’s worse is that they’re all competing for power and control of the state’s poppy fields. Tourists are warned to avoid all travel through Mexico’s poorest state as cartel presence is rampant.
15 Tijuana - A Hotbed Of Petty danger
Tijuana may seem like a quick getaway from California, located just south of San Diego and a convenient spot for border hopping for those looking to experience two very different cultures.
About ten years ago, Tijuana’s tourism industry was flourishing with day-trippers coming over from the States, and while the city is still bustling with visitors, illicit activity in the city has gone up.
If you can’t resist the temptation of a quick trip to Tijuana from San Diego, make sure to stick to the main tourist areas and don’t wander off the beaten track. Criminals are very good at targeting tourists, and especially for petty theft like pickpocketing.
14 Mazatlán - Loved By Tourists, Overrun By Danger
Mazatlán is a beach town on the Pacific coast in the state of Sinaloa. It’s an interesting city in that it relies on its resorts and attractions as part of its local economy, but its location within one of Mexico’s most dangerous states is a major concern for many tourists.
Most sightseeing locations within the city are relatively safe, however it’s the surrounding area and getting to and from the city that is dangerous. Driving outside the city is considered risky and foreigners are advised against traveling at night. Visitors in recent years have reported feeling safe, but with the new warnings for Sinaloa, you may want to visit another of Mexico’s beautiful resort towns.
13 Durango - Safety In Cities
The U.S. Department of State has issued a level 3 warning for the state of Durango, urging travellers to reconsider trips planned to the area. Highways and casinos are treated as especially dangerous.
Durango city, the capital of its namesake state, is much safer than the surrounding countryside, like most of the country. Although statistics within the city have decreased slightly, it’s still safer to be off the streets during night hours. Cartel incidences are usually not directed at tourists, so if foreigners practise safe habits, the city is relatively hospitable for tourism.
12 Reynosa - There's More Than One Reason You Don't Want To Go Here
Reynosa is a major city in Tamaulipas, and one of the most dangerous. Cartels go head to head here and clash with extreme repercussions for residents who aren’t part of any gangs. There has been a major increase in bad behaviour within the city, where violence has long been prevalent.
In March 2018, the governor of Nuevo Leon warned travellers crossing the Mexico-Texas border not to cross via Reynosa’s toll bridge due to violence. But with little interest for tourists, there really isn’t a need to pass the city, anyway.
11 Acapulco - Once Hollywood's Greatest, now something entirely different
Acapulco’s fall from grace is one of the most devastating in Mexico. Founded in the 1520s by Spanish colonists, Acapulco was one of Mexico’s most prized destinations beginning in the 1940s due to popularity with American movie stars and millionaires. It was famously the honeymoon destination for JFK and his bride, Jackie.
Despite the booming success of Acapulco’s tourism in the 20th century, the turn of the century saw a dramatic twist in fate for the city. Acapulco is statistically the worst city in the country for violence, one that tourists should avoid until it is under control.
10 Tepic - Take Your Chances In This Charming City
Although Nayarit has relatively moderate levels of illicit activity compared to other states, its capital, Tepic, is plagued by gangs. Its danger rate is one of the highest in the world, listed as the 36th most dangerous in 2018 by Business Insider. Like in most of Mexico, cartels won’t pose a threat to foreigners here, however as a tourist, you’d be more of a target for theft.
Tepic is a city that if you must travel to, you’d want to be careful with your possessions (someone could earn themselves a pretty penny selling your passport) and your surroundings, especially at night.
9 Obregón - Supplementary Law Enforcement Isn't Always A Good Thing
Ciudad Obregón lies south of Arizona in the Sonoran Desert where the land contrasts fertile hills and cactus flats. Police presence here is higher than in other places, which, in turn, is safer. However the extra enforcement hasn't actually lowered the statistics they were intended to.
There is a lack of attractions suitable for tourists and cartel involvement has gone up recently. Visitors are much better off getting a tan on the shores of Cancun or Tulum.
8 Morelos - Mexico's Lush State Interspersed With Dodgy Organisations
The magic of Morelos draws steady crowds of tourists despite the level 3 “reconsider travel” warning from the United States, and rightfully so. There are parts of the countryside that should be avoided due to some dodgy activity, especially highways in the northwest corner of the state, as listed on the State Department’s website.
There are no specific warnings about Morelos’s tourist destinations, including Jardines de Mexico and the various Mayan ruins in the area. Cuernavaca, the capital, is a city of gardens and should be on any visitor’s list for perfectly preserved colonial architecture just half an hour’s drive from Mexico City.
7 Los Cabos - A Controversial Resort Town
As one of Mexico’s long-standing resort towns, this may come as a shock to those who have been or are planning a trip to Los Cabos. From the sun-bleached buildings to sparkling Pacific waters, Los Cabos at first looks to be the ideal getaway. Unfortunately, this isn't quite the case.
Cities in Baja California Sur have seen a spike in bad behaviour last year, which is expected to increase again in the coming months. It takes place in broad daylight, even in resort areas, and innocents can get in the way of rival gangs.
Trips to Los Cabos should be taken at the traveller’s own discretion.
6 La Paz - Where Only The Boardwalk Is Safe
The second Baja California Sur city on this list, La Paz is, at first glance, a good-looking seaside city like Los Cabos, which makes the rising illicit activity rate a sobering statistic in the previously calm state.
The newly introduced illicit activity is taking a toll on Mexico’s tourism industry in resort towns. Families don’t want to travel with their children and tourists don’t want to leave their hotels at night.
Normally, the main tourist thoroughfares are safe, so long as you keep near the Malecón, and on another note, you’re safest drinking bottled water and making sure your food is prepared fresh, as with all of Mexico.
5 Chihuahua - Not For The Newbie Traveler
Chihuahua and its cities battle with all manner of illicit activities. A large state located in the centre of Mexico and on the border of the U.S., Chihuahua’s dry, arid climate and landscape isn’t best suited to accommodate tourists.
Its Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range is certainly remarkable, but unless you know your surroundings, it might be best to avoid. The capital Chihuahua can be equally charming and dangerous, and there are some visitors who feel strongly that it's one not to be missed, while others are more comfortable in the ordained tourist cities.
4 Torreón - A Somber Reminder Of The Craftiness Of Bad Guys
The safety of Coahuila state clashes. The areas of Saltillo, Bosques de Monterreal, and Parras de la Fuente remain safe for foreigners, however most of the countryside, highways, and other cities should be avoided if possible.
The city of Torreón is one to dodge if you’re traveling through the area. The city is part of the Zetas cartel territory, who have turned to activities like extortion and carjacking in order to earn more money.
3 Juárez - A Struggling City Lying In The Shadow Of The United States
If there’s one city to avoid at all costs, its Cuidad Juarez. Once a shining beacon of neon nightclubs and echoing music for residents of El Paso, Texas, which shares a border with Juarez, its tourism has been entirely stubbed out.
Today, the stats are so high the police don’t have time to investigate each case before they’re hit with another, so the perps often run free. It’s also Mexico’s unofficial “worst city for women”. It’s a scary reminder that this is happening just minutes from Texas.
2 Culiacán - Sinaloa's Most Ruthless City
If you mention Culiacán to a local, you’ll either receive warnings about danger in the city or its relative safety compared with other cities in Mexico. You’re best to err on the side of caution here and not plan a visit.
As the capital of Sinaloa, it invokes sour thoughts and connotes cartel authority, rarely attracting foreigners, and probably for the best. If you’re one of those brave travellers who want to experience all the fuss about Mexico’s most gang-infested state, please do yourself a favour and visit the much safer Mazatlán area.
1 Victoria - Victim Of Turf Wars Between Cartels
As a metropolis within Tamaulipas, Ciudad Victoria hasn’t got much going for it by way of tourism. The city was on Business Insider’s list of the world’s 50 most violent cities, earning fifth place for its rate of 84.67 people per 100,000 residents.
Although its common to pass through Ciudad Victoria when crossing the border from Reynosa or Matamoros, don’t plan on stopping long here or passing at night.
References: time.com, travel.state.gov, businessinsider.com