Tucked into a protected bay on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Acapulco has in recent years become the poster child for how the country’s vicious drug war has turned a once idyllic tourist destination into a killing field.
Headless bodies, gang rapes of tourists and hours-long shootouts have driven even the hardiest of visitors away from the city’s famed beaches and high-rise hotels. Foreign visitors flying in have decreased from over 350,000 in 2006 to fewer than 61,000 in 2012 and the once popular spring break destination saw the number of U.S. college students visiting drop by 92 percent in the last three years.
While Acapulco – and border cities like Ciudad Juárez and Reynosa – have dominated the headlines for the gruesome drug violence, much of Mexico’s 761,606 square miles remain relatively safe for both tourists and business interests. Analysts and travel experts tend to agree that Mexico is both as dangerous and as safe as it ever has been; it just depends on where one travels.
“There are areas of the country that are very dangerous – especially along the northern border and in key ports - but the vast majority of Mexico is very safe,” said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Washington D.C.-based think tank the Woodrow Wilson Center.
“Americans continue to do business, travel, study abroad in Mexico all the time without any problems," Wilson said.
Almost six million U.S. citizens visited Mexico in 2012 and in the first quarter of 2013 alone the country has seen a 5.9 percent bump in American tourists compared to a year before, Mexico’s tourism ministry reported.
The U.S. State Department recently decided to replace its blanket warning against traveling in Mexico with more nuanced reports focusing on trouble hotspots that American visitors should avoid. While the State Department advises against “non-essential travel” to places like the state of Sinaloa – home to drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel – and the border state of Chihuahua, areas of the Mayan heartland of the Yucatán, the colonial region of Puebla and the Caribbean Quintana Roo all are regarded as safe for travelers.
The country's capital, Mexico City - once painted as a place rife with violence, muggings and express kidnappings – has vastly improved its security over the last 20 years. The city now has a per capita murder rate of 22 per 100,000 which is comparable to Philadelphia’s 21.5 per 100,000 and far below Detroit’s 54.58 per 100,000.
“The situation in Mexico City has evolved over the years because of the improvements in the quality of governance and the developments in the police force,” Wilson said.
U.S. business interests in Mexico have also not been hindered by the harrowing reports of drug violence.
Despite stories of business owners having their legs chopped off for not paying extortion money and The Knights Templar cartel threatening Mexican baked goods giant Bimbo, there has been very little violence leveled against U.S. businesses operating in the country and the combined trade between the two countries totals around $500 billion – the third largest for the U.S., after Canada and China.
Pro-business groups, especially along the U.S.’s southern border, have made concerted efforts to promote trade and commerce in Mexico by focusing on regions not plagued by the drug trade.
“Many manufacturers are often concerned about safety in Mexico when they are deciding whether to offshore to the country. This is because Mexico has often been portrayed by outsiders as an unsafe country,” according to the Arizona-based business consulting firm The Offshore Group. “Living, producing products and transporting goods are just as safe in Mexico as in other North American countries. In fact, it may even be safer.”
While many analysts and even business insiders would disagree with the statement that commerce in Mexico might be safer than in the U.S. and Canada, the argument can be made that U.S. businesses operating in certain regions of the country don’t face any dire risks.
It is estimated that violence related to organized crime occurs in only 10 percent of Mexico and that the majority of the violence related to the cartels is concentrated in the central and eastern border regions, as well as in central Pacific coast states on the mainland, according to a report from the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
“If you want to do business in Michoacán I wouldn’t recommend it, but Mexico City and Guadalajara are both great places for it,” said Eduardo Bravo, the president of the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos, a San Antonio-based non-profit group that promotes cross-border trade with offices across the country geared at helping facilitate Mexican business in the U.S.
“Like anywhere else in the world, you need to do your homework and find a safe place where you want to invest,” Bravo told Fox News Latino.
The drug war violence still has an ominous presence in many parts of Mexico, but the arrests of many cartel leaders paired with an isolation of their operations into specific regions has made Mexico a safer place to travel and do business than many people would expect.
“Mexico is a great place to travel, visit and invest,” Bravo said.”It just take some research to do it safely.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.