“Just try not to look like a tourist, and understand places that attract a lot of tourists are also attractive to people who make their living practicing criminality.”
That’s how a conversation ended the other night with a bartender, who was explaining to me that he was heading down to Mexico with his fiancé next week for a vacation. Overall, my point and advice throughout our exchange was that, as a foreigner, you are completely out of your element and a little bit of situational awareness and planning can go a long way in keeping you out of some rather precarious situations.
Using Mexico as an example – lately Mexico has seen an uptick in syndicated criminal behavior. A recent story circulating was of a family who was brutally murdered in broad daylight. This event was preceded by an incident in which Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s son, Ovidio Guzman Lopez (a senior leader of the Sinaloa Cartel), was arrested and released (by the Mexican government) after a massive battle over his detention broke out between the police and the cartel, leaving 14 police officers dead. Like… Did that just happen? – Cartels extorting the Mexican government?
Yep. Sure did. And to top that off, two days ago the officer who arrested him was also murdered.
To put this madness into perspective, we need to consider some statistics about Mexico compared to some other countries with high homicide rates. Well, how about we stack Mexico up against Afghanistan and Iraq for killings? Since 2017, Afghanistan has had 21,415 civilians killed. Iraq has had 81,636.
Mexico? 164,345 killings since 2017. Almost double of two of the few most war torn countries on the planet right now – combined.
Those numbers fall in line with a recent analysis of the most dangerous cities in the world as well, based on a study conducted in 2018 looking at the number of homicides per 100,000 people. Compelling is the fact that in the top 5, 4 of those cities are in Mexico; with Tijuana at number 1, Acapulco at number 2, Ciudad Victoria at number 4, and Ciudad Juarez at number 5. Caracas, Venezuela is number 3, for those wondering, and currently is right in the middle of a civil war. Compelling is the wrong word. That is outright objective evidence through analysis of data.
If you plan on traveling to Mexico as an American you should honestly be weighing the risk factors here, and ask yourself this: if the Mexican government is struggling to keep it’s own people safe, how might you as an American tourist, completely out of your element, navigate such an environment while ensuring your safety and the safety of those around you?
Well, we’d say that if you are completely living in bubble, and totally unprepared (as most people unfortunately are when they travel to tourist hotspots), you're probably left to luck alone. And luck is not a viable survival tool. We don’t depend on luck. We depend on plans, redundancy, awareness, and readiness.
Understand that predators and criminals don’t prey on the unlucky, they prey on the weak. That’s just how nature operates.
With that said, there are different levels of situational awareness you should maintain. Sitting on your living room couch, relaxing with the family with a sidearm attached to your hip? Sure, you can throttle it down a notch. Alternatively, however, are you planning on taking a trip to Cabo San Lucas? Yeah, we’d say that qualifies for a heightened state of alert.
The focus of this piece – and AVR Defense, for that matter – is safety and security. Let’s apply the fundamental concepts of that to when we’re traveling. Because people do it. You’re gonna do it. We do it or have done it for a good portion of our adult lives. So here it is – the simple, quick, and dirty… 15 safety and security measures you can implement while traveling so you won’t be such a soft target for the clever assholes of the world:
- Probably the most important - travel in groups! It is much harder to get lost, taken advantage of, or extorted when the people in your party are accountable for each other’s whereabouts.
- Understand and consider the current political climate of the country you are visiting, as well as the neighboring countries in the region. Don’t get stranded or extorted because a civil war just broke out, rudely interrupting your PTO. Prior to total civil unrest, or war, there's typically a measurable amount of tension and buildup.
- Know where the nearest US embassy is in the region. Have some tools handy to get there if you need to (some cash, or something semi-expensive to bargain your way out of a bad situation). You may need to ID yourself when you get there, so keep your documents (passport, specifically) on your person.
- Don’t wear expensive looking clothes or jewelry. If you look like you have a lot of money, you look like you need to be targeted, pick-pocketed, or robbed. Plain and simple.
- When on the move, keep your wallet, keys, documents, etc., in zippered pockets on your person. It takes a significantly greater amount of skill to lift a wallet off somebody when there are physical barriers in place securing those items.
- Do not drink too much and keep a close eye on your drinks. Keep an eye on the bartender as well when drinks are being made. I’ve heard stories where employees of establishments have participated in trafficking of people by way of being an asset. Bars are 100% target rich environments for this class of criminal. Keep your guard up when you’re out and about.
- Be aware of the fact that many resorts in Mexico, specifically, are actually owned by cartels. This is a known fact, not an assumption. Cartels don’t just make money selling and smuggling drugs. Their business ventures are vast and diverse and they include owning resorts, running human trafficking rings, sponsoring violence against those who oppose them, and aiding/embedding terrorists in exchange for cash.
- Keep a couple hundred bucks folded and tucked into your sock. If you’re robbed, you won’t be left with absolutely nothing afterwards.
- Minimize time on mobile devices when in public. Mobile devices are valuable, for one, but using them reduces and isolates your cognitive relationship with your environment. If you’re staring down at your phone all day, you may not notice somebody following you.
- If somebody bumps into you anywhere, immediately do an inventory check of your belongings.
- Do not go anywhere alone. Use a buddy system.
- Try to limit electronic payments and transactions.
- Reserve information about where you’re from, where you’re staying, and where you’re going for those in your party. Do not engage in randomly initiated street conversations. Sometimes the intent of these can simply be phishing attempts to identify and confirm that you are a traveling American.
- Share your itinerary with somebody back home, and check in at a predesignated time each day with an email or other message type.
- Absolutely avoid any verbal confrontations. One of the worst things that can happen to you in a foreign country is that you end up in jail. Understand that you do not have the United States Constitution in your corner if you are arrested for being in violation of local law. You are at the mercy of the host nation you are visiting and a scuff in a bar or elsewhere just isn’t worth the risk. Deescalate. Leave. Whatever you have to do – do it. Furthermore, know the local laws! Ignorance of law doesn’t mean you’ll get a free pass.
Lastly, there is no reason to suck the fun from a vacation because you are being overly paranoid. These protocols are basic, however – far from paranoia. They are not going to elevate your situational awareness capabilities to that of a CIA field operative. They are primary, straightforward, and easy to follow – a rather small mental investment with a big return. And some are even useful for domestic travel. For example, imagine a large city like New York, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. You think pick-pocketers, syndicated crime, and human trafficking rings don't operate out of some of our major cities too? If you were to say no, you'd be as wrong as you could be (check out the United States Department of State's 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report). Major cities come with major crime operations and wherever there are tourists, there is a person trying to make a buck off them – legally or illegally.
Bottom line: watch your back. It will certainly save you some headache. And possibly save your life.
- AVRD, signing off