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Putting a perspective on murder rates

A lot of people are killed each year in Mexico and Central America, but whether that makes the countries “dangerous” or “unsafe” is a matter of perspective.

Many foreigners who travel each year to the region, and a lot of locals, grow angry at the portrayal in the media (including my articles) of life South of the Border. They say many parts of the region are no more dangerous than in the United States or Canada.

This came to mind a few moments ago reading an article published today in the Calgary Herald of Canada. The headline reads: I went to Mexico and didn’t get Killed

Here’s how the article by Robert Remington begins:

My recent Mexican vacation was fabulous - endless sunshine, beer, fresh seafood, delectable fruit, the dependable hospitality of friendly and polite locals, and more beer.

Not a single headless torso washed up on the beach or got dumped on the street.

The recent murder of two Canadians near Huatulco and Manzanillo won't keep me away. I've been to Mexico often and would go back in a heartbeat.

You can meet violence or get caught in crossfire anywhere. Just ask Jose Neto, the Brazilian exchange student who lost his sight after taking a stray bullet while walking in downtown Calgary one evening in 2008, or the friends and family of Keni Su'a, the bystander killed in the 2009 New Year's Day gang assassination at Calgary's Bolsa restaurant.

I heard a lot about this topic in the past few days in the city I’m currently visiting, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. On a day like today, people walk normally about the streets, puffy clouds sit atop verdant jungle-covered mountains flanking the city to the west, and the place seems like a tropical paradise.

Honduras has one of the highest murder rates at 86 per 100,000 people, according to U.N. estimates, a rate comparable to a war zone. Yet several people have said to me that they don’t feel any less safe here that what they imagine Miami or New York to be like. 

The same can be said of Mexico, where violence is concentrated in a handful of ever-changing hotspots. According to the Reforma newspaper, there were 12,359 drug-related murders in Mexico last year. Hardly any of them occurred in Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos or Huatulco, major beachside tourism destinations.

Mexico’s security situation is highly fluid and perceptions can be tricky. Example: The border city of Ciudad Juarez tallied 1,974 homicides in 2011, nearly a 40 percent drop from the year before. And already residents are proclaiming how much safer things seem.

DSCN1449Still, in cities like Juarez, Acapulco, Tampico and Veracruz, the murder rates are extremely high. For comparison purposes, here are numbers of “murder and non-negligent manslaughter” cases in selected U.S. cities, according to this FBI report, for 2010: Miami (68), New York City (536), Detroit (310), Sacramento (33), St. Louis (144) and Los Angeles (293).

Are these numbers high? If you live in an area with a lot of murders, you probably find them alarmingly high. On the other hand, many people proclaim New York City is safer than ever. Check out this 2009 story with the headline: How New York Became Safe: The Full Story

My own feeling is that if you don’t observe the effects of murder yourself (see a dead body in the street, know someone who has been killed, etc.), a high murder rate might seem an abstraction. A hit squad pumped dozens of bullets into a car carrying a couple along a major thoroughfare in San Pedro Sula yesterday. It was clearly a gangland hit. (Photo above is by Fredy Pineda.) Within a few hours, the scene was all cleaned up. If you didn’t watch the TV newscast or see the newspapers this morning, you’d have never known.


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Serenity Escapes

all these people and there mindless witticisms over Mexico.....really, a "journalist" in Calgary wrote that?...sounds like a spazztic blog from a reader...I mean, I agree with him, but all the lame jokes and all the public misconceptions, they leave one aturdido...

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This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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