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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Violence and Safety in Oaxaca, Mexico

Five articles on page A3 of a daily newspaper began as follows:

• The special investigations unit has been called in after a man was shot and a second man broke his jaw during an arrest...
• A woman described as armed and dangerous is wanted by police in a home invasion robbery...
• A man barricaded himself inside a house for almost an hour after attacking another man...
• A man tried to lure a 14-year-old into his truck...
• A young man is clinging to life after being shot in the head at a west-end community centre...

From June through December, 2006, and in fact well into 2007, foreign governments issued initially travel advisories, then outright advice against traveling to Oaxaca because of purported rampant violence and safety concerns, and again more recently warnings about civil unrest and violence in this southern Mexico city of about 400,000, a mecca for tourists. New York, Chicago, L.A. and Toronto remained immune from such government wrath...oddly so given that while residents in large Canadian and American cities are regularly subjected to street violence, no tourist was targeted or injured during months of Oaxacan unrest.

The excerpts from the City Page referenced above are not from a Oaxaca newspaper, but rather from The Toronto Star, April 8, 2007, in the midst of arguably one of the most tranquil and peaceful family weekends of the year, Easter.

There are many opinions as to why false and misleading information is disseminated about occurrences in Third World countries, and in this case Mexico (more specifically Oaxaca), while fact based reports from First World countries in the Western Hemisphere, take Canada for example, do not result in, for one thing, government advisories.

Western governments have a history of paternalistic attitudes towards their citizens dating to the period of colonization. It continues to date. Perhaps more importantly, during the 20th century civil liability has become a concern, more so in the US than in Canada in terms of claims for monetary damages arising out of allegations of negligence perpetrated by governments against citizens: "You had information about civil unrest and the possibility of injury, so why didn't you warn me against traveling to Oaxaca?"

What is a Western consul, resident in Oaxaca, to do or recommend to his or her principals in Mexico City, Washington or Ottawa? Especially when local and international media, each with its own agenda, report incidents of unrest and at times violence? Does governmental due diligence include checking the veracity of reports of targeting or injury to tourists, and when there are no such reports, ought they include some such reference to their findings in their warnings? Should this writer have not stated that no tourist was injured, when in fact there was a report of a tourist who elected to walk alongside a march with his video camera, apparently inadvertently receiving a bit of mace or pepper spray in his face, then smiling and laughing it off when questioned by reporters? Should we demand more particulars from our governments upon which we are expected to rely? Should we perhaps request comparative statistical data when advisories are issued, regarding injury to innocents in Canadian and American cities of comparable size to that of Oaxaca?

Mexico, with different legal and political systems both historically and in contemporary times, would appear to have a different attitude towards protecting its citizenry traveling abroad, at least to Canada and the US, and certainly the federal government does not appear to have the same legal liability concerns, not having developed a British common law system which gives residents significant rights regarding claims of negligence.

Perhaps the Mexican government should begin to issue travel advisories based upon reviewing newspapers, wire service and internet reports, and first hand accounts of violence against citizens of Western cities. A press release such as the following may be instructive:

Violence erupted against innocent people, some of whom may have been Mexican tourists, in at least five separate incidents over Easter weekend in Toronto. We urge our citizens to exercise extreme caution should they dare to maintain their existing travel plans to that part of Canada.

While arguably misleading, at least the facts would be accurately stated. We would then see how much pressure would be brought to bear by Canada, and how fast, upon Mexico to retract its warning. The Mexican government would then have received a good lesson on how to use diplomacy to convince foreign governments to be more detailed, accurate and cautious in issuing advisories.

Before the critics and skeptics jump on the obvious gap in reasoning and fallaciousness of the analogy, they ought to research whether or not the Mexican government issued travel advisories regarding Toronto, Ontario or Canada, in the face of the two incidents bearing the closest similarity in recent memory to the Oaxacan unrest...the Oka reserve uprising and the Dudley George killing with associated conflict.

The foregoing should not be relied upon by anyone considering traveling outside of his or her home country, and the article's intent is not to influence anyone's travel plans nor to opine regarding any government laws, rules, regulations, policies or procedures.

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

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  1. Thank you Alvin for the more realistic view of the safety situation in Mexico.


    Travel Gaia

  2. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Mexico regarding safety and tourism. This is my third time back in Mexico and honestly, I feel more safe here than I do back home in Seattle. Im currently in Puerto Vallarta, staying at Oasis hostel (, and although its a 15 minutes away from Centro, I never have any concerns when walking "home". I find that the locals in this country are extremely friendly and helpful. I think Mexico is an absolutely gorgeous place to visit, its a shame that more people dont explore this beautiful country.

  3. Thank you Margo for the up to date Mexico safety information... our readers will appreciate the first hand information!

    Travel Gaia