In the Danger Zone: Travels and Turmoil in Mexico

Dispatches from the Road, Mexico — By on February 2, 2011 at 2:06 pm

By Nneka Opene
LG Contributor

While most people go out of their way to avoid danger, being a hopeful optimist, I knowingly walked right into one of the most dangerous places in the world. On September 10, 2010, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens traveling to and living in Mexico due to increased kidnappings and rampant violence throughout the country. According to a database produced by the Mexican government, over 34,612 people were killed over the past four years due to drug wars. The list indicated that over 15,000 of the murders occurred in 2010 alone.

Although I was aware of the escalating violence from feuds between rival drug cartels in Mexico, I decided long before this trip that I would not allow frightening news headlines to stop me from continuing to explore the world. My first indication of the severity of the circumstances was upon my arrival to the check in counter at Los Angeles International airport. The gate attendant made several announcements reminding the passengers on our flight to complete an emergency contact form to leave with the airline. The attendant then collected the forms as we boarded the aircraft. This was something I never had to do en route to another country I visited before.

For the past decade my friend Natalia has invited me to visit her hometown of Distrito Federal, the capital city of Mexico. When I agreed to visit, Natalia took a bus from Dallas, Texas across the border into Mexico and described a scene from a war film. “I felt so anxious and afraid seeing so many heavily armed soldiers everywhere. It looked like they were off to battle.” To hear these nervous words coming from someone who was raised in the heart of Mexico and has traveled across the border for years filled my mind with worried thoughts.

I was immediately put on guard as I entered El Zócalo, one of the world’s largest public squares. The Zócalo teemed with officers holding rifles equal to their own height. It is lined by the Presidential palace, museum, Cathedral and other buildings. I felt like a walking bulls-eye as thousands of pairs of eyes followed me wherever I went. When an officer cautioned me about all the attention I was receiving, I realized I was an easy target for any offender on the prowl. I should have felt safe surrounded by Natalia’s family (who I was staying with), but that couldn’t change the fact that I was in the midst of a place where the threat of violence or kidnapping remained a constant reality.

Despite all of this, I concluded that life is too short to live in fear and allow unfortunate circumstances out of our control to steer our paths. We just need to exercise caution and wisdom in whatever we do. Although this was not one of my favorite destinations and there were many scary moments, I still had some wonderful experiences and learned many valuable lessons from entering the danger zone.

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  • Laura says:

    I’m sorry to hear that you felt uncomfortable in Mexico City. My experience has been just the opposite. I’ve been living in Mexico City for just over a year now and have yet to experience any problems or scary moments. People sometimes will stare at me simply because they can tell that I’m not Mexican – but it’s out of curiosity more than anything else. I think it’s also important to note that foreign tourists are rarely targets of kidnappings or drug-related violence.

  • Hi Laura,

    I am sorry too that I was uncomfortable in Mexico City. Especially because I stayed with a wonderful family who took care of me and did what they could to make me feel at home. They were fantastic. So it is because of them that my entire experience wasn’t ruined.
    I had some good moments there too. Although I wrote about some of the less pleasant realities and my frustrations in my first two posts, I focused more on the rich cultural experience I did have at home with the family in my upcoming third post. I hope you’ll check it out, as there is another side to the story.

    In terms of your comment that foreign tourists are rarely targets of violence, yes, I am aware that foreign tourists have not made up a large amount of casualties from drug related violence. In fact I noted that in my second post. However, the US State Department and other sources warn that foreigners, are quite often targets of kidnappings. And not only in Mexico, but other countries as well. One other point made clear by US and Mexican government sources is that most crimes in Mexico go unreported. So the ones we hear of are only a fraction of the total incidents.

    As far as why people there sometimes stare at you, yet constantly pointed, stared at, followed, touched me and even chased me down for photos at times- I agree were sometimes out of curiosity. But in my case another element was present. (I posted videos showing this on my YouTube channel). Although we may both be subjects of curiosity to many locals, I am perceived by some as more of enigma than you are. And so I was treated as such.
    Many locals admitted it to me themselves.
    I’m glad however to hear that you’ve had nothing but good experiences there. So I wish you a continued pleasant stay in Mexico and where ever else the road may carry you!

  • Laura says:

    Hi Nneka, Thanks for responding to my comment and I’ll definitely be sure to check out your other posts and videos from the trip!! 🙂