Yes. Cancún is dangerous.
Statistically, the likelihood that you will be the victim of an improvised explosive device (IED) on a ferry or at the wrong nightclub when a shootout occurs is very low. Low as in probably lower than getting in a traffic accident in the United States.
So how can a place be safe statistically, but at the same time also dangerous? Cancún, Riviera Maya, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and the rest of Quintana Roo are dangerous because the stability they do have is due to the control of drug cartels.
Drug cartels and resort areas have co-existed somewhat peacefully for years. Local ports are key for logistics and resorts, hotels, and clubs are very effective for laundering money. Politicians, friendly to the cartels, ensure that no one digs too deeply into the sources of cash and as long as one cartel is in power there is stability.
But drug stability does not endure and Cancún and other resorts towns are potential powder kegs. Anyone who has recently been to Cancún will probably write-off everything they have read so far, but one only has to consider Acapulco to understand how fragile the stability is. Acapulco was once a location of the jet set. The dominant cartel displaced, it is now a battleground.
Cancún is unlikely to go the way of the Balkans in the early 20th Century. A tourist will not go to sleep one peaceful night to wake up the next morning to a full-blown war. The useful takeaway here is that cartel driven stability introduces the same drivers of risk as in other parts of Mexico. Specifically, there are low consequences for committing a crime and relatively high payoff.
Payoff refers to the fact that robbing a tourist represents a high economic opportunity. Using tainted liquor to make someone vulnerable to a robbery might be worth risking a termination if the expected outcome is high enough. When wages are low, a $100 haul from a tourist’s wallet is worth it.
Low consequences could either mean that getting caught carries no real punishment or that the likelihood of getting caught is low. In some parts of Mexico getting caught is not a real concern. Nationally, some put the numbers as low as only 2% of murders lead to an arrest.
Historically, there were high consequences for commit a crime in the state of Quintana Roo. After all, it was very important to the cartels to maintain peace. Peace meant that the local businesses were more effective at laundering money and that the politicians, military, and law enforcement could stay away and not face any political heat.
With fighting between the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and other aspirational new entrants the presence of a dominant enforcer is gone. Having cartel enforcers meant that the consequences for committing a crime against a tourist was very high.
Serving tourists tainted liquor is an example of enterprising criminals taking advantage of the power vacuum. Putting a bomb on a ferry going from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel is much more significant. The ferry bombing means that it isn’t just low-level criminals entering the vacuum. The alleged perpetrators, the Jalisco Cartel, are showing that they don’t care about maintaining the stability.
Does this mean one should avoid Cancún? No. What it means is that anyone who tells you Cancún is perfectly safe either doesn’t know, doesn’t like nuance, or personally benefits from telling you it is perfectly safe. The drug cartels have some unlikely allies in convincing you that nothing is going on – the travel industry.
Our advice at Anjin Secure Car is to go to Cancún but stay at well known resorts, contract a car service from a provider where you have 100% confidence in the driver’s integrity, and just remember that the strongest hyperbole (“it is perfectly safe!”) is usually reserved for occasions when nuance would be more appropriate.