Monday, July 4, 2011

A Season in Mexico Part I: Security and Health Care

 Now that the Honcho is back in the USA we've had time to sit back and review our experience in Mexico and pass along some information that you might find valuable for your own voyage south. In part one, I'll discuss security and health services as we found them on our travels. In later posts I'll review our route in Mexico, marinas and anchorages we visited, food and dining, and Mexican officialdom. Lastly I'll review the Honcho, how it was set up and rigged, what worked and didn't, and what we would do differently with regard to the boat. Bear in mind that this is our personal experience and yours will certainly be different in any number of ways.

There is certainly no shortage of security in Mexico. We spent a lot of time in a number of harbors and marinas, some of which were in urban settings and some in resort settings. We also anchored in remote places where there were few if any people within miles. We also traveled fairly extensively ashore using various modes of transportation:  On foot, private car, rental car, taxi, bus, train and commercial airplane. Our shoreside travel took us to resort areas, big cities, towns, villages, and some places that we considered to be Mexico's outback. We traveled in the states of Baja California Norte and Sur, Jalisco, Nayarit, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Chihuahua. We visited exclusive resort destinations as well as grittier destinations where tourists are rare.

In general, security in every marina we visited was pretty good. Electronic gates and watchmen with radios were present at every marina we visited. We never lost anything to theft and usually felt comfortable leaving the boat unlocked during daylight hours. When anchored out we frequently hoisted the dinghy out of the water  as a precaution in some areas, but never heard of anyone's dinghy getting stolen while we were in Mexico.

One thing I think unfortunate was that a few Americans brought their biases and prejudices with them to Mexico, and were in my opinion overly suspicious of Mexicans. I believe those people missed out on one of the greatest pleasures of cruising in Mexico, which is getting to know and understand the Mexican people, whom we came to regard as the friendliest people we've ever met.

Practically everywhere we went in Mexico there were plenty of heavily armed police and military personnel. It was not unusual to see a truckload of armed and masked police on the roads or parked next to a bank. On the water we had numerous encounters with Mexican Navy personnel. They were always heavily armed, and were also always polite, courteous and professional. For our own part, we were always friendly toward them, and were never treated with anything but respect by them. With that said, I can understand how it can be unnerving to see a boat with a squad of masked men carrying assault rifles bearing down on you at high speed. I should also point out that in the ports of L. A. and Long Beach, it's not unusual to have a patrol boat with a .30 cal machine gun mounted on the foredeck bearing down on you if you happen to stray too close to a cruise ship in the harbor.

We did have one negative experience that involved Mexican traffic police in Puerto Vallarta. Four of us were driving a rental car on the highway and were pulled over and shaken down for 500 Pesos by a local cop. It's a fairly common occurrence in that area. Mexicans told me later that the government is working to get rid of corruption in local police forces, but it still happens. 500 Pesos is the equivalent of about $45 USD.

Throughout most of our travels on mainland Mexico we felt quite safe, except when we were in the state of Sinaloa, which is home to one of Mexico's most notorious drug cartels. Mazatlan is Sinaloa's largest commercial port and is reputed to be a major shipping point for drugs and as a result there has been some violence there. Enough to cause the cruise lines to stop visiting there until security improves. This is unfortunate because Mazatlan turned out to be a beautiful and charming city, and once we became familiar with it, we were able to relax and enjoy it.

We traveled by bus through Culiacan and spent a couple of nights in Los Mochis, which are supposedly the nexus of the Sinaloa cartel's empire. There we noticed many police checkpoints along the way. The checkpoints were sandbagged and the police were usually helmeted and masked. However, we never felt personally in any danger as we rode through them on a pretty luxurious express bus.

We used the same common sense in Mexico as in the USA: Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye on your possessions. Leave the diamonds and Rolex at home. Don't flash wads of cash around. Be careful at ATM's, and use only those that are at banks and other reputable institutions. Stay off the streets late at night. Don't do things you wouldn't do in the States. Know where you're going and avoid high crime areas.

Here are some statistics that I took from a cursory internet search:
Homicide rate for Mexico (2009): 15 (per 100,000 population)
Homicide rate for the USA (2009): 5 (per 100.000 population)

Below is a chart of crime statistics for Mexico and the USA in 2004.  In some ways Mexico is safer than the USA, and some ways more dangerous.

Crime Rates in Mexico per 100,000 inhabitants
20002001200220032004USA in 2004
Total Crimes1433.811439.411391.541521.931503.714118.76
Murder with firearm3.454.543.663.532.581.25
Aggravated assault171.06172.02185.01187.33186.68310.14
Automobile theft161.15161.52162.10150.66139.86432.12
Drug offenses20.6223.9724.6523.3823.40NA
Source: 7th[1] and 8th[2] Survey, 
First some statistics which I took from the CIA World Factbook:
*Infant mortality rate: Mexico 18.42 (112th), USA 6.26 (46th) of . Global average is 42.09 for the 224 countries in the list.
*Life expectancy: USA 78.4 years (50th). Mexico 76.06 (71st). Global average 66.57

Based on these statistics, it appears that Americans can expect to live a healthier, and slightly longer life than Mexicans. But the statistics do indicate that both countries could do much better. Sweden, Australia, Canada, Spain and even Britain do better than the USA with regard to infant mortality and life expectancy.

Fortunately we never got sick or suffered any injury that required medical attention. Our experience with routine medical services was that it varied from very good to rather poor. Prescription drugs cost roughly half what they would cost in the USA. We did hear of several other cruisers who did use Mexican medical services for conditions ranging from injuries due to falls to heart attack and were generally pleased with the outcomes, and usually thrilled with the low cost of care in that that country. My impression is that those near the bottom of the socio-economic scale don't don't get much health care in the USA or Mexico, those in the middle classes get fairly good care, and those in higher classes get very good care in both countries.

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