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Mexico has become a byword for violence. Reports from south of the U.S. border regularly feature beheadings, gunfights, grenade attacks, corpses dumped on highways or hung from bridges, even corrupt federal police officers killing each other at Mexico City’s international airport. That happened a week before the July 1 presidential elections and neatly fit the image of a country where there’s neither law nor order.

So it might comes a surprise that Mexico attracted a record number of foreign tourists last year and another record is predicted for 2012, that foreign investment is booming, and that the sizeable community of American and Canadian expatriates in Mexico does not appear to be shrinking.

Welcome to the other Mexico, the one that does not make as many headlines as the Mexico of three wars — one between drug smuggling organizations fighting for access to the lucrative U.S. market, one between the criminal organizations and the Mexican state, and the third waged by common criminals against their fellow citizens. It’s a toxic combination that prompted strategy planners of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, in 2009, to classify Mexico as a “weak or failing state.” Since then, the body count of Mexico’s violence has risen by more than 45,000.

And yet … the number of foreign visitors arriving by air in 2011 rose to 22.7 million, according to Mexico’s tourism board, which has been waging an energetic campaign to promote Mexico as a destination beyond its traditional “sun and beach” image. The focus has widened to archaeology and ecology and aims both at the traditional customer base — the United States and Canada — and tourists from elsewhere. That resulted in steep increases — around 50 percent per year — in visitors from Brazil, China, Russia and India.

One striking aspect of the campaign: comparative statistics on crime and murder. That resulted, in 2010, in a startling headline in the Economist magazine — “Mexico: safer than Canada.” It was based on the murder rate of Yucatan, whose attractions include the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza. The state has a murder rate of 1.7 to 100,000. Canada averages 2.1. The murder rate of Washington, D.C., is more than three times that of Mexico City.

Which goes to show that safety depends on where you are. Cities along Mexico’s northern border with the United States are anything but safe. In tourist destinations such as Cancun, Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta and Merida, foreigners rarely fall prey to violence. 

Surprisingly, neither do foreign executives and employees of multinational companies that do operate in the worst-affected areas near the U.S. border. In and around Monterrey, Mexico’s financial capital and third-biggest city, foreign companies are expanding existing plants or adding new ones, undeterred by violence so brazen that the U.S. consulate in the city complained that “local police and private patrols do not have the capacity to deter criminal elements.”

Notwithstanding that, the state of Nuevo Leon, of which Monterrey is the capital, reported recently that foreign direct investment this year was close to breaking the $2 billion mark, a record. Security experts have an explanation: while foreign companies are often physically close to violence, they are also largely immune to it. Why? Most of the plants operate in industrial parks where tight security makes entry difficult. Apart from that, criminal gangs are not familiar with the way multinational companies are working and thus prefer to focus their activities on Mexican businesses. A preference for Mexicans rather than foreigners as criminal targets also applies to communities of expatriates, largely Americans and Canadians, in such places as Ajijic, a tranquil city on the shores of Lake Chapala. It is home to around 5,000 mainly retired expatriates attracted by temperate climate, sweeping views, a low cost of living, and affordable health care.

That’s a combination which has drawn, by U.S. State Department estimates, between 600,000 and one million Americans to live in Mexico (the exact number is an elusive statistic). There is no sign of a reverse exodus. As Howard Feldstein, a leader of the U.S. community in Ajijic recently put it to a journalist: “We generally feel safe.” Safer, that is, than the Mexicans who are more frequent targets of crime.

Bernd Debusmann

Bernd Debusmann has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S.

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