Cozumel: fantasies and facts

10the dayAs an American expat living on the island of Cozumel I, typically, write blogs about the idyllic settings and the various activities that are available.   And, although I’ve been writing about such things for a year now, I haven’t come close to running out of subject material.  However, due to recent events, it seemed to me it was time to address a few of the realities of life on the island.  Now, for those of you who have become accustomed to what I consider my “coffee with a little light reading”  blog ( my “fluff and stuff”) about living the dream, this piece may not be for you.   In other words, even in Eden there was a price to pay and Cozumel is no different, so be prepared for some facts.

But, first let me mention that what prompted this piece was an event that occurred to me this past Sunday morning.  I was on my bicycle riding around areas of interest to photograph scenery for what was to be my next blog.  In between shots I would pack my camera back into my bag that I kept in the front basket.  It was secured by straps, thankfully.   As I was riding along, with earphones in my ears listening to classical music, and just blissfully enjoying the beauty of the day, I suddenly realized that a moped had come quite close to me.  In fact, mere inches away.   The rider reached out his hand and attempted to grab my bag, lifting the front end of my bike up a bit in the process.  Unsuccessful, due to the straps, he, and his partner in crime who was on a separate moped, raced off.   Although a bit shook, I was able to ride down to the police station, give the police a description of the men and their actions, and went on with my day unaware of the effect this would have on me.  That same evening I walked to meet with a group of people and I was, as is often the case, alone again.  It was only at that time did I realize just how unsettling that event had become to me.  Every person, car, moped, and cyclist seemed to be a threat and I came home quite upset, very shaken, and resolved to not leave my home unless absolutely necessary.   In fact, agoraphobia was looking like a real option.

Now, that might seem to be an overreaction to a nonviolent attempt to relieve me of my possessions.  So, let me give you a bit of a back story.   I’ve been a victim of a violent mugging before.  It was  four years ago, on the island of Isla Mujeres, and they did relieve me of my possessions, and I had to be hospitalized.  It now seems clear that those scars have remained.   So, both incidents occurred in Mexico, and both to me.  As a result, I was starting to react like a “victim.”   That lasted for about a day and then it seemed a good thing for this former academic to gather some facts to see whether or not it was my location,  me, or, quite possibly, some combination of both that led to these events.   After all, we frequently hear how violent Mexico is, and I wanted to do some research to see if it would be a good idea for this single woman to look into choosing another location to live.   For a “heads up,” if you are not one for statistics, or opinions from experts, let me tell you now that I will remain right where I am.  For the others, I hope these statistics interest you as much as they did me.

First I compared the population of Mexico to my country of birth, the  U.S.  According to Wikipedia,   Mexico has  112, 336, 538  inhabitants vs. 315, 568,000 in the states, so Mexico has, approximately, a third of the amount of people living within its borders compared to the U.S..  Next I looked up crime statistics and, let me assure you, that’s not an easy task.  Many online sites are not reliable, have specific agendas etc., so that took some work, and a bit of preference, on my part.   According to the online site, Nation Master, which didn’t seem to be associated with any particular organization, and has no affiliations with travel whatsoever, car thefts were 8 times more prevalent in the U.S., and gun violence is 92% higher in the U.S. than in Mexico.

Okay, that’s a start, but what about personal crimes such as theft, rape, assault etc.?  I turned to various sites, but decided to use Wikipedia again, although the most recent stats they had were from 2004.  Still, I think they are of interest. ( Please pardon the layout since this site doesn’t allow for tables)   The following numbers are per 100,000 people:

Mexico                                   United States

theft                                                 112                                             2.445

assault                                             186                                               310

rape                                                 14.26                                            32.99

robbery                                          146.57                                        145.87

So, apparently, petty theft is higher, robbery about the same, but personal, violent attacks against folks were far lower in Mexico than in the U.S..  I began to feel better.  Still, I needed more.  So, I looked for the OSAC  site to see what they had to say about crime in Mexico.  Oh, and OSAC stands for “Overseas Security and Advisory Council, ” which is an American governmental site that professionals use to receive information prior to making business decisions.    On their site I found this:  “The Yucatan Peninsula has not suffered the same level of violence seen in other parts of Mexico.  However, the Yucatan Peninsula does remain part of the nation-wide narco-conflict.  There is no evidence to indicate that criminals specifically target American citizens or American interest.  Criminals select victims based on appearance, vulnerability, and inattentiveness.”

Okay, that was all well and good, but what about  that drug cartel violence we all hear about?   Off I went in search of more information.  According to the Huffington Post, 34,612 people have died in four years due to the “war on drugs” that was initiated by then president, Felipe Calderon.  That’s a lot of people and, although we hear about these numbers often, it is important to realize that most of these deaths were directly related to the drug cartels themselves.  Very few, a miniscule amount actually, of those deaths involved tourists.  But, still I needed a comparison.  So I looked on the United States Crime Rates site and added up the amount of deaths that occurred in the states during those same four years.  A staggering 65, 740 homicides took place in the U.S..  Now, it can, and should be argued, that one total is of all homicides while the other involves only drug cartels and their activities.  However, my response would be that I’m not including “death by overdose.”  Since Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, said, “90% of the drugs are being filtered into the U.S.,” it would seem that “death by overdose” is a tally that should be considered.  It’s a sad fact that drug use in the states certainly helps fuel the cartel’s greed and adds to the death toll.

So, although mired in facts and stats, once again I began to feel a bit more confident about my decision to live here.  But,  and I hated to admit it, I was beginning to recognize that my personal  “victimology” may be part of the problem.  Still, I was on a mission and I continued.  It occurred to me that since statistics are based on the amount of people in a particular area I wondered just how many people lived on the island.  According to Wikipedia, just over 77,000 people live in, or around, San Miguel. I’ve also seen quotes that vary from 80,000 to 86,000.   But, what about the  cruise ships and passengers that arrive here?   I found  in Cozumel Insider this quote.  “During the high season months of November to April, Cozumel plays host to 20 – 30 cruise ships WEEKLY that bring 70,000 – 80,000 visitors.”   Now, many of us heard that a couple of cruise ship passengers were robbed a few weeks back and we were saddened. It was an incredibly unfortunate occurrence.   However, and in no way do I mean to diminish the emotional impact that event must have had on that family, it seems remarkable to me that we only heard of a single event when considering just how many visitors we had within that same time frame.

So, the facts seem to demonstrate that living on, and visiting, Cozumel is still quite safe.  But, to be thorough, I just had to know what the statistics were from where I had lived before in the U.S.  What was it like?   But, this might also be the time to mention that I hailed from Youngstown, Ohio.  I’d taught at a local university there for many years and was aware of the fact that we were the nation’s number 1 spot for homicides, per population,  two years running.  But, if I returned, how would it be today?  Sadly, or ironically, depending on your point of view, Youngstown is still quite the statistic holder.  In fact, according to U.S. Crime Statistics, “violent crime is 140.87% higher than the national average.”   And, “property crime is 111.01% higher than the national average.”  Well, that helped me to realize that going back there may not be the best personal choice at this time.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of good in Y-town, and I loved the people, and the university, but I’m going where the numbers point me at this time.

So, it looked as if it was time to see what I could do to remain safe, no matter where I lived.  It was time to accept some personal responsibility.  The facts are that I am a single woman who often wanders alone.  So what can I do to discourage potential attackers?  I found a site called Crime Doctor, that is headed up by a man by the name of Chris E. McGoey, who is a security expert and consultant.  There are a vast array of videos to watch and, believe me,  I watched many.  Here are some, paraphrased,  tips from the video “Personal Safety”………………..

-remain alert, not distracted

-when exiting the car have all things in hand so as to exit quickly, do not dawdle with an opened door

-it is safer to be under-dressed, avoid expensive clothing, jewelry, flashing cash

-wear your bag across your body, avoid holding by hand, or on the shoulder

-modify your behaviour, appear confident and focused, and have a plan

-avoid traveling alone when possible

-wear comfortable shoes that will allow you to flee if necessary

-the best part of carrying pepper spray in your hand is the fact that it puts you on alert

-self- defense techniques are good for exercise, but, unless studied for years, may not be an effective deterrent other than helping one to be in better shape and improving self-confidence

-if you really need a weapon, you probably shouldn’t be where you are

-your best defense is “between your ears”


So, after watching some of these, was when I realized that  I had to take a look at what I was doing.  To be honest, I must admit that I get angry when I feel a victim is blamed for a crime.  But, at the same time, there are times when good, common sense might have helped said victim to have not been targeted.   So, quite sheepishly, let me paint a picture.  I was alone, which will not change much, but was far from remaining alert.  I had earphones in and, as a result, didn’t hear the mopeds until they were right beside me.  I had stopped often, flashed a camera that, although not that pricey, was obviously of some worth.  And, finally, I was out and about at a very quiet time of the day.  Does any of this mean that I “deserved” to be targeted?  Of course not, but it is a lesson learned and, more importantly, it led me to do what I do best, research.  It was nice to have the facts back me up about my decision to live on this island.  It just plain helped me to feel better about my circumstances.

Finally, due to some other recent events occurring on Cozumel,  there has been the formation of a Neighborhood Watch Program.  Although still in its infancy, it has already proven effective on several occasions.  In my case, I wrote about my event on their Facebook page and immediately folks offered both empathy and assistance.  One person told me she’d pick up a whistle for me that is, apparently, quite loud and quite the show stopper.  Another walked down to my house with a small alarm that I could carry in my hand in the meanwhile.  Still another met me in the park later that day just to check up on how I was doing.  On the FB site, since my posting, conversation has flowed, and ideas are percolating about what techniques would be most effective and they will be addressed at the next meeting.

Bottom line?  It was a smart decision to move here to this island.  I’m not only surrounded by beauty, but by people who care about each other, and look out for each other.  But, it’s also worth taking the time to remove the rose-colored glasses and practice some common sense.  No matter where we live there will be poverty, crime, and drugs.  It’s an unfortunate reality of the 21st century.  But, realizing my responsibilities will help me to sleep better tonight.    And that truly makes all the difference.  Salud!

19 thoughts on “Cozumel: fantasies and facts

  1. Excellent story thanks for the research on the stats. I have been a police officer for nearly 30 years and a police firearms instructor for 25. I constantly preach situational awareness. Agree completely with McGoey’s recommendations.

  2. Sorry to hear this happened to you. They obviously thought you were an easy target. Good thing you had your camera strapped down. And thank God you weren’t physically harmed. Thank you for sharing your research. Very interesting. Stay safe, Gail

    1. thanks, Gail, quite happy myself to have kept the camera, kind of another appendage at this point…….practicing being more alert though, appreciate the good wishes

  3. I’m very sorry to hear about what happend to you. I am a Cozumel native and it hurts to hear, watch and know about how the crime is rising up at home. We, as cozumeleños were very proud of our home and the safety conditions that our island had some years ago, and know crime had reached us, getting into our lives, because criminals don’t make distinctions about foreigners and local people (my house has been robbed twice). Comparing crime figures don’t help to ease the feeling that home is not safe anymore, specially when you hear from family or friends that the police force is not capable to solve this problem.
    thanks for trh article and the suggestions to be safer. I hope that this experience wont happen to anybody else.
    May God be with you and stay safer!
    Celia Bello

    1. Thank you, Celia, for your very thoughtful reply. You are right, comparing crime statistics does not help if one does not feel safe in their own home. I guess my intention was to respond to an American assumption that Mexico is more violent, it is not. And to answer my own question about whether these things were happening to me because I chose to move to Mexico. They aren’t. The fact that these events were occurring to me was due to my own lack of taking safety precautions. I love your island and have the hopes that becoming aware, alert, and prepared will help all of us to be less of a target. I am very sorry to hear that your home has been robbed. I’m also aware that many other cozumelenos are victims too, but we just don’t hear about it due to many things such as uncertainty, privacy, fear etc. My wish is that we could all sleep better at night knowing that we will look out for each other. The Neighborhood Watch program will, hopefully, help all who live on the island and I sincerely believe that if we band together we will be a stronger force. No matter where we live, if we work together we should be able to slow down these activities. Thanks again for your reply and may God be with you too! Celia

  4. thank you for choosing our home to make it your home too, and for showing courage deciding to stay there, I hope I meet you some day to share experiences!
    have a great day!

    1. That would be fun, it would be great to meet. And, I’m sure you have lots of great stories about the island too! Would enjoy learning some of the history. Let’s keep in touch……………take care!

  5. I like your story and I would encourage you all foreigners to become mexican citizens and vote, this way you can pressure our government to increase security, and listen to you all folks who have been here for so long! and love our island so much!

  6. I would think you would need to take into account that:
    1) How many natives actually report when they are victims of violent crime
    2) The fact that in much of Mexico there are corrupt cops and a corrupt judicial system (so how much crime is recorded and dealt with)
    3) If you are a foreigner in Mexico and are a victim of violent crime, you are not likely to get any help from cops, etc.
    4) If you are a victim of violent crime in Mexico, the medical care is very poor in comparison (no true trauma units, etc.) and you are more likely to die and/or have ridiculous medical bills to pay if do seek care. Tourists have been held captive in “hospitals” until they paid thousands of dollars in bills.
    5) Innocent by-stander violent crime may be higher per population in Mexico vs. US. Much of the homicide in the US also involves gangs and drugs.
    6) Violent crime specifically enacted on tourists may be higher in Mexico than in the US.

    1. Thanks for taking the time for replying, always enjoy a dialogue. As far as your first three points, I’d have to agree, albeit hesitantly. You are correct that many locals may not report when they are victims of crime, however, that happens everywhere, and it certainly happens in the states, which is the only country I’ve ever lived in besides Mexico. Are there corrupt cops? Yes. Are there corrupt cops in the states? Yes, but the do handle crime differently here since this is Mexico, not the U.S., which is something that needs to be considered prior to moving here. As far as the medical care, here on the island we have many licensed physicians, modernized hospitals, up to date equipment, modern pharmacies etc. This is not the Mexico of the movies, or the 80’s. As far as innocent bystander crimes, well, nowhere near as much as occurred in the city in Ohio where I hailed from, to be honest. When we’d sit on the front porch of the Victorian house my ex husband and I renovated near campus we’d sit behind the heavy stone pillars, just in case. That town was going through a massive change and drive by shootings were common, one of the reason so many of us tried to “take back the streets” by buying and renovating near the academic area. Finally, tourism is their bread and butter here, violence against tourists is highly frowned upon. Let me give you an example, last year a couple was robbed of their belongings on a beach, which was very upsetting for them, and all of us. However, to put it into perspective, there had been over 80,000 tourists from the cruise ships and another 10,000 plus in the hotels on the island in the same week and that was the only reported crime. In my experience, tourists have no problem reporting crimes to their cruise ship directors, hotel visitors have no problem reporting crime to the hotel managers. My point, although it’s upsetting that happened to that couple, that’s still a great percentage when considering that approximately 90,000 other tourists in that week had no problems. OH, and before I forget, “ridiculous medical bills?” I have to agree, my last stint in the emergency room at a very modern hospital, with x rays, an iv, full care by nurses and doctors for four hours, blood tests taken, results given, and medicine prescribed cost me 1,600 pesos (which is about $135 buck usd). And, I got to take the x rays home! Thanks for reading and responding!

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