Monday, June 17, 2024

The facts on US citizen deaths in Mexico

This is not a story about Mexico’s celebrated Day of the Dead rituals, or how Americans come here to retire, then forget to die.

The other day I came across the black-and-white details about where and how U.S. citizens die in Mexico. The U.S. State Department is required by law to report non-natural U.S. citizen deaths abroad. Analysis of the data reveals accidents (driving, swimming) and tragic events (homicide and suicide), along with some glaring media coverage omissions.

How many non-natural U.S. citizen deaths occur abroad?

Our global village has some tough neighborhoods. In fact, in 2021 and 2022 exactly 1,100 unfortunate U.S. citizens died from non-natural causes while abroad. Surprisingly, this total is a dramatic reduction from the 2014–2015 period, when 1,723 died overseas.

Some fatalities were in the pursuit of happiness: crossing a London street after a pint (then looking the wrong way), or a “man overboard!” while on a sunset booze cruise can at least be understood with a twinge of “oh well…”

More chilling of course are overseas homicides. Worldwide homicides of U.S. citizens fell significantly (from 339 to 196) in 2021-2022 compared to 2014-2015. Other categories (shown below) also experienced significant declines since 2014-2015.

It’s not easy to pinpoint why there have been declining non-natural U.S. citizen deaths abroad. The number living overseas has grown significantly over the last decade (currently believed to be over 11 million worldwide). COVID-19 was certainly a factor that kept us indoors and away from potentially dangerous situations.

Mexico detractors will zoom in on how many more Americans die of non-natural causes in Mexico than in any other country. This is indeed noteworthy: 393 U.S. citizen deaths of non-natural causes occurred in Mexico in the years 2021 and 2022, 36% of the global total.

Yes, more U.S. citizens die in Mexico, but this is more a reflection of our proximity and visitation frequency. So, bear in mind that this singular stat does not tell the whole story. While this 36% figure has risen (from 28% of the global total in 2014-2015), total Mexico deaths have fallen dramatically from their 2014-2015 figure of 488 non-natural deaths.

How do the deaths in Mexico compare to the rest of the world?

So, is Mexico getting safer?

A 24% drop sounds like good news. But lurking behind these statistics are some troubling trends.

The “other accidents” (64 fatalities) occurring across Mexico are alarming (38% of the global total). One can only speculate on these circumstances, which may go undisclosed in news reports. Does the State Department need to update its categories?

Homicide figures can be startling, in ways both alarming and (for the casual beach visitor) oddly reassuring.

Mexico accounted for 62% of worldwide homicides involving U.S. citizens, claiming 121 of the 196 mortal victims (over two years). But the details of where these homicides occurred are telling. It’s no surprise that six northern border states account for 68% of U.S. citizen homicides in Mexico. Bad outcomes happen across the entire 2,000-mile line in the sand, where drug traffickers have claimed major transit routes. Baja California (home of Tijuana) leads with the most homicides of U.S. citizens in all of Mexico–37 in 2021 and 2022.

Why don’t homicides in border states get more media coverage?

What’s shocking to me is the absence of media interest in homicides of U.S. citizens that occur in Mexican border states. When an American is killed at a beach destination, the coverage is loud and clear — and will lead the State Department to issue a travel warning. But just another shooting of a U.S. citizen along the border soon fades from the headlines. 

Why is this?

I can only assume the lack of interest is tied to an assumption that this subset of U.S. citizens is thought to be less worthy of attention, perhaps for a range of reasons. Maybe they are more likely to be of Mexican descent, non-white or suspected of involvement in illegal activity in a dangerous region of Mexico. 

There are of course some cases that do infiltrate the U.S. news cycle. At the end of April, the murder of three foreigners in the Ensenada area (one of the victims was an American, the other two Australian) drew international attention. Incidents in Matamoros (2023) and Sonora (2019) made U.S. headlines as well. This uneven reporting broadly confirms a media bias, as the victims were all ethnically non-Mexican.

The Ensenada incident did draw indignation from Mexicans, not about the media coverage, but rather the speed of action by Mexican law enforcement. The case was investigated and arrests were made very quickly, while tens of thousands of missing Mexicans are forgotten by the judicial system.

How safe is it to travel to Mexico?

The homicide figures at popular beach locations are also startling, but in a positive way: only seven total killings in 24 months (five in Quintana Roo and two in Puerto Vallarta).

In 2021-22, over 40 million U.S. citizens traveled to and from Mexico via plane, according to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, which means the likelihood of being a homicide victim while on a beach vacation is extremely low.

So, how safe is it in Mexico?

The hundreds of thousands of us who call it home often look at “safety” through a hyper-local lens. Is it safe to drive my car on this road? Not entirely. How about riding my bike? Not really. Walking on sidewalks? Uh, sometimes no.

Accidents happen, and some of us are luckier (and more cautious) to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s just part of life and death in Mexico.

Greg Custer is a regular Mexico News Daily contributor. He has worked in Mexico’s tourism industry for over 40 years and has been a resident of Ajijic, Jalisco since 2015. He operates


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