Is Cancun safe for travelers? Short answer: yes. Long answer: definitely yes! It is one of the safest places on the North American continent, with an overall murder rate of about 4.5%, and a tourist murder rate almost too small to measure. We get around three million visitors a year in Cancun itself, but less than 500 crimes are reported annually in the Hotel Zone police station. Not all of them involve tourists. Americans, Canadians and other foreign residents universally agree that Cancun is a safe place to live.
Typical Cancun resident Rivergirl writes on The Truth About Mexico blog:
"In 2008 more than 4.5 million international tourists arrived at the Cancun Airport. The vast majority of these tourists went home with nothing worse than sunburn and a hangover. Tourists do die here, just like they do in every tourist destination, but if you look at the statistics you see that they die from drowning (usually because they swim while drunk) or from heart attacks or sometimes they die in car accidents.
If you read the US State Dept warning carefully you will see that it warns people away from the border areas, primarily Tijuana and Juarez. Those areas are 1200+ miles from Cancun. Would you avoid going to Miami, Florida because of violence in Detroit, Michigan? I wouldn't.
It would be a shame for you to cancel your trip because of worry over violence toward tourists here. Tourists need to use common sense here; there is the normal petty crime you find in any tourist destination. But there simply isn't violence against tourists here in Cancun."
So why is this a controversy? Cancun is always mentioned in any item on tourism in Mexico. Even if Cancun is included only as an example of a safe area, it is likely to be highlighted in the lead, headline and search results. Cancun, the most popular Mexican resort, and one of the world's outstanding tourism success stories, is a media celebrity. They want it to be Miami Vice, but it's really the Love Boat. Besides, something happens down south in Tulum, and it is invariably reported as taking place in Cancun, or in the Cancun area.
Violence against tourists is very rare here. Petty crime is not uncommon in Cancun. When traveling anywhere, you have to be on your guard, as there are thieves who prey on careless travellers, and Cancun is no exception. Hotels are now installing room safes large enough to hold laptops, which are a prime target for thieves. Street crime and assaults on tourists are quite unusual, even in downtown Cancun. Most sexual crimes are among fellow tourists. Out-and-out clear-cut rape is very rare. Some cases involve young women who get blind drunk at discos or bars and then have sex with virtual strangers while nearly unconscious. On awakening, they get angry and want to press charges. In one case, an American high school student had gone off with a guy and had sex and then she couldn't even remember who he was or where it had taken place. According to the newspaper report, she was baffled when the police declined to investigate.
There have been cases that are clearly rape, such as by a security guard who let himself into a woman's room and forcibly raped her. He later tearfully confessed that he had seen her naked and was overwhelmed by lust. These are definitely prosecuted.
Police extortion of tourists detained for minor driving offenses is often a problem and there have been some grotesque incidents. The authorities cracked down hard, however, and dismissed many officers, including some top officials. They claim the problem is under control. Under control does not mean eliminated.
The police are friendly, however, and do have a sort of sense of honor (or they are just prudent) and we rarely hear of innocent parties being shaken down for a bribe. Even if you are clearly innocent and have the courage to attempt facing down a police officer, the expedient approach to police extortion is to pay them off. You can usually bargain them down quite a bit. Assume that they are talking in pesos, not dollars. I don't know what the current rates are, but I would suspect that it can't hurt to offer 100 pesos for something such as making a turn without signaling. Try not to get outraged about it. Just be practical and maintain a sense of humor.
Jules Siegel is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Playboy, Rolling Stone, Best American Short Stories and many other publications. He has lived in Cancun with his family since 1983. He is the author of the Cancun User's Guide.