Enjoy Mexico for spring break, but understand the risks to stay safe

Posted October 19, 2015


What is the No. 1. place where Americans find themselves locked up or kidnapped? Yes, you guessed it: Mexico. Last year, almost 1,600 kidnapping cases were reported to Mexican authorities — the highest number since Mexico had begun to keep track of those statistics in 1997.

As everyone knows, nothing can screw up a vacation like getting arrested or kidnapped. Unless you are willing to hole up in your private resort for your entire vacation; here some important tips for spring breakers that are guaranteed to increase your chances of a jail-free and kidnap-free trip.

The main reasons that American spring breakers are arrested in Mexico are for possession of drugs or firearms and for drunk and disorderly conduct.

The best way for spring break travelers to avoid arrest is to abide by Mexican law; we have the same laws in the United States — don’t buy illegal firearms or drugs, and don’t get drunk and become disorderly.

You are a guest in Mexico and so you should use common sense and act respectfully by drinking in moderation and by staying clear of all illegal drugs or firearms. If in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself in trouble with the police; attorney and former federal prosecutor, Alexander Vesselinovitch, said the two most important steps one must take are to call the U.S. consulate and to hire a local Mexican defense attorney.

“Reaching your consulate always works to your advantage … the first thing to do if arrested is to ask the local authorities to notify the U.S. Consulate immediately,” he advised.

The U.S. Embassy helps protect American citizens and guarantee fair treatment. Representatives from the embassy will try to visit you, and to give you information about the local legal process (including giving you a list of local attorneys). They will also notify your family and friends at home.

The most important reason that Americans should hire an attorney in Mexico is because the country’s legal system is different in many ways from ours in the U.S. One of the ways it is different is that the law in Mexico presumes guilt instead of innocence. In addition good local attorneys know how to handle demands for money, distinguishing bribes from legitimate expenses.

“They’re never going to tell you it’s a bribe,” said Vesselinovitch. “They’ll say it’s a fee. You may be told it is a necessary legal requirement to move your case forward in a more timely manner … just make sure that you do this through an attorney.”

Amanda Schulze, a junior at the University of Miami, who traveled to Puerto Vallarta for spring break last March, said sometimes a bribe can work to get a police officer to look the other way. She said that “the greatest difference in terms of law enforcement in the United States and Mexico was that in Mexico one could buy the cop’s leniency.”

She said that she found that “in many instances if the police witnessed something that they disapproved of, one could give them $20 or $40 and be on your way.”

Vesselinovitch said that bribes in Mexico are more common than in the U.S. but the practice is still illegal and one needs to be very careful before offering a police officer any money in exchange for leniency.

According to the Overseas Security Advisory Counsel, because of a lack of adequate funds and training and a judicial system that is overworked and inefficient, many local Mexican police officers are corrupt. Police corruption and police protection of criminal activity is much more common in Mexico than in the United States.

Even worse: Be careful of counterfeit police. Although local Mexican police sometimes try to extort money from tourists, criminals there often use fake police IDs. If you find yourself in trouble and have been extorted by a police officer and wish to file a complaint, according to OSAC, you should first contact the U.S. Consulate.

To file a complaint, it is best to have the officer’s name, badge number and patrol car number. If you were not able to get that, it may still be possible to identify the officer based on physical appearance and the time and place where the event occurred. If you file a complaint, consulate staff will usually assist you in each step of the process.

Some travel agencies also provide security for the trip packages they sell. Jody, who would not provide her full name, is a representative of Extreme Trips, a company that is very popular with college age students. She told me that, although they do provide security at the hotels, these employees have no power to help the students who run afoul of the local police. Jody recommends that the arrested or charged individual call her parents and the U.S.consulate for help.

Getting arrested for trying to purchase illegal drugs or firearms is the most common reason for American tourists to be arrested. Although we would never recommend trying to buy recreational drugs of any kind, if you are intent on getting them, never buy drugs from a stranger.

Because there are lots of individuals know that spring breakers want to buy drugs, they prey on these college kids. They may be undercover cops looking for an arrest or bribe, or criminals who want to lure you into a deserted spot and rob you.

Laura Hosfield, a former student at Indiana University, described an experience she had when she had gone to Acapulco for spring break. A group of boys Hosfield knew had been approached by a hotel worker who told them he had a friend who would sell them some prescription drugs; the boys then made plans to meet with that hotel workers’ contact.

Not only were they robbed of all their money at gunpoint, but the thieves even took their shoes! The boys reported the incident in vain to police and to hotel management; but the hotel had no record of the hotel “employee.”

The perpetrators were never found.

What is the more prudent course of action? You may be surprised to learn that it is actually easy to buy prescription drugs legally in Mexico. For example, the new terminal at Mexico’s Los Cabo International Airport recently opened a new pharmacy where you can buy Xanax, Valium and more without a prescription. According to www.thrillist.com, an online digital media company that specializes in food drink and travel recommendations, “the pharmacists who work there in Mexico are as likely to ask for a ‘scrip as a Señor Frog’s bartender’s likely to ask for I.D.”

Of course, it is always better to have a prescription from a doctor because, if you are caught with a controlled substance and no prescription, the U.S. Customs can seize the purchase. According to the guide, Peoples’ Mexico and Blog, 70 percent of Mexican pharmacy business comes from Americans.

If you want to buy drugs, you should play it safe and avoid trouble with the police and U.S. Customs by getting a prescription from a Mexican doctor. You can find a doctor who is authorized to write legal prescriptions for controlled substances by finding a good pharmacy and then by asking the supervisor of the pharmacy the name and telephone number of a doctor who they know and trust.

Usually their ‘recommended’ doctor’s office is near the pharmacy. If any individual wants a large amount of a controlled medicine, he or she will likely find that some doctors will refuse to issue a prescription for more than 100 tablets. The doctor will usually agree to write two different prescriptions for 50 tablets each and then tell you to purchase the other prescription at a different pharmacy.

An American student visiting Mexico must be aware of the danger of kidnapping.

According to Roberto Ferdman who is a reporter at Quartz, an online news magazine started in 2012, the crime statistics from 2013 on kidnappings in Mexico that were released by Mexico’s statistics bureau (INEGI) reports that 105,682 kidnappings were committed in Mexico that year, of which only 1,317 were reported to local or federal authorities. Therefore, more than 98% of kidnappings in Mexico went unreported. Although one can be kidnapped anywhere, the most common places to be kidnapped were in border towns, like Juarez, Tijuana and Tampico.

Who are the kidnappers? Unless you’re an international drug smuggler, the cartels will leave you alone. It’s the random street criminals and rogue taxi cab drivers that you should be careful of.

The majority of American kidnappings in Mexico involve ATM holdups. Tourists have been taken from an ATM and are then kept for a few days while they withdraw as much money as possible. These are called “Express Kidnappings.”

The best way to avoid this danger is to only use ATMs at secure resort areas and public beaches. If you decide to explore the less commercial parts of the town, make sure you stay on well-lit streets. Don’t hail “unofficial” taxis to save a little money.

Sarah Zerdoun is a 20–year-old UM student who recently returned from Mexico. She said that she was not aware of this phenomenon and that “she did not know that kidnapping was so common,” but she did say that she “would never go in a taxi alone.”

“The cabs that came to the hotel were safe and she and her friends would get their numbers and call them when they were ready to return,” she said.

She would not recommend hailing “a random cab off the street.”

She said that she “would never get money out of an ATM alone; and had never used an ATM other than the one at her hotel.” She emphasized the importance of “always using the ‘buddy system’ where no one was ever left alone and where everyone was always accounted for.”

The smartest thing you can do to have a fun and safe vacation in Mexico is to follow the laws of Mexico. It is also always a good idea to decide with your friends in advance to stick together. If you’re traveling with a larger group, make sure that everyone knows of your whereabouts at all times. Never ditch a friend. This way, if you have any trouble, you’ll always have a friend nearby who can help you out.

For More Information

Meltzer, Matt (2013). 7 Countries where you are most likely to get kidnapped. Thrillist, Retrieved from https://www.thrillist.com/travel/nation/the-7-countries-where-you-re-most-likely-to-get-kidnapped-for-ransom.

Ferdman, Roberto (2013). Kiddnappings in Mexico last year went unreported. Quartz, Retrieved from http://qz.com/131408/99-of-the-more-than-100000-kidnappings-in-mexico-last-year-went-unreported/.