Mexico vacation wasn't so risky at all

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2009 - 9:29 AM

MERIDA, MEXICO - Comedian Dennis Miller didn't want me to be here. Nor did the woman on CNN, who breathlessly exclaimed, "It's scary here."

But there I was last Sunday, sitting in the central plaza of Merida, a striking, sultry city three hours into the Yucatan from Cancun. It was 90 degrees and I was eating tacos al pastor in my shorts and a summer shirt -- let's just say my flak jacket wouldn't fit in the overhead bin.

I was meeting John Larson and his family, also from Minnesota. Tacos al pastor in the plaza is a ritual for John, his wife, their daughter and the family dog. In January, they all drove from Minnesota to Merida, where they have rented a house until May. John is the agent for Andrew Zimmern, local food guru and host of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel, and the Larsons have decided to work and live in Mexico every winter so that they, and more importantly their daughter, can learn Spanish.

Claudia is almost 3, but she's already correcting her dad's grammar.

They watch the news and get calls from concerned family and friends, but they also see the disconnect between a very real and dangerous drug war that killed 6,000 last year, and daily life for most Mexicans and tourists.

"I realize my job is not to educate everybody in the world that Mexico is not a police state," Larson said. "But the whole country is being portrayed as this horrible place, and I just don't buy it."

Perhaps Larson didn't see Miller (who I usually think is funny) on Fox. Miller said he would never allow his kids to go to Mexico "because you get the runs from the water; I mean, it's a simple fact." Miller added that, "I don't trust Mexico any more because of the Guadalajara -- the drug war at the border."

Because he's dared venture outside the United States, Larson knows Guadalajara is not even close to the border. The Larsons did get sick on the way down, however -- in Tucson, Ariz.

It's a good bet the Larsons' daughter will be a bit more culturally savvy than Miller's kids.

"This is a way for her to have a rich, vibrant experience and a more nuanced view of other cultures," he said.

Life goes on

Like every Sunday, the streets of the historic downtown have been blocked off. Thousands of residents gathered in the park. Kids played on a giant inflatable gym and ate coconut ice cream. Teenage girls in white dresses with floral designs and boys in traditional guayaberas and Panama hats danced to a brass band. Already that week we had been to "romantic night," where hundreds of Mexicans dressed up and listened to love songs. Every evening, it seems, is another festival, another gathering of families.

And every evening, the news tells of more arrests and killings. Even in Cancun, where a general was kidnapped, tortured and killed. The chief of police was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the crime.

Despite that, tourism increased 14.3 percent in January compared with last year, according to the Mexico Department of Tourism. The Mexican government has not received reports of tourists being injured, kidnapped or killed in connection with the drug violence in resorts or anywhere in Mexico. By far the largest cause of injury and death of tourists?

Booze.

Nearly everyone I talked to, from weekend tourists to expatriates, had similar feelings, that while the violence was real, it was largely contained to those engaging in it or fighting to stem it, just like in New York or Detroit. Some ex-pats suggested Mexican violence might be getting more attention to keep tourist and retirement dollars in the United States.

I drove through the jungles of the Yucatan and the scariest thing I saw was an unhinged child named Connor who insisted on diving off the swim-up bar in Cancun.

"I'm more afraid in Hollywood than I am here," said one musician.

"The border area is not really Mexico or the U.S. It is a political, economic and social distortion of the two countries caused by the corruption and violence," said an American living in Mexico, who blamed political expediency -- and the failure to honestly discuss legalizing drugs -- on both sides of the border.

It's not the first time I've experienced that disconnect. I lived in Bogota, Colombia, during the height of its drug war, and survived. Twenty years later, 22 million Americans still smoke pot. Millions more use drugs. President Obama said last week legalization was not a discussion point. And the war continues.

On the way home, I paused to see a line of middle-aged Americans at the airport pharmacy, sipping margaritas as they bought up cheap drugs, from painkillers to Viagra. I don't believe any of them got killed.

Then I picked up my USA Today to learn that danger is indeed often a matter of perception.

"You are never safe in Fargo," said the headline.

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702

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