Why You Shouldn’t Panic If You See This in Mexico

One of our readers wrote me this week to tell me that she was “terrified” to see heavily-armed police officers and soldiers manning numerous police checkpoints between the Cancun airport and her hotel.

She said that their presence made her “feel like she was in a very unsafe area” and she even debated returning home early.

Fortunately, her fear went away after a few Margaritas at the resort and she decided to ride it out. She said that she had a great vacation but she just couldn’t get used to seeing police officers with “machine guns” in the tourist areas.

It’s Just a Different Style of Policing

Whenever people visit another country, most folks know — or at least should — that we will undoubtedly encounter some cultural differences.

Those cultural differences are not limited to food and language. They permeate every nook and cranny of society, including police tactics and enforcement strategies.

Mexico has always opted for a shock-and-awe style of policing. They set up numerous permanent and mobile police checkpoints and man them with heavily armed police officers, and in some areas, military personnel.

This style of policing is common through much of Latin America; however, if you’re visiting from the U.S. or Canada where the cops look more like the ones below, it’s understandable that you might mistakenly believe that the presence of heavily armed officers means that you’re in a dangerous area.

Source: iStockphoto

A Quick Story to Illustrate my Point

A few months ago, Linda and I took an overnight trip to one of our favorite Mexican colonial cities, Valladolid.

As usual, I woke up a few hours before Linda, so I decided to walk around the main plaza and get a coffee. When I walked out of the hotel, I was surprised to see a large number of police officers and soldiers gathering in the plaza as the sun was coming up.

Many of the officers were wearing Kevlar helmets and some were standing in the back of marked pick-up trucks with their weapons at the ready (shown below).

Now, if I had stumbled across this scene in the United States, I would assume that something had gone very wrong or that one of my neighbors was about to have a search warrant served at their residence.

But, this was Mexico, and I knew from experience that the mere presence of heavily-armed officers didn’t necessarily mean that anything was wrong.

So, I walked closer to investigate and started taking photos and video.

No one seemed bothered by the fact that I was taking pictures and a few even greeted me with a friendly “Buenos días.” 

As I walked by a high ranking police official, I stopped and politely asked him what was going on. He smiled and said that they were kicking off the busy tourist season (Holy Week) with a show of force to “make the tourists and residents feel safe.”

His answer took me by surprise and made me chuckle out loud before I could stop myself.

In my head I thought, “Yep, because nothing says you’re safe in this area more than a cop in a ski mask holding an automatic rifle on top of a police vehicle.” 

Let’s Wrap This Up

I’m certainly not suggesting that Mexico doesn’t have dangerous areas that necessitate the presence of these folks — it most certainly does — however, their presence does not necessarily mean that you’re in one of those areas.

These police tactics are employed throughout the country, even in areas with lower crime rates.

Case in point. I took these pictures in Valladolid, a city that is considered quite safe and has a low crime rate according to statistical data provided be Semáforo Delictivo.

So, stay calm, have a Margarita and enjoy your vacation!

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About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences, as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

17 Comments on "Why You Shouldn’t Panic If You See This in Mexico"

  1. Arlene Richardson | June 12, 2019 at 11:00 am |

    Interesting! I live in Mexico and have my us car here. I have to drive to Laredo Texas every 6 mo. I get more harassed by the US border agents than Mexican
    Last time I was actually yelled at for taking a picture of the dogs!!!
    And they had me take my car through an X-ray machine!!!
    That I declined. Refused for medical reasons They drove it through
    Pretty much treated me like a weapon smuggler!!!!
    Will cross at another location next time!!!!

  2. Kerry A Baker | June 12, 2019 at 11:05 am |

    I love the “nothing says your safe like…” comment. Hilarious. I had a photo taken once of myself and a heavily-armed security guard. My American girl friends were alarmed, my expat girlfriends just liked seeing an attractive guy in uniform.

  3. Javier Macías | June 12, 2019 at 11:08 am |

    Love the conclussions! Best wishes!

  4. Once I saw a young soldier, vested and armed, in Soriana grocery store.

    He was buying baby diapers.

    Remember folks: they’re really more like us than not.

  5. Diane McNair | June 12, 2019 at 11:20 am |

    Hahahaha…. Reminds me of the first time I drove from the Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen and noticed a police car with red lights on pull right behind me…ugh I thought…until I started to pull over and it just drove past me! I soon learned they all drive with the lights on. Only when they “whoop whoop” the siren are you in trouble

  6. Ronald h MINTER | June 12, 2019 at 11:25 am |

    I feel comfortable to see the armed patrols, they give me a sense of security.

  7. I went to a remote Mayan ruin in Guatemala for the Maya new year in 2012. There were more Army and police there than congagents. Linda and I were the only gringos there, I asked an officer, ” Why all the personal?” He said that it was for my protection.

    There was one interesting thing: The Maya parents has my wife and I pose with their children with their children. The boys with me, the girls with Linda, lots of them asked, there was a line at one point but like I said, it was a very remote ruin. They don’t see very many Gringos.

  8. We were in Cabo earlier this year and there were two heavily armed police officers at the same fruit stand I was at. One of them who spoke very good English struck up a conversation with me, asking if I’d been to Cabo before and where we were staying? He then asked me if I feel safe there? I said, yes, very safe. He was happy with my answer. We talked a little more and he shook my hand and introduced himself by name. He said that during my stay if I need any assistance or just have any questions and I see him on the street to please ask him and he would be happy to help. I then took a picture of myself standing between him and his partner. I loved it!!

  9. Sharon Lesley | June 12, 2019 at 12:32 pm |

    Coming from the UK, It was a shock seeing armed police and the Navy everywhere, but now I feel saferand enjoy seeing our local Navy lads buying their sweets and cakes in our local Ched, they always smile and wave!

  10. Ed Schneider | June 12, 2019 at 12:36 pm |

    ¡JAJAJA! Makes me think of a visit to San Jose del Cabo a few years back. We were staying at a B&B just a short walk from a great cafe which was right next door to a bank. Regularly while dining we would witness an armoured vehicle with four gun totting guards roar in, stop at the bank, then while two scowling guys stood guard one of the others would fill the ATM. They would then jump back in the vehicle and roar away. Fearsome to say the least!

    Then a few days later we were on our way to the same cafe and what is pulled over into the shade but the same over armoured van and the four guards. All the van doors were open and the guns were tossed aside while the guards lounged on the grass having their lunch!

  11. Mary Persic | June 12, 2019 at 12:49 pm |

    LOL, if the woman was terrified to see heavily armed police and soldiers at Cancun airport, she would be horrified to see heavily armed police and flak jacketed, MR15 carrying American soldiers patrolling Grand Central Terminal, and other possible targets, on a regular basis in New York City!
    Alas, she should be comforted by the sight now. Hope for the best, prepare for the worse.

  12. Dana Kerby | June 12, 2019 at 1:01 pm |

    I live in Baja California, and have for almost 18 years. I feel much safer when I see the armed military, state police, federal police and PJG in the area. Their presence seems to deter the criminals, to some degree. Thanks for your posts. I enjoy them.

  13. Amazing! We had a police car stop and ask if we needed a lift home after having dinner in Santa Lucia Park. I admit that we had been drinking a couple bottles of wine between the two of us and at our age (73 and 74) we were not too steady on our feet, so we were leaning on each other for suport. However, we thanked him and said we could manage. He still followed us another four blocks very slowly just to be sure we made it home. His blue light was flashing and he stayed about 50 feet behind us just in case we had any problems.
    Now that’s what I call friendly protection. Show them the respect they deserve. After all, they are real people, just like you and me.
    Thank You!

  14. Bob Mathews | June 12, 2019 at 2:05 pm |

    Having grown up in England where the police were never armed, I had the same reaction as your reader when I first came to the United States and I saw every police officer carrying a gun. As mentioned in the article – just cultural differences

  15. Suzanne Warner | June 12, 2019 at 4:18 pm |

    I feel safer in Riviera Maya than I do in many American cities.

  16. Why I felt so safe in Merida on last trip.

  17. We live in San Carlos Mexico and its the same here. It doesn’t bother me anymore but in the beginning I was a little bothered by it too. Here they keep their lights flashing on top of the vehicles too which we as u.s citizens know that signal to mean “pull over”, that is the only thing I struggle with still.

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