“Plenty of people ask me if it’s safe to retire in Mexico,” says J.E. Jack. “I tell them I get kidnapped twice a week and occasionally beheaded.” The sixty-four year-old used to live and work in Los Angeles, California. But he retired to San Antonio, Mexico five years ago.

He’s among thousands of expatriate retirees living near Mexico’s Lake Chapala. Many of them are like Lori and Randy Grant. They love the region’s low cost of living. “It helped us retire early,” says Randy. The 49 year-old former schoolteacher says, “It costs us about $1,600 a month to live down here.” The couple maintains a blog at freetirement.weebly.com.

Long-time resident Jim Cook says the influx of retirees to Mexico has increased home prices and real estate rentals in Lake Chapala. But that hasn’t deterred record numbers of new arrivals. “Plenty of things are more expensive than they used to be, such as gas prices,” says Jim, “but with the peso near an all-time low, other things, such as restaurant meals, cost as little as they did when my wife and I moved to the region ten years ago.”

Some of the region’s expats discourage new retirees. Last month, I attended an Open Circle talk at Ajijic’s Lake Chapala Society. A woman with a microphone addressed the hundreds of attendees. She asked, “How many of you are new?” About two-dozen hands went up. “We hope none of you move here,” she said. It might have been a joke. But this region is paradise for plenty of Americans. Some fear that too many newcomers will spoil their little Eden.

Safety, however, might be the elephant by the lake. Mexico News Daily reported that several university students were kidnapped in March near Guadalajara. That’s awfully close to Lake Chapala. Time reported that 2017 was the country’s most violent year on record. On average, there were 20.5 homicides per 100,000 people.

To put that in perspective, the 2013 Global Study On Homicide says the United States is the most dangerous country in the developed world. The New Zealand government posts travel warnings, stating: There is a higher incidence of violent crime and firearm possession…and active shooter incidents occur from time to time in the United States.” The World Bank’s data on intentional homicide says America’s murder rate is five times higher than the murder rate in the European Union.

Yet, Mexico’s murder rate is five times higher than it is in the United States.

I mentioned this to Sandra Murr. She retired to Mexico from New Brunswick, Canada, five years ago. “Mexico gets a really bad rap,” she says. “At least there are no mass school shootings here.” Sandra has a point. On February 28, 2018, The New York Times reported that since 2012, there have been more than 200 American school shootings.

But that doesn’t make Mexico safer than the United States. I asked 47-year-old family psychologist Annette Boyer what she thought. She was born in Guadalajara and has lived in Mexico her entire life. “Mexico is dangerous, yes,” she says. “But most of the shootings aren’t random.”

Annette adds, “Relatively few innocent people are killed. It’s often rival drug dealers who are killed, or those speaking out against the cartel, or those speaking out against the political establishment. I’m not saying this is good. But it’s possible to live in peace in Mexico.”

I asked if any of her friends or family members were ever kidnapped. “I knew somebody who knew somebody who was kidnapped once,”she says. “But that was thirty years ago.”

It’s tough to make sense of the data and the stories. But as a global traveler, I’ve learned that labeling a country as “safe” or “dangerous” can be naïve. Instead, retirees and travelers should consider regional safety and always take precautions. For example, Mexican border towns can be downright terrifying. Yet, my wife and I feel safer in Mexico than we do in many U.S. cities.

Jordan Schulz and Athena Alicandri agree. They have been traveling in a converted bus since March 2017. I met the couple in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio Tlayacapan, Mexico. Schulz, a 31-year old web designer, works online while they’re on the road. “People thought we were irresponsible for coming down to Mexico,” he says. “But we feel far more threatened in many U.S. cities, like New Orleans, for example.”

Schulz’s instinct might be right. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, the murder rate in New Orleans is twice as high as Mexico’s national murder rate. In fact, based on homicide rates per 100,000 people, at least sixteen U.S. cities are more dangerous than Mexico.

This brings me back to my friend, J.E. Jack. When he’s asked if Mexico is safe, he might continue to make up stories. But many of the expats in the Lake Chapala area won’t mind that one bit.

U.S. Cities With Murder Rates Higher Than Mexico’s National Average

Annual Murders Per 100,000 People
Mexico’s National Average 20.5
St. Louis, Missouri 59.29
Baltimore, Maryland 55.37
Detroit, Michigan 43.82
New Orleans, Louisiana 41.68
Birmingham, Alabama 37.21
Jackson, Mississippi 31.08
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 26.23
Hartford, Connecticut 25.69
Salinas, California 25.29
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 24.15
Washington, District Of Columbia 24.10
Kansas City, Missouri 23.03
Savannah, Georgia 22.48
Cincinnati, Ohio 22.11
West Palm Beach, Florida 20.97
Memphis, Tennessee 20.52

Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas