My first-hand experience and sentiment with safety in Guadalajara, Mexico is based on living here for the last decade.
I travel to San Diego a few times a year and routinely hear the question, “Is Guadalajara safe?” I feel very safe. There are a number of differences between San Diego and Guadalajara but I can’t say I feel less safe in either place. Crime statistics and travel warnings can help you make more informed decisions but there is no substitute for planning and common sense wherever you are.
The Greater Guadalajara Metropolitan Region, also known as the Zona Metropolitana Guadalajara (ZMG), is the second-largest city in Mexico. There is a population of 5 million people, a thriving economy and a fantastic quality of life. This is one of Mexico’s favorite college towns, specifically because of the numerous medical schools. There is also a vast disparity of wealth that many people in the United States are not familiar with. It is inevitable that some small percentage of the population will turn to crime to make a living. However, with some planning and thought you can take steps to minimize most of your exposure to those people.
When it comes to violent crimes, the statistics are higher than most areas in the United States with the same population. However, a lot of the problems are avoidable, specifically for travelers. Expensive cars and even mildly ostentatious behavior make for easy targets. A low profile and heightened sense of awareness can quickly get you out of the wrong-place-wrong-time situations.
There have been a couple of incidents that brought Guadalajara some international headlines. The newest season of the Netflix series Narcos takes place in Guadalajara in the 1980s and doesn’t spare any details. You need to be aware of what is going on in the city but be able to tell the difference between sensationalist media and true concern.
Is Mexico Safe: Health and Sickness
In Mexico, health and sickness come down to two basic categories: foodborne illness and mosquitos. I include water in the foodborne illness section because it is always a concern.
Food and Water Safety in Guadalajara
The water that comes out of the pipes of the city water system is not safe to drink. This includes private residences, hotels, restaurants and everywhere that get their water from the city or neighborhood wells and reservoirs. There may be an exception to this rule somewhere but for the most part don’t drink the water out of the faucet, anywhere! You can boil the water for a couple of minutes to make it safe but purified drinking water is available everywhere. Dozens of companies deliver clean, great-tasting, drinking water to restaurants, your home, office, taco cart, mini-market and everywhere else you can imagine. Also, nobody is making ice at their restaurant with tap water, it’s not economical. They are also buying ice made with clean drinking water from a professional sanitary supplier.
Look for restaurants that are full and have lots of customers. It is the best way to observe that people are not getting sick. Mexicans know how to eat well. Follow famous chefs and see where they eat. A good chef is not going to allow his kitchen to cut corners and let people get sick. He will always know a good, clean kitchen when he sees it. Famous chefs are not eating where people get sick.
In theory, most fruits and vegetables need to be washed with a disinfectant solution. In practice it is important for lettuce and other greens. The solution is sold at all supermarkets and minimarkets. I personally like the natural one made out of grapefruit.
It rains in Guadalajara during the summer like I have never seen. I’m from San Diego and we don’t know rain like it rains here during the hottest months. The rain and humidity make mosquitoes inevitable. Wear long sleeves, keep the door closed, and avoid places that are infested. My mom uses mosquito spray when she comes in the summer. We use some essential oils. I bought mosquito net for my son’s crib. You need to take steps to avoid mosquitoes.
In 2019 instances of Zika virus are basically zero. There were some cases in 2015-2018 but they were isolated in parts of the country that do not look like Guadalajara. Dengue and chikungunya are concerns every rainy season. The government rallies the community each year to actively fight the mosquito population. Neighborhoods with lots of gardeners and manicured green spaces will have less mosquitos than overgrown lots and the jungle, obviously. If you are going to places with lots of mosquitos take precautions. If you are staying in a decent hotel, it should not be a concern.
Is Guadalajara Safe From Violent Crime and Extortion
In the last few years, violent crime statistics have gotten worse. However, these sorts of crimes are less likely to affect travelers or tourists. For example, the three film students that disappeared in 2018 setting off a wave of marches for peace were taken from a neighborhood that no tourist will see. I don’t want to discount the severity of the disappearance of three human beings but I want to stress that travelers are not targets for kidnappings. There would have to be some very extraordinary circumstances as to why tourists would be on the side of the road in Tonalá.
In July of 2018, a former district attorney with a strong reputation was attacked while leaving a high-end restaurant. A dozen hitmen tried to kill him with high powered assault rifles in a very crowded part of town. Bodyguards were able to repel the aggression and even capture 6 of the bad guys. They were so high on methamphetamine that one died of a heart attack shortly after. Several police officers were shot as well as one bystander. Not to sound callous but the probability of being that one bystander is so small you are better off playing the lotto. As for the district attorney, he was leading the raids and busting down doors into cartel safe houses. The guy is a badass, but a lower profile will suit you and me much better.
The bad guys know how to create panic to hide behind like a cloud of smoke. They burn a couple of vehicles at major intersections and the city traffic is paralyzed, including emergency vehicles. On May 1, 2015, a major cartel leader was nearly apprehended in a ranch really far away in the middle of nowhere. The bad guys took retribution and said burn it down. They burnt hijacked vehicles in four different states. Mind you, this was on a Friday afternoon at the start of a three-day weekend. Probably the worst three-day-weekend ever. Everybody’s travel plans changed in an instant.
While the events are sensational, the actual number of people hurt is very low. Again, I don’t want to sound callous but the probabilities of being affected are very, very low. Is Guadalajara safe? Yes. There are sensational events but for the most part, Guadalajara is very safe.
Telephone extortion is somewhat common but isn’t something that affects someone with a non-Mexican telephone number. The best thing you can do is hang up if someone calls you trying to extort money.
The thieves use a device to clone a telephone number to call you. They have already done enough research to know the names of your family or friends. That device makes it look like a child or relative is calling you but they have just fooled your caller ID. You think they are calling from your loved one’s phone and the screams are from your loved one. There is a guy on the phone threatening you and explaining how to make a transfer or buy some prepaid cards.
Hang up right away. Do not talk to them, do not give them any more information. At the restaurant, these calls would happen from time to time. We had training with all the restaurant staff about what to do and what not to give out over the phone. If someone calls asking who is the owner, we would respond, “Who are you looking for.”
Is Guadalajara safe from Theft and Petty Crime
Guadalajara is a big city. There is all sort of petty theft. Much of the petty theft is avoidable by taking extra precautions. Don’t leave your car parked on the street, especially at night. Don’t get distracted on your phone in public places. Always pay attention to your surroundings. Two people riding a motorcycle on the sidewalk near Chapultepec are assumed to be up to no good. Your house and rental needs to have good locks. The cheap locks can be broken in seconds.
Lots of neighborhoods have started community watches with WhatsApp groups to communicate information. We have the neighborhood police patrol on speed dial. Any suspicious people are reported immediately and the patrol quickly responds. Having a good relationship with your neighbors is very important and helps deter crime when everyone can communicate easily and keep an eye on one another.
More often than not, armed robbery is reserved for vehicle theft. Only a couple of idiots are going to risk major jail time for stealing purses with a gun for 500 pesos at a time.
United States Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council on Safety in Guadalajara
The US Government has a heavy footprint in Guadalajara. They do a good job answering the question, “Is Guadalajara Safe?” There is lots of information and help given out to US citizens. I highly recommend looking at the reports the OSAC puts out. They are very honest and based on real events. The best line I read in the July 2019 report says,
Regarding cartel violence, wrong-place/wrong-time incidents present the greatest threat to personal safety. The best ways to reduce the risk is to practice good personal security habits, especially by maintaining high situational awareness and departing promptly from potentially dangerous situations.US State Department OSAC Crime and Safety Report July 2019
Is Guadalajara Safe: Transportation Safety
Transportation in Guadalajara is different from most major cities that I have lived in. It is much more difficult to drive in Guadalajara than it is to drive in San Diego. The infrastructure is very different. Plus, you don’t want to leave your car on the street in a lot of neighborhoods. The ‘viene vienes’ or professional car parks will subtly extort money from you to park on the street.
Taxis and Ubers
Most of the taxi and uber drivers are upstanding citizens. However there are some people who see this form of transportation as an opportunity to steal. I highly recommend calling a sitio de taxis rather than flagging one down on the street. The sitios are like a little neighborhood cooperative.
When getting into an Uber make sure to ask the driver who the car is for before getting in. Don’t tell him your name before he says it.
I don’t know anybody that was robbed in an Uber pool but a while ago there was a story floating around the internet that people were using Uber pool to rob all the passengers they were sharing a ride with. I use Uber X and assume that the Uber pool robberies were in the bad part of town.
I have never been on the metro in Guadalajara. It doesn’t go anywhere I need to go. When they finish the new line that goes out to the new bus terminal I will give it a ride.
Taking the bus in Guadalajara is crowed and uncomfortable at rush hour. The rest of the day it is not so bad. Avoid the bus in bad neighborhoods, after dark and at rush hour.
Is Guadalajara Safe? I think Guadalajara is very safe. There are certain precautions that need to be considered as in all major metropolitan areas but for the most part, Guadalajara is very safe.
If you enjoyed this article, please have a look at my Guadalajara City Guide with information about my favorite things to do around here.