I travel to San Diego a few times a year and routinely hear the question, “Is Guadalajara safe?” Guadalajara can be safe if basic precautions are adhered to but also has a number of safety concerns. There are a number of serious 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.
Table of Contents
- Is Guadalajara Safe for Tourists?
- Violent Crime: kidnapping, armed robbery, and carjacking
- Narco Violence
- The Disappeared
- Violence Against Women
- Petty Theft and Scams
- Places to Avoid
- Health Safety
- Transportation Safety
- Is Guadalajara a Good Place to Live?
My first-hand experience and sentiment with safety in Guadalajara, Mexico is based on living here for the last decade. I attend the neighborhood watch meetings in my area where we work with the police and private consultants to address the security concerns of the community. I also operated a business and applied corporate risk management best practices and communicated with the local business community to share information. The principal threats to personal security in Guadalajara are kidnapping for ransom, express kidnapping, vehicle theft, and armed robbery. The sensational stuff that makes the international press represents a negligible percentage of the total threat to a visitor or new resident.
According to the experts, security is about avoiding risks. It is 5% luck, 5% reaction, and 90% prevention. More than anything, it is about identifying safe places and safe activities.
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.
Covid-19 Sources of Information
The State of Jalisco has taken an aggressive stance to confront the pandemic. Face masks are required to enter all businesses that are open. The state-level government is trying to balance the health crisis with the economic hardship that the extended quarantine precipitated. During the stay-at-home order in 2020, there was a spike in brazen, violent armed robberies.
Along with the rest of the country, the State of Jalisco operates a stoplight tiered system reporting the severity of the pandemic which is measured in new cases, hospital occupancy levels and deaths.
The best information comes from the official government sources:
- Mexican Government’s Epidemiological Stoplight website (In Spanish)
- US Embassy in Mexico COVID-19 Information for U.S. Citizens in Mexico
Currently, there are few restrictions on local businesses. Businesses are operating a reduced capacity. Children are slowly starting to prepare to return to the room. Many seniors and frontline medical workers have had access to the vaccine. Wealthy residents have made their way to the United States to get vaccinated. The numbers of new cases and hospitalizations are down across the board.
Please be aware that wearing a facemask is a requirement that the government makes of businesses. Please do not challenge local businesses about the efficacy of masks. They are following government regulations so that they may continue to operate. The pandemic bankrupted a lot of businesses and those that are still operating are doing so after making significant changes. Please be patient.
Is Guadalajara safe for tourists?
Yes, Guadalajara is safe for tourists. There are a number of precautions that need to be observed but Guadalajara is an amazing tourist destination. In fact, Guadalajara is one of the top tourist destinations in Mexico for national tourism (Mexican tourists).
Violent Crime: Kidnapping, Armed Robbery, and Carjacking
In the last decade, 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.
Kidnapping For Ranson and Kidnapping Express
Kidnappings are a real problem in Mexico. Kidnapping for ransom is not an issue for tourists. Express kidnappings have been known to occur when tourists don’t take precautions.
If you spend a time in Guadalajara you will meet people who have been victims of kidnappings. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories.
Kidnapping for ransom used to only effect the upper class but have been increasingly effecting the middle and even lower classes as well. Kidnapping for ransom involves researching a target’s movements, planning, and execution. It requires time and resources.
Most Mexicans recommend limiting the amount of personal information that one shares on the internet. If you will be driving, it is a good idea to change up the routes that you take to avoid easily recognizable patterns. And again, ostentatious behavior should be avoided.
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.
The State of Jalisco has a very high rate of auto theft and the numbers continue to rise. Unfortunately, this includes armed robbery. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. We see security camera footage every day of carjackings at places we are still frequent. Stoplights and parking lots make my wife very nervous. We usually do not leave the windows down while driving in the city.
The best thing you can do is give the key over without a fight. Buy good insurance and don’t resist.
This is my biggest security concern in Guadalajara. Writing this article I started to think about all the people that I know who have been carjacked. It is a lot and they are not rich either. One was carjacked for a Chevy Aveo.
Unfortunately, Guadalajara has a problem with people going missing and never being heard from again. It only takes one loop around the Glorieta de Los Niños Heroes (traffic circle) to understand the magnitude of the problem. It is estimated that 75% of the disappeared have some tenuous tie to organized crime such as buying drugs. Again, it is estimated that 25% of the disappeared do not have ties. You need to take extra caution when doing business like selling a car online or meeting people that you don’t know. Obviously, buying drugs is going to be a dangerous endeavor.
Violence Against Women
Every March we are reminded that the level of violence against women is unacceptable. Much like the disappeared, there is a level of impunity that most of society rejects.
I stand with the feminists. They are one of the few segments of society that refuses to accept the status quo and burry the problem. The methods are controversial but that is the point.
The term narcoviolence is a catchall for situations that make the international news. Yes, there have been some horrific crimes in Mexico. Guadalajara is not a destination that is terrorized by narcoviolence like rural Michoacan or Sinaloa are. When I think about the difference between gun violence between the United States and Mexico, in the United States mass shootings purposely impose a large loss of life on innocent bystanders. In Mexico by contrast, gun violence is used to operate a business targeting specific individuals who threaten said business. While innocent bystanders have been injured, it is very different from the types of attacks that were seen in Las Vegas, Columbine, or Sandy Hook.
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 mountains. 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.
In February of 2021, there was a high-profile shoot-out in the luxury business district of Real Acueducto. The incident made the international press because of the sensational nature of a prolonged shoot-out between rival criminal organizations that happened to be videotaped from the high-rise buildings above. There was one injured bystander who was waiting on the table targeted by the rival group. Several hitmen were injured or killed and an off-duty police officer was injured. The chances of being an innocent bystander injured in the crossfire of narco-violence is much lower than being injured in a mass shooting at a country-western concert in Las Vegas.
Petty Theft and Scams
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 how to respond to strangers fishing for sensitive information about the owners and managers. If someone calls asking who is the owner, we would respond, “Who are you looking for.”
Never volunteer personal information to unknown people over the phone!
The Mustard Scam
This scam is a little more prevalent in Lake Chapala but I have heard of it in Guadalajara as well. A team of thieves works together using the good cop/bad cop routine. The first thief will spill something like mustard on the mark. The second thief will come in from the opposite direction and point out the mustard blotch on your pants and offer a napkin and to help you clean up.
While the volunteer is helping to clean up the mustard stain on your pants he is also taking your wallet out of your pocket. The scam almost exclusively involves food spilled on the pants because they use the patting of the stain on your leg to distract you from the wallet being removed from your pocket. Recently, I heard of an instance where the credit cards were stolen and the wallet returned to the pocket without the victim realizing it. In less than an hour, thousands of dollars had been charged to the credit cards, and the victim on realized the missing cards when the credit card company starting calling because of questionable transactions.
It is a good idea to tell strangers not to touch you.
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.
Is Guadalajara Dangerous? Places and behaviors to Avoid
There are a number of neighborhoods in Guadalajara that are dangerous. The Calzada de la Independencia runs north to south splitting the metro area in two. Historically, the eastside of the Calzada was underdeveloped, poor, and dangerous. Oblatos should be avoided at night. A friend of ours who grew up in that area lost his brother in a violent event while he was returning home late at night. It would be best to take a cab or an Uber if you must go there. This includes Mercado San Juan de Dios. According to the Informador Newspaper, this is the area with the most arrests for drug sales.
Av. Chapultepec is a bar district and is notorious for thieves stealing cellular phones from motorcycles. If you are distracted, walking down the street around Chapultepec, there is a distinct probability that you will lose your phone. I always get nervous when I see two people on a motorcycle riding on the sidewalk. The driver gets the motorcycle close to a pedestrian and the passenger rips the phone out of their hands. Don’t walk distracted.
Tlaquepaque and Tonalá have a beautiful downtown area with lots of local artisans. Stick to the main streets and don’t spend a lot of time walking around after dark. El Cerro de Cuatro, Tlaquepaque, and the outskirts of Tonalá are two places that tourists have no business walking around. Stick to the nice areas of town like the Historic Center, The Americana, Providencia, Chapalita, Zapopan, and Puerto de Hierro.
Colonia del Fresno is another dangerous part of Guadalajara. The area grew up on the other side of the tracks but today is well within the city limits and due for a wave of gentrification. The area around Av. Mariano Otero, Calzada Niños Heroes, and the train tracks is horribly dangerous for cyclists. I have a friend who was robbed by someone with a machete, and someone else was killed with a machete in that same area. Avoid the train tracks around Colonia del Fresno at all costs.
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
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.
It rains in Guadalajara during the summer as I have never seen. I’m from San Diego and we don’t know rain like it rains here during the summer. The rain and humidity make mosquitoes inevitable. Wear long sleeves, keep the door closed, and avoid places that are infested.
Dengue was a serious concern in the summer of 2019. Jalisco State had over 5,000 confirmed cases of dengue and the number is most certainly to be higher because of unreported cases. The governor of the State of Jalisco blames the increase on climate change. The neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the virus claim the government didn’t start spraying until late in the season and they were using expired chemicals when they did finally start spraying. Take precautions if you are going to be outdoors.
Take steps to avoid mosquitoes during the rainy season
If you are going to be outdoors during the summer months you should carry insect repellent. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon the mosquitoes become aggressive. If you are in the city DEET is probably not necessary.
My infant son woke up with mosquito bites from mosquitoes that I never saw. It breaks your heart to see a baby with bug bites. The mosquito net that you hand over the bed works wonders. The only time mosquitoes are going to get in is when you don’t close it properly.
The most enjoyable way to execute mosquitoes is with the electric racket. I used the t-shirt as a whip method for many years and found the electric racket to be much more effective. You can buy one at the stoplight but those don’t last as long as the one you get on Amazon.
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 fewer 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.
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.
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’, ‘franileros’, or professional car parks will subtly extort money from you to park on the street.
Is Uber Safe in Guadalajara?
Yes, uber is very safe in Guadalajara but you need to be a smart user. There are thousands of white Nissan Versas in Guadalajara because of Uber. Make sure to always check the license plates of your Uber before stepping into the car. Do not get into a car if the plates do not match no matter what the driver says.
There is a story circulating around Facebook that has my wife upset. A girl leaving a nightclub got into a cab without checking the license plates and was robbed and raped. The driver said that his car was in the shop and that his internet was failing, but he was the Uber driver the young girl was waiting for. This all happened outside of a nightclub at 3am and I am sure there was alcohol involved. Make sure to take extra precautions when alcohol is involved.
I don’t know anybody that has been robbed in an Uber pool but a while ago there was a another 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.
Always ask the Uber driver who he is looking for WITHOUT telling him your name. Ask, “Para Quien” and NEVER offer your name so that he can just agree.
I prefer not to use Uber at the airport. On several different occasions, the Uber driver has shown up in a vehicle that does not match the vehicle on the app. You should NEVER get in an Uber that has different license plates from the app. I prefer to think that this was just a scam to charge me $50 pesos rather than something nefarious like a kidnapping plot but it changed how I view safety on the platform.
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.
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.
Our cleaning lady has been robbed twice riding the bus in the five years that she has been with us. Not exactly ridding the bus but getting off of the bus thieves were waiting.
Is Guadalajara a Good Place to Live
I love living in Guadalajara. I has taken me a little while to learn the differences between Guadalajara and San Diego but I feel safe in both places. There is a wonderful quality of life, the food is excellent, and I love the entertainment.
The only thing that I complain about is that the beach is 3 hours away. There are spectacular beaches nearby but I am not surfing every day like I was in San Diego.
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.