Heading to Mexico for spring break? Here's a statistician's take on the risk vs. the reward

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With the tragic death of Taylor Kristofer Meyer, who was murdered while vacationing in Playa del Carmen, Mexico last year, many pundits are discussing how dangerous Mexico is and touting that more Americans are killed in Mexico each year than in all foreign countries combined.

With spring break upon us, is one of America’s favorite foreign vacation spots really dangerous? Should you be looking at different spring break plans? Are your children safe when they head down to Mexico for a tour of Senor Frog’s and Coco Bongo?

Since 2002, the U.S. State Department has listed how many Americans have died sudden and unnatural deaths while abroad (this does not include cases where the person would have died regardless of his or her location). In 2017, 822 Americans died unnatural deaths abroad, including homicides, drownings, traffic accidents, and drug-related deaths.


Of those 822 deaths abroad, 250 occurred in Mexico. On the surface, that is an astounding number. Considering how many countries there are in the world, the thought that one country alone claims 30 percent of the deaths of American citizens abroad would certainly give someone pause about visiting.

However, that number alone doesn’t tell the full story. What we need to understand is what proportion of unnatural deaths of U.S. citizens occur in Mexico with respect to the proportion of U.S. visitors to Mexico each year versus any other country.

You have a higher risk of dying by motorcycle accident or of accidentally drowning in the next year than of being murdered in Mexico as a tourist...

The National Travel and Tourism Office publishes a U.S. international travel report each year. Looking at those statistics, it is clear that in 2017, 40 percent of the travel abroad by U.S. citizens was to Mexico. That means that Mexico is in fact not a dangerous place for Americans to go.

If say, that number was 20 percent, instead of 40 percent, it would mean that proportionally, more Americans die while in Mexico than travel there. But this is in no way the case.

If we dive deeper into the data and look specifically at murders (not unnatural deaths by drugs, traffic related accidents, etc.) then we start to see a slightly different picture. In 2017, there were 143 homicides of U.S. citizens abroad, and 83 of those occurred in Mexico.

That means that Mexico is responsible for 58 percent of homicides of American citizens abroad, but only 40 percent of the travel, showing that in terms of risk of homicide, Mexico is in fact more dangerous.

Here is the takeaway: These numbers are more complicated than they seem at first glance.

Consider this: We are not told what exactly constitutes a “homicide” versus a “drug-related death.” Does drug-related mean an overdose? Or does it also include deaths that result from a drug deal gone wrong? We don’t know.


Furthermore, let’s talk about risk. Sure, these numbers sound scary on their face, but risk is relative. While Mexico may seem to be one of the more “dangerous” locations to travel to in regard to homicide risk, the homicide rate in New York City is more than four times your risk of being murdered in Mexico. You have a higher risk of dying by motorcycle accident or of accidentally drowning in the next year than of being murdered in Mexico as a tourist (based only on air travel tourism).

While incredible tragedy causes us to take a deeper look, fear-mongering and scare tactics need to be kept in check. If you are traveling to Mexico for spring break, have a wonderful time, but, just as you would with any travel abroad, be careful and know the risks.