Some Mexico expats head for the exit as drug wars heat up; some go home while others relocate to new Latin American countries

Jun 8, 2015 | 4 comments

Rosanne Morris knew it was time to pull up stakes when a Canadian acquaintance was found murdered beside a highway south of Guadalajara, Mexico in early February.

Like thousands of other U.S. and Canadian expatriates, she lived in the Lake Chapala region of Mexico where she had moved from New York looking for an adventuresome and more affordable retirement. But also like other expats, she had seen crime escalate in recent years as drug cartels battled police and each other.

Ajijic, Mexico, has a large expat community although some are leaving due to increased drug crime.

Ajijic, Mexico, has a large expat community. Some are leaving due to increased drug crime.

“There is crime everywhere you live,” she said, “but hearing first-hand about more home invasions and severed heads being found in parking lots was becoming too much. Then, the guy who lives down the street from me in Ajijic is murdered and that was enough to make me leave,” she added.

Police says the victim was probably murdered for his car, which was stolen from a mall parking lot in suburban Guadalajara. From evidence recovered when the car was found, they say the crime was probably committed by drug cartel members.

Morris put her two-bedroom apartment on the market and headed south to Cuenca, Ecuador, another popular expat destination, where her sister lives. “I had lived in Mexico for nine years and hated to go. I’m happy now in Cuenca. It’s calm and safe and feels like Ajijic when I first moved there,” she said.

Morris is not the only one leaving Mexico and many believe that, after years of increasing crime, the number of foreign residents living in the country is declining. “For years, the drug related violence here was restricted to certain areas, but this is changing,” says Roger Hinson, a retired police chief from Virginia who still lives in Ajijic. “There are so many Mexicans involved with the cartels the violence is spreading to areas that did not have it before,” he says. “They are also committing crimes unrelated to the drug trade just to make a living.”

Police examine bodies after a shoot-out between drug cartel members.

Police examine bodies after a shoot-out between drug cartel members.

Among other Mexican cities that have seen increased of violence against North American expats is San Miguel de Allende, where an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Americans and Canadians live. “The violence is not as bad as Ajijic and Guadalajara, but it is getting worse,” says Hinson. “There have been several kidnappings of expats as well as locals there. The drug people realize that there are affluent people in San Miguel and they follow the money.”

In Jalapa, in the mountains west of Vera Cruz, expat Patricia Cohen says that the majority of expats, once numbering 2,000, have left. “I’ll probably leave pretty soon,” she says. “Two weeks ago there was gun battle in the street outside my apartment. This no way to live.”

Like Morris, Cohen says she will stay in Latin America and is considering Ecuador and Panama. “I hear good things about those places and have friends living there. First, I’ll look at Panama City and Cuenca,” she says. “At this point I’m just looking for a little peace and quiet.”

After appearing to improve, drug crime violence has spiked in Mexico since 2012. Repeating what Hinson says, national police say that cartels are spreading geographically as well as into new areas of crime. “At one time, they focused only on drug activity, but there are tens of thousands of members and now they are involved in kidnappings and robberies and even petty theft,” says Jorge Lopez, a spokesman for the police. “We are trying hard to control it but now it is more difficult.”

In May, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to tourists and expats about increasing violence in Mexico. On June 1, Canada issued a similar warning, describing a “deteriorating situation.”

According to Hinson, who runs an expat website, about half those leaving are going home but the other half are moving to other Latin American countries. “A lot of them like the way of life down here and don’t want to go back north. They are mostly moving to Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica, places that are safer and more prosperous,” he says. “Now, instead of going next door to visit my best friend, I have to go all the way to Ecuador.”