A Turkish lawyer wrote me on Facebook:
I want to ask your opinion regarding my friend’s daughter (a high school kid) from Turkey who has been chosen to participate in a Rotary Youth Exchange Program whereas she will stay with a family in a different country for 6 weeks this summer as part of the program. Evidently, they have a few countries to choose from. One of these countries is Mexico. The daughter is interested in Mexico because she had Spanish courses in High School along with English. However, Mom has certain reservations as to whether she should send her to Mexico or not due to the safety concerns. As someone who knows Mexico better than anyone I know, your input would be greatly appreciated. Maybe I should ask the question as follows: Would you send your daughter to Mexico for a program as this one for 6 weeks to stay with a family??
My response (with apologies for hasty drafting):
Without hesitation, I would feel safe sending a high school student to Mexico for a program like the Rotary exchange.
The people who participate in Rotary in Mexico are upper middle or upper class, very conservative, and business-oriented. These people and the Rotary organization did not take any chances in years past, and they’re not going to take any chances in today’s environment.
An American kid would very likely find Mexican society to be very restrictive in comparison to contemporary US society. I can’t make the comparison to Turkish society. Mexican society is very conservative compared to European society.
Drug use is still looked down upon in Mexico; it’s a lower class thing here. The worst that your friend’s daughter might do in the country is to drink — and over-drinking is considered bad form.
The narco-violence is exaggerated. The media has blown it entirely out of proportion. I am not denying that it exists, but you have to make a concerted effort to find it – by going to the wrong part of town, hanging out with the wrong kind of people, trying to buy drugs, not immediately leaving a situation that looks suspicious. The targets of narco-violence are other gang members and p0oliticans.
Nearly all of the dangers you read about which affect tourists take place in resort areas like Cancun, where tourists are drinking too much, taking chances that they would never dream of taking back home, and are ready targets.
Your friend’s daughter’s host family is going to take every precaution to ensure her safety – just as they do their own. Mexicans are much more safety-conscious than Americans – we Mexicans double-lock our doors, don’t let strangers into the house, have bars on the windows (which is more of an architectural feature), and our homes are marked by high walls. The girl will probably not be permitted to go out by herself, and she will be escorted at all times by her hosts or a group of friends.
Mexico has a lot of poor people, and their presence is not easy to escape. It is probably like Turkey in that regard. It is an extremely class-conscious country. The mere existence of poor people can be frightening to those who are not accustomed to this.
Mexicans are a lot like Turks (I may be generalizing, but I’m always drawing parallels between Mexico and the Turkey I knew). We are a gregarious, open, helpful people, insisting that others eat all the time!
Because Mexico is really suffering right now from bad press, the government, hospitality industry, and the kind of people who participate in exchanges like the Rotary program are knocking themselves out to make sure that visitors remain safe and have an enjoyable experience. In my opinion, Mexico is definitely a lot safer than Istanbul!