How Safe is Nogales, Mexico for Tourists? All You Need To Know (2021)

First things first: there are two cities called Nogales, separated by a thirty-foot border wall. One is Nogales: the county seat of Santa Cruz County, Arizona; the other is officially named Heroica Nogales and is the northernmost city in the Mexican state of Sonora. The sister cities are known collectively as Ambos Nogales, or “Both Nogales.” And in case you wanted to know: in Spanish, nogales means “walnut trees.”

There aren’t many reasons for a tourist to visit Nogales, Mexico, unless it’s for a cheap place to stay the night; perhaps before setting off west to explore the beaches in Tijuana. Some U.S. citizens like to visit for Instagrammable proof that they crossed the border, whilst others go for the duty-free liquor, cheap tobacco, and discount prescription drugs.

But if it’s to be your destination, then is Nogales, Mexico safe for tourists? The short answer is yes: as long as you take every caution and never travel alone. Keep in mind that the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales is in almost constant use by the international drug trade and human trafficking networks, so crime is never far away. But as long as you keep to the area designated as the tourist zone (between El Periferico highway and Avenida Obregon), you’ll be fine.

Over the next few paragraphs, we’re going to look at the overall safety of Nogales and all the precautions you should take while you’re there.

Is Nogales safe in 2021?

An excellent way to measure the safety of Nogales is to take a look at the violent crime figures of its home state: Sonora. Freely available data from Mexico’s Executive Secretariat shows that Sonora was the seventh most dangerous state for homicides in 2020. However, we’ve also calculated the year-on-year change, which shows that homicide in Sonora has increased more than in any other state over the last five years.

Admittedly just looking at homicide figures might seem a bit morbid, but they’re a good indicator of lesser crimes. The most recent report from OSAC  states that “no area of Nogales is immune from violent crime. Drug cartel-related violence, vehicle theft, home invasions, and incidents of rape all increased in 2019”. And, more importantly for tourists, “street crime such as kidnapping, armed robbery, and assault also showed an increase.”  These rising crime figures are perhaps easier to understand when you consider that Mexico, in the world list of violent countries, has ranked consistently in the top three since 2009.

But for tourists, crimes very rarely turn violent. Mexico’s overall crime rate for 2020 was 53.3 — classed by Numbeo as merely ‘moderate’ — and that’s a more realistic picture of Nogales. Because it’s a Mexican border crossing town, some often have a misconceived idea of Nogales, perhaps due to the previous administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and alleged lies about the borderlands. “Outsiders believe that Nogales is a war zone,” says one local lady in an interview with the UK Guardian newspaper. [They think it’s] “filled with murdering, rapist, undocumented [people] climbing the border wall like the zombies from World War Z, when it’s far from the truth.”

The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory’s current recommendation for Sonora state, including Nogales, is that you “reconsider travel due to crime.” This is known as “Level 3”, which is a severe warning that you could become a victim, so perhaps you really should reconsider. That being said, some states in Mexico are at an enhanced level 3 (“Do Not Travel”), including Sinaloa state due to crime, and Tamaulipas state due to crime and kidnapping. So, in comparison, perhaps Nogales is not that bad.

Is Nogales safe for solo travelers?

solo travel
Photo by Jaunt and Joy on Unsplash

No. Nogales is not a place you want to be alone in, especially at night. Unfortunately, that goes double for women, with reports of sexual attacks on the increase in the last few years. Street crime is rife, especially after daylight hours, and it’s essential to have someone with you to watch your back. A crime that’s been on the increase across the whole of Mexico is secuestro exprés, or express kidnapping, where the victim hails a legitimate but probably stolen cab. A few minutes into the trip, two or three armed accomplices will enter the taxi and force their victim to withdraw cash from an ATM, often at gunpoint.

Express kidnappings are a favorite of the drug cartels, as the crime generates untraceable cash in a relatively short time. Audacious criminals will often carry out kidnappings in broad daylight — it’s sad but true that most people in Mexican border towns who see a drawn gun will walk away very quickly, and if they do bother to report it, the crime is usually over by the time the police arrive. The kidnappers specifically target tourists walking through the streets alone, which is another reason to make sure you always travel around Nogales with a friend.

If it’s absolutely essential that you travel to Nogales alone, then the OSAC report gives specific recommendations for your safety. These are mostly common sense, but it doesn’t hurt to include them in our article. They are:

  • Travel through the city only during daylight hours.
  • Avoid walking after dark in Nogales.
  • Avoid entering bars and nightclubs, which provide a dangerous mix of guns, drugs, and cartel members.
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Is Nogales safe to live?

security camera
Burglaries and home invasions are an easy way for cartels to makemoney | Image Credit: Unsplash

At the moment, Nogales is not a very safe place to live. The Mexican drug cartels have infiltrated almost every level of society, and if you live in Nogales you will undoubtedly witness cartel-related crimes. In fact, the personnel involved could be your neigbors. Living in one of the Mexican border cities always carries a risk, but in the case of Nogales, it’s not a risk worth taking.

Buying a property in Nogales, or even signing a rental contract, automatically makes you a likely victim of burglary or home invasion. Similarly, a new car in the neighborhood quickly gets noticed and just as quickly gets carjacked. In October 2020, a family of four traveling to their Sonora beach house were carjacked at gunpoint. They were forced to hand over their brand new pickup truck plus a 20-foot trailer loaded with three quad ATVs: a total loss of over $70,000. The gunman was later arrested in possession of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Drug smuggling in the state of Sonora is run by the Sinaloa Cartel: one of the largest and most profitable organizations in the world — legal or otherwise. Formed in the 1980s, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s cartel was the biggest supplier of illegal drugs to the U.S., right up to the druglord’s eventual arrest in July 2019.

Since then, the cartel remains dominant, but there’s been an increase in turf wars between the Sinaloa and their closest rivals, the Jalisco New Generation cartel. (Interesting fact: the Jalisco drug trafficking organization is headed by Nemesio Oseguera, known as “El Mencho.” With a bounty of $10m on his head, he’s Mexico’s most wanted man.)

With a poverty rate of 33.9% — meaning over a third of residents literally cannot afford to live — it’s little wonder that former breadwinners in Nogales are getting more and more desperate, and the offer of a decent pay packet is turning many to organized crime. This leads to more drugs, more money, and more gun battles. Sadly, too many innocent bystanders have lost their lives in the crossfire.

More recently, a turf war in the Sonora Desert between Sinaloa and the local Caborca Cartel has created a dangerous battleground. Caborca, where the cartel are based, is a city of 60,000 located in Sonora state, roughly 90 minutes from Nogales. The mayor of Caborca, Librado Macías, admits that being near the border with the U.S. makes it a prime target for cartel violence. “It is a very long border area,” he told Mexico Daily News. “[And there’s] a confrontation between two stubborn groups that want to kill each other.”

Just over 900 kilos of cocaine confiscated by the DEA
Just over 900 kilos of cocaine confiscated by the DEA. The black scorpion is a symbol of the Sinaloa Cartel | Image Credit: Public domain

Right now, Nogales is not a safe place to live; and it’s not likely to be unless the U.S. Border patrol can somehow put a stop to all the drug smuggling and people trafficking. It’s a problem that’s being looked at, but without a massive increase in manpower, experts don’t see a solution anytime soon.

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Has crime in Nogales gone down since COVID?

The crime rate in Nogales hasn’t gone up or down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the crimes themselves have changed. COVID-19 restrictions on nonessential border crossings have turned Nogales into a ghost town, and it’s become much harder for the cartels to move drugs and traffic people across the border. Carjacking, traditionally a big source of cartel income, has all but stopped as very few cars now drive through Nogales.

Despite coronavirus travel restrictions, violent crimes have continued to grow along the border regions. Criminal groups have swiftly adapted to the “new normal”, using it to tighten their control over people and territory. Transfer of illicit goods already appears to be getting back to pre-pandemic levels, while extortion rackets are resurging.

In an article titled ‘Druglords Don’t Stay at Home‘, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) had the following to say: “We find a sharp decrease in crimes related to domestic violence, burglary, and vehicle theft, [but] organized crime remains steady. These findings have implications for possible national security issues in Mexico.”

Is public transport safe in Nogales?

public transport mexico
Photo by Hector Carrera on Unsplash

Public transport in Nogales is not safe and should be avoided if at all possible. The OSAC report for Nogales states you should “avoid using public transportation services…based on the lack of viable security vetting and the depth of narco-trafficking influence.” In real terms, this means that theft on public transport is common, and buses have also been hijacked in conflict areas. U.S. Embassies are so worried about public transport in Mexico that they advise their own staff to fly between cities wherever possible.

If you need to take a bus through Nogales, you should only ever travel first-class. These licensed bus lines mainly use toll roads and so are more expensive, but they have a far lower rate of crime incidents than buses travelling on the less-secure free (‘libre’) roads. Most first-class bus companies in Mexico also run individual checks as passengers board the bus, which adds another level of security.

Also, be extremely wary of using a libre taxi: these are the root of many scams that could leave you penniless or worse. Taxis from airports might be expensive, but they are reputable and will get you from A to B without incident. Alternatively, you could ask your hotel to recommend a licensed taxi service. But always remain cautious, as many cheap hotels get backhanders for recommending cartel-run taxi services, and will often pass on details to the drivers regarding how wealthy you appear to be.

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Is the tap water safe to drink in Nogales?

tap water safety
Photo by Nicolas COMTE on Unsplash

Nogales is hot, and you’ll need to take on plenty of water to keep you hydrated. But the tap water in Nogales is not safe to drink, at least for tourists. Research carried out by Numbeo gives a Drinking Water Quality score of 43.7, where 100 is the highest mark. However, the same metric for New York is only marginally better, at 50.8; and even Zurich, which boasts the world’s highest quality drinking water, scores no higher than 89.9. So we can’t just base our decision on figures. After all, millions of Mexicans drink their tap water, and none of them get sick from it.

Instead, we need to look at what’s in the water. In Mexico, local municipalities are responsible for treating and pumping water, but although they purify at source, by the time it reaches the tap the water has had a chance to pick up a wide range of contaminants. The bacteria e.Coli is the main culprit and causes the infamous “Montezuma’s revenge”, also known as travelers’ diarrhea. Locals have built up an immunity to contaminants like e.Coli, and so they don’t get sick from drinking tap water.

For sufferers of travelers’ diarrhea, several over-the-counter drugs, such as loperamide, can treat the symptoms (and Nogales is the right city for cheap medication!). The worst symptoms usually clear up after 48 hours, but by then you’re vacation will be all but ruined. So our advice, just like everybody else’s, is “don’t drink the water”. Instead, stock up on bottles of mineral water which are available at every corner store.

Eating out also runs the risk of ingesting tap water, especially in salad dishes where fresh food is often “prepared” by simply running it under a cold water tap. Lettuce is a well-known problem herem as its leaves retain a lot of water after being washed. In fact, to be extra sure, you might want to just skip the salad…

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We highly recommend using Safety Wing, but there are many insurance companies to choose from so make sure to shop around to find the best deal.

Top 7 tips for safe travel in Nogales

Sign saying 'Visit Nogales'
Nogales can be a great place to visit, if you take some common-sense precautions | Image Credit: Wikimedia via CC BY-SA 4.0

Travelling in Mexico presents its own unique set of problems, especially around the border towns. Here’s a list of seven essential things to bear in mind.

  • Only book named, four-star hotels. Some cheaper hotels are owned by drug cartels and are either fronts for laundering money, brothels, or both.
  •  If it looks like a situation might lead to violence, the best thing is to do exactly as you’re told. You may end up parting with valuables or money, but as the saying goes: it’s better to lose an iPhone than an eye.
  • Don’t go out alone, especially after dark. If it can’t be avoided: avoid it anyway.
  • Don’t drive your own car: you’re very likely to be carjacked. Always arrange for a reputable taxi driver, ideally the same one each time.
  • Avoid conspicuous signs of wealth, and that includes taking pictures with your expensive phone. If you plan to be in Nogales for a while, it might be worth using a cheap phone that you can afford to lose.
  • Be wary of people presenting themselves as police officers. Always ask for identification and if possible note the officer’s name, badge number, and patrol car number.
  • Don’t drink the water! Whilst some restaurants and hotels may offer “filtered tap water”, play it safe and only drink mineral water from bottles you’ve opened yourself.

It’s the nature of these types of articles to only dwell on the negative aspects on the place they’re reviewing, and perhaps we’re guilty of doing just that. Nogales may be more dangerous than other Mexican cities, but as long as you don’t draw too much attention to yourself, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a few days exploring the character of this bordertown city.

¡Vaya con dias!

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