There I was, staring down the barrel of a gun on a side street in the Mexican city of Oaxaca de Juárez, a place I’ve championed as being a safe destination to visit. It was only 2 nights ago and some moments seem a blur, while others remain clenched onto my brain and trickle into my thoughts throughout the day. My friend Ian and I were inches from the barrel of a gun.
I remember vividly the glint of the dim halogen street lamp on the dark steel barrel. An orange half moon slowly creeping around the dark pupil staring into my soul about an inch from my eye. The wicked pits of darkness that made up the cylinder chambers just slightly out of focus, as the barrel was so close to my eye. I remember a muffled shout, whatever was said I don’t know and can’t remember but it was a command of sorts. And not being fluent in Spanish has obscured that command into oblivion, now just speculation. But it was a command, or a demand.
My friend Ian and I who live in Oaxaca de Juárez Mexico, he for 5 years in Oaxaca and myself on and off for almost a year, were strolling home from dinner. We know very well the cautions that should (need) to be taken nowadays in Oaxaca, after muggings have been sadly on the rise in the city. We are always the first to tell friends and acquaintances to taxi home, to walk in groups, and to stay aware on big nights out. Yet, this night, we didn’t listen to our own advice.
The two would be muggers are a haze of shapes in my boggled mind as well. One larger than the other. Both flanking one side of a motorbike. The man with the gun had a motorcycle helmet on, cloth balaclava mask, and was heavier. My brain was hyper focused on the one with the gun in my face, though it’s strange how fast the brain and body can observe and react to a situation. Or not.
We’ve been telling everyone to be careful after a string of muggings.
It could have been the proximity of the dinner we went to at a friend’s house near my apartment. It could have been that it just didn’t feel so late, that we figured the attacks happen in the wee hours of the morning. Or, most likely, it was a case of being too comfortable, a mindset of “we are just a couple of blocks away”. Just an innocent lapse in judgement that could have led to a much worse situation.
And that simple lapse of judgement led us to that moment. To men trying to mug us.
The brain reacts to visual stimuli at around .25 seconds, and that can be sometimes why we have to do a double take when we see something that catches our eye. Yet, an unconscious reflex can be as quick as 13 milliseconds. And as much as one might watch films, or do self defense, or go over a scenario in your head a million times — there is never any knowing how you might react to a gun being pulled on you. You might think of how you’d react, yet it’s completely different if it happens in real life.
Ian and I turned onto the street having a relatively in-depth conversation. We weren’t on phones and we weren’t drunk, simply chatting. Yet still distracted. Too distracted to see the two guys who positioned themselves in the shadowy dark spot under a tree where the street lamp light didn’t reach. I had seen them in the distance, two guys appearing out of the corner of my eye hunched or kneeling around a motorbike like they were working on it. But us humans struggle to multitask, and the conversation glossed over other observations.
Thinking back, it would be very suspicious to have two guys just sitting or standing around a motorbike on a side road. Maybe near a corner, yes, if they were waiting for a pick up or someone to help them. But not halfway down a street under a tree. But, in our conversing, neither Ian or myself recognized that as a threat.
It only takes a split second for everything to change.
It was a split second. We got close and I heard a shout, saw the guy on the right side of the bike pull something out from the bike, and looked forward to see the gun in my face. A split second and my whole evening changed, and hell, my whole life could have changed along with Ian’s.
My retina focused on the hole of the barrel, the shine of the street light, the rigid front sight, and the figure beyond holding it. And I don’t even remember thinking or processing the fact that it was a gun. My brain and body just somehow knew, and in the fraction of a second that this all unfolded, and the moment I looked into the barrel of the gun, I ran.
I ran like hell, and so did Ian. I don’t know if Ian saw it first or was facing forward but he took off too. I ducked first and ran as fast as my legs would take me, zigzagging back the way we came toward the main intersection in case someone shot at us, both of us running out into the road trying to figure out where to go. After I bolted, I had heard the engine of the motorbike start but didn’t chance looking backward for fear it might slow me down. Only until we ran across the busy roadway did I look back to see both men gone.
We got away, and we were very lucky to.
We escaped. We were shaken up but unscathed. We were lucky, more lucky than a lot of our friends and acquaintances have been lately. As our brains began to catch up with our bodies, we ran over to a nearby convenience store and told them what had happened. A couple at the door called the police and reported it, telling us they would be on the way to get more information. Deep breaths. A sigh of relief. A small needed “what the fuck” kind of chuckle. It was over.
It’s wild how quickly your life can change. How quickly a day can change from good to really bad. How a place you’ve grown to love living in and feel at home in can quickly turn into something ominous. We were lucky. I cannot say if it was smart of us to run away or not, simply that worked in our favor at that moment. And we are lucky that both of us had the same split second reflex and didn’t leave the other behind. We were lucky there weren’t more of them, that they weren’t younger or up for a chase. We were lucky there wasn’t anyone behind us to cut off our escape. We were lucky they didn’t decide to shoot, or assault one of us first.
I feel lucky, I feel blessed, but I also feel little at all about it as well. I keep thinking I should feel something, and even moments after the attempting mugging I felt calm. My hands weren’t shaking. My heart wasn’t pounding. And even now, when the thoughts come through my head about that night I don’t feel scared or shaken up about it. Maybe my brain hasn’t processed it yet, maybe it’s putting together the puzzle pieces to make sense of it all, maybe it’ll hit me when I least expect it. I know it was a terrifying situation to be in but maybe it happened so fast that I don’t feel it yet.
Things like this can happen anywhere in the world at any time.
Being held up at gun point or mugged is unfortunately something that is always possible anywhere in the world. Well, be it a gun or knife or group of people, it’s possible to be robbed everywhere. Muggings are something that have been on the rise across the globe since the start of the pandemic when economies shut down and people lost their livelihoods. It makes me sad to see this happening to a place I thought safe, yet the concept of safe is also malleable.
Some people feel safe in the USA and constantly warn me of the dangers of traveling, yet I feel less safe in the USA than I do abroad. And while some places can truly be dangerous, getting robbed can simply happen anywhere at any time. I’ve avoided a mugging in Bethesda Maryland, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the USA. I’ve also recognized a set up for one crossing a bridge in Prague and avoided it.
But the change here is palpable. At least to me and some of my friends and acquaintances.
Oaxaca is changing. I can feel it. I hear about it. During the most recent Dia de Los Muertos celebrations we had a friend violently assaulted and robbed. Another two people we met that night were robbed at gun point and assaulted. And two bartenders we know well had the same thing happen. And just two days after our close call, I heard of another violent mugging involving a gun and assault that was published in our social chat group. Possibly the same people that tried to rob us.
Some locals say that the holidays bring out the “rats” and muggings are higher this time of year. Except I’ve been hearing about this happening more and more frequently over the past year. I now know more people who have been violently assaulted or robbed in Oaxaca than I do that haven’t. At this rate, by the end of the holidays I feel like everyone I know, however careful, will have something like this happen. I hope not, but it’s become a trend.
Is Oaxaca City Safe to travel in?
That’s truly hard to say for me now. Days ago when I shared the experience on Instagram and in the social groups I’m in, I was still saying I didn’t feel like it was an unsafe city. It could be because the seriousness of the incident hadn’t hit me yet, that I hadn’t processed the million different worse outcomes that could have happened.
I’ve traveled in places that were deemed much more dangerous as well with no issues. People told me not to travel to Haiti and I’ve been twice and fell in love with the country and its people. Some told me not to go to Thailand but I spent nearly a year there and loved it. But life isn’t fated or planned and more often than not events unfold with a flip of a coin.
Life is unpredictable, and even though I’ve had great experiences in places, others have had serious issues. Some people could travel to Oaxaca briefly and fall in love with it and have nothing bad happen. And some, like my friend from Mexico on his visit, might have something terrible happen on their first night causing them to leave.
The bottom line is, in my view, that locals and foreigners are getting robbed and violently assaulted after dark. Friends and people in our social groups have been hit with the guns, split heads and faces and broken noses and more. And the frequency is growing. That just doesn’t settle well with me, and a lot of people I talk to, be it Mexican or foreigner, have voiced apprehensions about staying long term.
Truth is, I don’t know how to feel about Oaxaca right anymore.
I feel blissfully safe during the daytime, yet now I feel I need to make it home before dark to drop off my technology and anything of value. Some friends say they feel like they shouldn’t go out at all at night. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder if I am simply walking to a nearby shop close to my house, even before this incident. And for months bars and restaurants have been posting warnings about assaults.
So, after having a gun to my face, do I think Oaxaca is dangerous?
I want to defend this city in my own view because it’s a fascinating place with wonderful people, vibrant local culture and rich traditions, and it has an awesome community of creatives. But, with the trend I’ve personally experienced and had other friends experience, it is a risk to one’s health, safety, and belongings to be out at night. I don’t think there is any denying it.
I consider myself an experienced traveler at around 10 years on the road in many off the beaten path destinations or some places that people warn not to travel to. I’m aware and cautious but not fearful of destinations. I understand bad things can happen in the “safest” of places. I don’t travel always afraid of something happening.
It’s different now, in my mind, when you have to be worried for friends getting home at all times safely, having to always check in when you reach home safely, to feel the creeping likely scenario that you will be robbed if you walk even a block or two home at night. I say likely only because of the frequency it’s been happening. It’s something that has to be accepted as a possibility.
I can’t say Oaxaca is safe or unsafe. All I can do is share this experience.
Some people will probably compare other places to being more dangerous. Some might simply get defensive of Oaxaca because it is quite wonderful. Some might say you have to just be more careful. Some have said it’s highly unlikely they wouldn’t have shot us or aren’t looking to shoot anyone. But you never know someone’s intent. Many of my friends here, local or foreign, say we all have to be much more careful at night. That sucks to be a normal part of life here.
So for me, all I can share is my recent experience of having a gun in my face and nearly being robbed, the trend of many others I know who have been, and an increasing sentiment of safety concerns after dark.
There’s a part of me that doesn’t even want to share this, because I don’t want to validate some peoples opinions that Mexico in general is a dangerous place. Because I truly love it here, and after nearly a year traveling and living here, I still want to live here when I can. I still have a special part in my heart for Oaxaca. And part of me feels guilty for sharing this experience, but writing it out helps me process it more and I think it needs to be shared.
What happens now?
It saddens me because I think this, if it keeps happening at such a high frequency, will taint a lot of the views of this incredible city and state. It is one of the most unique and captivating places I’ve ever explored, and for the locals I’ve gotten to know or had a chance to share a moment with, it’s truly carved out a special place in my heart. As it has with many others I know.
So, all I can hope is that local authorities and community security can deter this from happening more frequently and hope no one has to experience this as well. I hope that whatever issues that have pushed these people into such a violent lifestyle and whatever hardships that brings people to do these things can be addressed better.
As I sit here typing out my thoughts to also address what happened for myself I can say simply that life is precious, that every moment in life matters, life can change in a split second so try your best to live it wholly. Know that a lot of life is out of our control but how we react to situations is important. While I will not live in fear while living in Oaxaca after this scary incident, I will be on guard.
How to be safe while traveling in Mexico (Or Anywhere)
- Take taxis home after dark, and use apps like Uber or DiDi that have tracking.
- Don’t be glued to your phone while walking home.
- Let friends know when you’re leaving a bar or restaurant (no Irish goodbyes!)
- Head out for the night in groups, and leave in groups.
- Walk up roads with oncoming traffic, not traffic from behind.
- Walk on well lit streets and streets that have decent traffic passing through.
- Share your live location if walking home and tell friends when you get home.
- Wear closed-toed shoes or trainers in case you do need to escape a situation.
- Don’t go out with tons of cash or jewelry and all your bank cards.
- Make sure to get your tech home before dark if out working for the day.
- Don’t take your cameras out with you at night, especially late.
- If out late unplanned, ask a bar you know to hold onto your valuables until the next day.
- Be aware of your surroundings even when with friends.
Disclaimer: The experience shared above is my personal experience and views after this incident. While this happened to me and to some my friends, I still think Oaxaca is an incredible city and I hope these muggings stop happening.