There are a number of ways we could define danger.
When it comes right down to brass tacks, it’s hard to imagine that any city on earth could be more dangerous than Baghdad or Aleppo. But those cities are effectively in war zones. Like many countries in Africa, few people would travel there unless they had no other choice — or unless they were extremely brave and willing to take their lives in their hands in order to volunteer or serve.
What we’re looking at here are the most dangerous cities you as a traveler might actually visit. For that, we’re going to look at the official murder rates for 2017.
Sadly, you’ll notice there’s a very clear pattern in this list: Every single one of the 10 most dangerous cities to visit are in Mexico or South America. Poverty, the drug trade, and governmental neglect are creating a crisis, and violence is reaching epidemic levels.
10. Belém, Brazil
Total murders (2017):1,743
Murders per 100,000 people: 71.38
For a city with a metro population of 2.2 million to crack 1,700 murders is truly horrifying. For comparison’s sake, Chicago has 2.7 million inhabitants, and 700 murders would be a bad year for the infamously violent windy city.
Unfortunately, Belém sits near the Amazon estuary. Apart from water, the Amazon river basin also carries cocaine from west to east, including to Belém, which makes an ideal port for trans-Atlantic drug shipping. However, as Brazil has become wealthier in recent years, it has become one of the world’s top consumers of cocaine in its own right. This emergent drug culture is undoubtedly one of the causes of the violence that wracks Brazil’s major centers.
Despite the high murder rate, Belém is quite safe in daylight. Visitors should think about sticking to the more touristy areas, and avoid any conspicuous displays of wealth.
9. Cuidad Guyana, Venezuela
Total murders (2017): 728
Murders per 100,000 people: 80.28
We don’t even have to get into the appallingly high murder rate in this case. In general, you simply shouldn’t visit Venezuela at this time. To begin with, it remains a hotspot for the Zika virus, so visitors are urged to take serious precautions on that score.
But Zika is really the least of your worries if you’re visiting Venezuela. At the moment, the country is falling apart. The controversial former president Hugo Chávez spent lavishly on social programs, improving the quality of life of many Venezuelans; however, the murder rate quadrupled under his leadership. Since oil prices collapsed in 2014, Venezuela has been in financial straits, and her new president, Nicolás Maduro, has been struggling to cling to power.
Violence, crumbling infrastructure, political instability, and crime (especially near the border with Colombia) have led the U.S. State Department to urge Americans to reconsider visiting Venezuela.
8. Cuidad Victoria, Mexico
Total murders (2017): 301
Murders per 100,000 people: 83.32
Cuidad Victoria (Victoria City) is the capital of Tamaulipas province in northeastern Mexico, which borders Texas to the north and the Gulf to the east. Tamaulipas (and hence Cuidad Victoria) is part of the base of operations for the deadly Los Zetas cartel. The Zetas are considered the most dangerous gang in Mexico. They were formed in the 1990s by commandos of the Mexican Army who deserted in favor of the more profitable drug trade. Much of the violence in Cuidad Victoria undoubtedly involves this merciless syndicate.
7. Fortaleza, Brazil
Total murders (2017): 3,270
Murders per 100,000 people: 83.48
Fortaleza is perhaps most famous for its enticing urban beaches. Sadly, these are occluded by the city’s more infamous aspects.
Let’s all pause for a moment and contemplate a metro area of 4,000,000 or so inhabitants that suffers almost 3,300 murders a year. How do you even keep track of them, much less solve them? The answer is: you don’t.
On top of the violence, Fortaleza is also notorious for prostitution. Foreign men can expect to be solicited, especially in the vicinity of Praia de Iracema. It’s worth remembering that Fortaleza sex workers are known for drugging their clients and then robbing them.
Robbery in general is a major concern in the city. Even in busy areas or on the beach, you must remain vigilant. Avoid using ATMs too frequently, and bring a phrasebook in case you need to have a word with to Fortaleza’s tourist police.
6. La Paz, Mexico
Total murders (2017): 259
Murders per 100,000 people: 84.79
La Paz is the capital of Baja Caliornia Sur — the southern half of the long peninsula on Mexico’s west coast that juts out into the Pacific. But it’s less famous than the nearby twin cities of Los Cabos, with their world-famous beaches. Once a peaceful province and one of Mexico’s most sparsely populated, the murder rate has exploded here as rival cartels fight for territory. One of the causes of the sudden gang warfare was the arrest and extradition to the U.S. of the infamous kingpin ‘El Chapo’, which left a power vacuum in the region.
To get a sense of how the violence has amplified, there were 70 murders in the state of Baja California Sur in 2014. At the time, that was a record high. In 2017, there were 560 murders, an eight-fold increase over three years.
5. Tijuana, Mexico
Total murders (2017): 1,897
Murders per 100,000 people: 100.77
Yes, literally more than 1 in 1,000 residents of Tijuana were killed last year, which is insane when you stop to think about it. That devastating statistic is more than double the murder rate recorded the previous year.
As with La Paz, the increasing brutality is a result of the downfall of ‘El Chapo’, whose Sinaloa cartel have come under attack from aggressive, opportunistic newcomers. Nearly 90% of these murder victims are reportedly low-level players in the drug game, but tourists should definitely be on their guard as well. Anyone can become an innocent bystander, and sadly, Tijuana has a well-deserved reputation as a city run by the cartels.
4. Natal, Brazil
Total murders (2017): 1,378
Murders per 100,000 people: 102.56
The city of Natal, in Rio Grande do Norte, northeastern Brazil, has become one of the most dangerous places on earth. Between 2005 and 2015, the murder rate increased by a shocking 232%. 8-14 violent deaths per day are nothing to write home about in this city of 1.3 million people.
According to local police, the explanation is the PCC (Premeiro Comando da Capital), the most powerful criminal organization in Brazil. Largely run from within the prison system, the PCC arrange fatal jail riots, rob banks, and smuggle drugs and arms to and from Paraguay and Bolivia. The punishment for anyone who betrays them is death.
3. Acapulco, Mexico
Total murders (2017): 910
Murders per 100,000 people: 106.63
Acapulco was once the crown jewel of Mexican tourist towns, a beach resort popular with movie stars and moguls. But since its heyday in the 50s and 60s, drugs and crime have comprehensively ruined the place. At this point, Acapulco is so dangerous that U.S. government employees are literally forbidden from visiting, and civilians are urged not to try their luck either. The CIA apparently compared the violence here to Syria and Iraq.
As elsewhere, gangs have turned Acapulco’s beaches into dumping grounds for the corpses of their victims.
Even worse, the police aren’t to be trusted. In September 2018, the Mexican military actually disarmed the city’s law enforcement, claiming their ranks had been thoroughly infiltrated by the cartels.
2. Caracas, Venezuela
Total murders (2017): 3,387
Murders per 100,000 people: 111.19
As we noted previously, Venezuela is falling apart. It’s no wonder, then, that it has the world’s most dangerous capital: Caracas.
In reality, statistics are kind of meaningless here. No one really knows the true scope of what’s going on in Caracas, because large swaths of the city are essentially lawless. The government often clashes violently with opposition protest groups. Meanwhile, crime is epidemic, and often goes unreported and unpunished.
As one report evocatively put it, Venezuela has become “incapable” of even “counting the dead.”
1. Los Cabos, Mexico
Total murders (2017): 365
Murders per 100,000 people: 111.33
As we noted with La Paz, the capital of Baja Carlifornia Sur, the outbreak of violence in the twin resort cities of Los Cabos seems to be a result of rival factions rushing to fill the vacuum left by the drug lord and escape artist known as ‘El Chapo’. The violence hasn’t generally been directed at tourists — Los Cabos is one of the most popular resort regions in the country — but the U.S. State Department still recommends ‘increased caution’ for those visiting Cabo San Lucas or San Jose del Cabo. Proportionally, the municipality has the highest per capita murder rate on earth.
If you’re planning a trip to Central or South America, we hope you’ll bear all this in mind and be safe. Want more on country-specific safety? Read about these 13 dangerous places where travel is strongly discouraged.