For many years, Canadian and American expats have come to the shores of Lake Chapala for its year round spring-like weather at Mexico’s largest lake. Even D.H. Lawrence the famous English author came to the area to find inspiration.
All that calm amidst the lakeside retreats was broken last month when hitmen from a suspected drug cartel kidnapped Mexican locals and then dumped the bodies of 18 decapitated people in two abandoned vehicles only miles from the tourist center of Ajijic.
The escalating violence followed a number of months of increasing tension in a war for turf between the Zetas and Sinaloa drug cartels that has spread from just the smuggling routes in the north to the edge of the second largest city in Mexico, Guadalajara.
The killings have horrified locals and foreigners alike, who now lock themselves inside and are no longer freely walking the streets. Tourism from the U.S. and Canada has fallen off tremendously during the drug war, which has taken the lives of over 55,000 people since 2006 when President Felipe Calderon took office and launched an offensive using the army against the drug cartels.
Overnight tourism by U.S. visitors fell by 3% in 2011, despite the total number of international tourists increasing. Nevertheless, more and more people from the U.S. are arriving in Mexico to live. They are escaping the U.S. economy and seeking the lower costs in Mexico. The U.S. Embassy estimates that more than 1 million U.S. citizens live in Mexico, up by 25% since 2010.
In Chapala, there are close to 17,000 Americans and 7,000 Canadians making it the biggest and oldest concentration of expats living in Mexico. Despite a rise in violence, the majority of expats have decided to stay for the time being.