I've been off the radar the last week or so driving around Mexico.
I celebrated New Year's Eve in Puerto Vallarta where I watched fireworks on the beach. I visited some beach towns north of there called Sayulita and Chacala and also travelled to the Costa Alegre or the Happy Coast of Jalisco.
I was offline most of that time and you would think there was no drug war or crime problem based on the overall positive experience I had relaxing on the beach and driving along the Mexican roads.
(Except for being pulled over by the police, which I will tell you about in greater detail in another post.)
Along the way from the beach towns of Barra de Navidad to San Francisco, or San Pancho, people were talking. They were lamenting that tourism is down in Mexico due to all the bad headlines Mexico is receiving.
I was shocked to read in the newspaper that 38 police officers were killed in the state of Jalisco in 2010. There was another story about three shootings in one weekend in Guadalajara and brief about dismembered feet found outside Mexico's second largest city. (It was just a news brief not even a full blown story.)
The headlines and the murmurs gave me shivers.
So did the news of the murder of Jaime Almonte Borja, a diplomat who was the consul for education at culture at the Mexican consulate in Chicago. He was gunned down on New Year's Day in a rural part of the state of Guerrero by gunmen who tried to carjack him and a friend, who also was killed.
The gunmen had just come from a shooting where they killed five people at a party, according to Mexican news reports.
It's an annual ritual for Mexican families to head home to visit family for the holidays and nobody expects a family reunion to end in such tragedy.
Such stories seem distant until it happens to someone close to home.
I have been traveling to Mexico most of my life and never felt fear or worry. I've always driven or taken the bus often on rural roads like the one where Almonte was killed. I always thought the news was overblown or not put it into the proper context.
On a summer weekend you might have 20 to 40 shooting incidents in Chicago, but we know how to put those in context. They are usually in gang-plagued neighborhoods. Most of us avoid such places.
If you only read the crime headlines, you wouldn't want to go to Chicago either.
So I've always ignored the bad news about Mexico. But it's hitting closer to home than ever.
One of my closest friends just left Guadalajara after living here almost 10 years. He went back to Texas, where he was born. In his last week in Mexico he went to a bar after a wedding reception in the beach city of Mazatlan. A group of masked men barged in with guns drawn.
They were looking for someone else and didn't hurt or rob my friend. But it was certainly terrifying for him.
Another friend of mine from Germany has lived in Mexico almost 40 years. For the first time he said he is thinking of leaving. He moved to a beach town where six of his neighbors have been robbed recently. Just last week the business next to his home was held up by masked gunmen.
Since President Felipe Calderon took office more than 30,000 people have been killed as a result of the drug war.
But it's more than just the drug war. Violence and mayhem is starting to impact ordinary people like my friends. They have nothing to do with the narcos but there is a growing sense of lawlessness in Mexico.
The United States has promised more than a billion dollars to help Mexico fight the drug war. But it doesn't seem to be working.
Calderon's get tough stance has emboldened the cartels who are fighting back harder. Maybe they need to call for some sort of truce.
I don't know all the answers.
But on this visit to Mexico something feels different. Ordinary people are afraid. Fewer Americans and Canadians are traveling to Mexico and some long-time expats are moving back north.
As I write this in a Starbucks in Guadalajara there is an armed guard stationed at the entrance. I'm here another week and I will write a few more posts from Mexico.
All this bad news makes my heart ache for mi Mexico querido y lindo.