A look at the latest news cycle sets the tone — a young, idealistic Mexican chief of police flees to seek U.S. asylum; a U.S. immigration agent is gunned down in cold blood; some 30 bodies turn up in three separate mass graves within the span of a week.

The violence is chilling, but the truth remains that Mexicans made 70 feature films in 2010 with barely an office break-in to note.

Last year, two foreign productions, Mel Gibson’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” and Gallic adventure-comedy “Houba, Le marsupilami et l’orchidee de Chicxulub” starring Gerard Depardieu, took advantage of the government’s new ProAudiovisual incentive program (run by business promotion administration ProMexico). Both were filmed without incident.

A third produced by Mexico’s Corazon and New Land Films, “Cristiada,” brought a raft of Hollywood talent, including “The Lord of the Rings” vfx guru Dean Wright, who helmed, and topliners Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria.

That film, the highest budgeted in Mexican history, shot many sequences in the Durango desert, lying in the heart of cartel-disputed territory, and yet, Wright later glowed with appreciation for local authorities who helped make the shoots trouble free.

According to ProMexico, Zoe Saldana vehicle “Colombiana” may well be the next in line for the program, as the number of foreign shoots appears to be returning to pre-economic crisis levels.

As far as productions interested in applying for ProAudivisiual, “we believe the effect (of the violence) has been null. Already, the response that we’ve seen has been very encouraging, having three high-impact projects approved in our first few months of operation,” says a ProMexico rep in a written response.

Furthermore, Mexico’s annual top industry draw, the Guadalajara Film Market, saw attendance increase by 16% between 2008 and 2009 and then 16.6% between 2009 and 2010 — this despite the downturn that blighted film markets internationally.

This isn’t to say Mexican filmmakers aren’t leery of working in the country’s hot spots.

Cine Pantera prexy Christian Valdalievre, working as a co-producer with Paul Mezey (“Maria, Full of Grace”), agreed to nix shooting upcoming project “The Girl” (La Niña) in the Gulf of Mexico border state Tamaulipas where narco-violence-related murders skyrocketed in a single year from 90 to 1,209 in 2010.

Another top indie producer writes off the entire north of Mexico, including Nayarit and Zacatecas, just above Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, thanks to the endemic violence.

The question, then, seems to be what is real and what is perception.

Baja California, home to the ocean-adjacent Baja Studios where “The Titanic” was shot, saw its national narco-murder toll rise from 209 to 779 in 2008, only to fall to 540 in 2010.

Juan Salgado, an analyst of economics and security at the Center for Economic Research and Education, one of Mexico’s most highly regarded think tanks, points to Baja as the sole border state to have bucked the trend towards violence.

“Baja California is safer now than it was 10 years ago,” he says. The once-infamous Arrellano-Felix family that once terrorized the state has lost much of its leadership in the last decade, and the state has since managed to steer mostly clear of the inter-cartel violence that has plagued much of the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexico City, home to about 8.85 million in the city proper, saw 190 murders related to the drug war in 2010 compared to 182 in 2007, the first full year of President Felipe Calderon’s anti-cartel campaign. Comparatively, Chihuahua, home to murder capital Ciudad Juarez went from 244 to 4,427.

Long before Calderon took office, the capital had acquired a bad rep for taxi kidnappings and being rife with petty crime.

“Some crimes have been reduced, like robbery,” says Salgado. “But high-impact crimes have gone up … the violence associated with the low-level drug trade has gone up, and this had hidden the improvement.”

Mexico City film commissioner Fernando Uriegas laments the negative image has reduced international A/V production in the capital by 90%.

“We are attending a lot of festivals …Ventana Sur, American Film Market and Seville to improve our image,” says Uriegas.

Lying half way between Sinaloa, headquarters for billionaire drug baron Juan “El Chapo” Guzman, and the U.S.-Mexico border at Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Durango has been caught in the crossfire, as drug-related murders have steadily risen: 108 in 2007, 276 in 2008, 675 in 2009 and 834 last year.

While acknowledging violent crime, state film commissioner Sergio Gutierrez is quick to point out that it has one of the most sophisticated security options available with access to local, state and federal police details and even helicopters for high-value talent — all provided upon request without charge.

“If Durango was too dangerous, nobody would come,” says Gutierrez. “Last year, we shot nine films … and we never had any problem.”

Salgado gives a number of strategies to take into consideration with Mexico shoots:

• Consult the U.S. State Department, which offers up-to-date, region-by-region analyses of the frequency and nature of crimes.

• Look for areas drawing a consistent level of foreign investment — a key sign of stability.

• Establish appropriate safety protocols and stick to them.

The bottom line is: do your research, and the choice to go or not should become clear.

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