I have a good friend whose wife has extended family in Mexico. (Her parents came across the border; she has lived her entire life in the US.)
For the last several years that have regularly attend family reunions in Troncones, up the coast a ways from Zihua. Guerrero is a very active drug smuggling area. During those visits they regularly are out and about, outside of the tourist zones. My friend started out very apprehensive, but now loves it there. Or course, it's aided by the fact that they are out and about with relatives who are Mexican nationals. But, he said, what is stressed is that if you don't mess with the cartels they don't mess with you. That's the "understanding".
But that means you need to know the boundaries and be able to recognize potentially dangerous situations. And that's where travelers from other areas are at a disadvantage.
We recognize and appreciate that situation. So, when we are on our own, we restrict ourselves to areas that we know are safe. When we go outside those areas, we do it as part of tour led by someone who does know the area. But we look for tours that go outside the traditional tourist itineraries so that we can get outside of the tourist areas.
Also, we never drive a vehicle. In some of our early visits to MX, we rented a vehicle. We drove around Cabo, locally and to Todos Santos, and part of the way up the coast NE of San José del Cabo. Also twice we rented a car in Puerto Vallarta, driving into town (and parking), going out to Boca and to the Botanical Garden. A wonderful trip we made one time was a Saturday day trip to Tepic
, the capital of Nayarit. Saturday is market day, so the central square was filled with vendors, including many Huichol artists selling their arts and crafts. Prices half of the Huichol galleries in PV charged, but without the middlemen, the artists made a lot more money. Way outside the tourist zones - where little English is spoken.
While renting a car we never had any issues, never had to give a policeman or traffic cop a mordida. But after getting more familiar with the situation, I decided the potential complications weren't worth the risks, so now any travel we do is with a driver. I would love to do a trip again like our Tepic trip, but now I would hire a driver for the day, and have the driver take us to other places that you wouldn't know about if you weren't a local. Could be a particularly nice park, a wonderful local restaurant, a beautiful church or shrine, etc.
So now when we move around in MX, it's buses, taxis, and tour vans for us. And the buses in MX are pretty good and very inexpensive. The city buses are a kick, and the interurbans we've been on are comfortable.
I stress that is us, and how we address the safety situation. But I feel we can address the situation, and get to experience something of what MX is outside the tourist zones. Because for us, if we go to MX, and the only places we visits are locales that simply cater to North American tourists, then we've lost a significant part of what international travel is all about.