In The Danger Zone: The Truth Behind The Turmoil in Mexico

Dispatches from the Road — By on February 16, 2011 at 4:00 pm

By Nneka Opene
LG Contributor

Natalia’s family resides in a small, quiet community just thirty minutes outside of Mexico City’s center. Since most of the residents have known each other all of their lives, I became the talk of the town, as outsiders are very rare. Initially I felt safer in the tiny, tranquil neighborhood since there were no reports of recent violence in the area.

I tried to put the frightening news headlines and warnings from others out of my mind so I arrived with little trepidation because I was staying at Natalia’s family home. The irony is that it was Natalia’s worried state that made me begin to feel nervous. For example, I wanted to take the subway, as I never use it at home. However, she cautioned how unsafe it could be and refused to ride it. She insisted on paying extra to take a cab if friends were not available to give us a ride. Yet, there were a few instances when she hesitated hailing a cab due to the possibility of ending up in an unsafe taxi. The family no longer had their car so we had few other options.

Other actions that made me feel both comforted and uncertain were whenever I needed anything from town Natalia’s younger brother Ian would stop whatever he was doing to escort me where I needed to go. One day I needed to use the Internet, so he walked with me for thirty minutes to an Internet café then waited patiently for hours as I worked.

Natalia’s uncle Huvicel would always position himself directly behind me as we walked through the city streets. The times when we did take the subway, he often extended his arms out wide as if to shield me from the crowds of people pressed against each other like sardines. He always took my hand to guide me on and off buses, and through the busy streets.

Another thing that concerned me was the fact that neither my cell nor Natalia’s cell phones were working. When I contacted my service provider, I was informed that there was a problem affecting cellular service throughout the country. I was told that it would be fixed within a few days, however I was still without service weeks after arriving.  Natalia’s home phone was not in service at the time so I did not want to venture too far from them without a having a reliable means of contact.

Over the years, I have visited many parts of the world where I stood out like a sore thumb so I expected the curious glances I received in those areas. However, I did not anticipate that I would not be able to blend into Mexico’s populous capital city. With one of the largest populations in the world and about 600,000 American expatriates living throughout Mexico, I was sure that no one would even notice me. So it was to my surprise that I was not just stared at but also followed, touched and flooded with questions and comments about my skin, hair and where I was from. Barely a stitch of skin was showing yet I was constantly catcalled by men everywhere I went. Ian and I were dumbfounded when men, women, and children mobbed me then formed a line to take photos with me at the Teotihuacán pyramids. Although I received a plethora of explanations as to what the fuss was over me, it seemed to boil down to the fact that this enormously populous city lacks cultural awareness and diversity. I was like a rare, peculiar creature to most of the locals who told me they had never met an African-American in person!

In addition to the uncomfortable experiences I was having, the news reports reminded me that a real danger existed just beyond the safety of the family’s dead bolted wrought iron front gates. In 2007, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón introduced controversial initiatives; such as replacing the police with military might, to crack down on drug cartels. Critics believe this plan backfired as the infiltration of the cartels and their leaders caused a wave of infighting for control of lucrative drug smuggling routes to the U.S., which resulted in increased violence. Although most of the killings take place along U.S.-Mexico border cities, the crime rate has risen in the capital city as well. With a population proportionate to that of New York City’s, and a police force only two-thirds the size, earning a fraction of the pay, some theorize that officers often turn to corruption to supplement their income. With an insufficient staff and corruption in the police, judiciary and government, low apprehension and conviction rates add to the high crime statistics.

As high as the numbers seem, according to the CNDH, only one out of every ten crimes is reported in Mexico; this is due to lack of trust citizens have of the authorities. Furthermore, only one out of 100 reported crimes actually goes to sentencing so only one out of every 1000 crimes is punished. Another phenomenon is kidnapping, which has surged 200 percent over the past four years. Governmental sources recorded 1,140 abductions in 2010 alone. The assault and kidnapping of journalists covering these organized crimes is another concern. Since 2000, fifteen journalists were murdered, with few of the assailants brought to justice.

Enforced curfews, motorists having to stop at checkpoints and a mistrust of police and military officers are standards that have affected the day-to-day life of residents in some areas. Rising violence and insecurity have placed a financial burden on Mexican firms. This has meant increased spending on insurance, security equipment and armored cars, amounting, on average, to 3 percent of their operating expenses. However, such costly insurance measures are out of reach for small businesses. Subsequent robbery and extortion payments take a larger share of their revenues. In this insecure climate, financing at local banks dries up as banks further ration access to credit for small businesses. These factors stifle the creation of new jobs or force businesses to close altogether, which in turn lures workers to seek opportunities in the more lucrative drug trade and organized crime.

Although drug dealers account for the majority of the murder victims, these crimes have claimed the lives of officers, innocent locals, and foreign workers as well. American tourists are also victims of pick pocketing, taxi robberies, kidnappings, and extortion by law enforcement. With nearly 16 million US citizens visiting Mexico each year, it is the number one travel destination for Americans leaving the country. The U.S. State Department attests to the resulting affects on tourism to Mexico and still has a travel warning in effect. Natalia reminisced on times when  crossing the border into Mexico was not as scary. Now she describes an unfamiliar scene of legions of military vehicles surrounded by hundreds of heavily armed soldiers scurrying about. Tourists crossing the border by automobile should exercise caution and expect to be stopped at various checkpoints. All visitors should keep abreast of current events, remain aware of their surroundings yet allow themselves to savor the experience and enjoy their stay.

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