Although we live at the very edge of a village and can just cross the small river at the bottom of our property and be in coffee growing country, we also live very near -- maybe eleven miles -- from Xalapa, the capital of the State of Veracruz.
Xalapa is a real city with urban delights and urban problems. We often go for a lot of reasons. Recently I discovered a site for a local online newspaper called Buzón Xalapa on which pictures of the capital are often posted, along with news, columns, local requests and so forth. The articles and photos -- most of the stuff, in fact -- gives me ideas for blog posts, though as usual, I don't follow through that much. Since so many people in the US are interested in crime in Mexico (they seem more interested in that than in so much else worth knowing about this country), I picked a piece on crime in Xalapa to talk about.
An aerial view of the Palacio del Gobierno. The roof is being painted.
A view looking over the main highway looking toward Macuiltepec
Macuíltepec, a dormant volcano, is now an ecological park. We haven't been up it in many years, but it has a lovely, long, circling path to the top and its vistas. This area is on the western side of Xalapa and gives you a feel for the newer, sprawling, densely packed urban area with houses and tiendas and other small businesses packed cheek-by-jowl.
Urban complaints about Xalapa will be familiar to city dwellers everywhere. I use italics for my translation of Brenda Caballero's piece.
It's hard to figure out exactly what the rates of various crimes are in Xalapa. The state government insists they are going down and that it is not that high to begin with, but I don´t have that much confidence in the statistics the state government publishes to polish its image. But to me, an old dangerous-city dweller in the US, it doesn't feel particularly scary in Xalapa. Of course, you shouldn't confuse it up with some idyllic rural area or even one of the so-called ten most desireable small cities to live in in the US. And when you've been assaulted or know someone who has been, suddenly the whole city can seem dangerous. Thus far, we haven't been assaulted in Xalapa. Jim was, in fact, the object of a pick-pocketing scheme a few years ago which did not succeed. Fortunately (or probably not) he was the victim of the same trick in Barcelona, Spain. Here´s how it goes: You are walking along a crowded sidewalk when some very respectable looking man stops you and says, Oh, Sir, how unfortunate! A bird has deposited his droppings on your pants! Here, let me help. You can use my handkerchief. And while you and he are bending over to clean your pants leg, a nimble-fingered accomplice is taking your wallet out of the pocket on your other side. Since Jim was immediately aware of what was happening as we walked down the book-selling arcade in Xalapa's El Centro, we foiled the plot. But we were still mad.
While there are narcos living in Xalapa (I'm pretty sure), and probably in the surrounding areas (there are some incredible mansion-like structures in local cemeteries), most complaints of crime don't point directly to narcos, but rather to more ordinary types. The crimes I've heard of are assaults and robberies, virtual kidnappings, extortion. And so forth. I know of one person who was murdered in Xalapa.
INEGI, the National Institute of Geography and Statistics has, for the past five years, conducted surveys to report and analyze victimization by and perception of crime in Mexico and the individual states. This survey, called ENVIPE, is linked to UN studies. I trust INEGI surveys.They publish their methodology, their sources, everything. But I can't give you data on Xalapa by itself, only about the State of Veracruz.
I am not any statistics expert, so you have to take what I say with a fat grain of salt and check these things for yourself. I have only one non-Mexican statistic for comparison: that is NYC´s reported crime for 2014. In 2014 in NYC, there was very roughly one serious crime per 100 people in 2014. This rate is, by the way, drastically lower than the crime rate was in the early 1990s in New York.
In Veracruz, I estimate (roughly, remember) that 1/80 people were victims of some crime, probably not serious, in 2014. Specific crimes reported were extortion, robbery and assault in the street or on public transport, and fraud. So I don't at this point know how many murders, for instance, were committed or whether anyone made distinctions between demographic groups or narco-crime and non-narco-crime in the final reports. The statistics for Veracruz are blanket statistics. There is no distinction between rural, town and city people, or income groups or anything in the summary information I was looking at, but all pertinent demographic information is collected. And the crime rates also included estimates, called cifra negra, or unreported crime figures. In Veracruz, it is thought that in 2014, 86.3% of crime went unreported. The 86.3% is based on surveys and statistics.
Now back to Buzón Xalapa.
In an article called Assaults, Robberies and Statistics, Brenda Caballero first reports that the wife of a friend was on her way to her car when she was threatened by two people who stuck what might or might not have been a gun or a knife in her back. "Everything happened so fast that she couldn't identify if it was a gun or a knife. They pushed her against a wall and began to paw her; in the face of her resistance, they hit her, and next began to take various of her things like her wallet. Since she could, she managed to escape, running and yelling for help.
The police? Thanks but no thanks, no one saw anything.
The writer continues saying that this is not an isolated incident. She says, and it´s true, that insecurity is the most worrisome issue for all Mexicans. In Veracruz, the percentage of people who claim insecurity is their biggest fear is 53%. (1)
The worst thing to do with feelings of insecurity is to panic and withdraw The best thing is to see what you sensibly should feel insecure about and take precautions. We used to call this having street smarts where I grew up, and in St. Louis where we lived, too.
Brenda Caballero presents the summary statistics for the State of Veracruz: 58% of people cite insecurity as their biggest problem. And where do they feel most insecure? The bank 68.4%)? The street (67.6%)? Public transport (67.4%)? The highway (62.1%)? The market (56%)? The commercial center(43%)? the car(39.95? At work (30.8%) At school?(26.2%)? At home (22.6%)? You could give as many answers as you wanted to as to where you felt insecure.
She lists responses to a sense of insecurity. I think she is often talking about people here who may be upper middle class living in gated communities which exist here, too. I remember when we first arrived here almost ten years ago, some friends living in Las Animas, a suburban sort of development which would be familiar looking to USA folks with some of the houses planted in the midst of big lawns, almost all set back from the street. These friends commented that they and their neighbors would never allow their kids to play outside alone. And indeed, when you drive through Las Animas, it lacks kids outside and pedestrians, and groups of neighbors chatting on stoops, appealing features of our colonia and lots of less prosperous environs.
So Sra Caballero says, Maybe because of this situation we Mexicans have changed our behavior. According to ENVIPE 2015, the changes in descending numbers of frequency are: Now we don't permit younger children to go into the street. Now we don't wear jewelry. Now we don't go out at night. Now we avoid carrying cash, credit or debit cards. Sadly we don't go out walking. We avoid visiting family and friends.We avoid taking taxis. There are those who avoid going to the movies, the theater, to restaurants to eat, to go to a party, or to travel by highway to another state or city.
What do we do in the face of these statistics and numbers? What can we do as citizens?
Well. I have to say that throughout its history as an independent country, and before as well, Mexico has never been a crime-free or violence-free haven. What is different now is the people affected, perhaps, and maybe the numbers.
And the nature of society has changed. There are I am willing to bet, many more people without decent work, without close ties to family, who have had to break their ties to place. And there are, simply, many more people. These are incredibly serious social and economic problems, not only in Mexico but throughout the world wherever the corporate world, the modern apparatus of state, vast fortunes controlled by a few have become dominant and where cities are packed with poor people who often migrate there to make the living they can no longer make in agriculture.
What to do? These problems are very real.
Here is what Sra Caballero offers as commentary.
In fact, it's a complicated answer since although we are each of us dealing with our own grain of sand taking care of ourselves in a personal or collective way, although we groups of vigilant citizens buy ourselves a dog, padlocks and alarms if we don't have the support of the authorities in charge if security, if impunity and insecurity continue to be the rule, the lack of jobs or of salaries that are adequate, the perception of citizens a will not diminish. On the contrary, it will increase to the extent that we run the risk of finding ourselves a weary people who only free themselves through the lynchings of criminals, encountering justice by our own hand. Then yes, the authorities will want to intervene. We hope that it won't be too late...
PLEASE NOTICE THERE IS NO SUGGESTION THAT THE CITIZENRY ACQUIRE ITSELF GUNS. Lynching is mentioned. Lynching has always seemed to me to be an act of mob rage.
(1) The Survey itself can be found here. As I said, the demographic questions were extensive. Just five of the questions about what was most worrisome follow. It's worth looking at the whole thing.
A. Of the issues below, what are the three which worry you most?
Poverty, unemployment, narcotrafico, price increases, Insecurity, natural disasters, water scarcity, corruption, education, health, lack of criminals being punished, and "other".
B. In terms of crime, tell me if you feel secure (1) or insecure in
Your house, your work, the street, the school, the market, the commercial center, the bank, the automatic teller located on a public street, public transit, the automobile, the highway, the park or recreation center.
C. Do you know or have you heard if in the area around where you live the following situations have occurred?
Alcohol is consumed in the street, gangsterism or violent gangs, quarrels between neighbors, sale of illegal alcohol, sale of piraed goods, police violence against citizens, invasion of property, drug consumption, frequent gunshots, prostitution, kidnappings, murders, extortion, none of the above, don't know, no response.
D. During 2014, out of fear of being a victim of a crime (robbery, assault, kidnapping, etc), did you stop doing (response of yes, no, or does not apply):
Go out at night; permit minors who live with you to go out alone; visit family or friends; take taxis; use public transport; carry cash; go to school; go to the movies or the theater; go out walking; wear jewelry; carry credit or debit cards; go out to eat; go to the stadium; frequent commercial centers; travel by highway to other states or cities.
E. During 2014, to protect yourself from crime, in this home, has anything been done to take measures against crime?
Change doors or windows? Change or place locks and padlocks? Put up or reinforce bars or outside walls? Install alarms and/or videocameras? Hire a security guard or guards? Buy a watchdog? Get fire arms? Change where you lived? Other measures?