Thursday night of last week, army units and state police were involved in a shoot-out in Xalapa with armed gangsters. This was the first event of this kind in, I think, modern times in Xalapa. Of course it scared everybody with its seemingly very strong similarity to violence in the narco-riddled areas of the country. The apparent instigation was a citizen call reporting that black arms-bearing SUVs had been seen going to and leaving a house in a Xalapa neighborhood near Las Animas. Exactly how it started or why is, however, still unclear, and the outcome is a bit peculiar, given that it was reported that 100 soldiers and additional members of the state police force turned up at the site, were shot at and returned the fire. Questions involve why so many police and soldiers were involved; how, if so few weapons were ultimately confiscated, there could have been such aggression by the alleged narcos, what happened to the bodies and why no one was wounded, only killed, and apparently no one escaped. Also of great concern is the issue of whether the incident represents some escalation of a narco presence in Xalapa. This doesn’t seem likely. As the column below indicates, there have, for a long time, been elements of organized crime in Xalapa and Veracruz, but Xalapa and the state in general, for whatever reason, does not seem to be considered turf to fight over and turf wars seem to be at the root of much of the gang violence in other areas. The situation reminds me of that which existed in New York City when I was growing up. The Mafia was in charge of some businesses and some politicians. I remember garbage in particular. Mafia and police took payoffs from local stores in return for safety. There were also teen gangs that were pretty dangerous (and less pretty than in West Side Story). Periodically there’d be a blowup of one sort or another and rumors would fly and then everything would settle down again to normal, which, in New York meant, in a good sense, a lot of energy and in a bad sense, an ever-present edginess, but not fear. I guess as a New Yorker, I became inured to the fact that criminals’ lives were interwoven with mine. My friends and I got used to the fact that if we didn’t take precautions, our wallets would be stolen. If we wandered around alone at night, we could be assaulted, usually for our wallets again, etc. etc. We got a perverse thrill out of patronizing an Italian restaurant that was a mafia favorite. I have a few more dramatic true stories that I used to like to drag out to shock my more naïve friends from out of town, but except for relatively minor brushes with danger, we all developed street smarts and grew up relatively unscathed if shorter a few dollars and some stuff. I’m not sure of the lesson to be derived from my youthful experiences. New York just witnessed another mafia roundup: 100 people “brought to justice”. New York also now has one of the lowest violent crime rates for cities in the US, Mafia, Russian gangs, Latin gangs, whoever is currently making their home there notwithstanding. It always was and still is definitely more dangerous than Xalapa.
Not that long ago, Xalapa was pretty small. The first time we visited it, twenty some odd years ago, you could still walk to its edge from the center. Its flavor was very different: conservative, respectable. Women and girls simply did not wear slacks, let alone jeans. Men and boys didn’t wear T-shirts on the street, least of all with logos and pictures on them. Now it is a city of maybe a million people, crowded, noisy, messy, and way too much traffic crawling along narrow streets. And Xalapa is full of life. Pedestrians everywhere, and much more informally dressed. Everyone wears pants, especially jeans. Even rich women wear jeans, sometimes showing their status with arms and necks encrusted with gold jewelry and shoulders lugging heavy, lumpy designer bags. Women wear pants of all kinds: some older working women wear pants suits with chunky square shouldered tops. Young girls and not so young girls wear tights and big blouses or not such big blouses. They sometimes wear skin-clinging shirts which stop above their navals and all kinds of pants that hang on their hips. Younger Xalapa women amaze me, moving fast, dodging and weaving, skirting holes and ridges in the sidewalks, while wearing four or five inch heels and looking graceful as they do it.
All kinds of food: vendors selling cotton candy and esquites and candy and ice cream and sodas and cups of fresh fruit you can dust with chili powder. And fruit juices: a half liter of pure sweet orange juice for ten pesos. There are counter restaurants where you can grab tacos al pastor or sandwhiches on those round, soft, flour dusted rolls called pombazas. Restaurants put out their comida corridas from two to four in the afternoon, a three or four course meal often for less than five dollars, or even four: caldos and guisados and carne de res and fish a la veracruzana. And there are foreign restaurants selling Arab food and Chinese food and Italian food and there is even sushi in the local supermarkets. Marimba bands crowd the sidewalk and in El Teatro del Estado, a world class symphony orchestra makes its home; lone clarinetists play in el Parque Juarez and jazz festivals sprawl across venues from the university to local clubs. And there are clubs for gays. And commerce: Indian women selling woven plastic baskets to drivers at stoplights and men pushing wheelbarrows filled with flowers and local markets and holes-in-the wall, their goods tumbling out into the street. Stores that specialize in shoes and seeds and electronics and plastics and religious stuff and wedding dresses cram against each other. And if you don't like all that, there’s Wal-Mart: two of them in fact and shopping malls and shopping strips with Costco and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Office Max and Office Depot and Home Depot and Pizza Hut and Burger King.
I know there are older people, well-off ones, who lament the passing of the safe and calm Xalapa. In those days, Xalapa didn't have some of the urban problems it has today: homeless kids, drug use, violence among family members and among local teenagers, slums. However, there was still poverty and inequality. And while there may have been a period of time when violent crime wasn't a problem, Mexico, since the Conquest has generally had problems: highway robbers, railway robbers, street violence, and terrible, ten year long struggles for freedom and rights.
There are two truths here. One is that cities like Xalapa all over the world are tangled places and part of what makes them so appealing is this tangle of lives. Dealing with crime in a city is a tricky business because of the very nature of a free city. I don’t think you can eliminate the danger. The goal may have to be to keep people reasonably safe in its presence.
The second truth is that in some parts of Mexico, the most notable being Ciudad Juárez, the situation has been for some time way past what can be considered tolerable. How did it get that way? What went so terribly wrong?
Below is some commentary on the situation in Xalapa following the shootout. Its title is Public Affairs: Security operations and rumors and it is by Edwardo Coronel Chiu. It first appeared in the Xalapa daily, AZ Xalapa and Veracruz. I found it on the news blog, EnlaceVeracruz 212. The somewhat hasty translation is mine. It provides some good insights into the situation.
After the battle loosed on Thursday night by army and state police forces in the colonia of Casablanca de Xalapa against an organized crime gang, we are even less able to say that in matters of insecurity in Veracruz, nothing [bad] happens. But, on the other hand, neither is the extreme opposite perspective reasonable, the one that says the state is falling apart and that violence and insecurity are here to stay in the capital.
On the one hand, acts of violence have to be put in proportion, but on the other, the authorities should not only guarantee the security of people and their goods, but also inform them promptly and in an opportune manner of the results of official actions while respecting the discretion necessary for the work of capturing criminals.
The country and our state, the people and especially the media are very sensitive to news of organized crime’s battles and the territorial fights between cartels, executions, thefts, and kidnappings and as such are collateral victims of this war that no one has wanted, but which has become, with Felipe Calderon’s presidency this past four years, the government’s top priority.
Public opinion surveys show that there is an increase in the perception of insecurity and fear among the people of the country. This has obviously not occurred in a vacuum, and it corresponds with criminal statistics which show the growth of the number of deaths during Calderón’s presidency to more than 35 thousand. This is a figure that is consistent across diverse sources, from journalists to official reports. In this context, Veracruz has been relatively peaceful. Crime statistics here are very much lower than the national average. Of course Veracruz is not exempt from criminal events and security operations, which the press has punctually recorded, but this state cannot be compared with those states which have such deeply rooted problems of crime that the state, which should be the legitimate police force, has lost control of its territory and its monopoly of violence . Veracruz is not an island, either in economic matters nor in matters affecting security. Its territory is a natural traffic route and provides markets of the sort in which organized crime operates, such as, for example, in wholesale drugs, piratería [in this context illegal copies of movies music, software, etc], kidnapping and trafficking in migrants. But there is a lot of distance between the situation here and the overflow of violence and the speculation about cartels’ fight for territory redeveloping in states [where gang wars are entrenched].
Sensationalism sells, and that’s well known. Communicators are confronted with a thin line that separates legitimate information from ethical dilemmas (when they are present). Confrontations and deaths serve the critical opportunist aiming at the level of authority which [convenga al propósito de sacar raja política I don’t know why, but this phrase defeats me. ]
The operation on Thursday night in Xalapa and the level of fear which it provoked in the population, indeed broke the period of relative peace with which Governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa began his administration, but his handling of it doesn’t leave him in a bad place at all.
It emphasizes, in principle, the cooperation of his government with the Federal Government, in this case, with the Army. Knowing the form in which the federal forces have acted on other occasions in which they’ve shunted state governments to the side, the effective coordination of this operation signifies that there was no lack of confidence in the governor on the part of the army, for instance there was no suggestion of politicizing security actions, nor of the idea that Veracruz is protecting criminals.
On the other hand, while the day after the shootout, the governor and the military head of the zone jointly spoke about the events and the outcomes and about the count of fourteen deaths, twelve criminals and two soldiers, and about the decommissioned weapons, there was no precision about how many and who the criminals were nor what their criminal actions were. Nor was there any recounting in detail of the operation, which from looking at it, was related to the shootout in Indeco Animas [a Xalapa neighborhood. In the news we saw, everything was considered one event, from the shooting at Indeco Animas to action resumed in a nature reserve and an additional neighborhood. As one event with separate parts, it was reported to take six hours. This is all pretty blurry, too. The author of this column, Coronel Chiu, seems to see possibly at least two separate incidents. ] that night, nor did they show the bodies, although various individuals spread the word that they had seen handcuffed cadavers. Nor is it known if anyone was able to escape.
Because of all this, while the authorities of the state and the army presented their communiqué, rumors spread from person to person and in the media. Friday morning was marked by the wave of rumors of shootings in the streets of Xalapa and the fear spread, so that even schools were closed. Added to the cold weather, it resulted in Xalapeños beings isolated in their houses. Other violent episodes from that day and the next worsened the picture. There was an attempt on a family on the Veracruz-Boca del Río line [On the coast, about 65 or so miles from Xalapa] and a (levantón) of a police commander.
The media spreading rumors left us with the lesson that Veracruz is fertile territory for the manipulation of gullibility, which indicates that one has to equip oneself with an adequate strategy of communication based on timely, sufficient, true and reliable information and through adequate channels to avoid generating panic.