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I got two reactions when I told friends I was moving to Mexico City: the infectious “it’s great, you’re going to love it!” from people who had been. An anxious “it’s awfully dangerous isn’t it?” from the rest.
It is hardly surprising. Bodies felled in a hail of bullets lying in puddles of blood; drug bosses butchering people, victims hanging from bridges or severed heads rolling across a disco floor – such are the indelible scenes that flash into many minds when the subject of Mexico crops up, even if they are a few years old and the “Mexican moment” has since put an altogether more positive spin on the place.
Much of the violence used to – and still does – happen far from Mexico City, and the country’s security image has undeniably improved. The factory town of Ciudad Juárez, on the US border, was utterly quiet when I visited recently – a far cry from the “City of death”, as it was known only a few years back when homicide rates there outstripped those anywhere in the world. Funeral parlours in Juárez still advertise that they are “open 24 hours a day”. Mind you, business looked slack and at one, the staff sat twiddling their thumbs in an empty yard with hearses parked outside.
Even if his predecessor’s “war on drugs” (which claimed an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 lives) is no longer called that, the actual methods that Enrique Peña Nieto, the president, has used to combat violence in his first year in office look little changed. Security is not the only story in town – but he has not made it go away, and he is now under fire for seeming to have no clear strategy to that end.
Take the recent discoveries of almost 80 bodies in mass graves outside Mexico City and in the western states of Jalisco and Michoacán (the latter, where the self-styled Knights Templar cartel has been flexing its muscles, has seen violence surge to a 15-year high). Not long ago the discoveries would have dominated the news for weeks. Now the security situation has become Mexico’s elephant in the room.
Crime lords and their kin hardly look cowed. Rafael Caro Quintero, an old-time drugs boss who walked free from jail on a technicality in August after 28 years inside, was cheeky enough to write to Mr Peña Nieto last month urging him to resist US pressure to extradite him and arguing that he had paid his debt to society. Even though the US has posted a $5m reward for his capture and Mexico’s Supreme Court has quashed his release order and ordered his arrest, he is apparently nowhere to be found.
Newspapers have also carried photos from cartel leaders and their children posted on social media sites in which they show off their Kalashnikovs and other weapons, drugs, wads of cash and the things dirty money can buy: flash cars and even a pet lion.
Although the government likes, if it talks about the issue at all, to highlight a drop in the murder rate, Alejandro Hope, a security expert, reckons this year will bring the highest level of kidnappings and extortion since 1997. Nothing appears sacred: Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, archbishop of Mexico City, has spoken of suspected crime bosses calling a seminary seeking to extort payment of 60,000 pesos ($4,500).
As though Mexico’s organised crime market was not crowded enough, new cartels are emerging – a salient reminder to the government that focusing on something else, such as its ambitious structural reform agenda, does not make the problem go away.
Mexico City is not Michoacán, which, if not a no-go area, is at least one of the most dangerous and volatile parts of the country at the moment. So it can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of Mexico’s security. Punctuating that are the occasional glimpses of guns: the man I saw jumping out of his Jeep after driving his family to a restaurant for Sunday lunch, standing, hands on hips at the kerbside as he waited for a table, his holster on full view; the armed bodyguard escorting a friend’s son home from a play date.
National newspapers have been running Lord Kitchener-style appeals for recruits to the Fuerza Civil, the revamped police force that calls itself the “new force of heroes” and which helped quell crime in Mexico’s northern industrial heartland. The message is clear: even those states that have successfully reduced violence cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Let alone the rest of the country.