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Nothing to fear but fear itself (a semi-wonky look at Mexico City crime)

6 June 2004

Although the guy was stupid, boring and glum, I have to admit I used to sometimes enjoy the Thorn Tree Mexico website’s regular poster, “Bill Masterson”. He was (and I assume still is) a bit reality challenged, regularly posting false and misleading information about the dangers of life here. After a perfectly nice woman poster mentioned she was scared off of her original plan to pursue social work in Mexico City, I responded to “Bill” in a couple of posts that are combined below.

Much of what is perceived as the truth about crime in Mexico City is based on old, and biased, sources – dating back to the Cuauhtémoc Cardenas’ (or earlier) administrations. While I don’t buy into Latin American political paranoia, it’s worth noting that the PRI and Fox’s PAN (not to mention the first Bush administration) had an interest in discrediting Cardenas and his populist PRD supporters who now control the Federal District. Cardenas, not Fox, broke the PRI, and he was a strong anti-NAFTA, anti-US presidential contender throughout the 1990s.

Of course there were problems in the 90s. Cardenas was also the first ELECTED leader of the Federal District. The Federal District hadn’t recovered from the 1985 earthquake, when the peso collapsed. The unemployed, destitute and desperate were pouring into the District … all while a local government and administration were being developed. The city was a mess. With a expanding population, overcrowded housing, and not enough resources to meet basic needs, crime prevention was not the top of the city’s agenda at the time. Polls showed increasing CONCERN with crime, but … wonder of wonders … the statistics were unreliable.

Telephone polls in a country with extremely high phone rates are biased towards the concerns of the telephone-owning minority: rich people. FEAR OF CRIME – not crime itself is up. Wealthier people, and people in general here have started taking the same precautions they do in other metropolitan areas (better locks, not carrying large amounts of cash, car alarms, etc.), and crimes are more widely reported, but the crime rate itself is dropping.

The Mexican media isn’t shy about their political biases, so I generally get my news from several competing sources. Even those media sources with an interest in making the city look as bad as possible don’t claim crime is worse. The week I wrote this, we had a mass murder, but given the size of the city, you expect at least one now and again. A few gangsters rubbed each other out, a ruta driver was shot, there was a bank robbery and a French tourist threatened to jump off a roof. Given a population of around 15,000,000 that sounds like a normal week to me.

A typical violent crimes here is what happened to my neighbor– he had a gun pulled on him while taking his taco stand’s cash receipts to the bank. That isn’t likely to happen to a tourist, since it’s the residents who deal in cash and follow regular routines that are victimized. The other worrisome violent crime is kidnapping. Again, the victims are people known to have access to cash. This did happen to a foreign friend of mine, but he is a long-established resident of the city, with well-known business connections (and Latin American). Foreign business executives may face a higher risk (but not as high as in Russia, at least according to insurance underwriters) as do diplomats (for political reasons), but tourists simply aren’t important enough to kidnap.When it comes to crime, the anti-Mexicans always preface their remarks: “there are no reliable statistics”. Then launch into outdated material and anecdotal evidence. Whether the phone-owning minority was worried about crime in the 1990s says nothing about conditions now.

I certainly don’t expect ANY statistics from anywhere to be perfect. It’s an imperfect world. Imperfect statistics are better than nothing. And if they’re gathered in the same imperfect way year after year, they’re as reliable as anything else:

JUVENILE OFFENSES: Changes in the law meant more minor juveniles offenses (graffiti painting, for example) are taken to court. The Mexican baby boomers are adults now, and it’s only natural that the number of juveniles prosecuted for serious crimes would drop. But the number of prosecutions for serious crimes has dropped faster than the drop in the juvenile population. Unreliable and incomplete statistics? Maybe – but still indicating that these crimes are down.

HOMICIDE: Using the number of autopsies performed on suspected homicide victims (the standards for requiring an autopsy have been expanded recently to include home accidents and unexplained deaths). My information comes from the Medical Examiner’s budget request. Doing more autopsies, the Medical Examiner’s office obviously wants more money. But, they are finding less and less homicides. Homicides in 2003 were the same number as in 2002, but that included a rare multiple homicide and a spate of mafia rub-outs.

AUTO THEFTS: with mandatory auto insurance, auto theft is fairly well reported. Next to muggings, this is the most common crime, but the number of thefts hasn’t risen very much. However, the number of automobiles in Mexico City has just about doubled. Incidentally, it’s older cars without alarms (VW sedans and Tsurus) in poor neighborhoods that make up the bulk of auto thefts. And very few tourists are driving their own cars in Mexico City. My statistical data is from the Automobile Association’s presentation to the City government, requesting more resources to combat auto theft.

Of course there’s crime: the Federal District has a population of 12 to 15 million, with nearly that number living in the greater Metropolitan area. The best estimates are that 40% of the adult population is underemployed or unemployed. And of course crime is under-reported. Mexicans often prefer to settle their difficulties in private, so crimes are often written off to experience, or simply not reported. People who came of age during the domestic repression of the 1960s and 70s fear the police, and overall only 16% of Mexico City residents are said to trust the cops.

Crimes Against Foreigners

I live here (in a neighborhood outsiders perceive as “dangerous”), travel throughout the city by public transportation (transferring buses a couple of nights a week in an area even the residents consider “iffy”), and — having worked on and off as a journalist for 25 years — assiduously follow the news.Injured (or dead) foreigners are big news, and I don’t remember the last time that happened here. The only police matter involving a foreigner in last week’s papers an attempted suicide. And this in spite of more and simpler crime reporting procedures, including those recommended by foreign embassies.

A violent confrontation, like one a tourist friend recently wrote about (a disturbed man tried to steal her camera, and threatened her husband), that end without serious consequences, wouldn’t make the news, of course – here, or anywhere outside a city the size of Des Moines, Iowa. Public intoxication (alcohol or other drugs) is not much tolerated by Mexicans themselves. Addled addicts – not tolerated at home – tend to congregate where they are accepted: in tourist areas and in the slums. The husband and wife tourists were in an area meeting both criteria – their experience was arguably more likely to happen in Mexico City than in Des Moines, but not unheard of even there. Even in high-crime areas (Tepito is the obvious one) where a lot of foreigners visit, they are LESS LIKELY to be assaulted than Mexicans (with one exception – Korean and Arab immigrant merchants complain that they are a special target of thieves.

This has as much to do with their relative business success than anything else). People I know who have been assaulted in Tepito were carrying high-priced, easy to sell items. Not many tourists are walking around with stereos and televisions. And, if I remember correctly, it was a camera the junkie tried to steal. Tourists are more likely to carry cameras, so camera thefts are more likely to happen to tourists.

The Zona Rosa is something of a “high-crime area” likely to be visited by tourists, but with so many nightclubs (and drug dealers), foreign victims are likely to be drunk or stoned. In any large city, the drunk and stoned, or the dazed and distracted (something that tourists sometimes experience in spite of themselves) are at risk. One crime that is more common against foreigners is the latest police shake-down. Auxiliary Policemen have threatened to arrest and jail gay men for supposedly consorting with prostitutes. Since neither homosexuality nor prostitution are crimes, one can either pay a 200 peso bribe or complain very loudly and insistently, demanding to see both the police supervisor and one’s consular officer. In any case, the incident should be reported to one’s consulate.

Rapes, murders, kidnappings, assaults, robberies – we have it all! It’s hardly, as the guy who got me thinking about crime likes to say – “absurd” to tell visitors they face the same risks they face in any large city – and a few less. But, unless there’s so vast conspiracy involving the Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, the Federal District government (political enemies of the SRE), the squabbling foreign embassies and several million tourists, there isn’t a lot of serious crime against foreigners.

The city is safer than most North American cities (not safe, but nothing in life is), especially for foreign visitors. Guns aren’t as readily available as in the United States, for example: robbers are more likely to grab and run than to shoot. Elderly and handicapped people, who face more risks in any society, are the objects of special consideration in Mexico. Cabbies, doormen, waiters and complete strangers will take pains to assure their safety. But, foreigners, like the elderly and the handicapped, are more likely to be victimized. One takes the normal precautions one takes in any large, foreign city (and even some of the published precautions seem designed for the extremely timid – I think it is safe to walk almost anywhere at night).

I ride the buses and subways at night, have taken illegal taxis without undue stress, and even lived in Tepito for a short time – not something I recommend, but I lived to tell the tale. We have our share of purse snatchers, the mentally ill and the plain vicious. And more than our share of the destitute. But that’s just a hazard of travel in any country, especially in a poor one. Porfirio Diaz used to joke his police state was so safe that a blonde could walk unmolested from El Paso to the Guatemalan border… in her underwear. If safety is the overriding concern, then visit a police state – but even the People’s Republic of China is going to have it’s odd criminal or two… million per…

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