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A tale of two cities: Boston and Guadalajara

22 April 2013

While I’d be the first to admit that I’ve spent more than a healthy dose of my time reading (and commenting on) the bombing last week in Boston, I hesitated to say anything about it here, since I try to limit comments about the U.S. to matters related to Latin America (or at least Latin Americans) and, frankly, there isn’t much to say.

That the bombing appears to have received more media attention here in Mexico than more serious international crimes, like the 11 April 2004 Madrid subway bombing and almost as much as a more devastating domestic terrorist attack, the 15 September 2008 grenade attack in Morelia, in which eight people were killed and 100 wounded is probably more a reflection of U.S. political and economic power (and U.S. cultural influence) than anything.

While violence in the United States often tends to be completely irrational (compared to here, where other than drunken spouses or an occasional psychopath, most murders are purely rational acts, generally involving economic decisions),  whatever motive there was for the Boston “massacre” simply doesn’t apply here.  If it was a political act, there is no reason for it to happen in Mexico,  The country has friendly, or at worst, indifferent, relations with every other country on the planet, and no real interest in any other country’s internal affairs.  While we have ethnic conflicts within the country, no real overt attempts to demonize any particular minority.  As to immigrants, as I wrote way back in January 2004:

People worry about crime (though statistically, the crime rate is dropping), but they worry almost as much about police abuse. What they don’t worry about are foreigners – and terrorists. There are concerns about SOME illegal aliens: mostly Guatemalans working at shamefully low wages for some agricultural concerns here or likely to be abused by gangsters (most of whom are ex-soldiers from El Salvador). Belizians and Colombians sometimes find themselves accused of drug dealing (and sometimes ARE drug dealing), but that’s about it. Undocumented aliens from just about everywhere – including the United States – are all over the Republic, causing… not a stir. As long as people pay their taxes, stay out of trouble and don’t take jobs from unemployed citizens (like the Guatemalan workers), Mexicans just don’t see much terrorist potential in gringo schoolteachers, Russian cooks, Ecuadorian vendors or Argentinian models…

That our crime rate ratcheted up alarmingly after 2006, when — aided and abetted by the United States — the Calderón Administration launched an ill-planned, unfocused “war on organized crime” (meaning, against those gangsters the U.S. would start referring to as “Transnational Criminal Organizations” who had the temerity to provide U.S. consumers with the goods and services they wanted outside the control by U.S. corporations) has, however, forced us to become more sensitive to not so much the violence itself, as to the reaction to violence.

fascism_american_styleWhat was really shocking was less the images of bloodshed (we have Blog de Narco if we need a fix of crime porn) than of a metropolitan area under a self-imposed state of siege.  The images of armed police in military battle gear storming through a residential neighborhood, pulling people out of their homes at gunpoint, is something we’ve seen, and reacted to with mixed sentiments.

All too often, the “bad guys” here are dead before anyone has a chance to question them about their superiors or motives, and the U.S. authorities are due a grudging respect for taking their target alive (if it wasn’t pure chance that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is alive… and there is a every  chance the public will never hear his story).  The scenes of  our paramilitary and military operations against major criminals (and even, occasionally, against 19 year old students) often look very similar to the robo-cops of Boston.  With an important difference.

Metropolitan Boston has a slightly larger population than Metropolitan Guadalajara.  In April 1992, a gasoline leak into the sewage lines caused an explosion that killed over 250 people, injured over 500 and left 15,000 people homeless. A grenade attack on a bar in that city in February this year killed 12 people, and in March, 26 buses were high-jacked and burned at 16 separate locations, 11 within central Guadalajara, at the same time that gangsters and police engaged in running gun battles in our second city.  None of which paralyzed the metro area:  schools stayed open; buses (the ones not on fire) and the metro system were running; families did not find themselves in “lock down“; and the messy, unpredictable thing called normal life continued.

I’m told that when the capture of young Tsarnaev was announced, people began cheering “USA! USA! USA!” as if they had just won… won what?  If Tsarnaev was a “foreign terrorist” and not just a common criminal (though honestly, what’s the difference, other than possible motive?), or even a domestic terrorist, then the “terrorists won”, not the USA.  Although the most stringent definitions of a “failed state” is one in which the police are powerless, the term has been loosely used by people who should know better (like Hilary Clinton when she was U.S. Secretary of State) to describe Mexico as a whole.  But, if we use the definition of states where basic services have collapsed under a criminal threat, then  USA, or Metro Boston at any rate, was clearly a “failed state”.  A failed state is one in which a million people (a quarter of the entire metro area) is ORDERED to stay in their homes… and willingly obeys.

Cheering a state of siege, or celebrating its end (perhaps simply as a break from their ordinary lives?) was, I assume, a minority reaction.  Surely, USAnians are freedom-loving, independent types and not the collectivist, passive, state-dependent Mexicans… and maybe the cheering reflects their support for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the functioning of a “well-regulated militia”.  Oh, I know that sounds cynical, and understand that people in the U.S. trust their police more than most people do, but it is amazing that we haven’t heard of anyone being killed among the million people who were effectively put under house arrest.  I suppose without the “lock-down” you might had even more chaos, and more casualties with armed, self-defined militias or free-lance security types hunting for…  Muslims? White Muslims?  Guys with foreign accents?  Teenagers with backwards baseball caps?  White kids?  Anyone they heard rumors might be involved?

Massachusetts in general, and Boston in particular, has had a reputation for well-educated people who tend to act sensibly, but even so… and even given that the state has slightly stricter gun laws than other places in the United States (that is to say, it has some minor restrictions, but nothing like those in countries like Australia or, oh, say Mexico) … it’s amazing to me that we didn’t hear of “accidents” or — as during the recent hunt for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in California — innocent people being shot by nervous policemen.

So the police, and the temporary police state comes out this one time as the good guys.  And people cheer their lost liberty.  What if, next time there is something described as a “terrorist attack” it occurs in a less urban setting, or where there is not the overwhelming capacity for police state tactics you had available in Boston.

Not the best of times, nor the worst of times.


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