At Large

Mean Streets of Mexico

A grisly world that tourists never visit.

By 11.9.12

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In small towns throughout Mexico low level crime -- crime with modest rewards -- has now spread to the point that ordinary citizens fear going out at night. In larger communities violent robberies have become the fashion of the day. Tourist centers such as the resort town of Acapulco have seen a conspicuous rise in robberies and theft in the last five years. Stories abound of kidnappings for ransom of even ordinary citizens.

What part of this has to do with the rivalry between drug cartels? The answer is apparently not as much as one would think. Smaller drug gangs, however, is another case. In that instance it would appear that the cartel wannabes fight it out among each other for dominance on a local level. These "small time hoods," as they used to be referred to in the films of the 1930s, carry on their neighborhood crime sprees in order to make money and gain attention from their far more powerful and established regional cartels.

The result is that territorial wars of the major drug traffickers are fed with recruits toughened and financed by street crime. The individual citizens and small businesses thus pay for the entire process as targets of extortion and robbery. The culture of modern Mexico is driven by what is rapidly becoming a societal breakdown. And this in a way is worse than the crimes themselves.

Generalizations about societies are inappropriate in most instances, but in the case of contemporary Mexico it is impossible to deny the existence of a breakdown in law and order and its impact on the communities served. The "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" system of law enforcement begins with the discreet tip given to metropolitan police to avoid handing out traffic tickets. This progresses upwards to the politicians and judiciary. Business development depends on the distribution of largesse so those who issue permits and provide inspections participate in each new project.

Politically this has been a system in existence for many years. As much as the two major parties, PRI and PAN, would battle for election victory, neither ever really did anything but pay lip service to what is called corruption elsewhere in the world. Mexicans in political and business life cynically call it sharing in the growth of the nation. The drug cartels have made sure they, too, distribute their gains by pouring billions of dollars into everything from manufacturing to real estate.

Scott Stewart, the brilliant analyst of Mexican security affairs for Stratfor, wrote on April 19, 2012: "…even a competent, well paid and well-equipped police institution cannot stand alone in a culture unprepared to support it and help maintain its integrity. Over time an institution will take on the characteristics of the society surrounding it." Mr. Stewart was writing about the difficulty in creating a new law enforcement structure to combat the existing dominance of the criminal cartels.

Of course, such a sweeping condemnation of the civil culture of Mexico is vulnerable to charges of exaggeration and mischaracterization. Unfortunately, facts such as the tens of thousands of drug cartel-related deaths in the past five years can not be disregarded. The context of these wars between and among the cartels is far broader than the battling itself. Economic and social factors are integrated into the grassroots cultures that spawn and nourish the criminal enterprises that provide employment and organization for so much of Mexican local commercial and political life.

For the foreign tourist who stays within the confines of the various resort complexes, there is little awareness of the continuing crisis that exists outside of these luxurious environments. Day trips to view the countryside have been far less attractive, however, since last September when a vacationing Mexican executive group of 20 were attacked on their bus during a visit to Acapulco. This had been preceded in February when 22 cruise passengers were robbed while returning from an excursion in Puerto Vallarta. Nonetheless, tourists for the most part still fill the hotels and beaches.

Perhaps the most surprising site of escalating local crime has been the famous but quiet 16th century colonial city of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan in western Mexico. The rose-tinted baroque cathedral draws tourists desiring a return to earlier years in Mexican history. Meanwhile methamphetamine labs came to proliferate the lush Pacific coastal state, and with them arrived every type of crime, major and minor, along with warring drug cartels and small time gangs preying on poor neighborhoods. Another ancient community raped by modern Mexican bandits.

There was a time when Mexico was partially policed by the criminal cartels that were able to exert authority over large portions of the country. Illicit traffic moved back and forth unimpeded as protective deals were made with all concerned. Peace was good for business -- and business interests reigned. Some blame the change on the federal crackdown on the illegal drug trade with the U.S. The drug organizations splintered and civil war among the gangs spread. Now the old rules are ignored and the logical patterns of protection for certain enterprises, such as tourism, no longer exist except where there is a financial interest held by the crime syndicates currently in authority. This seems to change monthly and as a result bodies are strewn along town roads and major highways.

Mexican homicide statistics are projected by the National System for Public Security to reach approximately 21,790 this year. There is no wonder why there is such a seemingly inexorable flow of northbound refugees from this mayhem and economic deprivation. The real question is why do tourists still keep coming?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.