Mexico: living with insecurity

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
13 May 2009

Mexico has since mid-April 2009 been the unaccustomed centre of global attention. The sourcing of the H1N1 flu virus to the country triggered a national and international health emergency that has led Mexico and its people to be regarded with a new kind of alarm and suspicion in its neighbourhood and far beyond.

Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor in the Centre of International Studies at El Colegio de México. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/ Reforma, 1998). His website is here

Among Sergio Aguayo Quezada's articles in openDemocracy:

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (24 July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (29 November 2005)

"Fraud in Mexico?" (7 July 2006)

"Mexico's democratic lifeline" (12 September 2006)

"Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

"Mexico: living with drugs" (16 March 2007)

"The new Latin America: from Soweto to the Amazon" (17 December 2007)

"The next American revolution" (2 April 2008)

"Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

This experience has brought an unexpected dose of discomfort and unpleasantness to a people who are already living through a collective emergency of a different kind: one that goes to the very heart of the state, and its ability - or rather inability -  to ensure a minimum degree of safety to its citizens. When the "swine flu" emergency passes - and the current signs are cautiously hopeful in this regard - this deeper, endemic, structural crisis will remain (see "Mexico: a state of failure", 17 February 2009).

This crisis is consuming far more lives - and for every life it takes, its tentacles spread fear into the private spaces and hearts of many other citizens. It affects the poor and the marginal, but it also touches those who by profession might wish to think themselves inoculated against it. What follows is one such example of Mexico's trauma of insecurity.

The dust of life

The noise surrounding the "swine flu" crisis has been deafening, but even at its loudest it never silenced the drumbeat of the "other" danger. On the very day that the World Health Organisation raised the status of the global health alert, 27 April 2009, news came through that eight policemen had been "executed" by gangsters in the northern city of Tijuana. As the health story subsides, the killings continue.

To understand what is happening in Mexico, one fact must be recognised at the outset: very few government institutions are either are committed to representing the public interest or even work with a minimum degree of efficiency. In particular, the security apparatus is a disaster; only the armed forces, stretched beyond their limits, can be partially exempted from this judgment. This is a situation created by the errors, the incapacities and the outright corruptions of all Mexico's political forces - including President Felipe Calderón, his administration and his party.

To live in Mexico is to suffer the uncertainty of insecurity. In most cities around the world, 21st-century modernity means having twenty-four-hour access to ATMs to get cash. In Mexico, it is dangerous to do so. The capital city is divided into boroughs, amongst which is Benito Juárez, headed by the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party). One of its officials, Jaime Slomianski Aguilar, made the following recommendation: "To safeguard the citizen's security it would be convenient not to make withdrawals at banks. It is best to pay the commission [that banks charge to make online payments] than take risks by making withdrawals". This flagrant confession of the state's obligation to ensure security to citizens is but one index of how serious - yet how "normalised" - Mexico's crisis has become.

But neither does a retreat to the seclusion of home guarantee tranquillity. In early April, I received a telephone call from a person who - in the characteristic tones of northern Mexico - introduced himself as my cousin Victor, son of my deceased uncle Pancho, who had migrated to and ended his life in the United States. My cousin, with every evidence of joyful enthusiasm, announced that he would arrive at my home the next day; he was carrying a lot of money from his own sojourn in the US, wanted to set up a business, and needed my advice. He expressed a wish to stay at my place ("I already have the address, cousin, see you there tomorrow.") The sacredness of family in Mexico caused me to hesitate, but a sense of self-preservation (along with a sliver of guilt) led me to respond that it was impossible for me to house my cousin; but I compensated by arranging a time to meet.

To live in Mexico is to be permanently on alert. After the call, I rang my Aunt Lola, who half a century ago had married an American war veteran and gone with him to live in California. My aunt is the family's walking encyclopedia: the one who knows the comings and goings, the ups and downs, of the hundreds of relatives who make a living on the other side of the border. Among the obligatory recounting of the latest tragedies and illnesses, she delivered a sad piece of news: my cousin Victor had passed away from diabetes a couple of years earlier. The poor man "never took care of himself."

There were two possibilities: either cousin Victor was communicating from the world beyond or we were facing an impostor who was preparing a robbery, a scam or a kidnapping. On balance, we decided that the latter was more likely.

A long, worried discussion with my Catalan wife followed. She instantly remembered a call received a few months earlier informing us - amid insults and threats - that our son had been kidnapped. The fact that our progeny lives in Madrid meant that we could afford (routine alarm at the invasion of our privacy and the threatening experience aside) to ignore this effort.  But "Victor" worried us more, because we could not be sure what information he possessed.

Also in openDemocracy on Mexico's politics:

Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968" (25 August 2004)

Isabel Hilton, "Imagining power: Carlos Fuentes interviewed" (10 February 2006)

Yadira Hidalgo, "Atenco's agony: Mexico's other campaign" (12 June 2006)

Bernardine Coverley, "Meeting Marcos at Huixquilucan" (12 June 2006)

Kathleen Blake Bohne, "Drug decriminalisation in Mexico" (10 December 2008)

What could we do? We dismissed the idea of notifying the police, even though the federal (conservative) government advertises a special programme against telephone extortions. When security is at stake, Mexicans do not call the police - their inefficiency is beyond belief, and there is a chance that they are complicit with the delinquents (see Sam Quinones, "State of War", Foreign Policy, March-April 2009).

Every Mexican has a story in this regard. Here is mine. In late 2008, burglars ransacked our flat (in a capital governed, since 1997, by Mexico's main leftwing party). They tore down a bullet-proof door, covered the floor with the scattered contents of drawers and closets, and took everything they wanted. The city's attorney-general paid personal attention to the matter, and my house was filled with waves of detectives and policemen. They took fingerprints of the suspects, but the case went no further because the city police lacks coordination with the federal government and has no access to the national databases.

To live in Mexico is to cease to be a citizen. Such experiences are not extraordinary. They are a part of the everyday existence of this wonderful country filled with contrasts and extremes. After the robbery, we shared once more in the routine defence strategy of millions of others who substitute themselves for the state by reinforcing doors and windows, setting up alarms, and exchanging anecdotes of impotence and fear.

The elite of pals

The collapse of Mexico's security institutions has many sources. An unavoidable one is the sheer ineptitude of a good portion of the high bureaucracy. A research study by the civil-society organisation Gestión Social y Cooperación (Gesoc) finds that -  generous salaries and privileges notwithstanding -  around 40% of the senior ranks of the federal bureaucracy are unqualified for the position they occupy. No wonder: those in place simply hand out jobs to their friends or accomplices. Felipe Calderón has participated, consciously and deliberately, in this game.

The Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica (SNSP) has the responsibility of coordinating actions by the federal, state and municipal government. Hence, it occupies a central role in the war against insecurity and its narco agents. If the system worked, the capital's police would (at a minimum) be able to learn the identity of those who robbed my flat, and more broadly pursue the war against organised crime in a more effective way. But it can't work as long as Felipe Calderón names one Roberto Campa as the SNSP's head - for no other reason than this political-bureaucratic functionary is a protégé of the teachers'-union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo (who in turn granted the president huge favours during the controversial 2006 election). Mexico's president, in short, plays with Mexicans' security to pay off his political debt.

Roberto Campa spent two years (2006-08) and huge sums of money without improving security. The lack of results forced Calderón to remove him from office in September 2008; it took six months, until March 2009, for the president to name Jorge Tello Peón (the president's national-security advisor since October 2008) as his successor. At last, a professional had arrived in the office. Could Mexico's federal agencies finally be able to coordinate with the country's state and municipal police forces? Maybe, possibly, perhaps. To live in Mexico is to exist in doubt.

The law of one

Felipe Calderón is not a statesman but a weak ruler incapable of freeing himself from the shackles imposed by the powers that helped him become president. The health emergency is a spasm by comparison with the institutional failures of the governing class. Amid the corrosion of the polity and civic order, Mexicans desperately need a strong democratic state to defend us. At present their daily survival is in their own hands.

A postscript: the threat caused by "cousin Victor" was resolved the Mexican way. Instead of confronting and facing the issue we decided to avoid it. We stopped answering the phone for a couple of days and he got the message. Or at least that's what we wish to think...

This article was translated by Alfonsina Peñaloza

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