Update: May 15, 2012: Newest estimates place the 6 year murder total at 55,000 for Mexico. This latest incident in Monterrey is just heart-breaking – Monterrey used to have the reputation of being the safest of ALL Latin American cities.
As I’ve said before, Mexico border towns have a nasty reputation – and have had this reputation for decades. Recently, it’s gotten worse, and the state department has issued multiple warnings to American travelers.
In fact, if you scan the headlines of American newspapers – you get the impression that it’s spiralled into open warfare in the streets.. and maybe it has in other cities, (notably Juarez). But Mexicali – well I am just not sure.
The feeling of fear is notably absent here. That wasn’t the case during my visits to Bogotá and Medellin, which were terrorized by Pablo Escabar and his minions in the 80’s and 90’s. Despite dramatic decreases in crime in Bogotá (where I spent the majority of my time in 2011) the populace remained afraid – and acted accordingly. It wasn’t unusual to see security guards armed with machine guns outside private businesses and on street corners in more affluent neighborhoods. Hospitals were another secured environment – as someone who toured multiple institutions in that city – I endured countless scrutiny from security officials who searched all bags, and parcels and demanded documentation before allowing entry.
Admittedly, all of that seemed excessive to outsiders like me – who never had to deal with the violence (bombings and killings) that native Bogotanos endured. But still, many Bogotá residents remained afraid – including my friends and neighbors who were often horrified by my adventures into the southern parts of the city.
But it doesn’t feel that way here – my friends never caution me about my travels; women don’t travel in packs – gripping their belongings tightly to their chests, taxis aren’t viewed as potential vehicles for kidnapping, rape or extortion.
I live just a few streets from the main trauma hospital, and while I occasionally hear sirens, it isn’t incessant (I heard more living next to the trauma hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona), and I have no way of knowing whether it’s police, fire or ambulances.
But I also study at that same hospital, and while I see ambulances bringing in patients strapped to gurneys, they haven’t been gunshot victims, or blood-splattered people who I’ve seen wheeled inside. I’ve wandered around the ER with my instructor on several instances, and see a lot of the usual – people having heart attacks, strokes, respiratory problems.. Certainly none of the blood and guts from a typical episode of Gray’s Anatomy..
In fact, during my entire month here so far – we’ve only had one patient that had been stabbed on our service – about the same frequency as I saw in my native Danville, Virginia, which is a sleepy southern town.
But then again – maybe that’s the lure; as this 2009 LA Times article suggests that this apparent ‘tranquility’ is part of a larger plot orchestrated by drug cartels.. I kind of have a harder time believing that – I just don’t think that organized crime is so effective yet scattered – that they can prevent bank robberies, etc.. in one city – and have gun battles in the streets with police in neighboring cities.. The local Calexico paper also carried a similar story in 2010- but it’s not well written and makes some pretty larger leaps.. ( I have a much easier time believing the statistics presented by Professor Torres – which show Mexicali to have fewer homicides than Tijuana (somewhat lower than expected but no astronomical deviations from norms.). In his report, he concedes that Mexican homicide rates overall exceed that of the US, but that Mexicali itself compares with Savannah, Georgia (which has only about 1/3rd of Mexicali’s population.)
Does that mean I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, or that I think Mexicali is crime free? Of course not – as a city (any city) with almost a million residents, there is certainly crime, and drugs.. and with this – usually comes violence.. But how much? I suspect some of the hoopla is politically motivated and carefully crafted rhetoric, like suggested in this 2011 USAToday article..
So, in order to find out more about the realities of the situation – I am planning on asking the director of the emergency room (who I met on a previous visit), if I can come hang out this Saturday night – and get a better feel for the situation..