Wednesday 7 November 2012

Violence plagues Jalisco’s Pacific coast

Mexico’s Pacific Coast is a huge and varied place. Historically, some areas have been understood to be safe, and some not-so-safe. Specifically, the State of Guerrero and the highway south of Acapulco have had a reputation for lawlessness dating back to the 1960s. You didn’t drive at night, and of you did, you prepared for the possibility of a hold-up – or worse. The reason for this was very simple: Guerrero was run by a bunch of goons, and criminals were allowed to run rampant.

In fact, back in the 1970s stories of bodies washing up on the shores of Acapulco were hushed up as “shark attacks”. Apparently, this was the big secret, denied by all who leaked it, because it would be bad for tourism. Well, cynicism knew no bounds: the bodies were in fact campesinos taken out by government henchmen. But, better a good shark story – far more exotic than a paramilitary war on the poor.

As scary as that sounds, most of the coast is known for being just fine. The area south of Puerto Vallarta in the State of Jalisco, for example, is as relaxed as any Caribbean island. However, two murders of Canadians this year in the small fishing village of Melaque, the most recent only this past week, require a major re-evaluation of the area.

Melaque has only 4,000 residents. It is about 200 km south of Puerto Vallarta, directly north of the popular ex-pat resort of Barra de Navidad, and 600 km north of Acapulco.

The first murder occurred in early January.  Robin Wood, originally from Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, stood up to two thieves he encountered after returning home from a concert. He had been robbed before – once on the street, and twice when his place had been broken into. He fought back, and was killed.

Then in on October 21 Ron Lloyd MacKintosh, originally from Parksville on Vancouver Island, BC, went missing after dropping off a friend in Melaque. He had recently moved to Barra de Navidad. Mr. MacKintosh was found two weeks later by a police officer about one kilometre off of coastal highway 200 between Barra de Navidad and Melaque. Mackintosh, 64, was found with a cord around his neck, tied to a tree. Officials are convinced he was murdered.

Ron Lloyd MacKintosh in Mexico

Mexico is largely a safe destination for Canadians. This is due to the fact that, despite all the bad press, most Mexicans are generous, law-abiding citizens. The problem is that Mexico’s institutional flaws are deep. As well, Canada’s consular officials can offer information and support, but little more.

As a result, if an area in Mexico “goes bad” it can be difficult for local officials to bring it under control, and Canadian authorities are powerless, sometimes even unable to respond in a meaningful way.

The motive for the murders of both Canadians was robbery. In the case of Mr. Wood, three men were arrested in connection with his death. This means nothing. The three individuals may have had previous records, they may have been picked up for selling marijuana, or local drunks, or bad eggs running extortion rackets, or perhaps mixed up in any number of grudges. The important thing is the “show” of an arrest. This is not to say that a committed, honest, and intelligent detective didn’t track down the real culprits. It is simply that when a gringo is killed, arrests – any arrests – are the top priority, and should be observed with a wary eye.

A report from Héctor Aguilar Camín, editor of Nexos, published at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, sums up the problem very well.

“At the root of the problem is a historically weak system of rule of law. The weakest link of this particular chain is local governments, which are responsible for the prosecution of common crimes such as homicide, robbery, extortion and kidnapping. There are different figures available, but the most reliable one shows that local governments only punish 5% of those common crimes. So, the probability  that one person can kill another in Mexico and get away with it is 95%.

With such a high rate of impunity, it is remarkable that Mexico is not a more violent and criminal place than it is. Drug trafficking adds an extraordinary flow of cash, corruption and criminal opportunities to the weak rule of law and the  crime patterns already existent.”

There are important things to note here. First, given that Mexico is “lawless”, it is a remarkably safe country – testament to the core decency of the Mexican people. Second, when the State embarks on a violent internal conflict – over 60,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug war in the past six years – the fallout within civil society will be extreme. There is no avoiding it. When the cockroaches scatter, they go looking for food elsewhere.  

We shall see if Melaque, the nearby and larger community of Barra de Navidad, as well as Puerto Vallarta and the Jalisco State Government in Guadalajara, can handle this problem. Don’t hold your breath. Just last month, the police chief in Puerto Vallarta was attacked with hand grenades and AK-47s in broad daylight. He escaped, but some bystanders were injured. The Los Zetas drug cartel claimed reasonability. Soon after, he resigned.

This still begs the question: How dangerous is Mexico? Many people, in their wisdom, might suggest that the question itself argues that one should err on the side of caution and avoid the place altogether.

When looking at the cold stats, Canada sits at 1.63 murders per 100,000. In Canada, Nunavut is in the worst shape, at 18.06 per 100,000 in 2010.

By comparison, Mexico is clearly in another league altogether. Jalisco, where Melaque is located, averaged 24 murders per 100,000 in 2011. And if we look at Melaque itself, the death of the two Canadians alone puts the murder rate at 50 per 100,000. Allowing for Mexicans, the rate is likely higher. And allowing for gringos as targets, the trend is not good.

A Canadian academic, the University of Toronto Sociologist James Creechan, has a working document titled The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Crime Statistics in Mexico. In it, he makes a strong argument that the rise in crime in Mexico is directly attributed to the Mexican government’s war on drugs. Will things improve when the new president, Peña Nieto, takes office in December? We can only hope so. 

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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