November 19, 2021
A question I’m asked by all my friends in Canada or the US at some point is, “How do you deal with the drug gangs in Mexico?” The topic received fresh emphasis on November 5, when two men were murdered (‘executed’ was the preferred media phrase) on a beach close to Cancun. Tourists hid out in their hotels, having dodged (or not) bullets from the assassins’ guns.
The origins of drug gangs in Mexico go back many years, and the details of their history are often foggy: criminal gangs don’t issue press releases when they select a new boss, or carry out a successful hit. There’s no question they grew in prominence and viciousness as a result of the misbegotten ‘War on Drugs’ that began 15 years ago, and the utter failure of that initiative provides a tragic case study in how shaping anti-crime initiatives according to political perceptions is a good way to get huge numbers of people killed.
Those of us who live in and around the town of Tepoztlan are aware of the killings. One or two tabloid newspapers sold in the town square and elsewhere usually feature a blood-soaked corpse on the front page, often with a bitter pun for a headline. And, to add a Freudian eros–and-thanatos twist, a half-naked young woman beside it.
The city of Cuernavaca, around 25 kilometres from here, has gang-related murders. My friends and I hear or read about then, and we don’t assume we’re immune, or that the violence won’t come here. But we also have a well-grounded sense of immunity.
The first thing to remember is that, while the Cancun shootings were terrifying for tourists caught in the crossfire, the targets were strictly members of one gang who were pushing the understood limits of what’s allowed. Why the attacking gang’s heads chose to spook visitors to Mexico, who not only bring in significant revenue, but are often their customers as well, I can’t explain, but I doubt the error will be repeated in the near future. It was simply too stupid.
Openly defying the gangs is dangerous, but it’s still a fact that if you avoid the gangs, the gangs avoid you. (My one encounter with extortion, The Kidnappers, posted on August 11, wasn’t gang-related). I read all the time that this or that state or area is now gang-controlled, but foreigners are the least likely people to be directly affected. Your hotel’s owner might be paying protection to a gang, but as the guests, you won’t know this. Our money is always welcome, and even poorer gringos here are usually getting Social Security or Canada Pension payments every month. Some of our money doubtless ends up in cartel hands, but it goes there indirectly.
Tepoztlan is not a big city. The total municipality, with a dozen small surrounding communities, has rather more than 40,000 residents, but the town itself has under 16,000 residents. If you want to set up a gang, you need poor districts from which to recruit your enforcers and product distributors. Tepoz isn’t big enough for a gang, and it doesn’t have run-down barrios. There’s poverty here, but not desperate hopelessness.
Secondly, it’s a tourist town, an officially recognised Pueblo Magico where people go on the weekend to have a few beers and walk around gawking at the tree-covered mountains. Scaring off these people wouldn’t kill the town, but it would soon be very ill. It’d be a poor business strategy.
Beyond that however, there’s the community factor. This isn’t foolproof, nor has it always worked in other places. But in a small town like this, it’s not a matter of “six degrees of separation,” but two degrees. Your husband, wife or neighbour will know people who, even if just slightly, between them know nearly every other family in the town. For years, this meant the police force was free of significant corruption: you can’t solicit bribes from your cousin without being yelled at by your aunt and uncle. And if you threatened a cop with violence, you’d have to deal with his 78 relatives. Our police are now affiliated with the state police, alas, but the local cops are still all from here.
There are no homeless people, for similar reasons. Some relative will always give you a space in which to sleep, and a plate of tortillas and beans for lunch. My own village has a couple of obnoxious drunks, one of whom has a reputation for violence, but they have homes to sleep it off at the end of the day.
On the flip side of this coin, for a gang, gringos are an unknown quantity. We might be living on just our modest pensions, or be over-the-hill hippies, and not worth hassling; or we could be people who have money and could react unpredictably after being shaken down. The gangs know their own, and they don’t really know us. So mostly, they just ignore us.
Just how the gangs are integrated into the society makes sense when you live here, but can’t be explained by logical analysis. There are particular dynamics integral to Mexican society, and after you’ve lived here a while, you figure out how to navigate these. But because of our outsider status, we simply aren’t included in the criminals’ plans or activities.
I’m sure we could easily provoke them; but again, we learn to watch the vibes. Someone might steal your wallet, or even your car. But no-one is likely to kill you deliberately. If you can’t learn to live between worlds – staying connected to your original nation or culture, but dwelling here – you shouldn’t move to Mexico.
Obviously there are certain places where psychotic gang leaders have essentially displaced the government. Similarly, while I go to Cuernavaca a couple of times a month, and feel fine sauntering around, I leave before it gets dark. I listen to what people tell me about certain towns and specific communities, and I avoid them. I don’t invite risk.
But I’m never nervous being in Tepoztlan as dusk falls; in fact, it’s one of my favourite times of day. The town softly reverts to its old identity of a rural town off the main track, and a subtle magic creeps in as the lamps come on. There is no sense of threat, at least on a weeknight, when there are few visitors. I only head home when I start feeling guilty that my dogs expect to be fed around sundown, and I’m still half an hour from my door and their dog-bowls.
I won’t convince people that it’s safe here by writing a blog post. Two or three of my friends also blog about how peaceful their lives here are, and we all have readers who never want to believe us. Still, this is still a very livable part of the world, more threatened by the current round of rising food prices, and by house construction eating up farmland, than it is by violent gangs.
Perhaps that will change, and the town will lose what it has at some point in the future. I always say I live in a very safe place, and I see no signs of potential violence. I usually make a joke of it, and say that because my application to join the local cartel was rejected on account of my age and physical condition, I’m highly unlikely to be targeted by a rival gang. But I’m being honest, regardless of there being no cartel here that I could ask for admittance.
Realistically, while I know there are fights and feuds in the town, and in my own village especially, I just don’t see myself being caught in a crossfire. Maybe struck by a lousy driver: yes, that’s possible, as is being hit by lightning in a summer storm or having a roof fall on me during an earthquake.
But lazy reporting on Mexico, which always concentrates on its violence, not its vibrant cultural scene nor its continuing sense of having a future, distorts the reality of living here. If I did feel worried about gang violence, I’d move. But I don’t.