Despite Mexico Security Improvements, Public Polls Betray Deep Worries

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A government survey reveals how certain social behaviors in Mexico have changed due to public perceptions of crime, even though much of the country has seen violence levels plateau somewhat. 

According to a newly released portion of the National Survey of Victimization and Perceptions of Violence, known as Envipe under its Spanish acronym, Mexicans are substantially altering their lifestyles in an effort to insulate themselves from the violence. As a result, violence linked to organized crime is no longer considered an issue limited to public security, but is seen as a much broader problem, one that affects commerce, investment, education, and social life in general. 

One of the most basic manifestations of this is the reluctance to enjoy the nation’s nightlife, previously a famous staple of towns like Mexico City and Monterrey. The survey — produced annually by INEGI, the government statistics agency — counted more than 23 million Mexicans who said they avoided public places such as bars and soccer stadiums because of fears of violence. This is not idle fretting: as InSight Crime has reported, bars have periodically been targeted and their patrons killed at random, as different criminal groups use terror tactics to advance their position. In one notorious incident in 2011, a first-division soccer game in Torreon was called off after just 45 minutes, due to a gun battle that started outside the stadium. 

Mexicans have also been modifying other behaviors as well, such as wearing jewelry, visiting family, and even attending school.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Envipe findings square with a growing amount of research highlighting the impact of crime-related violence in an ever-larger slice of the country. For instance, international body the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center recently estimated that 141,900 Mexicans have been displaced by violence since 2007, including some from relatively peaceful areas such as Sonora and San Luis Potosi.

Many analysts have pointed to a similarly chilling effect on the nation’s economy. Last year, Standard & Poor’s estimated that the violence reduces annual GDP growth by roughly two points. One year prior, the World Bank pointed to insecurity as one of Mexico’s and Latin America’s primary obstacles to faster growth. Meanwhile, prominent business organization COPARMEX has calculated that 160,000 businesses shut down in 2011 due to violent threats.

Other sections of the Envipe survey further reflect the many spillover effects of Mexico’s crime-related violence, which began to spike in 2008 and only plateaued in 2012. The pollers identified extortion as the second-most common crime victimizing Mexicans, topped only by robbery. This is arguably one indication of extortion’s increased importance as a money-maker for transnational criminal groups like the Zetas. With more criminal groups using extortion as a way to bring in funds, it is unsurprising that a larger section of Mexico’s law-abiding population should consider themselves affected by organized crime. In contrast, when organized crime groups limit themselves to trafficking drugs to the US, they can avoid affecting the broader society to a much greater degree.

Collectively, this suggests that the scars of Mexico’s recent wave of violence will endure well after the crime rates return to 2007 levels. As noted above, after a five-year spike, violence began to level off nationally, and has dropped substantially in many of the most notoriously dangerous areas. (Tijuana and Juarez being the two most prominent examples.) Against the backdrop of recent Mexican history, this qualifies as good news, yet suspicion and worry is plainly widespread.

Furthermore, President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was elected in July and assumed office in December, has made it a priority to reduce the public role of security in his government’s agenda. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor Felipe Calderon, who placed security measures front and center for most of his six years in office. While Peña Nieto has not managed to lower the violence thus far, he has been successful in changing the national narrative and shifting focus to other realms of public interest. Nonetheless, successes in the public relations strategy have not trickled down to changes in popular perception. At least, not yet.

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