In Mexico, Public Perception Does Not Follow Improvements

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A new government survey shows that public perception has not followed the unquestionable improvements in Mexican security over the past five years.

Per usual, the government put a positive spin on the poll. The government press release accompanying the publication of the National Survey on Urban Public Security (known as ENSU, for its initials in Spanish) celebrated the fact that the proportion of respondents who felt that they lived in an unsafe city dropped 4.5 percent from a previous poll in March 2014. 

Nonetheless, the polls findings were hardly uniform, and they reflect an ambivalence that belies the significant drop in the murder rate. For instance, while the 4.5 percent drop was clearly an improvement, 67.9 percent of those polled called their city unsafe, which hardly indicates a Mexican miracle.

Likewise, expectations about the future remain largely negative: 38 percent of respondents said they expected public security to remain in a good state or improve, while 63 percent said they expected it to remain in a poor state or worsen. The recent evolution in the response to this question has been largely negative.

The most recent poll was more positive with regard to the actual prevalence of crime. The proportion of respondents having witnessed gunshots (24.0 percent), the existence of violent gangs (33.8), the sale of drugs (39.9), robbery (67.0), and vandalism (59.0) all dropped from the prior survey. The only crime that bucked the trend was public consumption of alcohol. Similarly, ENSU pollsters found a decreasing tendency from Mexicans to alter their daily habits in order to protect themselves from crime.

ENSU’s results also offered some interesting perspective on the various police bodies operating in Mexico. Just under 62 percent offered a positive opinion of the gendarmerie, the body that President Enrique Peña Nieto launched following his December 2012 inauguration amid no small amount of criticism. Only 33 percent spoke positively about the municipal police, while 56 percent had a positive view of the federal police and 41 percent had a positive view of the state police.

InSight Crime Analysis

The uneven results with regard to perceptions of security under Peña Nieto are nothing new. To take but one example, a separate government survey revealed a sharp uptick in perceptions of insecurity in Peña Nieto’s first year in office, despite a manifest improvement in the murder rate and a deemphasis on the role of crime in the federal agenda.

There are a number of factors behind this phenomenon. One is that the drop in the murder rate notwithstanding — through two months of the year, Mexico was on pace to register 15,288 murders in 2015, compared to more than 27,000 in 2011 –in some ways the crime rate has worsened. (The gap is exacerbated by the National Public Security System’s tendency to arrive at low preliminary numbers, which are subsequently revised upward.) Government figures reveal kidnapping and extortion, both of which are closely linked to organized crime, have worsened. Mexico’s issues with self-defense groups, which have the potential to generate a democratic crisis, have grown more complex and widespread.

Perhaps worst of all, the sense of insecurity in certain hotspots, such as Guerrero and Michoacan, has skyrocketed. Despite the relatively isolated nature of such cases and the correspondingly dramatic improvements in other regions, the media coverage of these states is seemingly outweighing the government’s own public relations campaign to promote its gains overall.

Furthermore, the two foremost examples of government missteps on security have been spectacular. The alleged murder of nearly two dozen suspected gang members by soldiers in Tlataloya in June 2014 represented a human rights violation without a recent precedent. The disappearance of 47 protesting students from Iguala, Guerrero, was a bigger disaster still: a corrupt local government allegedly arranged for the mass kidnapping and murder, while inept state and federal efforts first did nothing to address the growing catastrophe and then fumbled the investigation; the president waited nearly three months to visit the state following the massacre.

All of this creates a sense of chaos that can overwhelm a statistical improvement.

Finally, the horrors of the past decade, in which Mexico went from a moderately violent middle-income nation to home of some of the world’s most dangerous cities, cannot dissipate so easily. The national psyche was profoundly traumatized during the Calderon era, having grown suspicious of any promised improvement. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans suffered some extreme manifestation of the insecurity, be they extortion attempts, a family member’s murder, or a kidnapping of a relative. The nation’s emotional recovery, especially amid plenty of negative news, will take time.

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