The elephant in the room stirs again

Security in Mexico worries expats but 
we don’t even want to talk about it. 

On March 13 a woman friend was kidnapped in broad daylight in downtown San Miguel. She’s still missing. The event was confirmed by the U.S. Consular Agent here, who passed on the news to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. 

But for several days afterward local law enforcement officials maintained they didn’t know about any kidnapping or have any “credible information.” Call later, we’re out to lunch. 

Stew and I heard of the kidnapping of our friend on Monday.

In fact someone on the Civil List, an expat internet bulletin board, had reported the kidnapping early on. Dozens of postings with theories, conjectures and opinions flooded the site and eventually the moderator cut off the conversation thread. Shut up already.

Crime and personal safety in Mexico are the topic of endless questioning by people back in the U.S. and a puzzle to us living here too. We just don’t know.

Lack of reliable information is at the heart of the problem. Most Mexicans I have spoken with have little use for the police, which they consider corrupt and useless. So most crimes are not reported and there’s a dearth of basic forensic information, such as DUI arrests, assaults and even home invasions. 

A year or so ago, an American couple who lives about ten miles from us, was robbed and pistol-whipped. The husband suffered serious injuries to one eye. The couple duly filed complaints and other requisite paperwork with the police and the Ministerio Público, the local version of the State Attorney’s Office. I don’t recall that a word of this incident appeared in the local newspaper. 

And although the identity of the assailants was known by everyone in this small community, the police did nothing to nab them. The culprits, who are also suspect of a burglary of another American’s home nearby, remain at large. Forget about it and move on. 

Police generally don’t respond to requests for information—assuming they have any—on grounds that any disclosures might upset delicate investigative machinations in progress. Don’t ask because they won’t tell.

A more informal code of silence, most often called denial, operates among expats too. 

Several years ago, a woman who has since left left town—but who long reigned as an oracle on all things San Miguel—vehemently insisted to me the death of an elderly man had been caused by a stroke rather than foul play, even though the poor guy had been stabbed several times and his place ransacked. Hell of a stroke that was.  

Worse still, some expats try to reassure themselves by inventing alternative motives and scenarios. In the case of our friend, someone told me he had met her and “she looked like a bitch,” a remark both cruel and offensive. Blame the victim. 

“So she deserved to be kidnapped?” I asked.

In all fairness, the local police does respond to traffic accidents with two or three patrol cars, flashing lights and uniformed personnel who fill out all the forms, summon an ambulance or a tow truck and usually tie up traffic for hours. On some holidays the Mexican army also will deploy trucks with helmeted, masked soldiers caressing heavy weaponry, as if a Sandinista invasion were imminent. 

I doubt the local police is actively working on solving the kidnapping of our frie nor do I expect the kidnappers will eventually be arrested and punished. Far more likely my friend’s family will work out some ransom deal and she will be released unharmed. We fervently hope so. 

But wait. Someone just told me the kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity, and that the real target was a very wealthy woman who has since left for the U.S. What happens now?

Meanwhile, last night four taxi drivers were murdered and two more wounded on the outskirts of San Miguel, in a bizarre execution-style shootout. Will we know who’s responsible? Not holding my breath. 


12 thoughts on “The elephant in the room stirs again

  1. Good post. Always good to talk about the elephant in the room. BTW, loved your post about the old gas stations of San Antonio. One day after you published that post I drove past an almost completely preserved Texaco station in Kerrville, Texas. I wanted to share it with you but could not figure out a way to do it.


  2. I find it interesting that people expect crimes to be solved in Mexico when they certainly are not in the USA. In the 34 years that I lived in a major city in the USA, our home was burglarized,and when living in another location our car was vandalized. The police came, but never heard another word after the initial contact. I assume whoever did those things is still out there somewhere…..Maybe people watch too many shows on TV with police involved and of course they solve the crime in an hour. It is not that way in real life……Anywhere.


  3. I don't why we found those old gas stations so fascinating. For one thing, they were quite fancy, not just a cement bloc. In Chicago, I know the very first McDonald's is a landmark, and so is modernist gas station on the North Side of Chicago. But other than that, I don't recall old gas stations being spared from demolition. I'm glad they are in Texas. Thanks for your


  4. Barbara: I agree that burglaries are seldom resolved in the U.S., unless there is some major collateral damage, such as someone being assaulted or killed. The police give you a report that you present to the insurance company and that's that. However, crimes against persons—most certainly murders and kidnappings—would certainly receive the full attention of the police.Sorry, but the level of law-enforcement inefficiency, even in record-keeping, coupled with rampant corruption and impunity in Mexico are in a class of their own. al


  5. Anonymous

    I'm so sorry about your friend. We've also experienced horrific incidents where we live. Not all ended well, unfortunately. And nobody knows nothing round these parts.


  6. Anonymous

    Indeed you've hit the nail on the head. And I admire you acknowledging it and living with it. The truth is there's lots of crime in Mexico, and as you point out, no one even knows how much since Mexicans do everything they can to avoid interacting with the police. But the thing that bothers me the most is these Gringo expats who breathlessly exclaim that they are much safer in Mexico than they were in the USA. Unless they moved from a drive-by-shooting neighborhood in Chicago or East LA, that's almost certainly untrue. I just think these people are living in a fool's paradise due to not having a clue as to what the locals are talking about. OK, rant done. Saludos,Kim GRedding, CAWhere, despite it being a fairly small town, there's plenty of rascals doing bad stuff.


  7. The situation here is not unique, though probably not as bad as in other parts of Mexico. Where do you live in relation to the nearest town? Is there even the pretense of police protection.


  8. Some professor-type at the University of Chicago once told me that the biggest obstacle to economic and political development in the Third World is lack of the rule of law. I think that's one of Mexico's biggest problems, and that's not just people getting killed. The cost of corruption and tax evasion, if they could be calculated, would be enormous. Oh well.BTW, how's your search for The One going, or has it been temporarily suspended? Saludos,Alfredo


  9. As a former criminal defense attorney, I can tell you the American police resolve an incredibly high percentage of crimes — especially, serious crimes. Of course, that did not apply to any of the innocent lambs I represented.You have cut to the core. There is crime everywhere. But the justice system in Mexico is merely street theater. But we learn to live with it. And that is why most of my Mexican middle class neighbors are armed. They are not going to waste their time with the police. The only thing they fear is retribution from the family and friends of any criminal they nail.


  10. So many bloggers insist “everything” is better in Mexico. I have lived there and would again. I love much about the people and the country. I appreciate your unvarnished truths. It is reporting of fact, not making judgments. I have lived in many states here. The efficiency of law enforcement impresses and amazes. Just thought I would add that. A Mexican woman who was doggedly pursuing the truth regarding 40+ students who disappeared in Guerrero was murdered a couple weeks ago. Truth is a precious commodity, and some die for it. We all must fight for it.Obfuscation is on the rise here, to the dismay of many. I wish the best for your friend. Keep us informed! Thoughtful essay. Thank you.


  11. Steve, “street theater” is the perfect description of law enforcement in Mexico. When the Mexican army trucks come out to play during holidays, apparently to reassure tourists that everything is safe, it has the opposite effect on me. It's scary. If someone heard a shot and those young guys opened fire there'd a dozen people killed or injured, none of them criminals.I sympathize with your Mexican neighbors. We even investigated getting a gun permit. But someone pointed out that if a gringo killed a Mexican citizen, no matter the circumstances, things could get really nasty for the gringo really fast.Thanks for your comment. al


  12. When we were still deciding where to retire, Stew and I did a back-of-the-envelope matrix of different places, we found there is no perfect retirement destination, including Mexico. It has many upsides and quite a few drawbacks and I wish expat bloggers would deal with that, instead of lauding as if it were paradise.thanks for your commental


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