Foreign-born residents joined Mexican nationals in a recent demonstration demanding security for a storied but troubled town. Dressed in white and carrying candles, about 400 people staged a silent march late last week through San Miguel de Allende in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato.
Ruth Kear, a former U.S. resident who currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, articulated public safety fears held by a growing number of residents which, in her case, is based on personal experience. Kear told a Mexican reporter that she had been robbed three times in her home, including on two occasions by armed and masked thieves.
“They put a pistol to my head and said, ‘Miss, do you want to taste the bullet?’” Kear was quoted. “I am afraid. Now I have many bad dreams. When I am in my studio, sometimes I see those men.”
The mounting complaints of insecurity contrast sharply with San Miguel de Allende’s commercialized image as a laid-back cultural and historic destination.
The cradle of Mexican independence, San Miguel de Allende was selected as the best city in the world in Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s 2013 reader’s choice poll. Classified by the Mexican federal government as among the nation’s “magic towns,” San Miguel de Allende has also been designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
Over the decades, the small city of 160,383 inhabitants (2010 Census), has attracted a sizable expatriate community drawn from North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America. An estimated 14,000 local residents are foreign-born, mainly from the United States, but also from Canada, England, Japan, Colombia, and other nations.
Aging retirees from the baby boom generation who retired to San Miguel Allende stand out in the expatriate population.
While the expat presence has injected money into the economy, it has become a target for criminal elements. According to the citizen groups More Security in San Miguel de Allende and San Miguelenses Unidos, rapes increased by 85.7 percent and violent robberies by 7.7 percent during the first quarter of 2014.
In 2013 violent robberies of vehicles, homes and pedestrians shot up by 40 percent, according to the two groups. A special state prosecutor’s l office established to serve foreigners registered 391 complaints between March 2011 and March 2014, with 247 of the cases involving robbery and 15 of them related to physical injuries.
Insecurity concerns, however, are far from confined to the expat population in San Miguel de Allende. Gender violence, for instance, is a growing issue throughout the state of Guanajuato.
In an unusual press conference, women’s activist Barbara Varela, disclosed that she was recently robbed and sexually assaulted in Celaya, an agro-industrial city located south of San Miguel de Allende. Varela contended that municipal police did not pursue the suspect even as the trail was hot, and that an investigative officer openly questioned the victim’s story.
What’s more, Varela alleged that an official with the Guanajuato State Human Rights Commission attempted to dissuade her from filing a complaint against the Celaya municipal police department.
“It seems that authorities don’t care what happens to women in the state of Guanajuato,” Varela charged. “In Guananjuato, women are beaten, raped and murdered with impunity, and it does not concern the state.”
Centro Las Libres, a local women’s advocacy organization, has documented 73 murders of women in 2013 and 12 such killings in Guanajuato during the first quarter of 2014.
Invoking a new concept in Mexican law, Centro Las Libres issued an appeal last March for the declaration of a “gender violence alert” in Guanajuato.
Accordingly, an official working group has been formed to investigate Centro Las Libres’ contention of widespread gender violence. If the complaint is verified, an official violence alert will be declared and concrete actions defined that local governments must undertake within six months.
Members of the working group include representatives of the National Institute for Women, the National Commission for the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women, the National Human Rights Commission, the Guanajuato State Women’s Institute, the University of Guanajuato, and the College of Mexico. The working group is expected to conclude its investigation this month.
In neighboring Jalisco state, meanwhile, insecurity has also emerged as an issue for the expatriate community of the Lake Chapala area outside Guadalajara. In the lakeside town of Ajijic, residents have installed alarms and wrapped their homes in iron as defensive counter-measures to house robberies which have affected at least 80 foreign-owned residences, according to the Lake Chapala society of Ajijic.
In February 2014, a Canadian couple was murdered during a suspected house robbery. Not surprisingly, some residents have enlisted in neighborhood watch programs.
“Ajijic only needs more vigilance, more patrols,” said John Rolengs, a 69-year-old transplant from Colorado.
As in San Miguel Allende, crime has impelled some of the foreign-born residents of Ajijic to put their homes up for sale and abandon ship. Restaurants and other businesses now reportedly shutter their doors earlier, and the local economy is feeling the pinch, said resident Carlos Lopez.
“We only hurt ourselves if we shoo away the Americans,” Lopez said. “Look at how many gardeners, cooks and cleaning ladies are being left without work. The restaurants and arts and crafts stores are losing customers.”
An estimated 5,000-7,000 expats live in Ajijic year-round, with another 8,000-10,000 “snowbirds,” equally split between Canadian and U.S. citizens, swelling the foreign-born population during the winter months.
Hector Espana Santos, Ajijc municipal delegate, said the Jalisco state government of Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval has dispatched two extra police patrols and assigned a bilingual prosecutor to the town.
“The situation is more peaceful now,” Espana insisted.
In both San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic, organized criminal bands are suspected of being behind many of the crimes.
“We want peace,” implored San Miguel de Allende resident Humberto Campos. “We live with fear, locks, alarms and gates. This is not fair. We want peace.”
Sources: La Jornada, June 1, 2014. Article by Carlos Garcia. Proceso/Apro, May 29, 2014. Article by Veronica Espinosa. El Universal, May 18, 2014. Article by Xochitl Alvarez. Cimanoticias.com, April 28, 2014. Article by Anaiz Zamora Marquez. Cnn.com, October 16, 2013. Article by Frances Cha.
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