Almost every day, I read or hear about a shootout, a revenge killing or some other murderous undertaking that involves either the drug cartels, the Mexican police, the military, innocent family members or bystanders … or (most likely) a combination thereof.
A few days ago, for example, I read about how eight bodies (some dismembered) were found in the tourist mecca of Cancun — some near the hotel zone. I know that the U.S. State Department recently issued updated, “do-not-travel-to” advisories for five states among the 31 in Mexico, including Guerrero (where our part-time home of Zihuatanejo is) and Michoacán (the capital city of Morelia that will be our home until Dec. 1).
Surely this isn’t the Mexico I know and love.
Number of dismembered bodies I’ve seen since we shifted our lives to Mexico in May 2016: 0
Number of times I’ve felt physically threatened in Mexico: 0
Number of times I’ve witnessed a kidnapping: 0
Number of times I’ve witnessed a shootout between police and cartel members: 0
Even with these stellar stats, I’m not naive. I know Mexico can be a dangerous place. We see the covers of Mexican newspapers and online articles that don’t hold back in showing graphic images of the dead bodies. And those State Department travel advisories must have some basis in reality (right?) even though I shake my head when I see how they ignorantly blanket entire states.
I’m not going to use this blog post to say, “But the U.S. is unsafe, too. Look at what’s happening in shopping malls or in schools, or anywhere, or in places like Oakland or Chicago. (Should a foreign state department issue a “do-not-travel-to” advisory for Illinois?)” Nor am I going to use this blog to tell people that Mexico is a safe place. If you want to know what Mexico is like, come visit. I’d be happy to show you around.
I want to use this blog to talk about how disconnected I feel when I read news about murders, gang activity and corruption … because this is not my Mexico! None of that is part of my experience in this wonderful country.
All the horrible news about Mexico leaves me permanently perplexed. It leaves me feeling like I can’t get a handle on a peoplehood or a nation. Mostly it leaves me feeling stymied, like I don’t have the intellectual foundation or enough years “in country” to grasp a very large, tangled and confusing socioeconomic problem.
Here’s what I do understand:
- We don’t live near border towns, where much of the cartel activity is.
- Because we aren’t involved in obtaining drugs, or distributing them or exporting them, or vying for control over a city or a region that a cartel wants to have for its own, we are extremely unlikely to encounter cartel activity.
- Cartels generally have zero interest in tourists, or even 99 percent of rank-and-file Mexicans.
Generally and repeatedly, we come into contact with only lovely people who always say “Buen dia” or “Welcome to my country.” Almost everyone we meet is genuinely curious about why we’ve come to Mexico for more than just a short stay.
Interacting with average Mexicans is like being dipped in a huge vat of honey. When someone gets on the city bus and says “Buenas tardes” with a smile, and all six or eight people aboard (hey, these are small buses!) reply with “Buenas tardes” and smiles of their own, it’s like a sugar buzz. When we’re walking on the sidewalk of a narrow street and peer into an 18th-century entrance-way, giving us, if we’re lucky, a glimpse of a fabulous interior courtyard, and the owner invites us in and gives us a tour of the entire home, it’s a wonderful, happiness-inducing feeling. It’s a warmth that you rarely get to experience in the United States.
And it’s very far removed from images of dead bodies, machine guns and executions.
It’s going to take me a long time to understand the other side of Mexico.