Mexico News and Analysis: August 2-8, 2010

1. Mexico murder rate is down, US maintains ambiguous travel warning
2. Federal police commanders relieved in Ciudad Juarez
3. Mexicana Airline resolving labor dispute via bankruptcy
4. Supreme Court affirms gay marriage
5. SME reaches first agreement in federal negotiations

1. Mexico murder rate is down, US maintains ambiguous travel warning
Despite spectacular daily media coverage of gruesome killings, Mexico’s murder rate is significantly less than a decade ago - long before the current narco-battles for turf captured national and international headlines - and better than many US urban centers.  The national murder rate in 2009 (the most recent for which statistics are available) was 14 per 100,000 residents, an increase from 10 in 2007, but below the 1997 figure of 17.  In the late 80s, the number hovered around 20. 

The vast majority of murders are committed in nine states, mostly along the US border or drug-producing states along the Pacific coast.  The border states of Chihuahua (74), Durango (60), and Sinaloa (47), and the opium producing state Guerrero (46) experienced the highest murder rates, while the southern and central states of Chiapas (10), Tlaxcala (4), Veracruz (5) and Puebla (7) were comparable or lower than many areas in the US.  South and central Mexican cities compare favorably with many US urban areas: the murder rate in Washington, DC, was 31.4 per 100,000 (2008 figures), Chicago (18), Philadelphia (23), Indianapolis (14.1), Memphis (20.5), Baltimore (36.9), Kansas City (25.5), and Atlanta (19.7), while last year, Mexico City’s rate was 8.  (Mexico statistics are from a study by the Citizen’s Institute on Crime Studies in Mexico City which takes its figures from official government statistics, while US statistics are from FBI annual reports.) 

Shocking stories of dismembered bodies, mass graves and victims hung from bridges sell newspapers and capture the public’s attention, but the overall reality is a country with many regions that are safer than much of the US.  The vast majority of murders are part of cartel turf wars, and most of the victims are cartel members.  While cartel members are heavily armed, often with grenades, metal piercing bullets and automatic weapons, strict gun laws prevent most Mexicans from owning firearms, which helps to account for the relatively low murder rates in most of the country.

The US State Department currently has a Travel Warning for six border cities - Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros - yet the Consulate in Ciudad Juarez has been closed for only two days this year.  The Consulate processes about 5,000 visa applications each week.  Applicants for immigrant visas, accounting for half the total, are required to spend up to seven days in the city for medical exams and interviews.  At best, this sends an ambiguous message to US travelers visiting the border region.

You may be asking why the Mexico Solidarity Network would pen an article of this nature.  We fully recognize that narco-cartels are involved in grisly battles for turf, and that cartels exert corrupting influence on security forces and the political class through bribes and threats.  We don’t wish to downplay the impact of the cartels in any way.   However, we are concerned about uninformed, racist images that are permeating the consciousness of US citizens, largely because of the dramatic and decontextualized media coverage of Mexico.  We are concerned that these images are impacting the current debates around immigration reform, making overt racism acceptable in places like Arizona.  And we are concerned that some US universities – institutions that would normally play the role of providing solid analysis in counterpoint to the craven dramatics of the mainstream media – are abandoning Mexico by preventing their students from traveling for study and research, under the pretext of safety concerns.  Prudent travelers to Mexico will avoid certain areas where drug violence is out of control, particularly if they don’t know the area well.  Of course, this is true in almost any travel situation.  There are plenty of potential dangers associated with a drunken “Spring breaker” or a mono-lingual couple venturing into an unknown urban area in Chihuahua, Sinaloa or Durango.  But given the statistics sited above, much of Mexico is safer than many urban areas in the US, especially for students involved in well planned study or research programs.

2. Federal police commanders relieved in Ciudad Juarez
The Public Security Secretary removed four Federal Police commanders from Ciudad Juarez on Saturday after hundreds of subordinates denounced them for corruption.  More than 400 federal agents protesting daily payment of bribes to their commanders invaded the Plaza Hotel, one of the city’s ritziest, where the commanders were housed, accusing their bosses of links to organized crime.  After nearly 13 hours, Internal Affairs officers intervened and took the commanders into custody.  Parts of Ciudad Juarez were left without police patrols during the confrontation.  The protest started when three of the commanders arrested a police agent for possession of marijuana, after the officer denounced the commanders for corruption.  The commanders reportedly had high powered weapons not issued by the Federal Police in their hotel rooms, and several luxury cars were left parked outside their rooms after they were taken into custody.  The protest began at 4:00am when dissident Federal Police blocked Lopez Mateos Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in Ciudad Juarez, preventing three of the commanders and 30 of their bodyguards from leaving their hotel rooms. 

3. Mexicana Airline resolving labor dispute via bankruptcy
Mexicana Airlines declared bankruptcy last week and suspended international flights, part of a strategy to walk away from company debt and break collective labor contracts with the pilot and flight attendant unions.  Mexicana demanded salary reductions of 40%, but union workers rejected the plan.  Over the past five years, unions accepted wage freezes, reductions in personnel and longer hours, saving the airline about US$40 million.  Mexicana was previously a State agency but was privatized in the 80s.  On at least two occasions since, the airline received financial bailout packages from the government, but apparently pocketed the money and decapitalized Mexico’s signature airline, investing instead to form the non-union Click and Link airlines.  Both Click and Link continue to book domestic flights within Mexico.  The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) may have stymied Mexicana’s plans to close up shop and reopen under another name after the Agency prohibited Mexicana airplanes from entering the US.  Owners had hoped to change corporate ownership without losing airport rights in the important US market.

4. Supreme Court affirms gay marriage
By an 8-2 vote, the Supreme Court upheld a law passed last year in Mexico City legalizing gay marriage.  Still pending is a decision by the high court regarding the legality of gay marriage throughout the Republic.

5. SME reaches first agreement in federal negotiationsThe Calderon administration agreed to pay fringe benefits and year-end profit sharing from 2009 to 17,000 SME (Electrical Workers Union) workers who refused formal liquidation of their employment contracts.  Last year, the Calderon administration closed the state-owned Central Light and Power (LFC), leaving 44,000 SME members unemployed.  The agreement was reached during the third round of negotiations between SME and the newly appointed Interior Secretary Jose Blake.  The demand for fringe benefits and profit-sharing has been central to the struggle of SME workers since at least last December.  The SME continues to struggle for incorporation of union workers into the CFE, the electrical company that took over operations after the closure of LFC.