Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Somewhat sleepless in San Miguel

Last week yet another e-mail arrived, this one from my former boss in Chicago, inquiring how we were holding up amid all the violence and bloodshed reportedly wracking Mexico. I'd like to reply that, ha-ha, except for the bother of having to wear bulletproof vests and helmets every time we drive to the grocery store, things are pretty normal in San Miguel.

Plus the loaded .357 Magnum my partner Stew keeps under his pillow is a better sleeping aid than any advertised on the CBS Evening News. (Yeah right: The closest Stew ever came to a firearm was a BB gun when he was ten.)

Truth is that particularly at our ranch, which is a 30-minute drive outside of San Miguel, not a lot happens, criminal or otherwise. Six months ago a drunk driver killed a teenage rider and his horse. A small white roadside shrine was promptly erected by the relatives and a neighbor told us that the driver had received a fine of $70,000 pesos or about $5,600 dollars.

Two months ago someone got shot during a drunken brawl at a soccer game a few miles from here.

Then there was a rumor that a bus headed for the nearby town of Jalpa had been raided by bandits who relieved the passengers of all their money and jewelry. Hard to believe: Jalpa is so wretchedly poor I can't imagine it'd be worth anyone's effort or adrenaline to hold up a busload of Jalpalitos, Jalpaleños, or whatever the folks from Jalpa are called.

But the constant drip-drip of talk, rumors, fear, news and statistics about narco-violence in Mexico has undoubtedly eroded the economic base of San Miguel, particularly that portion that relied on gringos visiting or moving here. Add to that the effects of an imploding housing and employment market in the U.S., and the forecast for San Miguel's economy becomes quite overcast.

When we arrived to San Miguel a little more than five years ago, the town was in the middle of a tourism and real estate orgy. Now it looks and feels more like a ballroom the morning after New Year's. Restaurants are largely empty and homes stand plastered with as many as four or five "For Sale" signs, some of them quite faded.

It reminds you of large sections of the U.S. hit by the bad economy.

In its recent heyday San Miguel enjoyed not one but two tourist seasons. During the summer, flotillas of air-conditioned SUVs whooshed into town with folks fleeing the heat and humidity in Texas. Then, after a few months' respite, New Englanders, Canadians and Midwesterners arrived for the winter.

Bed-and-breakfast joints sprouted everywhere to cater to visitors' fantasies of a charming Mexican ambiance. San Miguel charm, however, didn't come cheaply: Room rates climbed to levels rivaling those in Cancun or fancy parts of Mexico City. And don't bother scouring Internet travel sites to look for cheap rates or discounts. As one B&B owner sniffed to me, the "better" B&Bs--those catering to foreigners--wouldn't think of "cheapening the brand" by embracing such gimmicks.

Since then San Miguel's economy has been hit by successive calamities. There was the swine flu epidemic, whose epicenter supposedly was in Mexico, but turned out to be more of a media hoo-hah than a public health crisis.

Far more real has been the effect of the implosion of the U.S. housing market. Americans used to sell their houses in the U.S. at inflated prices and use the profits to buy retirement homes in San Miguel, quite often on sheer impulse after being here just three or four days. San Miguel real estate, and everything connected with it, was sizzling.

The hills overlooking the town became populated by colonial-looking McMansions, almost all owned by Americans. Dozens are for sale now, typically at prices of over a million dollars.

One sprawling and reportedly quite fabulous spread in the Atascadero neighborhood used to rent for $10,000 dollars a week, plus several hundred dollars in tips for a team of maids, cooks and gardeners taking care of the place. Let's face it: Even if you bring a Greyhound filled with your closest friends that's still some really serious dough.

In addition, this year spring floods shut down most of the roads near the U.S. border which normally bring the caravans of Texans to San Miguel.

Fear of crime, though, is the most intractable problem, both in perception and in reality. One constant theme among some of the contributors to the Civil List, an Internet bulletin board for gringos living here, is that "irresponsible" American media--most notably Fox News--are exaggerating and distorting the crime problem and scaring away visitors. Others argue that crime here is no worse than in, say, Toronto or St. Louis anyway.

Neither Stew nor I is at all fearful of crime in San Miguel, which still consists mostly of random muggings and other small-bore incidents. And it is true that most of the narcotics-related killings and mayhem take place along the U.S. border.

But unless you stick your head in the sand, way deep, it's undeniable that narcotics-related crime seems to be spreading downward from the border like a red inkblot.

The most alarming bit of macrodata is that since President Felipe Calderón took office almost four years ago, about 24,000 people, give or take a few hundred, have died in the drug war. No matter how you spin it, that's an awful lot of bodies.

Shortly after taking office, Calderón, a diminutive, bookish-looking fellow with rimless glasses, threw the Mexican army, federal police and everything else but the Mexico City dog catcher into an all-out assault on narcotraffickers. That effort doesn't seem to have made that much difference.

Sometime earlier this year four people died in Celaya--an hour away from San Miguel--in a gun battle between narcotraffickers and the police. Sizable portions of the state of Michoacan, about five hours from here, are controlled by La Familia, Los Zetas, or God-knows-who having something to do with drugs.

In May, the New Yorker magazine, in one its trademark megaton investigative articles, reported that not only was Michoacán up for grabs, but that the narco troubles were spreading toward the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro.

Uh-oh: San Miguel is in Guanajuato, and a hour away from Querétaro.

Perhaps because in the U.S. the citizenry is inundated with statistics and studies, the most troublesome part of Mexico's security problem is lack of reliable data. No matter how loudly the posters in the Civil List scream, it's impossible to compare crime and public safety in San Miguel versus Toronto.

Torontonians--that's what those folks are called--keep detailed records of muggings, drunk driving incidents, burglaries and rapes, not to mention kidnappings and murders. In Mexico, and particularly San Miguel, no comparably reliable record-keeping system exists. Citizens don't report most crimes because they don't trust the police or believe nothing is going to come of it anyway. Our municipal police department could be best described as a work in progress.

Lack of reliable data only feeds the rumor mill. The local English-language weekly, Atención, is generally a breezy, feel-good summary of art gallery openings and real estate sale ads that's not likely to delve into any topics likely to scare the horses or the tourists.

"Headless Body Found in Topless Bar" once reported the New York Post. You're not going to read anything like that in Atención, even if we had topless bars or headless bodies here.

When a serial rapist was terrorizing gringo women in San Miguel between 2005 and 2006, Carol Schmidt, a local blogger, and others had to practically shame Atención into covering the issue. The rapist was eventually arrested and sentenced to effectively life in prison.

Despite the rough times, for now life goes on quietly in San Miguel, particularly so in the absence of crowds of American tourists.

Next week Mexico celebrates the 200th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Spain, and the decibel level will increase dramatically. San Miguel is one of the centerpieces of Mexico's national narrative and celebrations.

Next week, Stew and I plan visits to San Miguel's main square and to take some photos of the bicentenary celebrations; invite people over for dinner; continue with my Photoshop classes; plant more vegetables; read; and enjoy the wonderful sleeping weather--in the mid-60s and breezy--even if we sleep a tiny bit less soundly than we once did.

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