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Mexico City is on alert as crime rises

In Mexico, violence related to organized crime is often associated with other parts of the country, not necessarily Mexico City. It’s often called “the bubble.” La burbuja.

It’s a safe haven, you often hear. A sprawling metropolis of 20-plus million, where the country's notorious cartels — the Sinaloa gang, Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel — are not felt so acutely. News of daytime shootouts, the discovery of mass graves, or severed heads left in water coolers with threatening notes come from places like Michoacán, Guerrero, Veracruz and, lately, Zacatecas.

Overall, the capital is still relatively safe, ranking far lower on the crime scale, compared to much of the country. But that safe haven status is being tested. Recent government statistics show that homicides in Mexico City are up 22 percent to date this year compared to 2014. That’s a return to 1999 crime levels, a particularly dark time for the city.

The murders happen many ways. Killings are connected to robberies, conflicts with cops and, in many cases, the apparent fight for control over the city — a hub for illicit business — by cartels big and small. Also, business owners are becoming more outspoken about what they claim is a rise in extortion.

There have also been several recent executions that have shaken the city. On July 31, Rubén Espinosa, a freelance photojournalist, was executed along with four women in a neighborhood near the center of Mexico City. Espinosa said he faced threats where he worked, in the southeastern state of Veracruz, and did what many journalists do in this situation: He sought shelter in Mexico City. His death marked the first execution in years of a journalist in Mexico City.

More recently, on October 19, a body of a 29-year-old man was hung from a major highway overpass in the city’s sprawling Iztapalapa neighborhood. People living and working near the overpass were horrified, but they also live in a part of town with the highest crime rates.

“It’s awful to see a body hanging like that, but what’s the difference between that and seeing someone shot and killed on the street?” says Fernanda González, who sells lunches to small business in the area. She and others in the neighborhood also felt that the murder was not directed at them. “They’re sending a sign to the officials. They want control,” González says. “There’s a prison nearby. It affects a lot around here.”

A message left near the body seemed to suggest that. It was directed to city officials and the signature matched a gang that operates in the massive prison nearby, where fights to control drug distribution within the instituation are common among criminals. Gabriela Pérez, a Mexico City-based security consultant who has studied prisons and crime in Mexico for years, knows the control gangs have over the country’s overcrowded prisons, and how criminals can run their networks from behind bars. Still, even she can't help put be taken aback by how brazen the criminals can be when it comes to asserting their power. “I mean, how crazy is it that you feel entitled to protest the fact that your gang can no long distribute drugs in a prison?” says Pérez. “For me, that’s really a telling part: how corrupt these institutions are.”

Like many Mexico City residents, Pérez keeps up the personal security habits she developed in the late '90s, when crime in Mexico City shot up and stayed high for several years. She doesn't take street cabs, doesn't carry multiple credit cards and takes just the cash she needs when venturing out. But she has noticed that others in the city have become more lax as crimes rates moved down.

"You see people driving their fancy cars again, wearing flashy jewelery," she says. "We'll see what happens if more headlines come out like the ones we're seeing now. It's definitely a reminder that those times could come back."

So far, in response to the rising murder rate, Mexico City mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has repeated that organized criminal groups do not have a presence in the capital. He walks a fine line between keeping the city’s residents calm and reacting to the reality of the numbers.

There are more cops patrolling the city, checkpoints at major highways leading into the capital and more closed-circuit security cameras in public areas. It's too soon to say whether the jump in Mexico City’s murder rate is a temporary increase or the beginning of a more dangerous era.

A recent article by Monica Campbell about the dangers facing journalists in Mexico appeared in the Nieman Reports in English and Spanish.


From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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