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Crime In Mexico, Getting Used To A Warped Idea Of Normal

The state of insecurity in Mexico has gone beyond isolated remedies like tweaking laws or reforming agencies. It is so ingrained that people are getting acclimated.

Children decorating chalk outlines in Oaxaca, Mexico
Children decorating chalk outlines in Oaxaca, Mexico
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — The world changes when people grow accustomed to the unacceptable, and come to view unnatural states like physical insecurity as perfectly natural. In Mexico, instead of protesting and demanding a security system that serves people's needs, we try to simply get used to life under the yoke of organized crime and its offshoots.

The collective failure of recent governments to find a solution has been as blatant as their complacency. Instead of effective leadership, Mexicans have been led by defeatists. And the current round of campaign proposals, including one from the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador touting an amnesty for criminals, are added to this defeatism. It's more of the same, but possibly worse.

People adapt to their environment, as humans tend to do. But this is a dangerous trait when it comes to security, as it implies there will be no calls for a security system to satisfy the public and transform the country.

It is a phenomenon that goes far beyond crime. The informal economy is an example of the costs of getting used to something that is wrong. Instead of progressing and prospering, people who live this way end up trapped in it. It yields them a living, but these are precisely the people who constitute the voting constituencies of politicians inclined to keep the existing order — or disorder. Corruption is the same: It may satisfy an immediate need (like getting some paper signed), but may prevent bureaucratic formalities from ever being cut out or simplified. Private security, higher property fences or spikes are ultimately ploys that relieve the pressure on those who should be curbing crime and fomenting peaceful coexistence.

The problem is not the criminals, but the absence of the state.

As citizens move away from a world where rules matter, government institutions start to become irrelevant, aggravating the crises of trust and credibility that afflict them. For many voters, López Obrador's attraction does not lie in his original or positive ideas — for he has very few of those — but precisely in the opposite. Since everything has proven useless, people think, let's sink further into the "traditional" habits that precisely obstruct solutions. Crossing that line means fewer possibilities of building a democratic system with checks and balances and a degradation of political institutions. As the sociologist Max Weber stated, criminals end up becoming the state as they monopolize the application of physical force.

Seized weapons in Medellin, Colombia — Photo: Leon Solano/ZUMA

Recent proposals by candidates and officials have focused on reforming existing laws or even agencies (the single police authority being a favorite). These are legitimate but as Colombia's quite successful example shows, none of this changes the reality until the government accepts it is responsible for people's security, and is ready to change the institutional state behind our chaos and law-breaking. In Colombia, a succession of governments changed the country when they recognized that the problem was not the criminals but the absence of the state — which meant taking steps to build a new state, with all its implications.

Reforming institutions in a general environment of impunity and corruption is more an obstacle than a solution. Reforms will succeed only within a generalized transformation of the political system. In contrast with extremist solutions, be they an amnesty or more fire power against crime, Colombia showed there could not be half-way solutions. Either reform government in its entirety or expect to return to square one, as the changing fortunes of our federal police force have shown in recent years.

Mexico is in a critical moment. Insecurity is growing, feeding on years of government inaction. We should not dismiss the threat of permanent insecurity becoming our "new normality" nor, judging by proposals to negotiate with and pardon criminals, the prospect of ending up living in a drug state.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once criticized Latin America's spirit of contempt for the law and shared resignation toward lawlessness. Being alive, he said, did not mean being ignorant. No, ignorance is an obstinate failure to find solutions to urgent problems.

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