Will coronavirus make crime worse in Mexico?


CIUDAD JUAREZ, CHIHUAHUA, Mexico – On Juarez Avenue, leading into the international bridge connecting to El Paso, businesses recently closed their doors, leaving streets largely empty.

Edgar Arpeo, 40, who specializes in burritos, looked down the street and pointed to a few shady characters sitting around, cell phones in hand. He described them as street-level drug dealers who usually spend their time inside bars, or on the street hustling.

He quietly mused: “Think they’re just going to disappear? Stay home, like we’re being asked to do? No, they’ll soon be preying on us. We, the city’s residents, will pay the price.”

The coronavirus pandemic hit Mexico with a triple whammy: remittances, tourism, and oil are all on the downslide, or have come to a screeching halt.

Crime, especially drugs, is the only thriving business in Mexico now.

Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico (Archive)

The timing of the pandemic couldn’t be worse for Mexico, especially in this downtrodden city, which has long been marred by drug violence carried out by warring criminal organizations. The administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has called for social distancing because of the virus, but violence rages on.

The viral outbreak has led to a renewed sense of urgency over the long-simmering debate about how Mexicans save Catholic Mexico from organized crime. Some say legalization, starting with marijuana, is the answer.

Meanwhile, they worry that coronavirus will only add to the likelihood that more and more of the nation will slip into lawlessness.

“As millions of Mexicans lose their incomes, as kids potentially lose their parents, the social fabric will further fray,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan foreign-policy think tank and author of Two Nations Indivisible. “The same goes for police forces and the national guard, if members fall ill. The combination may increase lawlessness in a country already teetering.”

Increasing violence is leading to mounting frustration over Lopez Obrador’s non-confrontation abrazos no balazos _ (hugs not bullets) _ strategy against criminals. And people are increasingly worried over the president’s slow, dismissive response to COVID-19, leaving Mexico’s health and economic future vulnerable.

Juarez has long boasted of low unemployment, drawing on plentiful jobs from hundreds of assembly plants in this bustling city of 1.4 million people across El Paso. With unemployment rising as the maquiladoras are mostly sidelined due to health measures to slow down the spread of coronavirus, some social and economic experts fear dark days ahead. Already, more than 50,000 people are expected to lose their jobs in Juarez this week.

The city is a hotbed for organized crime. Some experts lament the likelihood that many of the unemployed will head in even greater numbers to the informal market for survival, including by joining the ranks of criminal groups.

Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico (Archive)

“The immediate war we face is Covid-19, but the forever war looming larger is insecurity,” said Jorge Contreras Fornelli, president of the Citizens’ Council for Public Security, known as FICOSS, in Juarez, which has long monitored organized crime and worked on solutions to keep young people away from the reach of warring cartels. “We’re very concerned about what’s to come.”

Mexico’s homicide rate raced to a new record in March. Other countries in the region saw a sudden fall in crime as the virus spread.

Lopez Obrador downplayed the threats and was even seen shaking hands with the mother of drug lord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, sending mixed messages and generating anger among drug war victims. Meanwhile, armed criminal groups have been delivering food, even toilet paper, to desperate residents in high-crime states like Michoacan and Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas.

Statistics underscore the worrisome economic impact of the coronavirus: Nearly 3,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported and at least 145 people have died amid criticism of not enough testing.

Billions of dollars are at stake as the economy winds down: Some tourist destinations, including Los Cabos, closed temporarily because of coronavirus restrictions.

All-important remittances _ money sent from hard-working migrants in the U.S. back to their often struggling families in Mexico _ are being affected. Remittances reached an estimated $35 billion in 2019, or about 2.7% of total GDP, and now are expected to decline by at least 10 percent.

Plummeting oil prices are a factor too.

Meanwhile, crime rates rise.

Last March, Mexico registered its highest number of monthly homicides, with more than 2,500, and the country is poised to break last year’s record of more than 35,000 murders.

Juarez alone recorded 160 homicides, just in March, according to a tally compiled by Molly Molloy, a librarian at New Mexico State University, from local media like El Diario de Juarez.

Last weekend, a shoot-out between rival drug gangs left 19 people dead in Ciudad Madero, about five hours’ drive from Juarez but also in the state of Chihuahua.

Contreras, president of the Citizens’ Council for Public Security, said Juarez is already seeing a rise in robberies and soon, “we expect to see a return to extortions, kidnappings, carjackings. The type of crimes that have been on the decline will rise up again. It’s frustrating, maddening for us, but that is what we will have to deal with again. Unemployment puts our personal security at greater risk.”

Contreras and others say Mexico has to look at new alternatives to tackle the danger, including the legalization of marijuana. For instance, he said, people who go to prison for small-time sales or for possessing small quantities of marijuana usually come out of prisoners as workers for criminal organizations.

The debate over legalization in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies and Senate is on hold because of COVID-19, said Zara Snapp, who helps lead RIA Institute, a Mexico City-based organization promoting legalization with a social justice focus.

“Regulating cannabis becomes more relevant now _ especially after the post- COVID-19 crisis _ as we will need to find ways to generate more jobs and we think more jobs in the formal market could be created through the legal regulation of cannabis,” Snapp said.

A recent poll by the Mexico City Reforma newspaper and The Dallas Morning News found that 59% of 1,000 people said they are against the legalization of marijuana. But when asked if they would be in favor of the drug’s legalization if it helped reduce violence, 22% of those who initially were against it changed their stance.

Angel Lopez Ortiz, 25, a psychologist in Juarez, is about to finish his masters’ degree. For his thesis, he has been looking into the addiction to illegal drugs, including marijuana. He’s worked at a rehabilitation center in Juarez with more than 80 patients.

“Usually, the people who begin to consume marijuana later experiment with stronger illegal drugs,” Lopez Ortiz said. “If marijuana was legalized to reduce drug trafficking, reduce organized crime, there are still other drugs that are being trafficked in large quantities.”

Class divisions, religion, and weak rule-of-law are obstacles, say experts like Howard Campbell, an anthropologist and drug expert at the University of Texas at El Paso. He said those factors mask whatever economic benefits legalization might have on the country of 130 million people.

“Historically, ‘marijuano‘ or ‘marijuanito‘ was a slur used by Mexican people of a higher social class and supposedly better morality to put down the poor and juvenile delinquents, and later American hippies,” said Campbell, author of Drug War Zone.

He said those factors aren’t very different from what the U.S. faced with alcohol during Prohibition, and marijuana until now, he added.

“A similar sentiment also prevailed in the U.S. and only changed because middle-class Baby Boomers smoked marijuana in the ’60s and onward,” Campbell said. “They normalized marijuana use and then changed the laws as future generations were less negative about pot.”

Juarez knows the lessons of shifting attitudes all too well. Federico Delgado is one of the managers at the Kentucky Club & Grill, a legendary bar that claims to be the birthplace of the margarita. It opened its doors in 1920, feet away from the U.S.-Mexico international crossing, just in time to coincide with U.S. prohibition.

In its prime, Ciudad Juarez thrived and profited off the legalization of substances like alcohol.

Delgado said the avenue was once packed with U.S. patrons, especially during the nighttime. People constantly crossed the border from El Paso to Juarez in order to freely enjoy what they couldn’t in the U.S., including prostitution.

“It was a busy avenue with many bars, dance halls, restaurants, cabarets,” Delgado said in Spanish. “It was incredibly bright. There were so, so many neon lights.”

Today, as COVID-19 spreads in the city, leaving at least four dead as of Wednesday, the Kentucky bar and other establishments are locked down.

As Arpeo prepared one of his last orders of chile verde burritos, he ominously lamented, “I dread at the thought of what’s coming next.”

Source: Brownsville Herald

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