First posted 22 Feb 2006, Mexico City
Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq made the UK less safe. It was painful to watch him and his team try to persuade us in July that it was simply coincidence that the UK had been hit by a terrorist attack and that, you know, it was just as likely that, say, Mexico would be hit by one soon, because these terrorists are lunatic sadists that thirst only after blood and have no sensible strategy or goal.
We were then treated to tearful proclamations that “this will not change the British way of life”, as MPs passed through the ‘Yea’ lobby in support of legislation that prohibits the most basic of public demonstrations. As the news from Guantanamo Bay gets worse (impossibly) it is no longer sensationalist to say that there is a genuine civil rights crisis in the UK and America, as we struggle with our worries about security.
Thus my amusement when I passed through the metal detector of the UN office yesterday morning. I beeped and went back to empty my pockets but the guard waved me away with the words, “Don’t worry, that’ll just be the pistol.” You would quite possibly get arrested for making that kind of joke in the UK.
In terms of the “global terrorist threat” Latin America has got to be your safest holiday destination. But residents of Mexico City are plagued by an insecurity of another kind.
I have lived in some pretty dangerous places in my time (Indiana Jones grimace) – Medellìn, Guatemala City, the wrong end of Hammersmith after closing time – but I have never before heard so much talk of crime and violence. It simply crops up the whole time. People have advised me not to walk more than flour blocks on my own in case I get beaten up – I should get a taxi. But not any taxi. The “Kidnap Express” is a very real threat – a colleague in finance was attacked two weeks ago when a taxi driver drove him to be beaten up somewhere. I should ring proper taxi firms.
I was looking round an apartment last week and the owner proudly demonstrated that one of the TV channels was a video camera of the outside of the house. We then went through to the kitchen where there was another smaller TV, this time dedicated entirely to surveying the road. In the kitchen.
And then, today, the Reforma (broadsheet) leads with this: “The cost of crime [delinquency] in Mexico is estimated at about 15% of GDP.” Crime is not only causing people to live in constant fear, it is also shaving around US$108 billion off the country’s annual earnings.
The report, by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, says that this 15% includes costs associated with healthcare (1.9%), productive investments that are not made (1.8%), and reduced consumption i.e. not going to the pub because of risk of assault (5.3%).
The article concludes that an increase in the likelihood of getting caught will reduce criminal activity. This is certainly true – presently an amazing 99% of crimes in Mexico go unpunished (apparently)!But that can’t be the whole answer.
I remember a young inspiring Shadow Home Secretary telling us to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, thus proving that it doesn’t take great intellect to realize that poverty and inequality are major factors in rising levels of crime. In fact, inequality is the main issue. People commit crime not because they are destitute but (generalisation) because they have significantly less than other people in their society.
Reducing extreme poverty in Mexico, a vital and difficult task in itself, will not affect crime levels significantly if inequality continues to rise. The middle and upper class are paying for their increased wealth with, literally in many cases, a fear of walking the streets. The poor suffer most from rising crime and Mexico is losing billions of dollars a year because of it.
UK foreign policy has made much of the world more insecure – we need to change course and address the causes of terrorism. Whoever is the new president of Mexico (elections in June) also has to change course. He will have to mount a concerted and sustained attack on inequality if he also hopes to reduce Mexico’s own brand of insecurity. At least one of the candidates looks like he may take some steps down that road.