I've always been puzzled by the reflexive scorn heaped by many of my fellow expats on the least suggestion that there might be cause for concern over public safety here in Mexico. These days I'm more puzzled than ever.
Last Friday, members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel fanned out across Puerto Vallarta, where I live, and set several gas stations ablaze, firebombed two banks, burned a couple of buses and drove a pickup truck through the window of a shopping mall department store before setting it alight. Fortunately nobody was hurt.
The attacks were timed to coincide with similar incidents in Guadalajara and a dozen or more other towns across Jalisco, a Pacific coast state long known as the birthplace of tequila and mariachi music but now achieving notoriety as the home of one of the country's most vicious and powerful criminal enterprises.
Friday's mayhem was the latest in a series of increasingly bold demonstrations of the cartel's growing power to evade and retaliate against the government's attempts to suppress it.
Last month near San Sebastian del Oeste in the mountains about an hour east of here, cartel thugs with assault rifles ambushed an armed state police convoy, killing 15 officers before melting away into the surrounding hills.
On Friday, a truckload of gunmen taking part in the firebombing and blockading of roads around Guadalajara paused to shoot down a military helicopter that had caught sight of them on the road. Six soldiers died in the crash and more were hurt. They say it's the first time narcoterrorists have downed a Mexican government aircraft.
I'd have thought these events would give some pause to those who like to insist that it's silly to think of Mexico as any more dangerous for visitors than Omaha. But it hasn't. Here is a sample of the self-soothing affirmations of faith that still pepper expat blogs and conversation:
- U.S. State Department travel warnings about Mexico deliberately exaggerate the risks in hopes travelers will spend their vacations and their money at home.
- Media coverage of the killing and burning here is fear mongering, driven by ratings mania or even by racial and ethnic prejudice.
- The cartels are as eager as the government to avoid harm to Puerto Vallarta's reputation as a haven for well-heeled tourists and retirees, which is why the firebombers took care Friday to attack property and not people.
- You're as safe in Mexico as you are in Peoria. (As long as you only drive in the daytime. On the toll roads. And don't go places or do things that might cause you to be mistaken for anybody in the drug business. Oh, and last Friday, don't go outside until the firebombing stops.)
- And my personal favorite from last weekend, the violence is "just politics."
As proof that all is well, proponents offer the fact that they have lived and traveled in Mexico for years without ever having been mugged, meeting only the friendliest of people and partaking joyfully of the country's rich cuisine, culture and scenic wonders.
I'm happy to report that I can say the same thing. And I'll admit I don't feel any less safe than I did a week ago.
But this country is grappling with something that is starting to look less like a law enforcement problem than an armed insurgency. Cartel hoodlums may have tiptoed around the tourists in Puerto Vallarta last weekend. But they exploit, terrorize and oppress entire communities in rural areas off the beaten path that they control. If it suits them one day to kill or kidnap urban expats, I'm quite sure they will.
Yes, Mexico is still a great place for snowbirds to spend the winter, and no, the chances of getting caught in a cartel crossfire outside your condo still don't seem more than nominal at this time. I hope I still feel that way when it's time for us to come back in the fall.
But only a knucklehead with no genuine respect for his host country would go around bragging that smart gringos need have no worries, since the chaos, suffering and danger that confront many everyday Mexicans and their inadequate government don't have anything to do with us.