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Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Mexican Tragedy

The attack on a casino in Monterrey, Mexico caused close to 60 deaths, a tragedy that could have been averted if the inspectors of that building hadn't been bribed; nobody could leave the second floor because the emergency doors were sealed, against common sense and against the law. For Mexican citizens, this is nothing new; lower level authorities can be bribed easily, a custom called "mordida" or bite. Custom agents, traffic cops, official government clerks, inspectors of all types, and even trash collectors, are easily persuaded to accept a sizable token of appreciation (read cash) in return for a service or for not writing a ticket or for smuggling some goods from the U.S. The mordida becomes a national tragedy when lives are lost.

In June 2009, more than 40 toddlers were killed by a fire in a daycare institution in Hermosillo, Sonora, a state located in the northwest in Mexico, and parents and society alike blamed the government for sloppy (read for taking bribes) oversight of the kinder. The building was old, the electrical installation was deficient, and no provisions were made in case of an emergency. Even so, the daycare received permission to operate. To this day, the "official" investigation has failed to bring anybody to justice, a very common occurrence in Mexico where many higher functionaries try to hide their shenanigans by letting inquiries disappear into the sunset.

I have lived for many years in the beautiful Aztec country, even marrying one of its most attractive citizens. Mexicans are extremely hospitable to foreigners, yes, even to Gringos. I have personally enjoyed the carne asada (barbecued meat) prepared by rich and poor hosts. I have rested on gorgeous beaches in Acapulco and Cancun among other idyllic resorts. I have gorged on tacos, tequila, chile, cerveza, mole (a chocolate-based sauce with chicken), mango, papaya, the list of wondrous foods is endless. Before the environment became poisoned by drug traffickers and violent gangs, Mexico was a paradise for foreigners who flocked by the millions to enjoy its beauty and historical sites. Alas! No more. The failed governance, federal and local, has made the land of Moctezuma a dangerous place to live and travel.

Corruption is of course endemic in every country; here on the border with Mexico, several law enforcement officials have been and will be indicted for turning a blind eye to human smuggling and to drug trafficking. Money will convince those with shaky values. American policemen and border agents cannot, however, claim that their low pay scale prevent them from feeding their families or paying for their retirement. While not extravagant, their salaries and benefits are amply sufficient to lead a decent life and support their families.

Mexican law enforcement, on the other hand, can justly clamor that their financial compensation and benefits are insufficient to make a decent living. An ordinary policeman patrolling his or her beat can earn between five and ten thousand pesos, approximately between $400 and $900 of our currency. That's equivalent to the poverty level or below here in the States ($10,800 for one person and $26,000 for a family of 4). These Mexican public workers often earn less than half of what American counterparts earn and even taking into account purchasing power, they can barely make ends meet by moonlighting at 2 or 3 jobs. Is it surprising therefore that a generous tip will often be accepted in exchange for a "small" favor?

The assailants in Monterrey were apparently not trying to kill people, as they shouted orders to vacate the premises at the casino. Many fled into the street, but tragically many others retreated to the second floor and to restrooms. The attackers probably did not think that the fire would trap so many, mostly older women belonging to the affluent middle-class trying their luck at gambling. Intentional or not, this crime should awaken the indignation of all Mexican citizens; it is time to put an end to cowardly attitudes, "I don't want trouble, I didn't see anything." If every able-bodied adult decided to do something about the rampant crime and violence in the Aztec country, things would change very quickly.

How about allowing ordinary citizens to carry firearms? Just a thought!

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