By Eugenio Weigend
Back in 2010, while I was living in Rhode Island, I visited my hometown of Monterrey, the capital of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, for a couple of days that spring. Everyone I met then seemed to be distressed and frightened. On this particular visit I was staying with my parents in our old home. Even in that comfortable setting, things seemed off. For instance, my mother, who had always gave me the freedom and space to develop my social life the way I wanted, within reason, was very protective, calling me to make sure I was safe even when I took quick ten minute trips to run some errands.
One particular day I was driving along Garza Sada Avenue and I found myself stuck in traffic due to a police road block right in front of the University Tec de Monterrey. For the most part, it was not rare to see such things, but the fact that there were far too many military and police cars left me wondering what had happened. It turned out that that day two graduate students were killed close to the university’s main gate. They were caught in the crossfire between the army and members of a criminal group. As a community, we all felt their death was ours. I knew that it could have been me, a friend, or a family member, who could have been there, just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By taking a look at security survey numbers back then, it is clear that insecurity was a widespread sentiment shared amongst everyone living there. According to the ENSI (National Insecurity Survey, 2010), 82% of the population in the state of Nuevo Leon felt insecure. In fact, that year, approximately 55% of the population believed that going out at night was dangerous.
Things did not improve during 2011. The state of Nuevo Leon had witnessed the murder of two mayors and numerous illegal road blocks and had been subjected to public displays of the bodies of murder victims. During the security survey of that year which changed into ENVIPE (National Survey about Security and Perception), the numbers indicated that the perception of insecurity in the population jumped up, with 84% feeling so and 67% believed that going out at night was dangerous.
Finally, one of the biggest tragedies, not only for Nuevo Leon but for Mexico in general, came in August 2011. Several armed men set a casino on fire while it was open to the public, resulting in the death of more than 55 persons who were burned inside.
After the tragedy of Casino Royale, Monterrey and its people showed great initiative in taking back control of the state, public spaces, and reducing crime rates. The creation of the Fuerza Civil (which had been planned since 2010) was a crucial step not only in improving the security forces but by showing that the government, the private sector, and the universities in the state were willing to strive for security improvements. Universities like Tec de Monterrey launched publications and events that spoke about violence and possible policy actions. There were also numerous marches and protests in the streets.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit Monterrey for a couple of days. I was glad to see a different environment in comparison to my visit four years ago. I played soccer in a public park where I was surrounded by families and children who were walking, playing and enjoying their lives. It was easy, without the need to look over our shoulders and duck down at the first unfamiliar sound.
Then there was the night life to look forward to. Together with my friends, we went out to bars and shared stories over late night beers. We felt comfortable with being out even as with witching hour upon us for we feared no ghouls that in years past we might have. The atmosphere was content and calm. While the most recent security survey is yet to be published, I am confident numbers will be dramatically different from 2010 and 2011. Monterrey and the State of Nuevo Leon still faces many challenges but there have been significant improvements. Many crimes have decrease but extortion remains a problem. Nonetheless, in terms of perceived security, society has moved forward and has taken public places back.