Bloomberg — Mexico’s lowest-crime region is strengthening its reputation as an oasis of calm in a country roiled by drug killings. Yucatán, the southeastern state known for its Mayan ruins, has a homicide rate more than 90% lower than the national average.
Governor Mauricio Vila says this is the fruit of relying on local police rather than just federal armed forces — paying them well, and giving them the technology they need, such as security cameras and machines to read license plates.
“The most important thing in any organization is its human capital,” said Vila, 43, in an interview in the state capital Mérida, making the case that Yucatán’s success was not merely the result of its history or geography.
The state’s low crime rate is helping fuel a real estate boom, attracting foreign investors and boosting the chances that Vila will run for president in elections next year. Meanwhile, the murder rate in Mexico as a whole has overtaken Colombia’s as organized crime groups fight to control smuggling routes to the US and the government’s crackdown has added to the violence.
Yucatán helps police with housing, health care, and university grants for their children, among other benefits that aren’t standard in Mexico, Vila said. This allows officers to see the force as a solid long-term career, which makes them more reliable, he added.
The base pay for an entry-level state police officer in Yucatán is 13,935 pesos ($790) per month. That’s above average, in a country where some security personnel in other states earn under 5,000 ($280) pesos.
Yucatán has boosted its security budget by more than 60% since Vila took office at the end of 2018, while the murder rate has fallen by 19%.
In 2022, it was the state with the fewest murders, with 39 out of the national total of more than 30,000. That’s fewer murders per capita than every US state except for New Hampshire and Maine.
Mexicans generally distrust the police, regarding them as corrupt and brutal, especially in areas with a heavy presence of organized crime. And not everyone believes the rosy picture of the state painted by Vila, nor think that he should take the credit for the state’s low crime rate.
“The idea that more police leads to more safety is a fallacy,” said Renata Demichelis Ávila, Mexico director of human rights advocacy group Elementa DDHH. “What it’s brought us is more violations of human rights.”
In Yucatán, local police were accused of torturing and beating to death a 23-year-old man they’d detained in 2021, though the prosecutor’s office eventually ruled that he died of natural causes. Other people have filed complaints against state police alleging robbery, torture and arbitrary detentions. Vila’s office said in a statement that local police are trained on respecting human rights since the beginning of their careers and as part of their regular trainings.
Yucatán isn’t a major drug smuggling route, so has always been relatively unscathed by the gang violence that has terrorized other parts of the nation.
But that gap has widened in recent years, as overall crime dropped in Yucatán while violence intensified elsewhere.
In January, the northern city of Culiacán descended into bloody chaos as cartel gunmen shot at dozens of soldiers in a failed bid to stop one of their leaders from being arrested.
That type of chaos has boosted Yucatán’s appeal to Mexicans from other, more dangerous regions. The state’s population has risen by about a fifth over the last decade, compared to 12% for the country as a whole.
It’s also led to an influx of investors, some from the US and Canada, who have renovated old houses in downtown Mérida and put them up for rent on Airbnb Inc.
A three-bedroom luxury home in Mérida’s historic center might cost about $700,000, while an apartment by the beach overlooking the Gulf of Mexico could go for $340,000. Real estate company Inmuebles24 reported average sale prices went up 14% in Mérida in the first 10 months of 2022.
With its colonial architecture and archaeological sites such as Chichén Itzá, Yucatán appeals to a very different type of tourist from neighboring Quintana Roo, which is popular with American students on spring break looking for raucous parties and cheap alcohol.
Vila says he wants to keep it that way.
“Quintana Roo is focused on beach tourism, Yucatán is focused on cultural tourism,” he said. “People go to Quintana Roo to party. We don’t want people to come to party.”
Security has helped boost the poll numbers of Vila, who ranks among the best-regarded governors of Mexico. He says he will decide by the end of 2023 whether to run for president in the June 2024 election.
Vila is from the business-friendly National Action Party, or PAN, party. Most polls show the successor to current president Andres Manuel López Obrador will come from the leftist ruling Morena party. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard and Interior Minister Adán Augusto López are seen as the top candidates from within Morena. Despite their different political backgrounds, Vila has a good relationship with López Obrador, who is a frequent visitor to the state.
“If you ask me today if I’d like to be president, I’d love to,” Vila said, adding that he wants to finish ongoing projects, such as a 1,000-mile train line known as the Tren Maya, a portion of which cuts through Yucatán. “But I understand very well that I have a responsibility here in Yucatán.”
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