Among the picturesque streets of San Miguel de Allende, one has to dodge the hundreds of tourists who take selfies in front of the beautiful colonial corners of this municipality in central Mexico.
The cobbled avenues, its art galleries, charming restaurants, and colorful houses have made this place the paradise of any Instagrammer.
Also thousands of foreigners, especially American retirees, who have turned this municipality into their second or even first home, attracted by a pleasant climate and prices much lower than those of their country.
Because the fame of San Miguel has transcended borders. Last year, it was distinguished as the best city in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine and the readers of the tourist medium Condé Nast Traveler.
However, it is striking that not many kilometers away and in the same state of Guanajuato are some of the municipalities considered to be the most violent in Mexico. This is, in fact, the entity in the country where the most homicides were registered last year.
How does this paradise for tourism manage to escape the wave of violence that is hitting some neighboring areas?
Foreigners and security
Sitting in a restaurant in the central square of San Miguel de Allende, the American Malcolm Halliday tastes something as Mexican as an Aztec soup.
In front of him, a group of tourists photographs the striking neo-Gothic cathedral that has become the symbol of the city. ” It’s like the Disney castle,” says a gaping boy.
Halliday arrived in San Miguel almost five years ago attracted by the cultural life. “I love the city and the environment. In the US we also have violence in some cities, but the truth is that we don’t have much of a problem here,” he tells BBC Mundo in correct Spanish.
Louise Gilliam, also an American and a resident of San Miguel, agrees. “In all my time here, I have never experienced any violence. I lived in Chicago, in New York, in Los Angeles… And I was careful not to go to the dangerous areas. Wherever you go, you will find crime if you are not careful “, she assures in English.
They do acknowledge that their family and friends were concerned when they learned of their intention to settle in central Mexico.
“Many foreigners are surprised. They think that when it gets dark, they can’t go out here. It’s a paradigm that they bring, and then they see reality. It’s like giving them the confidence that we are part of Mexico, but not at the same time,” he told him. Tania Castillo, Director of Tourism of San Miguel de Allende, tells BBC Mundo .
But the municipality, which was once one of the key stages of the Mexican War of Independence and which hosted some of the conspiracy meetings in the fight against the Spanish, has not always been an attraction for tourists.
At the beginning of the 20th century, in fact, it was on the verge of becoming a ghost town due to the various armed conflicts that hit the region. It was in the 1930s and 1940s that artists and promoters began to arrive, founding art schools and galleries that gradually attracted American students and expatriates.
According to the person in charge of tourism in San Miguel, what makes it one of the best destinations in the world today is its architecture and multitude of temples, its gastronomic, artistic, vineyard and luxury hotel offerings, together with the lifestyle that “mixes the cosmopolitan with the life of small Mexican towns,” he says.
“An island” in Guanajuato
In a patrol carried out by the municipality together with the police to learn about the security situation, local agent Esteban López says that most of his actions are “minor reports” to deal with cases of people who argue or drink alcohol on the street.
“Let’s imagine that we are like an island. Then, everything bad happens around us,” he summarizes for BBC Mundo.
Indeed, just 50 km away from San Miguel, there is one of the 50 most violent municipalities in Mexico, where the government deployed a strategy to reduce the number of homicides, as is the case of Celaya or León, and whose figures of murders are up to 20 times higher.
But the main reason why San Miguel escapes the process of violence in Guanajuato is because it is not located in the hydrocarbon extraction corridor that crosses part of the state.
“The milking of these pipelines is what generates the violence for the control of this illegal market. San Miguel is close, but it does not go through there,” says security expert Víctor Sánchez.
This diagonal, also known as the “Bermuda Triangle”, is made up of fifteen municipalities through which the pipelines of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) pass, transporting fuel throughout the country.
Although in the past they were mainly dominated by the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, the arrest of their leader, “el Marro”, in 2020 caused him to lose strength in most of the municipalities that are now disputed with cells of the Sinaloa cartel, Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) or New Plaza.
Although, in addition to its geographical location, there are some peculiarities of San Miguel’s infrastructure that could make it less attractive to criminal groups.
“Its architectural characteristics prevent it from being a city with certain development plans. When a municipality does not have highways, it does not have a supply center and it is not a material collection center that has to be receiving trucks, it does not have the necessary infrastructure to distribution of prohibited things “, says its mayor, Mauricio Trejo.
“We are a bubble within the state,” he says proudly.
No disputes between cartels
According to Sánchez, another key factor to explain the absence of violence is that “there is no open dispute between various criminal organizations, as we see in other municipalities. The region from the center to the north (of Guanajuato), where San Miguel is, is an area completely controlled by the CJNG”.
And according to the expert, this leads to two hypotheses. The first: is that as in so many tourist corridors, criminal groups sell illegal products such as drugs on a small scale, taking advantage of the presence of tourists and foreign residents.
“The criminal organization is interested in not driving away those buyers with high purchasing power. If there starts to be violence in the area, the tourists will stop coming,” he stresses.
The second hypothesis, linked to the previous one, is that “since there is a significant monetary flow, businesses such as hotels or restaurants with cash operations can lend themselves to being money laundering points for the organization that controls the municipality and, therefore, they also want to keep it peaceful so as not to draw the attention of the authorities”.
The mayor, however, denies the presence of the CJNG or any other organization in San Miguel de Allende.
“We have not detected interference from any criminal group. We have not been pressured or threatened by any group,” he states emphatically.
“However, the issues of drug dealing that can occur in the municipality are attacked by the Municipal Police and drug addiction complaint and prevention programs,” he acknowledges. “But the profile of the tourists we have is different, they come here looking for culture.”
Some of those tourists, like Aarón González from Mexico City, believe that everything is due “to agreements between the authorities and the groups, because obviously, they can’t have all the control, and the government can’t control them either. Or maybe it can.”, but he is not interested because there are interests and they prefer to have their arrangements,” he says sitting on a bench in the central park and enjoying the mariachi music with his wife when night falls.
Several neighbors who wanted to keep their names anonymous mentioned to BBC Mundo the existence of extortion practices, pressure, or “floor collection” towards merchants in the municipality.
“I had a friend with a small business, but it occurred to her to sell [drugs] there, and today she no longer has a business, nor is she. They told her that either she paid for her place or nothing. They give you money if you enter the business, but then you have to pay it back. He didn’t pay, and that’s what they did to him,” says Paula Colunga from her shaved ice stand [ice with flavored syrup] in front of the cathedral.
But the mayor assures that no merchant has informed him that they are currently suffering extortion. “It may be that they still feel that offense from when they were charged, although when we entered [the municipal government] we detected that most were not due to criminal groups but to corrupt authorities, who have already been fired [fired] or are under investigation”, he tells BBC Mundo.
For Mayor Trejo, it is his municipal security strategy that explains why San Miguel de Allende avoids the violence that permeates much of Guanajuato.
Among other factors, it highlights having an advanced C4 surveillance center, as well as the training and compensation of the local police, “the best paid in the state and one of the best paid in the entire country,” he says.
“We also help each other with nearby municipalities to prevent the ‘cockroach effect’ from arising and that, every time there is an operation in a nearby city, criminals are allowed to come to San Miguel to take refuge,” he explains.
For security analyst Víctor Sánchez, however, “it would be difficult to attribute a case of success in San Miguel to the action of the authorities because if it depended on it, they would have sought to replicate it in neighboring cities where security is a failure .” important”.
Instead, it insists that the real motives lie in issues beyond the city council’s role, such as the absence of rival criminal groups in the municipality, its mere geographic location, or that, due to the high concentration of foreigners and tourists, “it works better if it’s pacified.”
But the presence of foreigners of more than 60 nationalities – around 10% of its 180,000 inhabitants – has also had another effect in San Miguel de Allende, as in so many cities that live this reality: the increase in rents and many services such as bars and restaurants.
“For many people, it is not an economic problem, but perhaps for those who originally lived here, it is challenging because the price of everything is rising. Let’s see… I cannot cure all the problems, I am taking advantage of living here,” he says, raising his eyes. shoulders the American Malcolm Halliday.
Although as usual, this arrival of people with more purchasing power also has advantages. As Paula, the ice cream vendor acknowledges, Mexicans who work for foreigners in the municipality usually receive better wages. “It’s wrong for me to say it, but it’s like that. We Mexicans, on the other hand, the less we pay people, the better.”
Another Saint Michael
The thousands of foreigners who live in San Miguel de Allende also leave another mark on the municipality. They are the founders of dozens of NGOs that bring from education to dental health to neighbors with more economic needs.
Because, far from the beautiful architecture and luxury hotels frequented by tourists, San Miguel hides a very different reality as soon as one moves away a few minutes from the historic center toward more rural neighborhoods.
According to data from the Mexican Ministry of Welfare, more than 44% of San Miguel residents live in conditions of “moderate poverty.” Another 4% live in extreme poverty. Almost two out of every ten houses do not have drainage.
Jazmín Yanet Ramírez proudly shows BBC Mundo the house she opened earlier this year in the community of San Miguel Viejo, an area of unpaved streets where tourists have not missed a thing.
“The people who come to the center of San Miguel do not realize that we are in the surroundings, that, to be honest, we haven’t been to that area for a long time because there are many tourists… It’s a shame because not everyone can enjoy it the same “ he laments.
She says that she and her husband no longer have to sleep in the same room with their three children as before. That they no longer get wet when it rains nor are they afraid that the roof will blow away in the wind. In the absence of drainage, her new home has a small septic tank and a rainwater collection system.
His house was built by Casita Linda, an NGO financed by American residents of San Miguel that in the last two decades has helped 130 families in the town.
“It is a cliché to say that you want to give something back to the municipality that welcomes you, but it is a very honest way of saying it. It is a way of helping people,” Louise Gilliam, president of the organization with almost 20 years, tells BBC Mundo. of life in San Miguel.
“Life here is good. The weather is perfect, it’s less expensive to live here… I tell my children who are in Texas to sell their house and come here,” he replies when asked about how insecurity influences his life.
“I will never return to the United States,” she concludes with conviction.