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How once-feared Mexico City has become the country's safest spot

Mexico City’s government chalks up its mended reputation to lower crime rates, saying kidnappings have come down 26 percent since 2009.

By Nacha CattanCorrespondent / December 29, 2010

Soldiers drive past a burnt bus while patrolling the roads between Morelia and Apatzingan Dec. 14. Mexico's spiraling war against powerful drug cartels has escalated in places like Morelia, but Mexico City has become known as one of the country's safest spots.

Leovigildo Gonzalez/Reuters

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Mexico City

Benilde Alvarez shut the lights and locked herself and her young daughters in their bedrooms. The machine gun fire from a shootout could be heard all night near their home in Morelia, Michoacán about four hours west of Mexico City. By the next morning Ms. Alvarez had decided to move her family from the drug-torn city where she’d been raised.

But Alvarez did not follow the lead of other families who have sought refuge from drug-related violence by heading to the United States. The mother of three picked up and went to Mexico City – a place once thought to be among the most dangerous in the country.

With the rise of gruesome massacres and public shootouts that have put civilians in the line of fire, Mexico City has become an unlikely
oasis for some hoping to escape the drug war.

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“People say Mexico City is terrible, terrifying,” Alvarez says. “But the truth is right now we are safer in Mexico City than over there [in Morelia].”

The perception that Mexico’s capital city of 20 million people has sidestepped the most dangerous drug crimes persists even as it remains
notorious for kidnappings and armed robberies.

Mexico's comparatively lower crime rates

Mexico City’s government chalks up its mended reputation to lower crime rates, saying kidnappings have come down 26 percent since 2009. But even by its own figures, injuries from firearms rose over the same period by 21 percent and murders by 7.4 percent.

Compare that with the skyrocketing homicide rates in places like Ciudad Juarez – which almost doubled since 2008 to 3,000 this year – and it’s no wonder Mexico City retains allure. Nationwide, kidnappings have tripled over the past five years, according to a study by Mexico’s lower house of Congress. Drug-related crimes have claimed over 30,000 lives in the past four.

Mexico City has begun to reap benefits of the better statistics.

Five thousand business owners moved their wares to Mexico City in 2010 to escape extortion and other crimes that have hurt their ventures, according to Coparmex, the city’s association of businesses.

Most of the businessmen fled from states along the US border, says Coparmex head Juan De Dios Barba. Half of the 5,000 were returning to Mexico City after having abandoned the capital when it was considered unsafe in past years, when the city registered a loss rather than a net gain of businesses, Mr. Barba says.

Tourism in Mexico City has also improved – more than recovering from the devastation caused by swine flu. Hotel occupancy grew 9 percent this Christmas season over last December, helped along by conventions that switched venues from other areas of Mexico for the relative peace of Mexico City, the city’s Tourism Ministry says. Resort towns are also bouncing back on an improved economy.

College students have transferred to Mexico City universities from places like Monterrey. The posh northern metropolis, long the epicenter of industry and commerce, was overrun by drug lords earlier this year who targeted campuses and shut down the city at will using roadblocks.

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