Mexico drug war casualty: Citizenry suffers post-traumatic stress
Outwardly, life seems normal; but as drug war kidnappings, extortion, and violence brush closer to the average citizen, experts say, the mental terrain looks like post-traumatic stress.
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But the "cockroach effect" – narcotraffickers on the run, regrouping and scurrying to new redoubts – has created a more diffuse, and in many ways more dangerous, violence. Drug battles now crop up in places unaccustomed to them, like Veracruz and Monterrey. And today, fractured groups desperate for cash turn to other illicit activities beyond the transport of narcotics.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Veracruz, Mexico: Life under military protection
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"The general population is not worried about drug trafficking. They are worried about kidnapping and extortion and the kinds of activities that impact their lives," says Raúl Benitez, a security expert at National Autonomous University in Mexico City who carried out a study on how behavior has changed in various states because of drug violence.
'Dirty belly' survival
For the Gomez family, it all began two years ago in the form of rumors in Veracruz of gunmen closing down discos, small businesses being extorted, and kidnappings. Sergio – who raised his three children in small-town, inland Veracruz State before moving to this coastal city a decade ago so they could attend university – told his grown children not to stay out late.
They made other small adjustments. Sergio's Saturday night dinners with his wife and friends got relocated to their homes, instead of restaurants. Enrique took "mom" and "dad" off his cellphone, instead using their middle names, in case he was kidnapped. And, in case anyone was listening, they began to refer to drug traffickers as los malos – "the bad guys" – instead of by the name of the major group operating here, the Zetas.
Still, they weren't overly concerned. Violence seemed to be directed at los malos or the rich, says Sergio, a ranching-related services professional who has invested in small real estate holdings and is solidly middle-class.
Yet over the months, the rumors became realities quietly coiling around them like a noose.
"First it was a cousin's friend, then a co-worker's mother-in-law, then your mother's friend's son. Every day it was getting closer and closer," says Carolina.
Her life, the family agrees, is the most affected, because she has the largest network of friends and works at a private school. It was there that she saw her first corpse, left on a grassy patch in front of the school's tidy facade last year. It was there that the director disclosed last spring that five parents of students had been kidnapped in the course of one month. And the school is where she sees signs of a nascent exodus: Families began uprooting to move to Cancún, the United States, and other places, just as her extended family now is planning.
Carolina even perceives the change through the play of her 4-year-old students, recalling the day one of them tugged at her shirt saying, "Ms. Gomez, Ms. Gomez, the boy with the dirty belly wins."
"What?" she asked, perplexed.
The little boy repeated himself.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"When there is a shootout, the boy must drop to the floor," the child explained.
"You used to see what happened in Afghanistan and say, 'poor Afghanis,' " says Enrique, Carolina's brother. "Now it is right here."