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Internal migration flows below the radar in Mexico

August 2, 2011 | 10:41 am

Bernal queretaro monolith daniel hernandez

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

A few weeks ago, I took a late Friday night bus from Mexico City to Queretaro to visit friends.

I spent the weekend relaxing at bars, cafes and restaurants. I took a day trip to an officially designated "pueblo magico," Bernal, where an ancient stone monolith is a regional tourist draw. I finished the weekend in a crowded "college-style" bar to watch a big soccer match for Mexico over a BBQ hamburger and a Mexican lager, with U.S. school pennants hanging overhead.

Queretaro is welcoming and clearly prosperous. Over two days, I met Mexicans who had moved there from Chiapas, Veracruz, Guanajuato and elsewhere.

"Why do you live here?" I asked a guy outside a bar one night.

"They pay better than in Veracruz," the fellow replied. "And, well ... it's safe, right?"

The exchange stuck with me. Contradictions abound in Mexico, especially when it comes to the country's current overall stability.

Mexico's economy is growing at a healthier pace than that of the United States and has a lower official unemployment rate (5.3%) than its northern neighbor (9.2%), though the joblessness rate is deceptive because it doesn't include millions of Mexicans who work in the poorly paid informal economy as sidewalk vendors, day laborers and the like. 

Yet, at the same time, Mexico is home to more than 52 million people living in poverty, nearly half the national population. That figure is up by 3 million from three years ago, according to an independent government study released Friday and reported in The Times. Overall, Mexico's recovery from the 2009 global recession is among the slowest in Latin America, a disappointing figure after a decade of free-market policies under federal governments led by the National Action Party, or PAN.

In other words, realities on the ground in Mexico are often more complicated and contradictory than the headlines or government propaganda can tell us.

Take the matter of internal migration, a topic generally overshadowed by the issue of Mexican migration into the United States.

According to Mexico's census, the state of Queretaro posted net internal migration growth in 2000, 2005 and 2010. The phenomenon is measured as the difference between those who leave a state for another and those who move into the same state from another, meaning migration away from Mexico or by foreigners is excluded in the formula. Last year, Queretaro grew by 91,984 Mexicans due internal movement alone.

The numbers offer some intriguing contradictions.

Recently, Mexico City, once feared for its crime rate, has served as a relative haven in the face of the extreme violence and social breakdown associated with the drug war. More people are said to be moving to the ever-bustling capital to escape violence, extortion by cartels and general corruption in the drug-war zones.

This may be so, but the census found that Mexico City actually posted negative internal migration in 2000, 2005 and 2010. By large margins, in fact. Last year, 498,617 more people moved from Mexico City, known formally as the Federal District, to other states than moved in. That suggests that the draw of the megacity's economic buzz and relative safety is apparently outweighed by that of other states, such as Queretaro.

Tellingly, that state, which is traditionally seen as a PAN and Catholic stronghold, notched the third biggest uptick in economic growth in the first trimester among Mexico's 31 states (link in Spanish). Queretaro also has one of the lowest rates of violent deaths related to the drug war, according to a recent report by the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego.

There could be any host of reasons for these figures nationally, from family situations to work opportunities, but a corollary can be made between negative internal migration and rising levels of narco-related violence in 2010, the census shows.

Michoacan, home to fearsome drug gang La Familia and its apparent heirs, known as the Knights Templar, had negative internal movement of 20,715 last year. In Guerrero, another spot with surging drug violence, the figure was 54,531. Chihuahua, where troubled Ciudad Juarez is located, lost 27,074 people in 2010 to other states over those moving there.

Adrian Fuentes, a 26-year-old student I met recently, moved to Mexico City from Ciudad Juarez to start a master's program at the national university. He is a native of the city of Chihuahua, the state capital, but lived four years in Ciudad Juarez while completing an undergraduate degree.

He told me he moved to Mexico City partly out of the educational opportunity he sought and partly to escape the violence on the border. "In four years of living in Juarez I got to see how the fear, the anxiety, crime, crimes with violence, then inhuman crimes increased exponentially," Fuentes said.

He became active in the movement opposed to the drug war in Juarez and, although Fuentes never received any direct threats from cartel hitmen or corrupt elements in the security forces, many friends and fellow activists did, he said.

"It all came hand-in-hand with the start of the militarization of Ciudad Juarez," Fuentes said. "The main reason why I'm not afraid over here is that I don't see the military or federal police on the streets."

Fuentes is not alone. Check out a new student-led project on the border titled Mexodus, examining the flight of the Mexican middle-class from drug war hot spots. 

If you're a Mexican citizen or longtime foreigner living in Mexico, have economic or safety factors contributed in any way to your movement in the country? Or away from it?

[Updated at 7:28 p.m.: A previous version of this post stated that the PAN governs Queretaro. The current governor is Jose Calzada Rovirosa, of a coalition between the PRI and the Nueva Alianza party. Rovirosa was elected in 2009.]

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

* Note: This is the first in an occasional series of posts on stability in Mexico by La Plaza blogger and reporter Daniel Hernandez, author of "Down & Delirious in Mexico City."

Photo: In the background, the Pena de Bernal monolith rises above the city of Bernal, Queretaro. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times

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