Crime spike in San Miguel de Allende

For the fourth year in a row, the readers of New York’s Travel + Leisure magazine have chosen San Miguel de Allende as the best city in Mexico and the second-best in the world. At the same time, they have ranked San Miguel’s Hotel Matilda as one of the world’s best urban hotels.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that gunmen shot and killed two police officers in San Miguel this past week, making for a total of 65 homicides in the municipality so far this year. Last year, three murders occurred during the same period.

The reason for the increase in crime, according to local business owners, is that when President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador vowed in December to end Mexico’s rampant fuel theft, the organized crime gangs responded by diversifying their activities. Two rival drug cartels established operations in San Miguel, where they recruited young people to sell street drugs, and they extorted up to the equivalent of $650 CAD monthly from nightclub owners and artisan market stallholders. If the business owners didn’t pay, they risked being put on a hit list.

My interest in this developing news stems from the fact that Zelda and I have been regular winter visitors to San Miguel since 2014, when we spent two enjoyable weeks at the Hotel Matilda. We fell in love with this colonial gem of cobbled streets and revolutionary charm, where some of our Canadian friends now live for up to six months of the year.

The much-photographed Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel

Zelda and I go there for one month, February, when the weather in Calgary is at its most unforgiving and the weather in San Miguel is as temperate as the May weather on Salt Spring Island. We also go because the best restaurants there are less expensive than in Calgary, but still of consistently high quality, and because the city generally is culturally rich and diverse. As I wrote in an article for Facts and, you can attend an afternoon reading by a Spanish poet and then listen to a Calgary jazz singer-pianist and a Brazilian electric guitarist performing Great American Songbook staples while you dine in a pizza restaurant owned by a former Mexico City addictions counsellor. Plus, we go there because, in February, San Miguel hosts what my writing comrade Merilyn Simonds has called “the NAFTA of literary festivals,” a gathering of Canadian, American and Mexican authors that attracts the likes of Margaret Atwood, Calvin Trillin and Barbara Kingsolver as keynote speakers.

Given the lure of the writers’ festival and the tourist appeal of San Miguel’s restaurants, art galleries, cultural heritage and colonial architecture, it’s perhaps understandable that a city councillor would ask residents not to circulate news stories about the recent violence. “Just share positive news,” wrote Humberto Campos on Facebook. “I’m not trying to cover anything up, I just want to avoid damage to our economy.” He wrote this a couple of days after a Saturday night street shooting left three people dead, including a 14-year-old girl who had been eating at a taco stand.

Campos’s posting drew a predictable response from other Facebook users. “You cannot cover the sun with your finger,” wrote one. “People should be advised about what is happening around them,” wrote another. Campos replied: “Keep on sharing the bad and not the good, then. But don’t complain when there’s no money or tourism.”

San Miguel’s municipal president, Luis Alberto Villarreal García, took a similar stand this past weekend when he reamed out a couple of reporters live-streaming a police protest held following the shooting deaths of the two officers. “It’s time for you to decide which side you’re on,” said the mayor, grabbing one reporter’s cellphone. “The side of crime or security.” The reporter responded by filing an assault complaint against Villarreal.

One recent street shooting that didn’t make the news, probably because nobody was killed or wounded, happened in a central area popular with tourists and wedding parties. It occurred on a Friday afternoon half a block from the Hotel Matilda, where Zelda and I have frequently walked. According to neighbours, the police arrived, arrested a woman who had been firing a gun and threatening passers-by, and resolved the situation without further incident.

That one unnerved me. We used to walk that street in the evenings, after dinner and a show or an author reading, and never had to worry about our safety. From now on, we’ll be taking cabs.