For wealthy Mexicans, bodyguards are a necessary expense
MEXICO CITY: When José hops into his Ferrari, presses his Ferragamo loafer to the floor and fills the night air with a deep roar, his bodyguards hustle into a black sport utility vehicle with their weapons at the ready, tailing their fast-moving boss through the streets.
José, a business magnate in his 30s who said he was afraid to have his full name published, makes sure his two children get the same protection. Bodyguards pick them up from school and escort them even to friends' birthday parties - where the bodyguards meet other bodyguards, because many of the children's classmates have similar protection.
With drug-related violence spinning out of control and kidnappings a proven money-maker for criminal gangs, upper-class Mexicans find themselves juggling the spoils of their status with the fear of being killed.
Dinner party chatter these days focuses on two things that are making their lives, still the envy of the country's masses, far less enviable: the financial crisis, which is chipping away at their wealth, and the wave of insecurity, which is making it more perilous for them to enjoy what remains.
Violence in Mexico afflicts both rich and poor, but the nation's income gap is so pronounced that criminals scour the society pages for potential kidnapping victims, for whom they demand, and often receive, huge sums in ransom. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Mexico had the largest divide between rich and poor of the group's 30 member nations, virtually assuring that wealthy targets stand out.
Wealthy Mexicans have long hired bodyguards, but experts say the numbers of those seeking protection have jumped since President Felipe Calderón challenged the drug cartels, bringing unprecedented levels of related violence - which had been mainly confined to the areas bordering the United States - into the major cities.
High-profile and sometimes gruesome crimes have stoked people's fears.
In one of the worst cases, a 5-year-old boy from a poor family was plucked from a market this month and killed by kidnappers, who injected acid into his heart.
Early this month, doctors in Tijuana protested after one of their own, a prominent kidney specialist, was abducted from outside his office by heavily armed men. He has since been released.
"It's out of control," said Hector Rico, the leader of the local medical association.
Confronted by the irate doctors at a public meeting, José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, the governor of Baja California State, said the answer to the rising insecurity was to come together and fight.
"We're not going to cede one millimeter of territory to these criminals," he said of the federal government's war on drug traffickers.
But hundreds of well-off families along the border have become so consumed by their fears that they have moved out of Mexico, at least temporarily, often using business visas granted because of their work in the United States.
"It's a bad feeling to have to leave your country behind," said Javier, a prosperous Tijuana businessman, who moved his family across the border to San Diego last year after a group of armed men tried to kidnap him. "But I didn't really have a choice." He insisted that his last name not be used, out of fear that criminals might track him.
"There's an exodus, and it's all about insecurity," said Guillermo Alonso Meneses, an anthropologist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. "A psychosis has developed. There's fear of getting kidnapped or killed.
"People don't want to live that way," he continued, "and those who can afford it move north."
Still, most of the wealthy have chosen to stay put, hiring armies of protectors to continue enjoying their gilded lives.
Although there are few firm figures for the number of Mexicans employed to guard their fellow citizens - most security companies ignore requirements to register with the government - experts say business is booming for the estimated 10,000 security companies operating in the country.
In the border state of Chihuahua, the Mexican Employers' Association recently reported a 300 percent increase in the number of bodyguards. In that violence-torn state, some luxury hotels now offer their guests bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles.
For many affluent families, the guards and bulletproof cars, homes and even clothing have become a way of life. Some Mexicans say the protection has even become a status symbol.
In Mexico City, some people being protected by men wearing earpieces strut along in designer clothes, using their armed guards to clear a path.
A stylish woman at a Starbucks in the well-off Coyoacán neighborhood held out her cappuccino the other day while chatting with friends. A member of her two-man security detail discreetly slipped a cardboard sleeve on the cup so that the woman's fingertips were protected, along with the rest of her.
"It's a different life," said José, the well-protected Ferrari driver, who agreed to provide a glimpse of that life. "I've gotten used to it."
Indeed, José hands out designer clothing and other expensive gifts to his family's two dozen or so bodyguards and invites them to his mother's house weekly for a meal. He is being benevolent but also practical, given that many crimes in Mexico are inside jobs.
"I want them to feel like they're part of the family," he said. "And if something happens to me, I want them to react. They won't risk their life for a paycheck. They will risk their life for a friend, for family."
Some security consultants and academics point out that at least the upper crust has options, while other Mexicans must rely on law enforcement agencies, known for their corruption and ineffectiveness, to protect them from the violence. Many families who struggle to make ends meet find their loved ones grabbed for ransom. And shootouts between traffickers and the police and soldiers pursuing them erupt with no regard for the income level of bystanders.
"There's reason for everyone to be fearful," said Alonso, the Tijuana anthropologist, who hears gunfire at night in his middle-class neighborhood and, like many others, rarely ventures out after dark.