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HomeWorld NewsIn Central Mexico, Fear of Kidnapping Forces Residents to Adapt

In Central Mexico, Fear of Kidnapping Forces Residents to Adapt

TONANITLA, MEXICO — For Lorna Colin, 22, carrying a keychain stick is part of everyday life. It’s a small, nonlethal weapon used for striking blows. Hers even has a tapered tip.

It gives her peace of mind to know she can protect herself if someone tries to carry or drag her away and force her into a car, which is one of the most common means of kidnapping. “They say it has happened to some [of my] neighbors,” she says.

Colin lives in Tonanitla, one of the 125 municipalities that make up the State of Mexico. Countrywide, the state ranks third in the number of missing and unlocated people, after Jalisco and Tamaulipas, as well as first in disappearances of women, children and adolescents, according to reports from Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda, a government agency responsible for finding missing people.

Like Colin, more area residents are changing their habits to avoid the effects of crime in the state, where 88% of inhabitants over the age of 18 reported feeling unsafe in the 2023 National Survey of Victimization and Perception of Public Safety (ENVIPE). Many are limiting their activities or taking measures to deal with the stress of traveling through areas where they feel in danger.

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

State of Mexico has the third-most missing and unlocated people nationwide, as well as the most disappearances of women, children and adolescents in the country. Residents are modifying their habits to protect themselves from crime.

“In environments where chronic intermittent violence is present, the individual response can be hypervigilance on the one hand and, on the other, complete evasion,” says Dení Álvarez Icaza, a psychiatrist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who researches mental health and violence. She says chronic intermittent violence occurs periodically, or in waves.

“Mexico’s case is very particular because there are waves of insecurity or violence in different areas of the country. It’s not something that is constant; it’s something that comes and goes,” she says. “When it’s calm and crime-related incidents decrease, the population relaxes, but not completely. However, those red-alert periods return, and they start to establish their adaptive processes.”

And this is where bowing out of activities and messaging relatives during commutes come into play.

“Looking after adults as if they were children”

Every afternoon, Iris Burgoa, a teacher who lives in Tecámac, near Ecatepec, one of the most unsafe municipalities in the country, interrupts her work planning classes to wait for her daughter, Nitzarynandy Monroy, 18, outside the high school she attends.

Burgoa says she took this practice up in November 2023, after her daughter noticed someone following her when she left school. “She sent me a message to tell me someone was following her. I didn’t think. I got in my car and went for her. I told her to wait for me at a [public transportation] stop and to keep talking to me on the phone.”

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

Iris Burgoa and Nitzarynandy Monroy pose for a portrait in the subdivision where they live in Tecámac, State of Mexico.

The incident occurred during a local surge in two types of crimes involving kidnapping: “secuestros exprés” and “levantones.” The first involves depriving a person of their liberty for hours or days in order to rob or extort them. In the other, the person is deprived of their liberty for nonmonetary reasons.

These crimes are rarely reported. In 2020, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, an autonomous public agency that collects and disseminates information on Mexico, counted 83,244 kidnappings nationwide. However, Mexican authorities only reported 904 investigations into kidnappings, according to a report from civic organization Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano.

The attorney general’s office for the State of Mexico, the institution responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes in the state, did not respond to requests for comment.

Monroy, who was previously diagnosed with depression and anxiety, experienced mental health effects after the incident, Burgoa says. Now, every time she goes out in public alone or uses public transportation, she shares her location or makes a phone call so the people around her know someone is waiting for her.

“No one thinks it’s odd that I do it,” Monroy says. “Everyone does it.”

While these practices give both mother and daughter peace of mind, Burgoa laments that insecurity forces them to take these measures.

“We shouldn’t have to be looking after adults as if they were children,” she says.

If they “don’t tell me where they are, I get anxious”

Irene Colin, Lorna Colin’s aunt, gets a daily WhatsApp message from her husband, Saul Rojas, when he finishes his workday. The message contains his location in real time so his family will know if anything happens to him on his way home.

“It’s automatic now. I don’t have to think about it,” Rojas says. “I simply leave work, I message my wife to let her know, and I turn on my location.”

“We shouldn’t have to be looking after adults as if they were children.”

Rojas travels through part of Ecatepec to get to Tecámac, the municipality where he lives. The region saw 412 reports of crimes against personal liberty, including three kidnappings, between 2022 and 2023, according to federal government data.

“If my husband or my mom don’t tell me where they are, I get anxious,” Irene Colin says. “If I don’t arrive in time for my son’s dismissal from school, I worry, too.”

In 2023, 71.3% of State of Mexico residents felt insecurity was the state’s primary problem. In the same period, 56.2% of the population aged 18 and older felt their location was unsafe, according to the 2023 ENVIPE.

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Aline Suárez del Real, GPJ Mexico

Irene Colin, 41, and her husband, Saul Rojas, 43, pose for a portrait at their home in Tecámac, State of Mexico.

“They are situations that affect individual mental health and, in terms of social impact, the structure of a society,” says psychiatrist Álvarez Icaza.

She says insecurity causes people to opt out of occupying public spaces, which then “permeates social dynamics” and increases isolation. This type of situation, Álvarez Icaza adds, stems “from the hypervigilance” and constant fear of experiencing a violent situation.

Lorna Colin has never walked home from a party at night. It is an experience she only knows through her father’s stories from his youth.

“My dad tells me he would go walking with his friends at dawn when they’d go out to a party. I’ve never done that. We always take a taxi or someone comes to pick us up,” she says.

For Burgoa, feeling safe in public seems like a distant dream.

“A friend who lived in Europe told us she could leave at 3 in the morning to go home,” she says. “I would like my daughters to have that.”

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