San Miguel de Allende oozes old Mexico charm.
There are the cobblestone streets, the colonial-era buildings and wrought-iron balconies, the neo-Gothic steeples soaring high above the pink-sandstone church anchoring a corner of the main plaza. Travel and Leisure magazine has twice named it the best city in the world, a ratification of how beloved it is with tourists and retirees from the U.S., Canada and beyond.
But lately, San Miguel has been attracting a very different sort of crowd: the drug cartels. And the moment they arrived and began pushing cocaine and imposing their brutal brand of property tax, the murders began.
A restaurateur died in a hail of gunfire in front of horrified customers after he refused to pay extortion demands. The son of the owner of a construction-materials business was killed on his way to work. A tortilla shop owner in the nearby town of Celaya was gunned down along with two of her employees. And a fruit vendor, a convenience store operator, another restaurateur and three cantina owners closed their doors after shakedown-visits and, it would appear, are lying low.
This kind of crime was unthinkable here just a few months ago. “It’s still hard to believe,” said Manuel, a restaurant manager who, like many others, would give only his first name for fear of reprisal.
San Miguel has joined the chilling list of tourist destinations—Cancun, Los Cabos, even Mexico City itself—that are losing their perceived immunity from the drug wars that have ravaged much of Mexico for years, captured in headlines about beheadings, mass graves and broad-daylight shootouts.
All of which presents a major challenge to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his markedly hands-off approach to crime. A leftist who took office a year ago, his strategy is “abrazos, no balazos,” or “hugs, not shots,’’ as he has described it.
Not only are more Mexicans being killed than ever—28,741 so far this year—but the bloodshed is complicating the president’s push to fight poverty, because it is discouraging investment and deepening the slump in an economy that slid into recession in the first half of the year.
“Security is a nation-wide problem now and unfortunately no one can escape it,” said Javier Quiroga, head of the bar and cantina association in Guanajuato, the state where San Miguel is located. “It’s getting harder for people to go about their regular activities.”
Carved out of the arid plateau that runs through central Mexico, San Miguel is just a few hours drive from Mexico City. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is an Instagrammer’s dream and a favorite for foodies. The weather is near-perfect all year round. By some estimates, the population of 160,000 includes as many as 10,000 expatriates, mostly Americans and Canadians, who live here at least part-time.
The cartels have so far spared the boutiques, cafes and art galleries popular with tourists and expats. The automakers in the region, including Volkswagen AG and General Motors Co., haven’t been subjected to what small business owners have had to endure; their operations are well defended in gated industrial parks. Although the hotel occupancy fell 15% in August from the year before, according to data from the Tourism Ministry, the culprit may be the slumping economy, not safety concerns.
And strolling the main streets and alleys during the day, it doesn’t seem that anything, really, has changed. The balloon vendors still ply their trade and the stalls selling esquites—a corn-salad snack beloved in this part of Mexico—continue to do brisk business. Members of Lopez Obrador’s newly-created national guard showed up for a few days over the summer, though usually the only visible security forces are the municipal police officers in their dark navy uniforms, walking their regular beats.
Carol Quinn, a Canadian who rents an apartment in San Miguel for extended periods of time, said she’s not unconcerned by what she hears and reads about the lawlessness. “I’m a little more nervous, a bit more conscious,” she said as she sat on a bench near a church hosting a wedding. “But I’ll still come.”