Crime and Economic Punishment in the State of Zacatecas

By Jerry Kammer on August 4, 2009

For years, the economy of the north central Mexican state of Zacatecas has grown increasingly dependent on remittances sent home by sons and daughters living in the United States. Many of the migrants boosted the economy by building homes in their native towns. They returned at Christmas time on the feast days of the local patron saint. Many dreamed of retiring to the place where they had grown up.

Now a great reversal is underway. Across the state, homes have been put up for sale, glutting the market and depressing prices. Many of the migrants have been caught in the U.S. economic downturn and need the money to sustain themselves north of the border. Many are fearful of the violence and kidnapping that have shaken Zacatecas, as kidnappers and drug traffickers become increasingly bold and ruthless.

A story in today's Reforma newspaper, out of Mexico City, quotes a government official in the town of Jerez as saying a third of the town's properties are for sale.

When I visited Zacatecas several years ago, the mayor of Jerez said about 30,000 natives had moved to the U.S., leaving about an equal number behind in the town. They had become steadily more dependent on remittances. If you took the remittances out of Jerez, it would wreck the economy, the owner of one of the town's many money transfer businesses told me.

As the U.S. economy has suffered, so has the economy of Jerez, where remittances have fallen drastically. Crime, especially kidnapping of residents who have relatives in the U.S., has also shaken the area.

Prof. Rodolfo Garcia Zamora of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas talked of the problem with the New York Times in January, saying the relatives of Mexicans in the United States have become a new profit center for Mexico's crime industry. He said kidnappers seize their victims and then call their relatives, demanding that ransom be wired south.

Such crime is fueling an exodus, causing many people to flee to relatives living in the U.S. Zacatecas is undergoing a long, steady depopulation.

When I visited a middle school in the town of Tepetongo, the principal told me that at least half of those who had graduated since the school opened in 1980 had moved to the U.S.

The 1990 Mexican census reported that the state was losing population in 21 of its 57 county-sized municipios. By 2000 the number had reached 34. The trend continues.