By many measures, this country has made great strides in recent decades toward becoming a middle-class society, with broader access to education, consumer goods and professional careers that promise upward mobility.
And yet, while prosperity has expanded here, researchers and polling experts say Mexico remains stricken with a form of social poverty that presents a vexing obstacle to the emergence of a more developed, democratic neighbor on the southern U.S. border.
It is a deficit of social trust, characterized by weak levels of confidence in public institutions — police, courts, politicians — but also the erosion of interpersonal trust among neighbors and co-workers.
Mexico’s trust gap is considered especially threatening as the country struggles to keep the corrupting powers of billionaire drug cartels from further undermining democracy and the rule of law. If Mexicans don’t trust police and political leaders, and they’re too wary of fellow Mexicans to join citizen campaigns and social movements, scholars say, there may be no one left to turn to.
“The existence of social trust makes a modern, middle-class-based society possible,” said Luis Rubio, a prominent Mexican political scientist and co-author of a new report titled “Mexico: A Middle Class Society — Poor No More, Developed Not Yet.”
“Its absence may not change the economic or consumption-driven elements, but it does leave them somewhat orphaned,” he said.
Here in Cuernavaca, 50 miles south of Mexico City, the trust deficit is evident in the lives of Alfredo and Lilia Hoyos, two physicians who reside on a street of middle-class homes hidden behind high walls and thickets of razor wire.
As members of an international hospitality association, they have traveled the world staying in the homes of strangers, often arriving at a foreign doorstep to a warm welcome and their own set of keys to the house.
In turn, they have readily hosted global visitors — mostly Americans and Europeans — with little thought of risk to their children or themselves.
“We’ve made friends all over the world this way,” Alfredo Hoyos said.
And yet, when asked whether he would be so trusting if the travelers were other Mexicans, Hoyos fell silent and shook his head. “No,” he said ruefully. “Probably not. Especially not now.”
It was a tough but candid acknowledgment of the fear that has crept into their lives in the past two years as crime in Cuernavaca and in their once-tranquil neighborhood has soared. On their block, there have been at least four break-ins or attempted burglaries since March. The phone rings with extortion threats, some amateurish, others scarier. A colleague and close friend of Alfredo Hoyos was kidnapped from his office months ago, never to be heard from again.
Wary of turning to the police, who are often in league with criminals, Hoyos got an idea recently from an intrepid American couple who rode into town on their bikes from Oregon. Why not gather their neighbors together and form a neighborhood watch committee?
That was in March. Since then, Alfredo Hoyos has contacted a security expert and researched prices for an air-raid-style neighborhood alarm system. But he said that he has struggled to persuade others on the block to come to a meeting at his home and that only about half of his neighbors have responded to his entreaties. There is no rush to collective action.
Some of his neighbors are passive, Hoyos said. Other seem suspicious, fearful of getting involved. “They didn’t want to put themselves at risk,” he said, sounding disheartened. “But we have to do something.”
Mexico’s middle class has been hit especially hard by the spread of fear and the erosion of social trust, researchers say, because its members are in many ways the most vulnerable to the country’s deteriorating public safety. Kidnappings and extortion schemes that formerly targeted wealthy Mexicans now terrorize middle-class families, which cannot afford bodyguards, armored vehicles and private security consultants.
But in many parts of Mexico, the middle class can’t go to the police for help, either.
“Today, if you are a victim of crime and you turn to the police, you’re at risk of being further victimized,” said Alfonso Valenzuela, an urban sociologist in Cuernavaca. “We can’t reestablish the rule of law without a minimum degree of trust.”
In an August poll, just 6 percent of respondents said they had high levels of trust in Mexico’s police, while 40 percent said they had “little” or “none.”
More worrisome, perhaps, is that fraying levels of trust impoverish relations not only between people and public institutions but also among ordinary Mexicans left increasingly unsure who among their neighbors, co-workers and other fellow citizens might have criminal ties. In a broad social survey conducted by the government in 2008, just 20 percent of respondents said they had high amounts of trust in their co-workers and classmates, while 31 percent reported “little” or “none.”
Among the 34 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group that includes most of the world’s biggest economies, Mexico ranked near the bottom in citizens who “express high levels of trust in others,” according to surveys in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.
Since then, Mexico’s drug war has only made matters worse.
As the place that has given rise to Mexico’s most important anti-crime citizens movement, Cuernavaca is as good a place as any to gauge Mexico’s shortfall in social trust. It is an old, well-established university town with a reputation for good weather, where many Mexico City residents keep a second home and visiting Americans once flocked to language schools.
That was before “La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera” (The City of the Eternal Spring) became “La Ciudad de la Eterna Balacera” (The City of the Eternal Gunfight), as local gallows humor has it.
In December 2009, hundreds of Mexican marines in helicopters and armored vehicles swooped into the city and killed cartel kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva in a wild shootout that the government hailed as a major victory.
Known as “the Beard” and “the Boss of Bosses,” Beltran Leyva ran his criminal empire from a gleaming white condo tower just up the street from where Alfredo and Lilia Hoyos live.
“People here say they used to see him shopping in the grocery store,” Lilia Hoyos said.
Beltran Leyva’s demise shattered his trafficking organization into smaller factions that are now at war with one another, and the violence has the entire city on edge.
“Estamos Hasta la Madre!” (We’ve had enough!) became the anti-crime movement’s rallying cry. More than 40,000 Mexicans gathered in Cuernavaca in April 2011 to protest the violence and the government’s largely ineffective response.
Sicilia’s movement traveled the country by caravan, winning headlines and drawing huge crowds. Foreign governments and human rights organizations heaped awards on the brokenhearted, crusading father as he marched his supporters to Mexico City last year and held a face-to-face “dialogue” challenging Mexican President Felipe Calderon on national television.
It was a movement that relied heavily on middle-class Mexicans and their ability to trust one another enough to share wrenching personal stories, protest in public and draw attention to the unsolved murder cases of their loved ones.
Now, a year later, Sicilia’s movement is struggling to keep its members engaged, organizers say. A first anniversary rally in early April drew just a few thousand supporters in Cuernavaca.
“We lost momentum so quickly,” said organizer Rocato Bablot, adding that jealousies, misinformation and pettiness were to blame. But he also viewed those problems as symptoms of a trust shortage.
“As soon as negative rumors about the movement began to circulate, people lost faith,” he said. “When there’s so little trust, people are quick to believe anything negative.”
The disenchantment on Alfredo Hoyos’s street hasn’t reached that level. Hoyos said he planned to redouble his efforts to gather his neighbors to a meeting, or at least try to rally the ones who are willing to take action.
Just then the Hoyos family’s doorbell rang. It was a neighbor from up the street, the victim of an attempted break-in the week before. “I heard you were organizing a meeting,” the man said.
Alfredo Hoyos invited him inside.