Jews in Mexico
By Jack Rubinstein
We are living in an extraordinary time. We are not just experiencing
unprecedented events or situations, the entire age which we are privileged to be taking a
part of is undergoing vast changes at any given moment and place. While this is a great
time for historians, the general population would probably not share in their enthusiasm.
The state of the economy is ever changing, at one moment we could be living the greatest
continuous rise in the world markets and wake up the next day on the verge of
international economic recession.
The volatility of the situation is affecting every human being on the face
of the planet and with it every country, state and government. What factor will shape the
destiny of all the countries that are currently entangled in this web? Money. While most
"first world" countries have enough reserves to be able to maintain a budget and
its currencies, the rest of the members of the U.N are not so lucky. While few of them
possess respectable reserves, even fewer have strict economic policies in place to
vanguard against the tribulations of everyday life. A budget agreement in any of these
countries has about the same chance of staying in place, as a high-wire clown on
Obviously Mexico (a notoriously third world country in spite of its
prolific neighbors) is not immune to the ups and downs of this roller coaster we
affectionately call our economic structure. Its situation is even more unpredictable due
to its ever present dependence on petroleum prices. Due to the fact that the largest
source of income is the government owned and operated PEMEX, and its well being is tied to
the amount of oil the OPEC countries produce. Even though Mexico does not belong to OPEC,
on numerous occasions meetings have been proposed and organized with these producers to
try to arrange a platform to avoid these changes. Needless to say, most of the times these
summits have been canceled, and in those rare cases when they do go forward an agreement
has yet to be reached.
Uncertainty in the future is a major part of the problems of the present.
"The new relationship between the executive and legislative powers has yet to be
the resulting political infighting has helped Mexico look unstable"
said analyst Joel Estudillo of the Mexican Institute of Political Science in a recent
The lack of a probable scenario is affecting every social strata. A recent
study published in a daily newspaper in Mexico City shows that while the official
unemployment rate is 8% the subemployment rate is an unbelievable 62%. Thus 7 out of every
10 adults in Mexico is not officially employed and therefore not eligible for any type of
benefit (medical coverage, pension plans, etc
) from the government. The real minimum
wage is at a thirty year low. The head of the national Workers Union, Fidel Velazques
(which in large part was responsible for the falling wages), died last year at the age of
97. While leaving no clear indication of who was to be his successor. Mexican workers were
thus abandoned on the proverbial high rope to wait while a new leader is selected.
The effect this is having on the Jewish population in Mexico can be seen
in the amount of young professionals leaving the country in search of greener pastures on
the other side of our northern border. Most of these young people have finished their
careers and are following in the steps of their grandparents, who took as many of their
possessions as possible and traveled to other lands in search of a better life.
Samuel Unzek is a fourth year medical student in a private university in
Mexico City. When asked about his future replied, "When I started studying medicine I
thought that I could either do my residency here or in the U.S, but after what has
happened in the last few years I don't have that choice anymore
.. I am now studying
for the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Exam) very hard. I cannot afford to fail
"As soon as I have the opportunity to leave Ill take it
my country but I can't believe how anybody would ever think of living here" said
Daniela Landau, a 23 year old psychology student.
The lack of decent opportunities for professionals in Mexico is clearly
seen in the community center.
" The Fundación Activa ( The Active Foundation) has been trying for
over a year to find work for Jewish professionals such as doctors and engineers
unfortunately most of the jobs we find for these people are for community taxi drivers and
the like" said Judith Bank, the General Director of the center.
Most of the people interviewed were reluctant to give a precise number
when asked about the amount of Jews leaving Mexico, but when pressed for an answer, the
approximations varied from 50 to 200 families per year in the last three years. These
"families" are often single men and women or young couples with one or two
children, and must be taken in context of the 40,000 Jews currently living in all of
Mexico. They represent 1% of the general population and a little over 10% of the 19-35 age
group. The constant loss of this income and manpower is bound to be felt in the coming
The public safety problems are also taking their toll among the
population. The former chief of security for Mexico City, Rodolfo Debernardi, was quoted
as saying, "There isn't a person alive today who can take care of the crime problems
of Mexico City". After setting himself up for failure, Debernardi continued to be
completely inefficient in controlling the crime wave in Mexico, and 11 painful months
later he was fired by mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.
Even President Ernesto Zedillo, in his recent State of the Nation address
acknowledge his governments failure in the war against crime and in the education of his
police force. "As a citizen of this country, as a father and as President, I fully
share the indignation and concern of all Mexicans regarding the very grave lack of public
safety we are currently experiencing
it is cause of grave indignation when police
officers and law enforcement agents, instead of preventing crimes, are often the cruelest
and most dangerous criminals because they act with impunity".
In the last few years two young Jews have been violently killed in the
streets of Mexico. The first, a 16 year old girl returning home from school was abducted
by four men who apparently tried to rape her and when she started to scream and fight back
killed her, leaving her battered body less than a kilometer away from "Los
Pinos" the official presidential residency. Public and Jewish outcry caused a massive
investigation in which the four men were tried and convicted of her murder (this being a
rare occurrence because approximately only 1% of all crimes committed in Mexico are
punished). The second case involved a 19 year old boy returning home from a dance club in
his car, when at around 3 a.m. another car pulled up next to his a shot at him several
times. He was wounded and died a few hours later in a Mexico City hospital. So far no
arrests have been made.
A member of the Jewish protection agency who asked not to be identified
reported 43 "express" kidnappings in the Jewish community, in which the victim
is taken to automatic tellers around the city and is forced to withdraw anywhere from
30,000 to 800,000 pesos (3,000 to 80,000 USD), and sometimes taken to his house or store
to give jewelry and other valuables to his aggressors. These are express because the
victim is usually released before sunrise. There have also been 6 kidnappings with ransoms
ranging from 1,000,000 pesos to 1,000,000 USD. All these kidnappings have transpired
during the course of this year, and luckily so far none of the victims have been hurt
seriously or have been murdered.
Security personnel are making brisk business in light of the situation.
Those who can afford it can bullet-proof their car, hire personal bodyguards to follow
them around the city and build tremendous electrified walls around their houses
reminiscent of San Quentin. For the wealthy Jews in Mexico, who are reluctant to leave
because of their jobs or family, these are becoming their only serious options.
"I want my children to be safe, but I cant leave Mexico City. I make
a good living here and I cannot afford to start over again. Maybe when my children are
older they will decide to live somewhere else. Meanwhile I have to protect them any way I
can" Said a local businessman, who asked not to be identified, who recently hired
personal bodyguards for himself and for his family.
The future of the Jewish population in Mexico is worrisome; if some
drastic measures to curb crime and to raise the economy aren't taken soon the community is
bound to suffer grave consequences. Schools will be forced to cut back because of lack of
children, synagogues will have to be shut down and community centers will no longer be
able to help those who need it the most. If this trend continues, the population graph of
the Jewish population will resemble and upside-down pyramid with its large base being the
elders and the narrow part representing the youth.
Jack is currently studing in his Fourth year of Medical school. He has published several writings in Foro Magazine and Archivos de Cardiologia in
from theNovember 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine