I’m in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a charming and peaceful colonial town, which these days seems like a ghost town. The reason is that the U.S. media have scared people away. You can’t go on Fox News without hearing shrill and macabre reports about all the violence in Mexico, and then Dateline just re-aired a long piece about a kidnapping in San Miguel de Allende that effectively kidnapped all the tourists away.
Everyone in San Miguel de Allende is hurting from this bad publicity: restaurant owners, shopkeepers, hotel managers. The town of 60,000 relies heavily on tourists and its ex-pat population, but this year not only the tourists are staying away, but a lot of the second homeowners from Texas who are afraid to cross the border.
There is no doubt that there has been horrible violence in Mexico due to drug wars between warring factions. But that violence has, for the most part, been restricted to “entre ellos,” or between them, the drug factions. The violence has also been restricted to certain parts of the country—and San Miguel de Allende is not one of them.
San Miguel de Allende is so safe that I feel comfortable walking around by myself at 2:00 in the morning. I read the police blotter, which mainly consists of a handful of incidents of drunken conduct, domestic violence, and breaking into cars. That’s fairly tame by American standards.
What really has kept people away from this town is a report on Dateline about a kidnapping. Over and over I hear that people have cancelled their reservations and resolve never to return to San Miguel because of the danger that gringos can be randomly kidnapped for extortion and torture.
But that’s not what happened in San Miguel de Allende, though the Dateline show would make you believe that. The story has all the makings of great TV: A picturesque town, a blond actress-wife with little kids, a son of a prominent Mexican family who was seemingly blameless. No doubt it will make a big-selling book, and a movie.
The story is truly terrible. Eduardo Garcia Valseca, son of a newspaper magnate, was kidnapped when he was with his wife, American-born commercial actress Jayne Rager Valseca. He was kept for months, and while she scrounged for some money to pay the kidnappers, he was systematically shot, kept in a hole, and starved. He finally returned home a skeleton.
But Valseca wasn’t just any guy walking down the street. The word from all quarters in San Miguel de Allende is that he had a lot of complicated business dealings with a lot of powerful people.
I don’t know what happened, only that residents of San Miguel de Allende are outraged about the Dateline show and say it was one-sided and dramatized in a way that has made people afraid of coming to the town. Locals have circulated a petition saying that while they prayed for the family during the kidnapping, they know feel the family has turned against their community and their friends—who are not the kidnappers, but suffering by association.
San Miguel de Allende is a safe place to visit. Of course, bad things can happen to people anywhere, but San Miguel de Allende is tranquilo. The kidnapping and the narcotrafficante murders make for sensational news media, but it reminds me a lot of the media coverage after San Francisco’s last big earthquake: all you saw on TV were pictures of devastation, so that everyone thought all their relatives in San Francisco were dead. But the actual damage was small, it’s just that the media likes to focus on, and exaggerate, scary news.
The Dateline piece was irresponsible journalism, and is the cause of many, many people in this town losing their jobs. Fox News screaming about Mexican violence is irresponsible, too. There are problems with corruption and violence in Mexico, to be sure, but take a look anywhere else in the world. Then come visit San Miguel de Allende to relax.