Monday, January 17, 2011

Rural tragedy

Growing up, it seemed like most of my suburban neighbors shared the general presumption that large metropolitan areas are the most dangerous places to live. Although I first heard the story sometime during my adolescence, what still immediately comes to mind when I think about safety in big cities is the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. Although she was killed more than 46 years ago, her story lives on because it so poignantly illustrates the theory of diffusion of responsibility.

As stated in the linked article, diffusion of responsibility occurs when a task is placed before a group of people and each group member believes someone else in the group will take responsibility to act, and therefore no one does. In spite of the fact that the number of people who ignored Kitty Genovese's cries for help may have been originally overstated, the story's depiction of big city dwellers as so heartless that they couldn't be bothered to pick up the phone to assist a dying woman is one that has stayed with me, and I imagine it stayed with many who believe rural areas to be safer than cities.

But is rural life really safer? As an empirical matter that is too ambitious of a question to be answered here, but a quick comparison of the 2005-2006 California Department of Justice violent crime rates of counties such as Los Angeles and San Diego vs. Mariposa and Plumas shows that the rural counties did indeed have less violent crime.

However, a recent
New York Times article reported on a calamity that I believe could only happen in a rural place, at least in terms of its severity. In the small town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos, Mexico, police chief Erika Gandara, the last remaining officer of the town who had not been killed or quit, was abducted from her home two days before Christmas and has not been heard from since. Now the town has absolutely no police presence aside from occasional military sweeps or brief federal police investigations of major drug war related violence that occurs in the town. Over half of the town's 9,000 residents have fled, while those who remain say that they lock themselves inside most of the time.

First and foremost, the situation of the townspeople is heartbreaking, as are all the horrors of the drug war in Mexico. But it is also, at least to a middle-class, suburban-raised American such as myself, absolutely shocking that a town could be without a single police officer. Not one. No one to go to when a crime has occurred. And even if rural people would be more likely to call for help for someone in need, it would be of no use because there is no one to call.

I believe the rurality of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos added to its vulnerability. Being a small town, it likely had fewer economic resources, resulting in a small police force which could not match the strength of the gangs. Officers were probably much easier to identify and locate in such a small town, which would place them at greater risk. As another poster
posited, the lack of "checks and balances" in rural areas may breed corruption in law enforcement. And the political oversight that does exist in small towns would ostensibly be weaker in the first place, as power in rural areas is often concentrated in very few hands, who are therefore more easily corrupted or manipulated by virtue of their isolation.

It is hard to imagine an American town facing the same grim prospects as Guadalupe Distrito Bravos, given the wealth of the U.S. Nevertheless, rural areas everywhere are defined by their spatial isolation, smaller population, and generally speaking, fewer economic resources. These factors can contribute to less effective law enforcement in any nation. Rural citizens face unique dangers, and although it may be the case that crime in rural areas is less prevalent, it may be also much harder to find help
.

1 comment:

vlshaw said...

Thank you for giving some insight to rural problems in Mexico. We as Americans seem to neglect our southern neighbors' problems, not realizing that they can contribute to our own problems, or even become them.