OSLO, Norway — Viewed from afar, the situation back home is beyond upsetting. It’s revolting for Roberto Rosales, who in a fit of desperation about his homeland stood up and asked a question that resonated in a room full of people who had just watched a documentary depicting the violence that has gripped Mexico for more than six years.
“What can we do?” he asked. “What should we do?”
Over the past six years, Mexicans fleeing violence and insecurity have made an impact in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. Less well known is the number of people who have ended up in Europe, including here in the tranquil capital of Norway — a disturbing sign that the violence in Mexico has left a trail of destruction that knows no borders.
“Norway is not the first country you would think about when having to leave for security reasons, but the good economic situation that Norway has been in lately has made it an option for those who already have had some connection to the country,” said Benedicte Bull, a professor specializing in Latin American studies at the University of Oslo. “There have not been very strong connections between Mexico and Norway, but it is in the process of being strengthened.”
The toll for Mexico is not just a matter of lost pride, but lost income. The country’s brain drain is spreading at a time when the Mexican economy is expanding and providing more jobs for a new generation.
Precise numbers of those leaving the country are unknown, although the number of people seeking political asylum in the United States continues to skyrocket, from 6,824 in 2011 to 36,000 in 2013.
More than 530,000 young people with degrees have left Mexico for the United States in the past 14 years, according to Jesus Velasco, a political science professor and Mexico expert at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Hundreds if not thousands more, he said, have jumped to Canada and across the pond to Europe and even beyond. Some have done so for economic or educational reasons, but an increasing number are leaving for security reasons, particularly to escape kidnapping and extortion by criminals who make the affluent and educated prime targets.
Many have given up on successive governments, whether of the National Action Party or the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and their promises of building governments accountable to voters and sustained by rule of law.
Ramiro, an academic and former Mexican government official, sought refuge in Oslo, away from death threats, and in recent years has lived on the “down low,” keeping a low profile. He refused to give his full name for fear of repercussions against him and his family.
Ramiro had friends in Norway, and once here, he said, “I realized that Norway is a generous country with a sensible humanity that you find in very few places in the world. … It’s a country with just laws and social equality and integration.”
Sergio Chavez, 24, left his native state of Coahuila, which he described as a “failed state” with endemic corruption between drug traffickers and government authorities, a state that sucked the life out of its residents, pushing young, talented people like Chavez away. Chavez enrolled at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, where he’s working on a master’s degree in international studies.
Chavez now plans to stay in Norway, settle down and start a family — and stay away from Mexico.
“Maybe someday I will return. Not now, not the way the situation is,” he said. “I want to raise a family and be able to provide basic security for them.”
An estimated 1,500 Mexicans live in Norway, a country of 5 million people, according to Rosales, who works for an energy company and is known among Mexicans as the unofficial president of the expat community. He’s lived here for more than 10 years and like many moved to Norway out of love for a Norwegian. In fact, many of the first newcomers, Rosales said, arrived “because of love, because of someone they met, knew before. They had some kind of connection.”
The transition can be difficult. In a country with a high cost of living and a booming oil industry, which has helped close the gap between rich and poor, Mexicans face many challenges, beginning with weather. Misty, snowy and rainy days are common between October and May, with “spectacular summers,” said Maru Lopez, a filmmaker.
Lopez said she has found Norwegians to be open and helpful. Even so, she added, Norway is a country for the affluent. Not just anyone can live here.
“I have never felt more social pressure as I have here where everything is geared toward success and money,” Lopez said. “A bus ticket is almost twice the minimum wage in Mexico, and forget rent, food or chelas (beers). A tragedy.”