The unspoken underside of emerging markets: personal security

January 14, 2014, 10:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — If you were offered an attractive job in Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, or another high-potential emerging market, would you take it? Or would you think seriously about whether you really wanted to bring your family there and wonder if you’d be able to sleep at night worrying about their safety?

Talking recently with a couple of high-level players from emerging markets, I was reminded of how frequently we ignore two of the most significant issues that many of those markets face: personal security and its close cousin, corruption. They’re impossible to quantify, so we often conclude that they’re not important, obsessing instead over whether China will grow at 6% or 8% this year. But safety and corruption influence business people’s decisions importantly. It’s just that no one wants to talk about any of it publicly.

Player No. 1 is the CEO of a privately held Brazilian company. He’s a native Brazilian and lives in a beautiful but not large house in Rio de Janeiro with his wife and three young kids. His company isn’t especially well known. He tells me that all of his cars are armored. He isn’t worried about himself, he says. “The bad guys aren’t going to kidnap me. They’re going to try to kidnap my wife or kids.” His wife and kids are driven around by a professional driver. Executives themselves often forego the armored car, he says, preferring to hail a cab — unostentatious, anonymous, more secure.

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Player No. 2 is a top economist in Mexico who has been in and out of government over the past 30 years. We talk at length about Mexico’s economy — he isn’t as upbeat as many of the analysts I’ve been reading — but when I ask him to name the top issue facing President Peña Nieto, his answer has nothing to do with the economy. “Security,” he answers immediately. The government simply isn’t in control of large parts of the country, he points out, and it’s hard to do much for the economy until that gets fixed.

It’s by no means clear that security is improving in emerging markets. The recent bombings in Russia, just ahead of the winter Olympics, mock President Putin’s ultra-tough-guy tactics. The murder in Mexico last year of a top ArcelorMittal (MT) executive, Virgilio Camacho, apparently on the orders of a drug cartel, remains unsolved; just this past weekend, a group of armed vigilantes opposed to the cartel took over the government of a town where the cartel has run free. Several top Chinese executives have vanished in the past year, taken not by criminals but by Chinese investigators who are apparently cracking down on corruption. These men haven’t been heard from in months.

Talking publicly about personal danger is in almost no one’s interest, so we don’t hear much about these issues. But they’re just as real as the subjects everyone would rather talk about — trade balances, interest rates, etc. — and for the future of emerging economies, they’re far more fundamental.

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