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Mexico is headed down a dark path as violence intensifies, corruption worsens, and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.



Is it dangerous down there? Does everyone carry a gun? You can buy drugs off the policemen, right? Don’t you get sick if you drink the water? The clichés seemed endless and though I mostly attributed them to ignorance and racism, I could never be sure where they really came from. I wanted to think that they were the result of Hollywood stereotypes or too much Fox News.

But for over a year now, we have awoken in Mexico to morning headlines like “12 Beheaded Bodies Found in Yucatan,” “28 Men Executed Outside Mexico City,” and “State Police Linked to Kidnapping.” As the list goes on and on, I am forced to ask myself whether those clichés I so desperately wanted to dismiss are somehow grounded in reality. I have to wonder if we, as a nation, have become a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. A land of violence, lawlessness and chaos.

According to the Ministry of Pubic Safety, the number of executions carried out by organized crime from January to September, 2008 was 3,202. Of those, 367 were tortured, 89 were decapitated, 181 had sinister messages written on or near their bodies, 352 were police officers and 20 were members of the military. Despite the horrific nature of the violence, many Mexicans took comfort in the fact that it seemed to be taking place mostly between law enforcement and the drug cartels (with the occasional stray bullet striking a civilian). That all changed at midnight on September 16, 2008. Independence Day. At a traditional celebration in the city of Morelia, Michoacán, four hand grenades exploded in a crowded square killing seven people and injuring over 100. Although it could have been an isolated incident, the attack is most likely the beginning of an escalation in violence that targets innocent civilians. There is a name for attacks on the general population: terrorism.

Less than a decade ago, Mexico was considered the darling of Latin America. It was hailed by international analysts as a beacon of democracy, justice and modernity. But then the PRI, widely considered to be the official party, lost an election and the door opened to a new era of Mexican Democracy. The first president to serve in the new democracy, Vicente Fox, made little political progress and was accused of using his time in office mainly to assist his family in amassing an inexplicably large fortune. When Fox’s term ended in 2006, leftwing PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was widely expected to win the presidential election, but it was Felipe Calderón, a member of Fox’s rightwing PAN party, that was awarded the presidency by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal after election results (with less than a 1 percent difference between the candidates) were questioned by the PRD. It is worth noting that the Tribunal acknowledged interference by President Fox as well as irregularities in the electoral process but declared these infringements “intangibles” and refused a recount.

This incident left the country deeply divided. On one side are those who accept the legitimacy of Calderón’s rule and on the other are those who consider López Obrador the legitimate President. This division represents the key to understanding Mexico today.

After the election was settled by the courts, the Lopezorbradoristas began a series of acts of civil disobedience, including a massive campout in downtown Mexico City. Tens of thousands of people slept on Reforma Avenue every night for six weeks. Rather than rallying in support of the cause, Mexico City’s middle and upper class complained about the traffic problems and street closures caused by the protest. The media began to cast the protestors as criminals – agitators who were impeding progress and peace. One famous radio personality said that she wouldn’t mind the campouts if only the protestors weren’t so ugly and foul-smelling. Her heinous comment bears repeating only because it reveals a deep-seated prejudice based on class and race in Mexico.

On one hand, there is an affluent, mostly white upper class who make up the base of the PAN party and don’t want to see much about the country change. On the other hand, there is the lower class, a mostly dark-skinned mass of more than 80 million people. Barely literate and constantly struggling to survive, these are the people who work as the maids, cooks and drivers of the upper class. López Obrador was their great hope – a champion of the working class. When he lost the election by such a narrow and questionable margin, Mexican society become irreparably fractured.

On a political plane, the Congress and Senate are divided in such a way that no party has a majority vote and no important legislation can be passed without two of the three major parties forming an alliance – a political feat not easily accomplished.

Mayors and governors from the PRD have refused to acknowledge Calderón as the legitimate president, which means that they have trouble getting federal funding and there is little cooperation between the different levels of government.

When Calderón took office in December 2006, he announced three main projects: Fiscal Reform, Energy Reform and the War on Drugs. After months of battling to obtain support from the parliamentary houses, a diminished version of Fiscal Reform was passed, which translated into the middle income bracket paying more taxes than ever before. Energy Reform is really a euphemism for the privatization of state-owned oil company PEMEX. Members of the PRD, as well as many citizens, fear that this would mean yet another loss of wealth for the country, with profits from extraction and refinery going to private pockets instead of the common good. So far this privatization has been avoided, since the PRD legislators have not allowed the federal government’s proposal to make it to the voting floor, prompting the mainstream media and a large portion of society to accuse them of “kidnapping” the Congress. They tried to make this process more democratic and organized “citizen consultations” in the cities where they hold power. Over 90 percent of voters were against the Energy Reform, but the federal government declared that asking citizens for their opinion was unconstitutional.

Calderón’s final project, the War on Drugs, is directly related to the current surge of violence. He declared at the beginning of his term that the activities of drug cartels would no longer be tolerated and he would use all branches of the military to carry out this enormous task. It has been a long-standing rumor that every Mexican president has negotiated with the leaders of the drug trade, allowing them to maintain their business if they agree to keep violence to a minimum. This corrupt bargin has trickled through every local government and law enforcement agency down to local cops, whose loyalty can easily be bought. But once Calderón broke this unwritten pact, heads began to (literally) roll.

Fighting the cartels is a noble endeavor, but I fear that the war can’t be won. Mexican law enforcement is shockingly inefficient. Agencies often fail to cooperate with one another and tend to act on tips rather than intelligence. Corruption represents an even larger obstacle than inefficiency. Thousands of soldiers defect from the military every year, many headed to the cartels to find more profitable employment. In nearly every drug bust, a member of the police force or military is found to be involved. This fact is not surprising, given that police salaries can be as little as $300 per month. Also, impunity for drug crimes is rampant. Out of 40,000 people arrested for drug related crimes over a two-year period, only 269 received jail time. The judicial system, like nearly everything else, is corrupt and the chances of being punished for crimes are almost non-existent.

In addition to drug related crimes, kidnapping is also on the rise. Over 1400 cases were reported in 2006 and the first half of 2007. However, it’s estimated that most kidnappings are not reported for fear that the authorities may be behind them. In June 2007, the 14-year-old son of a prominent businessman was kidnapped (at a staged police checkpoint) on his way to school and eventually found dead in the trunk of a car. This incident ignited public outrage, and for the first time in years, the upper class mobilized peaceful protests. The government signed a National Security Pact in response to petitions, in which they basically committed to comply with responsibilities they already have. In the first 22 days after the Pact was signed, 438 people were executed, decimating hopes that this pact would be the answer.

Why are there so many criminals in Mexico, and why are they winning? There are certain economic factors which cannot be ignored. Millions of young men whose families had been dedicated to agriculture for generations have lost their land to real estate and industrial developments. They are faced with the choice of either getting minimum wage jobs, like working at Wal-Mart – which will not allow them to support their families – emigrating illegally to the United States, or getting involved in criminal activities: the drug business, kidnapping or robbery. The latter pay more, and unfortunately, the moral compass for thousands of people seems to be broken. Social resentment plays a role as well. Mexico’s nine richest billionaires have fortunes that add up to 8.6 percent of the country’s GDP. This kind of disparity creates a powerful delusion that it is not wrong to take from those who have so much when others have so little.

The outlook for 2009 is not bright. The worst-case scenario is that violence will continue to intensify and include terrorist attacks, leaving both the government and private citizens powerless against organized crime. The best-case scenario is that we might react as a country in a way that strives to understand where the source of the current problems so that we may attack them at their roots. The next time somebody asks me if Mexico is a dangerous place where people shoot each other over disagreements and the authorities are corrupt, I will have to answer, with great sadness, yes.

Mónica López was born in Mexico City, where she obtained a degree in International Relations from the famously neoliberal Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). After three years helping Fortune 500 companies cut costs and streamline operations as a Senior Business Analyst at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, she decided to embark on a career with more social value. She has since worked as a writer, translator and editor for several publications. She now lives in Guadalajara and is the Editor-in-Chief ofMéxico Design magazine.