On the Other Side


Some of the fellows and the author at Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City.
This is a guest post by Andres Martinez, who directs the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.
A group of New America Foundation Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows seized upon an opportunity recently to visit one of our nation’s most overlooked strategic partners – Mexico, the one next door (I know, I know, Canada, you feel the same way–maybe next year). We were invited to an impressive TED-like conference in Puebla called “Ciudad de las Ideas” put on by Grupo Salinas featuring the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Dawkins, Chris Anderson and Jarred Diamond, but were also able to tack on a couple of whirlwind days in Mexico City to meet with leading senators from the three major parties, business leaders, prominent media, the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and President Felipe Calderon’s national security adviser.

I grew up in Mexico, so I feel a parochial frustration at how low that nation ranks among the foreign priorities of American media and policy elites. Our fellows on this trip were a representative group, in that many of them have spent time in China, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, but only one other person on our trip had been to Mexico City.
It is always great to see a familiar place through the eyes of a first-timer, particularly smart, perceptive first-timers. And Mexico City is puzzling in its own way, more bustling and prosperous than most first-timers might imagine, and far safer as well, with tacos that are maddeningly better than anything “on the other side” (as Mexicans describe the world north of the Rio Grande). And how the heck did Trotsky end up here? (his house where Stalin finally got to him, and where he is buried, was our own quirky sightseeing detour).
The country’s positives – its resources, pride, culture, cuisine and so on – are all so abundantly evident to anyone who focuses on the country for even a minute, they make the country’s serious problems harder to understand, and harder to excuse. As Sergio Sarmiento, one of Mexico’s most insightful political commentators told the group, it’s hard to explain how Mexico went from being richer than the American colonies in the 18th Century, to being one-fifth as rich as the U.S. today (on a per-capita basis).
In terms of the moment, Mexico’s economy has bounced back well from a terrible 2009. Our neighbor might create more jobs – net, not on a proportional basis – than the U.S. economy will in 2010. But longer term, Mexico continues to suffer from a crisis of governance, and there are few signs that the Mexican political system is capable of raising educational standards (we’re talking quality of education, not access to it) to the levels needed for a middle-income nation to thrive in the 21st Century. Nor does the system appear capable of overhauling its oil industry, a sacred political cow that won’t be able to be milked for much longer unless the state finds a way to bring in foreign companies to invest in deep sea exploration. There are plenty of spoils to be shared in the moment among the powers that be, but also layers of dogma and history to argue against change, leaving many Mexicans to feel that despite the democratic opening of 2000 that has resulted in competitive elections and boisterous free speech, the “system” at its core remains the same.
Most of the meetings we held with dignitaries, unfortunately, were off the record. But on the timely issue of the drug war and the violence that has so shaken Mexico in recent years, we came away with three takeaways.
First, the Mexican state is doing a lot of things right, but it may not be enough. The government is working hard to build more law-enforcement capacity and to coordinate state and municipal forces in the war against cartels, but it is hard to understand what the endgame is so long as there remains a pot of $25 to $40 billion in profits for the cartels to make “on the other side.” And as much as many Mexican intellectuals were disappointed that California voters just said no to marijuana, the idea that legalization could solve all Mexico’s problems seems a tad simplistic. Marijuana, after all, accounts for less than a fifth of the cartels’ profits. Not that these are great days to be a capo of a Mexican cartel – the government is doing an impressive job of hunting them down, but this only seems to beget more violence, for many of the reasons that will be familiar to fans of mafia movies.
Second, as in plenty of other fine democracies, the opposition in Mexico is quite adept at criticizing the current strategy in the showdown with the cartels, without necessarily offering a constructive alternative. We heard none during the trip.
Third, Mexico and the United States continue to talk past each other on what is truly a shared problem, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made clear. It’s hard not to empathize with the Mexican perspective that tens of thousands of Mexicans are dying as a result of America’s appetite for illegal drugs. The consumption creating the demand is “on the other side,” as are the dollars and guns recycled back to Mexico to fuel the violence. Several of the prominent Mexicans we met with said, with varying degrees of sarcasm, that they understand and respect America’s “idiosyncratic” belief in the right to purchase assault weapons while pointing out that this is a real problem, especially when the idiosyncrasy can be transported across the border. They also scoffed at the substance of the bilateral Plan Merida – “we could find a way to buy a couple of used helicopters ourselves” – while acknowledging that it has symbolic significance, as a sign that Washington shares responsibility for what is happening. But it isn’t even clear what more Mexico would accept from its northern neighbor, given sensitivities about sovereignty and bad historical associations when it comes to American military personnel south of the Rio Grande. This isn’t Colombia, which had no qualms about accepting U.S. airfields and hundreds of military advisers and trainers as part of the far more robust Plan Colombia.
The U.S. Embassy is President Calderon’s top cheerleader in Mexico, sincerely impressed by the government’s determination and commitment to take on the drug cartels “to the last consequences” (as Calderon puts it). And all the American talk of “shared responsibility” is much appreciated, even as no one knows what that should translate into, beyond the much-derided helicopters delivered per Plan Merida.
Mexico defies simple categories. It isn’t a failed state; it isn’t even Colombia, facing a widespread insurgency that is now decades-old. But it is a fledgling democracy struggling to contain a tidal wave of violence and corruption outsourced by American drug users. Mexico is resilient and is likely to prevail in the long run, but in the meantime, sadly, the issue of security and drugs are distracting both Mexico City and Washington from addressing other shared challenges, from regional economic development to immigration.
— Andres Martinez


11 comments on “On the Other Side

  1. Randy says:

    Thank you for the insight into your country, Ms. Martinez.


  2. Don Bacon says:

    Okay. “She had her reasons” would be more accurate.


  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “There were reasons”
    It suprises me seeing you say that, Don. Many people go through severe trials in life, yet are spared the agony of addiction.
    Surely you must recognize the role physical predisposition plays, genetic or simply individually physiological.


  4. Don Bacon says:

    Frida Kahlo, the most important amour of the muralist Diego Rivera, and a great artist herself, spent much of her adult life addicted to drugs and alcohol. There were reasons.
    Frida’s life was a long series of physical traumas, and the first of these came early. At the age of six she was stricken with polio, which left her with a limp. In 1925, Kahlo suffered the serious accident which was to set the pattern for much of the rest of her life. She was traveling in a bus which collided with a tramcar and suffered serious injuries to her right leg and pelvis. In 1926, during her convalescence, she painted her first self-portrait, the beginning of a long series in which she charted the events of her life and her emotional reactions to them.
    Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s husband, commented on her work while he was doing some murals in Detroit: “Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art – paintings which exalted the feminine quality of truth, reality, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida did at this time in Detroit.”
    Check out her work, if you haven’t.


  5. nadine says:

    Casa Azul. What an appropriate pilgrimage site for your group.


  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    And actually, yes, American consumption is a huge part of the problem.
    But people tend to forget that Mexico CREATED the market back in the sixties. Now they wanna whine about how successfully they marketed their dope? They are no longer responsible for their part in it? Anybody else remember ten dollar lids and eighty dollar kilos?
    Yeah, we’re addicted, but Mexico got us hooked.


  7. JohnH says:

    With “a pot of $25 to $40 billion in profits for the cartels to make” on the US side of the border, does it ever occur to anyone in a think tank in Washington to ask a simple question: why aren’t any of the folks running the US drug distribution operation ever brought to trial? You simply cannot operate a business of that size without substantial management resources located in the US.
    Could the absence of law enforcement targeting drug kingpins be for the same reason that no one on Wall Street gets tried for crimes relating to the financial collapse and mortgage mess? Or why no defense contractors ever get tried for corruption in procurement?
    Mexico certainly has its problems with drugs, violence, and widespread corruption. But, like Mexico, America has growing set of problems relating whether the rule of law still remotely applies to the rich and powerful.


  8. Maw of America says:

    Hey, I just saw Greg last night! He mentioned this trip.


  9. non-hater says:

    Gabriel is right – US foreign policy is deeply warped and the US pays far too much attention on the Middle East and far too little on Latin America. However, for Latin America, the lack of focus might be a good thing. Look what happened during the 70s and 80s. More recently, I don’t think the US helped with the situation in Honduras, though at least the US didn’t launch an invasion.


  10. Gabriel says:

    Thank you Andres for this very perceptive report… I share your frustrations, having grown up in Mexico but lived most of my adult life here. A fraction of the attention and money that goes to the Middle East would have gone a long way towards minimizing some of these issues, and I have long wondered why this is so. If Americans would only know that Mexico is the powerhouse of Spanish America, and rivals Brazil for leadership of the most important of the world’s region for this country and its fastest-growing demographic group inside, then perhaps things would change. Instead, endless attention and money to Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan… 1% of the money spent there the last decade for a North American Development Bank would have transformed the situation… the EU would envy us. Instead, lets give Bibi another bribe so he can then turn around and humiliate the US… but we’re not supposed to say that because some people get the vapors if we say it…


  11. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Uh, if and when you get to talk to any Mexican bigwigs, will ya do me a favor???
    Ask ’em if they intend to do groin searches of those slinking over our borders everyday, and what they are doing to assure the United States that it is only Latinos and drugs that they are allowing over.
    Ask if is there some sort of magical barrier in place that stops religious wackos from coming in, both the radical Islamic kind, and the God’s Chosen People False Flagger kind? Perhaps a people sniffing death ray machine that only targets non-latinos?? I mean gosh, our fine upstanding leaders wouldn’t have these knights in shining armor, the TSA, groping our children’s genitals if all an Al Qaedy monster had to do was simply stroll over our southern border, would they? Surely not!
    “Fledgling Democracy” indeed. Equal bribery rights for all, where anyone, with enough money, can buy off the government, on a local level, or all the way to the top. But rest assured America, its only drugs and laborers they let through, the nasty Al Qaedy monster is too stupid to figure out if drugs and laborers can get through, so can anything else.
    Drop your drawers America, there are those among you who have children with exploding balls.
    Uncle Sam will protect you, have no fear.
    They should have the agent tell you to cough while conducting his groin search. Then they could send you a bill! In fact, if they do this right they could check for prostate cancer too, and jack up the price further. Think of the revenue it would generate. Heck, we’d be able to afford to invade Yemen, nuke Iran, and give the Israelis twenty more state of the art fighter jets!


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