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


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