This article is excerpted from a longer one written by Mexican author and historian Enrique Krauze, editorial director of Letras Libres. The original article was published March 16 in The Nation magazine.
Mexico is many Mexicos. Large regions of the country are peaceful, but the sources of their peace have mostly gone unnoticed. Consider, for example, the extensive territory at the center of the country known as the Bajío, which includes Guanajuato, Querétaro, and Aguascalientes. Thanks to their exports (including automobiles, computers, and airplanes), the economies of these three states have steadily been growing, respectively, at rates of 4.5, 6.4, and 11.3 percent. And there are buoyant zones of tourism like Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Mexico City itself, though not entirely free of crime, has a rich cultural life and solid institutions, both public and private, for education and health. And especially in comparison with neighboring countries, Mexico is far less dependent on its oil production due to the diversification of its economy: the general growth of commerce, services, manufacturing, and agricultural exports, as well as tourism and the remittances of Mexicans working in the United States.
But for many of our citizens, especially the young, all this remains virtually ignored. This is perfectly understandable, because in another Mexico there have been too many terrible events: the murder of students, journalists, and mayors; corruption scandals; violence-laced teacher strikes; the rise of new drug cartels; bloody encounters between the military and organized crime; the lynching of local criminals or suspected criminals by irate citizens. It is this Mexico that draws the attention of the national and international press, which have made the country synonymous with “drugs and crime.”
The widespread sense of dissatisfaction and discouragement in Mexico has been rigorously documented in “Trust in Latin America 1995–2005: 20 Years of Latin American Public Opinion,” a report recently published by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean institution that measures public opinion in Latin America. The report states that about 40 percent of all Latin Americans feel satisfied with democratic government, while in Mexico only 21 percent of the population does. The causes of disenchantment are not intrinsic to the country’s democratic system: 60 percent of Mexicans rate democracy superior to any alternative. Instead, they have to do with the actions of Mexican politicians. According to the Latinobarómetro report, Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, has an approval rate of 35 percent—in Latin America, only Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Ollanta Humala of Peru, and Horacio Cartes of Paraguay rank lower. Mexico’s faith in its Congress is even lower, as is the country’s confidence in its major political parties. An immense majority of Mexicans—nearly 80 percent—believe that there are no honest elections, that the fight against corruption has been ineffective, and that the government does not serve the interests of the people. In all of these matters, the average attitudes in other countries across Latin America are less harsh.
Three out of every four Mexicans interviewed by Latinobarómetro expressed “a feeling of national economic deterioration,” a sentiment more common in countries with far worse economic situations, such as Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, and now Brazil. Another serious problem is criminality, which throughout the region is felt to be a graver threat than unemployment. Mexico is no exception, but here the most alarming thing is the immediacy of the threat. More than half of the Mexicans polled had been the victim of a recent crime or knew someone who was. Only respondents from Venezuela reported a higher rate of living in fear of crime.
Discouragement, as a state of national depression, is a potent emotion that tars everything it touches. A person who feels it doesn’t make distinctions or deal with necessary subtleties. There are many factors behind this, but let me focus on a few. Through more than three decades, despite relative progress, the economy has been nearly stagnant for many Mexicans (national economic growth through this period has been about 2.7 percent). Also, according to data collected by Coneval (a government agency that evaluates the conditions of the poor), the poverty rate has remained unacceptably high. As of 2014, Coneval reported, 46.2 million Mexicans were living in poverty. There is an enormous and very obvious inequality in the gap between the many Mexican billionaires and those who endure poverty as searing as it is painfully visible. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also called attention to the unaccountable nature and high administrative costs of Mexico’s healthcare system.
An equally important cause of discouragement is generational. Mexico is a country of young people. The last two adult generations of Mexicans—Generation X, born approximately between 1965 and 1980, and the millennials, born between 1980 and 2000—account for 70 percent of the population. Naturally enough, they tend to pay little attention to positive economic trends because they didn’t experience, as adults, the low points of recent Mexican history: the inflation and food-shortage crises of the 1970s; the financial bankruptcy of 1982 (due to excessive state control and a dependence on oil when the world price suddenly collapsed); the economic disasters of the 1990s that sent millions of Mexicans across the northern border in search of a better life. And while the overall economic picture has improved, many young people feel left behind by stagnant wages and increases in the cost of living. From 1970 to 2000, still under the PRI, salaries declined and an immense public debt remained, with low national monetary reserves and a high rate of inflation. Since 2000, some of these negative tendencies, including emigration, have clearly been reversed, which has allowed Mexico to somewhat avert the crises that have struck other Latin American countries since 2007, including the fall in the price of oil and the devaluation of the currencies in relation to the dollar.
There’s a similar lack of memory in the realm of politics. Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, which endured military dictatorships into the 1980s, now have a greater appreciation of democracy. But for the young generations of Mexico, “the system” belongs to prehistory. Perhaps if they fully comprehended the barbarous Mexican political customs of the 20th century, they would be a bit less pessimistic. Elections used to be theatrical events carefully designed and organized by successive PRI governments to ensure the almost complete triumph of their candidates: 32 state governors, federal and state legislatures, and some 2,500 municipal presidents (the equivalent of mayors). In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, opposition voters, whom one PRI president peevishly termed “mystics of the vote,” were intimidated in various ways or else silenced by gunfire. The PRI eventually developed techniques to adulterate the vote: manipulation of the voting lists; sending brigades of volunteers to cast their ballots multiple times at different voting stations; registering the votes of people who were ineligible or incapable of voting, such as children, the severely handicapped, and even the dead. In 1988, electronic manipulation of the results was added to the repertoire, and enabled the PRI to steal the election.
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It would be both absurd and unfair to blame the young for not remembering what they did not live through; every generation in history has suffered from that inevitable amnesia. And it may be that we of the older generations have failed to adequately transmit the history of “the system.” The great economic errors and political manipulations of those years are not taught in schools. And apart from the yearly commemoration of the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco, the recent past is missing from our modern political debate.
But beyond the issue of memory, it’s important to understand that the political situation is very different today. Almost all of the PRI’s practices have faded into oblivion, with the serious and unacceptable exceptions of the solicitation of votes through bribery and the use of the media to promote a favored candidate. Participation in presidential elections has been steadily increasing: from 58 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2012. Midterm elections have traditionally attracted very few voters, but those in July 2015, which selected national representatives as well as some governors and mayors, saw 48 percent of the electorate (approximately 40 million Mexicans) going to the polls—a turnout higher than the previous midterms of 2009. More than 1 million citizens counted the votes and supervised the voting process. There were scattered incidents of violence, notably in the troubled states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, but in contrast to 2006 and 2012, there were fewer allegations of voting fraud.
Before 2000, political candidates were almost always men, and just a few marginal parties challenged the PRI, which nearly always won every office. In 2015, women ran in much greater numbers, and many were victorious: 42 percent of the national representatives are now women. In 2015, there was also a range of options in parties and ideologies: The PAN and the PRI put up candidates, but so too did MORENA (a new party of the left founded by the PRD’s presidential candidate of 2006 and ’12, Andrés Manuel López Obrador) and other small parties. And for the first time, independent candidates unaffiliated with the standard parties participated in the elections. Most important, the citizens of Mexico demonstrated their willingness to punish the parties in power: In five of the nine states that held gubernatorial elections, the incumbent parties were defeated. In Mexico City, most of the voting districts passed into the hands of MORENA and other parties opposed to the old leftist PRD. In the Congress, the PRI of President Peña Nieto had to form a coalition with one small satellite party, the Green Party, to secure a qualified majority. At least in terms of electoral participation, gender equality, varied and competitive options, shifts of power, and electoral honesty, it can be said that democracy is alive and functioning better than it did in the past.
In still other ways, the present order is certainly preferable. The “supporting struts” of the system—the all-powerful president and the hegemonic party—have not been rebuilt. The presidency has various limits on its range of action, and the division of powers, formerly a fiction, is quite real. The Central Bank is now an autonomous entity, as is the Supreme Court. The present critical role of the press and the radio (though not national television) would have been unimaginable several decades ago. In addition to these traditional media, there are social networks, ubiquitous and implacable if not always reliable. Mexico’s mammoth capital city, where the government massacred the student protesters of ’68, is now one of the most open and liberal in the world in terms of politics, religion, ideology, and sexual freedom.
Why, then, is there such acute dissatisfaction in Mexico with the process of democracy? The younger generations’ lack of a sense of history is a genuine but lesser cause. The greater cause has to do with three words connected, in the public imagination and in reality, with politics and politicians: corruption, violence, and impunity.
* * *
In 1986, Gabriel Zaid, a respected essayist and critic, wrote that “Corruption is not an inconvenient characteristic of ‘the system.’ It is the system.” He was unfortunately correct: Corruption was the modus operandi of the PRI. More than a political party, the PRI was a mechanism for electoral control and political patronage that turned public money into private loot. It was also a key means of social mobility. Various groups swarmed around the lure of public money: unions and peasant organizations, white-collar employees and bureaucrats, academics and businessmen, journalists and intellectuals. They were paid in cash as well as goods and services, concessions, and other varied benefits in exchange for their votes and obedience. If a functionary chose to be honest, it wasn’t out of fear of the law, but because of personal integrity. In 1990, Mario Vargas Llosa incisively declared that the system had turned Mexico into “the perfect dictatorship.”
“A politician who is poor is a poor politician,” Carlos Hank González used to say. “The Professor,” as he was known, was the system’s perfect representative. Refined and solemn, he held political offices that enabled him to build links with the private sector, gliding freely between the two worlds and amassing an immense fortune in various businesses: auto parts, infrastructure, energy, and banking. He was one of the richest and most successful politicians of his day, but his mode of operation was in no way exceptional. Every six years, with the arrival of a new president, the country would produce a brood of rich politicians without anyone daring to investigate the origins of their fortunes, much less hold them responsible. As a means of projecting his power across a number of presidential terms, the Professor consolidated the Grupo Atlacomulco, a group of politicians from the state of Mexico (which abuts the capital city). In 1958, they raised one of their own, Adolfo López Mateos, to the presidency. And the group’s members, from then on, were abundantly present in subsequent PRI governments. Although Hank González was their leader until his death in 2001, the influence of the Grupo Atlacomulco took on new vigor with the candidacy of Peña Nieto, who went from governor of the state of Mexico to the presidency. (The state is one of the most populous and richest in the country, and has been governed by the PRI since the party’s founding more than 80 years ago.) In his day, the Professor’s career was seen as almost atavistic—something folkloric, but at the same time an inevitable result of the system.
Relatively speaking, things have changed. It may well be that the creation in 2002 of the Federal Institute for Access to Information (now the National Institute for Access to Information, or INAI), as well as the aggressive work of people in radio, the press, and social media, have imposed greater obstacles to corruption on the federal level. At the very least, scandals have been exposed and discussed that in the Professor’s day would have remained in the shadows or been uncovered only by Proceso, the magazine founded in 1976 by the courageous journalist Julio Scherer. (It was Scherer, for example, who exposed the details of an unethical favor from Hank González that resulted in a new mansion for then-President José López Portillo.) But these days, it’s not only Proceso that unearths such scandals; they are reported daily in the press and to some extent on the radio. Corruption no longer seems “atavistic” or “folkloric” to the Mexican public; it is regarded these days as shameful and intolerable. Because this sewer of corruption is now wide open, enormous indignation greeted the revelation in 2014, by the journalist Carmen Aristegui, that President Peña Nieto’s wife had purchased, on generous terms, a mansion from a construction company favored by the government. Although the sale was investigated by an official commission, and the president was officially cleared of any “conflict of interest,” the revelation damaged the image of Peña Nieto and the prestige of democracy. What good is it, Mexicans wonder, if a president elected by a majority of the vote uses his public position for private ends?
Despite the fall of the system in 2000, corruption not only continues but has become more pronounced and widespread. With the transition to democracy, it has migrated and laid down strong roots in some of Mexico’s 32 states. Freed from central control but rich in federal aid, state governments have now replicated the system within their own domains. As a result, there exists the well-founded suspicion, even where it cannot (at least currently) be proved, that some governors and their collaborators have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars during their six-year terms in office. In the states of Nuevo León and Coahuila, governors Rodrigo Medina and Humberto Moreira passed gigantic budgets yet left immense debts that cannot be rationally explained. According to the Mexican Institute for International Competitiveness, 41 governors were involved in corruption scandals between 2000 and 2013. Of those, only 16 were officially investigated, and only four were charged with any crime. Two of those four were found guilty, and only two remain in prison. To note another prominent example, in the state of Tamaulipas, three former PRI governors are being investigated by the Mexican attorney general for links to the drug trade. Only the former governor of Quintana Roo (Mario Villanueva) has been arrested and convicted for such crimes.
Added to the general problem of corruption is the terrifying issue of impunity. When people are victims or even potential victims of a crime and know that it will go unpunished, the impact on their economic activities can be deeply discouraging. Consider the desperate situation of farmers, doctors, and small businessmen harassed by extortion in so many Mexican towns in the states of Guerrero, Puebla, and Morelos. Many of these people abandon their professions, their property, and their cities to protect themselves and their families. Or consider an example of the opposite: the economic rebirth of avocado exporters in Michoacán, free—at least for now—of the extortion industry that seriously damaged their businesses. When crime goes unpunished, political progress and the achievement of greater freedoms lose much of their value. In various cities, especially in the states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas, organized crime (which some observers link to municipal and state authorities) murders journalists, silences accusers (even on social networks), and terrorizes the population.
In the latter part of the 19th century, President Porfirio Díaz controlled criminal violence through his personal dictatorship. His enforcers were the so-called “political chieftains” (who held power in local areas) and the governors of states (formally elected but in reality appointed by Díaz). In the 20th century, the PRI’s “perfect dictatorship” maintained order through state-sanctioned violence, Mafia-like pacts with the criminal underworld, and by means of terror: disappearances, tortures, assassinations. In the 21st century, Mexico can no longer confront violence with a personal dictatorship, but only through the rule of law. What is needed is a state that respects its own criminal laws and enforces them across the population, including officials who engage in corrupt and criminal acts. But the experience of the 20th century on issues of criminal justice has left Mexico ill-prepared for the construction of such a state.
* * *
The feeling that la vida no vale nada—“life is worth nothing”—is an old one in Mexico. It stems from our serious but also jocular fascination with death, a trait that some poets and anthropologists have traced back to pre-Hispanic human sacrifices. But la vida no vale nada is more than mythical, cultural, and artistic: It’s quite real. The Mexican Revolution—with its legendary characters like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and its echoes in the murals of Diego Rivera, epic novels, and the cinema—has nourished this fascination. “The festival of bullets,” as one writer called the revolution, remains engraved in the collective memory as a powerful myth of redemption. The state that “emanated” from the revolution claimed that its principal obligation was to provide justice, and the use of violence was vindicated through this quest. Informed by a past of such sanctified violence, the Mexican sense of “social justice” developed not as a principle of law, but as the ability to distribute wealth in exchange for political support. This served not only to legitimate the revolutionary governments (as well as measures in support of social equality), but also to empty the word “justice” (especially in the field of criminal law) of its true and complete meaning.
During the days of the PRI’s system, state and municipal authorities investigated and prosecuted some crimes. But when those crimes remained unsolved and became visible at the national level, the president or the attorney general (who was and continues to be his subordinate) would threaten to replace local authorities—even though, at least theoretically, they had been elected by popular vote. This pyramid of intimidation worked: From 1930 to the end of the 20th century, the homicide rate in Mexico dropped from 65 to 10 per 100,000 inhabitants. Criminal groups in general, and particularly drug dealers (who were much weaker than the present-day cartels), were subordinated to the federal executive power by various political, police, or military agencies that controlled and protected them, imposed the rules of the game, and, very often, received a cut of the proceeds.
This politicization of justice was much less pronounced in other areas, such as civil, business, or labor law. But it dominated in criminal law, especially when it came to organized crime and drug trafficking, and it inhibited the development of the professions involved with investigating crime and administering justice: criminologists, detectives, judges, and public prosecutors. Nor did the various police forces become even remotely modernized or truly professional; rather, they functioned as mere executors of state-directed violence.
Carrying this past on our shoulders, what could we hope for in the 21st century? We trusted that our recently achieved electoral democracy would usher in a world of peace, order, and legality, but we were lacking in institutions, adequate personnel, and juridical tradition and practice. What has happened is that after the shattering of the president’s political monopoly (the backbone of the traditional system), the arrival of democracy had the effect of freeing local governments, state and municipal, from oversight. And without direct pressure from the central government, these local governments have often left the fight against crime to the uncertain presence of federal actors, especially the army. With perhaps the exception of the marines, these forces can’t handle such an immense task; they are insufficiently prepared or incapable of truly respecting human rights and are uncomfortable fighting crime, a job so alien to their military missions.
Beyond this enormous institutional deficit in the area of penal justice, Mexico is also living with a “perfect storm” of additional factors, both internal and external. The arrival of democracy coincided with various phenomena favoring the extraordinary surge of Mexican criminality: the weakening of the narco gangs of Colombia and the consequent expansion of the Mexican cartels, which have now become so powerful that they can defy the state that once supervised and limited their operations. Other influences that have nourished criminality include the US and global markets for cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, and the end of the ban on the sale of assault weapons by the Bush administration in 2004, which prompted a flood of arms into Mexico. At the end of 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón, reacting to the growing power of the drug cartels, launched an inadequately prepared and almost desperate military offensive meant to wrest territory away from them. This resulted instead in a horrifying escalation of violence among the various criminal groups and against the federal, state, and municipal forces of order, which have often colluded with criminals. And the wave of violence has since expanded from the sale of drugs to a whole range of illegal activities: kidnappings, extortions, assaults, homicides, human trafficking, and the theft of oil directly from pipelines. Between 2008 and 2011, the murder rate rose from nine to 24 victims for every 100,000 Mexicans. Though the figures have somewhat declined in recent years, the persistent storm of carnage continues.
Not all of the news is bad. A few major capos have been arrested, and the danger from particularly bloodthirsty groups like the Zetas and La Familia Michoacana has lessened. A few important northern cities (Tijuana, Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez), which have long been prey to the inferno of criminality, have recently seen a decrease in their crime rates due to the participation of civil society and local businessmen, who have committed their funds and efforts to the creation and maintenance of new police units.
But other areas of Mexico are almost, in effect, no longer part of the country. In the municipalities of the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz, in Guerrero and Michoacán in western Mexico, and in parts of Morelos and the state of Mexico in central Mexico, the drug cartels have multiplied into groups that, no longer satisfied with the cultivation and sale of drugs, now terrorize the population with extortion, kidnappings, and murders. The assassins even record and share the atrocities on their cell phones. Entire villages have disappeared, and there have been massive displacements of people. At least at the municipal level, criminals no longer seek the complicity of the state: Now they aspire to become the state. When dealing with resistant mayors, capos no longer offer the old alternative of plata o plomo (literally, “silver or lead”—i.e., money or bullets). The only choice now is lead, period. The crime bosses seek the freedom to collect their own taxes and to manage local wealth. Some years ago, I received an anonymous phone call from a criminal trying to extort money. Such calls are made at random, sometimes directly from prison. The man on the line had no idea of my identity. In his attempt to frighten me into sending money, he said to me: “Here, there is no state. Only the Big Man”—presumably a narco criminal—“is in command.”
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An increasing number of Mexicans argue that the first step toward controlling organized crime and the cartels should be the full legalization of drugs, starting with marijuana. Although only a third of the population seems to accept this option, it is not improbable that, given the US government’s inability to control the sale of assault weapons, Mexico will eventually emulate Uruguay and take this step, at least to some degree. Mexicans (including those in the state itself, which in this respect is far from a “failed state”) have shown maturity and solidarity in dealing with natural disasters like earthquakes, epidemics, and hurricanes. If drugs are legalized and their consumption is treated as a problem of public health, the society and the state are likely to respond efficiently.
Gabriel Zaid believes that reform should begin with the prisons. If the state cannot control the limited territory of its prisons, he asks, how can it claim to control the entire territory of the nation? There are 240,000 prisoners housed in Mexico’s prison system, whose maximum capacity under reasonable conditions runs to about 190,000 men and women. This prison overcrowding is due in great part to the high proportion of criminals (42 percent) who have gone through the judicial process but have not yet been sentenced. The prisons are not only porous and corrupt—jointly controlled, in effect, by the inmates and the authorities—but also violent, with little internal security. And they are schools for crime. Among the measures that Zaid proposes are legislation to free petty criminals; an independent inspection of the prisons (their installations, equipment, and practices); the monitoring of all telephone calls; weekly checks and certifications on personnel; and systematic inspections by human-rights commissions.
In the area of the courts, the Mexican problem is not one of inadequate legislation but of poor implementation. In 2008, an advanced constitutional reform established a system of oral trials intended to render the dispensation of justice more rapid and transparent. This system is now being applied in select states, and will be implemented throughout the nation by the end of this year. But it will have little effect without police reform. The Mexican police operate on three levels: the federal police, 32 state agencies, and over 2,000 municipal ones. The present intention is to subsume all of the municipal police agencies into 32 units, one for each state. But there are doubts that such centralization will resolve the problems, because the level of professionalism in a number of state police forces is as low as in the municipal entities. Mexico has nothing like the Spanish Guardia Civil or Chile’s Carabineros.
It may be a national priority to create more efficient police units, but a successful transformation will depend not merely on presidential or governmental decisions; civil society must also participate consistently in the creation and safeguarding of institutions and practices. And schools, universities, and the media would have to embrace an extensive program of civic and judicial education.
To create and maintain a trustworthy national police, an autonomous federal prosecutor is an absolute necessity. In 2014, Peña Nieto sent a proposal for such an entity to Congress, but it has not yet advanced in the Senate. The creation of such an office is crucial because, as an autonomous entity, it could even watch over the actions of a president. Other autonomous institutions like the INAI, the Bank of Mexico, and the National Institute for Statistics and Geography have proven to work quite well.
In the end, nothing is more important for Mexicans than regaining a sense of security in their own lives. The threat of moral decomposition is growing. A fascination with drug dealers and anger toward the government are converging in a macabre dance. Something is rotten in Mexico. It is alarming to see—especially among young people—this sort of inversion of values, when the murderer is conceived as a hero and those who bring him to justice as criminals.
Constructing a genuine rule of law in Mexico, especially when dealing with crime, will be a lengthy endeavor—a task to be completed by the younger generations. And those generations are already here: the children and grandchildren of people like me, who marched in 1968. It seems odd that a political movement of indignant young people, such as Podemos or Ciudadanos in Spain, has not yet arisen in Mexico. But the young Mexicans who protest today have chosen other means: the Internet and, in particular, social media. Marked by energy, imagination, and humor (but also by transience and triviality), their protest is more than justified. We deeded them a house—that of democracy—with walls, a roof, and a floor, but very little else. It is not really a house so much as raw space: insecure, violent, with vast areas of great poverty and inequality. And so it makes them angry. But it is a democratic anger, virulent but neither revolutionary nor radical. For the most part, they do not want to tear down the house. They want it to be transparent and functional, as in more politically advanced countries, whose events and ways of being they meet with daily on the Internet.
Hannah Arendt said that totalitarianism arises in societies disenchanted with democracy and susceptible to the charisma of the “strongman.” The risk of totalitarianism doesn’t exist in Mexico, but the possibility of a messianic caudillo does. In the presidential elections of 2018, the young should choose to participate in the process, formulating an agenda, or better still supporting a citizen candidate of their own who would confront our great national problems with new vision and new initiatives, closing any path to an authoritarian alternative. Our transition to democracy took a great deal of effort, but it is certainly well worth the pain to consolidate it by building (almost from the roots) a state that respects the law—an entity that, among other things, can rescue and implement the original meaning of criminal justice. It is an objective no more utopian than our hopes and dreams of freedom were in 1968. They were repressed by an authoritarian government but finally realized in our time—a true achievement, despite the very real problems that remain.
Enrique Krauze is the editorial director of Letras Libres. His most recent book is Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.
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