Mexico is fighting two wars at once: a bloody battle against drug cartels and a less publicized but equally vexing public relations battle against the United States.
Just look at who is listed in the most recent issue of Forbes magazine as the 701st richest person on the planet. It’s none other than Jorge “El Chapo” Guzman, the reputed head of the Sinaloa cartel. The magazine claims that Guzman is worth about $1 billion.
Given that about 8,000 Mexicans have died as the result of a war against people like Guzman, Mexican officials are furious at Forbes. Mexican President Felipe Calderon criticized the magazine and the rest of the U.S. media for “not only attacking and lying about the situation in Mexico but also praising criminals.” Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora blasted Forbes for “comparing the deplorable activity of a criminal wanted in Mexico and abroad with that of honest businessmen.”
The Mexicans were already in a bad mood thanks to their neighbors. A few weeks ago, the U.S. State Department put out an explicit travel advisory, warning Americans that drug violence made travel in Mexico a dicey proposition. Many American tourists appear to have taken heed, putting their spring break plans on hold and staying away from Mazatlan, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta. In fact, a cab driver in Vallarta told me that the charming resort town — which once claimed among its famous residents Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — hadn’t really had its traditional spring break surge in tourism and that it looked as if it wasn’t going to happen this year.
Mexicans resent the hit being taken by their tourism industry, which usually brings in more than $12 billion per year. And they’re angry at the hypocrisy of Americans who criticize Mexico for drug violence while buying the drugs and supplying the guns that produce the violence. Now Calderon and members of his administration are upset that an American magazine is glorifying the very criminal element that the Americans helped create and that now has them running scared.
The Mexican government needs to open up a new offensive and spend tens of millions of dollars on a publicity campaign to convince Americans that it’s safe to visit Mexico. Closer to home, it also needs to cleanse its own culture. This country has had a long fascination with the rogue, the rebel, and the outlaw. In the mid-19th century, when the United States — drunk on Manifest Destiny — invaded Mexico, the Mexicans put their hopes for revenge in scofflaws such as Juan Cortina and Joaquin Murrieta. About 60 years later, during the Mexican Revolution, people rallied around a pair of insurgents: Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Naturally, Villa later parlayed his popularity into a career in politics.
Today, it is drug traffickers who enjoy public adoration. They’re the Robin Hoods, apt to show up in impoverished areas with boxes of groceries or toys for children. They’re the inspiration for corridos, Mexican folk ballads. Not surprisingly, many young boys want to grow up to be just like them, a decision that sends many of them to early graves. Lately, according to the Los Angeles Times and other sources, the narcos have sponsored protests against the military by paying poor people sometimes as little as $30 a head to hit the streets. The idea is to pressure the Calderon government to give up the fight.
Mexicans have been riding this tiger for years and only recently have come to grips with the price they pay for doing so. With the Mexican government shutting down much of the export to the United States, the drug lords have had to develop a local market. Cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine are suddenly flooding Mexico. In five years, addiction will be destroying the most precious institution in this country: the family.
Many Mexicans still seem ambivalent about Calderon’s war on drugs. But, slowly, they’re coming around to why it has to be fought, and, more importantly, why it cannot be lost.