Violence, drugs, corruption: On 200th birthday, Mexico troubled by what it sees in the mirror

By Mark Stevenson, AP
Sunday, September 12, 2010

On 200th birthday, Mexico battered but not broken

MEXICO CITY — The movie that Mexican director Luis Estrada is putting out for his country’s bicentennial is bluntly named “Hell.”

Like many Mexicans, Estrada says there is little to celebrate in Mexico today, with its violence, corruption and inequity. Yet in another way, the harshly critical movie shows how far the country has come — it was made with government funding, and nobody tried to censor it.

“I think this should be seen as enormous progress,” Estrada says.

As Mexico limps into the bicentennial of its 1810 independence uprising, it is battered and full of self-questioning, but with more openness and debate than perhaps at any other time in its history.

The bicentennial marks the 1810 uprising led by Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo, who gathered a band of Indians and farmers under the banner of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe. He was caught and executed soon afterward, but by 1821 the movement he started ousted the Spanish, a feat Mexicans celebrate Sept. 15-16.

“A bicentennial should inspire and generate hope, and this one hasn’t,” notes longtime environmental and consumer activist Alejandro Calvillo. “It comes at a time of deep crisis.”

Why couldn’t it have been in 1976, when Mexico was flush with oil money? Or in 1993, when Mexico negotiated the North American Free Trade agreement with the U.S., portrayed as a ticket to prosperity? Or in 2000, when the country experienced the first democratic transition of power in its history?

But all those “victories” proved hollow. The oil is running out. NAFTA failed to lift Mexican wages or stem migration. And democracy — in a country with no ballot initiatives, independent candidates or open city council meetings — has only strengthened the grip of the three main political parties.

A Pew Research Center poll released in August shows 79 percent of Mexicans are dissatisfied with the country’s direction. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton jumped into the fray last week, saying that Mexico, plagued with drug-running and violence, is looking more and more how Colombia looked two decades ago.

Mexico seems to be slipping behind: Chinese auto workers who once earned wages their Mexican counterparts wouldn’t stoop to take now earn more. Mexico’s cherished role as defender of Latin America’s right to self-determination has largely been taken over by Brazil and Venezuela. And Mexico’s view of itself as the protector of refugees was badly shaken when drug cartel gunmen massacred 72 mainly Central American migrants in the north in August.

“We are a generous and hospitable people, without doubt, but now we are realizing with shock and shame that we have become a corrupt and murderous country,” the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico wrote in an editorial.

Perhaps what Mexicans have to celebrate is their own endurance — the real glue that’s held the country together for centuries.

“We won’t migrate, and we won’t allow ourselves to be defeated,” says Victor Suarez, 57, who started a national farm cooperative movement in 1995, right after NAFTA opened the door to imports of U.S. grain. Suarez’ group now negotiates better prices for about 60,000 small farmers, and has built 200 grain warehouses.

“Farmers are the country’s future,” he says. “We are fighting to save something that is key to the national identity.”

Yet in the past 15 years, Suarez says he’s seen increasing numbers of poor farmers migrate to the United States, or be recruited by drug gangs to work as hitmen or lookouts, or to plant marijuana or opium. In a country where roughly 10 percent of the population has migrated abroad — and a Pew Research Center poll shows another 33 percent would like to do so — merely remaining is often a statement in itself.

That’s especially true in Ciudad Juarez, where drug violence has killed more than 4,000 people since 2009, making it one of the deadliest cities in the world. The violence is so bad that the city canceled its Independence Day celebration for the first time since Pancho Villa raided towns along the border during the 1910-1917 Revolution.

A restaurant owner in the violence-wracked border city — he asked for his name not be printed to avoid reprisals — isn’t leaving, even after gunmen barged into his eatery one year ago to demand protection money. He moved his family to El Paso, Texas and opened another eatery there, but he remained in Juarez to keep his business open and continue providing jobs for his 10 employees.

“My dad started this place on a shoestring,” he says, amid the warm smell of his family’s turkey burritos. “I want to stay here, I’m from Juarez, and I’m going to stay and help my employees’ families as long as I can….I’m not going to let some bastards run me out.”

Mexicans are losing faith in many institutions. After the hero in Estrada’s movie bursts into a bicentennial celebration and mows down corrupt figures — a drug lord, a mayor, police chief and local priest — with an assault rifle, audiences in Mexico City clapped.

But the search for new values is somewhat disorienting. For most of its 200 years, Mexico was dominated by three institutions, whose buildings loomed over hundreds of town squares: the church, the city hall and the house of the most prominent family.

The church — whose falling number of priests can hardly serve their flocks anymore — now strives to be relevant in a country where most still list themselves as nominally Catholic, but hardly ever attend mass anymore.

Rev. Alejandro Solalinde runs a shelter for Central American migrants in the southern state of Oaxaca, where he has braved threats from corrupt officials and drug gangs. Even Solalinde questions his church and his country’s direction.

“I think that nationalism isn’t much help any more,” he said. “I think what we need is new humanism, that places value on the individual human being.”

Today, one of the buildings on a Mexican town square is likely to be an evangelical temple. Evangelical and Protestant groups provide involvement and a sense of revivalism, holding “prayer meetings for peace” in places like Ciudad Juarez.

Other aspects of life are changing; today, a Mexican town square is likely to hold an Internet cafe, a money exchange for migrant remittances, and a store selling plastic Chinese sandals instead of leather huaraches.

The family remains a bulwark, albeit one that is often split by mass migration. But the enormous, close-knit Mexican family may be a thing of the past; Mexico’s birth rate has fallen from about 7 children per woman in the late 1960s to 2.1 today.

Upper-middle class Mexicans today are firmly implanted in the developed world, with iPhones, modern apartments, high education levels and small families. They sometimes feel ignored amid all the talk of violence: Mexico’s nationwide murder rate, after all, is a relatively low 14 per 100,000, well below the average for Latin America.

“The dangerous, violent, tragic, dangerous, corrupt and cynical Mexico is not the country most Mexicans belong to,” philanthropist Manuel Arango wrote in an open letter in August. “The millions who go to work everyday, despite street protests that often block traffic, who work to get ahead and support their families … this invisible Mexico is the real Mexico.”

Today, Mexico has strong civic movements on issues like crime, human rights and environmental protection that didn’t exist 25 years ago. And despite suffering the most severe recession since the 1930s in 2009, the country has sound government finances and growing accountability. There is also now a truly independent Supreme Court.

Yet a few rich still hold the reigns of the country’s highly-concentrated economy, where one or two firms dominate key sectors like television, telephones, cement, and food distribution. Half of the country’s 107 million people live in poverty. Mexico is home to both the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, whose fortune is estimated at about $53.5 billion, and about 20 million Mexicans who live on less than $3 per day.

“Closing the gap that separates these two Mexicos is a commitment we owe to the heroes of the past, and to Mexicans of today and tomorrow,” Calderon said in Sept. 1 speech.

In the meantime, social activists are trying change Mexico in various ways. Mothers whose children disappeared in counterinsurgency or police campaigns have taken to washing the Mexican flag in a tub of water outside the steps of the country’s Supreme Court in the weeks leading up to the bicentennial. They say the flag has been stained with blood and needs to be cleaned.

A quasi-military group, the Pentatlon Deportivo, believes military-style discipline, personal development and an ardent, nationalist love of Mexico are the cures for the country’s ills. In Mexico City, teenage Pentatlon recruits jog down the tree-lined main boulevard, dropping to calisthenics and chanting “I will train very hard, because I’m no coward/I will give my life for my country … to end all the evil.”

Others, like Calvillo, are trying to organize consumers to pressure the country’s powerful, highly-monopolized business sector, with campaigns to stop big corporations from selling junk food in schools in Mexico, where children simultaneously suffer from malnutrition and one of the world’s highest obesity rates.

And some are trying to use the courts to introduce class-action lawsuits taking on big business. But activism can only do so much; for example, antiquated labor laws make union organizing nearly impossible, and wealth and power often prevail in Mexico’s bureaucratic, opaque court system.

“It’s a contradictory situation, because on the one hand, people are a little desperate and want to participate, but the lack of democratic processes discourages that,” Calvillo said. “Because of the situation, people … kind of retreat into their private lives and try to solve their own problems.”

This year also marks the centennial of the 1910-1917 revolution, when the old heroes like Emiliano Zapata and Villa overthrew the dictatorship of Porfiro Diaz on behalf of small, impoverished farmers.

One hundred years later, most farms remain small and impoverished, and the “revolutionary” rhetoric that helped keep the PRI in power for 71 years — a paternalistic government that would hand out subsidies, housing projects and sports complexes — has faded just like the paint on government-built apartment blocks.

The 2000 presidential elections — won by President Felipe Calderon’s conservative National Action party — marked the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. Embarrassingly, Calderon’s administration has had to delay a park and a commemorative arch for the bicentennial, because some of the work had to be done abroad.

Today, Mexicans are looking less to the government than ever before; they have largely tired of the official version of what it means to be Mexican.

At Mexico City’s alternative music market every Saturday, Mexican Goths in black robes and white face powder mix with punk and rock fans known as “skaters.” With shaggy hair, ripped jeans and skateboard, graffiti artist and high-school student Antonio Yanez, 19, likes U.S. bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Flaming Lips, but defines his Mexican identity as something that strikes to the ageless core of the country.

“Being a Mexican is about working hard, getting ahead by your own efforts,” Yanez says. “It’s like, looking for some way to get ahead, even when there is no way, and just hoping to find it.”

Associated Press Writer Olivia Torres contributed to this report

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