The view from the ground.

Can Mexico Fix Its Image Problem?

Ending the drug war is only half the battle for the candidates to replace Calderon in 2012; the second half will be convincing the rest of the world that Mexico's not just a narco-state.


MEXICO CITY — About a year ago, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, I spoke to a young police official who works with juvenile delinquents. Juvenile crime is atrociously high in his state, he admits, as are homicides and recruitment of youngsters by the Sinaloa cartel. But the most damaging part, he says, is the tenacious perception of Sinaloa as a drug state, dominated by the larger-than-life figure of drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo. "Worldwide, everyone thinks we're Chapo's kids, related to him," the official said. "You can't say that everything and everyone [in Sinaloa] is involved in drug trafficking."

MEXICO CITY — About a year ago, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, I spoke to a young police official who works with juvenile delinquents. Juvenile crime is atrociously high in his state, he admits, as are homicides and recruitment of youngsters by the Sinaloa cartel. But the most damaging part, he says, is the tenacious perception of Sinaloa as a drug state, dominated by the larger-than-life figure of drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo. "Worldwide, everyone thinks we’re Chapo’s kids, related to him," the official said. "You can’t say that everything and everyone [in Sinaloa] is involved in drug trafficking."

With Mexico gearing up for the July 2012 presidential elections, the current president’s war on organized crime, which has resulted in some 40,000 deaths since 2006‚ is dominating the political conversation. The president, Felipe Calderón, can’t run because of term-limit laws. And most people agree with the Sinaloan police officer: Mexico’s reputation as a gang-ridden narco-state run by a disconnected and corrupt leadership is perhaps the most serious issue that his successor will have to confront.

The next president faces an increasingly disillusioned and disgruntled electorate. Only 30 percent of the Mexican voting public currently believes the country is headed down the right path, according to Consulta Mitofsky, Mexico’s most trustworthy pollsters. Ordinary Mexicans’ lack of confidence and distrust in the government and its officials is astounding, even for a typically cynical Latin American populace: In polls, politicians usually rank just below the police forces, which most Mexicans believe to be rampantly corrupt.

Calderón’s successor faces a laundry list of staggering challenges, many of which, if left unresolved, could drag the country into a morass of violence, corruption, and cynicism. The security situation — gang-related massacres are becoming increasingly common in states like Durango and Tamaulipas, while the blockading of roads out of Monterrey have threatened to capsize the local economyis reaching a level of urgency that could affect U.S. support and funding. The political system is paralyzed, a legacy of the democratic transition in 2000: Congress remains at loggerheads over key reforms introduced by the Calderón administration, and the three main parties continue to refuse to work together on too many fronts.

And yet, Mexico’s economy is growing, tourism is rebounding, security in some parts of the country has never been better, and the middle class is continuing to expand. So the key question going into 2012 is: Can anyone put back together Mexico’s broken image, both on the world stage and at home?

In August 2010, the Calderón administration hired a hot-shot advisor from Britain, Simon Anholt, the inventor of the phrase "nation-branding," to try to solve this exact problem. When I contacted him about Mexico’s image problem, Anholt admitted his hands were full.

"I’ve worked in more than 40 countries during the last 20 years and I have never come across such a gulf between reality and perception [as in Mexico]," he said. "It’s a country of great and growing importance in the world order, yet it seems saddled with another country’s image: one that’s much poorer, smaller, weaker, more troubled and in every way, less dignified. Reputation always lags behind reality by years — in some cases by generations — and during the last few years, Mexico has to some extent become defined by its problems."

The thread linking all of Mexico’s problems under Calderón has been his administration’s failure to communicate: to explain exactly what it is trying to achieve; to describe those achievements, when they do occur, to Mexico and to the rest of the world; and to account for its mistakes, of which there have been many.

Critics complain of a lack of clear strategy against the drug gangs, and understandably so. The army has moved into the streets of cities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, only to return to their barracks several months later without having accomplished much that can be seen by the naked eye. The authorities claim that the goal is to dismantle organized crime syndicates and reduce them to mere gangs, from a national security problem to a local criminal issue‚ but this has brought an unwelcome result: more violence.

Yet the government appears to better understand what the Mexican people want — even if it continues to have trouble delivering it — than its critics do. Mexico City’s chattering classes and intellectual elite, for instance, argue that the people want the army off the streets, yet polls indicate the complete opposite. According to Consulta Mitofsky, 71 percent of Mexicans want the soldiers to remain on patrol throughout the country until the violence is under control and the police forces are reformed. This figure has not fluctuated much since 2006. Polls also show that the majority of the Mexican public is against legalization of drugs, preferring instead the reinstatement of the death penalty, abolished in 2005 after 44 years without an execution.

"When you talk to people who live in areas of grave concern, they say, ‘It’s horrible what we’re going through, but you must keep going because this is a fight that is worth fighting and you had better not be wrong in terms of what you’re doing to solve it,’" Alejandro Poire, Calderón’s national security advisor and security spokesman, told me.

It is very difficult to imagine anything other than a strong-armed crackdown on Mexico’s thugs when one considers the violence. In 2006, members of the cartel known as La Familia rolled five heads onto a dance floor at a nightclub in Michoacan; by the following year, beheadings — even at Mexico City’s airport — were not uncommon. In 2008, two grenades were thrown into a crowded square in Michoacan, killing eight and injuring more than 100. In 2009, a man nicknamed "El Pozolero" (The Stewmaker) was arrested for dissolving at least 300 bodies in vats of caustic soda; in 2010, a man’s face was carved off and stitched onto a soccer ball. On a video clip currently making the rounds, a young woman coolly saws off the head of a rival gang member. A number of children and innocent people have died in recent shootouts. "If somebody didn’t take on these knuckleheads, Mexico could well have devolved into a narco-state," former U.S. DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun told me.

Calderón, at least, took them on. But his administration acknowledges that it hasn’t managed to accurately convey its goals in doing so. Poire recently launched a blog on the presidential website in a bid to debunk the "myths" about the war on organized crime. The Mexican president himself has regularly declared that it is not a "war on drugs," a phrase coined by U.S President Richard Nixon in the 1970s and adopted by the media in Mexico. Poire and his administration colleagues have struggled to convince the Mexican media that some degree of restraint is necessary in reporting on the violence and military operations. Because of the legacy of government attempts to control the press, many Mexican journalists believe strongly that every single piece of information must be published — including rumors, sensitive leaks, and potentially libelous material. Photos of decapitated corpses regularly grace the front pages of tabloids.

"It’s very hard for a country in which you’re having incredible growth of free media," Poire says. "The broad challenge is to recognize that in a very rapidly changing media environment, we need to help people understand a very complex phenomenon."

A recent agreement between media organizations and the government, creating some guidelines on how to cover the war, has helped. But it has also been met with cynicism. Some journalists believe the agreement amounts to censorship; they worry that the government could try to control their reporting further in the future. The February firing of Carmen Aristegui, a popular and controversial media personality, for discussing rumors that Calderón is an alcoholic on-air, only made matters worse, even though she had violated her own organization’s guidelines. Reports of editors being pressured by drug traffickers and local officials simply feed the conspiracy theories.

And, to a large extent, the damage has been done, in the sense that the media narrative of Mexico as a failing state has already been written and absorbed by the country and the world. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have special sections that cover the country the way they would a war zone — "Mexico Under Siege: The drug war at our doorstep" and "Mexico At War: On the frontlines" — while Mexican newspapers like El Universal have regularly run the same scare-story since 2008. (The gist: The cartels are taking over Mexico City. They’re not.) As Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman under Calderón’s predecessor and the co-author of El Narco: La Guerra Fallida (Narco: The Failed War), told me, "Domestic and foreign media have failed to contextualize and locate the problem. These crimes are occurring in 100 of Mexico’s 2,470 counties, but it appears as if the whole of Mexico is in the same condition."

In Washington, the "failed state" narrative is a matter of daily concern for Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the word "insurgency" in September 2010 to describe Mexico’s cartels and compared the situation to Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, Sarukhan immediately went into damage control mode, lobbying diplomats and congressmen involved in Mexico-related issues. "The reason why we pushed back so strenuously on the concept of insurgency is very simple: If you don’t understand what’s going on, on the ground, and you label it with something that it is not, then the most likely outcome is that the policies that will be instrumented will be the wrong policies," he told me in Washington.

The most public U.S.-Mexico explosion in recent months was over the release of sensitive diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual. But in fact, the most lasting damage from WikiLeaks may not have been Pascual’s resignation — "not a body blow to the relationship," according to Chargé D’Affaires ad interim in Mexico City John D. Feeley — but the contents of one cable that gave weight to a theory popular among Mexican conspiracy theorists and critics of the war on organized crime. "The view is widely held that the army is comfortable letting the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels diminish each other’s strength as they fight for control of the ‘plaza’ (with a corollary theory being that the army would like to see the Sinaloa cartel win)," read the cable.

The Mexican government has failed to quash such rumors, particularly tales of a pact with the leadership of the Sinaloa drug cartel, in spite of significant arrests of major Sinaloa cartel operatives. One Mexican journalist, Anabel Hernandez, claimed in a 2010 book that former President Vicente Fox was paid $20 million for allowing Chapo, the Sinaloa cartel’s boss, perhaps the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, to escape from prison in 2001. Fox replied on Twitter that she should "show evidence or shut up" because as he saw it, she was simply trying to "sell books at the expense of others."

In 2009, a former top Mexican anti-drug prosecutor told me that Chapo had negotiated a deal with the DEA, U.S. Embassy, and Mexican authorities to get out of prison; officials from both countries denied the claims. But these sorts of allegations tend to stick with an electorate that distrusts the government and knows little about the way anti-drug operations are conducted. And there have been some very legitimate allegations. One general’s bodyguard was arrested for leaking information to Chapo; internal government documents and ledgers leaked to leading Mexican daily Reforma in 2009 revealed the extent of Chapo’s network in law enforcement and the army.

Officials like Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna have vehemently and repeatedly denied allegations of a pact amid accusations that he met personally with drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva. Gen. Rolando Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy, the man in charge of the hunt for Chapo and counter-drug operations in Sinaloa between 2006 and 2008, also addressed the issue when I interviewed him in the central state of Aguascalientes. "Never did I make a pact. Never!" he told me, slamming his fist on his desk in his office. "Others, I don’t know," he added quietly.

When it comes to allegations of corruption in Mexico, it is almost always "others" who may have done the dirty work. One story currently making the rounds, backed up by a Mexican intelligence official, has it that a high-ranking member of the administration sent a general to the mountains of Sinaloa in early 2008 to talk to Chapo directly. At that time, a rift between the drug lord and his longtime allies, the Beltrán Leyva brothers, had caused levels of violence in the state to skyrocket. The intention of deploying the general as an envoy was apparently not to cut a deal, but to simply ask Chapo to order his loyal following to ease up on the violence. But in the eyes of the Mexican people, such a negotiation is perceived as a betrayal, rather than a means of managing a war against organized crime.

The fact that the Sinaloa cartel appears to have been hit less hard than some other drug trafficking organizations in terms of numbers of arrests has not helped to quell talk of a pact, and no amount of explanation will quiet the critics. "We see no evidence of a pact at all," then-DEA Chief of Intelligence Anthony Placido told me late last year. "Chapo and [his people] have stayed below the radar screen, corrupting officials and the like, [but] there’s no indication they’re going soft on Chapo." On July 4, Poire, the security official, once again reiterated the administration’s stance: The authorities are pursuing Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel with the same determination and vigor as Mexico’s other criminal organizations.

Calderón has also struggled to explain himself when it comes to human rights abuses by soldiers, which have reached record highs since he took office. In June 2007, in the hills of Sinaloa, some soldiers gunned down a group of teachers and kids aged two and up, killing five people altogether. In April 2010, a nine-year-old and a five-year-old were killed in Tamaulipas by soldiers who claimed they were engaging with criminals; subsequent investigations by Mexico’s human rights commission showed the army had manipulated the crime scene. Soldiers also carry out aggressive and unwarranted home invasions, and questions have been raised over their treatment of suspects in custody.

In December 2009, after Mexican Marines took out Beltrán Leyva in an effective, targeted hit, someone at the scene pulled down the drug lord’s trousers and scattered dollar and peso notes on his blood-splattered corpse, giving the body the same type of treatment the narcos give to the corpses of their rivals. U.S. officials praised their Mexican counterparts for their dogged pursuit — "I’ll hand it to them; they took the information they developed, they did their due diligence, they basically were very aware of their environment," says a senior U.S. law enforcement official based in Mexico — but an outcry about human rights inevitably followed. Although the posthumous act was investigated, the Calderon administration simply proclaimed the killing an outright success.

Marches against the drug-related violence and rights abuses by activists like Javier Sicilia, a poet whose son was murdered in March, have played well with the media, even if actual turnout has been low. When Calderón met with Sicilia in a televised dialogue on June 23 — at the poet’s request — he once again failed to make a clear argument for his war strategy. This time he claimed that the army and police have been deployed to quell violence, and that their presence in certain areas of the country has not spurred a rise in cartel feuds — the complete opposite of what many officials have stated repeatedly since 2006.

Worse than the things Calderón might have done, in some cases, have been the things promised but not done: mainly prison and police reform. Dozens of prison escapes have occurred since 2006. Puente Grande, from which Chapo escaped in 2001, is known as Puerta Grande (Big Door); the joke about a federal penitentiary in Nayarit is that there are more police detained inside than there are guarding it. Promises to reform the prison system and build new maximum-security penitentiaries have been met with scorn by the public, which remembers all too well the lurid tales of Chapo enjoying his mistresses and continuing to run his drug operation while inside Puente Grande.

Few in Mexico would say that police reform is not as important as prison reform, and here, at least, Calderón has made some incremental steps. At the start of his administration, Mexico had a mere 6,500 federal police officers for a population of 111 million. There was no option but to use the army to fight organized crime syndicates equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, vast arsenals of military-issue weapons, and even homemade tanks. Today, Mexico has 36,000 federal police officers, and 7,000 are university graduates. The new "mando unico" Calderón has proposed will create one police force in each state, rather than dividing duties between state and municipal forces, an effort to bring the entire force up to a higher standard. As I saw recently in Aguascalientes, the only Mexican state to have already implemented the new measures, the intelligence-sharing and monitoring systems set up under the "mando unico" make a real difference in fighting crime. But there is still much to be done before the force will be a serious bulwark against Mexico’s organized criminals, and the reform, in its entirety, is not expected to pass before 2012.

Mexico needs this reform, and fast. One policeman in the southern border town of Ciudad Hidalgo expressed his concern to me about the professionalism of the organized crime group known as Los Zetas; as he talked, he didn’t appear to care that his zipper was undone and his shoelaces untied. He reeked of beer and had stains on his shirt. It was only 7 in the morning.

With so much going wrong, it’s still true that much in Mexico is going right. Foreign direct investment has continued to rise in spite of the violence. More than 700,000 new jobs were created in 2010, the fastest growth in Mexico in 14 years. Paseo de la Reforma is a major Mexico City thoroughfare lined with multinational banks and businesses; but the road everyone reads about is Highway 101 in the state of Tamaulipas, the site of beheadings and indiscriminate killings.

Anholt, the branding expert, would like to see Mexico perceived for its successes — a growing economy, tourism, leadership in the public health sector and on global climate change — rather than its negatives. He is working with the administration to highlight those, hosting meetings, workshops and debates with people from the president right on down to students and young entrepreneurs, in order to devise policy approaches and communications strategies. He has written speeches for Calderón to deliver on the international stage, and recently persuaded Mexico to host a global forum on the communication of climate change in Cancun. He has also urged the administration to reach out to new trading partners, the public and elites in foreign nations, and work more closely with the country’s vast diaspora.

But he admits that his frustration sometimes reaches a boiling point — for instance, when "I’ve just finished giving what feels like a lucid and utterly persuasive, perhaps even inspiring 90-minute exposition of how countries can only earn their reputations, that messaging and marketing is a wicked waste of taxpayers’ money, that there are no short cuts to international standing … and then someone stands up and says, ‘So, what do you think Mexico’s new slogan should be?’"

The presidential candidates for 2012 are all highly aware of the necessity of overcoming the communications failure, but few of them seem ready.

Enrique Peña Nieto, a young, charismatic former governor, is the frontrunner for the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, and enjoys a huge lead in the overall polls. But his state was corrupt, infested with drug gangs, and highly dangerous, a huge liability for him in the campaign. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a strong candidate for the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, is a market-friendly populist in the vein of Brazil’s Lula who made his mark garnering foreign investment and pushing some well-received environmental projects, such as rooftop gardens to help alleviate air pollution. But other projects, for instance building the world’s largest ice rink in the main Mexico City plaza, have been seen as nonsensical and downright offensive in a city where as many as 5 million residents still don’t have access to clean drinking water.

A handful of other familiar names have come up as well, all with equally mixed prospects: sitting senator and former governor Manlio Fabio Beltrones (famously accused of links to drug traffickers by the New York Times in 1997; he denied the claims); Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero (who recently stated that Mexico "hasn’t been poor for a long time," prompting both ridicule and outrage); and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the runner-up in the 2006 presidential vote, a perennial also-ran populist who once enjoyed the support of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez but these days seems to have lost his audience.

Calderon’s own PAN party has been tainted by its leader’s perceived flaws, but if the PAN has any hope, it’s in Josefina Vázquez Mota, a former education secretary with a reformist bent who recently stepped down as coordinator of the Chamber of Deputies to announce her run for the presidency. Mexico City pundits still consider her a longshot for the party candidacy – she’s not considered a political heavyweight and is a woman in a macho society. ("If Josefina were named Jose, the PAN would already have its candidate," writes Jorge Zepeda Patterson, columnist and former editor of Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, on his blog.) But her name is now generating buzz within the PAN’s upper echelons; she has gained the endorsement of some major party figures. And Latin America has a precedent when it comes to strong female leaders — Michele Bachelet of Chile gave her country a much-needed boost, particularly on the international stage, and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has already had a significant, if largely symbolic, impact since her inauguration in January.

Vázquez Mota is also more than just a fresh face. Her background in education, undoubtedly Mexico’s biggest priority alongside job creation and stemming the violence, is an electoral asset. Through a reform program called the Alliance for Quality Education, which abolished an antiquated system through which teachers could pass on their posts to relatives and introduced mandatory, regular testing, Vázquez Mota put Mexico’s education system on the right path. She also helped implement programs to provide juvenile delinquents and young drug traffickers with education prospects. And while a staunch supporter of the current strategy against organized crime, she also believes that parts of Mexico’s vast informal economy should be legitimized. "The capacity for work that they have [in the informal economy] is incredible. There are ways of making these entrepreneurs legal," she told me in Mexico City in June.

All of the potential candidates for 2012 admit that security and combating the belief that Mexico is being consumed by violence will remain the country’s primary challenges in the years to come. But none of them have offered any plans that diverge significantly with what Caldéron has been doing all along. In spite of concerns that a PRI candidate would be more amenable to a pact with the cartels, as the party was in the old days, the conventional wisdom has it that no candidate in his or her right mind would veer from the current course. Police officials like Garcia Luna have admitted that the violence is unlikely to cease for another seven years — a hard proposition for any electorate to swallow. So the likelihood is that the 2012 election, no matter who wins, will bring more apathy and anger toward politicians and the drug war strategy, even as the authorities continue to dismantle the drug-trafficking organizations themselves. A completely new Mexico — the dream held by millions in 2000 after the turn to democracy — remains decades away.

What will that Mexico look like? The U.S. Embassy’s Feeley says he’ll know it when he sees it. "Success will come when a little Mexican kid, here on Paseo de la Reforma or up in Laredo, is in a huge crowd, gets separated from his mom and walks up to a Mexican cop and says, ‘Hey, I lost my mommy.’ No Mexican kid would ever do that today," he says. "That, to me, represents a societal shift. It’s a lot less tangible, it’s mushy, but that’s what success looks like."

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and the author of two books on the Mexican drug war, The Last Narco and Hasta El Último Día.

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