Donald Trump Is the Opportunity Mexico Has Been Waiting for

There’s nothing like a parody of a Yankee president to put an end to years of political in-fighting.

TIJUANA, MEXICO - JANUARY 27:  A view of the US-Mexican border fence at Playas de Tijuana on January 27, 2017 in Tijuana, Mexico. U.S. President Donald Trump announced a proposal to impose a 20 percent tax on all imported goods from Mexico to pay for the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto canceled a planned meeting with President Trump over who would pay for Trump's campaign promise to build a border wall.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - JANUARY 27: A view of the US-Mexican border fence at Playas de Tijuana on January 27, 2017 in Tijuana, Mexico. U.S. President Donald Trump announced a proposal to impose a 20 percent tax on all imported goods from Mexico to pay for the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto canceled a planned meeting with President Trump over who would pay for Trump's campaign promise to build a border wall. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In late January, when Mexican cabinet ministers were about to depart for Washington, D.C. to meet with a group from the Trump administration, a curious thing happened.

Politicians from the two main opposition parties — ordinarily the government’s bitterest critics — met with the officials to publicly offer their support. A day later, Trump tweeted that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto shouldn’t attend the meeting if he wasn’t willing to pay for a border wall. Peña Nieto countered that he would therefore not be attending. The Mexican political class rushed to support him — the same president many had been attacking since he took office more than four years ago.

A later humiliating phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto hardened the support of Mexico’s politicians behind their embattled president, as Trump’s wall-and-deportation rhetoric grew more strident.

On Twitter, Javier Lozano, a senator from the opposition center-right National Action Party (PAN), wrote “without ambiguity nor pettiness we close ranks behind [President Peña Nieto]. Let @realdonaldtrump know that our country is called the United Mexican States.” Alejandra Barrales, president of the opposition center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), tweeted “Mexico needs all sectors of the country, with a spirit of solidarity and cooperation.”

All this was a rare show of unity among Mexico’s political class. In the almost 17 years since Mexico shrugged off its system of one-party rule, the country’s political class has shown itself only haltingly interested in addressing the knottiest problems stifling development. Apart from some exceptional moments, they have frittered away time on petty squabbles. 

Meanwhile, corruption continues to plague Mexico. The economy has been run mostly to the benefit of the rich and well-connected, even as employment expands in certain sectors, notably the automotive industry. Above all, the rule of law has languished; only a few states, for example, have fully implemented national judicial reforms, approved in 2008, calling for open trials modeled after U.S. courts, with proceedings open to the public and witnesses subject to cross examination.

“Sooner or later, Mexico will confront the dilemma of whether to preserve its nature as an informal, un-institutionalized country or fully embrace the rule of law,” wrote political scientist Luis Rubio.

Doing that has been enormously difficult. Some have thought a push from outside the system is needed — which is why the inauguration of Donald Trump should be welcomed by those interested in Mexico’s equitable development.

The despised American president’s brash style conjures up all the worst Yankee stereotypes that have lived in the Mexican mind since the beginning of the country. Within Mexico, Trump’s acidic approach has burned away the gunk of domestic politics and formed alliances, at least for the moment, that seemed unthinkable a few weeks before. His threatening presidency thus offers a chance for Mexico to put behind it battles over minutiae, see beyond parochial interests, unify in the face of a common enemy, and, maybe, find the urgency to attack what has made it a country that people have risked death to leave.

* * *

Mexico’s experiment with democracy certainly could use a jolt.

For more than 70 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) monopolized the gears of Mexican government. A national Tammany Hall, it had no ideology beyond its own survival, and used corruption to buy member loyalty. In 2000, the PAN’s Vicente Fox won the presidency and ended the PRI monopoly, ebbing for more than a decade by then.

Yet instead of participating in change, the PRI, which still held a sizable bloc in the Mexican Congress, believed that any Fox success would make it harder for the party to return to power. It threw a six-year tantrum. The PRI stifled change. An energy reform that was most necessary, for example, was shelved without an airing as soon as Fox proposed it, largely because it was the president’s idea. Only when the PRI returned to power, with Peña Nieto’s presidency, was an energy reform enacted.

Peña Nieto accomplished several reforms early in his term. Among the most important was to allow reelection of congressmen, increasing their accountability to constituents while forcing them over time to become expert in the complicated issues on which they legislate. But that reform momentum was brief. Regions of the country are still run according to the whims of whoever is in power. Governors and other regional power bosses have emerged as political princes. (Several ex-governors are on the run from the law or under indictment.)

Through the decades, the PRI and other Mexican elites disparaged emigrants as traitors to the country. Meanwhile, they counted on emigration as an escape valve for their most disgruntled people, who then also became, collectively, one of the country’s greatest sources of foreign exchange with their billions of dollars in remittances each year. For years, emigration allowed Mexico to postpone its day of reckoning. There’s a reason the two longest-lived one-party states in this hemisphere were in Mexico and Cuba: Both were able to send to the United States their most disgruntled, who were not back home agitating for change.

Following Fox’s election, as Mexico was finally pivoting toward plural democracy, seemingly ready to begin constructing the institutions and culture of modern governance, Sinaloan drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from prison. Virtually all the cartel wars that erupted over the next 15 years can be traced to his power grabs: into the Gulf region, into Juarez, and up into Baja California. The deep democratic change that many observers hoped could begin to establish the rule of law was postponed amid the medieval savagery those wars unleashed.

Though those wars continue, Guzmán at least is in U.S. hands. Illegal immigration to the United States has slowed considerably. What’s more, the Obama administration deported more than 2 million undocumented immigrants, many of them back to their native Mexico. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are abysmal; Mexicans have taken a decidedly dim view of their political leaders in general.

The arrival of a toxic American president comes in this context. It offers the political class a rare chance at galvanizing the country. Or it can do like the PRD did at a Christmas party, which was to bring out a Donald Trump piñata and bash it. The juvenile Trump-whacking may have helped, as the party’s leader insisted, some gut emotional need. Mostly it displayed how far the party is from rising to the moment. It would have helped Mexico more had the PRD members spent time developing ideas for how to make the country fairer, less vulnerable, and themselves more accountable.

One place they might start is by empowering Mexico’s arthritic, improvised, underfunded municipal governments. Most are bereft of a real civil service, which in turn keeps them incompetent and vulnerable to corruption. Local government was for decades viewed as competition to a central government in Mexico City, which bound the feet of cities across the country. One reason for Mexico’s famously undrinkable tap water is that for years no municipality had the budget or technical expertise to build water treatment plants.

Little of what ails Mexico can be much improved without giving local government the powers and responsibilities that modern municipalities in the world enjoy. Certainly strengthening the rule of law and political accountability are not possible while the level of government closest to real solutions remains ramshackle.

The town of Ciudad Juárez offers a template for how things could be different. It was once the world’s murder capital, with roughly 3,000 homicides a year. Some 8,000 businesses were being extorted; kidnaping was common. Meanwhile, in El Paso, Texas, just 200 yards away, where local government was strong and well-funded, none of that was true.

The crisis forced Mexico to invest locally. Federal money poured in. Juarez now has a modern prison run by authorities and not by inmates. It has a gleaming new courthouse, where trials take place in the open and are reported on in newspapers. The city’s forensic service is modern and innovative. Juarez police now have new equipment, new cars, more gasoline. Salaries and benefits have risen and the city built a country club for cops and other criminal justice workers — all toward changing the dismal Mexican culture of belittling cops because of corruption that is caused by their low wages and social standing.

A lot more needs to be done in Juárez. Most of the new funding focused on the criminal justice system and less on providing what is equally important: basic infrastructure for residents, such as storm drains, parks, and paved streets. Little was done to change the way tax money is generated and distributed, and that mayors still cannot run for reelection. Nevertheless, Juárez is no longer the world’s murder capital. On the contrary, its example stands for all of Mexico to replicate in other cities, if it has the political will to do so. The Trump presidency offers the best opportunity in recent memory for Mexico to ignite that political will.

Meanwhile, instead of ruing the Trump administration’s ongoing deportation of more Mexicans, the country ought to start the hard work now of reincorporating them into the country. Many will come with new skills learned on the job in the United States. They will have seen new ways of doing things, global citizens now and no longer the teenage campesinos (peasant farmers) they were when they left. Regardless of how much money they sent home, the loss of these dynamic and hard-working people to the United States was far more damaging to Mexico than the loss of territory in the mid-1800s, though it is the latter lesson that is taught in Mexican schools.

The question is how the Mexican political class will react to this challenge from the United States. In the past, it has resorted to populism or, at times, hiding its head in the sand. For years, the country’s hillbilly drug traffickers were ignored or even abetted because they were believed to be engaged in some patriotic enterprise, selling dope up to the land-thieving gringo, whose hypocrisy knew no bounds. In the 1980s, parts of the Mexican government — particularly within the notorious Federal Security Directorate (DFS) — helped traffickers organize their businesses and routes. Cooperation with the United States on any issue was, until recently, viewed by many Mexicans as betrayal of their country. That forgiving attitude toward dope runners went a long way to turning those hillbilly traffickers into national security threats.

Mexico’s approach has matured as it has entered the global economy. Indeed, Trump’s alarming rhetoric comes as Mexico’s cooperation with the United States on anti-cartel issues has never been deeper. Proof of this is the many cartel capos extradited to U.S. prisons over the last decade, of whom Guzmán is only the latest.

Mexicans must continue that maturation. They need to understand that their political problem is systemic and cultural, that politicians are as (dis)honest as the system prods them to be, and that winking at corruption leads to catastrophe. They must be willing to heed politicians who speak in adult terms of hard choices and long-term vision, rather than bashing Trump piñatas. This will be difficult in a country with strong traditions of paternalism and populism. Yet such may be the unique power of Donald Trump. 

The new U.S. president’s value to Mexico is precisely that he goes down like battery acid. If the country’s people and political elites will take it, his term could be their great moment — a time to behave like true Mexican patriots, begin an honest, probably painful, self-examination and push for what will, in the long run, make their country a place where their hardest-working people want to remain.

Echoing that idea, Father Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest and human rights activist, called the American president “Saint Trump” and thanked him for the opportunity “to realize the shameful relationship we have [with the United States] and to dream of the country we want. The U.S. has released us and doesn’t know what it’s lost, while Mexico doesn’t know what it’s won.”

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sam Quinones, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, is author of two books on Mexico. His Web site is