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."
Photos that show it's not all doom and gloom south of the border.
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 economy -- is 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?