For more on Mexico's bloody future, click here.
You can learn a lot about the state of Mexico today by looking at three roads. Paseo de la Reforma is a major urban thoroughfare in Mexico City, lined with banks, hotels, and shopping malls. Highway 101 in Tamaulipas is a modern four-lane highway, once a major artery for Mexicans returning home and tourists heading to Mexico City; now, it is littered with bodies. A series of seemingly arbitrary massacres has turned it into a no-go zone. The third road is a highway under construction in the mountains of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, which will spur trade and provide opportunities for the people of the sierra. But it will also offer the region's powerful drug traffickers -- among them Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, Mexico's most wanted man -- direct access to the U.S.-Mexico border. Which road Mexico takes is the big question.
More than 50,000 people have died in Mexico's drug war since
December 2006 -- roughly 12,000 in the last year alone, according to media
tallies. Last year, more people were killed in the cartel-ridden
border town of Ciudad Juárez than civilians in Afghanistan. And there's no
reason to believe the July 1 presidential election will turn the tide, as all three leading
candidates have pledged to continue the fight against organized crime in
spite of the bloodshed. Yet talk of Mexico as a failed state, which
reached a peak in 2009, has been replaced
by buzz about the country's impressive economic growth. Mexico is
on track to grow more than 4.5 percent in 2012, its fastest growth rate in a
decade. How can both of these things be true?
Although the headlines have been dominated by the drug-war dead, the beheadings and massacres, the innocent children caught in the crossfire, President Felipe Calderón -- whose approval rating remains above 50 percent -- has quietly been pushing much-needed reforms: State workers' pension systems have been overhauled; efforts have even been made to open the oil industry to private investment; and the country's growing middle class continues to make strides upward, with GDP per capita up 40 percent since 1988. Calderón can't run for reelection due to term limits, but the good economic news should give his struggling National Action Party, or PAN, a boost. According to a survey released by the Pew Hispanic Center in April, the net immigration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped, and may have reversed, due in part to Mexico's improved economic performance relative to its northern neighbor. In some ways, the country appears to be on the right track.
Twelve years ago, the country celebrated its birth as a fully democratic country when the first free and fair elections resulted in the ouster of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled for 71 years. Multinationals flocked to the country: The Bank of New York Mellon, Credit Suisse, and Banque Toronto-Dominion all now have branches on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. Today, Carlos Slim, a Mexican of Lebanese origin, is the owner of the communications giant Telmex and is the world's richest man. And the country's growing prosperity has continued even as the drug violence has worsened. Foreign direct investment, for instance, grew to $19.4 billion last year. More than 700,000 new jobs were created in 2010, the fastest growth in Mexico in 14 years; the number fell just short of that in 2011. The middle class continues to grow and the Mexican financial system weathered the economic crisis well, according to a March IMF report. (The IMF also praised Mexico's banks for being "profitable and well capitalized.")
Yet, in many respects, much in Mexico appears to have remained unchanged. Corruption is still rampant: A government drug czar was arrested in late 2008 on charges of taking money from traffickers. A dark cloud hangs over Wal-Mart de México, which allegedly paid millions of dollars in bribes to advance its expansion. Distrust in officialdom is as high as ever -- a recent survey by the respected pollster Consulta Mitofsky revealed that just 12.8 percent of the public has confidence in the presidency, and even fewer (6.1 percent) trust the police. Members of the media are under increasing threat and pressure of censorship from the cartels and even local officials, with dozens of journalists killed in recent years and even crime bloggers coming under fire. Officials quietly lament that they have failed to communicate their message to the people. When many officials speak -- "We're winning against the cartels"; "The drug war is not a war" -- many Mexicans are left shaking their heads in bemusement over what that message could possibly be.
If Mexicans often seem unsure as to whether they live in a flourishing democracy or on the brink of state failure, it may be because there aren't institutions or public figures with enough credibility left to define a narrative for the country. With the Catholic Church losing its grip on the masses and increasingly out of touch (one church official declared that Mexico City's liberal mayor was doing more damage to the country with his progressive policies than the drug traffickers), in recent years many Mexicans have looked elsewhere for a charismatic messiah figure or inspirational crusader. But though they have found an initial spark in Isabel Miranda de Wallace (a mother who tracked down her son's kidnappers) and poet Javier Sicilia (who led a march through the country after his son was murdered), these characters have largely failed to live up to expectations, in part because they are intent on remaining ordinary citizens.
It's unlikely that any of the three presidential candidates will capture the country's imagination, either. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, lost the 2006 election amid allegations of fraud. Since then, he has campaigned nationwide incessantly, traveling to every single one of Mexico's 2,456 counties and decrying the "mafias" that run the country -- a category that includes the presidency and the mainstream media, in his eyes. His most recent rhetoric, however, has been toned down -- he has pledged to withdraw the Mexican Army from the streets, for instance -- earning him the derisive nickname AMLOVE. He has been gaining ground in polls, but still trails Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI's candidate.