MEXICO CITY — Mexico begins the new year with unusual optimism. People here have new hope that the worst of the drug war has passed, and the economy has returned to growth after a brutal recession. But in Mexico, things often aren't what they seem: Is this country really changing for the better, or is it just on a lucky roll?
The country's promise -- and its problems -- have been on full display during President Enrique Peña Nieto's first few weeks in office. Residents of the notoriously violent city of Juárez enjoyed the first weekend without a homicide in five years -- but the majority of the police force of another town in central Mexico resigned amid a spate of attacks. Families flocked to downtown Mexico City over Christmas to skate around the ice rink that is set up every year -- but just three weeks ago, the same area had been the scene of mayhem and violence as protesters demonstrated against what they saw as Peña Nieto's fraudulent election victory.
Much of Mexico remains very violent, but the killings have ebbed somewhat from the worst days of the drug war. In recent years, its homicide rate has stood at more than three and a half times that of the United States. But there has been incremental improvement: In a (probably incomplete) tally, the daily Reforma counted about 9,800 gang-related murders in 2012 -- down from 12,366 in 2011. Alejandro Hope, director of security policy at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, says all murder -- perhaps a better indicator than just cartel-related counts -- was down about 8 percent in 2012.
So though there were still four times as many gang murders as in 2007, last year's drop has brought a sense of relief. In Juarez, businesses are reopening and night life is returning. Vacationers flocked back to Acapulco after a massive military effort there. It reminds me of the more extreme situation I saw covering the Iraq war, as people became almost giddy in 2007 when bombings dropped from several times a week to just a few times a month. There, people used to say that a dying man is happy to find out he's only sick. U.S. commanders called it a "tolerable" level of violence.
But preventing another deadly spiral of violence depends on how much the change is due to strengthened Mexican institutions. In a recent conversation, Hope listed encouraging signs: The government doubled and tripled security budgets over recent years, and the police and military improved their tactics. The security forces have been going after midlevel narcos, which cut cartel capabilities but don't create the violent power vacuums that occur when kingpins are toppled. Others note that the feds have smartly disbanded entire local police forces, which are often too corrupt or intimidated to do any good, before starting anti-crime sweeps.
But the drop in violence could also be fueled by less encouraging factors. When it comes to Juarez, for instance, nobody can agree on the reasons behind the dramatic drop in violence. Mexico may be less deadly because cartels have sorted out their turf and consequently have less reason to fight. A drop in cocaine use in the United States, Hope said, has probably reduced shipments to the north, resulting in fewer drug-related killings. And one crime expert wrote that the cartel wars may have expended the supply of street-level killers -- for now.
"It could always start up again," Hope says. "We're going to be battling organized crime for generations."
Last year raised doubts that law enforcement is up for that battle. In June, three federal police were killed by their colleagues in a food court at Mexico City's airport, apparently as one group tried to arrest the others for smuggling. Another 14 federales were charged with ambushing a car carrying CIA employees and a Mexican Navy captain in August. The federal police has been an independent force and was key to former President Felipe Calderón's anti-drug strategy -- but Peña Nieto is now folding it into another ministry and forming a "gendarmerie" to fight cartels. And though the Marines scored big when they killed the country's most feared cartel leader, Zetas chief Heriberto Lazcano, in a gunfight, they actually didn't know who he was at the time and his corpse was quickly stolen.