Saving Mexico? Selling Mexico? Slaying Mexico?

<i>Time</i> magazine’s cover story is the latest example of the media’s destructive and false narrative about Mexico. It isn’t doing any Mexicans any favors.

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Feb 21 2014, 3:25pm

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Barack Obama stopped in the city of Toluca, Mexico, this Wednesday to have a “formal trilateral meeting” with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto. The topic officially was energy and trade, but I can bet you that for a bunch of mainstream news outlet north of the Rio Grande, this meeting was really be about how Radically Awesome Cool everything related to Mexico is right now.

That’s right. In tourism, trade, and most especially in oil, there isn’t a single better place on the planet today than good ol' Mexico when it comes to prospects for North American investment interests.

Why, just take a look at the forthcoming cover story of Time magazine’s international edition, a stirring example of the kind of news we could use about Mexico. Never mind that some portions of the piece sound strikingly similar to a paid advertorial about Mexico that appeared in a December issue of Time (more on that here); this recent cover story is a confirmation of everything we’ve been told about how Radically Awesome Cool Mexico is.

Sure, the story breezily avoids delving into the kind of shitty shit that most Mexicans confront every day—poverty, violence, impunity, stagnant wages, lack of social mobility, and the utter lack of a rule of law. Yet, the cover shows Peña Nieto in a suit, a red tie, and a stern frown, which is meant to demonstrate how he is “Saving Mexico.”

That is the actual headline on the cover, and it makes a lot of sense after you read the story. I mean, how else could a president who represents the return to power of an autocratic “official” political party be anything but good news for the country?

Peña Nieto, Time suggests, is the only hope for salvation for the tens of millions of Mexicans living in poverty in Mexico, and maybe even for the millions of Mexicans who desperately abandoned their country for a better life in the U.S. because they couldn’t get a job or couldn’t afford school here, or because some drug cartel killed everyone in their family. Wanting to make sure it was all true, I wrote to Time and asked for a response to the nasty payola rumors that have circulated about their relationship to Mexico’s presidency. All I got was this canned reply:

"TIME does not accept payment in exchange for editorial coverage under any circumstances. Rates listed on TIME's public media kit refer to the cost of advertising with TIME and have nothing to do with editorial content."

But just to make it totally clear, let me break down the most majorly idiotic portions of the Time piece, written by Washington-based writer Michael Crowley. Here’s how he starts off...

At 9 o'clock on a February night, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was still working inside Los Pinos, his official Mexico City residence, where camouflaged soldiers with assault rifles stood guard outside. For the 47-year-old President, it was a reminder that the presidency is a deadly serious business—especially at this pivotal moment in Mexican history.

No idea why the president of a large globalized economy like Mexico’s would regard being at a desk at 9 PM on a February night as anything less than “deadly serious business,” or as most other big-time presidents say, just another day at the office. But I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about, so let’s listen in!

Five years ago, drug violence was exploding, the Mexican economy was reeling, and a Pentagon report likened the Aztec nation to the terrorist-infested basket case Pakistan, saying both were at risk of "rapid and sudden collapse." As Barack Obama prepared to take office in 2008, one of his senior foreign policy advisers privately nominated Mexico the most underappreciated problem facing the new U.S. Administration.

This is serious, guys. We’re talking “basket-case” states here.

Crowley continues.

Now the alarms are being replaced with applause. After one year in office, Peña Nieto has passed the most ambitious package of social, political and economic reforms in memory. Global economic forces, too, have shifted in his country's direction. Throw in the opening of Mexico's oil reserves to foreign investment for the first timei n 75 years, and smart money has begun to bet on peso power. "In the Wall Street investment community, I'd say that Mexico is by far the favorite nation just now," says Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley. "It's gone from a country people had sort of given up on to becoming the favorite."

Wait a second. Did this reporter just fly in for this story and fly out? Apparently he did. Hm.

Did he get any research done for this assignment? Did his local assisting reporter not tell him that the “ambitious package” of reforms is more or less copied or modeled on various reforms proposed in the past by the conservative and leftist rivals that sit on both sides of the president’s PRI party?

The PRI—Mexico's monolithic ruling political party, sort of like if you combined the Democrats and Republicans into one coalition—sparked an entire grassroots movement aimed directly at preventing their own party's ascent back to Los Pinos during the 2012 presidential campaign. That movement failed in its main goal but its very existence sorta maybe might be indicative of the kind of distrust the PRI engenders among Mexicans across the generations who remember its 71-year grip on the country—especially among those who survived it, or those who didn’t flee to the United States out of purely survivalist instincts.

Thank goodness an analyst at Morgan Stanley, one of the dark lairs of Wall Street, is the voice of reason here.

Hold on. It isn’t made clear how or why global economic forces have “shifted” toward Mexico, although, as speculation, it’s certainly an idea you can sell, as The New York Times recently did (and keeps doing, like this spectacular piece of journalism from 2011 about a giraffe spreading joy in Ciudad Juarez during the peak of its most atrociously violent period).

Want proof? On Feb. 5, Mexico's government bonds earned an A rating for the first timei n history when Moody's revised its assessment of the country's prospects, ranking it higher than Brazil, the onetime darling of international investors, and making it only the second Latin American nation after Chile to get an A.

I do want proof, and an elevation in Moody’s rate on Mexico’s bonds is precisely the piece of information that I needed to make it clear to me that Peña Nieto is “saving Mexico.” Never mind that Mexico’s economy actually stagnated in 2013, growing far less than the average for the years previous, an estimated 1.3%, compared to 4.3% on average between 2010 and 2012. Mexico, yes, slowed down last year. It was the worst result for Mexico since the sad days of the global downturn in 2009—and the first full year in office for Peña Nieto, coincidentally.

"I believe the conditions are very favorable for Mexico to grow," Peña Nieto told TIME in an interview at the Los Pinos compound. "I'm very optimistic."

These quotes by Mexico’s president sure do tell me a lot. They tell me that the reporter met with Peña Nieto, in person, and that’s important. The quotes also tell me the reporter couldn’t get the president to say anything more argumentative or articulate than “I’m very optimistic.”

He'll share that optimism with Obama when the U.S. President arrives in Mexico for a North American leaders summit on Feb. 19. Obama will likely nod in approval: a booming Mexico—integrated with the U.S. economy in myriad ways—would put wind in the sails of U.S. economic growth and further reduce an already declining flow of immigrants illegally crossing the shared 1,933-mile (3,110 km) border.

Aha! So that’s what this is about! This story isn’t even about Mexico, when it comes down to it. It’s rrrreally about the United States. Our economy will grow, Crowley surmises, and all those Messicans will be crossing the border yonder no more!

But "Mexico's moment," as many are calling it, could still disappoint. Corruption and mismanagement are endemic to Mexican politics. Some of Peña Nieto's reforms are engendering fierce resistance. And drug trafficking, with its related crime and violence, remains a defining fact. After his interview with TIME, Peña Nieto went straight into a meeting to plan his trip the next day to Michoacán, a nearby state where vigilante groups have formed to fight drug bosses who have seized control of their towns.

Now for some qualifications, for some of that fair and balanced flavor.

Michoacán is effectively a failed state within Mexico, where cartels, the armed forces, and Chinese mining interests are battling a soft war for control of the state’s precious commodities. It should come as no surprise that Peña is having lots of important meetings about it. While little changes there, armed citizen vigilantes expand their territory against a cartel that calls itself the Knights Templar, like some bloody cult, and that’s how they behave, chopping off people’s heads when they deem it necessary—which is often.

This is where the story gets weird. If corruption and mismanagement are “endemic” to Mexican politics, meaning a part of the DNA and here to stay, why isn’t this really important Time cover story telling us more about that pesky dilemma holding so many Mexicans back? And if the drug war is a “defining fact,” why not tell us more about what that fact means for everyday folks like you and me?

Weirdly, though, I don’t know of anyone who is calling this “Mexico’s Moment,” other than people who stand to directly benefit from the construction of an impression of an economic boom in Mexico, a boom which actually has not manifested, and has certainly not “trickled down” to the average Mexican. So:

Officials and experts in both Mexico and the US describe a country at a pivot point. "This is dramatically different from what we've seen before," says Gordon Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. "I reserve judgment for the time being on whether this is all going to work out."

Reserve judgement? Whether it will work out? What kind of pessimistic, negative-thinking “friend” of Mexico are you, Mr. Gordon—I mean, Duncan—Wood? I thought we were “Saving Mexico” here.

Peña Nieto casts himself as a fresh, young reformer. But he is also a product of the ruling elite that helped lead Mexico to the brink of ruin. His uncle and godfather were both governors of the state of Mexico, a position he assumed in 2005 when he was 38. He is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years—often with the help of election results widely considered fraudulent—until it was knocked out of power in 2000. Peña Nieto revived the PRI's fortunes by promising bold and tangible results to a country largely resigned to corruption and stasis. "Between 2000 and 2012, the opposition parties deliberately blocked major reforms that were necessary," says Wood. Peña Nieto promised to overhaul the state-run energy sector and the tax system and contain the drug war's savagery.

Oh, right, this. Peña Nieto does belong to one of the oldest and most shadowy political power nodes in Mexican history. I said so myself shortly after he “won” the election in July 2012. You can buy people’s votes and favorable media coverage in one of those, right? Because that’s what the PRI did.

When you were born to win, what’s a little payoff gonna hurt to make it happen?

Yes, the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, uses red, green, and white as its party colors, because those are the colors of Mexico’s flag, and that means the PRI believes it is Mexico. If you oppose the PRI, according to the party’s logic, you’re basically opposed to the country. And who wants to be on the side of losers like that? Certainly not America, and not Wall Street.

But this isn’t making sense anymore, so let’s back up. Between 2000 and 2012, when Peña won, the PRI was the opposition. The story itself tells you: The PRI lost the 2000 presidential election to the right-wing opposition, known as PAN, which means that at that point Peña’s party lost the presidency and joined the opposition. And as the opposition, yes, the PRI blocked reforms proposed by the PAN and then turned around and proposed versions of those same reforms themselves, once they returned to power in 2012.

Now, Mr. Wood, this quote here—which I admit might have been taken out of context by Mr. Crowley—makes you sound like a cynical twat. Even for someone who works at a neoliberal think-tank.

Adding a glow to the ambitious promises were the candidate's famous aesthetics: Peña Nieto's rallies were sometimes charged with subtle sexual energy. Or not so subtle: "Peña Nieto, bombón, te quiero en mi colchón" ("Peña Nieto, sweetie, I want you in my bed"), women would chant.

This is where I can imagine a fixer or a mid-level advisor inside Los Pinos winking at Exeter- and Yale-educated Mr. Crowley during the reporter’s short visit, nudgingly dropping this salacious but stale detail from the 2012 campaign, hoping that he’ll find it charming, and thus include it in his story.

Or as I like to say, force a few million face-palms.

Peña Nieto's opponents did their best to turn this against him by tagging him as a shallow pretty boy. They were particularly gleeful when, during an appearance at a Guadalajara book fair, he struggled to name three books that had shaped his life ("and that's spotting him the Bible," says a former US official with a chuckle).

I have a feeling this “former U.S. official” is the former US ambassador to Mexico who gets quoted a little farther down in this story, because this is shaping up to be the laziest piece of journalism on Mexico in the history of mankind. And yes, when a man who wants to lead one of the world’s largest economies for six whole years and can’t successfully name-drop three books he’s read, three books, it was kind of a red flag.

Eventually, in a three-way race in the summer of 2012, Peña Nieto won just 38% of the vote—hardly a mandate for generational change. The secret to his recent success lies in the way he then built a powerful legislative coalition. After meeting secretly with the two leading opposition parties, he struck the kind of legislative grand bargain that has eluded his counterpart across the northern border. The resulting Pacto por México gave liberals higher taxes on the wealthy and conservatives an end to Mexico's ban on the re-election of politicians, while Peña Nieto won support for a raft of other reforms, including opening up the country's oil monopoly.

The PRI won a virtual majority in Congress after the 2012 race, ensuring that whatever it wanted to do, it could. None of it had to do with Peña Nieto’s “powerful legislative coalition,” but rather the strict administration of discipline among the legion of young PRI legislators who coasted to office across the country under the onslaught of the soul-crushing PRI media machine. The Pacto por México was window-dressing for the power brokers, little more. Everything according to plan:

Even after the deal was announced, jaded observers doubted that Mexico's political system could deliver. But whatever he may lack in literary erudition, Peña Nieto compensates for in political prowess. He is assisted by a group of young technocrats, many with advanced degrees from outside Mexico, who together put a decidedly more modern face on a very old and very distrusted PRI machine. Among them are the President's longtime top adviser and now Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray Caso, a 45-year-old economist with an MIT doctorate, and Emilio Lozoya Austin, the new 39-year-old chief of the state oil company, Pemex, who holds a Harvard master's degree. Running the powerful Interior Ministry is 49-year-old Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Mexico's new point man on the drug war.

To be a reputable Mexican leader, it’s always better to go college in the US or UK than inside Mexico. Wait up, though. Peña Nieto only went to a little-known religious university called Panamericana, and speaks terrible English. But this is about MIT graduate Mr. Videgaray, so listen up.

Sitting in a personal office near a bright red phone that connects him directly to the President, Videgaray says talk that he is the true mastermind behind Peña Nieto's reforms is "not at all the reality." Instead, he says, "the time was right. Mexico needed fundamental changes."

OK, Mr. Crowley, you just let Mr. Videgaray do absolutely nothing to refute the legitimate claim that he is the mastermind behind all of Peña Nieto’s policies. Here, Mr. Crowley and Mr. Videgaray probably chuckled heartily, before or after the complimentary tequilas, and moved on.

"Traitors! traitors!" came the shouts from inside Mexico's Congress on Dec. 12. Opponents of a measure allowing foreign investment in Mexico's oil sector had barricaded and padlocked the lower house of Congress, forcing the debate into a nearby auditorium. One legislator stripped down to a pair of black underpants as he railed at the lectern about the stripping of his nation.

What? Voices of protest? Some people aren’t believing enough? Pants down?

But national pride meant that Mexico missed out on the global energy boom. While oil prices have roughly quadrupled over the past decade, enriching big producers, Mexican oil production dropped by 25%, thanks to the sclerotic federal oil enterprise, Pemex, which lacks the capital and expertise to tap the country's reserves.

[…]

Under the new [oil ] law, foreigners will again be able to explore for oil in Mexico and extract Mexican crude for profit, even if the oil technically still belongs to the people—a point Peña Nieto is careful to underscore. "The world has changed, and especially the energy sector has changed," he says, rebutting the suggestion that he has allowed his country to be stripped to its skivvies. "The state does not compromise in its view that the property continues to be owned by Mexico. It belongs to all Mexicans."

Foreign companies will be able to extract crude in Mexico for profit, but somehow, all of it still belongs to all of us Mexicans, or at least “the view” of the state is that it will always belong to Mexicans. The view; you can forgive some Mexicans for not sharing it. The last time a private entity was permitted to take over a national utility in Mexico, the deal quickly produced a Carlos Slim, known for years as the world’s richest man.

But... trust us!

Factor in a law that rejiggers the tax code and an end to single-term limits for all federal politicians, and you have what might be the most productive legislative session anywhere in recent history. "You have to give them extraordinary marks for both political instinct and management of the process," says Tony Garza, a US ambassador to Mexico under George W. Bush.

There he is! Tony Garza, the biggest Mexico booster ever to come from the great state of Texas! He reads Ayn Rand and also happens to consult for the private sector, according to a recent interview he gave to Milenio. My guess is his infectious enthusiasm for the privatization of Mexico’s oil industry is due to the likelihood that some of his consulting clients stand to profit from the opening of up of oil production in Mexico to foreign companies.

For all its drama, the oil reform might not even be Peña Nieto's most important victory. In fact, the uproar against his education reform was even more intense than the battle over oil. A law overhauling Mexico's absurdly deficient public-education system—in which teaching jobs are handed down through generations and are sometimes even sold—enraged the powerful teachers' union, whose members paralyzed central Mexico City with mass street demonstrations last September.

Uh, apparently no one told Mr. Crowley that the vaunted education reform pushed by Peña Nieto was in fact a labor reform aimed mostly at weakening the rotting teacher’s union. Kids, infrastructure, and reforming instruction first? Whatever.

There's also evidence that Peña Nieto will challenge Mexico's entrenched powers. Last year he ordered the arrest of the longtime and powerful leader of the teachers' union on charges of embezzling millions in union funds. And some observers say his telecom-reform plan doesn't please telecom mogul Carlos Slim, the country's richest man.

Yes! Word up, Mr. Crowley! Peña Nieto jailed the seemingly untouchtable Elba Esther Gordillo, leaders of the teachers’ union. But what about the other big wigs of corrupt labor in Mexico? Carlos Romero Deschamps, the de facto leader of the Pemex oil workers union, is a millionaire and also a senator, and member of the PRI since 1961. His daughter Paulina loves yachts.

In 2000, Deschamps was implicated in “Pemexgate,” a scandal in which the union’s membership fees were revealed to have been funnelled to the campaign of the PRI’s then-losing candidate for president. Yet Deschamps remains free and untouchable. There are other labor bosses who represent little more than decadence and abuse for Mexico’s workers, of course, but who’s counting?

Credit Peña Nieto with good timing too. Rising labor costs in China have made Mexican wages cheaper by comparison, reversing a dynamic that held for most of the 2000s. Meanwhile, a slowdown has dampened foreign enthusiasm for Brazil's economy, making Mexico look more appealing. Even Peña Nieto's critics don't deny that he has delivered changes that could transform Mexico's economy. "The question," says Manuel Camacho Solís, a member of the Mexican Senate, "is whether that will create the outcome they want."

Forgive me, but it’s hard not to point out that Mexico is a win for Wall Street because labor costs here are now dropping below those of China. How on Earth? For starters, minimum wage in Mexico is approximately $5.18 a day, and that’s after an increase that just went into effect in January.

Of course, not everyone makes minimum wage in Mexico. Others make whatever they can get as laborers in Mexico’s massive informal economy, where about 60 percent of all laborers in Mexico toil, with no safety net and no taxation. I know all the Polly Positive stories on Mexico mention a “growing middle class,” so why do a majority of Mexicans still self-identify as belonging to the “lower class,” as this recent poll shows? (Probably because most Mexicans still functionally reside there.)

Camacho is suspicious that Peña Nieto's agenda seems to be a bigger hit in Davos than in Xico. "Investors applaud. Newspapers outside the country applaud. So why does the image of the President keep falling?" asks Camacho, noting that Pe*a Nieto's poll numbers have fallen several points below 50%. (Some trace the poll slump to a recent pause in economic growth that economists call temporary.)

Temporary, guys, temporary!

Peña Nieto promised to tackle the violence. But once in power he seemed to de-emphasize the drug war. U.S. officials worry that drug lords understand that the pressure will ease on their trafficking so long as the heads—so to speak—stop rolling. "The government's messaging outside the country is about changing the conversation from the cartels to Mexico's economic potential," says Wood.

I agree: Ignore the problem, mask it, rearrange it, and package it as something else, and it will just go away. Right?

Chong insists otherwise. "We are not mixing security with politics," says the Interior Minister, who, it may be worth noting, has a political background as a former governor of the Mexican state of Hidalgo. Speaking from his private office—the better to avoid a part of town paralyzed by street protests—he adds that the drug fight has been focused by centralization of authority under his control and that his government has captured some prominent drug lords, including the sadistic leader of the Zetas cartel, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, in July 2013.

It has been shown time and time again that the capture of cartel chiefs only fuels violence in Mexico. Or is it all those assault weapons the U.S. willingly and knowingly smuggled into Mexico that’s causing all the bloodshed?

Skeptics scoff at this sunny narrative. Murders have slowed in some areas, but other crimes have spiked. In late January, the President unveiled a new initiative to combat a recent epidemic of secuestro, as kidnapping for ransom is known.

Kidnapping indeed skyrocketted to unprecedented levels in the last decade in Mexico, and grew significantly in 2013 as well, according to official numbers. But that’s the problem. The official numbers likely reflect a miniscule fraction of the reality, meaning many more kidnappings likely occur than are reported. Live here a while, and you start to hear of random kidnapping stories from friends or acquaintances, even in “relatively safe” Mexico City.

But we’re the lucky ones in Mexico’s megalopolis. If you live in the surrounding states, good luck!

And then there is the crisis in Michoacán, where the emergence of armed vigilante groups is a disturbing echo of Colombia's descent into a kind of low-grade civil war in the 1980s. "Nobody knows who the hell these people are—whether they are honest, bona fide vigilante groups or whether it's one cartel fighting another," says Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican Foreign Minister.

We’ve covered the crisis in Michoacán before, and I can assure, even as I sit here in Mexico City, the precise nature of the situation there is beyond the grasps of any outsider who manages to engage with the field for a few days or weeks. We really only get hints of the problem, and since reporters here are routinely killed for doing their job, you can’t expect much truthiness from the day-to-day news here.

"What's happening in Michoacán is really worrisome," says Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you can't fix rule of law, I don't see how the economic side can thrive."

  […]

"Sometimes people see the events but not the statistics," says Chong.

[…]

A senior Obama Administration official expresses sympathy. "It's a big country," he says, recounting a nervous call from a U.S. auto-industry executive headed to a large Mexican city for a convention. The official's advice? Relax. "It's the equivalent of, you're going to L.A. for a convention and you hear about a big shoot-out or hostage taking in Alabama. Would you feel unsafe?"

Wow. An incredibly flippant and offensive thing to say to the survivors of the violence of Mexico’s drug war. In this “senior Obama administration” official’s opinion, I guess, you could also say that it’s like going to the “hip” and “trendy” Condesa neighborhood in the middle of Mexico City for some drinks, where any night of the week you could end up witnessing a shooting death or a kidnapping at the next table.

And I’m not exaggerating. Largely because of petty crime concentrated in the most tourist-heavy districts of the city (places that attract some US and Canadian nationals, but primarily tourists or transplants from other parts of Mexico and Latin America), the central Cuauhtemoc borough of Mexico City is the most of unsafe of all 16 city boroughs in total, according to government figures.

Even if some reforms fall short, it has been a long timesince Mexico experienced grand political bargains, a growing economy and optimism about the future. The idea might have been laughable until recently. But is it possible that America's leaders could learn a thing or two from its resurgent southern neighbor?

You mean, “saving the United States”? Imagine that. The deeper problem with Time's cover story on Mexico's president is that it reveals a coddling, apologetic, and painfully out-of-touch stance on the part of U.S. news media outlets covering Mexico's current government agenda. That is opposed to the confrontational, skeptical stance that as news consumers we should expect from all our reporters covering the world from dangerous places in the field.

If not, Time and other (usually respectable) news outlets risk joining the ranks of the stenographers and PR brainiacs who already work for the government as it is. So far, they're winning. They do have a wider point, if darkly communicated: Mexico is not all doom and gloom. But my belief is that if we all love Mexico, as most people who visit here eventually find themselves professing, we must hold Mexico to the highest standards possible, in justice, transparency, equity, and the rule of law.

None of those privileges at the moment are enjoyed in their entirety by any of us. So we don't need "saving," necessarily. Maybe what we need is a rebirth.

Daniel Hernandez is an editor at VICE Mexico. Follow him on Twitter.

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