Mexico: the beauty and the doomed

A new film about Mexican crime and violence stirs reflections about this creative country, crippled like Russia by centuries of absolutism and corruption.
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San Pedro Coxcaltepec Cantaros in Oaxaca, Mexico.

A new film about Mexican crime and violence stirs reflections about this creative country, crippled like Russia by centuries of absolutism and corruption.

"Poor Mexico — so far from God and so near the United States"      — former Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is a long and complicated one, perhaps never so much as today when an estimated 11-12 million Mexican illegals are in the United States and when cross-border narcotics, human, and weapons trafficking have especially impacted California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas communities bordering Mexico.

Charlie Minn's new film, "Murder Capital of the World," currently showing at the Meridian in downtown Seattle, is a low-budget but first-rate documentary account of the impact of crime-gang violence in Juarez, Mexico, and its spillover into El Paso, Texas.  It tells in straightforward terms, in interviews with government officials, journalists, and ordinary citizens, and with some graphic film footage of the victims, of the carnage afflicting Juarez and environs.

Approximately 50,000 people have been murdered in Mexico over the past five years, with a vast majority in incidents involving organized crime cartels.  Juarez, a populous commercial and manufacturing center, has been disproportionately affected.   Minn tells the story of the current Juarez police chief, brought in from Tijuana, where he had notable success against violent crime gangs, and his efforts.  He has used extraordinary measures familiar to those who have seen them used elsewhere against embedded crime:  Midnight raids and searches; executions on the spot of suspects; surprise on-the-street roundups; torture and summary imprisonment of targets — all with unsurprising collateral damage to the innocent and bystanders. The city's mayor, who hired the chief, is asked if he himself has ties to the crime cartels.  He denies it and is photographed hugging a retarded child and his mother in the mayor's office.

The film examines as well the upcoming Mexican national election in which the PRI (Institutional Republican Party), PAN (National Action Party), and PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) will contend to rule over the next six years.

The PRI, which ruled Mexico on a one-party basis from 1929-2000. is attempting to regain its once-dominant power.  The PAN, whose Presidents Fox and Calderon have governed since then, is trying to hold on against the wave of public disgust with the national murder epidemic.  The PRD felt it won the 2006 election but was cheated with a crooked vote count.   For those unfamiliar with them, the PRI talks populism and revolution but is a thoroughly corrupt combination of Chicago ward politics and Soviet-style party-line conformism.  The PAN is the modernizing, moderate party of business and technocrats.  The PRD is the left-leaning vehicle of social reformists disgusted by PRI corruption and PAN's ties to business.   None, even by our deteriorating political standards, would be perceived here as adhering to minimal expectations of openness and honesty.

Part of this flows, of course, from Mexico's long and often violent and oppressive history, dating back to the Aztecs and Mayans, and its brutal conquest by Hernan Cortez and the conquistadores.  The Mexican revolution pf 1910, and following civil war, is estimated to have killed nearly 1 million of the country's yhen-population of 15 million.

Though Mexico now possesses the world's 14th largest economy, and qualifies quantitatively as an upper-middle-income country, it still suffers from gross economic and social inequality. The conquistador mentality is pervasive.  Those with power and wealth grab for more.  Those at the bottom live only with hope — or of emigration to the United States.  Americans tend to think of Mexico as a country of stolid peasants, yet the agricultural sector constitutes only 5 percent of the economy.  (Some 31 percent is devoted to industry, the other 64 percent to services, including tourism).  Many of the illegals presently in the U.S., of course, are peasants unable to make a living on the land and unable to find work in Mexico's teeming urban areas.  Mexico City has 22 million of the country's 114 million population.

I have known and loved Mexico since I went there in 1957 to see, and then marry, my late wife, whose father (whose mother's name was Salazar) was a Mexican businessman and noted outdoorsman.  Her mother had been an American artist who had come to know Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and others of their circle.  The family home was in Coyoacan, just down the street from where Leon Trotsky had been assassinated by a Stalinist agent.

I got an immediate introduction to Mexican custom when, crossing the border at Juarez in my beat-up 1953 Buick, I was asked to open my car's trunk and then enter the Mexican border-station office.  (My trunk and back seat were crammed with my belongings in expectation of a later drive from Mexico to relocation in New York City).  After a long wait I was escorted back to my car, where a border agent stood silently next to me until, finally, I opened my billfold and gave him several peso notes.  He then waved me through.

A few miles inland, there was another small border station.  I did not even come to a full stop there but, passing through, passed additional pesos to a guard who put his hand out the window.  Headed south to Mexico City, I evaded a carjacking or worse by speeding through a construction crew, on an empty stretch of highway, after being ordered by the foreman to leave my car and open its trunk.  In Mexico City, I had to get a Mexican driver's license and managed to shorten a several-day administrative process by handing pesos to a clerk at the license bureau.  When Jean and I were married, in a civil service in a police station, I passed money to the precinct commander in order to make it happen.

Quite easy to understand why Walmart and other American companies have found it necessary to pass pesos in the millions to Mexican facilitators of all things at all levels.  Everything operates via mordida.

A crusty American journalist and author, Charles Bowden, comments in the Minn film on the fact that the United States is training and trying to professionalize the Mexican police and military.  Better, he says, to concentrate on improving the lot of Mexico's oppressed people.  But Bowden fails to recognize that the United States is all but powerless to change political and social tradition within Mexico.  Our trade and investment can help the country grow and abide by international rules of commerce.  But our influence will remain marginal when it comes to the nature of Mexico's political culture.

Will this year's national elections result in any headway against the crime violence and murder plaguing Mexico?   A couple analysts interviewed in the film speculate that the PRI, led by a hack, unintelligent presidential candidate, is likely to make a comeback and regain the monopoly on power it lost 12 years ago.  Voters, they say, are likely to opt for stability under the PRI than what they fear will be continued turmoil under either the PAN or PRD.  The PRI, they explain, would come to terms with the organized gangs, arrange truces between them, help them divide their territories, and live happily with the drug and other money the gangs would pay in tribute. Crime would rule but murder would stop. Their reasoning may be correct.

I have come to think, over time, of Mexico as I sometimes think of Russia — as a rich land of talented and diverse people seemingly doomed to injustice and tragedy because of its long traditions of absolutism and corruption.   It would be a shame if that is what history has in store for this land of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Rivera, David Siquerros, Dolores Del Rio, Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Huerta, Obregon, and those millions of Mexican sons and daughters who have enriched the culture and productivity of the United States.  I think of Mexico as our creative, turbulent, energetic southern neighbor still striving, still aspiring.  Much of what we should know about Mexico is contained in Prescott's classic Conquest of Mexico.  If you want a somewhat quirky take on Mexico, I recommend reading James M. Cain's Serenade.

Many successor presidents, since Porfirio Diaz, have repeated the remark that Mexico should be pitied because it is "so far from God, so near the United States." But a majority of Mexicans respect and admire the United States for our rule of law and devotion to constitutional protections.  They would prefer a society of their own in which mordida was not the everyday custom but in which a political, social, and economic system facilitated open and honest ways of helping citizens lift themselves.

For better or worse, Mexico's future and our own will be forever linked. It will not be too long, I suspect, before a Latino or Latina president will be elected in the United States. That would be reason for pride. Viva Mexico!  Viva los Estados Unidos!  In the meantime, down with the killers and despoilers.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of