Country profile: Mexico


Dance group performing in Culiacan. © Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures

The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once labelled the 71-year period of government in Mexico by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) the ‘perfect dictatorship’. The 2012 electoral victory of Enrique Peña Nieto marked the return to power of the PRI after a 12-year hiatus. Many commentators wondered whether the PRI really had changed or whether this was a case of ‘old wine in new bottles’.

Peña Nieto entered government on a reformist agenda. Last year he instituted his Pact for Mexico, which encompassed energy, justice, political reform and social development, as well as market-friendly reforms relating to education, taxation and telecommunications. Along with Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, Mexico has been anointed as one of the MINT economies by Jim O’Neill who a few years earlier designated Brazil, Russia, India and China the BRICs. In common with other MINT economies, Mexico’s advantage lies in the youth of its workforce and its geographical proximity to a major market – the United States.

While Peña Nieto’s reforms have been welcomed by international finance organizations, within Mexico his policies have been questioned. Some, including the film director Alfonso Cuarón, say that Peña Nieto has not properly explained why some of these reforms, particularly the much-vaunted Energy Reform Bill that will see the end of the state monopoly on oil and gas, are beneficial. While Peña Nieto and those who see the country as the ‘new China’ believe that ‘Mexico’s moment’ has arrived, many others see Peña Nieto as beholden to international capital.

Orphans in the Casa de Ninos Emanuel.

Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures

Whether Mexico is living its ‘moment’ is very much an open question. Income inequality remains very high, and there are significant disparities in income between those who live in Southern and those who live in Northern states, and between the urban and rural populations. Despite the fame of the Oportunidades programme (a cash transfer scheme that pays poor families money conditional on school attendance and visits to a health clinic), work remains to be done to improve education, combat poverty, and improve the quality of healthcare for those outside the middle and upper classes.

The country also faces significant security challenges. A 2013 list of the Top 50 most violent cities in the world included nine cities from Mexico with Acapulco at number two. Much of the violence permeating Mexican society is cartel-related. Some 70,000 people have been killed since the start of the drug wars in 2006, with thousands more disappeared and displaced.

While the authorities’ efforts against the cartels were undoubtedly boosted by the arrest of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the impact of that on the Sinaloa Cartel is unlikely to be significant. Recent violence in Tamaulipas has led some to wonder if Mexico is not heading back to the bloody days of 2010. The rise of self-help and vigilante groups, such as those fighting the Cabelleros Templarios cartel in Michoacan, suggests that, for some, the government is not doing enough.

Children demonstrate for peace in Ciudad Juarez.

Teun Voeten/Panos Pictures

The actions of vigilante groups are about the right to lead a life free from outside interference. Much the same can be said about the Zapatistas in Chiapas. 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista Rebellion. Though not as prominent internationally as in the past, the Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional (EZLN) continues to fight on behalf of indigenous communities and against the state. Though President Fox withdrew soldiers from Chiapas in 2000, according to the EZLN, the state has switched to a ‘low intensity’ approach, encouraging paramilitary actions and employing a divide-and-conquer strategy that seeks to turn other social movements against the Zapatistas, whose analysis of Mexico’s ‘moment’ could not be more different from Peña Nieto’s.

by Russell White.

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