You May Want To Ignore Mexico

But If Americans Remain Indifferent, We’ll All Pay the Price

Last Friday morning, the second most powerful man in Mexico’s government, the cabinet member leading the war against the drug cartels, died in a helicopter crash. Mexicans were stunned: Francisco Blake Mora was President Felipe Calderón’s second interior secretary to die in an air crash in three years.

North of the border, Blake’s death did not make the TV networks’ evening newscasts. A stringer for one of them in Mexico told me that unless Calderón is gunned down by the cartels in broad daylight, the network bosses aren’t interested. Saturday’s Los Angeles Times carried the news on page A-5; The Washington Post did so on A-6. Only The New York Times, exercising sounder judgment, carried the news on the front page.

Initial indications point to an accident in the Blake case, but, for obvious reasons, the possibility of foul play is being investigated. The Mexican government has had a lot of recent success in hunting down the leaders of some of the most powerful criminal organizations on earth (a success that hasn’t translated into diminishing violence or a reduction in the flow of drugs across the border). That’s why few people, anywhere, had a longer list of resourceful enemies than Blake Mora did.

That said, even if Blake Mora had passed away in his sleep, the death of Mexico’s interior secretary would be big news. (The Spanish designation for the title, Gobernación, conveys its sweeping writ.) And I can’t help but think that the death of a similarly important Afghani or Iraqi security official would have registered more on the American media-scape.

The truth is, American media elites–not to mention the man on the street–aren’t invested, or even much interested, in the fate of Mexico. When I became the assistant editor of the New York Times editorial page, I was asked if I’d been to Israel. No, I answered, and soon found myself on a plane heading for Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, where I’d spend a fascinating week meeting with players from all sides in a long-running saga that I’d followed for years but never experienced up close. I wasn’t going to be the lead writer on Mideast editorials, mind you, nor did we lack for deep expertise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No, the issue was that one couldn’t be part of the newspaper’s leadership without having a first-hand sense of a place deemed so strategically important.

Mexico, clearly, doesn’t have that status. I think it should, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why it doesn’t. Yes, I grew up in Mexico, but there’s a lot more to it than that. More than 40,000 people have died in Mexico since its government decided to take on drug cartels that are nourished by American consumers and armed by U.S. gun dealers. There is an almost direct causal link between Wall Street bankers doing blow or Occupy Wall Street protesters getting high and journalists and elected officials getting assassinated in Mexico. Not only is this violence undermining a democracy next door; we as Americans are responsible for much of it. At a time when the idea of socially responsible consumption has swept this country–think of the anti-sweatshop movement, the Darfur divestment campaigns, Fair Trade coffee, and so on–we take in the violence in Mexico with barely a nod.

For starters, then, the issue of our moral culpability alone should make Mexico matter to us. But, beyond that, the growing strength of these transnational criminal organizations is a threat to the rule of law north of the Rio Grande as well.

Intimidating and bribing officials might be easier in Mexico than in it is in the United States, but it would be foolish to pretend that these criminal behemoths, headquartered in Mexico but making tens of billions a year operating in our country, won’t succeed in corrupting the rule of law in any number of southwest jurisdictions.

There are also plenty of non-drug-war-related reasons why American media (and political) elites should pay more attention to Mexico. Did you know that, last year, the United States imported more oil from Mexico than it did from Saudi Arabia? Or that this safe, reliable source of oil (second only to Canada) may soon cease being a net exporter of oil, unless it embraces needed reforms that would allow for more investment in its production capacity? Given how much time we spend in this country fretting about our dependence on oil from the Middle East, maybe we should spend a little more thinking about the North American market and Mexico’s role as a counterweight to Middle East sources.

Our lack of appreciation for Mexico cuts both ways, because we ignore the good along with the bad. And there is plenty of good. Despite rising violence, Mexico is more democratic than it has ever been. Mexico is also the second-largest buyer of U.S. goods in the world, belying the idea of an impoverished country at the mercy of our generosity. Brazil, China, and India get a lot of buzz among U.S. elites for their rise out of poverty, but Mexico is further along in that transformation, with a higher standard of living than those nations, a thriving middle class, and more than a decade of sound economic and financial stewardship resulting in unparalleled stability. It’s a G-20 nation that offers a phenomenal market for U.S. goods, as the executives of any number of multinationals that rely on Mexico for a healthy share of their profits (such as Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, and Citicorp, to name a few) will tell you–or would tell you, if the political environment weren’t currently so hostile to the idea of businesses investing abroad.

Last week, I was shepherding a delegation from Zócalo Public Square, the New America Foundation, the Aspen Institute, and the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute through Mexico. We met with political and economic analysts, journalists, and five of the contenders vying to be elected Mexico’s next president. Reflecting Mexico’s traditional backwater status, a majority of our delegation–including such accomplished journalists as Steve Coll (former Washington Post managing editor), Susan Glasser (editor of Foreign Policy magazine), and Franklin Foer (editor-at-large of The New Republic)–had never been to Mexico City. I asked people on the trip for their gut, one-word reaction to the place. The most interesting (if two words) might have been “public art.” I also got “world-class,” “money,” “inequality,” “traffic,” and, perhaps most fittingly, “contradictions.”

A number of us did a TV show with respected Mexican journalist Sergio Sarmiento (whose network, TV Azteca, is part of the Salinas Group, our host in Mexico City and at the Ciudad de las Ideas conference in Puebla) on the question of whether Mexico matters to the United States. (We agreed that it should matter but doesn’t–an answer at odds with the notion many Mexicans have of U.S. elites eager to micromanage their nation’s destiny.) I insisted that this would change over time (for one thing, we have a least 15 million U.S. residents who were born in Mexico), but frankly I am not so sure.

There are many reasons Mexico punches below its weight in the collective mindshare of U.S. elites. One underappreciated reason is that, despite present anxieties over drugs and immigration, Mexico has been a fairly desirable neighbor. Even after the United States annexed half of its territory, Mexico has been a peaceful, sensible neighbor for most of our shared history. The United States has had the rare luxury, for a continental power, of not having to deploy large armies to secure its borders throughout history. Thanks to Canada and Mexico, we could behave like an island nation.

American elites, too, have had the luxury of ignoring Mexico, and proximity has bred contempt. Had our neighbor been more of a threat (imagine if Mexican terrorist suicide bombers made it a habit of crossing the border to reclaim California or Arizona), generations of our best and brightest would have been attracted to the study of Spanish and Mexico, the way they once were drawn to Russia and are now drawn to the Middle East. Meanwhile, for vast majorities of Americans, impressions of Mexico are formed by the flows of drugs and migrant workers–with maybe a stint at a Mexican beach resort. And, speaking of immigration, you may not have noticed the underreported story that the flow of immigrants has nearly ceased as the job market has constricted in this country (they really do come to work).

The story down south is decidedly mixed–one of many positive trends imperiled by rising violence and a lingering authoritarian political culture. Our delegation’s talks with leading politicians were disheartening on many topics, but heartening insofar as they seem less obsessed than ever with what the United States is or isn’t doing to Mexico.

Now we just need American elites to become a little more obsessed with what is happening south of the border. There is an imperative, and an opportunity, to start thinking more strategically about North American development and competitiveness. Mexico is an important, if underappreciated, partner for a number of positive reasons. And, if all hell breaks loose there, the United States, simply by having the power to have been a better (and less drug-ravenous) neighbor, will bear a large part of the blame. That’s another reason to start paying closer attention.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and vice president of the New America Foundation.

*Photo courtesy of Gobierno Federal.