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Mexico: The Stranger Next Door

Defying its troubled reputation, Mexico is becoming an economic power. Will Americans notice?
Mexico: The Stranger Next Door
Illustration by Erik T. Johnson

Not so long ago, if you believe what you read in the papers and see on TV, Mexico was the next Afghanistan. It was poor, lawless, and plagued by drug violence, a failed-state-in-the-making whose problems and people would soon cascade over the border. In early 2009 a U.S. Joint Forces Command report speculated that, in the next quarter-century, Pakistan and Mexico could prove the most worrisome flash points for American security. According to a study by Roberto Newell for the Wilson Center, more than 60 percent of all stories about Mexico in major U.S. papers were negative in 2007; that figure had risen to more than 80 percent by 2010. A survey of U.S. attitudes toward Mexico in 2012 found only 14 percent of respondents called it a “good neighbor.” Type “Why is Mexico so” into Google and the first four adjectives suggested are “dangerous,” “violent,” “bad,” and “poor.”

In the last year, however, Mexico’s image has witnessed a dramatic transformation. In the eyes of U.S. media and policymaking elites, the country’s gone from being the next Afghanistan to the next China. The new narrative crescendoed with the swearing-in last December of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Journalists covering the event learned, among other things, that years of effective economic policies and an embrace of free trade are turning Mexico into a solidly middle-class society. The Financial Times called Mexico, whose economy grew 3.9 percent in 2012, an “Aztec tiger.”