Has Mexico really changed?

Photographer: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico Can Be Murderous. Just Ask Its President.

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Just a couple months ago, Enrique Pena Nieto was on a roll.  The young, telegenic Mexican leader had crossed the aisle to pass a bold suite of economic reforms designed to remake the country's infrastructure. At last, Mexico seemed ready to change the stale conversation over the failed war on drugs to embrace progress and modernization. "There is no return to the past," Pena Nieto said.

Then came Iguala, a small semi-desert town in Guerrero State in the Mexican southwest. On the evening of  Sept.26, police intercepted buses carrying dozens of students from a nearby teachers college to town for a protest. What happened next is still unclear, but apparently Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, fearing the rebel students would sabotage his wife's speech in the town square, reportedly called on amigos in the local narco gang, Guerreros Unidos, said to be on the city payroll. When the night was over, six people lay dead and 43 students were missing, now presumed murdered. 

Abarca and First Lady Maria de Los Angeles Pineda fled but were arrested Nov. 4 on the outskirts of Mexico City. Federal troops have yet to locate the missing students, but everywhere they look, they stumble on clandestine graves. Public horror has turned to fury, sparking a nationwide revolt that led to the ouster of Guerrero's governor.

Now Pena Nieto is scrambling to rescue not just his own mandate but Mexico's best chance at modernization in decades.  Forbes listed him as the world's  60th most influential person, down  23 places from last year. His approval ratings have slipped to 47 percent, according to a recent poll. Now the Iguala 43 has become an international cause celebre and provoked international human rights investigations.

The irony is that the tragedy of Iguala comes just as Mexico has improved. Shortly after taking office, Pena Nieto set out to modernize crime fighting by centralizing policing and corrections under the powerful Interior Ministry, and unifying the country's confusing patchwork of regional penal codes. 

That strategy paid off, leading to major law enforcement victories, including the capture earlier this year of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's dreaded drug overlord. Overall, homicides  fell 13 percent last year over the year before, and Pena Nieto recently stated that murders were down 27 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2012.

These advances have emboldened Pena Nieto who hoped to distance himself from his hawkish predecessor, Felipe Calderon, whose offensive against the narcos had claimed 60,000 lives from 2006 to 2012. 

Out went the war on drugs. Enter "Mexico on the Move," Pena Nieto's reform mantra. Pundits and the press applauded. Time magazine ran a profile under the cover line "Saving Mexico," while Martin Feldstein, a former top economic advisor to Ronald Regan, recently penned a glowing article on the new Mexico, that pays scant attention to the country's epidemic of criminal violence.

Though the national homicide rate (19 per 100,000 residents)  is below Latin America's fevered average  (23.4 per 100,000), crippling violence still afflicts parts of the country. Official numbers compiled by Mexico's 32 states listed Guerrero as the fourth most violent state, and Iguala ranks as the country's seventh most dangerous municipality.

What's worse, nearly 94 percent of Mexico's crimes go unsolved, up from 92 percent in 2010. Patriotic Mexicans once surrendered their wedding rings and gold to pay off the national debt when foreign oil assets were nationalized; now they shed their jewelry so they won't be mugged.

Mexico bulls ignore these numbers at their peril. A tragedy the magnitude of Iguala's may be mercifully rare, but it has resonance far beyond Mexico. "This wasn't a dustup between druggies," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council on the Americas. "These are students, and their disappearance is a blow that could be understood anywhere."

No one is saying Pena Nieto's courageous reforms are finished, but the new Mexico will mean little as long as the shock of the old persists.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net