Surrounded by piles of antique manila folders, battered file boxes and crumpled reporter’s notebooks, I dug through the mysteries of my past recently, looking for an answer.
“Mexico?” people say to me. “Why do you want to write about Mexico?”
These skeptics, ensconsed in the vastness of the United States, pose the question as if shrugging off a tiny whistlestop glimpsed from a train window–a place too insignificant to notice.
Their question leaves me mute, forcing me to face the chasm separating me from the people I want to reach. For me the question has always been: “How could I NOT write about Mexico?” Even aside from the endless fascination in the smaller twists and surprises, there is the larger urgency.
Before our eyes, Mexico is enduring slow-motion meltdown. I’m not saying that its modern crime epidemic is rolling toward the U.S. like a tsunami (the core violence almost magically stays on the Mexican side of the border, due to U.S. law enforcement effectiveness, and other enigmas). But there’s still the sheer size of that 2,000-mile border–plenty of interface for side-effects to bounce through. Exaggerated discussion of this dynamic uses the term “spillover violence”–implying that Mexico’s violence has already begun spilling into the U.S. on a grand scale. Not true–at least not in the way the alarmists phrase it.
The nuance only deepens the avoidance. If the big, simple fantasies of a “Mexican menace” are shot down, then the real emergency in Mexico becomes a boring smudge–distant and hard to understand. U.S. attitudes toward Mexico seem to have an on-off switch with two positions: either wide-open (cartoon-like hysteria), or dead-shut (nothing there worth thinking about at all).
The real threat gets lost in the language of possibility: True, Mexico’s social upheaval is not NOW spilling into the United States (any more than it always has)–but nowhere is it written in the sky that in the future it CAN’T spill over.
Sometimes the shrug seems almost mystical. As U.S. shouting increases over issues like illegal immigration–issues arising inside the United States–there seems to be remarkably little parallel interest in looking outside the U.S. at the sources of these issues–in the confusing smudge called Mexico.
And maybe the avoiders are the smart ones. Maybe the problems inside Mexico can’t be solved–which leads us back to my dog-eared files, where a river of paper goes winding back thirty years into the past. Finally, sorting through all that, I was struck by a stark, simple answer.
Buried in the pile were some grainy news photos of a peculiar-looking traveler. Reduced to scarecrow thinness by months spent wandering in wild country, he can be seen in some of the photos as he converses with an assortment of unlikely passersby. In his hip pocket is a sweat-soaked reporter’s notebook. It doesn’t show in the pictures, but I know it’s there–because this strange ghost is me–or was me–at a time when I was performing one of the world’s crazier stunts. Wearing a backpack and a battered hat, I set out from the U.S. border on foot–walking. The romantic hope was to get to know Latin America firsthand, without filters. And I did manage to survive–as I walked across seven nations–no rides en route–until I had spent ten months and covered 3,000 miles on foot. This took me not only across Mexico but through Central America farther south, where I finally wound up at the Panama Canal.
But my point here is not to rhapsodize about my bygone eccentricity. In that incredibly long-ago time (we’re talking more than three decades ago, in the pre-electronic Stone Age), the act of walking across Mexico wasn’t a bridge too far. It was very unlikely, very questionable and strange–but not impossible. And its possibility remained even though I made the hike alone: no entourage of chase vehicles, no busy support crew, nothing but my eccentric motivations to keep me company by the campfire at night–along with the many, many hospitable people who invited me into their homes.
There was no shortage of dangers, even back in those days. It wasn’t a walk in the park. But on an up-close-and-personal level I became a firm believer in the truism you hear from many such travelers: Mexico’s countryside showed me that it was much more benign and welcoming than a lot of gringo paranoiacs like to believe.
And it still is that way. Sort of. But I wouldn’t repeat the hike today. Thirty years ago Mexico seemed to be steadily climbing out of its old problems, heading toward “developed” status. Boosters said it was rapidly leaving behind the dark realm of Third World desperation, that it had entered what they called “the Developing World”–barely a stone’s throw from achieving full shopping-mall utopia.
Then more years passed. Since most people in the United States were busy not noticing Mexico anyway, they weren’t in much position to see the changes. Even I, pretty interested in the place, didn’t grasp a process that was occurring in gradual, seemingly almost glacial stages. By the early 1990s I was in another odd niche, writing in Spanish for a Mexican newspaper on the border, and meeting plenty of grim puzzles–but generally the future seemed hopeful. Mexico’s old corruption was being ferreted out and banished. Massive clean-ups were occurring in institutions, especially law enforcment. Whole agencies would soon be abolished and made over. The NAFTA accord emerged–the North American Free Trade Agreement–with ambitious new ties between Mexico and the United States. Negative views of this seemed clearly to be overstated. The future still looked rocky–but rosy.
Then something happened. Or better said, it had been happening all along, amid too many other changes (and misstatements about those changes) for the horizon to be clear. Now–as if out of nowhere–Mexico isn’t exactly where I’d make a marathon hike alone. The shorthand reason is drug trafficking violence–but the big cartels are only part of the picture. Countless swarms of obscure gangs now specialize in depredations like kidnapping and extortion (some groups busted recently called themselves things like “the Zodiacs” and “Los Simpson,” nodding toward a cartoon artifact of globalization).
Earlier this year one of Mexico’s most respected crime analysts, Jorge Carrillo, said that more than half the national territory has fallen outside effective government control, at a “point of no return.” Carrillo said that the overflow of hopeless job seekers is being soaked up by gang salaries ranging around $650 to $950 a month.
Trying to puzzle out where all of this came from, I plowed through pundit statements, political disclaimers and blather from talking heads. But the answer wasn’t there. It was buried in my files. Down at the bottom of a stack of yellowed paper was a forlorn little sheet bearing some of my youthful prose, when I had tried to put my marathon hike in perspective. The sentence said something like: “Here I am, out in the wilds, in a nation of 60 million people….”
Maybe you don’t see how this reveals the secret–because a second number, shawdowing the first, isn’t written there. It hadn’t been born yet. That second number is the population figure for Mexico today.
Does Mexico now have 111 million people? Or 112 million? It’s a moving target–despite many and often successful birth-control campaigns undertaken by the Mexican government. I don’t even know whether it’s valid any more to say that a million new job-seekers are entering the Mexican labor market every year, or that to provide work for that million-a-year the Mexican economy has to grow at more than six percent a year–far beyond the present dire level.
A rapidly populating world is full of voices telling us why we don’t need to worry about the new reality of crowds–why all this growth is beneficial, how it brings new markets, new opportunities for universal prosperity. And maybe they’re right.
But say, what happened to Mexico?