When something as rock-solid asa national stereotype changes, something profound is surely going on. The traditional (and stupid) Mexican stereotype had been that of the guy wearing a funny and large hat comfortably sleeping next to a cactus.


BY RAMÓN I. CENTENO | APRIL 09, 2013

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Nowadays, apart from or instead of that we now hold a Kalashnikov under our poncho, eager to sell drugs.You can see this cultural change in movies from/about Mexico. Sixty or seventy years ago most stories where about the Mexican Revolution or its legacies. Nowadays everything moves around the War on Drugs. From the insider perspective, just see the contrast between the epic utopianism in “Vámonos con Pancho Villa” of Fernando de Fuentes and the dystopian tragedy inGerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala”.From an outsider point of view, just compare our national image in Sergei Eisenstein’s “¡Que viva México!” with that of the Tarantino-style “Machete” of Robert Rodriguez: virginal authenticity vs.organic corruption.

Adiscreet political earthquake

When has this changing perception of the world on Mexico – from the naive good-fellows to the ruthless bad guys- started? In December 2006 the then new President Felipe Calderón declared the “War on Drugs”. The ministry of the interior at the time, Francisco RamírezAcuña, explained the launch of the “Joint Operation Michoacán” as an effort to “finish the impunity of the criminals that are risking the tranquillity of all the Mexicans and, especially, our families.”[i] Since then, the word “security” turned into one of the most important political discourse in Mexico. In that election, the two leading candidates finished with a slight difference of less than 1%, with the defeated candidate denouncing electoral fraud, hence, leaving the winner severely weakened. His lack of an unquestioned legitimacyled him to search for means to gain political stature rapidly. His choice: launch a selective and strenuous attack on drug cartels (epitome of the “criminals”) in order to successfully present himself as the incarnation of the national interests of all Mexicans. Even worse, Calderón’s decision also meant an alignment to U.S. foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Washington immediately backed the Mexican government and hastily institutionalised this public support through the “Mérida Initiative”, a military partnership signed in 2008 to jointly undertake the “war on drugs.”

Six years later, one hundred thousand people (mostly civilians) have been killed as part of this military adventure against the powerful (and also militarised) cartels. To sum-up, what started as a short-term tactic morphed into a long-term strategy aimed at political stability. If in 2006 Mexico was on the brink of joining the club of centre-of-left Latin American governments, after that it rapidly became the decisive player of Washington and his friends to counter-weightChávez’s coalition. Along with the Colombia, Mexico moved the whole Central America to the War on Drugs. This sub-region, with a political dynamic opposed to the rest, has pushed rightist but well-informed analysts to ask whether there are now two Latin Americas: “one on the Pacific, another on the Atlantic.”[ii] This counter-tendency to the Left turn so much cheered at the beginning of the century covers more than 1/3 of the regional population as it reaches other right governments, Peru and Chile. These two along with Colombia and Mexico have recently launched (June 2012) an economic bloc to oppose Chávez’s ALBA and Brasil-led Mercosur: the Pacific Alliance, with Costa Rica and Panama as observers. The rest of Central America had anyway previously signed a favourable trade agreement with Mexico in November 2011.[iii]In short, thecountries where neoliberalism still runs unbridled are making love to each other’s elites.

So not to anyone’s surprise, the new President, Enrique Peña Nieto will act along the lines of his immediate predecessor. Rosario Green, an ex ministry of foreign affairs and long-time regime’s adviser on international relations, recently put it this way: “If you ask me which are probably going to be his first, second, and third priority, I would say that the United States, Central America, and the Pacific.”[iv]Or in Peña’s words himself,“We have to assume, as a country, a greater role of responsibility in the different regional and multilateral organisations, and in the PacificAlliance in particular.”[v]

Thus the changing perception of Mexico abroad must be read as an index of thediscreet political earthquakethat the country has undergone. In a trip to Cuba in 2010, I was so astonished by the precarious living conditions in popular neighbourhoods that I wondered whether I would be able to live as an ordinary Cuban. But when a Cuban asked me where I was from, he exclaimed “I couldn’t live in Mexico, too much violence!” But however bloody the last six years have been, no major political actors dared to challengethe bloodshed. Moreover, that was one of the fields in which the presidential candidates agreed: they only battled each other on how to pursue a more effective War on Drugs. In this sense, although Peña has said that his priority is “reducing the levels of violence”, he is quick to add that there “are tasks that have been followed that should be maintained and increased.”[vi] Talking about legalisation of drugs largely remains taboo.


Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 4  No. 1