Spontaneously-combusting resort hotels are just the latest challenge facing Mexico's tourism industry. "Sun, sea and severed heads: Mexico is not a holiday destination for the faint-hearted," wrote one of the Economist's notoriously un-bylined hacks this week.
Yet after the premature dubbing of swine flu as Mexican flu brought the 2009 season to an abrupt close, it would seem that visitor numbers have returned to the 2008 level of 22.6m, though this has been achieved in part by discounting (5% on average).
The Yucatán had the advantage of being quite a long drive from the most violent states (Guerrero for example has twenty times the number of murders) but much of the development along its coast over the past couple of decades has involves reclaiming swamp, hence the rather disconcerting new phenomenon of the exploding lobby.
Which is why I get pained looks from my father every time I mention taking a short trip over the border. As if living in Guatemala wasn't bad enough, he's now discovered that there really is a Guatepeor.
Of course the really bad stuff is mostly going closer to the northern border, Ciudad Juárez in particular. Last weekend saw the winding up of an exhibition at Shoreditch Town Hall entitled 400 Women, which was conceived in the following manner by Tamsyn Challenger, who went on to commission works from 175 fellow artists, men and women:
“This project began in 2005 when I was commissioned to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman's Hour. I travelled to Mexico and met with some of the families and was struck by their need to hand me postcards that had been generated as another aid to finding their loved ones. These images were black, white and pink and poorly produced but they started the concept in my mind and on the long flight home I had a half formed idea for what has become the project 400 Women. The concept relies heavily on a large-scale collaboration and, for me, each participating artist represents one of the murdered women, in some way invoking her, so that she can challenge humanity. Each image produced will stand as a statement against gender violence.”
Watching how The Review Show covered the exhibition's opening left me with mixed feelings. One doesn't have to be in the PR industry for very long to realise how different awareness is from comprehension.
Anyway, nobody is quite sure whether this rampant case of gynocide is an offshoot of the generally murderous conditions in the border city, or whether it reflects something more sinister, such as an entire masculine culture turned serial killer, or even sexual violence tourism. (Mexico welcomes 50m day trippers annually.)
Penguin has published a good backgrounder to the present turmoil in our northern neighbour: The Last Narco: Hunting El Chapo, The World's Most Wanted Drug Lord by Malcolm Beith, summarised nicely by Mark Ford in the LRB. (21/10/10)
Beith explains how America's regulation of the use of opiates from 1914 onwards didn't create tensions with Mexico until Nixon declared the first 'war on drugs'. Nixon told his chief-of-staff that the real problem was 'the blacks' at home — he just needed a system which took care of this without actually appearing to do so — so it wasn't until the arrival of Ronald Reagan that narcotics were formally recognised as a matter of national security and this onetime asunto of domestic law enforcement mutated into a key platform of US foreign policy.
During the late 80s Mexico's governing PRI led by American-educated Carlos Salinas fell under the spell of neoliberalism. And so, to some extent, did the then senior capo Gallardo, who broke up his plazas (routes pa'l norte), just as Salinas was breaking up public companies.
The lieutenants inheriting these delegated power structures were the original cartel bosses, and their lives became that much easier as Salinas deregulated the banks (making it easier to stash the loot) and the US administration tightened border controls, thereby improving the environment for organised smugglers.
Then Mexico joined NAFTA in '94, and the cartels started frantically buying up trucking companies and factories along the border, anticipating the good times to come. The immediate news for the agrarian economy was less positive however, as an influx of cheap American corn quickly deprived several million people of their livelihoods. New Presidente Vicente Fox duly suggested that Mexico's displaced peasants ought to welcome the opportunity to transform themselves into 'true businessmen', and of course, many did.
A consequence of the long-overdue conclusion of PRI rule at the start of the new century was that the old patronage relationships were immediately inverted. Police and politicos now largely worked for the traffickers, no longer vice versa.
In 2006 Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa was elected in circumstances not unlike those of the younger Bush, with (just over) half the population thinking 'what a swizz!' And there's nothing like a good war to take people's minds off legitimacy issues, is there?
Calderón had barely finished pinning the Presidential sash onto himself, when he dispatched 45,000 troops north of the capital, and wherever the army has turned up — even in those areas where the murder rate had been declining before 2006 — the violence has escalated dramatically. Close to 30,000 deaths were recorded for the first four years of Calderón's administration, though he has put it about that 90% of these were cartel members — a stat which, if unfudged, provides an indication of the enthusiasm with which his predecessor's call to private enterprise had been received.
Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields suggests that allowing the military to investigate its own abuses may have contributed to the levels of unsolved murder torture and rape in that most deadly place to live, where 'armed commandos' has become a catch-all phrase for them that done it. "If you see dust," Calderón nevertheless observed last August"it's because we are cleaning the house."
31 reporters have been killed or disappeared since 2006.
Sinaloa-raised El Chapo Guzmán is the classic would-be narco-emperor, turning the hostility of the Federal government into a force for consolidation (less than 15% of narcs arrested since the army arrived have been Guzmán's boys) and stepping into the space left by an uncaring formal economy, funding infrastructure projects like schools, hospitals and churches, even private homes. Business remains good. More contraband is making it over the border and last year the Mexican authorities seized less cocaine than it had back in 1991.
Meanwhile the Obama administration has offered to extend the Merida Initiative (a $1.6bn bribe set up in 2008), and continues to use misleading terminology such as 'insurgency' in reference to the highly profitable capitalist enterprises flourishing south of the border. Murder keeps the prices up, it seems. Over on the (apparently) legal wing of this boom trade, Mexico's financial institutions and America's arms dealers and military contractors also have little to complain about.