That title is a legitimate question: what is, and is not, currently working properly in Mexico, that country of 115 million with whom we share a 2000-mile border? That country where almost 10% of its population Mexico currently lives in the United States?
Of course, what “working” means is the never-ending debate of the human race. Some say “societal function” just means a hole to shit in and relatively few invaders; others look at Earth’s most developed nations and say their institutions are completely broken. Here, I’ll just use work where it sounds right.
For most of the 20th century, Mexico was seen as one of very few countries in Latin America that did work, by most standards. After the bloody 1910-1928 Mexican Revolutio, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) emerged as the region’s most stable and effective political machine, maintaining one-party rule for seventy years, while other Latin American states were racked with coups and guerilla warfare. Mexico under the PRI wasn’t exactly Candyland, and the PRI’s well-intentioned programs—land redistribution, import substitution industrialization, “free speech”—rarely garnered their full results, but for most Mexicans, life was livable and predictable.
But since the beginning of democracy in 2000—when free and fair elections made Vicente Fox the first non-PRI president since before the Revolution—much that once worked in Mexico no longer does.
Wait, democracy? Isn’t that supposed to be, like, a good thing?
Short answer: not always.
Mexican democracy fractured a political landscape whose former unity, though corrupt and unaccountable, kept other powerful factions at bay. When these factions are parties and interest groups simply vying for their interests, democracy works (thanks, James Madison).
However, when these factions are highly organized drug cartels—hosting leaders of the global narcotics trade who relocated to Mexico after the DEA’s 1980s takedown of the Colombian gangs—political plurality opens up the fray to more than it bargained for.
The PRI’s system of striking deals with the cartels and partitioning their territories collapsed with democracy, and violence escalated. In 2006, Fox’s successor Felipe Calderón (also from Fox’s party) waged an all-out war on the cartels, who fought back with the most brutal tactics: public executions and mutilations that entrenched their reign of terror, government infiltrations and payoffs that expanded their power and eroded all public trust, gang recruitment and brainwashing of adolescents, and diversified profit schemes like kidnapping, oil smuggling, and even mineral exports to China. The cartels are responsible for over 100,000 deaths since the start of the century, yet, by some definitions, they are probably the institution in Mexico that works best.
Voters tried to reclaim their lost PRI Mexico, electing PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012, but it would not be. The narco-estado had already taken hold, efficient only when backed by drug money. Corruption and violence drudges on.
So, at this point, what is working in Mexico?
Industrial sector: While agriculture has been seriously impaired by the 1994 NAFTA agreement that let the US flood Mexican markets with cheap, mass-manufactured foodstuffs (corn, corn and more corn), factories and manufacturing plants remained viable and tempting for international companies and investors. Low wage factories called maquiladoras line the border and do in fact provide many jobs. And while low gas prices have stalled development and privatization, its oil reserves still hold barrels of economic promise.
Tourism: While fear of violence (and our 2008 Recession) has caused recent tourism lulls, sunburned gringos have just found safer destinations, like Cabo San Lucas in Baja California or Cancún on the Yucatán Peninsula. Acapulco, Guerrero, an old tourist favorite, has somewhat fallen from favor after a few street skirmishes and some dismembered bodies turning up in the plazas. Still, as long as you’re not a journalist or on a gang or government hit list (pardon the redundancy), much of Mexico is still quite safe.
Hollywood Exports: If you think you’ve never seen a movie directed by a Mexican, you’re probably wrong.
Human dignity: Mexicans are starting to show they’ve had enough. Mass protests continue about last fall’s massacre of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero (an atrocity ordered by the town mayor, a cartel connect). Thousands of farmworkers in Baja are on strike against slave-like conditions, allowing the food to rot on the vine.
A few Mexican migrant farmworkers I’ve talked to in Vermont say revolution is imminent. Whether an actual government overthrow happens in Mexico, or whether civil society stays standing and sees its demands for justice through, human dignity still works in Mexico—or is at least putting up a fight.