This post is a long answer to a short question: Why Mexico? That was the simple question asked of me last Saturday night by a lady in the signing queue after an event at the always excellent Bath Children’s Literature Festival. (It’s on for two more weeks – have a look at the other events). Why Mexico, she asked, of all the places in the world, why would you want to write about Mexico? Here’s why.
Mexico is a model. It’s a blueprint for a version of the world we find ourselves heading towards in the second decade of the 21st century. I believe a number of factors are combining across the world at the moment, which are going to cause an uncomfortable future for everyone, and Mexico is the best example of a place where this future is already here.
What are these factors?
First, poverty. Or to be more precise, not merely poverty, but inequality. As Tom Wainwright pointed out in my interview with him last week, Mexico is not as poor as people might think. Not if you judge such things by the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) at least, by which Mexico ranks as around the 12th richest country in the world. That’s the figure for raw GDP, but if we look at the GDP per capita, it’s around the 60th in world rankings. The first thing this tells us is that Mexico has a high population who are not ‘worth’ very much individually, from an economist’s point of view. But economists are often very good at discussing headline figures, without mentioning what this means on the ground, for people’s day to day lives. The pressing problem in Mexico, as in many places in the world, is high and growing inequality.
Almost 45% of Mexicans live below the official poverty line, and ranks, after Chile, as the country with the greatest inequality between the very rich and the very poor. Those with wealth in Mexico are very few, very powerful and very wealthy indeed. The personal wealth of just one man, Carlos Slim, is equivalent to 6% of the country’s GDP.
Second: jobs. Unemployment is not (officially) very high in Mexico, but those who do have jobs are often earning very little. In Juárez, where Saint Death is set, employment options are limited. For many people, particularly women, the only (legal) option is to find work on one of the more than 300 maquiladoras that lie in the Mexican-American borderlands. Maquiladoras are assembly plants, under non-Mexican ownership, which allow parts to be imported, assembled into all manner of goods, and exported again, and all without a penny of tax being paid along the way. Many multinational companies with household names operate maquiladoras in Mexico, companies such as Motorola, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, to name just a few. The wages paid have frequently been called ‘slave’ wages – a worker in one of these plants might be fortunate to come away with $50-70 a WEEK, with all bonuses and all possible overtime worked. Some people claim that this is fine, since the plants are at least bringing work, and the cost of living is much cheaper in Mexico. But it isn’t. Typically the cost of living in Juárez is around 90% of that in El Paso, Texas, a two minute walk across the border.
Three: economic policy. The reason these factories exist in Mexico at all is down to something called NAFTA – a ‘free-trade’ agreement which permitted their arrival in the mid 90s. And the near worldwide belief in free market economics, neo-liberalism, is the driving factor behind the growing inequality we see almost anywhere we look.
This is a model that believes market forces will find the ‘best outcome’ for everyone – that competition between capitalist forces will result in some kind of utopia for all. It’s a deluded lie, in my opinion, but one which has been accepted by many without question. The so-called trickle down effect (in which the wealth of the upper echelons of society helps provide work and thus ultimately wealth for the poor) is demonstrably laughable when you look at a city like Juárez. That unregulated markets produce the best financial solutions is ridiculous when we stop to think about the last (by which I mean most recent) banking crisis, for which almost no one has been held accountable, while ordinary tax payers have been asked to foot the bill for the banking world’s ‘mistakes’. (Which would be better called ‘crimes’.) The notion that capitalism itself is about a level playing field for all – when by definition capitalism is about the process by which money seeks to make more money at the expense of others – is naïve in the extreme when we stop to think that failure, waste and moral bankruptcy are not just unfortunate but inevitable by-products of the system.
On to the next factor – the wages paid by maquiladoras are so low that it’s nigh impossible to live on them, forcing people to perhaps work shifts in more than one factory, or turn to the other alternative, one that’s much better paid: so, four: the drug trade.
The most vital thing about Juárez as far as a drug lord is concerned, is this: its location. Drugs such as cocaine are only expensive on the streets of America or Europe because of the distance they have travelled, the number of times they have changed hands and, critically, the borders they have crossed. If a kilo of cocaine costs a farmer in Colombia $300-400 to produce, value is added to the goods every time they are shipped – there are bribes to be paid, transport costs to be met, and above all, profits to be made. Because it’s hard to get a kilo of cocaine to the streets of Chicago, by the time it gets there, its value has rocketed to tens of thousands of dollars (Around $80,000 according to Tom Wainwright’s book Narconomics). Control of the routes of drug shipment is therefore vital to the drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) and therefore a place like Juárez has seen incredible levels of violence over the last 20 years or so, as two of the major DTOs in Mexico fought for control of the Juárez ‘plaza’. (Though there are other factors behind this which I won’t go into here).
There were other effects of NAFTA – the moment it was introduced, American agribusiness, which despite the name ‘free trade’ was being subidized by the US government, and was therefore able to drastically undercut the cost of Mexican corn. Mexican farmers had a simple choice to make as a result – keep farming corn and go out of business, or grow something else. Many of them did the latter – and the domestic production of another drug, marijuana, took off in Mexico.
For the last 45 years, the US has been fighting a ‘war on drugs’. As the late Charles Bowden argued, after all this time, the results can only be a considered a failure. Over a trillion dollars spent, the US with the highest per capita prison population in the world and drugs on the streets of America (and the rest of the world) more freely then ever before, more cheaply, as usually at better quality too.
What has the money been spent on? Much of it has been given to the Mexican army under the Mérida initiative – around half a billion dollars a year – for the Mexican army to pursue this fight against crime. The problem with this is the rampant corruption inside the Mexican army. Too many in the army, like the Mexican police forces and government, are in the pay of the drug lords, and the result is a country in which around 94% of crimes are never reported, and in which less than 1% of crime results in a sentence. (All this assumes soldiers decide to stay in the army at all – during one six year spell in the noughties, around 100,000 soldiers defected to the DTOs. Why? The pay was better. And compared with a civilian in Juárez at the time, the life expectancy was better too.)
Here’s a final factor: climate change. There were several years of severe drought in Mexico, in states like Durango, in the 80s and 90s. The result was a wave of migration as people left their homes and fled to the north, looking for work. Many such people found themselves running up against the American border in places like Juárez, make the city’s population suddenly soar.
So these are some of the ingredients; a massing population due to climate change and the search for employment. Poor job opportunities, a rampant crime world, corrupt law enforcement and corrupt military and then; here’s the final piece of the puzzle – the border itself.
Juárez is what happens when we build fences between richer people and poorer people, and then proceed to pass things of value across those fences – things like drugs, money, people and guns.
Think all this is a problem of another world, of a place that is miles away and which bears no relation to our own? I disagree.
Our very own trade agreement with the US is currently being debated. You may well not have heard of TTIP – if not, read this. Note that you and I will have no say on whether TTIP comes to be or not.
If we make the mistake of thinking that migration is high now, as climate change really starts to bite, as sea levels rise and droughts worsen, the plight of refugees and migrants today will appear as a drop in the ocean. By 2050, the UN has estimated that up to 250 million people will be displaced by the various effects of climate change. These people will have to find new homes somewhere, and it’s our duty to help them. As Rebecca Solnit has argued, the rich west has been largely responsible for these acts of aggression against the planet, and ought to own up to its responsibilities here.
It’s less than thirty years since the the Iron Curtain fell, and the Berlin Wall was toppled. We were told walls were a thing of the past. And yet we seem all too ready to start putting then up again, and without asking ourselves why, what’s really behind it. All across Europe, right-wing populist movements are gaining ground, using the age-old tactics of scapegoating a group of people for all the world’s ills. Right now, that scapegoat is, of course, migrants, just as it was Jews for the National Socialists in the 1930s. The wave of hate crimes that followed the EU referendum is evidence enough that these methods are working again. One example: the recent presidential election in Austria, in which the far right candidate lost by less than 1% of the vote – an election now set to be re-run (if they can get the glue right this time) in December.
To end, some words from hindsight that now look like prophecy:
That’s from Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, written in exile in Brazil 1942. For ‘Semitic’ replace ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ and it all sounds awfully familiar.
In a month, America goes to the polls, with much of what’s laughably passing as ‘debate’ being centred around Trump’s calls for his wall, and where again, misinformation and lies about Mexican migrants (for example, in reality, more Mexicans have been leaving the US over the last few years than entering it) are being used to obfuscate the real issue, which in my opinion is the destruction of society, and the world, by neo-liberal aggressions.
So that’s ‘why Mexico’.
4 Comments Add yours
Wow. Or to expand on my reply on twitter, I’m sitting here feeling slightly shaky and tearful at how true and insightful – and frightening – this is. I’ve been living in Mexico for most of the last decade, yet I struggle to explain to people why I see it as a failed state. Tourists come and they have a nice time and they enjoy the food and the culture and they buy into the idea that Mexico is a boisterous, developing economy. But the inequality – and the inequality of opportunity – and the corruption and the impunity and the lack of justice or recourse are absolutely vicious. So many people here buy in to neoliberal values themselves, and it is extremely alarming.
An important phenomenon, I think, is the way that neoliberalism exacerbates Mexican vices (e.g. a tendency to corruption, cheating, and nepotism, and a certain self-hating love of anything foreign and contempt for indigenous people), and undermines truly beautiful Mexican virtues (strong communities and families, generosity, kindness and willingness to help others, a tendency not to be mean or to place excessive value on material things, cultural diversity and creativity). The way that this manifests itself is very locally-specific, but I also believe that everywhere in the world neoliberalism is making us into the worst and most unhappy version of ourselves.
I am always a bit wary of non-Mexicans writing about Mexico (I know I don’t understand it myself, after all this time). but now that I’ve seen this post I absolutely cannot wait to read Saint Death and see how you’ve spun all of this into fiction. Thank you for your insight, I really have learnt something important already.
Thanks for your comment, and for your understanding, Eloise. It’s a massive subject and I have only touched on it here.
I’m also very interested in the subject you raise about non-natives writing about places, and that’s ANOTHER huge topic. In brief reply, I can only say that I felt utterly compelled to tell this story in whatever small way I can, and I hope it feeds into a much larger debate about not just Mexico, but the role of borders, multinationals, and neo-liberal capitalism generally.