Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

Can Mexico Shed Image as Ground Zero in Narco Wars?

WASHINGTON, Jun 4 2011 (IPS) - Last year, the online branding company East-West Communications ranked Mexico 191st out of 200 countries on its Brand Perception Index, which is generated by analysing buzzwords in the international media’s quarterly and annual coverage of a certain country.

Addressing a gathering of policy heads at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington earlier this week, Robert Newell, chief executive officer of the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), claimed that such a perception of Mexico has become ruinous to the country’s position in the global marketplace and must be rectified immediately.

Presenting comprehensive data on the New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s coverage of Mexico over two and a half decades, Newell pointed out that since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 – when Mexico was hailed as Latin America’s rising economic star – the country has gone from being a “shining business success story to a gruesome crime story”, a transition evidenced by a steady increase in crime-related headlines and a sharp decrease in overall coverage of the country.

“Perhaps this represents reality, but perhaps it also reflects [media mogul Rupert] Murdoch and the fashionable fluctuations of the media,” Newell, who served for over a decade in the Mexican Federal Government, half-jokingly speculated.

However, an analysis of Mexican domestic media indicates that the overwhelming focus on drug crime-related stories is not limited to the U.S. media. Between April and May of 2011, 57 percent of the headlines in the leading Mexican daily La Reforma were dedicated exclusively to the bloodshed.

U.S. Culpability

While investors balk at the border, the drug war drags on and experts fear that issues relating to the basic rights and survival of the Mexican people are being ignored.

Claudio Lomnitz, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, told IPS, "Beyond the issue of [rebranding], three questions need to be raised: does the Mexican government... have the economic resources to win the war? Is this war the most ethical course for the government to take at this juncture? And is the U.S.'s insistence on criminalising drugs and on having a protected and unregulated gun industry destroying Mexico?"

He added that while distortions in the media are a legitimate concern for the Mexican government, they also do the added disservice of masking the U.S.'s culpability in the crises.

"You cannot have criminalisation of drugs, criminalisation of immigration and a legal gun trade in the U.S. without the growth of powerful, heavily armed criminal organisations in Mexico," Lomnitz said.

"Mexico today is fighting the U.S.'s drug war and the fact that the dead all [lie on] the Mexican side of the border should be a media scandal, the fact that the U.S. and the arms industry are profiting from the war should be a scandal, the notion that 'guns don't kill people' but drugs do should be a media scandal."

It is by failing to ask and answer these questions, rather than for rushing to report gory details of mass graves, that have "caused the media on both sides of the border to fail most miserably," Lomnitz told IPS.

Many analysts and journalists pin this trend to the increase in violence perpetuated by both state and non-state players, particularly since the election in December 2006 of President Felipe Calderon, whose U.S.-backed war on drugs has cost the country 36,000 lives in four short years.

“[This] kind of barbaric violence that’s designed to make headlines will continue to do so,” Adam Isaacson, senior associate of the Regional Security Policy programme at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told IPS. “In my opinion, the discovery of hundreds of people at a time in mass graves deserves even more international attention than it is getting because it is so horrific.”

But policy experts like Newell believe that Mexico – which has a lower homicide rate per 100,000 than its neighbour Brazil and a higher life expectancy rate than any of the powerful BRIC (Brazil, India, China, Russia) countries – should be given the chance to “rebrand” itself and escape the trap of being labeled a battleground rather than an investment haven.

No sound ground for rebranding

Less than two months ago, vast swathes of the Mexican state and independent media banded together to promote just such a rebranding initiative by signing a voluntary 10- point accord to regulate their coverage of the drug wars.

Though the pact, dubbed the Mexico Initiative, lays out guidelines to prevent the glorification of violence and to ensure that drug cartels do not manipulate the media for turf-war terror tactics, it also features clauses that prevent media from publishing anything “detrimental to army or police operations” – a caveat so broad it effectively bans coverage of myriad state activities.

Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy (CIP) based in Mexico City, told IPS, “Those who signed the pact agreed to muzzle themselves for the sake of this ‘rebranding’ and this is ridiculous.”

“Any honest press will report the news as it plays out on the ground and in the streets and any honest government will not attempt to prevent this,” she added.

According to Carlsen, efforts to rebrand Mexico through success stories of sound economic performance will likely fail, primarily because isolated statistics of development do not sufficiently present the bigger picture.

“The reason that Mexico is currently showing higher growth rates than other Latin American countries is because it took a much bigger hit after the 2008 financial crisis in the U.S,” Carlsen told IPS. “If you look at pre-2008 growth rates in Mexico, it becomes painfully obvious that current increases in GDP are only barely beginning to compensate for Mexico’s poor performance during the recession.”

With little basis for a rebranding campaign, and with impunity on the rise, it seems unlikely that the world will start to see a new Mexico anytime soon.

“As long as you’ve got 10,000 people a year being killed by narco- violence, the press will have to continue to cover incredibly gruesome things on a daily basis,” Isaacson told IPS, “and while that’s happening you can just forget about any significant ‘rebranding’ of the country.”

Bottom lines before rhetoric

During an official appearance at the Global Travel & Tourism Summit in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Calderon attempted to assuage the fears of potential tourists by declaring, “I saw thousands of spring breakers having fun in Mexico this year [and] the only shots they received were tequila shots.”

The fact that this statement came barely a month after the U.S. State Department issued an updated travel warning to its citizens planning on crossing the border indicates that whitewashing a bitter conflict will only go so far – particularly when bottom lines are involved.

“Investors don’t care about rhetoric, they care about safety and they care about money,” Carlsen told IPS. “U.S. investors often opt for bringing in their own experts rather than hiring managers locally, so employees’ safety becomes a top priority. As long as the climate of impunity prevails in Mexico, we are not going to see investment patterns change anytime soon.”

Newell also admitted that an environment of corruption presented obstacles to the free flow of demand and supply.

“The value chain for crime sits somewhere between 30 and 40 billion dollars,” he told IPS. “This amount of money in the hands of organised criminals buys a lot of guns and sometimes means that they can and will interrupt business, particularly in the transport industry.”

“Legitimate businesses are often forced to pay large sums of money to the cartels simply to keep them off their backs, so the costs for certain businesses are undoubtedly higher than they would otherwise be.”

According to Newell, such capital fluctuations often deter consumers from buying the goods and services that they would under normal circumstances, leading to fundamental changes in the size of the demand market as well.

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