Mexican individualism and violence
Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans. By Jorge Castañeda. Knopf; 320 pages; $27.95. Buy from Amazon.com
Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. By Charles Bowden. Nation; 320 pages; $27.50 and £15.99.Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
LAST year should have been one long fiesta for Mexico, which celebrated both the centenary of its revolution against Porfirio Díaz, its walrus-moustached dictator, and the bicentenary of its independence from Spain. Instead, the country found itself in a funk: the opening of its economy to foreign trade in the 1990s had not led to the leap in living standards many had hoped for, and the arrival of real democracy in the same decade had not solved many of the country’s old problems. Added to that, the government’s crackdown on drug-trafficking cartels had led to a surge in violence, with apparently little pay-off. It was time for some serious soul-searching.
The Mexican soul holds the answer to many of the country’s problems, writes Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister who now lectures at New York University. Mr Castañeda, who grew up partly overseas, and combines local insight with an outsider’s perspective, sets out to show that the national character—in which he identifies an individualist streak, a discomfort with confrontation, and a suspicion of foreigners (principally los gringos)—is incompatible with the country’s rebirth as an open, competitive economy. Mexico’s institutions have been transformed in theory, but a better mañana will never dawn unless Mexican attitudes change too.
Witnesses from Octavio Paz, the country’s greatest poet, to Cantinflas, its greatest comedian, are called to give evidence on the Mexican soul. The individualism that Mr Castañeda detects is hampering the growth of civil society. The fledgling democracy and free press are inhibited by Mexicans’ rejection of controversy and bluntness. An aversion to competition helps to explain why monopolies continue to dominate the economy. Even on security, the compromise-seeking Mexicans “want to smoke their joint and have it too”: they both back the war against criminals and demand that all violence cease.
The Mexican soul is already heavily studied: foreign readers may begin to sympathise with Alexander von Humboldt’s remark, gamely quoted by Mr Castañeda, that “Mexicans love to envelop their most insignificant acts in mystery.” It is, after all, quite a stretch to suggest that the grip of monopolies on sectors that go from telecommunications to tortillas has much to do with an aversion to conflict sowed by the Spanish conquest.
Even so, this is a lively and perceptive analysis of Mexican society. Mr Castañeda tracks the growing middle-class from its condos in Acapulco to its teenage Facebook accounts (more than half of young Mexicans are signed up). The charge that the country often finds itself “proceeding in a pre-democratic fashion in a working democracy” rings true, though few people inside Mexico admit it. Mr Castañeda, free of those traits that he observes in his fellow-countrymen, is an unusual and important voice in Mexico.
The best parts of Charles Bowden’s description of a bloody year in Ciudad Juárez, by some counts the world’s most murderous city, are also in its details. A funeral is interrupted as the police arrive to search the congregation, and the coffin. Killers taunt the cops by broadcasting narcocorridos, the gangsters’ ballads, on police radio frequencies. A henchman accidentally shot in the stomach gets a boozy month in the resort of Mazatlán as compensation.
Mr Bowden’s writing, which reads like fiction though it describes fact, will enchant some and drive others up the wall. He “floats in a dreamtime of death” through Juárez, never assembling an explanation for the extraordinary violence he documents. The official account, that the mayhem is caused by warring cartels, is rejected, but Mr Bowden’s claim that “the line between government and the drug world has never existed” is never satisfactorily proven—unsurprisingly, as it is false. Nor is it true that the bosses of the big cartels “have not had a hair on their heads touched”: the past year has in fact seen several high-profile arrests and killings. A better criticism would be that taking out the leaders has done nothing to stop the flow of cocaine, or the violence.
Still, the strangulations, burnings and burials outlined in this obituary of a city should open anyone’s eyes to the horror unleashed by the war on drugs. For too many Mexicans, mañana never comes.