A lot of recent data show how Mexico is doing as a country; some figures are surprisingly good; others, however, suggest the country’s progress could come more slowly than we might hope.
Mexico’s government reported last week that some 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since the government began its crackdown on cartels in December 2006. Some of the deaths have resulted from firefights between cartel members and members of the military; others are attributed to fighting between gangs.
Border residents see almost daily reports of drug-related violence that is increasingly brutal and horrific. Kidnapping, torture and decapitations seem commonplace; automatic weapons and grenades are now being augmented by car bombs.
But the increase in drug violence belies the fact that overall, Mexico’s murder rate is lower than it was 10 years ago. USA Today reported last week that the country’s murder rate in 2009 was 14 per 100,000 residents. That’s more than double the U.S. rate of 5.4 per 1000,000, but it’s comparable to that of Houston (12), and far below that of many other countries.
Still, U.S. Defense Department officials estimate that Mexico’s two largest cartels alone have some 100,000 members, nearly equal the nation’s 130,000-troop army, according to the Washington Times. That puts nearly a quarter of a million Mexican residents occupied on both sides of the drug war. In addition, at least 150,000 Mexican nationals earn legal U.S. residency every year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which also estimates about 11 million Mexicans are in this country without legal authorization.
That means that Mexico, with 111 million residents, has lost more than 10 percent of its population to emigration or to the cartels.
Most of these losses are healthy young men, ages 18-50. These are the very people upon whom a country builds its future. They are the workers and investors. They are the dreamers who could create new business or invent new technologies. They also are the fathers of the next generation of builders. Their exit leaves a large part of those remaining in Mexico either too young, old or infirm to be productive workers, but needing care and services.
A chronic shortage of able-bodied men would also keep pressure on young boys to leave school in order to support their families, depriving them — and the country as a whole — of the education that can drive research and invention that can benefit the nation’s economy.
The drug war and related issues can take attention away from the progress Mexico has shown in many areas, such as a political system that now offers choices, and a judiciary that is beginning to address major social issues, such as rights for homosexuals and more reasonable drug laws.
But until factors change to the point that more working-age residents find value in staying home and devoting their energies to legal, productive endeavors, Mexico’s progress will remain slower than it should be.
The challenge for Mexico’s leaders, then, is not just to fight violence and corruption; they need to overcome the perception among its people that a successful life can be achieved more easily by living outside the country, or outside the law.