200 miles east of Mexico City on the Gulf coast lies Veracruz, the country’s main port. Each year, millions of tons of cargo pass through its harbours, contributing to an economy which is ranked fourteenth in the world just behind Australia. The traffic through the port is vast: but equally vast, it seems, is drug trafficking.
According to the CIA’s world fact book (easily found at www.cia.gov), Mexico has the world’s second largest cultivation of the opium poppy, generating a potential annual yield of 50 tons of pure heroin. The Mexican government estimates the value of this trade at anywhere up to 50 billion dollars per year; and the country’s internal cartels play out a seemingly endless and bitter struggle for their share.
On 1 July 2012 Mexicans will go to the ballot box, electing a new president to replace the outgoing President Felipe Calderon: but sadly, however, the election debates have so far been characterised by personal accusations of corruption among the candidates, rather than any clear vision for the country. And a vision is badly needed, as amply demonstrated by the tortured bodies of three young journalists, pulled ten days ago (on International Press Freedom Day) from a canal in Veracruz. Their crime: daring to report on the city’s drugs trade. There have now been nine journalists killed in the Veracruz area over the past 18 months, prompting UNESCO’s director general Irena Bokova to call for the Mexican authorities to do everything in their power to bring those responsible to justice.
The figures in recent years for attacks on journalists all across Mexico, however, are even more disturbing. It is estimated that 50 have been killed or have disappeared in the last 5 years alone, the highest figure anywhere in the world: but even more concerning, it is alleged that in many instances those responsible are the very agents who should be combating the drug trade, rather than turning a blind eye, or worse.
But there is some good news. In March, President Calderon’s government, in a vote unanimously backed by the Mexican Senate, amended the constitution to make attacks against journalists a federal crime; and in the run up to the presidential election, there is much focus on the extent to which the candidates will pledge to track down Mexico’s most wanted drug baron Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman, the man who escaped from a Mexican federal prison in a laundry cart eleven years ago, and who has remained in hiding ever since. And broadly speaking, while Mexico is today alive with drug related problems, these problems have only been brought to the surface by President Calderon’s commitment five years ago to a long term war on narcotics: a war he seems unfortunately far from winning as his presidency draws to a close.
Overall, the enormous issue of trafficking from Central and indeed Latin America seems to generate more questions than answers in today’s world, and many would point to radical solutions: but for the time being Mexico’s own attempts to face the issue seem paralysed. In the words of Viridiana Rios, a Mexican PhD student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “Mexico is silent and blind and our leaders do not seem to care. Our justice system is broken, it has no teeth.”
More than ever, Mexico needs a president with the vision and determination to help solve this unfolding human tragedy.