Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Narcos, No’s and Nafta

By Thomas L. Friedman
Published: May 1, 2010

This is a strange time for U.S.-Mexico relations. The Mexican government just issued a travel advisory warning Mexicans about going to Arizona — where they could get arrested by the police for no reason — and the U.S. government just issued a travel advisory warning Americans about going to northern Mexico — where they could get shot by drug dealers for no reason.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart de Mexico is expected to open 300 new stores in Mexico this year, thanks to growing Mexican demand for consumer goods. And Mexico’s drug cartels will probably open just as many new smuggling routes into America thanks to our growing demand for marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth.

We take the Mexican-American relationship for granted. But with the drug wars in Mexico turning into Wild West shootouts on city streets and with our own immigration politics turning more heated, what’s happening in Mexico has become much more critical to American foreign policy and merits more of our attention. Mexico is not Afghanistan, but it also has not become all that it hoped to be by now. Something feels stalled here.

Three groups are now wrestling to shape Mexico’s future. I’d call them “the Narcos,” “the No’s” and “the Naftas.” Root for the Naftas.

The Narcos are the drug cartels who are now brazenly attacking each other in turf wars and challenging the state for control of towns. The success of U.S. and Colombian efforts to interdict drug trafficking through the Caribbean and north from Colombia have pushed the cartels to relocate their main smuggling up through the spine of Mexico. President Felipe Calderón is bravely trying to take them on, but the Narcos have bigger guns than the Mexican Army — most smuggled in from U.S. gun stores.

The Mexican daily Reforma reported last week that “the recent wave of insecurity in Mexico has made businesses related to public security, automobile armoring, insurance, satellite positioning systems and bulletproof vests grow at an unprecedented level.” Companies in Mexico, it added, now invest between 1 percent and 3 percent of their sales in security. In 2006, it was just 0.5 percent.

While the Narcos are the rising bad-news story here, the rising good-news story is Mexico’s burgeoning middle class — sort of. Mexico has two middle classes. One lives off the oil pumped and exported by the state oil company Pemex, which funds 40 percent of the government’s budget. That budget sustains a web of salaries and subsidies to teachers’ unions, national electricity company workers, farmers unions, state employees and Pemex workers.

I call this group the No’s because they are the primary force opposing any reform that would involve privatizing state-owned companies, like Pemex, opening the oil or electricity sectors to foreign investors or domestic competition, or bringing best-practices and accountability to Mexican schools, where union control has kept Mexico’s public education among the worst in the world.

Fortunately, though, there is another rising middle class here, which the Mexican economist Luis de la Calle describes as the “meritocratic middle class.” It’s people who came from the countryside to work in new industries spawned by Nafta. This rising middle class has a powerful aspiration to dig out of poverty. Mexico has standardized school achievement tests, so you can see how well schools in one neighborhood stack up against another. Some of the best results, said de la Calle, can now be found in small private schools in poor Mexico City neighborhoods where the Naftas reside.

What is also striking, he added, are the names of the private schools in some of these poor Mexico City districts — like Iztapalapa: “They are called John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Carlos Marx, Van Gogh and Instituto Wisdom.” Why such names? They are appealing to the aspirations of Mexicans, about 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line but 75 percent of whom identify themselves as “middle class” in polls.

De la Calle also studied the top 50 Mexican baby names in 2008. The most popular for girls, he said, included “Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.” Not only Juans. “We have two middle classes,” he said. “One comes from teachers’ unions and Pemex and power companies, who milk the Mexican government. These are the middle-class conservatives, and they want to preserve the status quo. But there is a rising and far larger Mexican middle class coming up from the bottom who send their kids to the Instituto Wisdom and who have a meritocratic view of the world.”

So here’s my prediction: When Mexico’s steadily falling oil production meets its rising meritocratic middle class, you will see real political/economic reform here. That is when the No’s will no longer have the resources to maintain the status quo, and that is when the Naftas from the Instituto Wisdom will demand the reforms that will enable them to realize their full potential.


  1. this is good blog reporting, bringing up the other reality that people have to face

  2. This is a eye opener, thank you for posting this, I enjoyed it.

  3. Let's all run down to Sports Authority and buy our Rocket Propelled Grenade Launchers and Belt Fed 50's so we can sell them in Mexico. Oh, wait. You can't buy that stuff in the US.

    Please, even the Mexican press talks about the majority of weapons coming in by the container load in Veracruz. Do you really think a multi billion dollar business buys smuggled glocks one at a time?

    Keep your comments focused on the real issues and not blaming US guns for the outcomes of ruthless criminals.

  4. Mr. Thomas L. Friedman
    You have flat lined and have lost your voice. I remember you writing from Biruit Lebenon, then you seemed to have a sense of what the hell was going on.
    Now, you speak in circles, Nafta was a death nail for most mexicans. Please goto Cuade Juarz and see what NAFTA has done. People working for nothing and mostly only women being hired in US factories because they will not complain. Young men are denied work because they organize against the low wage.
    You have no idea what is going on from NY or you pathetic visit to mexico city. You dine with ex-presidents with close ties to the drug business, Nafta has been a huge failure for the mexican middle class and is the reason for the mass migration north. What about the small corn farmer in the mexican country side? NAFTA has destroyed this life. What about the telecon industry? Mexico cell phone rates are the highest in north america. The only cell phone company is run by one very rich man named SAM. Good thing it is private and not run by the gov.
    Guns from the private US citizen are not the problem, it is a lack of justice. The US supply of military arms to the mexican Army is a greater risk to the mexican people than the Texas or Arizona gun show. It is the mexican army that grows huge amounts of weed in the country side. Now, we are supplying them helocopters and more bigger guns. Innocent people die and nothing happens. Mexico has a broken legal system with no justice. The mexican economy is the drug trade and with the reduction of migrant worker receipts the drug revenue has even greater power. Nafta has allowed an even greater flow of drugs north. We lead by greed. Go to hell T. Friedman, you have lost your voice. NAFTA sucks and over 20,000 people have died.


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