Colombia Is Not Mexico

In the months before the signing of the Mérida Initiative, there was a common thread in the discussions: Mexico is not Colombia. We were, the argument went, a country member of the OECD that had been able to transition to democracy peacefully, and unlike many of our neighbors, we had avoided dictatorial governments that had been common in the region. Sure, we had the philanthropic ogre for over 70 years, but an ogre who was a philanthropist nevertheless. We boasted to the rest of the world our free-trade agreements with world powers, our Ivy League-trained technocrats, and our membership in exclusive international organizations. Then came Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit, and for the first time, publicly, the U.S. talked about a shared responsibility on security issues. For the most optimistic, including me, this confirmed that the Mérida Initiative was a matter between partners. The Mérida Initiative would respond to the challenges of neighbors with common security interests. It was not a capitulation by the Mexican government on nontraditional threats. Mexico was not Colombia.

Why was it that we were so afraid to be compared to Colombia? On the surface, it seems almost a rhetorical question. Mexico would not admit boots on the ground, because our story, with its ups and downs, with its contrasts, with its sexennial peso crises, was nonetheless one of progress. We had guerrilla movements, but no part of the territory had been lost by the state, and while we had our occasional headliner kingpin, it was really our South American counterpart that could claim the unwanted honor of being a top producer of cocaine. But the question is not rhetorical. I believe Mexicans were and remain afraid of the Colombian analogy because, deep down, we are fearful of what truly lies behind the label of illicit drug producer and distributor. No, I do not mean the consequences to our reputation, the type that impact our FDI levels or the number of tourists willing to leave their dollars in our paradisiacal destinations. I mean the wound under the bandage.

And what is that truth that simmers under the label? The frustration, the shame, and the pain that accompanies the statements made about your country. A country that now is extraneous to you because, as far as you are concerned, you did not grow up in the Mexico known for beheadings. Yes, you would occasionally explain to a tourist here and there that Aztecs and Mayans had human sacrifices for their deities, but you never had to explain the violence of your country. You never had to explain why morning commuters would find human remains hanging from pedestrian bridges. You never had to come up with ideas regarding where missing students could possibly be, if ever found. "So what is the death toll?" foreigners ask, as though the gravity of the situation can be ascertained by knowing the number of victims. And with this question comes the inevitable nodding of the head. As an academic there is the desire to explain the reasons that led us here. That the story is more complicated than turf wars, that Mexico is not at the mercy of drug lords, that not everyone is corrupt and not everyone is an accomplice. And yet there is never enough time to go into details. Still the questions multiply.

To be sure, I am not ashamed of my country. I am ashamed and hurt by the adjectives that are now more often attached to it. Because I know, as Colombians have known for years, that my country is so much more than the stories about violence. As though following the stages of grief, we have been mostly in denial, arguing that the violence is among criminals, as if this then rendered it unimportant, as if, because they are outlaws, it is almost useful that they take each other out. And today, as the facts accumulate, as the international press dusts off the negative stories about Mexico, it seems that we have to begin answering the tough questions about a country with over 100,000 people murdered in less than a decade.

Mexico is not Colombia. Mexico, unlike Colombia, has failed to understand that improving our situation requires accepting, unconditionally, our reality. Colombians, not without obstacles and polarization, have found the road to healing. They have mostly abandoned stories of drug lords and their escapades, of good guys against bad guys, and traded them for a more sober and conscious approach. They know that violence is not always an end in itself but the reflection of systemic problems. Without adjectives, without qualifications, Colombia is indeed not Mexico.