Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Mexico Isn’t a Gangland Gunbattle

by Shannon K. O'Neil
November 26, 2012

Mexico's President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto smiles during a news conference in Mexico City Mexico's President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto smiles during a news conference in Mexico City (Henry Romero/Courtesy Reuters).


Mexico’s incoming president, Enrique Peña Nieto, will meet with President Obama in Washington, DC this week to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities for the two countries. But perhaps one of the most important and difficult issues that the leaders will face is the American public’s overwhelmingly negative view of their southern neighbor. Below is an op-ed that I wrote for USA Today on GSD&M and Vianovo’s new opinion poll and why Americans’ perceptions of Mexico miss some of the country’s recent transformations.

The neighbor Americans believe they have to the south, and the Mexico that has developed over the last twenty years, are two different places. As Mexico’s incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto meets with President Obama this week, the biggest challenge facing relations today may be our skewed perceptions.

In Americans’ psyches, drugs dominate. When advertising firm GSD&M and Vianovo strategic consultants asked Americans to come up with three words that describe Mexico, nearly every other person answered “drugs,” followed by “poor” and “unsafe.” Other questions reveal Americans see Mexico as corrupt, unstable, and violent, more problem than partner. Americans had more favorable views of Greece, El Salvador, and Russia.

These perceptions reflect the Mexican reality that dominates headlines: soaring crime rates and gruesome murders in a war against drug traffickers. But this window into Mexico overlooks an economic transformation and deepening ties with the United States that reflect a dramatically different country.

Canada on the Rio Grande

In the past two decades, Mexico has become one of the most open and competitive economies in the world, with trade to GDP (a common measure of openness) reaching 63 percent, surpassing both the United States and China. This trade is dominated by manufactured goods (not commodities), leading to a stronger and more diverse economic base than many of its emerging economy competitors.

Though the poll found that over half of Americans still see Mexico as a developing country, it is now a middle class nation. Over the last fifteen years, Mexico’s middle class has grown to encompass roughly half the population. These families own houses and cars, send their two children (on average) to the best schools they can afford and buy the newest products.

This transformed economy is also now profoundly integrated with the United States. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that imports from Mexico are, on average, 40 percent “made in America,” far more than the 4 percent in Chinese imports. This back-and-forth of parts and products across the U.S.-Mexico border through the expansion of North American supply chains has been good not just for Mexico but also for the United States, revitalizing companies and supporting the jobs of some six million U.S. workers.

Mexicans are us

With all the recent focus on illegal immigration, people forget that there is a lot more linking Americans and Mexicans. In addition to some five million legal Mexican immigrants, there are thirty million more Americans who claim Mexican heritage. The Latino political heft, pushing President Obama over the top in many swing states, is largely Mexican.

If there is a silver lining in the poll results, its skewed view stems from the fact Americans do not know much about their neighbor. And we know it. Just as many of us admit we don’t know when asked questions about Mexico as venture a positive or negative opinion. That acknowledgment from Americans provides an opportunity for newly elected and re-elected presidents, policymakers and businesses to fill that void with a fuller understanding of Mexican realities and the importance of our nations’ growing together.

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  • Posted by Michael Skol

    Excellent article. We need more of these, a serial reminder of the importance, the maturity, the economic present and potential of Mexico. There is a parallel with the recent history of Colombia, another coiuntry whose image in the U.S. is seriously behind the reality of a nation which has largely triumphed over the drug dealers and terrorists and has emerged as a booming, democratic ally of the United States. Both of our own political parties, and both President Obama and Governor Romney have generally fed the outdated images. Time for us to mature in our perceptions as Mexico (and Colombia) have grown up in their own ways. This would serve a range of issues, from trade and employment to immigration and narcotics control.

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