Mexican billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego
U.S. drug czar John Walters
Mexican Ambassador To The U.S. Arturo Sarukhan
U.S. Ambassador To Mexico Antonio Oscar Garza Jr.
The Nov. 4 crash of a Learjet in an upper-class Mexico City neighborhood caused a disproportionate amount of destruction. All eight passengers were killed--including Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño, President Felipe Calderón's right-hand man, and José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a leading prosecutor against the powerful drug cartels; seven people on the ground died, too.
Hours after the disaster, rumors shot across the capital city like the discharge of automatic weapons: The crash was the work of drug traffickers showing who was boss in this nation of 110 million souls. A preliminary report found no evidence of explosives and strongly suggested pilot error in turbulent conditions. Still, says Larry N. Holifield, former head of the Mexico City office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "people won't believe it was an accident. They think everything down there is a conspiracy because half the time it really is." One witness to the crash believes the worst. "A plane just doesn't fall out of the sky," says Guadalupe Rodríguez, 42, a law firm assistant. "The narcos are saying, 'Here we are--and nobody's going to get rid of us.'"
You can forgive Rodríguez for thinking so. This year, through mid-November, there have been 4,300-plus drug-related deaths in Mexico, compared with 2,500 in 2007. Edgar Millán Gómez, who oversaw the joint efforts of the army and federal police, was assassinated in May in his home in Mexico City. Roberto Velasco Bravo, a federal chief of criminal investigations, was shot in the head a week earlier. The narcotraficantes have infiltrated the highest levels of law enforcement, including, allegedly, Mexico's principal link to Interpol and its former senior drug czar. Mexico, once again, is battling the ever powerful gangs. "It has been a fierce bloodbath," says Felipe González González, president of the Senate public security commission and former governor of the central state of Aguascalientes. "We have more dead than you have in Iraq."
Is Mexico descending into criminal and economic chaos? "Failed state? That is a very irresponsible remark," bristles Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S. "The challenge of corruption is being taken on. We are rooting out people who have been infiltrated. Look at the role of the Mexican private sector and civil society. Nowhere can you see signs of anything akin to a failed state."
But there is urgent concern north of the border about a potential strategic threat. "We're fixated on Iraq and Afghanistan, but from a homeland security perspective, right here on our border, isn't this more important?" asks Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism official, now a vice president at Stratfor in Austin, Tex.
Washington, D.C. is fretting, too. "The consequences for both our countries in the near future and the not-so-near future could not be greater," says John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. the drug czar. "The consequences if President Calderón fails and the institutions of government, at least in the northern part of his country, become controlled by terrorist mafias--well, we worry about ungoverned spaces far away from the U.S., and this is right next door."
No disagreement from Antonio Oscar (Tony) Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico. "The focus of the last couple years has clearly been security," he says. In the so-called Mérida initiative, Uncle Sam has committed $1.4 billion in military hardware to help Mexico battle the cartels. But as of late November no significant transfers had yet occurred.
The explosion of narco terror comes alongside a precipitous drop in oil prices and the crushing effects of a deep U.S. recession. The climate of fear is kicking the life out of the economy. The second wave of the global financial crisis is playing out in the developing world--and right on our doorstep. After expanding by 3.2% in 2007 to $900 billion, Mexico's GDP growth will slow to 1.5% this year and tumble to somewhere between zero and 0.7% in 2009, predicts Raúl Feliz, an economist at CIDE, a Mexico City think tank that specializes in economics and politics. While some of that meager expansion will come from government stimulus spending, its hands are tightly tied because state-owned oil monopoly Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos) contributes 37%--$80 billion in 2008--of federal revenue. Next year analysts expect a plunge in petrodollars. Unemployment will jump from its current 4.1%. Throw in part-time workers, who account for roughly one-third of GDP, and the jobless figure soars to 10%. Feliz expects that number to reach 12% next year.
Credit-rating agencies are taking notice. In November Fitch put Mexican government foreign and local currency debt on "negative outlook" (though the ratings are still investment grade). It said that Mexico's ability to absorb global shocks was limited.
To say nothing of internal shocks. Eighty percent of Mexican exports--$240 billion this year, up 10% from 2007--go to the U.S., where shoppers aren't spending. You can see the effects in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Tex. Roughly 223,000 people work at 330 companies in the maquiladora sector, assembling auto parts for the likes of Lear (nyse: LEA - news - people ) and Delphi (other-otc: DPHI.PK - news - people ), set-top boxes for Cisco (nasdaq: CSCO - news - people )'s Scientific Atlanta unit and medical devices for Johnson & Johnson (nyse: JNJ - news - people ), among others. But 22,000 people have lost maquiladora jobs this year, most of them since August, says Sandra Luz Montijo-Dubrule, president of the Maquiladora Association of Ciudad Juárez. "Seventy percent of our industry here is U.S.-owned factories. Now that the recession has hit, we don't have the consumers in the U.S.," she laments. Worse: Every maquiladora job supports four other jobs in the city.
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