The Mexican government released its most recent figures on poverty amid triumphant speeches by President Enrique Peña Nieto, who, like his predecessors Calderón and Fox, claims that Mexico will grow and take its place among the world’s most powerful economies because of the long-awaited structural reforms under discussion in Congress. Today Mexico’s economy ranks 13th or 14th worldwide.
Although the government claims to have reduced the percentage of people living in poverty, the actual number increased to 53.3 million of the country’s total 117.3 million inhabitants in 2012. One would think, then, that 64 million Mexicans are living well, but other data in the report that was largely unmentioned in the media show that the majority, some 94 million, are classified as “poor and vulnerable,” with vulnerable defined as those who “still have social needs and whose income is below that necessary for a decent life.” That is to say that only 23.3 million Mexicans, scarcely 20 percent, live as people should live.
The development of the Mexican economy has seen a few businesses and families monopolizing its essential parts, thanks to deals made with the old corporate regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which is back in power. After 13 years of electoral democracy, the politicos of all parties have returned to their corrupt ways. Their salaries have risen independent of federal, state or municipal revenues; governors burden their states with debt; there is looting and unrestrained corruption; and murky business among friends and relatives of those in power, especially leaders of the unions affiliated with the old PRI, which used unions to feign democracy.
The experts speak of “two Mexicos”: one rising and modern, rubbing shoulders with the most sophisticated countries of the world, centered in Mexico City and other large cities; the other comprised of rural areas where people live as they do in sub-Saharan Africa, and, increasingly, of suburbs where conditions are also precarious. Thus, in the informal economy, 60 percent of the workers toil at any kind of job they can find, including selling things in the street. They receive no benefits, and pay no taxes. The remaining 40 percent are considered formally employed, albeit at substandard wages, since the minimum wage is just under $5 a day.
A minority of workers, whose salaries are six to eight times the minimum wage, are better paid, but one cannot live well on $30 to $40 a day, even less so if one has a family. These are the so-called “vulnerables.” Any immigrant to the United States who works for minimum wage—already 10 times the wage in Mexico—has a premature and false illusion of wealth. Of course, it is not a fair comparison, since the cost of living here is more than double that in Mexico. There the costs of basic food and services are lower, but costs are higher for technological or manufactured products such as computers, home appliances or cars—which often cost even more than in U.S.—as well as banking, telephone and Internet services.
For decades, and increasingly in recent years, the informal economy has included illegal and criminal activities, especially the production and trafficking of illegal drugs, but also the theft of autos, merchandise, houses and people, product pirating, kidnapping, extortion, protection rackets and human trafficking. The latter’s victims include immigrants as well as young boys and girls who are forced into prostitution and other illegal activities. The violence resulting from the war declared by Calderón against drug cartels is growing, as is the number of gunmen and weapons trafficking. More and more people will kill anyone in cold blood in exchange for payment, and cartels have expanded into all the aforementioned activities. Authorities at every level receive substantial bribes to “let things work.” The corruption is enormous and extends to political parties, candidates, elections and even churches.
Dehumanization and desensitization have grown along with the growth of crime. Massacres, executions, assassinations, abductions, sex crimes and torture are no longer news. Ironically, desensitization was a tool taught in Central America by American forces training special military forces. The Zetas, considered the bloodiest group, is made up of ex-caibiles from the Guatemalan military who were trained at the School of the Americas to combat leftist guerillas.
It is believed the country would collapse without the drug cartels and the enormous amount of money they generate and then “wash” in the formal economy. In spite of measures taken to identify and monitor large cash deposits, banks are of little help, because there are legal ways to avoid detection. This is why it is said that the Mexican economy is as addicted to drugs as are human addicts. The latter are primarily in the U.S., but drug consumption in other countries, including Mexico, is increasing. Many think the extreme poverty and wealth in Mexico, along with rampant violence, are part of a framework that benefits the most powerful economic groups at the expense of the others.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to West Marin. The Spanish language version of this column is available online.