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High quality global journalism requires investment.
John Paul Rathbone -
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October 13, 2011
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High quality global journalism requires investment.
Last month, gunmen dumped 35 dead bodies on the streets of Veracruz, one of Mexico’s busiest Gulf ports, just a short distance from where the country’s state attorneys were due to hold a convention. Last week, another 32 dead bodies were found stashed in Veracruz houses.

And last weekend, the nearby university town of Xalapa hosted an offshoot of the Hay literary festival – a genteel and ruminative gathering of the kind that Harry Eyres writes about in his weekend FT column “The Slow Lane”. It is also the kind of discrepancy that is becoming increasingly common as Mexico grinds through the fifth year of its “drugs war”.

Amid Xalapa’s rolling hills, and the consoling loneliness exuded by the giant Olmec stone heads in the anthropology museum, it was hard to feel even a distant sense of those troubles. At the four-day festival, there were internationally renowned mathematicians, poets and musicians; journalists, critics and novelists – including Martin Amis on fine form.

“Art is like a courtesan’s shoe – all smooth and elegant symmetries; life is like the ugly foot jammed inside.” But Niall Fergusson best caught the local mood. “I get the feeling you are all a bit depressed,” the Harvard historian told his audience. “Well I’m here to cheer to you up,” he continued. “This year the economy of ‘slow-growing Mexico’ is forecast to grow faster than that of ‘fast-growing’ Brazil.”

There is no doubt that Mexico is feeling down in the dumps. The drugs violence seems to be worsening. I have family who were born and bred in Mexico, and as one cousin told me: “It used to be friends of friends who were affected. Now it’s friends.” Local media, meanwhile, are increasingly compromised by corruption or death threats. As a result, many Mexicans have turned to ad-hoc social media groups to fill the information void. Yet that can backfire too. Two people in Veracruz were last month charged with terrorism and sabotage after their Twitter messages spread a false rumour that local schools were under attack. Indeed, it is now a crime in Veracruz to use Twitter “to undermine local order”.

The Mexican state has proven inept when not unable to promote public safety and the rule of law. It’s not only Mexicans who feel exasperated. Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, startled many when he said recently he would consider deploying US troops to fight Mexico-based drugs gangs. His suggestion immediately came under fire from both capitals – although Mexican inhabitants of the worst-affected northern towns by the US border would probably welcome the marines. Yet at the same time, most Mexicans feel equally clear about the root cause of their problems. “Should drugs be legalised? I believe so,” said Fergusson to applause.

In the meantime, Mexicans feel increasingly frustrated. “What can we do to make our lives and our country better?” asked a university graduate who started to weep as she spoke. Her question was answered by Alejandro Solalinde, a catholic priest who runs a shelter for some of the approximately 500,000 migrants who seek better lives in the US every year but often meet a terrible fate on the way. There are documented cases of drug gangs kidnapping migrants and forcing them into gladiatorial combat armed with hammers. The survivors get to join the gang.

“Try not to be afraid,” was Solalinde’s reply to an audience that was the biggest and most engaged of those I saw. “How do we do that?” subsequently asked a college teacher. “Have faith,” Solalinde said.

For once, that is easier done than said. The Hay Festival’s media sponsor, The Telegraph, baulked at sending their usual cultural correspondents to cover the event out of a generalised and misplaced fear of Mexican violence and crime. As it has been said, the US press typically carries two kinds of articles about the country – those about violence, and those about its vibrant cultural and night life.

+ Wexico

As for civic virtue, where might someone drop his wallet in a town centre street, and expect to find it safely and mysteriously returned to the hotel by the time he returned? Probably nowhere – yet that was my experience in Xalapa.

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