Being a country in vogue is a curious thing. Following the election of a “sexy”, new, neoliberal president, Enrique Peña Nieto, in 2012, The Economist declared a “Mexico Moment” and there were a flurry of euphoric reports on the state of the country’s booming economy. Time made Peña Nieto its cover star – under the headline “Saving Mexico” – while investment bank Goldman Sachs predicted that Mexico would become the seventh largest economy in the world by 2050, hopping over a tumbling UK, Germany and France in the process. Mexico is flavour of the month, the M in MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), the most recent acronym from Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who came up with BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) more than a decade ago. MINT, like BRIC, the acronym that launched a thousand thinkpieces, is music to the ears of investors, book publishers, TV producers and, significantly, luxury brands, salivating over new sources of cash, customers and tall tales.
Our interest in Mexico City sprang naturally from our last issue on the urbanisation of the world. On our trip to the largest megalopolis in the Americas, we found a graceful and culturally self-possessed city of ancient sophistication. A city where Aztec architecture rubs shoulders with Baroque cathedrals that would embarrass Rome. A city of pioneering Modernism from when revolutionary Mexico was an originator and not an adopter of the international style (a derring-do that is continued today in the creations of Mexico’s own galaxy of starchitects). DF (Distrito Federal), as the locals call it, offers incredible depth and breadth across any and every creative discipline. It has an international food culture of diversity and complexity, a thriving music scene and youth culture that is proudly authentic and rooted, an increasingly confident middle class and highly capable of innovation. Indeed the city’s ingenuity, and its darker side, is perhaps best illustrated by the “47-hour express”, in which, to skirt severe penalties on holding people for over two days, kidnappers, often in cahoots with taxi drivers, take their victims to cash points three times before releasing them unharmed before the 48th hour threshold.
Darkening the excitement of our trip, though, was a shadow: the case of 43 disappeared student-teachers from the town of Ayotzinapa that captured the headlines last September and continues to spoil the party. The case, thanks to the widespread demonstrations and agitation that followed it, saw the country’s many challenges come sharply back into focus. There is a stark and brutal wealth gap, corruption and absence of the rule of law. Thanks to the ongoing war with and between the drug cartels many places outside the megalopolis resemble a war zone. This fragrant and exotic rose comes with sharp and bloody thorns.
The investigation into the disappearance of the 43 is ongoing, but as with much recent Mexican history, it already has a suspected tragic ending: the students are generally believed to have all been killed. While some of the parents of the missing remain hopeful and are demanding their release, DNA analysis of bones found among ashes on a local rubbish heap suggest at least one match with one of the students, Alexander Mora (aged 19 at the time of his disappearance). Federal police have arrested two members of the local drug cartel, who claim the students were murdered and their bodies burned. But in the grand tradition of neoliberalism, the drug gang was simply a contractor, outsourced labour hired by the local police to do the actual killing. (Tony Wood has the whole story on page 128.) The youngsters were killed for demonstrating for a better education system, the heirs to a Mexican tradition of grassroots radicalism from Pancho Villa to Emiliano Zapata to the more recent and hipster-friendly, pipe-smoking, Foucault-quoting Subcomandante Marcos. This radicalism’s antagonistic relationship with the state, most famously embodied in the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre, is still present.
Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 is sometimes called the first truly great novel of the 21st century. A mountain of a book, it is at once a phantasmagorical vision of our time, and a meditation on literary theory in the guise of a detective novel. It is an unflinching and a relentless vision of a contemporary version of hell in which extreme wealth, poverty and cruelty jostle, and where the only progression is towards barbarism. The central vortex that drives the various narratives is a series (counted in the hundreds) of femicides in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, modelled on similar horrors that visited the city of Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico-US border in the 1990s. Those femicides, initially investigated by Bolaño’s collaborator, journalist Sergio González Rodríguez (whose article for Tank,“Original Sin” is on page 124), are generally blamed on an ongoing war between rival drug cartels, the army and the police. Yet Ciudad Juárez is more than bones in the desert. Just before the crash in 2007 it had the highest growth rate of any North American city, mostly fuelled by US-owned companies building ever-larger industrial estates to take advantage of low wages across the border – very much the neoliberal Mexican pin-up that O’Neill has in mind. It might seems counterintuitive to some but sometimes prosperity and peace do not always go hand in hand.
This is the Year of Mexico in the UK (and the Year of the UK in Mexico), a long overdue and exciting prospect. We hope that this issue can contribute as an alternative and perhaps deeper perspective to the grand junkets that will dominate the celebrations. Our emphasis throughout has been on listening to and working with writers from Mexico City, yet we lay no claims to comprehensiveness. Indeed, this is less a fully realised portrait of the megacity than an impressionistic snapshot of a city, which may have a limited cast of characters, but still offers a stunning view. §