If you go by the news roundup in my inbox each week, “Mexico = Gangland Mayhem.” There is an obvious truth to that image. Just a few days ago, twenty-six bodies appeared in the centre of Mexico's second largest city, Guadalajara, the latest victims in the country's brutal struggle for criminal supremacy.
Over 40,000 Mexicans have died since December 2006, when the government began its crackdown on drug traffickers. Most corpses, the government says, belong to criminals slain by other gangsters.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has a different interpretation. For the New York-based watchdog, “Mexico = Government Abuse.” Several weeks ago, HRW reported that the Mexican government’s crackdown “has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces.” The report suggests that the Mexican government, rather than the country's criminal gangs, is the country's primary cause of violent death.
In support of HRW’s interpretation, Mexican activists recently filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague demanding that the world body investigate whether the Mexican government, as well as drug lords were perpetrating crimes against humanity.
In the US, however, a third interpretation of Mexico is also common: “Mexico = Illegal Immigration." This view is also true. Although the flow of Mexicans trying to cross the US/Mexico border has fallen, many ordinary Mexicans still contemplate a northward journey. Two weeks ago, for example, a friend introduced me to a young man whose Texas-based family had just paid smugglers 3,000 USD to spirit him across the border.
For a fourth and more optimistic view, type the words "Mayan Riviera” into Google. There, you'll discover hundreds of voices telling you that “Mexico = Tourist Playground.” Surprisingly, those voices do not lie either. Recently, my family and I spent four days at a Cancun-area resort, devoting our time to the beach, kiddie pools, and barbecued meat. Our only concern was the late-night music's decibel level.
These four Mexicos - Gangster Mayhem, Government Abuse, Illegal Immigration, and Tourist Playground - are the ones most outsiders see. The view from within, naturally, is more complex.
Take, for example, Polanco, the elegant Mexico City neighbourhood where my family and I now live. Upper-middle class Mexicans, along with an army of servants, populate this wealthy part of town. Polanco’s residents, as best I can tell, don’t mix much with the other Mexicos. Few visit Cancun’s tourist traps, their northward trips are always legal, and there is no criminal violence in the streets.
Consider also the Mexican research institute where I work, the Centro de Investigacion y Docensias Economicas. Professorial salaries are locally competitive, and the environment is peacefully cerebral. Few of my colleagues are rich, but like many other Mexicans, they live comfortable, middle-class lives. Their children are neither gangsters, soldiers, nor illegal immigrants.
The co-existence of such strikingly diverse worlds is a sociological marvel. Although I’ve been studying societies at war for decades, I am always amazed at the ability of wildly divergent realities to persist, side-by-side, as if nothing were more natural.
Moving amongst these different worlds while reading stories of horrific Mexican violence is eerily educational. I’ve known parallel worlds of this sort before, but it’s always a shock to re-discover the phenomenon in a new place.
Mexicans, of course, take these multiple worlds for granted, much as people do everywhere in their home countries.
America is no different, although its social pathologies are different from Mexico's. In the US, the wealthy rarely notice the poor, whites ignore blacks, and everyone ignores prisoners or Native Americans. Try as we might to take note of all these diverse realities, our ability to perceive difference inevitably fades. Over time, even the most well-meaning of liberals is apt to lose sight of the complex and sometimes ugly reality that is America.
And yet, our ability to perceive difference is often magically restored once we travel abroad. We are shocked by the contradictions of our new environment, and shudder at the ability of better-off groups to ignore the pain of others.
When foreigners come to America, they see things that we cannot - crumbling infrastructure, deep inequalities, racism and violence. When we go to their countries, we too see awful scenes that they stopped noticing long ago. We think they are brutal and indifferent, and they think the same of us.
In reality, aren’t we all blinded to the nastiness in our own countries?