Professor Pablo Piccato Comments on Challenges Facing Mexico’s New President
Interview by Meghan Berry and Tanya Domi
Editor’s Note: The above video interview took place in July 2012, immediately following news of the election and the ongoing issues surrounding violence and journalists in Mexico.
When Pablo Piccato was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, a professor suggested he look at crime and public health in Mexico City in the early 20th century for his dissertation. Piccato’s dissertation was the basis of his first book, City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931, later followed by The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere. His third book will focus on “the cultural and political constructions of crime” in 20th-century Mexico. As drug cartels become increasingly dominant—and violent—in Mexico, his area of expertise has yet to fall out of vogue. “I had hoped that this theme of crime would go away,” he said.
Piccato directs Columbia’s Institute of Latin American Studies as well as the Master of Arts program in Latin American and Caribbean studies. This year the institute celebrates its 50th anniversary, which he plans to mark with a panel discussion about Frank Tannenbaum, a prominent historian and criminologist who taught Latin American history at Columbia for 30 years and founded University Seminars, and other events on the relevance of Latin American studies today.
Piccato noted with satisfaction that the institute brings together students and faculty from across Columbia in many different disciplines. “It’s been great to create real connections between the institute and the rest of the University,” he said.
Q. How did you, an Argentinian, end up studying Mexico?
I was born there, but at the time of the military coup in 1976, I moved to Mexico with my family. I was 12 then and went on to high school in Mexico and did my B.A. in Mexico’s National University. I decided to study Mexico’s history because I wanted to understand the country, and from there the Ph.D. seemed a natural step.
Q. Your recent book, The Tyranny of Opinion, examines the role of honor in Mexico’s political history. Can you explain?
Honor is very ingrained in the way Mexican people think about themselves in politics and business. The word itself is not used that much anymore, but people care deeply about reputation. The book looks at a moment when honor was so central in Mexican politics that duels and libel suits were a common aspect of everyday life.
Q. How has crime in Mexico changed over the last century?
Crime has been decreasing in Mexico since the early 1900s. Obviously, there was a revolution in 1910, but in general murder rates were very high in the first quarter of the 20th century. Rates decreased until the 1990s, and now they’re going up again. Many factors explain this, but you need to put it in historical context. Violence is not just something that is endemic. That tends to be the image of Mexico—this violent country where people are carrying guns all the time and killing each other. That’s not the reality.
Q. How did Mexico become a major player in the world’s drug trade?
The drug trade really took off in the 1970s—first marijuana, then heroin, cocaine and most recently methamphetamines. In the 1980s, a lot of the cocaine going into the U.S. went through the Caribbean. But when that route was shut down, cocaine began to come through Mexico. That gave the Mexican organizations an increasingly important role in the trafficking of cocaine, the most profitable of drugs. As these cartels became more wealthy and powerful, they had the ability to corrupt the police, but they were not necessarily violent. The widespread violence is relatively new. In the last six to 10 years, cartel leaders have been arrested, which created splits within organizations. At the same time, new routes and new products, like methamphetamines, formed. The business became more disorganized and competitive. That’s what has created violence.
Q. How often are these perpetrators of violence arrested and punished?
What is happening today has a lot to do with long-term problems within the police and justice system, which is weak, slow and lacks transparency. Mexican people do not have any faith in it. If you look at the numbers, a very small percentage of homicides lead to a guilty sentence. Most are not even investigated or lead to an indictment. Basically, you can get away with murder. The priority for the police is drug enforcement. When there’s a murder, and there’s evidence that that murder is related to drugs, the murder investigation is subordinated to the prosecution against the big drug lords. This has led to a very low number of solved crimes.
Q. What has Mexico’s government done to combat drugs and violence?
Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, sent the army into the streets to go after the drug organizations. Some big bosses were captured with support from U.S. intelligence, but just sending the army out there doesn’t solve anything. Calderón’s strategy has not been successful. It’s actually increased violence. The army will patrol a city, capture a few people and things will quiet down. But when the army leaves, things usually get worse. It’s not a law enforcement institution; it is not intended to investigate crimes and often operates without clear legal parameters.
The human rights abuses linked to this violence are a critical issue in Mexico right now. The number of complaints against the army of torture, disappearance and other abuses is growing every year, but not enough of those complaints are investigated. As a result, the image of the army has deteriorated. They are seen in some regions as the ones who commit violence and enjoy impunity.
Q. What role has the U.S. played in fighting crime in Mexico?
Secretary (Hillary) Clinton and other officials in the U.S. talk about human rights in Mexico and working to improve the justice system. But the bulk of U.S. money goes directly into law enforcement—and what is happening in law enforcement, as I’ve said, is not positive from the point of view of the rights of the Mexican population. The priority for the U.S. continues to be interdiction and arrest operations. American policies don’t seem to demonstrate a serious commitment to peace in Mexico.
Q. Mexico is the U.S.’s third-largest trading partner, with about $1 billion worth of goods traveling between the countries each day. Can this partnership strengthen Mexico’s economy?
Trade has increased between the two countries since NAFTA was enacted in 1994, but this has not benefited all sectors of the Mexican economy to the same extent. Assembly plants along the northern border export to the U.S., but their workers do not always have unions and endure difficult working conditions. The integration of the two economies is not an integration of labor, so that means that the inequality of per capita income continues to be very high—about 3-1—between two countries that share one of the longest borders in the world.
Q. What are the respective positions of the two countries on immigration?
Right now, migration to the U.S. is very low because people in Mexico know that there is a job shortage in America. If Mexicans hear from relatives or friends in the U.S. that people in certain industries are needed, that’s when they’ll go. The immigration issue has not progressed under the Obama administration the way people expected. Part of that is because this Congress doesn’t favor immigration reform. But the number of people deported to Mexico has increased during this administration even though there’s evidence that immigration doesn’t affect unemployment rates. The people who are out of jobs in the U.S. are not the people who would do the jobs that the immigrants do. One troubling aspect of the situation is the political rhetoric—we’re hearing about 11 million undocumented aliens who are targeted by some politicians as subjects who should remain in the shadows and who should not be able to claim any of the same legal rights as the rest of the U.S. population. The situation of migrants in Mexico, mostly from Central America, is not much better, although recently there have been important reforms to immigration laws.
Q. As many as 60 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the last 10 years. Who is committing these crimes, and what has this done to the state of the press there?
If you look at the press today in Mexico, compared to 20 years ago, there’s a world of difference. It has become stronger and more important in the last decades. From 1929 up until 2000, the same party held the presidency, and the relationship between the government and the big newspapers was completely intertwined—business interests and personal connections didn’t encourage free journalism. Now we have an open and critical press in Mexico City and other cities.
The problem arises when you go to the places that have been affected by drug violence. That’s where large numbers of journalists are being threatened and assassinated. It’s one of the worst countries in the world on that front. Most of the journalists who are victimized cover the police beat and local corruption. They are the ones who have to report where bodies are found. The drug organizations are very conscious of their public image, so they threaten journalists to present a picture that will be favorable to them or negative to their adversaries. What’s really impressive is that journalists know about these dangers, but they still report. That tells you how healthy and strong public opinion can be in Mexico. People want this information, and the journalists fulfill their obligation.
Q. Can you critique U.S. media coverage of Latin America?
There’s always a story about how dangerous Mexico is around spring break. But U.S. college kids continue to go to Mexico and nothing happens. If you consider the millions of Americans who visit Mexico and the number of them who are victims of serious crime, it’s still very safe there. But if anything happens, it is presented in the media as just one more example of how crazy things are across the border. It’s very problematic coverage. Look at the main newspapers. It is not easy to find something on Mexico in The New York Times that is not about drugs and violence.