MEXICO CITY — In the Chapultepec hills, where moneyed Mexicans once protected their assets with little more than broken bottles atop garden walls, the mood can get downright Baghdad.
At one condo complex, I approached a mirrored-glass guard post by massive steel portals and coils of barbed wire. “This place is hermetically sealed,” a disembodied voice told me. When I asked what that meant, the voice added: “Beat it!”
The Mexico I knew as a school kid and have watched with passionate admiration ever since is in very deep trouble.
With its ancient roots and sophisticated culture, Mexico is hardly a failed state. But its discordant law enforcement agencies, some badly corrupted and others cowed, are overwhelmed.
Crime pays, and police work doesn’t. That part is nothing new here. But the nature of crime is different now, on a far grander scale, with alarming implications.
Rich Mexicans fear not only the increasingly destitute but also organized gangs. And as drug syndicates pile up billions in profits, the poor are victims, too.
In the northern state of Durango, villagers in San Angel made their own gated community, straight out of the Magnificent Seven: a deep trench around their adobe homes and bean fields.
Villagers said the army suggested the moat; troops were busy elsewhere. It did not stop a raid reminscent of the brutal tactics of the janjaweed in Darfur that carried off men who had urged police to arrest local drug lords.
Hillary Clinton, on a two-day visit, owned up to America’s part of the blame with what she called an insatiable demand for drugs and an inability to stem a tide of arms headed south.
Clinton promised more U.S. money and manpower to help President Felipe Calderon battle drug cartels whose free-for-all warfare kills by the thousands, turning border cities into combat zones.
But this is a crisis Mexico must own, the result of past complacency and complicity. Only deep structural approaches can blunt it: cleaner cops, better courts, a fairer shake for all.
Already, friends tell me, conservative oligarchs are plotting the sort of shadowy death squads that poisoned Argentina — here, aimed at criminal bands rather than political foes.
Who knows how true this is. But the deepening societal rifts are clear enough. Just take a glance at the newspapers (Mexico still has plenty of them).
Want ads offer Ferrari convertibles for $375,000 or so, but front-page headlines suggest you need armed outriders if you drive one of them much beyond your steel gates.
In a poll by the daily La Reforma, Mexico City residents ranked public insecurity as a worse crisis than the economy by a five-to-one margin. In the last year, 20 percent were crime victims.
Faced with plummeting tourism and stalled investment, the government works hard to better Mexico’s image.
In mid-March, leaders from the president to low-hanging politicos assailed Forbes magazine for including Joaquin Guzman, the Sinaloa drug lord, on its annual billionaires’ list.
Calderon decried an orchestrated campaign. He told visiting U.S. investors: “Even the magazines not only attack and lie about our situation but also exalt criminals and glorify crime.”
But that left the obvious question. How did “El Chapo” Guzman, who escaped prison in a laundry cart back in 2001, manage to amass his billion dollars without getting recaptured?
The Forbes flap came just after the State Department issued warnings about visiting Mexico. And that was when college kids were deciding where to go for spring break.
In that sense, Mexico got a bad rap. Tourists are seldom targets if they stay out of the crossfire. I brought university students here on a reporting trip with little trepidation.
Police patrols watch as mariachis serenade the Plaza Garibaldi and crowds jam cafes in Condesa or the Zona Rosa. Visitors safely explore all those Mayan and Aztec treasures.
But the point is not whether Americans slip across the border for cheap booze or on which beaches students choose to vomit. It is about the nature of Mexico itself.
Narcotics are a large part of it. In 2008, more than 6,000 people were killed in drug violence, some tortured horribly and decapitated, with heads left on pikes. The pace continues.
Heavily deployed troops win pitched battles against armed cartel militias, but drug bosses counter with kidnappings and extortion that can bend justice in their favor.
Still, drugs are not why people barricade themselves behind steel slabs in the lovely hills of Chapultepec. “Insecurity” is a communicable disease, and people no longer trust each other.
This is tragic in a nation so rich in courtesy and character. Cheese enchiladas had a lot to do with it, but my lifelong passion for Mexico is because of its open-hearted soul.
For a lot of reasons — only some of them related to drugs — this is now at risk.
Mort Rosenblum, editor of the quarterly Dispatches, was senior foreign correspondent for the Associated Press from 1981 to 2004. He is a former editor of the International Herald Tribune. His 13 books include "Escaping Plato's Cave" and "Who Stole the News?" He lives in France.