Amid a Drug War, Mexico Marks a Muted Bicentennial

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Marco Ugarte / AP

Soldiers parade during part of Mexico's yearlong bicentennial celebrations.

There is usually no more joyous celebration in Mexico than el grito, the Sept. 15-16 "cry of independence" honoring the 1810 war that threw off Spanish rule. This year's grito, marking Mexico's bicentennial, should have been especially loud. But it may well be the most subdued ever, as fears of violence — dread born of a drug war that has killed more than 28,000 people the past 3-1/2 years — keep vast numbers of Mexicans off their plazas and in their homes. They'll watch President Felipe Calderón on TV instead as he shouts, "Viva México!" from Mexico City's National Palace on Wednesday night, and on Thursday from the town of Dolores in Guanajuato state, where the independence fight started 200 years ago.

But Mexico has been in this twilight zone before — a century ago, to be exact, during its centennial year of 1910, which also saw the start of the Mexican Revolution. As Halley's Comet streaked across their skies, Mexicans sensed something tragic was coming, and for good reason. President-dictator Porfirio Diaz had turned Mexico into one of Latin America's most disgraceful oligarchies, a rich nation in which most of the population lived little better than dogs. The breaking point came that year, and the decade-long civil war that resulted killed a million people.

It also confronted Mexico's benighted wealth gap. Not decisively, of course — until recently almost half of all Mexicans still lived in poverty — but Mexico was certainly more attuned to social justice, especially agrarian reform, than it had been before 1910. Like the Civil War that finally ended slavery in the U.S., the Mexican Revolution was as inevitable and necessary as it was awful. And you can say the same thing about the narco-violence that Calderón and Mexico are combating 100 years later. If the revolution was the only thing that could make Mexico a more egalitarian country in the 20th century, the current drug war could be the only thing that finally turns it into a more institutional country in the 21st.

Mexico actually has a lot to celebrate this week. Its fledgling, decade-old democracy is taking deeper root, and its economy is far more modern and productive than it was before Mexico inked NAFTA 16 years ago. But the flaw holding Mexico back — the reason its landscape is still loaded with gluttonous monopolies, dismal schools and bloodthirsty narco-gangs — is its lack of, if not disdain for, functioning institutions.

More specifically, rule of law. Yes, America's insatiable drug appetite is partly to blame for the narco-crisis; but Mexico's incorrigible lawlessness is the other part. Every drug-cartel or kidnapping atrocity Mexicans wake up to these days — which now include the kind of terrorist-style bombings that are making so many hesitant to go out tonight — is simply a reminder of their centuries-long neglect of a reliable judicial system. Mexico's elites, in fact, always believed that such social niceties were unnecessary behind their ridiculously high walls. But suddenly even those walls aren't high enough.

Calderón has applauded the Obama Administration's admission that the drug battle is a bilateral "shared responsibility." But he took issue with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remark last week that Mexico faces a drug-fueled "insurgency," much as Colombia did 20 years ago. Calderón's Ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, was technically right when he told me afterward, "What you have in Mexico is not an insurgency — it's organized crime, which has significantly different motivations and objectives than an insurgency. Organized crime wants a weak government that looks the other way; an insurgency wants that government to fold and collapse."

But either way, Mexico's organized crime catastrophe may have the insurgency-like effect of once and for all making the country realize, as Sarukhan also rightly points out, that "we have to keep enhancing the rule of law and the judiciary in Mexico. That's what we need as the driving force of our efforts." Whether or not you agree with Calderón's military offensive against the cartels, the carnage that has ensued should turn out to be the crucible that produces real, long-term institutional change.

In many respects, Calderón is trying to ensure it. When he started his anti-narco campaign, he also initiated sweeping reforms that it's hoped will modernize and professionalize Mexico's dysfunctional judiciary. They include the use of oral public trials to improve the transparency and effectiveness of tribunals, whether they involve drug lords or anti-trust cases. He's also pushed laws meant to develop Mexico's threadbare investigative police infrastructure — which has to supplant the country's infamously corrupt cops, many if not most of whom moonlight for the narcos — as well as its anti-money laundering tools. Those will do far more in the end to debilitate the cartels than throwing soldiers at them.

And even though it will take at least a generation to clean up the constabulary, Mexico's police are slowly starting to show signs of improvement, as the recent arrests of high-level drug capos indicate. At the same time, Calderón is acknowledging that Mexico needs to step up social programs that give his younger and poorer countrymen options beyond working for drug gangs. Toward that end, his government has begun to put the overdue regulatory squeeze on Mexico's notorious business monopolies, which suck so much life out of the wider economy. The U.S., which has pledged some $1.5 billion in anti-drug aid for its southern neighbor, needs to back those efforts.

So even if this week's bicentennial grito is muted, Mexicans can look forward to the Revolution's centennial in November. If they're finally as committed to institutional reform as the rest of us hope, they can turn the bloodshed of 2010 into the kind of progress their ancestors fought for in 1910.