In a 2012 poll conducted in the United States by the Vianovo consulting firm, “drugs” and “violence” were the first words that came to mind when Americans were asked about Mexico. - Image by Vianovo
In a 2012 poll conducted in the United States by the Vianovo consulting firm, “drugs” and “violence” were the first words that came to mind when Americans were asked about Mexico. - Image by Vianovo
Question: What country has a burgeoning middle class, a 94-percent literacy rate according to the CIA Factbook, is one of the top importers of American-made products, and attracts an increasing number of Americans and other foreigners of all ages because of its booming economy?

Answer: Mexico.

As the United States economy has sluggishly tried to wake up from its recession hangover, Mexico has surged ahead. Mexicans are increasingly more educated and many of them are staying home to work or go to college, not migrating across the border to work illegally in the U.S. At the same time, many that were in the U.S. have headed home to find work. The result is that more Mexicans are now leaving the U.S. than entering it, legally or illegally.

Mexico Increasingly Important to U.S. Economy

Not only that, but there are now more Americans of all ages migrating to Mexico than there are Mexicans coming to the U.S.

On top of that, the U.S. does a lot of business with Mexico. The country is among the top 10 U.S. export markets, with half a trillion dollar's worth of trade with the U.S. annually and growing steadily. Texas alone exports $8 billion a month worth of goods and services to Mexico, and 22 out of 50 states list Mexico as their number-one trading partner, according to Shannon O'Neil, a specialist on Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

O'Neil spoke at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations on September 30, along with Alfredo Corchado, the Mexican bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

In a word, Mexico matters.

"American policy on Mexico is based on 10 years ago," said Corchado, an American citizen who was born in Mexico and is now based in Mexico City. "It doesn't reflect the situation today."

"I hear people say, 'Someday Americans will miss us' all the time," said Corchado,

That day may not be far off.

Mexican Migration to U.S. Has Reversed

As a country, Americans are growing older, with fewer younger people coming into the workforce. At the same time, demographics on the other side of the border have also changed. In the 1970s, according to O'Neil, Mexicans typically had seven children. Now they have two. At the same time, education has expanded and children stay in school through high school, with more attending college each year.

"People now say they are interested in the U.S. more out of curiosity than necessity," said Corchado. "And there are a lot of obstacles to coming. The cartels now control access over the border, U.S. border security is tougher, the U.S. economy is not great, and there is the anti-Mexican rhetoric in the U.S."

"Mexico has undergone a fundamental economic change over the past 20 years," said O'Neil, explaining that the country has opened up from a closed economy that only exported oil in the 1980s to its current status as an active trading partner, with 44 free-trade agreements with other countries and an economy that has shifted from largely agricultural to primarily based on goods and services.

Related to that economic shift is a rise in Mexico's middle class, said O'Neil, with the disposable income that the middle class enjoys and an increasing role in Mexican politics that is opening up an avenue for reforms.
At the same time, the ties between the American and Mexican economy have strengthened. Mexico needs us economically. Currently, the bulk of their exports go to the U.S., but as time goes on, the equation may reverse, according to both speakers.

Which is to say, the U.S. is no longer calling all the shots.

Mexico's Image Problem

An area where Mexico is economically vulnerable is in their oil industry, which is owned by the government and is limited by capital investments and technology from growing into a larger money-maker for the country. O'Neil said it is important for Mexico to bring in foreign investment to continue to develop those resources, but on Sunday, October 6, over 12,000 people protested foreign investments in oil in Mexico City, according to Press TV.

In spite of the changes in direction and the increasing economic importance of our neighbor to the south, American perceptions of Mexico are largely negative, focusing on drug violence, cartels, and border security.

In a poll by the international branding firm Vianovo last year, 70 percent of Americans surveyed said security is the primary major issue the United States has with Mexico, over 60 percent said Mexico is not a good neighbor, and half said they had an unfavorable view of the country.

The violence is real, but it is also geographically relevant: the border towns and the southern region of the country have the largest problems, according to Corchado.

"If you strip away the security problems, the future looks great, but you can't ignore the elephant," he said.

"A hundred thousand people have been killed over the past six years, including some of my journalist colleagues," said Corchado, who has also been targeted by the cartels for his reporting on corruption.

The cartels, which are involved in all nature of organized crime, not just in moving drugs and people across the border, became integrated into some of the regional governments during the past 10 years, infiltrating the government at the regional levels, the police and the press, said Corchado.

The Reformist President Moves Ahead

Corruption in the federal police is widespread. The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday, October 8, that 13 federal police officers were arrested for their involvement in an Acapulco kidnapping ring.

The corruption continues, said Corchado, but the constitutional reforms put forward by the new Mexican president, President Enrique Peña Nieto, provide hope, according to O'Neil.

In the past year, President Peña Nieto and his young reformist team have proposed or passed reforms in labor, education, the media, the economy, and taxes, said O'Neil.

"All of those are now in play," she said.

What is far less certain, both Corchado and O'Neil agreed, is how successful the security arm of the government will be in putting forward reforms.

"They are less coherent as a team. Their objectives are not clear," said O'Neil, noting the contrast between the president's dynamic team and the old-school approach of the security team, where disagreements are common and no blueprint for change has emerged.

Security forces are also fighting an image of the cartels that young Mexican men with few opportunities find appealing.

"There is a saying among young Mexican men," said Corchado. "It's better to live five years as a king than 50 years as an ox."

Mexican federal security officials said this week that change is happening, noting that the investigation and capture of the federal officers in the kidnapping investigation was done by the federal police themselves, indicating an increasing willingness to clean up their own ranks, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Corchado is more cautiously optimistic about the future of Mexico than O'Neil, who has also lived in Mexico and returns there often.

Signs of hope are growing, he said, citing the increase in reporting of government corruption by people on the street who record videos on their cell phones and post the results on social media, some of which have led to firing of highly placed government officials.

Still, protests are vigorous and common. Last week, the BBC reported 30,000 teachers and students protested against President Peña Nieto's reforms in front of the Mexico City stock exchange. Teachers, who are powerfully protected by their union, are known to be corrupt to the point of selling their teaching positions to unqualified individuals for the highest price, according to O'Neil. Peña Nieto's reforms would require teachers to be tested for competency.