There were many things that surprised me during a State Department-sponsored trip to Mexico this week, where we took a tour of U.S. border security operations before heading into Ciudad Juarez and Mexico City to meet with groups organizing against the spiraling violence in that country. I was surprised, for instance, that a representative from one of the Juarez drug cartels did not meet me at the airport, a block-typed sign with my name on it in one hand and a diamond-handled .45 in the other. I was surprised by the Border Patrol video with shrieking death metal background music. I was surprised by the mixture of courage and nonchalance of the college students living in Juarez who have grown sick of the murders and extortions and kidnappings in their city and who want desperately for the world to know that these cartels do not define them. I was surprised that traffic lights in Mexico City are optional. I was surprised by mad-eyed chickens, stuffed and sitting amid a stash of pungent fruit seized by Customs, arrayed across a table like some dionysian offering to the gods of smuggling. I was surprised by the number of grassroots groups throughout Mexico who want to fight back against the violence but who struggle in isolated and fragmented groups and seem utterly unaware of one another. I was surprised by the unending sea of lights beneath me as my plane descended into Mexico City near midnight, the city infinite and beautiful and ever-changing from neighborhood to neighborhood. Most of all, though, I was surprised that the cruel and savage murder of 14-year-old Fernando Marti has not led to a national uprising in Mexico, an outraged rebellion against the strutting drug tyrants and petty street thugs who seem to rule the country through levers of chaos and terror and brutality.
We were in Mexico as part of a delegation brought in to meet with citizens, students, grassroots groups (NGOs, short for non-governmental organizations, to use the common bureacrateze) and Mexican government officials to talk about ways these folks could organize and make their voices heard, particularly how they might use social media tactics in their emerging public relations battle with the criminal class. The cartels have long been given voice through gunfire and averted gazes, punctuated messages of terror reported daily in the newspapers, and with rural folk ballads, the narcocorridos, that romanticize meth labs and smuggling as mere working-class struggle. The people of Mexico, however, have had no voice, no one to champion their cause. They do not trust the police, who are so often caught in bed with the cartels. And, as more than one pointed out to us, they don’t even trust each other. That is changing now. The cartels have overplayed their hand and the sheer savagery that they have brought down upon the countryside is prompting the people of Mexico to organize themselves. And they have found an alley in President Felipe Calderon, who has virtually declared war on the cartels. And now entire swaths of the country have erupted into open battlefields.
The cartels come equipped with the highest-powered weapons and the most sophisticated of technology. In a country where families are so poor they are living generations to a room, the narcos are swimming in cash – most of it pumped in from the United States, from Americans with voracious appetites for Mexican-flavored dope. Pot, cocaine, meth, heroin … if you can smoke it, snort it or shoot it, Americans want it. It’s like we all want to live the life of Hollywood movie stars and since most of us can’t act, inhaling drugs or signing up for reality tv is the next best thing. Most Americans have a little more pride than Tom DeLay or Vanilla Ice, eliminating reality tv as an option. What’s left is the world’s largest market for drugs of every color, and the cartels of Mexico possess just the kind of psychotic entrepreneurial spirit – a nose for business development combined with a willingness to execute the competition – to meet this insatiable demand.
Perhaps embarrassed by the truckloads (literally) of cash that American college professors and Wall Street brokers are shoveling over to these sadistic fiends, the U.S. government recently decided it would only be fair to give money to the Mexican Government as a kind of counterbalance. The $1.4 billion of the Merida Initiative is largely going to training law enforcement and the military, to guns, bullets, choppers, bulletproof vests, high-tech surveillance and reinforced vehicles. And while $1.4 billion might seem like governmental pennies in an era in which Uncle Sam is purchasing U.S. multinational corporations and piling up a national debt in the trillions, this kind of cash represents an unprecedented effort of the American Government to join forces with the Mexicans against an enemy that is threatening both of our streets.
While the preponderance of the money is being used to pay for those Kevlar-chested cops you see riding around in the backs of jeeps, fingers vibrating just off the triggers of their machine guns, an important sliver is also going to what the folks in the State Department like to refer to as “soft side policies” – legal reform, public diplomacy, and cultural engagement. In short, helping to give voice to the Mexican people who look about at the wreckage and say, “Enough.”
Which is where we came in. For a day or two, anyway. Looking to give a megaphone to these citizens, the State Department flew in a group of us with a background in political organizing and public relations and social media development.
We had representatives from the likes of Facebook and Microsoft and other corporate faces of America’s new economy, along with innovative owners of web and social media companies. One of our crew started his first IT business at the age of 14, and another noted that he was a frustrated Rhodes Scholar, twice turned down as a finalist because he was deemed “too entrepreneurial” – something only an academic committee could despise. How I ended up in this group of technological wunderkinds is not entirely clear. I was just some poor slob who’d been involved in a few political campaigns, a former government bureaucrat myself, who now took the brilliant tech work of these other guys and applied it to public relations campaigns. Maybe I was there as an interpreter – not English to Spanish but Technologicaleze to English, which could then be translated into Spanish by somebody else. If so, it wasn’t necessary. These guys got politics, too, some of them part of the Obama campaign diaspora, the crew that has transformed the nature of grassroots politics in America with the power of digital organizing and who are now running things in Washington and distant satellites in Boston, Chicago and Silcon Valley.
We were all led by Suzanne Hall, a young public diplomacy advisor from the State Department who referred to everybody as “Dude.” Even in the plural, we were “dudes.” In fact, when she showed up for the first round of official meetings dressed in formal attire and tossing about sparkling diplomatic tones, I momentarily freaked, certain I had wandered into the wrong State Department travelling delegation. She brought the kind of energy and cheer and insight that probably does more – day-in, day-out – for cross-national relationships than any given dozen of the plastic-grimaced formal photo-op sessions that dot the schedules of Washington assistant secretaries and far-flung embassy managers throughout the course of a year.
There we were, this group of gringos as one Mexican traveler observed of us deplaning in Mexico City (prompting me to wonder if I had just been campily referred to as the equivalent of a honkey or something), not exactly fitting in to the landscape, blackberries and Ipods constantly in hand, laptop wiring strung across makeshift tables, come to discuss leveraging social media in a nation with less than 30 percent Internet penetration. To be used in the fight against drug lords, no less. Could Twitter stop bullets, pay ransoms? It seemed like a tall order, to say the least. That first morning in the hotel in Juarez City, reading about a series of drug executions, four beheaded corpses dumped into the city streets the night before, I wondered what we were doing.
Over the course of the day, though, in meeting after meeting of frustrated citizens, I regained my balance. It was clear what we were doing. We weren’t doing much at all. We were there to listen and offer whatever advice we might to a growing population beginning the slow but unstoppable awakening, stirring itself to outrage. Marches were being organized, networks developed. I remembered then that that’s where it all has to start. With the people. Twitter can’t stop bullets, but then neither can the local police at this point. President Calderon had just sacked several hundred in the area because of corruption. Most crimes go unsolved. As long as the citizenry stood for this kind of chaos, then little could be done. They had to organize first. What’s the cliché about the pen being mightier than the sword? How does that translate into the Digital Age? If we could help the organizers organize, maybe we could make a small difference. So this is what we were there to do.