Beginning in 1875, international demand for twine and rope made from henequen, a type of agave cactus that thrives in northern Yucatán, brought prosperity to Mérida, the state capital. Beautiful mansions were built by entrepreneurs who led the good life, sending their children to school in Europe and cruising with their wives to New Orleans in search of new luxuries and entertainment. Port towns were developed on the Gulf coast, and a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) wharf in Progreso was built to accommodate the large ships that came for sisal (hemp from the henequen plant).
The only thing that didn’t change was the lifestyle of indigenous people, who provided most of the labor on colonial haciendas. Henequen plants have incredibly hard, sharp spines and at certain times emit a horrendous stench. Maya workers labored long, hard hours, living in constant debt to the hacienda store.
Prosperity helped bring the Yucatán to the attention of the world. But in 1908, an American journalist named John Kenneth Turner stirred things up when he documented the difficult lives of the indigenous plantation workers and the accompanying opulence enjoyed by the owners. The report set a series of reforms into motion. Carrillo Puerto, the first socialist governor of Mérida, helped native workers set up a labor union, educational center, and political club that served to organize and focus resistance to the powerful hacienda system. Carrillo made numerous agrarian reforms, including decreeing that abandoned haciendas could be appropriated by the government. With his power and popularity growing, conservatives saw only one way to stop him. In 1923, Carrillo Puerto was assassinated.
By then, though, the Mexican Revolution had been won, and reforms were being made throughout the country, including redistribution of land and mandatory education. Mexico entered its golden years, a 40-year period of sustained and substantial growth dubbed The Mexican Miracle, all the more miraculous because it took place in defiance of the worldwide Great Depression. In the late 1930s, president Lázaro Cárdenas undertook a massive nationalization program, claiming the major electricity, oil, and other companies for the state, and created state-run companies like PEMEX, the oil conglomerate still in existence today. In the Yucatán, Cárdenas usurped large parts of hacienda lands—as much as half of the Yucatán’s total arable land, by some accounts, most dedicated to the growing of henequen—and redistributed it to poor farmers.
The economic prosperity allowed the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to consolidate power, and before long it held every major office in the federal government, and most state governments as well. The Mexican Miracle had not ameliorated all social inequalities—and had exacerbated some—but the PRI grew increasingly intolerant of dissent. Deeply corrupt, the party—and by extension the state—resorted to brutal and increasingly blatant repression to silence detractors. The most notorious example was the gunning down of scores of student demonstrators—some say up to 250—by security forces in 1968 in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza. The massacre took place at night; by morning the plaza was cleared of bodies and scrubbed of blood, and the government simply denied that it ever happened.
The oil crisis that struck the United States in the early 1970s was at first a boon for Mexico, whose coffers were filled with money from pricey oil exports. But a failure to diversify the economy left Mexico vulnerable; as oil prices stabilized, the peso began to devalue. It had fallen as much as 500 percent by 1982, prompting then-president López Portillo to nationalize Mexico’s banks. Foreign investment quickly dried up, and the 1980s were dubbed La Década Perdida (The Lost Decade) for Mexico and much of Latin America, a time of severe economic stagnation and crisis. In September 1985, a magnitude-8.1 earthquake struck Mexico City, killing 9,000 people and leaving 100,000 more homeless. It seemed Mexico had hit its nadir.
Yet it was during this same period that Cancún began to take off as a major vacation destination, drawing tourism and much-needed foreign dollars into the Mexican economy. The crises were not over—the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 was met simultaneously by a massive devaluation of the peso and an armed uprising by a peasant army called the Zapatistas in the state of Chiapas—but Mexico’s economy regained some of its footing. A series of electoral reforms implemented in the late 1980s and through the 1990s paved the way for the historic 2000 presidential election, in which an opposition candidate—former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox of the right-of- center Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN)—defeated the PRI, ending the latter’s 70-year reign of power. Fox was succeeded in 2006 by another PAN member, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, in an election in which the PRI finished a distant third.
President Calderón campaigned on a promise to expand Mexico’s job market and encourage foreign investment, including for new tourism projects in the Yucatán and elsewhere. But it was another pledge—to break up the drug trade and the cartels that controlled it—that has consumed his entire presidency and plunged parts of Mexico into a spasm of violence unlike any since the revolution.
“The Drug War,” as it is generally called, has its roots in the insatiable demand for drugs in the United States. For decades, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs from South America made their way to the United States mainly through the Caribbean on speedboats and small planes. But as that route was choked off by the U.S. Coast Guard and others, Mexico became an increasingly important conduit. (Drug production also has grown within Mexico itself, especially of marijuana and methamphetamines.)
Mexican drug cartels have long operated within defined territories—the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, the Juárez cartel, etc.—and did so largely with impunity, thanks to corruption in the police and PRI-controlled local governments. But if corruption encouraged the illicit trade, it also helped keep violence to a minimum; the cartels kept to themselves, and politicians and police turned a blind eye.
In 2006, encouraged by the United States, Calderón dispatched the Mexican military to various northern cities to break up the cartels and their distribution networks. They achieved some initial success—and continued to do so—but the broader effect was to disrupt the balance of power between the cartels, which began vying for valuable routes and territories.
Violence erupted with shocking speed and ferocity, with shoot-outs among rival gangs and a gruesome cycle of attacks and reprisals, including decapitations and torture. Police, judges, politicians, and even journalists have been targeted in the process, and the Mexican popular media (hardly restrained to begin with) serves up gory images on a daily basis.
Drug-related deaths, which had hovered around 2,000 per year, jumped to over 5,200 in 2008, 6,600 in 2009, and a staggering 11,000 in 2010. It’s believed most of the weapons used in the fighting are smuggled into Mexico from the United States.
No wonder travelers are giving Mexico a second thought. The stories are scary, to be sure, but certain details help paint a different picture. Ninety percent of the deaths are of gang members, and another seven percent are police and military. And the vast majority of the violence occurs in a few northern and central states, well removed from the Riviera Maya.
In fact, Quintana Roo, is one of the safest in Mexico, and tourism there has actually increased the last few years, despite rumors to the contrary. Travel to Cancún, Cozumel, and the Riviera Maya is extremely safe, especially if you steer well clear of drugs and weapons (which is a good policy even without a crisis going on).
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition