Mexico's other challenge: to burnish its brand

Can Mexico help the world see past its escalating drug war, and showcase all that it offers?

By , Weekly Edition Editor

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    Iconic art on a home in Veracruz, Mexico.
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To say that Mexico has a big branding problem might sound pretty flip. What America's southern neighbor faces is nothing that a smirking Don Draper type could spin: Its drug war has taken 40,000 lives in the past five years. Ciudad Juárez has become the world's murder capital. That's sort of like having Mogadishu, Somalia, just across the river from El Paso, Texas.

Of course, Mexico's other faces include Cabo San Lucas, the playground of Baja California. There's Cancún and Cozumel, white-sand magnets for spring breakers and divers. Mayan ruins. Luminous folk art. Cuisine.

Perceptions matter, whether from outside or within. They affect how a nation fares economically – tourism, business relations – and its political standing. On some level they might even help determine how much help is offered by outsiders in realms ranging from finance to security.

News last year of the killing of an American jet-skier – by Mexican drug traffickers, perhaps – on border-straddling Falcon Lake got Americans' attention. Now come reports that potent "black tar" heroin from Mexico is creeping into eastern US states. And 17 tons of marijuana were recently found in a border tunnel.

For Mexicans, perception hardens into an unkind reality. Bad news keeps coming, much of it linked to cartels flexing their muscles in increasingly bold ways, as Sara Miller Llana, the Monitor's Mexico City bureau chief, reports from Veracruz (see page 26). There are beheadings. Grenade attacks on police.

The Calderón government maintains that much of the violence is of the criminal-on-crimimal kind. But crossfire killings, peripheral damage, fear, and suspicion appear to be spreading.

In a drive-by shooting in western Sinaloa State recently, one of those killed was Diego Rivas, whose "narcocorridos," songs that glorify drug traffickers, apparently slighted the wrong drug lord. And when a helicopter crashed in fog Nov. 11, killing a top government drug enforcer, some wondered whether it had been a narcoterrorist hit. (Charges of government opacity and corruption also generate their own buzz.)

How does that kind of mounting cultural dysfunction hit people's perceptions of a country?

One metric, for what it's worth: FutureBrand, a global consultancy, just released its latest Country Brand Index. It surveys a range of data (including statistics on violence and unrest), adds insights gleaned from interviews with influential branding sources, and cranks out a list.

At No. 1 overall: America's northern neighbor and trade partner, Canada. (The United States was No. 6.) Mexico barely made the Top 50, landing at No. 47 of 113 countries. Surprisingly, it didn't even crack the Top 25 in the heritage and culture category (where Peru was ranked No. 4). It scored 23rd on tourism, behind Chile. Its beaches carried the flag – but only up to No. 14.

As I considered Mexico's "brand performance," I thought about a few reporting trips I took there in the mid-1990s for another magazine. One was for a business innovation story in Jalisco (still a favorite of American expats), where the only war was among cheerful distillers of the blue agave.

Another was to Tamaulipas, where the government was trying to cast the cloud forest as a rising ecotourism haven. The terrain was spectacular, even if the sample excursion was charmingly rough around the edges. (The transmission of my guide's old, state-issued Chevy Suburban slipped ominously as we tackled steep grades. A planned short walkabout became a surreal five-hour climb during which gray squirrels kept being positioned as exotica.)

The capital, Ciudad Victoria, felt safe enough. But I remember leaving a hotel at dusk and seeing a man leaning against a wall with a lever-action rifle in his hands.

So what's it like there today?

"Tamaulipas probably wouldn't be so inviting right now," says Sara, describing a colleague who was trailed while trying to report at a school near Reynosa – then confronted and asked to leave.

In reporting this piece, Sara says she found hospitality – if some reticence – everywhere. But too few revealing, in-country trips are being planned anymore, she says. For now, that makes perceptions tough to change, and a national brand hard to lift.

"There are still great things going on," she says, "but people are not taking the risk to show them."

• Clayton Collins is the editor of the weekly edition. Monitor editor John Yemma returns to this space next week.

To say that Mexico has a big branding problem might sound pretty flip. What America's southern neighbor faces is nothing that a smirking Don Draper type could spin: Its drug war has taken 40,000 lives in the past five years. Ciudad Juárez has become the world's murder capital. That's sort of like having Mogadishu, Somalia, just across the river from El Paso, Texas.

Of course, Mexico's other faces include Cabo San Lucas, the playground of Baja California. There's Cancún and Cozumel, white-sand magnets for spring breakers and divers. Mayan ruins. Luminous folk art. Cuisine.

Perceptions matter, whether from outside or within. They affect how a nation fares economically – tourism, business relations – and its political standing. On some level they might even help determine how much help is offered by outsiders in realms ranging from finance to security.

News last year of the killing of an American jet-skier – by Mexican drug traffickers, perhaps – on border-straddling Falcon Lake got Americans' attention. Now come reports that potent "black tar" heroin from Mexico is creeping into eastern US states. And 17 tons of marijuana were recently found in a border tunnel.

For Mexicans, perception hardens into an unkind reality. Bad news keeps coming, much of it linked to cartels flexing their muscles in increasingly bold ways, as Sara Miller Llana, the Monitor's Mexico City bureau chief, reports from Veracruz (see page 26). There are beheadings. Grenade attacks on police.

The Calderón government maintains that much of the violence is of the criminal-on-crimimal kind. But crossfire killings, peripheral damage, fear, and suspicion appear to be spreading.

In a drive-by shooting in western Sinaloa State recently, one of those killed was Diego Rivas, whose "narcocorridos," songs that glorify drug traffickers, apparently slighted the wrong drug lord. And when a helicopter crashed in fog Nov. 11, killing a top government drug enforcer, some wondered whether it had been a narcoterrorist hit. (Charges of government opacity and corruption also generate their own buzz.)

How does that kind of mounting cultural dysfunction hit people's perceptions of a country?

One metric, for what it's worth: FutureBrand, a global consultancy, just released its latest Country Brand Index. It surveys a range of data (including statistics on violence and unrest), adds insights gleaned from interviews with influential branding sources, and cranks out a list.

At No. 1 overall: America's northern neighbor and trade partner, Canada. (The United States was No. 6.) Mexico barely made the Top 50, landing at No. 47 of 113 countries. Surprisingly, it didn't even crack the Top 25 in the heritage and culture category (where Peru was ranked No. 4). It scored 23rd on tourism, behind Chile. Its beaches carried the flag – but only up to No. 14.

As I considered Mexico's "brand performance," I thought about a few reporting trips I took there in the mid-1990s for another magazine. One was for a business innovation story in Jalisco (still a favorite of American expats), where the only war was among cheerful distillers of the blue agave.

Another was to Tamaulipas, where the government was trying to cast the cloud forest as a rising ecotourism haven. The terrain was spectacular, even if the sample excursion was charmingly rough around the edges. (The transmission of my guide's old, state-issued Chevy Suburban slipped ominously as we tackled steep grades. A planned short walkabout became a surreal five-hour climb during which gray squirrels kept being positioned as exotica.)

The capital, Ciudad Victoria, felt safe enough. But I remember leaving a hotel at dusk and seeing a man leaning against a wall with a lever-action rifle in his hands.

So what's it like there today?

"Tamaulipas probably wouldn't be so inviting right now," says Sara, describing a colleague who was trailed while trying to report at a school near Reynosa – then confronted and asked to leave.

In reporting this piece, Sara says she found hospitality – if some reticence – everywhere. But too few revealing, in-country trips are being planned anymore, she says. For now, that makes perceptions tough to change, and a national brand hard to lift.

"There are still great things going on," she says, "but people are not taking the risk to show them."

• Clayton Collins is the editor of the weekly edition. Monitor editor John Yemma returns to this space next week.

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