Almost all the foreign coverage of Sunday’s Mexican election focuses on the drug wars and the murder rate: 30 000 killed last year, and likely to be even higher this year.
But there are 127 million Mexicans, so it’s not really all that bad by Caribbean standards.
Mexico is not even in the top 10 countries in terms of its murder rate, although seven out of those top 10 are in the Caribbean: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Colombia.
The Caribbean is a tough neighbourhood, but Mexico is actually one of its safer places.
So why is everybody, including the Mexicans themselves, obsessed with the local murder rate?
It’s because the killings are so brazen and spectacular – and so many of them are part of the incessant wars between rival drug gangs.
“Cartels” is no longer the right word for these gangs: they have splintered into a multitude of rival organisations fighting to maintain or expand their access to the lucrative US market.
It’s a bloody business, but it’s not what the election is about – or at least not openly.
We already know who is going to be the president of Mexico for the next six years. It’s “Amlo”, short for Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The last opinion poll put him at 37% of the vote, and his nearest rival at 20%. He has little to say about the drug war, apart from vague talk about giving some criminals an amnesty. What he concentrates on is inequality.
Traditionally a far poorer place than the other big economies in Latin America, Brazil and Argentina, Mexico is now level with Brazil in per capita income, though still trailing Argentina. At least a third of Mexico’s people live in poverty, and if anything the inequality has become worse as the economy grew.
That is López Obrador’s priority: he will be Mexico’s first left-wing president.
His rivals paint him as a Chávez-style radical who will ruin the economy, but his record as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 suggests a much more pragmatic politician.
“No expropriations, no nationalisations,” he pledges.
But he does promise to address income disparity as no previous Mexican government has done.
It’s remarkable that Mexico had to wait so long for the emergence of a successful left-wing politician. The 60-year stranglehold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – what it institutionalised was corruption – was broken in the 2000 election, but the winner was the National Action Party (PAN), a centre-right, business-friendly organisation.
In 2006 PAN made the fatal mistake, at the behest of the US, of launching the “war on drugs”. In the place of PRI’s policy of co-existence (you sell the drugs in the US, give us a share of the profits, and we’ll leave you alone) it set out to smash the cartels.
It succeeded all too well. That’s when the murder rate took off, as the many fragments of the old cartels fought each other for market share. As long as there is demand in the US, the drug trade will thrive, but now there is also highly visible carnage in Mexico.
Indeed, one of the reasons that PRI came back to power in 2012 was the horror of Mexicans at the violence unleashed in their streets. PRI did nothing to solve the problem, however.
López Obrador’s government will be a very different proposition. It may or may not declare a ceasefire in the local drug war, but it will certainly shake up the Mexican elites.