Opening Mexico, by Samuel Dillon and Julia Preston, is an in-depth account of the birth of a democracy. Dillon sat down for an interview prior to a public event at Book Passage on March 28, 2004.
The authors, reporters for The New York Times, tell a story rich with intrigue. Starting with the student revolt at Tlatelolco in Mexico City in 1968, and culminating with the defeat of the PRI in the presidential election of 2000, a series of events brings an end to authoritarianism. In the process vigorous personalities emerge to effect change. Today three main political parties vie for power, elections are mostly clean, and the press is largely independent. But are those trends irreversible? I put that question to Samuel Dillon:
Dillon: That’s a very good question…a very important question. What happened fundamentally was that Mexico did an electoral reform. They had a legacy of electoral fraud. And over 12 years basically, they formed a national consensus across all the parties including the PRI—including at least the main leadership, President Salinas and President Zedillo. They agreed that they could not have more election fraud, and that they had to spend a lot of money overhauling the system. They created the electoral institute, and they spent at least $1.3 billion and maybe more billions. They created a very elaborate electoral list—a national electoral list—with digital fingerprints, holograms. They did a lot of stuff. And they solved the problem of electoral fraud at the national level, the federal level. I think they could still have a fraud on the local level. But I don’t think they can have a fraud at the national level. And even if the PRI were to be elected again, which is a possibility, I don’t think the PRI could then dismantle the systems that have been in place to prevent fraud, so that they could then become a dictatorship again. I don’t think they can do that. I won’t ascribe to them the best motives. In other words, even if you had a sinister fellow take office—like the president of the PRI now is Roberto Madrazo. He is in our book. He’s a very wily politician, and he can be a crook. I won’t say he is a crook now, but at some points in his political career he acted like a crook. He stole money, I mean, he spent a huge amount of state funds on an election. He’s a dark figure, in my opinion. Now, I give him credit for heading his party, because I think it is healthy that the PRI has survived. And it is competing by democratic rules, as far as I can tell. So they accomplished the electoral reform, and I think that is solid. But there are a whole other bunch of items on the democratic agenda that they have not gotten to, that they need to still get to—for instance, the overhaul of the justice system. Everybody knows that that’s something that really needs to be done. And it’s on the democratic agenda. It’s not currently democratic. You know, rich people have access to equal justice, equal for them, and poor people don’t. And businesspeople can get involved in a dispute—you know, honest businesspeople who are just trying to have a healthy business that’s good for the economy—and all of a sudden, there’s some crooked rival who bribes the judge. The rules aren’t clear, the documentation isn’t clear, they systems aren’t clear. They need to reform that for Mexico to move forward. So, I guess the answer is, I don’t think they will go backwards on electoral reform. But you could get a nefarious politician in office who could do a lot of damage. He could set back the country. Now, what you have currently is, they elected Fox. And we have to give him credit, because he was a very resolute candidate. It took a guy with a lot of stubbornness and charisma and those things to get elected, which was a very necessary step to defeat the PRI. It wasn’t easy to defeat the PRI. So he fulfilled that function. But he has been a disappointment as a president, because he has not been a great executive. He is a great salesman, like at Coke. Coke in Mexico was essentially a marketing operation, because Coke is bottled by regional bottling companies in Mexico. And so Coca-Cola de Mexico is really a big marketing operation. And so that’s what he was, a salesman. He was great as a salesman, but he is not a great chief executive. And he has been not very smart about dealing with the Congress, which has become extremely important. Now they have a president that must deal with the congress. Ever since ‘97, there is no congressional majority by any party.
Grant Howard: So, would you say there are healthy checks and balances now?
Dillon: Maybe too healthy.
Dillon: Yes. I heard somebody describe it as a presidential system that is operating on a parliamentary logic. And so, yes, well, they need a justice system overhaul and they need to have growth. There are still things they need to solve about their economy to create jobs. I think there is frustration building now, because there is a recession. A lot of that has to do with the United States. But there are things that they need to do. For instance, both Zedillo and Fox put forward the same three reforms. They want a fiscal reform, for taxes, because they do not collect enough taxes to be able to spend what they need to spend on education, for instance, to move forward. And they can’t get it passed. Zedillo could not get it passed, neither can Fox. And he wanted to do an energy reform, because they have these laws that protect Pemex as a national state-owned industry, which was a patriotic thing at one point in Mexico. But now it’s a problem. Pemex, it’s a huge cash cow, it makes a lot of money. Instead of collecting taxes from the Mexican people and from Mexican corporations as a whole, they skim off about a third of Pemex’s oil profits and keep it for the national treasury. And that way they can have low taxes. But it means there is no money for Pemex to invest in its own production of energy. And so they country is beginning to run out of energy. Especially, they need to develop natural gas, to run their plants. And so, Zedillo tried to get that, and he couldn’t get it. And now Fox can’t get it either….
GH: In terms of working conditions and that kind of thing, I was struck with how severe the problem is just near the border with the United States, the Acuna area….Right now in this country there is a lot of rhetoric about the issue of outsourcing jobs to various places, including Mexico. I don’t think there’s a lot of awareness about what those working conditions are like. The labor movement in the past few years in Mexico has gotten more robust, right? Is that true?
Dillon: The labor movement is still controlled—it’s one of the real points of inertia. We were talking about the democratic agenda. Democracy has not arrived at the labor movement yet. One of the things that Fox did when he came in is, he decided: “You know, having these union figures in control of the labor movement, of what used to be the PRI labor movement, has served the old order well. I don’t really want to have a lot of strikes and stuff like that. So I think I will just leave them in place, I won’t rock the boat on that.” So a lot of the same corrupt PRI guys are in charge of the same unions. You get a lot of labor opportunism, too. You’ll get a guy who is just a lawyer, and then he gets the franchise to run a union. Like, the workers that work at McDonald’s in Mexico, and a bunch of airlines, and movie theaters—they all belong to a union that is really just a lawyer. It’s like owning a pet store or something. The problem with the outsourcing, it’s a very difficult Gordian knot, from my way of looking at it. Because, one of the things that has been happening very recently is that these huge multinational corporations…they are investing much more in China now than they are in Mexico. It used to be that they were investing equally in Mexico, at least the ones based in the U.S. were—a lot of direct foreign investment in Mexico. Apparently that has dropped a lot during the Fox era because they want to go to China.
GH: I guess what I am wondering, is there hope for those workers? Is that typical of all of Mexico? Or is it worse in the border area, because you have these office parks where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of regulation going on?
Dillon: Right. I have to say, it was very difficult for a foreign person like myself to understand this in a comprehensive way. I went to Ciudad de Acuna, and what I could see is that people were living in dirt-floor shacks. And they didn’t have running water, and they didn’t have sewer lines, and the conditions were just atrocious. And they were getting $10 a day, maybe $13 a day. But then, people from the interior of Mexico, young people, continue to stream there. So it was hard me understand, why would people come to a place like that? And then somebody said, we had a young girl, 17 years old, come up here. She had been working as a domestic laborer in Durango. She was making $12 a month. It’s hard for me to understand that. So what’s the answer? I don’t have the answer, I guess. Conditions in central and southern Mexico—wage levels are much lower than at the border. Now, when they establish a factory down in, say, the Yucatan or one of the southern states, the village structure may be in place. And if they build a factory, it may be that working conditions don’t deteriorate so much as they have, having so many people stream to one place. It’s been very chaotic on the border. I think that’s part of the problem. They put all these factories right along the border in part so that American executives could live in Del Rio, Texas, but have plants in Ciudad de Acuna. That attracted these huge numbers of workers to come north. And then the settlements are chaotic. And they did not develop the basic infrastructure for human habitation. But in political terms, the thing that was striking about the border area was: The PRI previously—in its classic phase—the PRI had generally tried to attend to the human needs of the working class in Mexico. It was a party that people voted for, partly because they did attend to people’s needs in some minimal way. In the last years, in the decadent years of the PRI, they lost all that vocation for service. So along the border, they made no attempt whatsoever to unionize any of those people. The PRI would have a monopoly. In the Mexican union movement you kind of have to get the franchise to represent workers. It is very important to be recognized as an official union. And the PRI had the monopoly on that and didn’t use it. It made it very difficult for anyone else to do any labor organizing.
GH: I see. I really want to ask you about the Carlos Fuentes situation, because you ended up being part of the story in that case—a situation where you had a report from U.S. intelligence saying that he was the premier drug trafficker at that time, and that there were a couple of governors that were on the take. And eventually you ended up in a situation where an apparatchik took the approach that all he needed to do was negotiate with you and get either a retraction or a different story. During that experience, did you feel threatened? Did you feel like—I don’t know if I would say physical danger—but did you feel like you were getting dangerously enmeshed in the politics of Mexico and the corruption that exists?
Dillon: I have to give the Mexicans credit for handling that in a way that we never did feel any kind of physical danger. It was a very uncomfortable period for me and for Julia, too, and for Craig Pyes as well—because I authored that story with a freelance reporter. He was a contract reporter, and he was mostly in the United States. It was uncomfortable because there was a lot of media interest in it. The Mexican news organizations were very interested in that case. What happened was, they have a criminal defamation law in Mexico—in this case the two governors that I identified as having been named in this intelligence report as associates of traffickers. In the United States, if I had written a story like that, they would have sued me for libel. That would have been the analogous situation. And then it would be before a civil court to decide if I had libeled them. And then there are the standards of proof in an American libel trial. There, they have a criminal system that was originally written at the time of the revolution. It was a political tool to intimidate reporters; that’s really what it was for. And so the two governors in this case hired lawyers and then they filed a complaint under that law. And in the complaint they accused me and the New York Times of having defamed them and violated the criminal defamation statutes. And then it was up to the Mexican Attorney General to decide whether to investigate and decide whether I had actually committed the crime of criminal defamation. And then if they did they would put me in jail. Or actually, either they would put me in jail or we would pay a fine. I think the fine was going to be something like $35. The fine thing was absurd. But, well, that obviously made for a huge news story in Mexico, because these governors were accusing the New York Times of criminal libel. And one of the governors had hardball lawyers; they wanted to use all kinds of pressure tactics to make things uncomfortable.
GH: To intimidate you?
Dillon: Well, yes, just to make it difficult. That’s the way they litigated. And so, this was Governor Corrillo Olea of Morelos state. His lawyers, they said all kinds of lies. They would just have a press conference. At one point they said I was a fugitive, that I had gone underground. So then the newspapers said Sam Dillon is a fugitive.
GH: The Mexican newspapers?
Dillon: Yes. It made my life very difficult. And then he said that wasn’t contesting the charges, that I was just thumbing my nose at Mexican justice. So then some newspapers would have these stories. And then I would go to a press conference to cover some other event, and then all these reporters would surround me and ask me all these questions. And it made it kind of difficult to do my job. Plus, I had to go through the whole process of finding a lawyer to represent me, which turned out to be really difficult. I thought it would be easy to find a Floyd Abrams-type figure—somebody who represents the press for First Amendment issues, that kind of thing. There was nothing like that. There was no history of lawyers that represented the press. In fact, every lawyer that I met—and I interviewed about 10 or 12 lawyers—every one of them was a specialist in that kind of law, and their specialty had been in suing journalists. There was nobody that was a specialist in representing journalists.
GH: No defense capability?
Dillon: Right. I mean, I finally found a guy who did a decent job, a guy named Rafael Heredia, who represented me. But that was a problem. I spent quite a bit of time going around and interviewing lawyers. Some of them insulted me. I was tremendously unpopular among officials that sympathized with the government in that period. But I have to give the government and the PRI credit. They never allowed it to deteriorate to the point where, like I said—they were never physically intimidating to me or anything like that. But they did bug our office, which really got to be nerve-racking, because we would have these conversations on the phone in which we were talking about our legal strategy to defend ourselves, and the same party that has brought this criminal complaint is also listening in and taping the phone calls and then circulating transcripts of what we say.
GH: I guess that leads me to a question about freedom of the press in Mexico. That’s a relatively new phenomenon, right?
Dillon: The press freedoms began to be more generalized in the 70’s. One of the characteristics was self-censorship by the publishers. The problem there was not only direct interference by the government in what newspapers or television would say, but—in the case of newspapers—there were very few noble Mexican publishers. Many of them had their…
Dillon:…their agenda. They had their newspapers to run a particular point of view or to just make money however they could make it. And they were entirely willing to just say whatever the government wanted them to say. So, self-censorship. If you think of journalism as a public service—where the public has a right to know certain things about the way the government operates, that sort of thing—very few of them had that as their operating creed. Now with television, there was a much more direct involvement of the government in monitoring and making sure that the broadcast each night was what was acceptable for the government.
GH: And even when Zedillo was president (in the late 1990s), he was still kind of pulling strings.
Dillon: Yes, his aides were still doing that, although they were gaining in sophistication. And it was very difficult for us to understand exactly how the system accommodated Fox—a system in which Televisa, the largest station, the owner of it had called himself a soldier of the president. It was very easy for them to manage that. Then they got a new television station, TV Azteca, and so then there was some competition that made for some new complexity. And then in the presidential race—I remained convinced right until the time Fox won that Televisa would have preferred to see the PRI win again.
GH: There was this guy, Rocha, who was a host of a documentary series?
Dillon: Yes, you are absolutely right.
GH: And he was a little more adversarial, more independent?
Dillon: Yes, he was a great journalist. Ricardo Rocha.
GH: So there were exceptions. There were at least some rays of hope.
Dillon: Definitely. But in his case, he did great journalism and then kind of got pushed out for it. He actually had to leave Televisa. But he is still down there with his own production company. I would say there are still a lot of ways that the Mexican media could become more professional. But the weak point in Mexican democracy currently is not the press, in my opinion. The biggest problem in the press now is that the television stations are still—there are not enough of them—and they are still very…
Dillon: Deferential, but also, the problem is not the news shows, but all the soap operas. There is not much public service that seems to go on in Mexican television. It is very lowest-common-denominator.
GH: I see what you mean. So there is no PBS, or something equivalent?
Dillon: Very limited, very limited.
GH: Also, in terms of the press, there was this interesting newspaper in Guadalajara…
Dillon: Yes, Siglo 21.
GH: …which, it seemed to me, might be emblematic of where things are in terms of the press in Mexico—because on one hand it exposed things and grew in circulation, exposed the problem with the exploding streets. But then it turned out that the publisher was taking bribes.
Dillon: Very disappointing.
GH: Is that typical still, do you think, of newspapers in Mexico? I mean, are they following the good side of Siglo 21 or the bad, or both?
Dillon: Well, one thing that is still the case is that there are a lot of newspapers in Mexico. You go to a newsstand and there are 15 or 20 options in Mexico City. And in smaller cities there will be 4 or 5, I mean in provincial capitals. Most of them are really junk.
Dillon: Yes, mostly tabloids, some broadsheets. But on the positive side, in many markets there is a pretty good paper now. And a lot of this I lay to the publisher. It is just the talent and sense of public service of the publisher. Sometimes they have it, and sometimes they don’t. And in Mexico in most cases, they don’t. But in many markets there is somebody that has got some talent. Some of them are very good. You had a group of journalists there in Guadalajara that were very talented and they had a good editor. And then they fell afoul of their publisher. That was very disappointing.
GH: A few minutes ago you said freedom of the press probably is not the most pressing issue, in terms of Mexican democracy….What would you say is the biggest flaw?
Dillon: Well, currently, the political class of people that are now grouped in three main parties is a political class that really needs to put aside its parochial interests and look to the needs of the nation as a whole. If you look at the broad scope of the last 30 years, they did form this consensus of how fraud was no good anymore. I think they even got kind of ashamed of themselves as a nation, that they were letting this go on. So even the PRI, even the PRI’s talented people, said: “Alright, we have got to solve this, we can’t do this anymore.” And so then they solved that problem in a very methodical way. Well, now they need to do something similar with the other problems that are pressing. And currently, they are not doing that. The parties are now pursuing their own very parochial interests. You know, they are half-way through the six-year sexenio, and they are already now all positioning to run for president again.
GH: I was about to ask you about that. Is that the way it is going to be from now on? Because it looked like Fox started running in ’97, right?
GH: Is that the way it is going to be from now on…?
Dillon: I think it might be. I mean, I think they are going to contend with that temptation from now on. And that’s a big problem, because they waste a lot of the nation’s energy and resources on that problem.
GH: So I guess what you are saying (earlier) is that there is still a tendency to just take care of the elite of society
Dillon: Yes, there is. I think part of it we have to lay at Fox’s feet, because there is the role now in that system for a leader—a leader that can form a consensus and inspire the nation to move toward solving problems. And Fox did not accomplish that. Now, in all fairness to him, he faced tremendous odds because he did not control the Congress. The PRI are still there, and they never resigned themselves to letting Fox carry out a program. They always just wanted to be obstructionists. But, you know, Fox just did not really prove very effective at confronting that problem or many other problems. So, I guess what I am alluding to is that they could elect somebody—for instance, the lead candidate is Lopez Obrador, the Mayor of Mexico City, from the PRD—he is somebody who has strong leadership qualities. He is a populist, but it strikes me that he could be kind of a Lula-like figure in Mexico. He is a leftist….There would be the possibility, I think, for a guy like him to inspire the nation to solve problems and to overcome sectarian differences, if he exerted strong presidential leadership. Now, he is not even close to winning yet, but we are sort of speculating about what could happen. If they could get somebody that was elected by a good margin, and that had a mandate and then used it wisely, that would help a lot to solve these problems.
GH: I have a question about the connection or disconnection between intellectuals—in particular Octavio Paz—and the masses. I got the sense from the book that when he was ambassador to India and the massacre happened in ’68 (at Tlatelolco), that his speaking out against it was important.
Dillon: Very important.
GH: How does that work in Mexico? Isn’t there a working class that is so busy with their own problems that they are not even able to take it in? Why was it so important for him to speak out like that against his own government?
Dillon: Well, it was important at that moment. You have to think of, going back 30 years, when the PRI system was really in its classic phase. Vargas Llosa called it the “perfect dictatorship”. He used that phrase because they had figured out a way to control everybody. They controlled the government, the army, and the judiciary. Then they controlled the labor movement, and they controlled the businesspeople, and they controlled all the farm workers. And they controlled the media, and they controlled the intellectuals. And you just keep going out in conspiring circles, and finally you could find there was no opposition. The only people who were a little bit in opposition was the PAN party, which was this marginalized group of Catholics a that point. You know, they might have a town mayor here and there, but mainly they were very marginalized. There were a few disgruntled communists. There were some beleaguered leftists in the Soviet scope. Very little opposition, is what I am saying. They had overwhelming control over the society. So then, at the time Paz spoke out, he was already a respected intellectual, he was in the diplomatic core. And he was a guy with a lot of credibility. So then he spoke out and said: “No, no, no, you can’t kill all these people and wash away the blood on the cobblestones. That’s an outrage.” He came out with a very sharp and reasoned critique of the system. It had a kind of shattering effect. And then it planted the seeds of democratic subversion in a lot of other people—thinking people, intellectuals, probably a lot of civil servants.
GH: Middle class?
Dillon: Middle class people, yes, and even in the elite. Probably a lot of “priistas” were shocked.
GH: So, not the students themselves, but when ordinary citizens took to the streets, these were mostly middle class people?
Dillon: Yes. In 1968, it was essentially a movement about police brutality. That’s what it was all about in its early stages. The antecedents were that they had had a doctor’s strike a couple of years earlier—middle and upper-middle class people. They had been working in government hospitals. President Diaz Ordaz sent in the army to fire all the doctors, herd them out of there, clubbing them and all that stuff. And then he put in army doctors to run the hospitals. So he just crushed these people. He tried to use on an emerging middle class sector of a developing society the same tactics that had been used 50 years earlier to control a society of basically peasants. It was that moment in the ‘60s when they were still using these very clumsy, brutal tactics on middle class people and it just didn’t fly. And so instead it just radicalized a lot of people.
GH: I see. It seems like it was different from the student uprisings in this country around that time. Because in that case (the U.S.), people tended to dismiss it as rambunctious radicals. But in the case of Mexico it kind of inspired people instead.
Dillon: Yes, I think that’s right. There were quite a few similarities between the youth rebellion that emerged in Mexico at that time and what happened in the U.S. But maybe they were superficial. They all liked the Beatles, and they all liked to smoke pot, and they all liked free love and sexual revolutionary things. But at the same time, it had a more reverberating influence in Mexico.
GH: I have a question about something totally different. There were two things in the book that seemed like really pivotal moments in terms of people’s awareness of organized crime and corruption. One was the excesses of the brother of the president, Raul Salinas….The other was the general who was the drug czar, who ended up being part of the problem. The sense I got from the book was that both of those things really woke up ordinary citizens to how the severe the problem was. I mean, why did it take something that audacious, that flagrant for people….
Dillon: The problem of corruption was a source of increasing frustration among the Mexican people. It wasn’t new. Every sexenio, every presidency had its corruption scandal or its dozen corruption scandals. The problem was that in the ‘90s that the Raul scandal—Carlos Salinas left office, and then 20 days after he left office, they had the worst economic crisis.
GH: The peso.
Dillon: Terrible peso devaluation. And two-and-a-half million people lost their jobs, or maybe it was five. I mean, an extraordinary number of people lost their jobs. You know, when we first got to Mexico in ’95, there was no traffic. I had heard about all these traffic jams in Mexico City; there was no traffic, because nobody had any money to be driving their car. And so it was a time when Mexican people were really, really hurting. And then they get the news that the president’s brother has 115 million bucks in some Swiss bank account. It was just infuriating, people were just absolutely furious. In terms of drug trafficking, Mexicans have a different view of it than Americans. We view it from the standpoint of, well, it’s hurting our children. We’re buying it, the Americans are buying the drugs. But we view it as a social evil. We see it as, it’s corrupting our children. Mexicans see it more, since they haven’t been a big consuming culture, they have more in a tolerant way—something that provided a lot of people with jobs. They had a more tolerant view. For instance, in Mexican popular culture they have these “corridos”, these ballads. I am sure you have heard about all this, the “narcocorridos”. They have ballads that lionize heroes—revolutionary heroes, bandits, this and that. Now they have a whole genre of Mexican popular music that turns drug traffickers into heroes. It’s hard for outsiders to understand. You know, they get the drugs across, and they are wealthy, and they get all the best women, and there is all this stuff.
GH: And they get these prestigious nicknames, even.
GH: I got the sense from the book that there really has not been a lot of headway in terms of stopping the drug trafficking.
Dillon: Well, from a theoretical point of view, I don’t see why there should be. I don’t see why electing Vicente Fox would stop this terrible problem in which, the drugs are illegal and there is a huge market for them, and so drug traffickers routinely make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits—and then have that to make bribes. There does seem to have been at least a temporary respite in the corruption of the federal government with the bringing on of the new government. In other words, in the Carlos Salinas presidency and in the Zedillo presidency, the problem really became very dramatic. Well, you had even the president’s brother; it seemed to be that he was involved in drugs somehow.
GH: Although they never pinned it on him, right?
Dillon: Never did, no.
GH: The thing that caught everyone’s attention there was that he was accused of ordering the killing of a rival of his brother, right?
Dillon: Yes, right.
GH: I mean, he had all these women and cars.
Dillon: Yes, in other words, he came up with the 115 million in the Swiss bank accounts. The Swiss were never able to actually prove that it came from drugs. That remains a mystery. But I was convinced he was involved with drugs, because of the reporting I did. I think he was. But no one could ever prove it, and he was never convicted of it. But be that as it may, there were other people: For instance, a guy named Gusto Seo was another aide to Salinas, somebody who worked in the White House every day. That guy definitely became a broker. He was dealing with traffickers, and he was sending messages to traffickers. So they had a very serious problem of corrupting the federal government at the highest levels—and at other levels, too. But I mean, you get the problem of drug reps in the White House; that’s a serious problem. That’s a strategic problem for a country. And so, has it been better under Fox? Well, they haven’t had anything like that. You know, it makes sense, that the one party that had formed this sort of network of deal-cutting with mafias gets thrown out of office, and then there is a new group that comes in. Well, the new group may have a higher level of personal integrity and public service than the others. Or on the other hand, it may just take a while to cut the new deals. It has seemed in these three years that the problem has been better, in terms of high-level corruption. Now, the river of drugs will never stop for a minute, as long as it is illegal. It will just keep moving through, and they will figure out ways to do it.
GH: The other thing I want to ask you is, you know, in this country part of our democracy is the dream that anybody can make it big; anybody can become president, anybody can succeed financially. Does that optimism exist in Mexico? I mean, does that come with the increased democracy? Do people feel more optimism about their own lives or their own families?
Dillon: Social mobility.
Dillon: Yes. You do see a very vigorous entrepreneurial spirit among especially young Mexicans, and especially young middle class Mexicans—but not only the middle class, I think probably some lower middle class people. In Mexico City there are a lot of young talented people doing all kinds of new things. They renovate buildings, and they make movies, and there are all kinds of associations with the entertainment industry that they are involved in. They start businesses and they open bars. There are umpteen million things that they do. It’s a little overwhelming—the vigor of young, beautiful Mexican people and all the things they are doing. Now, you asked more broadly is there a…
GH: I mean, there are still a lot of people obviously coming up here from Mexico, because they think the American dream really exists more than any sort of Mexican version.
Dillon: Yes, right. The Mexican demographics, broadly: You have got about a million people coming onto the labor market every year. It is more, actually, a million-two, I think. So, unless you create a million-two jobs every year, unemployment is going to get worse. And they have not even remotely ever created 1.2 million jobs a year. In their best years they might have created 400,000 or 500,000 jobs. So every year there is this deficit of people who don’t have jobs in the formal economy. So a lot of those people come to the United States. The society just does not produce enough jobs for all the young people there that are growing. That’s a terrible continuing problem for our continent. So it’s a problem not only for Mexico but for us. And frankly, we are spending $100 billion in Iraq to do this pet project of our President’s? It would have been kind of nice to spend $100 billion on Mexico. It would make North America a lot better. I mean, it was not even remotely on anybody’s radar to do that. But you start to think about the ways you can spend huge amounts of money. That would be a very good thing to do—spend a lot of money in Mexico. You would solve a lot of problems.
GH: Yes, it seems like the current Bush administration has sort of neglected Mexico. He met with Fox at the very beginning of his administration. But then September 11 happened, and it totally went to the back burner.
Dillon: Very irresponsible, very opportunistic, in my opinion. I mean, on that trip that he took to Mexico, the first time that he went down there, he had a day-and-a-half in Mexico. What did he do? He bombed Iraq that day. That was February of 2001, so that was eight or nine months before September 11. So that whole day, he had the photo op, they were showing off their cowboy boots, and they were walking out by the horses and all that stuff. But it was a day when they should have been talking about umpteen million topics of mutual concern to the two countries, and how important Mexico is to our future and us to theirs. But no. He was negotiating with the Pentagon about targets in Iraq.
GH: There does seem to be a lot of trade, particularly with California. California almost has its own foreign policy with Mexico, right?
Dillon: Well, yes. And the Mexicans view California in those kind of strategic terms. They have their own foreign policy toward California in the same way that California does toward Mexico. Actually, there is a nightclub in Mexico City that is called “El Los Angeles.” But in neon above the door it says: “If you have never been to Los Angeles, you don’t know Mexico.”
GH: One of the things I noticed in the latter part of the book was the data from when Fox was elected (in 2000), where he did well. It looked like very dramatically, he did well with young voters.
GH: Why was that, do you think? Was it just that he was the alternative to the PRI and there were a lot of people mobilized at that time?
Dillon: Well, that was what happened in the late 90’s. Mexico polarized along the “old Mexico” and the “new Mexico” lines that were also party lines. So the PRI was representing the old Mexico, and so it was doing well among peasants and older people—all the things that Mexico had been previously. And so there were all these young people who were in some way connected to modernity, who did not want the PRI anymore. That was just the demographic on which that split.
GH: Was it just university-educated young people, or was it broader?
Dillon: Well, among young people, Fox got big chunk. Very few young people voted for the PRI. In fact, that is the PRI’s long-term problem. The PRI is still the biggest party in Mexico. But looking to the future, it has not solved its basic problem which is that it does not appeal to young people. Now, whether they can turn that around, I don’t know. They certainly are aware of their problem. But that is their biggest problem: Every year, a lot of their supporters die off. And at least when I was reporting in Mexico, they had not begun to solve the problem of persuading young people that they were the right party.