Flu's Biggest Victim

Drug cartels, earthquakes—and now a possible pandemic. But worst casualty in all this, Andres Martinez says, might be Mexico's public perception.

Poor Mexico can’t catch a break. “So far from God, so close to the United States,” as the old saying goes down there. Indeed. Our southern neighbor’s lethal drug war has been driven off the front pages by a deadly strain of swine flu that threatens to become a pandemic. And as if that weren’t enough, for a few scary moments on Monday, an already jittery Mexico City was hit by an earthquake that registered 5.6 on the Richter scale. What next, locusts?

Even assuming the swine flu doesn’t develop into a global catastrophe comparable to the 1918 epidemic that killed millions—and there is no reason to believe it will—this virus threatens to cause lasting damage to the Mexico-U.S. relationship, helping to further distance two neighbors that have long been worlds apart.

There’s no good time for a country to be blamed for triggering a global health scare but the timing for Mexico is particularly bad.

The shared 2,000-mile border has always been one of the most pronounced fault lines in the world, a unique boundary separating first and third worlds. Rich and poor nations elsewhere have long looked upon this border with envy, viewing it as a source of strength and opportunity for north and south. Much like Canada, Mexico, despite all its problems, has long been a friendly, stable enough place, affording the U.S. the luxury of not having to deploy vast standing armies to protect its borders. The two economies are fairly integrated as well, in mostly positive ways, and yet people in each of these two neighboring countries tend to eye their neighbor warily.

For years, a nativist streak north of the Rio Grande has fed widespread alarm about the degree to which a southern peril was polluting this nation. Hence the heat of the immigration-reform debates of recent years, during which you could turn on a radio nearly anywhere in the country and find voices unhinged by the undeniably porous nature of the border. Now there’s something even more concrete and creepy to fret about: the homeland’s security being undermined by influenza-carrying Mexicans.

There’s no good time for a country to be blamed for triggering a global health scare—remember those Hong Kong travel ads around the time of the SARS epidemic with the unfortunate tagline “It will take your breath away”?—but the timing for Mexico is particularly bad.

Over the last few months, Mexico seemed to have been holding the moral high ground in the bilateral relationship, and was being treated with more respect by Washington. Emerging from their traditional defensive crouch, Mexicans were starting to assert that a porous, unsecured border could be as much of a threat to them as it could be to Americans. Hardworking if undocumented migrants might flow from south to north, but the contraband from north to south takes the form of assault weapons and the repatriated profits with which the cartels have been waging their ferocious battle against Mexican society and state. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been to Mexico and gone further than past U.S. leaders to acknowledge that we share responsibility in this struggle (without being so clear on what we are prepared to do about it). On the economic front, too, Mexicans found themselves in the novel position of being the teacher rather than the student. This financial crisis, unlike ones that roiled global markets in the ‘80s and ‘90s, wasn’t triggered by emerging nations like Mexico—which has acted prudently in the handling of its finances this last decade—but rather by the failure of Uncle Sam to practice what it preached, to live within its means. Still, Mexico’s economy was already expected to contract more significantly this year on account of the economic paralysis to its north.

And now this. Travel advisories that frown on nonessential travel to Mexico; watchful eyes for sickly people crossing the border, from south to north, mind you; questions in the White House briefing room about what precautions the president took before or after going to Mexico? Didn’t he know it is a scary place? What was he thinking?

Even if things don’t get too much worse from here, the tangible costs for Mexico will be enormous. But the intangible damage to the relationship—and I am talking more of popular perceptions here than government ties, as these might actually be strengthened—will loom even larger.

When the dust settles and the masks come off, suspicions may deepen on both sides of the border, if the source of the virus is traced back to an American-owned hog farm in the state of Oaxaca, near where the outbreak was first detected. That will allow some Mexicans to engage in the timeless and destructive sport of pinning all blame on gringos—and, of course, to rue their distance from God.

Andrés Martinez is the director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation. Previously, he was the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, where he also presided over the newspaper's op-ed page and its Sunday opinion section. He is the author of 24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas .