Cartoons enlisted to tackle Mexico's drug war 'myths'

Mexican government cartoon depicting what officials say are myths about the  drugs conflict The government insists that it is not just using force to take on the drug gangs

A series of animated cartoons, set to electronic music, is the Mexican government's latest weapon in the drug conflict that has taken hold in parts of the country and left some 40,000 people dead.

The cartoon campaign aims to debunk the "myths" that the government says have permeated the debate about how to take on the drug gangs since late 2006.

"The government has no strategy", "the army systematically abuses human rights" and "the solution would be to negotiate with the criminals" are some of the perceptions the government answers in its campaign.

"We try to give a coherent and comprehensive perspective of what is happening," Alejandro Poire, the national security spokesman, told the BBC.

Officials say President Felipe Calderon's administration is fighting a "cultural battle" to win support for its much-criticised efforts.

Mr Poire believes that media initiatives like the cartoons allow people to have "better judgement based on the facts".

But the "facts" he refers to are the subject of debate among experts.

"A media campaign has to be founded on real-world numbers," says Edgardo Buscaglia, law professor and security consultant for the United Nations.

"Unfortunately Mexico is not showing any improvement against organised crime because of the lack of the political capacity of the Mexican government to introduce the measures needed."

Crime rates

Mass graves with hundreds of drug-gang victims, innocent civilians killed in shootouts between the security forces and criminals, communities terrorised by violence.

A police detective looks at the slain bodies of three suspected hitmen after a shootout in  Sabinas Hidalgo, about 99km from Monterrey, 25 July  2011 Daily murders: Uncontrolled violence or a sign gangs are feeling the heat?

These are the headlines about Mexico at home and abroad, even if, as the government argues, the violence is concentrated in specific parts of the country.

According to Mr Buscaglia, all 23 crime rates normally used to measure organised crime - from murders to human trafficking, smuggling to counterfeiting - have gone up in Mexico over the past five years.

The most frequent criticism hurled at President Calderon is that he has focused his strategy too much on the military confrontation with the cartels.

"The medicine - just sending more troops and police to the areas - becomes worse than the illness," says Mr Buscaglia.

Nonsense, Mr Poire says.

"It is as if you're looking at the map of a country and saying: 'What a coincidence. The government sends firefighters to the areas where there are more fires' and you believe that is it the firefighters provoking the fires.'"

Start Quote

Mexico needs to prove to people that even though it suffers problems, it's still a useful country in the world”

End Quote Simon Anholt Branding expert

Mr Poire says the government has a comprehensive strategy that attacks the problem on all fronts, from the use of drugs to the capture of drug lords.

But some experts argue that the government has failed to attack the criminal groups where it hurts them most: their corrupt links with local politicians and, above all, their finances.

A recent government report said that, during the Calderon administration, around $500m (£300m) in cash has been confiscated so far from the criminal groups.

But that would be barely a dent in the finance of cartels, which some estimates suggest have an income of $39bn (£24bn) a year.

Even the effect of the capture or killing of several top drug barons - presented by the government as one of its main successes - is disputed by critics.

They argue that the ensuing fight between those who want to steal the business of the fallen leaders sparks yet more violence.

Image abroad

The current government's "cultural battle" not only aims to win the hearts and minds of Mexicans frustrated with the unprecedented levels of violence.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon delivers a speech during the inauguration of the new forensic laboratory in Mexico City, on 1July 2011 Mr Calderon will conclude his six-year term in December 2012

Officials have also expressed concern about the impact that the international media coverage of the conflict has on Mexico's reputation.

They are keen to highlight the positive stories, like Mexico's solid economic growth or the fact that some parts of the country have very low, European-level crime rates.

Mr Calderon put himself at the front of this effort when, addressing a tourism convention in Las Vegas in May, he tried to dispel fears that Mexico - a country that relies heavily on tourism - was an unsafe destination to visit for foreign tourists.

"I saw thousands of spring-breakers in Mexico having fun," said Mr Calderon, referring to the US college students who visited the country earlier this year.

"My understanding is that the only shots they received were tequila shots - a lot of them," he said.

Mexican government cartoon depicting what officials say are myths about the drugs conflict No one agrees with the drugs fight: False, says the government

Simon Anholt, a British expert who was hired as a policy consultant by the Mexican government, says that the issues with Mexico's international image preceded the security crisis - and are therefore harder to solve.

"Mexico is like an uninsured driver that's had a bad accident," he told the BBC.

"The bad accident is this current spate of violence and the negative reporting that surrounds it; but Mexico's problem was that it had no reputation, no standing, no-one outside the Americas knew anything about Mexico, and so consequently, when people started hearing bad stuff that defined the country."

Mr Anholt, who led workshops to instruct top Mexican officials how to improve the country's engagement with the rest of world, goes beyond campaigns and what he calls "sunshine journalism".

"Trying to put out positive stories about Mexico is possibly a waste of time," he says.

"Mexico needs to prove to people that even though it suffers problems, it's still a useful country in the world. That will come from demonstrating leadership and how it fixes those problems."

Mr Calderon, who under Mexico's one-term rule will be in office until December 2012, has seen his administration heavily marked by the fight against the drug gangs.

How to continue that fight will be a key challenge for whomever is elected his successor next year.

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