Before a packed house, the panel members marshaled both statistical and anecdotal evidence in debating a crisis that has rocked Mexico since at least 2006 and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Their forecasts were largely pessimistic and indicated that the crisis will continue.
"There is a sense that the strategy isn't working," said Dallas Morning News journalist Alfredo Corchado, one of the panelists. He added that two weeks after President Felipe Calderon had taken office, a Mexican intelligence official said that "you're charging uphill, not on a horse but a donkey, you have no saddle, and the cavalry's going in different directions."
In the half-decade that has passed since then, the media has plenty of gruesome stories to cover, such as the mass graves of Tamaulipas discovered last month. Yet even the press is intimidated and the violence, it seems, is spreading. Corchado said that now, no one wants to visit "areas we once thought were safe."
Against these gloomy statements was cast the presence of Mexican official -- and Harvard Ph.D. -- Alejandro Poire. Armed with reassuring statistics, Poire alternately defended his administration, said that the situation was not as bad as it seemed, and voiced hope for the future -- with a degree of Machiavellianism. Among his statements:
- Of the 35,000 killed in the drug wars between 2007-10, most of that number represent the cartels waging war against each other.
- Ciudad Juarez, "the main theater of the fight," endured 11 homicides a day in October 2010, but that number has "gone significantly down in the last few months."
- Mexico has "much less corrupt institutions and much better institutional capability."
- The drug problem is a combination of Mexico being both too poor ("five successive economic crises tore apart the social fabric and made urban areas ripe for crime groups" from 1976-95) and too rich ("from 1994 to 2010 there was an increase in incentive for organizations to sell drugs in Mexico ... per capita income in Mexico almost quadrupled").
In the question-and-answer session, audience members pressed the panel on different subjects. We learned that the US is not entirely to blame for weapons illegally brought to Mexico (Braun: "Rocket-propelled grenades and very, very heavy weaponry comes from Central America, Venezuela and other locales") ... and that even if the US legalized drugs, panelists did not envision the drug wars ending (Heymann: "Cartels would shift toward kidnapping and extortion in Mexico ... I can't imagine that anyone in the US would want (harder drugs) to flow into the US freely").
At the end, the most hopeful note came from Corchado, whose pessimism seemed to change itself into guarded hope.
"People want to be able to measure some degree of success," he said. "Colombia took decades. The question is, will Mexicans have the same degree of patience?"