Nearly two decades after I had left Mexico, I arrived back on Day of the Dead, a colorfully macabre celebration harkening back to the Aztecs but observed on the Catholic All Saints' Day.
El Dia de Los Muertos is when families take picnics to the cemeteries and decorate the graves of departed relatives with marigolds, candles and sugar skulls. The Nov. 2 holiday has always been one of my favorites, I told a friend who met me at the Mexico City airport last year.
"Every day is Day of the Dead now," he said flatly. "We have 40,000 days of the dead."
He was referring to the number of people who have died in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon took office and launched an offensive against trafficking cartels. Navigating through a more modern and prosperous capital than the one I had left in 1993, he spoke of a country that had made many advances, but that also had become a miasma of savagery.
More families were visiting more graves.
The Mexico I left was still governed by the aptly named Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held onto power for nearly 70 years through a mix of pork barrel politics and vote rigging. Political rhetoric tended toward anti-American. The North American Free Trade Agreement had not been signed yet, so foreign-owned businesses were scarce and imports expensive. With the Internet still in its infancy, most Mexicans got their news from government-subsidized media that focused on presidential activities and public works.
There were cartels back then, moving South American cocaine and Mexican marijuana north to feed a voracious U.S. appetite for illegal drugs. And, to be sure, there was violence in the 1990s. The archbishop of Guadalajara was assassinated by drug lords in what was deemed to be "a mistake," and the head of PRI, Luis Donaldo Colossio, was murdered, a case never quite clarified. Armed Zapatista guerrillas sprang out of the jungles of Chiapas to demand that poor and indigenous Mexicans receive their fair share of Mexico's wealth.
Yet Mexico was not thought to be particularly violent then. There was no running tally of the dead.
Today, I find the country greatly changed, if sometimes seeming to come full circle. Fair elections brought Calderon's National Action Party to power a decade ago, but now Mexicans appear ready to return the PRI to office. Polls give a stunning double-digit lead to the PRI's presumed candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, the former governor of the state of Mexico who has yet to define his presidential agenda, particularly regarding drug violence.
Like the Aztecs and Spaniards, modern Mexicans have built on the ruins of past generations. Old low-rises along the capital's Paseo de la Reforma have been leveled. The Mexican Stock Exchange, which once stood out of the boulevard like a lone saguaro cactus in the desert, now sits in the shadow of international banks-hotels-office towers. Starbucks cafes on nearly every other block serve as billboards for the globalization of Mexico, while the Mexicanization of Starbucks is evident in the barristas' offer of sugar-coated Pan de Muerto _ Bread for the Dead.
Mexican politicians can be openly pro-American at times, and Mexico is truly multinational now, with everything from Costco megastores to Ferrari dealerships. Speckled enamel dishware traditionally used by the poor no longer comes from local factories but from China. Mexico, meanwhile, exports far more manufactured goods than oil, which is the reverse of 20 years ago and a sign of a more developed economy.
Free trade in foodstuffs has driven more farmers off the land and into the cities, where there is a noticeably larger middle class, but also more of the so-called "ninis," or "neither nors." They are the youth who neither study nor find legitimate jobs, and may seek work or be pressed into service by drug cartels.
Newspapers have grown more professional and independent of government advertising. The pro-government (no matter who's in power) Televisa television network still dominates the countryside, but in big cities, bolder, more critical coverage is available on cable. TV still dishes up voluptuous "weather girls" dressed as if they had stopped by the station on the way home from an after-hours party. Then announcers in dark suits rattle off the daily death toll from the provinces as if delivering a national weather report. One newspaper even has a name for the tally: the ejecutometro _ the execution meter.
The violence often seems far away from bustling Mexico City. It is said that cartel honchos like to shop and launder their money here and don't want undue pressure from the government, so they take their differences outside. Friends in other countries ask if it's safe in the capital, and like many politicians and most people here I say that I feel safe because the slayings usually happen elsewhere. We go out for dinner, go to the movies and to the theater. On Sunday, Paseo de la Reforma is closed to car traffic and resplendent with bicyclists _ ever more so in spring when the jacarandas are in bloom.
And yet, the drug violence is present, seeping into art and film, and even the nightly soap opera. Always inventive with vocabulary, Mexicans speak of narco pets (peacocks) and narco polo T-shirts (knock-off Ralph Lauren). The violence makes a ghostly appearance at family gatherings and holiday parties, where a dinner companion's three missing fingers recall his kidnapping _ and the three messages sent to family with ransom demands. At a Christmas cocktail party, the owner of a chain of cinemas tells stories of extortion and of the hit man who followed his prey into a Ciudad Juarez theater, but waited for the end of the movie to make the kill.
The Mexico that I enjoyed so freely before has shrunk by as much as half if measured in territory no longer considered safe: The states of Durango and Tamaulipas, off limits, as is most of Michoacan. The cities of Monterrey and Guadalajara, the resort of Acapulco, and most recently, the port of Veracruz, bad and getting worse. Bodies are hung from bridges or dumped by truckloads in the street. Many victims are beheaded, and heads are put on display like Aztec trophies _ or Day of the Dead candies.
Mexicans try to adapt. The highways in Zacatecas are rife with assaults and kidnappings, reports a front-page story in the newspaper Reforma. Take another route. Instead of planning a wedding in Acapulco, the well-to-do bring the wedding planner to Mexico City. Instead of voting for the party in power, it is suggested Mexicans will vote for the other guys out of nostalgia _ or hope _ for a less violent era.
Mexico has become a country of mass murders. The atrocities occur one at a time or in waves, and after an explosion of outrage and condemnation, not much happens. There is rarely clarity or a conviction. The murders are reduced to recognizable phrases: the 72 migrants killed in Tamaulipas, or the 183 bodies dug from mass graves there. The 52 dead in a Monterrey casino torching, the 35 bodies dumped in Boca del Rio, Veracruz, or the clandestine graves in Durango, whose toll ultimately eclipsed those in Tamaulipas: 224.
The government usually plays down the killings as violence between cartels, but the toll of innocents is growing and many Mexicans are asking whether there is a government connection in some cases.
Twelve months have passed since my return and the marigolds are in bloom again. Sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto are on sale. As in years past, I buy cheerful paper cutouts of skeletons to hang for the holiday. But this year, like my friend who picked me up at the airport, I think of the recent dead and fresh graves: 10,000 more this year, according to newspaper counts.
And while Day of the Dead feels eerily familiar, it doesn't feel quite as festive.
Marjorie Miller is The Associated Press' regional editor for Latin America.