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The Globe and Mail

Mexico: A country with poverty that’s no longer poor

A group of pedestrian cross Avenida Refoma, o the main artery in downtown Mexico City, May 15 2012.

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Mexicans are so impervious to the numbing levels of drug violence that the staccato of the latest news about macabre killings is lost amid the white noise of its sprawling capital. In the bustling cafes and restaurants of Polanco, an upscale neighbourhood, life carried on as it always does throughout the week I spent there, in a city that veers between an edgy unruliness and a worldly sophistication.

Of course Mexicans want an end to the horrific narco-violence. But as they shake their heads over the latest retaliatory act waged by rival drug cartels, they are also thinking about their next vacation, the peso's volatility, and the latest phone apps. Businessmen in natty lightweight summer suits and perfectly coiffed women line up for café con leche at Starbucks. Near Polanco's Auditorio subway station, merchants do a brisk business at their tortilla stands, while others hawk gum, newspapers and lottery tickets.

"I don't have time to stop and think about the violence," said Alem Muminovic, a businessman who works with Angel Investor Group, recruiting investors for hi-tech start-ups. "Mexico has a $1-trillion economy and a huge population that is young and just coming into their highest consumption capacity. So all I see is huge potential. Once people come down here, they see the opportunities. And creating wealth will help to solve the violence problem."

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It is difficult to generalize about the security situation in Mexico, a country of 120 million people spread over 31 states, as well as the giant metropolitan area of Mexico City that is known as the Distrito Federal (D.F.). Yes, the drug wars have claimed the lives of 50,000 people since 2006. Stories about the latest atrocity – this weekend gunmen killed 11 patients in a drug rehabilitation centre in Torreon in the north – continue to dominate the headlines. But most of the massacres, disappearances and road blockades are concentrated in the northern and Pacific coastal states which make up the drug smuggling corridor into the United States. The country's overall homicide rate remains lower than many other countries including Brazil, Russia and South Africa. And the homicide rate in the D.F. is lower than California's.

Mexicans lament the death of every innocent, and express frustration at the impotence of police and the judiciary to resolve these cases. But the drug violence and corruption up north don't necessarily disrupt their daily lives or businesses.

Mexican society has also transformed in a key way: the majority of people now identify as middle class. This overarching change, which has taken place over the last decade, has far more profound implications, in the long run, than drug violence.

Steady if modest economic growth rates, open and competitive markets and smaller families mean that more and more Mexicans are educated and upwardly mobile. Fewer and fewer are picking tomatoes or lining up for day labour jobs, and more are employed in the service sector in cities, keen to spend their disposable income on educating their children and bargains at Costco and Home Depot.

To be sure, the definition of middle class in the developing world relies more on consumption patterns and aspirational values than on income, and one quarter of the country remains poor. But the implications of a shift to a majority middle class are immeasurable, note economists Luis de la Calle and Luis Rubio in their book Mexico: A Middle Class Society.

"Mexico still has poverty but it is no longer a poor country," they write. The number of credit cards in circulation nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2009. And the historic malnutrition problem, according to the book, has been replaced by a society battling high rates of obesity.

It helps that the capital is also enjoying something of a renaissance. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has overseen a campaign of urban renewal, installing 13,000 security cameras, increasing the police force to 75,000, providing free bicycles, Wi-Fi on the metro and closing the grand boulevard of Paseo de la Reforma to traffic on Sundays.

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Mr. Muminovic feels safe enough to ride his bicycle to his office, five kilometres from his home. I jogged in Chapultepec Park, feasted on tacos and cerveza at a table for one on an outdoor patio and hailed street taxis – which used to be considered dangerous and a prime target for kidnapping rings, but thanks to an increased police presence are now relatively safe.

On Sunday in the historic Zocalo, the massive square where the Cathedral sits side by side the Aztec's Templo Mayor, families were out by the hundreds, shopping for bargains and taking in the street performers on Calle Madero, a pedestrian thoroughfare that runs all the way from the square to the soaring Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper. Justin Bieber will stop by for a free concert June 11.

With its lively cultural scene, gastronomic inventiveness and steady economic growth, la ciudad marches ever forward. Just like the country itself.

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