Mexico waging PR campaign to improve its violent image


Mexican President Felipe Calderon is waging a public relations campaign to improve his country’s image in the eyes of tourists and foreign investors as an increasingly violent drug war threatens to strangle its economy.

“We are hiring the best agencies in the world to promote Mexico’s image,” Calderon said in a speech this week.

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The public relations campaign comes amid an alarming uptick in violence. Last week, 160 people died in drug-related killings, prompting Calderon to give a televised state-of-the-union-like address in which he reaffirmed his commitment to rooting out the country’s cartels.

“It’s a battle that, with all Mexicans united, we will win,” he said.

Measured in human lives, the cost of Mexico’s drug war is extraordinary. By some estimates, more than 22,700 people have died in the war since Calderon launched his offensive against the cartels in 2006. And the war is proving costly to Mexico’s economy as well, as cities like tourist-friendly Cancun have become the scenes of grisly, cartel-related crimes. Just this week, 14 people were killed in a shootout in the small tourist town of Taxco.

But Calderon said he wants the world to know that his government is working hard to make the country safe for foreign investment and tourists.

“Yes, we will explain the problems we have, but also how we are facing them. Above all, we want to show what our country has to offer, which is a lot,” the president said.

Charles Mardiks, a partner at MMG Mardiks, a public relations firm in New York City that specializes in tourism, said Calderon is right to be honest about the situation on the ground.

“You can’t just say, ‘Everything is fine in Mexico.’ You have to say what the problems are and assure people that you’re addressing them,” Mardiks told AOL News. “The reality is, [the violence] is there. You can’t just sweep it under the rug.”

Mardiks, who does not work on Mexican tourism, said the country should emphasize that the violence is not threatening most tourist destinations.

“People a lot of times don’t understand the geography,” he said. “Mexico is a huge country, and a lot of these killings are isolated in border towns.”

Still, kidnappings and beheadings have become a regular fixture in the country’s newspapers, and the violence is not easily ignored.

Felix Fuentes, a columnist at the Mexican newspaper El Universal, found it hard to take Calderon’s public relations blitz seriously. “So this [public relations] campaign is going to make the climate of insecurity, the 24,000 executed and the 60 million living in poverty just disappear?” he asked in his column today.

Edgardo Buscaglia, a drug expert at ITAM University in Mexico City, said convincing people that the country is safe will be a hard sell amid such wanton acts of violence.

“The president is convinced that foreign investment is dropping off because of the security situation,” Buscaglia told Reuters. But, he said, “businessmen are still seeing people decapitated every day,” something that “can’t be solved by an advertising campaign.”