Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here
Ruben Navarrette says the Mexican drug war is sapping the will of the nation to continue fighting.
PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico (CNN) -- A lot of Americans are wondering: Is it safe to travel to Mexico? It depends where you go, and what your intentions are once you get there.
Folks in this charming coastal resort recall what happened a few years ago when an unsavory element hit town. Destruction of private property. Drunken acts of lawlessness. One gang of hooligans, according to a taxi driver, actually went so far as to toss a mattress out the window of a 12-story hotel and onto the beach below.
The culprits weren't narcotics traffickers. They were what Mexicans refer to as "Los Spring Breakers."
Do you know where your children are? They could be letting off steam south of the border creating an international incident or two.
For other Americans, even an exchange rate of 15 pesos per dollar can't entice them across the border. That includes the woman from Virginia who asked what advice I'd give college students planning to go to Cancun for spring break.
I told her that, since the violence is centered in the border cities of Juarez and Tijuana, and the state of Sinaloa, they should go. In fact, I told her, I was planning a family vacation to Puerto Vallarta. Later, she sent a note saying she and her friends decided to go elsewhere. "Better safe than sorry," she said.
Her loss. With its white sand and sapphire waters, Cancun is beautiful. But she isn't the only one playing it safe.
Merchants in Puerto Vallarta -- once home to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor -- usually get a surge in business in March. This year, the crowds are light and, according to a security guard, many American 20-somethings who are here are chaperoned by their parents, which translates into less binge drinking and fewer pesos spent on booze. In fact, one merchant insisted there really hasn't been a spring break-inspired boost in business this year. And she doesn't expect one, either. She was already trying to be optimistic about next year.
Given that 8,000 people have already died in the war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels, and no end in sight, optimism is hard to come by in Mexico. Public opinion polls by Mexican newspapers reveal a paradox: A majority of Mexicans support the government's crackdown on the drug cartels but also think it won't ultimately succeed. Even the support appears shaky, as the death toll mounts and the killings become more brutal.
According to a recent article in USA Today, many Mexicans are growing weary of the drug violence and looking for a way out of their predicament. They fault Mexican President Felipe Calderon for -- in a metaphor that has become popular down here -- stirring the hornet's nest.
Some Mexicans are actually growing nostalgic for the corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party known as the PRI. The thinking goes: While the PRI plundered the country and rigged elections for 71 years, at least it didn't antagonize the drug lords.
Just three years ago, it looked like the PRI was on life-support. Now, because of the drug war, polls show the PRI poised to win a large chunk of seats in Congress in this summer's midterm elections. In fact, polls say, the PRI could regain the presidency in 2012. And the future of Calderon's National Action Party is suddenly in doubt.
Mexico is a mess. The Mexican people are so hungry for peace and quiet that they might turn back the clock and give oppression and corruption another chance. If so, they don't deserve democracy. Whether or not the Mexicans realize it, in their war against drug lords, they're fighting terrorists who are willing to tear Mexico limb from limb to stay in business.
The Mexicans who support the PRI remind me of those Americans who, in their pre-9/11 state of mind, hope President Obama will reconsider his plan to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. They don't want to suffer any more casualties, and that's admirable. But they also seem to think that, if we retreat to within our borders, the terrorists will stop hatching plans to kill more Americans.
It's human nature, I suppose. Denial is a convenient coping device. But that brand of thinking is not admirable. It's insane. And, it turns out, you find flashes of insanity on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Spring break is almost over. But Mexico's long march to modernity and the kind of country it wants to be has just started.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.