Monday, June 30, 2008

Candidates, C'mon Down!!

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have visits to Mexico scheduled, McCain's later this week, Obama's in August. El Universal rolled out the red carpet for the two men in an editorial titled, "Welcome McCain; Welcome Obama," in which the authors made the following point: 
McCain's visit, although it is for his own reasons, signals the growing importance of Mexico for the United States, and not as a foreign policy motive: the closeness and interdependence make each country part of the domestic politics of the other, a fact which we ignore at our own risk.
Although many Americans may find the above sentiment galling, it's hard to refute. That's not to suggest that our relationship with Mexico is more important than that with Britain, but Mexico's impact on American electoral politics is certainly more direct, and for better or worse, it's only going to get stronger. The pool balls theory of international relations doesn't work as well with the United States and Mexico, because they occupy much of the same space. I wonder how long before eminent academics start publishing fear-mongering books about the Mexico influence. Oh, wait.

The Enemy at Home

A passage from a new book that illustrates why keeping up with the movements of the Mexican cartels is all-but-impossible:
After the violent confrontations of Boca del Rio, Veracruz, the state’s attorney general, Emeterio López said that there was no need to blow things out of proportion, and that the killings were related to those a few days earlier during the clandestine horse races in Vallarín. It’s the truth, but only a half truth that doesn’t explain the entirety of the situation: the events from Boca del Rio are linked to the confrontations in Vallarín, and that bloodbath is related in turn to one that has been ongoing in Tabasco for several months. The Tabasco stuff is the result of an internal conflict between strong political forces and their broad ramifications in Michoacán. There, the war has had very violent manifestations, but it has also generated blows [against the cartels] that must be taken into account: the seizure of 20 tons of ephedrine on December 5th, 2006 and, as a consequence, the finding of $205 million in Lomas del Bosque in Mexico City. The confrontations between and against the cartels in Michoacán and those seizures can’t be separated from what is going on Guerrero. We could continue with the ramifications that come and go from the Pacific and the Gulf to Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, passing through, of course, Guadalajara and the Federal District [Mexico City], Sonora and Chiapas: all of the Mexican Republic.
As you can see, a lot of moving parts. So many, in fact, and moving in so many directions at so many different speeds, that writing a timely, broadly illuminating book around a concrete drug war-related thesis sometimes seems like a Herculean task. The authors excerpted here, Jorge Fernández Menéndez and Ana María Salazar Slack, appear after 100 pages to have accomplished just that with El Enemigo en Casa.

Others Weigh In

Juan Francisco Escobedo had a piece in Saturday's El Universal that, like my own that I linked to two posts ago, discussed Mexico's search for a modern presidency. He sees the drift in the role of the executive as a problem in need of a legal reform, so as to award the president "legal organizational, administrative, and budgetary bases so that he can offer an effective performance, while still fulfilling the present demands and those that are added in the future..."

Will Chávez Let Him Play?

Jackson Diehl's column in today's Post profiles Leopoldo López, a would-be candidate for mayor of Caracas and an opponent of Hugo Chávez. López, more popular locally and nationally than Chávez, has been barred from November's election on a spurious technicality, just as most of the government's more formidable opponents have been blocked from state and local contests across the nation.

The immediate future of the Venezuelan opposition lies in finding moderate young reformers like López, who can batter Chávez for his mis-management and international profligacy, offer a more sustainable anti-poverty plan, and avoid the taint of the corrupt-to-the-core elites who dominated before Chávez arrived in Caracas. And as Diehl points out, it's precisely because people like López can make electoral headway that he's not allowing them to run. Chávez has backed off some of his more extreme positions lately, but letting his opponents run in November is a much more dangerous proposition than denouncing the FARC.

El Señor Presidente

Here I am talking about the Mexican presidency.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Post

David Broder plugs what sounds like interesting little book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, by Wesleyan University's Elvin Lim. The author bases his thesis on scores of interviews with White House insiders and a careful reading of presidential texts from George Washington to George W. Bush. This may be evidence of the enduring utility of one specific buzzword rather than a dumber presidency, but it's striking in any event:
Whereas all of the presidents through Woodrow Wilson appealed to 'common sense' just 11 times in their recorded papers, presidents since Wilson have done so more than 1,600 times.
Also, David Ignatius uses an evocative phrase that should appear in opinion pieces more often:
The 2006 congressional attack on Dubai Ports World, and its bid to manage some American ports, was sheer poppycock.

Pacquiao Wins

Manny Pacquiao's debut at 135 pounds was sensational. He dominated David Diaz from the opening bell until the ninth-round knockout, which came on a short left cross that called to mind Joe Louis. Pacquiao boxed better than he ever has before, and threw a greater variety of punches than I've ever seen from him. It was the most crushing defeat of a champ since...Lacy-Calzaghe? Maybe Mayweather-Gatti? USSR-USA in Lake Placid?

Among those calling the action for TV Azteca was the great Julio César Chávez, who was a bit cantankerous, to say the least. Among the gems: David Diaz is the worst lightweight champ in history, Las Vegas is a bunch of thieves, and referee Joe Cortez is racist against Mexicans.  

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Good Journalism

Reaction to the week's Supreme Court decisions from Slate's quartet of experts here. Slate's annual Supreme breakfast table always makes me a feel a lot smarter coming out than going in, and that's probably about as high a compliment as you can pay any piece of journalism. The always entertaining Gabfest has some good commentary on the cases as well. 

I found myself agreeing with Eugene Robinson's take on the DC gun decision probably more than any other: 
The big problem, for me, is the clarity of the Second Amendment's guarantee of the "right of the people to keep and bear arms." The traditional argument in favor of gun control has been that this is a collective right, accorded to state militias. This has always struck me as a real stretch, if not a total dodge.

I've never been able to understand why the Founders would stick a collective right into the middle of the greatest charter of individual rights and freedoms ever written -- and give it such pride of place -- the No. 2 position, right behind such bedrock freedoms as speech and religion. Even Barack Obama, a longtime advocate of gun control -- but also a one-time professor of constitutional law -- has said he believes the amendment confers an individual right to gun ownership.

And even if the Second Amendment was meant to refer to state militias, where did the Founders intend for the militias' weapons to be stored? In the homes of the volunteers is my guess.

More broadly, I've always had trouble believing that a bunch of radicals who had just overthrown their British oppressors would tolerate any arrangement in which government had a monopoly on the instruments of deadly force. I don't mean to sound like some kind of backwoods survivalist, but I think the revolutionaries who founded this nation believed in guns.

Did they believe in assault weapons? Of course not. Would they be appalled that drug gangs are often better armed than the police? Of course they would, and surely they'd want to do something about it.

I believe the Constitution is a living document that has to be seen in light of the times. I believe the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, was right to infer an implicit right to privacy, even though no such thing is spelled out. I think the idea that the Founders' "original intent" should govern every interpretation of the Constitution is loony -- as if men who wrote with quill pens could somehow devise a blueprint for regulating the Internet.

But I also believe that if the Constitution says yes, you can't just blithely pretend it says no. Yesterday's decision appears to leave room for laws that place some restrictions on gun ownership but still observe the Second Amendment's guarantee. If not, then the way to fix the Constitution is to amend it -- not ignore it.

The Two Faces of La Jornada

La Jornada, Mexico's foremost leftist newspaper, is a bit like a bizarro Wall Street Journal: it runs thought-provoking, insightful news pieces on a daily basis, but its opinion page borders on insanity. Thursday's paper had a great example of the two faces of La Jornada. On the front page, there was an objective rundown of different schools of though on the oil reform, from the anti-privatization zealots to the pragmatists more willing to consider foreign involvement in the oil industry. 

The same day, Ángel Guerra Cabrera published a piece titled Terrorism a la Carte (it has a double meaning in Spanish that doesn't work in English) that is hard to believe. In addition to comparing the United States and its Latin American allies to the Nazis, Guerra writes:
The principal objective of the sensational findings in the letter in the protected computers of Raul Reyes has been to demonize Hugo Chávez and Rafeal Correa, but also the criminalization of the popular movement and its leaders and [leaders] of contrary thought from Rio Bravo to Patagonia, arguing mendaciously their complicity with the FARC...
There are plenty of reasonable concerns people in Latin America can (and should) have about the role of the US in the region. Likewise, it's perfectly legit to argue that only a coalition of leftist governments will solve Latin Americas ills. But Guerra's piece, having suffered through a bitter divorce with reality, is something different entirely. The Reyes letters, which showed that Chávez pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to the FARC, were authenticated by Interpol experts. Chávez, though to his credit he has since denounced the FARC, has offered nothing resembling an acceptable explanation. Denying this plain truth, not to mention comparing the US to Nazi Germany, discredits the author and his ideology.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hysterical Hyperbolic Headlines

This came into my inbox yesterday from The Hispanic News, whose email list somehow has me on it.
Today's Headline at Hispanic News and Pope Pius XII was silent as six million (6,000,000) Jews were rounded up. Today it is Hispanics
I'm not sure whether the syntax or the comparison is more striking. Both deserve to made fun of.

Mérida Moves Forward

The Mérida Initiative was approved today by the US Senate. In the near future, some $400 million will start flowing toward Mexico. And what about the conditions imposed on the Mexicans that had everybody so up in arms a couple of weeks ago? Not sure. The article in El Universal is short on details, but the headline is "Mexico Accepts the Terms of the Mérida Initiative," and the article is chock full of defensive quotes from Secretary of the Interior Juan Camilo Mouriño. This leads me to wonder if a groundswell of nationalistic opposition to the Initiative is in the offing.

Conservative Eyes Opening

Charles Krauthammer follows up on a theme spelled out by David Brooks last week: Barack Obama is a normal politician, who makes the unseemly compromises that politicians often do, much the way a domesticated cat still kills birds. I can't decide if these columns represent genuine surprise (or maybe the confirmation of skepticism, at least in Krauthammer's case), or if it's part of a broader conservative critique of Obama. If it's the latter, I don't think a strategy of "Obama is not that special" has any legs. Swing voters now at stake won't be surprised that Obama is, in fact, a politician, and going after Obama in such a way opens McCain up to the same charge. Given that the country is leaning toward the Democrats, the sheen of political uniqueness is much more important for McCain.

Weekend Boxing

The always entertaining Manny Pacquiao faces off against David Diaz tomorrow for a 135-pound title. Should he win, he has loads of possible opponents (Márquez, Guzmán, Soto, Valero, Campbell, Juan Diaz, Hatton, De la Hoya, Cotto), many of whom would make great fights. If Diaz wins, the chances of the Filipino Tyson moving up in weight are much slimmer, and the luster is taken off the 135- and 130-pound matchups he has available. Fortunately, Pacquiao should win. Diaz is a rugged fighter and a bigger man, but anyone taken to the brink by a very faded Erik Morales is going to have more than he can handle in Pacquiao.

On the undercard, I like Soto over Lorenzo, Fields over Barrett, and Luevano over Santiago. Sorry for choosing all the favorites, but nothing smells like upset to me.

[Gancho Boxing Prognostication Inc. is 3-1 on the year]

Another Day, Another Death

Igor Labastida, the head of investigations into corruption in the Federal Preventative Police, was the latest high-level officer to be killed. He was eating in a Mexico City cafe when a hitman opened fire with an Uzi, killing both Labastida and one of the three bodyguards eating with him.

An odd wrinkle: shortly thereafter, another man came in and began filming the bodies. The hitman and the cameraman evidently waited rather patiently, leaving just before the police arrived.

Another odd wrinkle: Labastida was one of the two men accused of trying to extort Carlos Salinas' brother Enrique, who was found murdered in his car in 2004.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

More on the Euro

Yesterday, just after a blown transformer killed my power, Germany and Turkey began trading goals, with the former picking up the game-winner in 90th minute to reserve their spot in Sunday's final. 

Today, Spain dominated Russia--somewhat lazily in the first half, more actively in the second, but it was domination throughout. Even without David Villa for most of the game, the Spanish managed three beautiful goals, and could have notched another pair pretty easily. Unless my memory fails, Iker Casillas wasn't tested until the 88th minute. The Russians had looked really impressive in their previous two games--wins against Sweden and Holland--but the Spanish had them on their heels from the opening whistle. 

Amusing moment: in the midst of a torrential downpour, the Spanish side of the stadium erupted with a rendition of Cielito Lindo (Pretty Little Sky) after the third goal. 

New's Divine

The fallout from the botched bar bust that resulted in 12 people being crushed continues. Video evidence surfaced showing the police blocking the doorways of New's Divine, and witnesses came forward with accounts of officers throwing punches at the partying youngsters.

The fingers are pointing in Mexico City. So far, the commander in charge of the operation, Guillermo Zayas, is out, and is accused of negligent homicide. The area delegate to the city legislature has also resigned. Marcelo Ebrard, the city's mayor, has offered his support for the chief of the local police, Joel Ortega. If I understand correctly, either the president or the mayor can remove chief of Mexico City police from office, so unless Calderón pulls the trigger or Ebrard changes his mind, Ortega isn't going anywhere. The CNDH (the National Human Rights Commission) has requested that Ortega be forced out. Ironically, Ebrard had a similar situation when he was the local chief of police (it's a political rather than a police position in Mexico City); after the public lynchings of two officers, Vicente Fox ousted Ebrard in 2004. Witnesses have said that the local police (rather than other federal bodies that were present) were particularly abusive, so it'll be interesting to see if Ortega will remain.

Also, Mexico City has a new law in which people harmed in a police action can receive damage payments. This is the first time the law, which came on the books in April, will be applied.

Fleeing Iraq

Nicholas Kristof demonstrates in today's column that the United States' policy toward Iraqi refugees is an utter failure.
We broke Iraq, and we have a moral responsibility to those whose lives have been shattered by our actions. Helping them is also in our national interest, for we’ll regret our myopia if we allow young Iraqi refugees to grow up uneducated and unemployable, festering in their societies.
Kristof writes about a family languishing in Amman, Jordan, where up to 8 percent of the population is Iraqi exiles. The exile community, two million strong, is spread around the Middle East; in 2007, the United States accepted just 1,600 Iraqi aliens. We are on the verge of creating, in the author's words, the "new Palestinians, the 21st-century Arab diaspora that threatens the region’s stability," though in this case the group in question has a much more direct grievance against the United States. Unless there is a shift toward more aggressively relocating Iraqi exiles in stable situations, our abandonment of this group to whom we owe so much more is going to serve as a fitting footnote to W's Iraq adventure: incompetence from beginning to end.

The most consistent work on this subject comes from George Packer; examples are here, here, here, and here.

Bad News

According to the UN, Mexico has the sixth highest level of organized crime in the world, after a quintet of near-failed states: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Pakistan. Up to 60 percent of Mexican cities' mayoral offices are linked to drug cartels. Ouch.


Felipe Calderón says that 65 percent of Mexico's drug violence is concentrated in two states: Chihuahua and Sinaloa. Whatever the exact percentage, there's no question that two states are the country's most violent right now.

Two points leap to mind: why doesn't Calderón send a larger troop deployment to the two states? If drug violence is so concentrated, shouldn't be easier to combat? I'm not suggesting that he's wrong for not sending more troops, but honestly asking out of curiosity. If the number of soldiers in each state was tripled, the narcos would probably hot-tail it to another place, or at least lay low for a while. Violence would almost certainly go down, though it would go up elsewhere. Does the government perhaps think that the different cartel groups need to fight it out now and get it over with?

Also, the rising overall level of violence in Mexico masks the regional swings. A year ago, Monterrey was one of the most violent cities in the country, after years of enjoying the reputation as Mexico's safest metropolis. Two years ago, Nuevo Laredo was Mexico's Baghdad. Now, both are much quieter.

Spy Games

Mexico's intelligence agency, Cisen, was recently caught monitoring opposition congressmen via a congressional research database. No one has been fired, and the hubbub quickly died down. The PRI's lame response has been to suggest a prohibition on Cisen contracting outside companies (it was a private investigating group that carried out the spying on behalf of Cisen). This is a silly procedural fix to a much broader problem. The issue isn't that Cisen hires private contractors, it's that it directs its spying efforts towards congressmen. Whether or not private investigators or Cisen agents carry out said spying is not quite irrelevant, but it's certainly not the heart of the matter.

Incidentally, I recently finished The Urgent Democratic Security, by Abelardo Rodríguez. He wrote the book before news about Cisen's in-house spying came to light, but the episode fits perfectly into one of his major criticisms of the Mexican security apparatus: for most of the 20th century, Mexican governments equated national security with the preservation of the authoritarian regime. As such, the greatest security threats were opposition politicians and subversive groups. In a democratic society, that cannot be the case, because of course a loyal opposition is an essential part of the process. In 21st-century Mexico, subversive groups still pose a threat, but certainly less of one than drug traffickers and international terrorists. Mexico's political elites may have adjusted to the post-PRI era, but they haven't brought the security agencies with them. Or maybe the pols haven't adjusted at all; we don't really know, because the Cisen case, strangely, has not been investigated thoroughly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Following the January 2007 extradition of Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas, now ex-Tijuana kingpin Benjamín Arellano Félix will find himself inside an American prison. Arellano Félix, whose extradition is to be carried out in the next few hours, will face charges of money laundering and (duh) drug trafficking.

Nap Is Out!

The Mexican government removed mining union boss Napoleon Gómez Urrutia from his post yesterday, which provoked a series of work stoppages. The case against NapGo bossing the miners is pretty open and shut: he stands accused of embezzling millions of dollars, and he hasn't set foot in Mexico for years as a result. It's too bad Labor Secretary Javier Lozano can't follow this up with about six or eight more removals, starting with the boss of the teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, but it's a start.

In other labor news, one of the nation's foremost experts on the subject, Alfonso Bouzas Ortiz of UNAM, recently called for a reform that places emphasis on creating democratic unions.

The Euro

gianluigi buffon
Originally uploaded by galeria_futbolera
The semifinals of the world's second biggest tourney begin in a few minutes, and as was the case in the 2006 World Cup, the final four are all European. I guess that’s not so surprising here, though. I have no great insights about the tourney, other than to say that I was surprised by how much Gianluigi Buffon resembled the bad guy from Batman Forever (not Liam Neeson, but the guy in the DA’s office who had the chemical-spewing mask).

The New York Times has an article about the divided loyalties of the Germans and Turks, 2.7 million of whom live in Germany. This sounds nothing like the anger and resentment you would see were Mexico and the United States to face off in the semifinals of a major tourney (no, the Concacaf Gold Cup absolutely doesn’t count). One can only hope that in the three decades or so necessary for both teams to improve enough to land a spot in the World Cup semis, the sources of said resentment will dissipate.

I win a six-pack if Spain takes the title, so I like them. Torres and Villa match each others’ goals in the semi against Russia, and again in Sunday’s final against Germany: 2-0, 2-1.

Reyes de los Robots

Mexicans dominate tequila, Mesoamerican soccer, and now robotics. Two smart guys, Hugo Martínez Carrada and Luis Reyna Esquivel, put together a creature called Pepe el Toro, and took home their second title in the micro-sumo category of the RoboGames, defeating robots from around the world along the way. For Spanish-speakers, check out the second comment at the bottom of the article. Keep it classy, Mexican robot geeks!!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fareed on Barack

I don't usually like commentators writing the speech that they think politicians should give*, but I'll make an exception for Fareed Zakaria, whose piece on PostGlobal channels Obama addressing Iraq. Zakaria's speech would be a way for Obama to back off his withdraw-at-once position, and to acknowledge the changes the last year or so has brought. I don't really care about Obama backing out of public financing, or going negative in his campaign. All that's part of electoral politics, and the ugly reality is that anyone who doesn't jump all over every advantage in a campaign probably won't be president. However, on a vital issue of policy like Iraq, if Obama is unwilling to reexamine his past position, you have to wonder what his promises to be a different sort of politician actually amount to. That doesn't mean Obama needs to abandon his call for a withdrawal, but he does need to explain his position within the changing context.

*Unless, of course, they're satirical. For instance, a McCain speech on age, before an MTV audience: "Good afternoon. It's great to be here. I know a lot of you are concerned about electing a man who could reach 80 years before leaving the White House. You can all go to hell. I was kicking ass while your parents were still in diapers. Buncha punks. God bless America!"

Keeping the Prez Chained

According to Excelsior, Mexicans aren't too thrilled about the new freedoms granted the president last week. As I wrote last week, now the president only has to submit a written version of the interminable informe, and he (or she) no longer must request permission from the senate to leave the country. I think these are good changes, but Mexicans as a whole respectfully disagree. Three quarters say the informe should be read aloud, and 60 percent believe that the president should only leave the country with senatorial permission.

The Spaniards Weigh In

One of Carlos Alberto Montaner's best columns in a while, a skeptical examination of what Obama's election will and won't mean to foreign election-watchers.
[Foreigners] prefer Obama. Why? For the wrong reasons: because the image of the United States that prevails worldwide is very negative.

Without considering the shadings, without stopping to compare, they see the country as an imperial power manipulated by the big economic corporations, a power that militarily abuses the weakest, consumes a substantial portion of the riches of the planet, pollutes without remorse, alienates the poor within its borders -- to the extreme of denying them medical care -- and generates grave international financial turbulence. In other words, exactly the image projected by Michael Moore in his biased documentaries and by much of the American academic establishment in its college classrooms and publications.

To the world, this is what Obama is going to change. There is a directly proportional relationship between the international degree of emotional support for Obama and the bad perception of the United States. The worse the image of the country, the more confident people are that the young African-American senator will eliminate the reprehensible conduct attributed to the United States.

When Obama says he will change the country (even though he has not defined what he's going to change and how), he is perceived beyond the borders as a revolutionary who will finally put an end to the abuses of the CIA and the International Monetary Fund, withdraw the troops stationed abroad, bring the multinationals to task, protect the environment no matter what the cost, and govern to the benefit of the poor.


Contrary to Kennedy's rhetorical premise, what's important, what's revolutionary is not what Obama can do for his country but what his country has done for Obama in a relatively brief period. That's what is admirable.

What Montaner leaves out, however, is that the worst excesses of the Bush Administration, the brand new reasons to resent the US that were W's gift to the world, will almost certainly be reversed under Obama. After eight years of Obama, there will almost certainly be no prison in Guantánamo, no extralegal domestic spying program, and, one way or another, no war in Iraq. It also seems a fair bet that new wars would be much less likely with Obama. Not so with John McCain.

Praying for Some New Real Estate

La Jornada takes a look at last year's real estate purchases from various religious groups in Mexico. The result: the Jehovah's Witnesses are the tiger denomination, the Mexican religious equivalent to Singapore. Venus Williams' co-religionists are responsible for a third of all religious real estate buys, or 290 of 874 nationwide. The Catholics, on the other hand, are closer to France, with barely 20 percent of the new purchases. The certified quack squad known as Pare de Sufrir (Stop Suffering) bought four new places. Evidently, Pare de Sufrir's official name is Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios Oración Fuerte al Espíritu Santo. Translating such nonsense is kind of tricky, but I guess it would be the Church of the Universal Kingdom of God Strong Prayer to the Holy Spirit. Good stuff.

Slim Talks Shop on Labor

When Carlos Slim speak, people pay attention, if for no other reason than for the possibility that $100 bills or little gold nuggets will fly from his mouth where most of us eject little globules of spit. Here he tells us that the world is ready to globalize the labor market. If worldwide unions are also a part of an international labor market, maybe that capitalist pig is on to something.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Historical Clichés

In Newsweek, Evan Thomas has a lengthy dismissal of the tendency --popular with John McCain, George W. Bush, and others-- to see foreign policy through a Churchill-Chamberlain prism. Among the more salient passages:
But the only real Hitler was Hitler. Saddam and Milosevic were murderers, but at most local menaces. Hitler, on the other hand, meant to extend the Third Reich over almost all of Europe, from the Urals to the Pyrenees, and he very nearly succeeded.


The Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin was just as evil, in his own way, as Hitler, and just as megalomaniacal. He was willing to murder millions and he preached the inevitability of the global triumph of communism. But he was probably not preparing to invade Western Europe; indeed, in the late 1940s the Soviets were tearing up train tracks so that the West could not invade Russia.
Damn straight. As Thomas illustrates elsewhere in the piece, leaping to a 1939 worldview, aside from being intellectually suspect, often leads us to act against our interests. Regardless of Hitler's singularity, there will probably never be a situation truly comparable to the run-up to World War II, if for no other reason than simply because the existence of nukes changes the calculus entirely. It'd be nice if the politicians would retire that bit of nonsense. Not likely, though.

Reviving el Peje

Jacobo Zabludovski, Mexico's Tom Brokaw, attributes the persistent relevance of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to his political adversaries periodically handing him issues that double as bludgeons: in years past, the desafuero and the 2006 election controversy; more recently, the fine from the electoral authority and energy debate. Every time it seems like even his followers are getting sick of el Peje's antics, some new controversy pops up that lets him play the role he knows best: the self-righteous, victimized martyr.

I think there's some truth to that, but the fault clearly lies with López Obrador. Much of the ammo for his populist guns was just a natural byproduct of the democratic process. From the narrow election loss to the oil debate, it's not his enemies' actions that were controversial; it was López Obrador's behavior that turned each episode into a scandal.

Censorship, Illustrated

The local paper of record in Torreón, El Siglo, has taken to ignoring the most high-profile crimes. No one has explained the self-censorship (then again, who would if the Siglo is quiet?), but the paper has become noticeably less interested in any crime that sounds like it's related to drugs. They'll run articles about government actions --say, the arrival of a new military unit to the city-- but the crimes themselves have gone basically uncovered for several months. This has led to the odd scenario in which the only publications that discuss murders are two splashy tabloids that make the New York Post look like the Wall Street Journal. The tabloids, though they employ innovative journalistic techniques like a girl of the day, are neither perceived as reliable nor widely read. News travels more by rumor and third- or fourth-hand accounts, and none of us living here really know what is going on most of the time.

And now, if you'll direct your eyes to the visual aides Gancho has prepared, you'll see what I mean. Each of the tabloids photographed (both from this weekend) mentions a sensational killing, but in neither case does the crime appear anywhere in El Siglo, which dedicates its front page instead to rising interest rates and government disputes with informal merchants.

Not Solving

David Ignatius, quoting an ex-airline exec in yesterday's column:
The United States used to be good at solving problems. These days, we don't seem up to the job.
Ricardo Raphael, in his own words, today:
In Mexico, politics has turned into the art of solving without solving.
I imagine this has been a pretty constant lament for as long has one generation of mankind has been succeeded by the next, but the similarity is nonetheless striking.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Will on Crime

George Will attacks liberal frustration about the state of American incarceration in today's column. The piece is profoundly misleading, downplaying the role of racism in the American criminal justice system, while promoting skyrocketing rates of incarceration as the principal factor in the nationwide decline in violent crime.

Will bases his column on one study, from Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute, never addressing the reasons behind the concern over criminal justice in the US. He doesn't mention whether or not he thinks it is acceptable that America has the largest number of criminals the highest incarceration rate in the world. Will denies the role of racism in explaining the number of African-American prisoners, neglecting to address any one of the scores of studies that disagree with MacDonald's. Being the traditional type of conservative that he is, Will often accepts the status quo as a lesser evil than trying to engineer a better society. Here, however, he is almost celebrating one of the most shameful aspects of our nation, simply because he thinks liberals are wrong about it.

Ortiz vs. Calderón, Round 2

After President Calderón implored the central bank to lower interest rates a couple of weeks ago, Banxico chief Guillermo Ortiz earned plaudits for standing his ground. Now he's taking it up a notch: the central bank raised rates on Friday. No word yet from Calderón's camp, but the Bloomberg article includes quotes from a bunch of approving economists.

More on the Real-Life Version of Dave

Jorge Zepeda doesn't see the humor in a story I wrote about last week: Mexican politicians resorting to some innovative tactics to skate around the prohibition of using their personal image in advertising. Predictably, Zepeda senses a conspiracy, this one surrounding Spanish consultant Xavier Domínguez, advisor to many powerful pols, including Juan Rudolfo Sánchez. Zepeda suggests that Toluca's mayor isn't the only politician who uses body doubles, and wonders why President Calderón has gray hair one week, and then returns to his natural color the next. (Hair dye?)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cash Flow

An editorial in the Dallas Morning News examines efforts to stop drug cartels from smuggling cash from the American to the Mexican side of the border. Evidently, last year $1.6 billion in mostly cash assets were seized by federal authorities, with local Texas PD's confiscating another $125 million. The local guys have used the money to buy cruisers, rifles, and all sorts of other fun stuff. The editorial warns that for local police, 
[D]rug dollars can be just as addictive as drugs. They produce an artificial feeling of financial well being, and those who become dependent on drug money soon find themselves scrambling to get more. That's where the danger lies.

Concerns are growing that police departments are overenthusiastically enforcing forfeiture laws, using dubious pretexts to stop motorists and search their belongings. Large, though not necessarily illegal, amounts of cash are being seized without any criminal charges filed.
This is an often overlooked subject that could use a much deeper examination. Well freelance journalists, how 'bout it?


Yesterday, the capital city police tried to carry out an operation at a local bar where minors were suspected of consuming drugs and alcohol. When the patrons saw the police, there was a stampede toward the exits in which 12 people died, including two officers. Mexico City has a track record of police dying in very unusual and public circumstances, and this latest event will no doubt remind people of the lynching of two officers in 2004, when Marcelo Ebrard was head of the capital city PD.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Presidential Changes

A change in how Mexican presidents conduct business: the executives no longer have to ask for permission to leave the country, they simply need to inform the Senate unless they are going to be abroad for a long stretch. This should eliminate embarrassing moments of lame duck-ness, such as when a spiteful legislature denied Vicente Fox approval to go to a forum in Asia toward the end of his term.

This follows a recent in change in the informe (Mexico's state of the union address), which no longer has to be oral, merely a written statement. This is a clear upgrade. Putting to one side the plight of the poor presidents who had to stand speaking about endless governing minutiae for hours at a time, the relevance of the speech in recent years was based less on the speech itself than on the protests surrounding the event. Basically, the informe made the president a giant target in a battle of asymmetrical rhetorical warfare.

Gimme Your Cement

Hugo Chávez, not content to bathe in a week of good press from the foreign media, today nationalized 60 percent of the assets of Mexico cement giant Cemex.

Calderón has worked hard to repair relations with the Venezuelan leader, avoiding direct attacks throughout his presidency, and only once implicitly criticizing him. And what does he have to show for it? This. There was a line of thought in American opinion pages after Calderón's election that he could be Latin American to stand up to Chávez (rhetorically, at least). This was a silly idea, and one we should all be thankful that Calderón ignored. At the same time, the improved relationship hasn't bought him any favors.

Americans Are Racist, Israeli Edition

From Bernard Avishai, writing about Obama speaking at AIPAC:
Virtually all my Israeli friends, young and old, smart and smarter, have been willing to bet me that Americans are “not ready for a black president.”
I don't spend my days looking for such examples, but there certainly seem to be a lot of them out there. In the past couple of weeks, American commentators have written about this reaction in Europe, Egypt, now Israel, and I've certainly seen it a lot here in Mexico. In my experience, the questioners usually have a simplistic view of race in America, or they are just repeating something they heard, or are expressing some racism of their own. Whatever the cause, it's annoying, and I want it to stop, immediately. Do you hear me, 5.7 billion non-Americans? I want it to stop now!

Avishai points to an ulterior motive behind Israeli skepticism of the Illinois Senator:

In the back of their minds they fear that two generations of special pleading—about how Israel’s occupation should be rationalized as the Jews’ special need to (how does Prof. Yehezkel Dror put it?) “subordinate morality to survival”—may not quite work on Obama, much the way it did not work on Kissinger. Obama has heard Jabotinsky-like apologetics for victim exceptionalism from the Sharptons—indeed, from the Wrights—for two generations. It takes one to know one. The most frightening question is this: if democracy makes a black man a mainstream American, can it also make an Arab a mainstream Israeli?

Jacking Detainees, Part 2

Update on the Cubans hijacked in southern Mexico last week: 18 of them were found in Texas a couple of days ago, and all but one was released. Mexico is investigating the link between the people smugglers who removed the 33 from the hands of the authorities and drug traffickers. The Cubans evidently followed a route --to Texas via Veracruz and Reynosa-- popular for cocaine smugglers, though pretty much any path northward is popular with cocaine smugglers these days.

And the Mexican are also investigating connections with the Mexican mafia suggested last week by Cuban ambassador Manuel Aguilera de la Paz, a suggestion I ridiculed last when the story came out. Evidently, Cuban American smugglers operate in five states in Mexico, and have long been a menace. My apologies to the ambassador.

Spreading Crime like Cream Cheese

There's a fantastic story in this month's The Atlantic about the negative consequences of razing high-rise housing projects. As Hanna Rosin explains, the push to demolish project towers was once seen as a triumph of progressive urban management, but research has shown that it merely dispersed the crime that was concentrated in a small area, resulting in crime waves in previously tranquil areas. The overall impact on cities that tear down high-rise projects may be a rise in violent crime.

As with most urban dilemmas, the issue popped up in The Wire, in the first episode of season three. Bodie and Poot boiled the essence of Rosin's article down to a three-minute dialogue, though of course with more profanity and gratuitous comments about sexually transmitted diseases.

Obama Defense

I had the very same idea expressed in Joe Klein's weekly column maybe ten days ago driving home from work: would President Obama ever let Robert Gates stay at his post at the Pentagon, if only for a couple of years? Klein focuses on the political aspect of the idea--it would indicate Obama's seriousness about bipartisanship from the beginning. There could be another benefit: one perennial problem democratic countries have in reforming their institutions is that leadership changes every four years. If a Secretary of Defense arrives intent on changing our military budgetary priorities, the Air Force generals addicted to new fighter jets that we don't need only have to stall a couple of years and voila! the problem disappears. Other examples of hidebound thinking abound (automatic budgetary parity between the three branches, high-level promotions favoring very narrow fields of service). Giving Gates another couple of years would give our military a much better chance of reorienting itself for the 21st century.

Matt Yglesias' rejoinder is that Obama leaving Gates around would send the message that Democrats are not as serious about national security as Republicans, an outdated narrative that Obama's campaign seems intent on disproving this campaign. Yglesias could be right, but I think Obama can have his cake and eat it too; if, as president, he were to run an exemplary foreign policy with Gates at the Pentagon, that would reflect well on the Democrats as a whole, and Obama wouldn't carry an asterisk around with him for having appointed a Republican Secretary of Defense. In such a scenario, I think voters would be more rather than less ready to trust a Democrat with our foreign policy in 2016 and beyond.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


A clearer example of the confused logic that dominates the drug wars could not easily be found: a new UN report shows that drug cultivation plateaued in 2007, after a big jump in 2006. The official reaction:
''The cocaine industry is under stress,'' said John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. ``It can't produce at the same level.''
Wait a second; this report is supposedly good news precisely because the cocaine industry produced at the very same level. As with almost everything related to official drug policy, this is insanity. We have gotten so used to losing that even a tie is seen as a knockout. (Insert Kafka reference here.)

Obama Backpedals

From Fortune, via the Plank: So, Nafta isn't so bad after all:
The general campaign is on, independent voters are up for grabs, and Barack Obama is toning down his populist rhetoric - at least when it comes to free trade.

In an interview with Fortune to be featured in the magazine's upcoming issue, the presumptive Democratic nominee backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn't want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA.

"Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA "devastating" and "a big mistake," despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.

Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? "Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don't exempt myself," he answered.

I'm not sure I've ever found such a transparent political ploy reassuring.

Weekend Boxing

First, the shifting post-Mayweather climate: Dan Rafael's new pound-for-pound ranking has Joe Calzaghe in the top spot, and Manny Pacquiao second. Notably, there are only two Americans in the top ten: Kelly Pavlik and Bernard Hopkins. Joining them are four Mexicans, two Puerto Ricans, and the aforementioned Welshman and Filipino.

On to the weekend bouts: after going back and forth half a dozen times, I like Arthur Abraham and his reconstructed jaw to take Edison Miranda with less controversy than in their first fight. You do have to wonder, however, if Abraham's first fight in the States (and second outside of Germany), the lingering psychological effects of getting beat up by Miranda the first time (even if he did get the decision), and the added weight (this fight is at 168) will all have a negative impact. On the other hand, in the interim since their first fight, Miranda received a terrific, possibly career-curtailing whupping from Kelly Pavlik, though he looked a lot better against the limited David Banks in his last bout.

In the HBO headliner, after going back and forth not once, I'll take Andre Berto by a flashy knockout win over Miki Rodríguez in a welterweight title fight.

[Gancho is 1-1 on the year in boxing predictions]

Riding the Chávez Rollercoaster

John Lee Anderson spent some time with the Venezuelan leader, and has a characteristically thoughtful and entertaining piece in this week's New Yorker. Among my favorite passages:
Chávez, sitting at the stage desk, drew a diagram on a large white card, and, holding it up to the “Aló Presidente” cameras, told viewers that he’d been thinking about a new “windfall profits” tax on oil companies. He called out to Rafael Ramírez, the president of P.D.V.S.A.—a tall, blue-eyed man who resembles Tim Robbins—and he promptly stood up and began taking notes, nodding furiously. This was not a rehearsed moment; to an unusual degree, “Aló Presidente” is Chávez’s government in action, and it is a government that Chávez does not so much administer as perform live.

Playing What If

After a brief hiatus devoted to knocking off Carlos Salinas’ The Lost Decade, I’m back reading The Urgent Democratic Security, by Abelardo Rodríguez. I just finished a portion about the ‘80s, and I was struck by one of the era’s greatest “what if’s?”, as I always am. What if Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas hadn’t accepted his fraudulent loss in 1988? If Cárdenas had been allowed to take over, the country would be far different today. No Salinas, no Nafta, less integration with the world economy, and, perhaps, no end to revolutionary nationalism. More likely, Cárdenas’ followers would have been repressed, and there would have been blood in the streets. In such a scenario, what would have happened to the PRI’s already degraded image? Would it have been forced from office even sooner? Would Salinas have had to govern from a defensive posture for six years? The ripples in time from that one decision are infinite.

Rodríguez also implies another what if: he points to the ‘80s as the decade that drug traffickers firmly established a toehold in Mexico, while the national security strategy, such as it was, focused almost exclusively on subversive threats to the ruling party. Even after Miguel De la Madrid declared drug trafficking the greatest threat to the nation following the execution of DEA agent Enrique Camarena, the security apparatus was slow to catch up. What if the government had kept its eye on the narco-trafficking ball in the early ‘80s? Would Rafael Caro Quintero or Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo have been able to establish Mexico as the smuggling hub of the western hemisphere? Would their commercial heirs be chopping off heads and killing police by the score today?


Andrés Manuel López Obrador has a habit of referring to himself as the "legitimate president" of Mexico. Of course, neither word applies to the former mayor of Mexico City, but López Obrador nonetheless has persisted in applying the term to himself for the past two years. With the backing of two leftist parties, he recently issued a set of TV spots in which he referred to himself using that favorite nickname. This, evidently, crossed the line. Copife, the electoral authority with perhaps the coolest acronym on the planet, imposed a fine of a little more than $80,000 on the two parties behind the ads: the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Workers' Party. López Obrador's priceless response: the decision "leaves the country without a president."

Freezing Prices

Yesterday, producers of 150 different food staples agreed to maintain prices at their present level for the remainder of 2008 as a response to skyrocketing food prices. According to Bloomberg, the market worries that the government is using the price freeze to counter inflation rather than raising interest rates, which have been at 7.5 percent. The peso, which had reached a five-year apex earlier in the day, gave back some of its gains due to the unfavorable reaction.

Now, having read it once more, I have to ask: is this most boring post ever? Not merely for Gancho, but in the history of blogs, telegrams, poems, sonnets, diaries, and the like, have there ever been 74 words more likely to induce unconsciousness than those written above?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ali-Frazier, Southern Cone Edition

The world's top team presently faces off against the world's top team historically in Belo Horizonte in a game that matters. What could be better?

Argentina has had a couple of mediocre games lately, and this is a great chance for them to say that ties with the US and Ecuador didn't mean anything. The Argentines are also aware that they've lost three straight by three goals apiece to their neighbors. Brazil is itself coming off a pair of horrible results, 2-0 losses to lowly Venezuela and Paraguay, the latter in a World Cup qualifier. They won't want to drop a meaningful game at home, much less against their biggest rival. Both teams should turn it around today. We expect nothing less than 90 minutes of world-class play.

Creel Autopsies

A pair of columns from a pair of Jorges (Zepeda and Chabat) deliver a devastating postmortem of Santiago Creel's days as a political force.

My impression is that Creel is too good of a person to be a politician, but not a good enough person to make a difference in politics. He lacks the malice or the stomach that makes an Emilio Gamboa or a Manlio Fabio Beltrones professional politicians, full-time jerks. But ultimately, the part-time dignity that Creel shows isn't much better. On occasion, it can even be as or more damaging.
The list of explanations for the removal of Creel as the chief of the PAN senators is long. It goes from his bad management of the debates/monologues surrounding the energy reform to his supposed closeness with the PRD, passing by, of course, his desire to be a presidential candidate, his historical conflicts with President Calderón and the conflicts with the television broadcasters, even the exhibition of his personal life in the media...

Now he will have to swim without a life preserver. Like everyone. Like Calderón did in 2005 to win the PAN candidacy. Now we'll see what Santiago Creel is made of.

Kaplan Scares Me

Fred Kaplan's column in Slate this week is customarily unsettling and insightful. Short version: Afghanistan is screwed, and it'll take some 400,000 troops to unscrew it.


A heretofore unknown deputy, Cuauhtémoc Velasco Oliva, accused the Finance Secretariat of offering to pay for votes approving the energy reform. That would be a huge scandal, but Deputy Velasco does not, however, have any proof of the charges. The allegations have brought fierce denials from all quarters.

2006: Still Bugging People

Alberto Aziz Nassif picks at an old scab in yesterday’s column, thanks to a new book by José Antonio Crespo: The Weaknesses of the Mexican Electoral Authority. Aziz (and presumably Crespo) makes the case that the findings of the Federal Electoral Institute show that the true winner of the 2006 election is far from certain. The math, however, suggests otherwise: “While the difference was a little more than 233,000 votes, in the 150 districts analyzed there were more than 300,000 irregular votes proven.” So unless 80 percent of those votes were mistakenly cast for Calderón, or an equal number were meant for López Obrador but were not cast for the Tabascan, it wouldn’t make a difference. Given that neither man secured much more than a third of the vote total, such a scenario is all but impossible.

I hate to sound like a Republican defending the Florida tabulation, but to continue beating this horse is pointless. It’s impossible to know that López Obrador was defeated, but it’s equally impossible to prove that Rip Van Winkle was a work of fiction. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence from 2006 points to a narrow Calderón win. We have nothing, nothing, to suggest a 1988-style fraud, nor for that matter, a rushed, pseudo-cover up a la Florida in 2000.

Raul's Cheddah

The Swiss government will return to Mexico $74 million that had been in the account of Raul "I Don't Need No Stinkin' Accent Mark Over the U" Salinas. Raul “Mr. Ten Percent” Salinas is now living freely in Mexico, having recently been freed following 13 years in prison. According to the note linked above, Mexican investigators demonstrated that the money was diverted from public funds, so the next step was for the Swiss to send the money back to Mexico. So what’s next? Does this mean that Salinas is on his way back to the big house? Stay tuned.

For more about the sticky fingers of Raul “I Got More Long Nicknames than Dirty Bank Accounts” Salinas, read Bordering on Chaos, Opening Mexico, Ojos Vendados, or pretty much any book that talks about Mexico in the 1990s.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Nice Guy

It's like Gore Vidal has Tourette syndrome, only instead of being profane he's just extremely, tastelessly, ceaselessly rude. Here he is on the recently departed William Buckley:
How did you feel when you heard that Buckley died this year? I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.


Two Mexicans appear on Foreign Policy's list of the 100 foremost intellectuals in the world: historian Enrique Krauze and author Alma Guillermoprieto. The only other Latin Americans to appear were Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa and former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso. No word on whether wrestler Latin Lover got an honorable mention.

Reformed Judiciary

Mexico's judicial reform, which had passed in the congress months ago, comes into effect today. It includes oral trials and the presumption of innocence, and will hopefully lead to Mexican legal thrillers like A Time to Kill.

I wrote about it here.

Will Keeps It Up

George Will goes after John McCain's hyperbolic dismay following last week's Supreme Court decision:

The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Well.

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

Hard to argue with that.

The demographic loyalties this election are really mixed up. Liberal women, angry about Hillary, are going to vote red or stay home more than in the past. Evangelicals are going with Obama in droves. Hispanics shunned Obama in the primary, but according to polls, now appear ready to embrace him. And traditional conservatives like George Will will likely stay home. This is going to throw some states and play and take others out. A lot of bottom line stats based on previous elections --Obama needs X percentage of Hispanic votes, McCain must have Y percentage of evangelicals-- could wind up being disproved.

Bolivians March

Eduardo Gamarra, the country’s most prominent Bolivia specialist, questions the United States’ and Bolivia's conduct following an attack on our embassy in La Paz: why was our reaction so subdued, what was Morales’ role in the mayhem, and what exactly is our policy toward the increasingly unfriendly Bolivian government? I’ve written approvingly of the United States’ less confrontational attitude in Latin America over the past few years, but a less aggressive posture doesn’t mean accommodating unfriendly governments. Especially, those that want to burn down American embassies.

Salinas Writes Again! In Related News, Newspaper Sales Decline.

Carlos Salinas’ column in today’s El Universal does a remarkable job condensing the pettiness, faulty logic, and finger-pointing laid out over 500 pages in his book into several hundred words. Quite an accomplishment. More on The Lost Decade in a future post.

Oddly, despite voicing support for Felipe Calderón in recent weeks, he implicitly attacks the Mérida Initiative and the energy industry opening. This is more evidence that Zedillo and Fox’s (and soon Calderón's?) chief sins weren’t related to their alleged neoliberalism, but rather having the audacity to govern Salinas' country.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Marcelo's Referendum? No Thanks!

A new poll in Excelsior shows that a majority of Mexicans reject Marcelo Ebrard’s proposal for a referendum on energy reform. It seems odd to see citizens of a democratic country reject the idea of giving themselves a greater say in politics, but the Mexicans polled have this one right; with such a complicated subject, the idea is ridiculous. Sixty percent said such a consultation would have little or no validity. Oddly, 58 percent of Mexico City residents, where one would expect Mayor Ebrard to enjoy the most support, dismissed the proposal. Seventy percent of respondents said that the motive of the referendum is not to take the public into consideration but simply to block President Calderón’s energy reform at all costs.

And I Bet Martí Would Have Loved Ugly Betty

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa tells us that Che Guevara would have rejected the FARC. Aside from the specific silliness of the opinion, Correa's willingness to articulate it indicates that other like-minded leaders are following Hugo Chávez's lead in withdrawing their support for the FARC. Is one of the world's oldest conflicts coming to an end?


There's a great story on former 154-pound champ Kassim Ouma, the subject of a new documentary, in today's Washington Post. Ouma has long been one of boxing's most engaging personalities, and his story --he was a child soldier in Uganda-- is fascinating. The article's author, David Segal, includes some fantastic anecdotes. Among the gems:
He studies the menu and asks the waiter a couple questions he's probably never fielded. Like, "What is asparagus?" and "Can you bring me some boiled milk and sugar?"
The documentary is called "Kassim the Dream."

Tough Guys

Susan Faludi's piece in yesterday's New York Times expressed more artfully what I was trying to say here: the need for presidential candidates to show manliness is silly. I don't necessarily agree that Obama will be cast as the girly man of the race (all the campaign needs to do is get him into a pickup hoops game to disprove that), but regardless, any trend that resulted in George W. Bush being exalted (and elected, gosh darn it!) as a paragon of down-to-earth male toughness is clearly ludicrous.

Tricky Politicians

I can't find a link to it, but I heard a hilarious story on the radio this morning. First, a little background: Mexican politicians used to have this kind of bizarre habit of celebrating their accomplishments in radio, television, and billboard advertisements. At first, I thought it was a good idea, because letting the public know what you're doing for them might make them less cynical about politics. At least that was what I thought, but I had to admit it was contradicted by the fact that Mexicans are cynical about politics from the age that they are able to pronounce the word "politics." And the ads were often ridiculous: the mayor here in Torreón boasted of having undertaken 100 public works in his first 100 days, but no one could take it seriously, because a) the word "completed" was conspicuously absent; b) a public work was defined so loosely that a new speed bump or patching a pothole seemed to qualify; and c) the most visible projects were famously behind schedule and over-budget.

In last year's electoral reform, advertisements including the likeness of the official who paid for them were prohibited. It was deemed an unnecessary expenditure that did nothing more than raise individual politicians' profiles. Now, as long as you don't show up in the spot, you can still celebrate the accomplishments of the government, but for megalomaniacal politicians, what's the point if you don't get any credit? To get around said obstacle, two politicians --Toluca mayor Juan Rodolfo Sánchez Gómez and Mexico State Governor Enrique Peña Nieto-- have come up with a pair of ingenious maneuvers. Peña Nieto no longer appears in ads about his government's brilliance, but instead a series of low-level celebrities sing his praises in a variety of media. Sánchez Gómez is even craftier: he found a local man who apparently looks just like him, slapped a nice suit and a mayoral hairdo on the guy, and parades him around in various spots proclaiming him the second coming of Benito Juárez. Good stuff guys.

Now That's Distrust

Imagen Radio's question of the day asks the following: if you are with your family at 4 in the morning and see a police car, does it provoke a sense of fear or security? An astounding 83 percent have so far said fear. The poll doesn't disclose why you'd be out and about with the clan at such an hour, however, so maybe people were supposing that they were in a family of criminals.

Me on Mexico and Iraq

Basically what it sounds like.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cato Versus Barack

The Cato Institute's Latin America director, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, is unimpressed with what he sees from Barack Obama. He especially dislikes the proactive proposals in his Latin America speech a few weeks ago, from the new alliance for the Americas to deeper counter-narcotics cooperation. 
There's been much talk about how Latin American has been ignoed by the Bush administration and that, as a result, we need greater involvement from Washington in the region. This is simply false. The prosperity and the democracy ultimately depend on the Latin Americans themselves and the policies that we implement...McCain seems to understand this. Obama still doesn't. 
I agree with the first part, and I wish more people were saying it. The bit about Washington needing to be more concerned with Latin America is a tired refrain. A good portion of Latin Americans would find fault with Washington regardless of its level of interaction, and the goal should be to avoid missteps rather than just generally to become more involved. Certain issues require more direct attention, but it's a mistake for people to think that more attention will remedy all of Washington's problems in Latin America.

However, I don't agree that this recognition mandates a vote for McCain. I didn't particularly love Obama's Miami speech either, but the man remains a virtual blank slate on Latin America. To a point, the same remains the case for McCain, despite his long track record with the region. The requirements and prerogatives of the presidency will dictate each man's policy in the western hemisphere much more than a few ideas tossed out out in a campaign speech. As W illustrates, a candidate's affinity for Latin America is hardly an indicator of what kind of impact he will have on the region. As such, the vote should go to the man who's governing philosophy is more appealing. 

Sunday Ignatius

David Ignatius, always great on the subject, has a column outlining the problems and some possible remedies for America's spy agencies. He mentions that it will fall to McCain or Obama to fix a lot of the damage of the past eight years, and it occurs to me how little we've heard about intelligence reform this campaign. It's not exactly a vote-getter, but it's a vitally important issue, and an opportunity to look smart on national security (especially important for Obama). Hopefully, the two will begin to address the topic. 

Che's 80th from Every Angle

Che Guevara would have been 80 yesterday. La Jornada, Mexico's paper of leftist record, published this article of praise, which originally ran in Granma. The Miami Herald offers a report from the celebration in Guevara's hometown of Rosario, Argentina. And, just to even things out, let's include the definitive denunciation of Guevara's legacy from Alvaro Vargas Llosa. 

Saturday, June 14, 2008


And now, an article about American mafiosos operating in Mexico. El Universal reports that Miami-based Cuban Americans form the group responsible for the 33 Cubans and Central Americans abducted two days ago. The source: Manuel Aguilera de la Paz, the Cuban ambassador to Mexico. Hmmm. He wouldn't have an ax to grind, would he?

Growth Industry

Proceso has a cover story this week built around a Department of Justice report that indicates the presence of at least one of the Mexican cartels in almost 200 American cities, from Tacoma, Washington to Portland, Maine to West Palm Beach, Florida to San Ysidro, California. The article doesn't give a whole lot of indication of the degree to which they are present, but since it talks about the potential for expansion, I would guess that it's still pretty limited in most towns. In any event, this isn't the first report of Mexican cartels operating in cities in the interior of the country; this is a trend that should worry policy makers. 

Friday, June 13, 2008

Greenspan Weighs In

There's probably no one in Washington more respected in Mexico than Alan Greenspan, so his expression of doubt about the depth of the energy reform proposal might help open some minds in the Mexican congress. Of course, everyone who would listen to him (read: not the PRD) probably agreed with him to start off with, so maybe not. 

Tim Russert Dead at 58

What sad news. Time has words of tribute from several Washington heavyweights. 

Evil Laptops

There was an article in Slate a couple of days ago suggesting that laptop giveaways don't raise scholastic performance, and are therefore not the best use of resources to boost the schooling of low-income students. Kids, being kids, tend to use the laptops for recreation rather than for schoolwork. The author based his conclusion on a few studies on the subject (which have generally had conflicting results), as well as his own childhood, when he and his siblings somehow turned a PET computer into a toy.

Even if you grant the fact that laptops aren't going to improve grades, I don't think it follows that laptops aren't going to have a positive impact. Computer literacy doesn't necessarily translate into scholastic performance, but it is still an important skill in and of itself. If computer literacy is learned on facebook or searching the web or writing stupid love notes, I'm not sure that makes it any less valuable. (I recognize that "computer literacy" is a pretty vague concept, but I refer to typing ability, internet navigation, familiarity with Word and Excel, and general confidence in learning new programs.) It's possible that, thanks to One Laptop Per Child, a poor kid in Chiapas will be entirely proficient with all of the essential functions of a computer and still struggle in school. In such cases, I still tend to think the program is validated. It would be great if every recipient could turn the laptop into a 4.0 GPA and a scholarship to Harvard, but that's not realistic, and a student's academic difficulties don't make his computer knowledge worthless.

A sort of similar example from my own life: I don't think I ever read all of an assigned book in school until I got to college. Instead, I passed the time with Sports Illustrated. Reading profiles of Ty Wheatley and Dean Smith instead of A Tale of Two Cities certainly hurt my English grades, but that's not to say my subscription was without value. Indeed, I learned to write in large part thanks to Frank Deford and S.L. Price.

Jacking Detainees

This story, about a stickup group essentially robbing the authorities in Chiapas of 33 Cuban and Central American detainees, is making the rounds in Mexico today. The group was wearing ski masks and carrying automatic weapons. The people had been detained because of immigration violations, and the authorities holding them were unarmed when the attackers arrived. People smugglers, contrary to the image of a lone coyote wandering in the desert with a group of immigrants straggling behind, are increasingly sophisticated and militarized, as we see in the above story. The book From the Maras to the Zetas includes a great section on the travails facing Central Americans as they make their way through southern Mexico.

Another question: were the 33 migrants were taken because the smugglers are protecting their control of the racket, or if the migrants had already paid the mafiosos, and they were releasing them from the government’s grip essentially to fulfill their contract? I´m guessing it’s the first option.

Midwestern Punchers

St. Louis boxing scored another big win with Deandre Latimore’s seventh-round knockout of Sechew Powell in a super middleweight bout on Wednesday. Latimore becomes the third St. Louis fighter to make a splash in recent years, joining Cory Spinks and Devin Alexander. After a back-and-forth first six rounds, Latimore took control in the seventh. He dropped a series of savage shots onto Powell as he lay against the ropes, forcing the referee to step in. Beating Powell, a New Yorker with a sparkling amateur background and a title shot all but guaranteed had he won, puts Latimore right in the mix in a weak division desperately in need of some new faces.

Boxers from midwestern towns have long had a reputation for being a bit soft. The logic is that prospects from Oklahoma or Minnesota are not tested in the gyms the same way a kid from New York or Los Angeles or Philly is tested on a daily basis, and there's a long history of midwestern guys with gaudy records being exposed (Matt Vanda anyone?) once they step up. But more and more, a flashy record from St. Louis looks like it means something.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shannon Speaks

There's an interesting article about a recent speech from Thomas Shannon, the State Department's top man for Latin America, on the Miami Herald website. Shannon devotes some words to defending the last few years of Bush Administration policy in Latin America. It's pretty easy to be critical of Bush's policies regardless of region, but it's worth pointing out that all of the most egregious errors that affected our position in Latin America (our stance toward Chile and Mexico during the run-up to the Iraq war, failing to condemn the Venezuelan coup, restricting even further our ties with Cuba) were committed before Shannon arrived at his present post in 2005. For most of the second term, the administration has done a much better job, even if there hasn't been a big bounce in Bush's popularity down south.

When you compare Shannon's tenure to that of his predecessor, Roger Noriega, it's a powerful argument for granting regional State Department posts to career diplomats, not ideologues. Noriega, a conservative partisan who helped author the Helms-Burton Act, came across as a tone deaf bully. He shares a good portion of the blame for ruining what looked a promising opening in Latin American relations with the US (though surely, there is enough blame to go around). Shannon, on the other hand, has cooled American rhetoric toward Venezuela, avoided unnecessary snafus with Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, and generally steered American policy back toward moderation and pragmatism. I wonder if Obama would consider letting him stick around if he won. Not likely, but he's done a good job under difficult circumstances.

Hoagland on Obama

Jim Hoagland takes Obama to task for tabbing Jim Johnson to head his vice presidential search team in a today's column. Johnson had allegedly received special treatment from Countrywide, and had served on the board of several major companies.

[The affair] also brought new scrutiny to the curious decision by Obama to name Johnson to the job in the first place, given the candidate's fierce vows to transform Washington's insider culture and ways.
I disagree completely (though I should mention that this isn't the crux of Hoagland's criticism). There's nothing illegal or even particularly ethically questionable about Johnson's conduct. It isn't pristine, but there has to be a limit to Obama's idealism. Johnson's track record might be more problematic if he had an important post in the White House, but if there is one job where you really need to have a Washington insider, this would be it. An operator like Johnson has for years been privy to all sorts of potentially important chatter (Candidate X has a drinking problem, Candidate Y cheats on his wife) that a well connected person from Chicago wouldn't necessarily have heard. His job is, as far as I understand it, to look for dirt on potential veeps, not to influence administration policy. Does anyone care if their private investigator knows a few drug dealers? On the contrary, it's probably a good sign that he does.

More Cisen Shenanigans

The whole of the Mexican political class, minus the PAN, is united in their disapproval of the director of Mexico's intelligence agency, Cisen. The agency headed by Guillermo Valdés, you may remember, was caught monitoring opposition pols' activities in a congressional research database. (Feel free to ask why, but don't expect an answer from me.) Understandably, the opposition pols were a bit miffed, and now want Valdés to look for work elsewhere. The PAN, which is the largest congressional force, blocked a vote on his removal yesterday, and interior secretary Juan Camilo Mouriño says that Valdés isn't going anywhere.

I remain astonished that there isn't more of a public outcry over this. Absent a groundswell of public anger forcing the panistas to back off their position, it looks like no one is going to be punished for essentially spying on congressman. It's not illegal, but it's entirely unethical, and given the many threats to Mexico's security, it's far from the best use of the agency's resources.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Oppenheimer Sick

El Universal is reporting that journalist Andrés Oppenheimer is in a Mexico City hospital in serious condition with a ruptured esophagus. Gancho wishes him a speedy recovery.

Tough Talk

Macario Schettino compares Mexico’s thus far fruitless attempts to modernize its energy industry to a group of squabbling kids fighting over an inheritance. He closes the column with a scathing assessment of the Mexican political leadership under the revolutionary regime:
That’s what the regime left us: a population starving for leaders, incapable of deciding, irresponsible. In the hands of these irresponsible people, Cantarell has disappeared. We are left without an inheritance, without patriarchs, without money. No we have to work for a living. The sooner we understand that, the better.
Two points in the column stand out: First, energy reform can only delay the inevitable drying up of Mexico's oil supply. While Schettino is critical of the administration of oil wealth, even a model energy policy can't change the fact that Mexico's oil isn't inexhaustible. Soon, the nation will need new revenue streams to replace the billions of dollars that Pemex gives to the government each year.

Second, the deterioration in Mexico's oil industry will be tough, but it isn't necessarily a disaster, as you might infer from the above passage's last two sentences. Cantarell's exhaustion is an opportunity to diversify the economy away from a volatile unrenewable resource. A potential role model here is Bahrain, one of the middle eastern nations least endowed with oil wealth. After a decade of pitiful economic performance in the '80s, Bahrain met the lowering crude production head on. Despite the fact that its oil industry is expected to dry up entirely in little more than a decade, and that its 40,000 daily barrels of crude are less than a sixth of what it once produced, Bahrain is now the region's most developed economy.

Pick Your Metaphor

Poor Felipe Calderón can't get off the ropes. The president took a quick break from the more demanding concerns facing his administration (energy reform, food crisis, inflation concerns, cartel assassinations) to inaugurate a new hospital, handing over 117 ambulances as a housewarming (hospitalwarming?) gift. When Calderón picked one out to take for a spin, it wouldn't start.

Raging Clintons

Both this piece from the Times and Christopher Orr's comments about it on the Plank are hilarious. I wish Joe Klein would write a sequel to Primary Colors.

Obama Abroad

We have a pair of interesting columns from Thomas Friedman and Anne Applebaum about the foreign reaction to Barack Obama as Democratic nominee. While Friedman is writing about Egypt and Applebaum about Europe, both of them get at something that I see in Mexico way too often: the chauvinism with which people question whether Obama can win, if America is too racist to elect a black man. I've always thought that the idea that Obama would revolutionize foreign relations simply by virtue of his face a little fantastical, but maybe that's because I was looking at it wrong; Obama won't affirm all of America's best images of itself in the minds of foreigners, but perhaps he can disprove a lot of the worst misconceptions about his nation.


Malcolm Beith suggests that Mexico's battles with the drug cartels amount to civil war.

There's no question that in terms of the people being killed, Mexico increasingly seems beset by a civil war, but intuitively it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. There could never be a power sharing agreement between the Mexicans and the cartels. The cartels don't have a political manifesto outlining their plan for the nation, because their goal is simply to truck drugs across the border as easily as possible, not to govern. The cartels are not one organized force, but a proliferation of cells constantly changing loyalties.

Nor does the label apply according to the formal definitions of a civil war. Both the Geneva Convention and the US Military definition of Civil War require recognition of belligerent status, which the cartels don't enjoy. The US Military criteria, adopted in 1990, include five requirements for the two sides of the conflict (control of territory, a functioning government, foreign recognition, identifiable regular armed forces, and the carrying out of major military operations), of which the cartels as a whole fulfill at best two, and arguably zero. It's a tragic mess in Mexico, but a civil war it ain't.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


About Oscar De La Hoya's next opponent, this from Dan Rafael:
Manny Pacquiao: Some will laugh and say this isn't a realistic match because of the size difference. But you know what? They would be wrong. The fight is entirely possible and I am told that it's a fight that De La Hoya is interested in. Obviously, Pacquiao would have to beat David Diaz June 28 for a lightweight belt and look good doing it. I'm not sure De La Hoya wants to wait that long to set his fight, particularly because it's no lock that Pacquiao beats Diaz. But the Pacquiao side would take the fight in a heartbeat. Back in October, when I first wrote a blog detailing my conversation with HBO's Larry Merchant, who conceived the fight, I called Pacquiao promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank for his thoughts on Merchant's fantasy. Here's what he said back then: "We'll take it. I don't even have to call Manny. I am sure he would accept the challenge without question."
That's why we love the guy. That, and for his goofy grin when he fights. And his cheesy No Fear sponsorship. And for his reputation as a bit of a boozer and a pool player and a fun guy. At some point after his career, Manny Pacquiao's last name needs to be converted into a noun, perhaps meaning someone fearless, or, if he fights Oscar, an unreachable but still entertaining quest. Or maybe some sort of food, like a chili dog covered in bamboo shoots, which would attack your stomach with all the intensity of the Pac Man.