Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And We're Spent

It's hard not to be pessimistic (like Alberto Aziz in the previous post) about Mexico's insecurity after a year in which a record number of people were killed in drug violence, but this column reprinted from May from Jorge Fernández Menéndez [initially quoting a book by an ex-mistress of Pablo Escobar's, writing about the Colombian kingpin] offers some reason as to why the legacy of 2008 might not be so clear-cut:
"In that moment [1989], Escobar has two problems in his life: for the public it's obviously extradition; but for those well informed it's money. Following the collapse of his Cuban connection, Escobar confronts the emergency of massive liquid funds for a war that is polarizing all of his enemies...with the goal of obtaining more resources, Escobar will increasingly fall back on kidnapping and to bring the state to its knees, he will cut Bogotá to pieces and will be increasingly cold in his use of the press...And the megalomaniac obsessed with fame, the extortionist that knows like no one else the price of a president, learns how to manipulate them (the media and the politicians) to sell an image of that each becomes more terrifying, precisely because each hour he becomes more vulnerable and less rich."


[The Sinaloa gangs] are fighting each other, fighting their rivals from the Gulf across almost the entire country and maintaining a real war against a state set against them, which unlike in the past, which focused on searching for and detaining kingpins, now it is striking [the gangs'] territorial and operational structure, trying to weaken them from their base. If we add to that that the same quantity of cocaine is not arriving from South America, nor the same quantity of methamphetamine from the Far East, we have a picture, for these organizations, of a lack of resources and vulnerability that it seeks to balance with hit men and societal intimidation. There is the root of the violence that we are living. Of course, aside from that, corruption, infiltration, grave deficiencies in the security systems, and a lack of commitment from many areas of government will continue to exist, coupled with a lack of understanding from many politicians and media outlets about what is really happening in this war.
I've tried to emphasize this point many times this year, so it seems a proper note with which to close 2008: it's extremely difficult to interpret the meaning of the leaps in violence in Mexico. Is it a sign that, like Colombia with Escobar, the cartels are becoming weaker and weaker, and the nation's drug trade is on the verge of a fundamental shift away from ultra-powerful cartels? Or is such a shift still a long way off? Mexico is, relatively speaking, much safer than was Colombia at Escobar's apogee, so it presumably get a lot worse, but Fernández is pretty convincing in making the opposite case.

Unless I'm mistaken, Fernández's column reappeared as an undesignated "best-of" compilation of his work in 2008, which many publications do to close out the year. It may be a predictable and less than fascinating technique from a reader's standpoint, but Gancho wants in on the action. So, without further ado, click here for Gancho's worst post of 2008. Zero analysis, boring topic, and uninspired writing. May Gancho never sink to such depths again.

Happy New Year to everyone, and I'll see you in 2009. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Aziz Nassif Closes Out and Sums Up the Year

Here is the finale to today's El Universal column: 
For Mexico, 2008 was a complicated and terrible year. Even compared to other countries, ours reached one of the highest figures of violent murders in the war against drug trafficking. It added up to more than 5,500 deaths. Unless 2009 is more violent, this year will take the record for recent decades. The insecurity, kidnappings, attacks have become the everyday climate to which Mexicans resist becoming too accustomed. 

Nevertheless, each day is worse than the previous (massacres in Creel, La Marquesa, Morelia, Chilpancingo). From that cloth are weaved heart-wrenching stories of innocent victims that we remember because they once again awoke the spirit of social protest with the demand of: "If you can't, quit." Known cases and hundreds of anonymous cases formed an avalanche that undressed a state penetrated by delinquency at the highest levels. That will be the lasting mark of 2008. 

Another event that captured attention was the Pemex reform, which showcased political postures, showed a level of debate that we can have about the important themes relating to the development of the country, and revealed spaces for negotiation, because despite living in a polarized climate, there were agreements. Nevertheless, it's possible that we remember more the taking of the Congress than the debates in the Senate. 

From 2008, we'll remember the images of the crash of the Learjet 45 in which the secretary of the interior, Juan Camilo Mouriño, and the former anti-drug prosecutor José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos died. From the political parties, we'll remember the internal election of the PRD, whose litigation lasted more than eight months, the electoral recovery of the PRI, and the multiple defeats of the PAN, which had a very bad electoral year. The Supreme Court decision that upheld the decriminalization of abortion. An inflationary surge also arrived. 

Good-bye to 2008 and good luck in 2009, which we are all going to need...
Needless to say, there was a lot of bad news this year in Mexico.

Bizarre Tale of Revenge

A Lebanese man named Kamal Boughader Mucharrafille has been arrested in Mexico City after declaring war on Santander, one of the country's foremost financial institutions. The bank's supposed crime: it lost $3 million in jewels stashed in a safe-deposit box belonging to Kamal, whose girlfriend subsequently committed suicide. He was evidently planning to fire bazooka rounds at the bank's headquarters, before targeting Santander's senior management and their families. 

The article puts the word "terrorist" in quotes, which suggests that he's something less than a top-level Hezbollah operative. Then again, it says he was a weapons expert and had fought with extremist groups in Lebanon, and his intentions were certainly alarming. Whatever the case, during the next round of open-border scare-mongering, I wouldn't be surprised if he was held up as Example A of terrorists holed up in Mexico. 

Batting .700

Felipe Calderón has passed 40 of the 56 initiatives he's presented before Congress, which amounts to a success rate of just more than 70 percent. The legislative agenda isn't the only way to measure success (in Calderón's case, security policy and his management of the economy are just as vital), but it is an important one. Given that Calderón is working with a majority opposition, and that he entered office in 2006 with no mandate and little personal prestige, enacting 70 percent of his proposals is an impressive (and often overlooked) accomplishment. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

One Increase and One Decrease, Both of Them Bad

The decrease: Mexico's remittances were down about $2 billion this year.

The increase: the per-barrel cost of extracting Mexico's oil is expected to jump by 350 percent for the duration of the Calderón presidency, thanks to declines in the Cantarell oil field. 

Numbers like this make Rogelio Ramírez de la O's pessimism more understandable; the longer the crisis goes on, the longer Mexican workers continue trickling out of the US, the longer oil prices remain low, the more complicated the problems become for Mexico. 

For Sale!

The famous Pemex citizen bonds, made available through the oil reform several months ago, go on sale today. The bonds cost 100 pesos (about 7 dollars) each, and are guaranteed to mature at a rate of 12.35 percent annually. 

Capital Punishment

A belated take on the Moreira plan

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Butch and Sundance Reappear in Michoacán

Some twenty robbers parked trucks on the tracks in front of an oncoming Kansas City Southern train rolling through the hills of Michoacán yesterday, obliging it to stop. At that point, the group had their pick of the cars' contents, consisting of different imported goods from Asia. After filling up their trucks, they stole off, presumably to rob banks in South America and battle the Bolivian army. 

Political Innovation

The dedication Mexican internet users show in their online social networking is, to my eyes, astounding. I've often wondered why businesses don't try to capitalize on this activity in some way. I'm not sure exactly how they would do so, but I have no doubt that they could. They just need to be a little more creative than I am. 

But where the businesses are not showing much innovation, the political parties are: the PAN in Querétaro is taking its campaigns for next summer's elections to Facebook and Hi5. Candidates will have their own pages, which will certainly be lame and an easy target for apathetic teens, but at least they're trying. If the PAN scheme avoids becoming a laughingstock and brings a handful of young people to the polls, it should be considered a success. 

Year-Ending Corruption Scandal

A major in the Mexican army who served on Felipe Calderón's personal guard detail and had previously participated in one of the more high-profile investigations in recent years (into the videotaped execution of several Zetas by a member of the AFI) was discovered taking payments from the La Barbie, who is linked to the Beltrán Leyvas, and the Zetas. Oddly, he was taking payments from both before the two had allied themselves. 

December Fools

December 28th is the Día de los Santos Inocentes in Mexico, which has an April fools component to it. The following story appeared on the front page of El Universal:
The president-elect of the United States, Barack Obama, yesterday surprised the Mexican authorities when he made an unscheduled trip to Mexico City, with the intention of ice skating on the rink installed in the Zócalo by the government of Marcelo Ebrard.


"The president doesn't like Mexico. He'd never been here before, until now. He's a skating lover. He just came for that," the spokesman added. Nevertheless, other sources revealed that Obama regularly travels to Tijuana "in search of Corona beer." "He doesn't want it known. He used to go to Juárez but due to the violence he decided, during the campaign, not to return," added the source.

It also emerged that Barack Obama in effect preferred Juárez to Tijuana. In 2007, it is known, he was arrested for a "suspicious attitude" at a roadblock. He returned to Chicago without his wallet, and embarrassed by the abuse on the Día de los Santos Inocentes. 
I'm not sure I'll ever trust a newspaper here again. 

Technology-Related Stress

A quarter of Mexicans suffer from it, according to a study by UNAM. The number skyrockets to 75 percent when the questions are reworded to include frustration with television networks who turn big games in La Liga into pay-per-view events with little or no warning. 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Batista Kidnapping in the American Media

Torreón has been aflutter with rumors about the disappearance of Cuban American hostage negotiator Felix Batista for a couple of weeks now. He was taken from outside a restaurant in Saltillo a day after having given a talk here, and no one really has a clue why. He's not rich, and it would seem to be an odd way to send a message to the authorities. A reporter for the local paper here told me that no ransom has been demanded. The kidnapping also stirs up the US government, which isn't in any criminal group's interest. The Post today has an article that does a good job illustrating the confusion surrounding the kidnappers' motives. 

It also includes the following fantastic quote, from an unnamed man who sounds a lot like a typical rich dude in Torreón:
"He gave practical advice. To keep calm. Not to offer too much to the kidnappers. Not because you don't have the money, you understand me? You have the money. But you don't want the kidnappers to think they can hold you forever," he recalled Batista saying.
Just in case there is any confusion: he's got the money.

The Only Award That Matters

It's not the Emmy, the Oscar, the Pulitzer, or even the Nobel. It's Dan Rafael's fighter of the year. No surprise here: it's Manny Pacquiao. Rafael says: 
Not only did pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao have an incredible year, he had one for the ages.

The Filipino icon's fabulous year harkened back to a time 70 years ago when the great Hall of Famer Henry Armstrong claimed, in order, the world featherweight, welterweight and lightweight championships -- when there were only eight total divisions, instead of today's 17 -- during a 10-month period from October 1937 to August 1938.

What Pacquiao did was about as close as anyone likely will come to that monumental achievement, which is why he was the obvious choice as 2008 Fighter of the Year.
It couldn't have been anyone else, but between Antonio Margarito, Vic Darchinyan, and Joe Calzaghe, there sure were a lot of other guys who had great years. 

Also, any boxing fan who wants to take me on in predictions in 2009, here's how we could do it: throw a comment with your pick on the bottom of my fight predictions starting in January, and the person with the highest percentage will win a cheap award at the end 2009, provided they beat my percentage. If you beat me, I'll send you a t-shirt that says "Gancho's Best" or 20 bucks or something. If no one participates, we'll just forget this proposal was ever made. 

Teens Knocking Botas

Yesterday, El Universal reported on a sharp jump in rates of teen pregnancy in Mexico: in seven years, a 10 percent rise. Most politicians are reacting by blaming the parents, which is understandable, although not directly helpful. Panista Ernesto Saro continued along those lines, assigning blame to teachers as well. That is even less understandable and even less helpful. 

There seems to be a difference between responsibility and blame here. Teachers certainly bear some responsibility for a teenager's education, but is it fair to blame teachers if their students ignore what they are taught? Is it fair to blame teachers if said education is not robust enough? I tend to think not. 

Equal Time

I wrote last week that Alfredo Thorne is pleased with Calderón's performance, but I should also mention that others are not. Here's Rogelio Ramírez De La O: 
The price of oil will keep dropping and it wouldn't be surprising if it reached levels like those of the 80s. Let's imagine what it means that the price of the Mexican mix of oil was exported at 133 dollars per barrel in July and halfway through December reached 33 dollars, when petroleum contributes 44 percent of the budget.

In these conditions the government has put forward an irresponsible budget for 2009 with a significant increase, to arrive at a total of [about] 250 billion dollars. It hasn't listened to all the warnings that have been offered about cutting down on the bureaucratic structure and utilizing its resources well.
It is generally considered a good (and also progressive) idea to crank up the public spending, even if that creates more debt in the short term, but De La O worries that the combination of spending increases and drastic drops in revenue will lead to greater debt, and could continue to wipe out the foreign reserves of the Banco de Mexico, which will make it harder for the peso to avoid slipping against the dollar. De La O closes with a plea for plans that are "pragmatic and not ideological." I hope he follows up on that comment in subsequent columns, because Calderón's spending plan has been pretty well accepted on the left and the right. 

Responding to the Crisis

Truly distraught about the alarming nexus between beauty pageants and drug lords, Mexico's deputies are considering legislation to protect the contests from the malign infiltration of cartel henchmen. No one wants to see another beauty queen running around with bad guys. Except, of course, for the newspapers, which can't stop writing about Zúñiga. And the gossip shows. And the comedians. And, of course, the drug lords. 


According to the General Directorship for Publications, it was a good year for books in Mexico. Among the group's many accomplishments, over 50 state and local book fairs, attended by millions of readers. Before you guys start slapping each other's backs too hard, how about one of those in the Laguna, which is the ninth largest metro area in the country? We like to read, too. 

The New Branch of the Armed Services

Doesn't this display of sweatshirts make it look like the groups charged with protecting the nation are the army, the navy, and the mossy oak?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Kids Today

A Spanish university has published some interesting stats on Mexican internet users: 83 percent of Mexican adolescent internet users would prefer to live without television than without the internet, which is higher than the percentage in Japan, the US, and Brazil, though less than that of China; 33 percent of Mexican internet users are minors; and 78 percent go online to download music. 

OK, those really aren't that interesting. I oversold it. 

Reducing the Flow of Guns

Under the auspices of the beautifully named Operation Ant, the Mexican government has offered a report summarizing its knowledge of the nation's gun smugglers. They've identified four principal routes used for moving weapons down from the United States, and say that the cartels are the most prolific smugglers. So far this year, Mexico has seized more than 18,000 weapons, well above the average for the last several years. 

The article on Operation Ant doesn't mention any participation by American authorities, which I assume doesn't mean that there wasn't any. Whatever the case, much more than legalizing marijuana (see last post), cracking down on the flow of guns south from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California would be the easiest and quickest way for the American government to reduce the Mexican cartels' killing power. I hope the drug policy-makers in the Obama administration have that in mind. 

Weed in the Obama Administration

Via the Plank, Esquire's John R. Richardson mulls over Obama's policies on marijuana, ultimately settling on guarded optimism:
And two weeks ago, when the Obama team asked the public to vote on the top problems facing America, this was the public's No. 1 question: "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?"

But alas, the answer from Camp Obama was -- as it has been for years -- a flat one-liner: "President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana." And at least two of Obama's top people are drug-war supporters: Rahm Emanuel has been a long-time enemy of reform, and Joe Biden is a drug-war mainstay who helped create the position of "drug czar."
Nevertheless, the marijuana community is guardedly optimistic. "Reformers will probably be disappointed that Obama is not going to go as far as they want, but we're probably not going to continue this mindless path of prohibition," NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre tells me.
With every passing day, it's getting harder to imagine a scenario where Obama has enough political capital to tackle a reform of marijuana laws, even six or seven years from now. Not to trivialize the ridiculousness of 60,000-85,000 people wasting away in jail because of selling weed, but with everything else going on in the country, it would essentially be a political vanity project that Obama can't afford.

The Mexican Army: Good and Bad

Good: soldiers captured a Gulf cartel leader working in Tabasco and Veracruz. 

Bad: according to the National Commission for Human Rights, the army had more complaints filed against it than any other agency this year, with 631. (El Universal, evidently without much faith in its readership's math skills, helpfully tells us in the headline that that's nearly two complaints a day. Thanks!) 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Santa Screwed Up

Among the "all" whom I mentioned in the previous post is the Torreón police department, who, despite having been naughty for much of the year, was recently rewarded with a whole bunch of new toys. Here to the left, we have the billboard shamelessly trumpeting their 12 new Ram trucks that will in theory "improve vigilance." ("Of whom?" is the logical rejoinder.) In addition, the department has dozens of new Silverados, motorcycles, and Dodge Stratuses (Strati?). When the toys were handed over several weeks ago, the police took them out on the town for an impromptu parade, sirens blaring. It was a good 15 minutes of screaming sirens that had as all convinced that the apocalypse was upon us. Merry Christmas, boys!

The 25th Is Upon Us

Merry Christmas to all! 

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Playing for the Other Team

Another high-ranking police officer, this one working as the deputy director of public security in Zihuatanejo, has been discovered to be in the employ of the Beltrán Leyva gang. The link was discovered by the army, which makes me wonder if this was not a conscious part of their response to the decapitation of seven soldiers in Guerrero this weekend. 

Also, I can't wait to see a detailed history of the Beltrán Leyvas in a book someday not too far in the future. Those guys somehow managed to build up the most extensive networks of dirty officials (including some working for Interpol and the American embassy) without anyone realizing they were much more than Chapo Guzmán's junior partners until this year. How did that happen?

Something Brewing in San Francisco

With Singletary prowling the sidelines and the mustache brigade on the field, there's a lot to love in San Francisco. Singletary's hiring and early performance were beaten up a bit by lots of writers --Jason Whitlock, Gregg Easterbrook, Bill Simmons (in a podcast, I think), all of whom I like-- so it's been nice to see him surprise folks. It's hard to see how they can go very far without an upgrade at quarterback, but given their weak division and the injuries they've dealt with, they could make some noise in '09. 

Remembering El Padrino

If you read Spanish, check out this article about murdered Tabasco radio journalist El Padrino Fonseca. Unfortunately, there's no shortage of depressing articles about dead journalists in Mexico these days, but I found Fonseca's story particularly poignant. It begins with him standing on a truck, trying to hang a banner across a busy Villahermosa boulevard to protest the insecurity wrought by drug gangs: 
The murderers arrived aboard two vehicles. From a blue Patriot SUV one man got out, holding a R-15 rifle in his right hand. 

"Get rid of those banners," he shouted. 

"Let me do my job," responded El Padrino, while maneuvering the rope of the banner he was trying to hang.

"Get down from there, motherfucker," insisted the man with the R-15, who was in his 30s, brown-skinned and short. 

"I already told you no, I'm not afraid of you," answered the newsman, now in front of his killer. 

The dialogue ended there. Only one shot was heard, the fatal one. 
I keep getting hung up on that line, "Let me do my job."

DHS's Failure to Thrive

I forgot to highlight this last week when it came out, but better late then never: Jeffrey Rosen's examination of the Department of Homeland Security's flaws, which were built into the agency from its inception, was thoroughly convincing. I didn't really need to be convinced, but he puts all the criticisms into a nice package, which can be chewed up and digested in 20 minutes or so. Among the many good points was this one: 
On the practical side, Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations believes we need to do a better job of supporting first-responders. Republicans, he argues, have allowed a rigid states' rights ideology to create an artificial distinction between federal and state responses to natural disasters and small-scale acts of terrorism--denying local cops and firefighters the resources and support they need. As for the psychological side: Instead of a security mindset, which assumes we're either safe or not, Flynn's buzzword is resilience--the idea that you can't prevent all hazards but can organize communities to recover quickly once inevitable hazards occur. "The more resilient we become as a society, the less consequential acts of terrorism become, and that requires acting in ways DHS hasn't been acting," Flynn told me. "One is being far more open with the American people about vulnerabilities, and another is empowering us about how we address the vulnerabilities so we don't have an unbounded sense of fear."
I've always agreed that we needed a lot more "You can't phase us" in our assessment of the Islamist threat, and I found myself nodding with every sentence when I read Flynn's article this spring. Actually, that was kind of a problem, as I was on a treadmill and it threw off my equilibrium. I almost fell over a couple of times, but as Flynn certainly would have wanted, I sucked it up and finished off the workout and the article. It was truly an admirable show of personal resilience. But I digress. 

Granted, a resilience-first reaction was close to impossible in the aftermath of 9-11, when the nation basically needed time to nurse its wounds, but Bush made the problem so much worse by exploiting and adding to the national fear for the next five years (I don't remember him doing it as much following the 2006 elections), when we all would have been better off had he tried to buck us up. Flynn's one of the few prominent experts who I've seen make that argument so eloquently, and to link it to concrete changes in policy. 

Side Effect to the Side Effect to the Side Effect

The crisis caused a drop in consumption in the United States which caused a drop in exports from Mexico which caused a surge of mass layoffs in factories which caused a rise in unemployment which could cause: insolvency in Mexico's social security, which would be deprived of expected income by the decreasing number of formal employees. 

Another Day, Another Example of DF Going Green

A proposal before the legislature would prohibit stores' handing out plastic bags, offering financial incentives for stores to comply. 

Nice Job Kaplan

This typically insightful column from Fred Kaplan seems like the perfect occasion to say that Daydream Believers was the best new book I read in 2008, narrowly edging out U.S. Versus Them. To be fair to the other books that didn't make the cut, I should make clear that I think these are the only two books in English published this year that I read, but they were both great. I'll be making a large donation to a charity of Kaplan's choice shortly. 

More on the Unfortunate Miss Sinaloa

One of the men arrested with the Laura Zúñiga was the brother of a capo in the Juárez cartel, Ricardo García, also called el Doctor. The newspapers are going crazy with side-by-side shots of Zúñiga in her evening gown or bikini to one side, and yesterday looking downcast after her arrest to the other. 

Murder Rate

Mexico's murder rate is 10.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. That's pretty high, double the figure that the UN says is that  of a safe society. At the same time, it's well below Brazil (31), Venezuela (34.1), Colombia (38), and El Salvador (43.4). 

Stats like this are contradict the failed-state nonsense that the American media has been throwing around lately, and offer an indication of the complexity of the problem in Mexico. It's not an organically violent society. The cartel violence, while frightening, is not a natural outgrowth of Mexico's nature, but rather a contradiction of it. Everyone was freaking out about cartel killings in Nuevo Laredo in 2005, but the city had a lower number of total murders than Washington, D.C., which is about the same size. 

At the same time, it shows how much worse things could get in Mexico. If the sort of organic violence and societal decay that we've seen in Juárez is replicated across the country, Mexico could be confronting not 5,000 drug killings a year, but 15,000, if not more. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Random Sports Notes

The Yankees are like an incompetent classmate getting a $100,000 job out of college, and immediately a diamond-encrusted platinum watch: it provokes sympathy more than rage. I don't really mind them having the four highest paid players in the game, as long as one of them (Jeter) is over the hill, another (A-rod) doesn't show up in October, and the other two (Sabathia and Teixeira) are grossly overpaid. Teixeira is a good player, but after six years as a full-time player, he has hit more than 40 home runs once and driven in more than 120 runs twice. And he's a first baseman. If you're going to invest more than a hundred million in a guy, don't you want him to be a likely hall-of-famer? Don't you want the third largest contract to go to the best player in the league, or at least indisputably among the top two or three, at his position? Is Teixeira either of those things? I don't think so. 

Also, for gambling purposes, what to make of the Dolphins, who'd given up 24 points in three games before surrendering 31 to the Chiefs. Miami plays at the Jets, favored by 2, with an over/under of 37. No idea.

Thorne on the Recession

Alfredo Thorne, a JP Morgan-Chase analyst who has a column with Poder, considers the Mexican recession
The coincidence of the economic cycles of the United States and Mexico shouldn't be surprising, given their strong links. The surprise from anecdotal observation is that the Mexican recession might be less deep than what the United States will experience. A great part of this is the greater competitiveness of industry, the [government's] counter-cyclical policies, and the greater importance of internal demand. These characteristics suggest that the recession could last less time and perhaps the rebound will be quicker. What we can say is that this time the response from the authorities has been much more proactive...
I don't read Thorne's column every issue but I've read it a fair amount, and I don't remember thinking of him as a huge Calderón fan or a great optimist. 

A Big Birthday

South Park is 12! Kyle Smith argues that the show hasn't worn well. 

Shouting in Mexico City Set to Rise

Residents of Mexico City who do not follow the new rules for separating garbage will be verbally warned starting January 1st. Just what the city needs: new reasons for people to argue with each other in the streets. 

Seriously, we'll see what the long-term impact of all this is, and some of the ideas have been ill-planned (especially assigning specific driving days to people), but you have to hand it to Marcelo Ebrard for leading his constituents on green-friendly policies. There was no giant clamor for an increased environmental focus, but since his arrival 2006, he has implemented a number of green programs. All this simultaneously attacks one of the city's biggest problems and offers him a potential advantage over his competitors in 2012. 

Down Goes Miss Mexico

Laura Elena Zúñiga Huizar, who represented Sinaloa when she won Miss Mexico 2008, was caught outside of Guadalajara in the company of seven men, two assault rifles, three pistols, 600 rounds, and $18,000 in cash yesterday. Her story: the group was on its way to Bolivia and Colombia for a shopping spree. 

This actually isn't the first story like this. Owners of El Cártel de Juárez have read (in painstaking detail) about the case of Dolores Camarena, a Chihuahua beauty queen who was convicted of money laundering in El Paso during the 1980s. 

Warning from W

In an interview with the Washington Times, George W. Bush warned Barack Obama that he's going to have to pay close attention to the Mexican cartels, especially as they look for safe haven in Central America. The interview landed on the front page of El Universal, but unfortunately I can't find the story on the Times website. As I looked, I did stumble across this column about Calderón's security challenges from Austin Bay. He closes it with the following: 
With four years left in his term, Mr. Calderon is proving to be a world-class political talent, a brilliant combination of democratic statesman with long-term strategic vision, a savvy domestic political leader who addresses the Mexican public's aspirations and can work with a volatile national legislature, and a wartime leader with extraordinary personal courage.
I agree that Calderón's done a great job under trying circumstances, and he hasn't gotten nearly enough credit, but it's a little early to commission a Mexican Rushmore, no?


The army, while emphasizing that it doesn't act with cruelty or bias toward anyone it detains, called the decapitation of seven soldiers over the weekend a cowardly act, and said that the authors will be made to pay for what they did. I'm suddenly happy not to be spending the holidays in Guerrero. 

Hating on the Mexican Congress

It's not just American tradition: only 32 percent of Mexicans support the work being done by the Chamber of Deputies, and only 35 percent express positive feelings about the Senate. These levels actually represent sharp increases from the summer, when AMLO's takeover of the Congress for some reasons undercut support for the body itself. I'd have thought that being a victim in that episode would have increased support for it. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

Modern Leadership

Ricardo Raphael asks what's going on with Mexican leadership: 
Mexicans, fortunately, broke the priísta formula for building leadership. With the recent transition, we resolved to leave behind a good part of the authoritarian rules and hierarchies that previously guaranteed loyalty and submission before the powerful. 

Nevertheless, we haven't managed to substitute the earlier system. 


With his erratic leadership of the country Vicente Fox Quesada was the one who inaugurated the last crisis of political leadership in Mexico. The ex-president dedicated a lot of effort to carving out an attractive media figure, a mix of virile attributes, unblinking stances, and short but effective phrases. 

Emulating perhaps the silver screen figure of Pedro Infante, the Mexicans ended up getting a naive but generous presidency, daring but inconsistent, valiant but vain. All of that was very evident in the media. 

Fox's charisma simultaneously lacked the principal characteristic necessary in a leader: the capacity to produce the promised change. He didn't have a compass that told him the places where he had to direct the energies unleashed by political change. 
Wondering what Mexico would be like if the first opposition president was a more serious, capable politician makes an interesting and frustrating daydream. 

Parsing the DOJ's Drug Report

As to the causes of cocaine shortages, we see lots of uncertainty. It seems to be primarily a combination of rising demand in Europe diverting the supply and government policies in Mexico, which led to some enormous busts in recent months. 

There's also some interesting data surrounding meth in the United States. Crackdowns on ephedrine imports in Mexico have forced that nation's cartels to shift production abroad, principally to South America and California. That fits with all the recent reports about Mexicans being caught in Argentina, Australia, Italy, Central America, and Peru, and it's also a pretty clear illustration of the law of unintended consequences: the Mexican government responsibly cracks down on ephedrine imports to tamp down on meth production, which forces the cartels abroad, which makes doing away with them all the more complicated. 

The whole report is here

Mexico and Obama's Cabinet

El Universal and Poder both took a recent look at Obama's new cabinet members' relationship with Mexico. Poder's analysis was both more extensive and more optimistic, focusing not only on border-state governors like Bill Richardson and Janet Napolitano, but also Tim Geithner, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Eric Holder. (In the print edition, it also talks about Xavier Becerra, who's become a very outspoken opponent of Nafta, but that section isn't included in the online version*. Needless to say, the optimism slows down a bit with the new trade representative.) I didn't know this, but Poder describes Holder as a major voice arguing against the congressional decertification of Mexico as a friendly drug-fighting nation in the late 1990s.

El Universal discusses only Richardson and Napolitano, and finds flaws with both. Richardson flopped in his attempt to develop the border with Chihuahua, and Napolitano has a decidedly mixed record on illegal immigration. The crux of the matter, and indeed of all Mexican speculation about the cabinet, is summed up by Cuauhtémoc López, a professor in Baja California: 
Her profile as governor and her good relationship with the governor of Sonora don't carry any weight in the global affairs and strategic trans-border issues between the United States and Mexico. Let's remember that internal security and the control and monitoring of the borders of the United States is the axis of the security policy..."
The quote is a bit confusing, but it sounds to me like López is arguing for people to remember how limited the impact of the Mexico-firsters will be. If I have that right, I couldn't agree more. While I think it's great that Obama has compensated for his own lack of experience in Latin America, if Mexicans are expecting a wave of attention and understanding never before seen in the relationship, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. 

*And now I realize why. Whoops. 

Fuerzas Especiales Mexicanas

This morning, on Carlos Loret's Primero Noticias show on Televisa, I saw a feature on the graduation of a new class of Mexican army special forces. The video showed their training, with lots of somersaults and explosions and machine gun fire. It left the viewer itching to watch them take down a drug gang. I don't think I've ever seen any anything like it in the Mexican media. 

This is a point that Ana María Salazar makes in Seguridad Nacional Hoy (I think): it's silly that Mexicans spend lots of time excited over 24 and James Bond movies and Black Hawk Down, but they know next to nothing about the Mexican versions of these characters. It's actually more than silly; it contributes to the lack of enthusiasm and pride Mexicans have in their government. Bond and the like constitute a fantasy for Americans, but its essentially a healthy fantasy. Not to get to adolescent on you, but every country should believe that the good guys have bigger badasses on their side than the bad guys. So kudos to Primero Noticias. 

Bad News from the South

A grizzly story is dominating the headlines today in Mexico: eight soldiers (along with five other people) were found decapitated in Guerrero. The message accompanying the bodies said, "For every one of mine you kill, I'm going to kill ten of yours." This would seem to indicate that the soldiers were not killed for their involvement in drug trafficking, but merely for doing their jobs (or for other soldiers having done theirs). As recently as five years ago, it was pretty rare for honest soldiers or police officers or politicians to be killed; it was the ones who worked for the gangs that were executed. That's no longer the case. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The F-word in Mexico

I just saw this story in the Mexican edition of Rolling Stone: American journalist Guy Lawson ventures to Sinaloa to score an interview with Chapo Guzmán. He comes up short, but the account of his time there is entertaining. If you've read an article or two about Mexico's drug trade, there's nothing too groundbreaking here, but the close personal connection that Sinaloa has with Chapo is richly detailed, and the description of his feud with the Beltrán Leyvas is thorough.

Like Forbes' recent cover story, Lawson's article also wonders if Mexico is on the verge of becoming a failed state, comparing it to Afghanistan. I have a hard time believing that the people who ask if Mexico is on its way to being a failed state have spent a lot of time here.  Here's the Fund for Peace's brief definition of a failed state, which is based on 12 social, economic, and political factors: 
One of the most common is the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Other attributes of state failure include the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community. The 12 indicators cover a wide range of state failure risk elements such as extensive corruption and criminal behavior, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population, sharp economic decline, group-based inequality, institutionalized persecution or discrimination, severe demographic pressures, brain drain, and environmental decay.
Mexico has a crime problem that manifests itself in state dysfunction, but it does not have a general state-legitimacy problem. There is no erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, no inability to interact with the international community, nor is their any sharp economic decline because of the state's failure to exercise authority. There's no large-scale involuntary dislocation, no severe democratic pressure, nor is there institutionalized discrimination of Mexicans as a result of the war on drugs. And even if you latch onto the few areas where the comparison between Mexico and Afghanistan (or Haiti or the Congo) isn't laughable, it doesn't really offer you any insight into either nation. So please, journalists in the American media, cut it out. It's cheap, it's lazy, and it's untrue. 

Good Reading

Check out the year's journalistic gems, compiled by Conor Friedersdorf for Culture11. 

Side Effect

The Mexican Secretariat of Defense reports that, ostensibly owing to the climate of insecurity around Mexico, personal pistol purchases are rising. Gun buys jumped up by 30 percent in 2008. 

Holyfield Robbed

I was shocked that Evander Holyfield should have won yesterday's bout with Nikolai Valuev, but it makes the post from Friday more, not less, relevant. Brian Doogan explains:
Three judges decided that 46-year-old Evander Holyfield lost by a majority points decision in his bid to claim the WBA heavyweight title from Nikolai Valuev. This and the almost reverential chants from 12,500 fans of "Hol-y-field, Hol-y-field," which echoed throughout the Hallenstadion in Zurich, represented the most dangerous verdict for a man whose delusions are verging on the deranged.

If Holyfield required any further reason to continue with his futile, hazardous efforts to regain a heavyweight championship belt, this, unfortunately, was it.

The Most Powerful

The Mexican newsmagazine Poder (which means "power" in Spanish) has published its annual list of the most powerful Mexicans. I wrote about the list last year, making two basic points: science and innovation were underrepresented among Mexico's elite, and Calderón had done a fantastic job locking down control of the nation's politics, evidenced by the high percentage of calderonistas occupying top spots. 

This year, my assessment is basically the same: Calderón and Carlos Slim occupy the top two spots, and Calderón's underlings are all over the place. There are a couple of areas worth highlighting: Barack Obama's new science advisor Mario Molina is on the general list of the 14 most powerful Mexicans. (The 99 most powerful are broken up into smaller lists of the 14 most powerful, and then specific lists for politicians, businessmen, artists and actors, journalists and academics, et cetera.) This is a step in the right direction, sort of; he's applying his scientific knowledge not in Mexico but in the US. 

Also, it's notable that in the battle for PRI supremacy, Enrique Peña Nieto appears below Manlio Fabio Beltrones, but in the PRD, Marcelo Ebrard is above Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 


Proceso has an unsettling portrait of the young gang-members working as hired killers in Juárez. A couple of statistics included offer an indication of the social chaos that prevails: 42 percent of the population lives in western Juárez, but only two high schools operate there. Thirty percent of the population between 12 and 15 years old neither works nor goes to school. Only three out of ten adolescents in the city go to school. 

Juárez has a growing problem with narcomenudeo, the American-style street-corner drug sales, and wars between narcomenudeo gangs have been a driving factor behind the city's 1,400 murders this year. Streetside drug vendors earn about 200 pesos (some 15 dollars, depending on the exchange rate) for eight-hour shifts. Hitmen on retainer earn 3,000 to 5,000 pesos a week, while expert shooters who are in charge of high-level targets earn 20,000 per murder. All of this compares to about 600 pesos a week for the major employment alternative: the maquiladoras

Juárez accounts for some 1.4 percent of Mexico's population, but 30 percent of its murders this year (which is all the more staggering when you consider that many other parts of the country have witnessed surges in executions). Like Tijuana, Juárez has a potent mix of street gangs warring for turf on one hand, and powerful cartels murdering their enemies and subverting the state on the other. The social fabric of the poor neighborhoods organically unravels (ungovernability from the bottom up), and the cartels supplant the state's authority (ungovernability from the top down). As unsafe as Mexico has become, if drug use continues to rise among the Mexican youth,  Juárez shows how much worse it could get. 

Nothing Says "I'm Cool" Like a 16-Year-Old Movie Reference

I feel like I've had a lot of smart-alecky, critical, even petty posts lately, and I will try to limit them for the duration of the holiday season. Right after this post. 

The title of Tom Friedman's column today is, "China to the Rescue? Not!" Pop-culture references in news media are usually included, I suppose, to make an article or its author seem hipper, and to connect a younger audience to an ephemeral topic using a much more current one. Why, then, would you reference a movie that was making fun of dorks with catchphrases, and that came out in 1992? That may not be Friedman's doing (although it sure seems like stuff like that pops up more in his column than in, say, Gail Collins'), but whoever is responsible, that's just lame. 

The column, which focuses how the crisis will challenge the symmetry of the US-China relationship, is an interesting read. Like many articles that focus on China's economy, it makes the following claim as if it were a law of physics: China must sustain a "minimum [of] 8 percent growth it needs to maintain the political bargain between China’s leaders and led." 

The general idea behind this, that explosive economic growth is what has placated and distracted the Chinese from challenging their authoritarian political system, seems sound, but the idea that there is a floor for growth (be it 8, 9, or 10 percent) below which China will descend into anarchy gets tossed around a lot without much to support it. 

Saturday, December 20, 2008

More on Mexico's Mafia Threat

Ana María Salazar weighs in on the Justice Department report that named Mexican cartels as the most significant criminal threat to the United States:
The publication of the report, days before the swearing-in of President-elect Barack Obama, obviously will set guidelines in the initial discussions between both governments. And although this document focuses on the activities of the Mexican mafias inside American territory, it would be difficult for the Mexican government to question the assertions made in the report and about the danger of the Mexican mafias, for the simple reason of what Mexico is experiencing these days: the violent death of more than 5,400 people in this year alone, and the infiltrations of even the highest levels of agencies that administer justice in this country.

Why wouldn't you think that these Mexican groups would seek to export the sam form of dong business to other lands? And given the porousness of the border with the United States, what's to stop them?
I've been asking myself that same question for a while, and this report makes it all the more pertinent. 


Felipe Calderón reminds me of how new Soviet leaders were supposed to have stashed away two letters in the event of domestic trouble: he's blaming his predecessors for the country's present insecurity. The press is eager to jump all over this, and it's not hard to imagine functionaries from past administrations taking umbrage, but it's hard to argue with the fact itself. Whether because of incompetence, lack of attention, or corruption, in every administration since the cartels first formed in the 1980s, the Mexican cartels have grown stronger. At the same time, there's a limit to how much effect that excuse will have. It may be De La Madrid, Salinas, Zedillo, and Fox's fault, but Calderón's the one who has to fix it. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ortega with a Flurry To End the Week

The back-and-forth between Jesús Ortega and the harder Mexican left continues: the former says that if AMLO supports PT or Convergencia candidates, he will be tossed out of the PRD. 

In another sign of their wide differences, Ortega said this week that he intends to link the PRD with other progressive parties in Latin America, like those of Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil. In other words, the leftists that least resemble el Peje.

Ferández Menéndez Can Handle the Truth

Jorge Fernández Menéndez has an interesting column expressing dismay about the ambiguity of truth in Mexico, characterized by the tendency to favor outlandish tales instead of evidence in criminal investigations. As he puts it, "justice should be sustained in proof, not in words."

As an example, he offers the case of Victor Garay:
He's been accused of almost everything. Of turning information over to the Beltrán Leyvas, of letting them escape, of robbing money and jewels [from the house of a Colombian associate of the Beltrán Leyvas], of assaulting women. Maybe it's true. The problem lies in the fact that they haven't found any hard proof that supports these accusations made by protected witnesses and ex-police officials, in exchange for a reduction in their sentences. Let's go to the questions: What is the accusation that Garay let Arturo Beltrán Leyva escape based on? It could be true, but what we remember from those events in Cuernavaca es that there was a harsh confrontation with the group that protected Beltrán Leyva, that he escaped and that same night Edgar Millán, the chief of the PFP, was murdered, apparently on the orders of the Sonora cartel. Outside of the testimony of a captured agent seeking to reduce his penalty, is there any hard information about the case? As far as we know, until now none exists.


Let's suppose that Víctor Garay in effect let the Beltrán Leyva's escape and he worked for them. Then why would he have acted with so much cruelty against their principal supplier of cocaine, including, as has been published, assaulting his girlfriend. That doesn't seem coherent: you protect or you attack a cartel. You can't do both at the same time, no one would live to tell about it.
It's like nothing is ever really known, even when it is a verifiable fact. I wrote about this tendency last year, and there were a lot of examples of it in the aftermath of the Mouriño plane crash in November. I think that it is mostly a lingering legacy of the PRI era, when decisions affecting the whole country were made behind closed doors. The development of a truly free press, the increased openness of the political system, and the recent establishment of oral, public trials should all help to elevate an objective concept of truth, but it's taking a long time.

Holyfield in Danger

Ridiculously, Evander Holyfield is fighting for a heavyweight title this weekend against the seven-foot Russian giant Nikolai Valuev. He will lose, probably by knockout.

There are two distinct ways in which boxing can be dangerous for fighters. One is the twelve-round (or ten) beatings, where the massive accumulation of punches leads to brain damage. That's hard to combat, but some innovations --sensors in the mouth guard the monitor the velocity of head movement after a punch is taken, encouraging referees and doctors to take Compubox punch stats into account and to be much more safety-first when considering stoppages-- could do a significant amount to avoid tragedies.

The other way in which boxing is uniquely perilous is in boxers competing for too many years, and finally leaving the ring with debilitating injuries. Muhammad Ali is a good example of this, and so is 46-year-old Evander. He has been fighting professionally for almost 25 years. It was 1985 when he first won a cruiserweight title in a brutal 15-round bout against Dwight Muhammad Qawi. It's been more than 15 years since the last of his three equally brutal slugfests with Riddick Bowe. He's also been banged around by George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and John Ruiz, with nine fights total against the group. He was beaten pillar to post by skilled smaller men like Chris Bird and James Toney, as well as journeyman Larry Donald. He has suffered from heart trouble, shoulder trouble, and hepatitis. It's been almost five years since Holyfield had his boxing license suspended for the dramatic deterioration in his ability. He has slurred his words for years. I don't imagine he has much chance of enjoying a healthy retirement, and yet he still fights.

When guys get into the position where they have a big name but no skills, they turn into stepping stones with the simple role of taking a ritual beatdown every so often. Holyfield's not the only one: Antwun Echols has had nothing in the tank for years other than a recognizable name and a good chin. That combination has earned him beatings from younger fighters like Peter Quillin.

It's easy to say, He's an adult, he can do what he wants, but it doesn't really help much. If someone paid him, Holyfield would lace 'em up against Lennox Lewis Jr. in 2031. Perhaps the solution here is a federal boxing commission like John McCain has proposed. It's hard to define standards for when a guy should no longer be fighting, because for every Evander, there's a guy like Emanuel Augustus, a stepping-stone who's had countless tough fights, but who still moves and speaks pretty well.

In general, boxing needs to err much more on the side of caution, even if that means sometimes careers are ended prematurely. The loss to the sport (and its participants, of course) is infinitely greater due to Ali struggling through his golden years than it would have been were he to have his license revoked in 1978 after the Spinks loss, or even right after Manila. We can't know if having done so would have left Ali healthier today, and forcing the Ali from the sport while he was at the sport's acme would have been really tough, but even if there's no surefire way to solve this problem, boxing needs to do more.

Gancho is 31-12 on the year.

Reality Has Arrived

Agustín Carstens says that the Secretariat of Finance will revise Mexico's growth projections for 2009 down from the 1.8 percent it had previously forecast. Most analysts are predicting right around zero growth for Mexico.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Class Act

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy doesn't just teach kids basketball, he teaches them about life.

Another Barnburner

The first couple months of the 2009 are looking great for boxing fans: Mosley-Margarito, Arce-Darchinyan, and now Juan Manuel Márquez-Juan Diaz. I don't know who I like in that last one. Márquez has looked great lately, and Diaz has some flaws that he'll be able to exploit. But counter-punching boxers eventually reach an age where they just get overwhelmed by the busiest fighters (see Roy Jones Jr.'s fights against Calzaghe and Glen Johnson for good examples), and Diaz is about as busy as you can get. Plus, Márquez is smaller. Hmmmm. No idea.

Seven Hundred Words I'd Like To Have Back

I've read this column several times now, and I have no idea what its point is, other than, "We are five former Latin American presidents reminding you of our existence." Needless to say, that's not a particularly compelling argument. I guess the column was written to offer Obama suggestions about how to deal with Latin America, but in that case it's missing something important: actual ideas. The following is a typically meaningless platitude:
History shows that whenever Latin America has been neglected the cause of freedom and prosperity has been undermined. Therefore, it is essential that nations that embrace the principles of freedom and democracy band together to face today's security threats.
This refrain about neglect is commonplace, but the authors don't point out any counter-example when the region has not been neglected. Maybe they mean the 1980s, when the US was funding dirty wars across Central America. Aside from the fact that it's based on a faulty premise, what does that mean? Are they advocating any policy initiatives, or even general changes in tone from the Obama Administration? If they are, they don't mention it. I guess the only lesson to be drawn is that if you divide a 725-word column among five authors, analytical rudiments like clarity and precision are going to suffer.

Feeling Old and Unaccomplished

The guy writing Obama's inaugural address is 27!

The Downside and the Upside

Álvaro Vargas Llosa drills Latin America for its lack of preparedness leading up to the American financial crisis:

Despite the warnings, Latin Americans were largely unaware of the implications of the U.S. financial meltdown and the recession until only a few weeks ago. They believed that the times when the U.S. sneezed and the region would catch a cold were gone.

What an illusion. A lot of what has helped Latin America's economies in recent years -- access to capital markets, foreign investments, remittances from emigrants, the price of natural resources -- depends on the health of the global marketplace.
He goes on to rail on countries that didn't tuck away any of the extra revenue from the last few years' high commodity prices, which is most of them, including Mexico with its sky-high oil income. It's all true enough, but you could respond that, at least in Mexico's case, the banks are safe, the peso has survived weeks of wild see-sawing, a massive government intervention in key industries will not likely be needed, and Calderón's counter-cyclical stimulus plan has been hailed by everyone as the right approach. Mexico's long-term economic strategy needs to be upgraded (and under Calderón it has taken some timid steps), but given the pre-existing limitations, it's handled the crisis pretty well. Compared to many of its neighbors, Mexico has been a portrait of responsibility.

No Thanks

Felipe Calderón has shot down the idea of any Mexican participation in a regional anti-drug army, such as the one proposed by the Guatemalan president a couple of days ago. He said that before turning over the challenge to a multi-national, Latin American nations must coordinate their policies and goals in regard to drug trafficking.

El Peje Can't Quit Them

The PRD and AMLO seem to be in that weird stage of a relationship when it's over but it just won't end. People close to AMLO have revealed that he is going to take his 2 million followers with him to support the PT and the Convergencia in 2009. (A lot was made of that number. Two million is a big number when only about 40 million total vote in the presidential elections, but I question how reliable the figure itself is, as it came from AMLO, and, even if it's true, how dependable those people are. I belong to dozens of video clubs, fan clubs, political groups, preferred coffee drinker clubs, et cetera, none of which can count on me for anything more than an email address. Even if they are genuine followers, I imagine that it doesn't represent people drawn from other parties, but rather the hard core of support we always knew AMLO had.) At the same time, Ricardo Monreal, who just defected from the PRD Senate bloc to the PT, says AMLO will not be leaving the PRD.

Someone who works for Jesús Ortega also claims that after a recent night out drinking, AMLO called Ortega 17 times, 13 of them to tell him how much he hated Ortega, and four to apologize and say that he wants things to be like they were before, and that he still loves the PRD, and that even if the party decides that it is better off without him, he will understand, he'll always love the PRD. That has not, however, been corroborated.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Atlantic Blogging

Ross Douthat's meditation on Bush's torture regime showcases a lot of what makes him such a compelling writer, namely the willingness and ability to articulate both sides of an argument, and a tone that oozes calm consideration when many of his counterparts are screaming. It also highlights the unique niche of the blog in the media; in no other format would such a piece be feasible. I recommend reading the whole thing.

I also recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' response, partially reprinted here:
Ross's point that he can't imagine himself doing anything different than Truman, doesn't really exonerate Truman, basically because neither Ross--nor I--would ever be president. I'd argue that a leaders are not simply supposed to be carbon-copy representatives of our emotions, but that they're supposed to see more, they are supposed to be better than. Asking ourselves what we would do, were we in Bush's shoes is likely to only prove that we'd be very mediocre presidents.

Much stronger is Ross's point that basically anyone other potential president in Truman's shoes would have done the same thing as Truman. But you simply can't make the same argument about Bush. Indeed, it's not even clear that every potential Republican president would have approved of water-boarding.

Grinching Up Mexico

I've been hearing and reading about gunmen going into schools and demanding the teacher's Christmas bonuses (known as aguinaldos) in the Laguna for weeks, and now it seems the same is happening in Monterrey and Hidalgo.

What doesn't make sense to me is why they go after schools. The Christmas bonus is mandated by law in every industry, so there's no reason why schools specifically would be more susceptible to this kind of activity. Indeed, since there is more cash at a business, and a group of mid-level factory managers would have larger salaries and therefore a larger bonus than a group of teachers, it seems like perpetrating this sort of activity in schools is not the best use of the assailants' energies. (Of course I am speaking from a hypothetical criminal's profit-maximizing point of view; robbing a bunch of teachers of all their Christmas cash strikes me as a pretty terrible use of energy.)


After the famous "You eat and you go" episode in 2002, under Calderón the relationship has rebounded. So much so that Raúl Castro said yesterday that "[the relationship] will start being magnificent."

I have mixed feelings about all the attention Calderón has devoted to improving Mexico's relationship with Venezuela and Cuba, but it's interesting how the changes in personality have made the improvement possible. Fidel Castro is to Raúl as Vicente Fox is to Calderón: despite ideological similarities, in each pair, the first is a hothead while the second is calmer and more pragmatic. (I'm not sure how well that description applies to Raúl over the length of his career, but certainly it is applicable to his short stint leading Cuba.) Not surprisingly, Fidel and Chente presided over a disaster, but Raúl and Felipe have managed to overcome their ideological differences.

Guatemala's Response

The recent gunfights between representatives of different Mexican groups and the UN warning that Guatemala is in danger of losing control of its democratic institutions to drug traffickers have spurred the Central American nation into action. Two days ago, President Álvaro Colom was advocating the creation of a regional army to fight drug gangs. Yesterday Guatemala sent its army to the Mexican border to search a handful of haciendas thought to be used as a staging ground for vaulting drugs across the border.


Celebrities preening as activists or journalists often provoke a sense of profound irritation in me, although I sometimes worry it's more because of a deep-seated jealousy about the attention their opinions inevitably receive. After all, celebrities' thoughts aren't always less informed than a newspaper columnist's, and they are entitled to speak about whatever strikes their fancy.

Then I read about stories like Sean Penn's interview with Raúl Castro and Hugo Chávez, and I think, Nope, it's not pettiness, it's because preening celebrities are a blight upon thought. My favorite passage:
By this time I had come to say to friends in private, "It's true, Chávez may not be a good man. But he may well be a great one."
George Packer's comments are welcome.

Another classic from the vault: by the sheer force of their awesomeness, Aniston and Pitt overcame thousands of years of strife and brought peace to the Middle East. At least, that was the plan.


Foreign visits to Mexico, a vital source of the nation's revenue, is suffering: according to statistics from the Tourism Committee in the Chamber of Deputies, tourism is down 20 percent from 2007.

Now seems like a good time to add that the idea of Mexico and Latin America entering a recession seems to have reached a point of general acceptance, with Felipe Calderón acknowledging the fact at a summit with his Latin American counterparts in Brazil.

Last week, it seemed like the government might be drawn into a dispute about when the country was technically in a recession. Such a semantic argument was bound to make Calderón, Carstens, and company look bad, because the fact of two consecutive quarters of negative growth is far less important than the overwhelming feeling of ¡Estamos jodidos! that prevails today. Kudos to Calderón for his forthrightness. (After rereading my post on the matter, I guess I was sucked in, too; shame on me.)

And kudos to El Universal for reviving the long-dormant tradition of referring to executives by their three initials. FCH may not have the legs of JFK or LBJ or FDR, but we here at Gancho appreciate the attempt.


Sports awards are in general kind of silly, since statistics and team performance offer a much more reliable measure of an athlete's contributions than the inevitably biased opinions of the voters. Peyton Manning not winning the Heisman in 1997, Bonds losing to Terry Pendleton, Mo Vaughn besting Albert Belle, Lawrence Taylor only winning one MVP and Deion Sanders none--the list of injustices is quite long. The systemic silliness is worse--the last time the AP awarded its football MVP to a player who didn't line up at quarterback or running back was 1986. Defense wins titles, but in the half century since the AP started awarding an MVP, only two defensive players have ever walked away with the hardware.

We can agree that, with some exceptions (Barry Sanders' 2000-yard season, for example), it's basically an award for the best running back/quarterback on an elite team, with a heavy lean toward QBs liked by the press. Given that, I repeat my bewilderment that Peyton Manning is not getting any attention. After two summer knee surgeries, he has started every game, helped the offense overcome a horrific stretch of injuries/non-production from key players (I'm looking at you, Joseph Addai), and has his team in position to lock up a 12-4 record. His numbers are lower than normal for him, but he'll probably wind up with about 27 touchdowns and 13 picks, which would be fantastic for anyone besides Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. The only QB's with unquestionably better stats are Phillip Rivers and Brees, neither of whom was battling injuries and both of whose teams tanked down the stretch.

As far as running backs, I see three pretty good picks: Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, and DeAngelo Williams. It's hard to pick against Peterson, especially if the Vikings make the postseason, but I really like Williams, whom I hadn't seen much of until the Monday night game last week: with about 1,400, he's going to wind up with maybe 150 yards less than Turner and 300 less than Peterson. At the same time, he has the highest yards-per-carry of the three, has scored five touchdowns more than Peterson (and one less than Turner), and has carried a team that has gotten really mediocre QB play to a likely number-two seed.


With much apprehension, I direct you to my radio appearance on Hablemos con Washington. Click here, scroll down to Hablemos con Washington, click on the RealPlayer or Windows Media Player icon, and listen as the insights flow like ale into the pint glass. Comments making fun of my voice, accent, or the quality of my opinions will be accepted, and then hastily avenged.

Dirty Police

Over the past several months, I've watched all five seasons of The Wire and American Gangster. One of the most obvious differences between the portrayals of big-city crime is how much more of a role police corruption plays in American Gangster. Richie Roberts makes clear that his foremost enemies weren't Frank Lucas and his gang, but the cops who took his money. The police of The Wire, which certainly couldn't be accused of white-washing the uglier aspects of inner-city life, were conspicuously not paid by Avon Barksdale. They were often incompetent, they were drunks, they were socially dysfunctional, and they descended into brutality from time to time, but the cops in The Wire didn't sell themselves to the dealers.

I don't know to what extent that is accurate, if in Baltimore the cops really aren't corrupt in that way, but I suspect it is basically true. (Anyone with more expertise, feel free to comment.) And I suspect that it's pretty similar in most big American cities, but again I don't know. For all the problems in America's police departments today, this represents a huge improvement in the decades since Lucas ruled New York (and his criminal counteparts dominated other cities). This is in stark contrast to present-day Mexico, where a certain portion of the police is a tool of organized crime in virtually every big city of the country. With the Justice Department naming Mexico's cartels as the biggest criminal threat to the US, it would be useful for city and state governments to consider how well protected and well supervised the police are.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Loret on the PRI's Return

Carlos Loret is famous more for his television work, but I think his column is consistently among the most thought-provoking in El Universal's stable. Today, he tackles the deeper meaning of the PRI's potential return to dominance:
When it was defeated by Fox in 2000 and fell to third place with Madrazo in 2006, the collective wisdom of the analysts opined that the so-called uber-party had to renovate itself from the bottom up if it wanted to avoid its disappearance. The PRI hasn't renovated itself, and nevertheless not only has it not died, it is atop the polls.
It's easy to attribute losses to deep, structural flaws rather than bad circumstances or tactical errors or just plain bad luck. (See the Republican Party right now.) In Mexico as in the United States, whatever the parties' relative strengths and weaknesses, the big ones are never so screwed that the party brand will cause a good candidate running a good campaign to lose to a bad candidate. This means that the abiding sense of doom conveyed in any discussion of the losing party is often overstated. (See the Democratic Party in 2004.)

More Loret:
It turns out that the best electoral offer of the PRI isn't a new face, but old tricks. From the PRI, the electorate doesn't seek democracy, transparency, openness, or more respect for human rights. It seeks results.
This is kind of odd in that it separates "results" from democracy, transparency, and the rest. Many of the Mexicans who voted for Fox in 2000 thought that democracy, transparency, etcetera was the result in and of itself. I don't dispute that Mexicans who switch from the PAN or the PRD to the PRI next year will be following the basic pattern of logic that Loret outlines, I just don't think that pattern is going to lead to any long-term PRI success.

Above a certain level of economic and security chaos, "results" is a concept distinguishable from the others that Loret mentions. But if the security situation and the economy stabilize, or if a PRI presidency offers Mexicans a reminder of how little it cares about democracy, transparency, openness, and human rights, then the PRI's lack of concern for those concepts will become increasingly significant.

The New Old West

A bizarre and macabre story out of Sinaloa: two men settled an ongoing feud with a duel. They both arrived to the designated place at the agreed-upon hour, one with a shotgun and the other with a .45, whereupon each killed the other.

More from Mérida

Notimex is providing a nice service in running articles that detail the specific deliveries under the Mérida Initiative. The agency reported yesterday that in the upcoming months, the US will send close to 200 million dollars in equipment to Mexico, which will be divided into passport readers, protective helmets, armored cars, bullet-proof vests, and other toys.

I think I've made this point some six million times, so at the risk of repeating myself: all the equipment, while it's not a bad thing, isn't going to be of much benefit. Mexico's core problem is corruption, not the fact that government officials are outgunned, or a lack of sophisticated tracking devices. You could outfit every one of Mexico's honest cops like James Bond, but as long as huge percentages of Mexico's police and bureacrats are working for drug gangs, Mexico will have a serious problem with drug gangs. Spending money on stuff like that mentioned above isn't a problem per se, but there's a limit to what it can accomplish.

The first delivery of Mérida Initiative stuff was a much smarter expenditure: money toward building a national database of police officers.

Drugs: Deflation Resitant

The DEA is reporting that the rises in the price of cocaine and meth that they first started seeing almost two years ago has been sustained throughout 2008, as well.
From January 2007 to September 2008, the price per pure gram of cocaine increased 89 percent, from $96.61 to $182.73, while purity decreased 32.1 percent, from 67 to 46 percent. During the same timeframe, the price per pure gram of methamphetamine increased over 23 percent, from $148.91 to $184.09, while the purity decreased 8.3 percent, from 57 percent to 52 percent.
I was skeptical of this rise being more than a brief hiatus in the decades-long decline in the price of drugs, but after two years it seems reasonable to attribute this to a more substantial shift in the industry. This also points to the ambiguity of success in the war on drugs: the DEA's findings are unprecedented, but are they a clear-cut sign of improvement? If the price of cocaine is your measure, than we are winning vital battles in the war on drugs. However, if you measure success by limiting the cartels' power to wreak havoc around the world, to take over city governments and cabinet agencies, then our failures have never been more evident, as the previous post suggests. For most of the non-cocaine-consuming public, the second measure is the far more relevant one.


The US Department of Justice released a report naming Mexican cartels as the greatest criminal threat to the United States.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Raphael Less Pessimistic

I loved, just loved Ricardo Raphael’s column about Mexico’s pervasive pessimism today. Some relevant passages:
Without even being conscious of how it happened, this year in Mexico the cult of the most unpleasant aspects of our social existence took hold. The collective intelligence has remained trapped by the emphasis on the negative, on the most disreputable of the possible points of view.

I confess: if I make myself choose between the horrendous and the valuable I lean more energetically toward the first and I disdain the second. My attention is piqued more by the executions in Ciudad Juárez, the abominable kidnappings and murders, the treason of soldiers and police commanders, the hefty stream of youths into drug trafficking, the massive firings in auto-parts factories or the stinginess of the Deputies when, in a time of crisis, they give themselves ostentatious Christmas bonuses.

In contrast, my neurons barely stop working when they bump against facts or lives that contradict this with their brightness. I know almost nothing of the general that called the president of the republic to tell him that he would continue confronting organized crime in the military zone under his responsibility, the day after the mafias kidnapped and murdered his son.


You shouldn’t take as corniness or naivety the desire to combat the exaltation of the awful. It’s in reality a powerful survival instinct that human beings --even the Mexicans-- carry as an internal device, which once in a while we should take out for a walk.

In times of abundance and security, pessimism is a tolerable social attitude that because it fosters questioning and self-criticism. But in moments of great seriousness, like those through which we are presently suffering, the cult of negativity is an unpardonable frivolity.
Stuff like this is hard for me write because I don’t want to be an American making sweeping generalizations about what I perceive as flaws or even salient attributes about the whole of Mexican society. That doesn’t, however, stop me from agreeing with Raphael.

The weird thing is how, on some level, Mexicans’ pessimism is superficial. Despite what Raphael refers to, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey always shows Mexicans as among the most optimistic of the countries surveyed. For instance, 77 percent of Mexicans told Pew that they think their personal economic situation will remain the same or get better; only seven of the 24 nations show higher levels of optimism. Sixty percent of Mexicans qualify their personal economic situation as good (pages 17 and 18). To take a more recent example, to the Imagan online/radio question, “Will 2009 be a better year for you?,” more than three quarters responded in the affirmative.


The PRD has approved plans to punish legislators who support candidates from or caucus with other parties. The punishments could include expulsion from the party. It's kind of odd that this wasn't permitted already.

The Reign of the Chuchos Begins

The PRD has divvied up the party posts, with Jesús Ortega's wing, called the New Left or the Chuchos, snapping up the posts charged with administration and finance, campesinos, youth affairs, alliances (heavyweight Ruth Zavaleta landed this one), and education. Other currents (National Democratic Alternative, Social Left, National Democratic Left, the unnamed movement headed by Javier González, another unnamed movement under Alejandro Encinas) also snagged some choice jobs, which party activists say is a reflection of a just distribution.

It is striking how many different poles there are in the PRD. I'm not sure if that's really true or is just window dressing, but as soon as I read someone who can make sense of this, Gancho readers will be the first to know. In the meantime, one comment: given that it must balance the interests of at least six different political currents, it's not a huge surprise that the party struggles with unity.

The Left with or without el Peje

There's going to be a lot about the PRD this morning. This is the first bit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sweet Goal

Barca is untouchable. Here's the nail in the coffin against Real Madrid (about 1:25 in), Alves (I think) to Henry to Messi to gooolllllll! Brilliant!

And extra thanks to Sky, for ruining my Saturday by broadcasting the match only as a pay-per-view. That was sweet.

Smart Idea, Sort Of

Excelsior reports that the PRD has decided to direct its efforts toward taking shots at Enrique Peña Nieto, with the goal of ruining his chances in 2012. The ostensible reason is that the PRD objects to his unethical use of public resources, as well as his trickery in circumventing electoral regulations, but of course, everyone is looking past that to the political considerations. This seems to suggest that the party views the other young executive presiding over a huge entity in the middle of the country as the biggest threat to Marcelo Ebrard. That makes sense, but I wonder if making the announcement so publicly (the decision was made at the party's national council) isn't a little counterproductive. If you're a priísta, doesn't this make you less likely to support Manlio Fabio Beltrones or Beatriz Paredes or Emilio Gamboa, and more likely to go with the guy that has the competition scared? Or maybe the PRD, channeling Machiavelli, is a step ahead, and Peña Nieto is the guy they really want as an opponent. In that case, I'd question their logic. Whatever; I've definitely over-thought this. Let's move on. 

Silvia Vargas

One of the biggest stories of the past week was the discovery of Silvia Vargas' remains. Vargas, the 18-year-old daughter of sports big shot Nelson Vargas, had been kidnapped last year. After abiding by the kidnappers' requests and keeping silent about the affair for a year and having heard nothing, her family came public with the abduction this summer, pleading for some news. The ensuing investigation eventually revealed the work of a group called Los Rojos, which had connections to a family chauffeur. Her body was found outside a Mexico City home last weekend, and was identified this week. Evidently, the effort to locate Silvia did not enjoy much support from the government. A memorial service, which was attended by Martí's father Alejandro as well as Felipe Calderón, took place yesterday. Much like the case of Fernando Martí (Alejandro's son), this case has become a microcosm for government incompetence. 

I've had nothing to say about this story because there's not much to say beyond to the obvious; what a tragedy for her and her family, and what a shame that the government can't do more to combat such crimes. You can check out a story about the event from the Washington Post here. The family's memorial web page for Silvia is here. For Spanish-speakers, the El Universal editorial is here

All I Want for Christmas Is Some Killer Jets

Jorge Luis Sierra says that Mexico's defense policy-makers need to do a better job explaining why they need F-16s. Despite his skepticism, Sierra seems to be inclined to support the request for 12 of the fighter jets, reasoning:
Chile has 10 F-16Cs and eight F-16Ds and has ordered another 18. Its air forces is perhaps the most powerful in Latin America, with 75 combat planes and its training, transport, and surveillance fleet. Other countries also have substantial arial power. Brazil doesn't have any F-16s, but it does have 55 F-5s and 40 AMXs, which are made in that country. Venezuela has 17 F-16As and four F-16Bs, aside from 14 French Mirage planes. Cuba has almost 200 Russian Migs for its national defense, but part of them aren't operational or are in storage. 
I wonder at what point military robustness (it's a word!) becomes a point of pride more than necessity. Mexico is in less danger of armed invasion than any of those other nations (with the exception of perhaps Brazil), because, aside from the lack of any external threats, the United States wouldn't allow an invasion into Mexican territory. And this is all in a region with a very low probability of a traditional war, i.e. state versus state, army versus army. For Mexicans, American protection is understandably not an acceptable substitute for an autonomous defense policy, but the fact that Mexico is the southern neighbor of the world's strongest military is certainly more of a deterrent than a handful of new jets. 

Were the military, as Sierra suggests, to formulate a plan articulating a long-term strategy, it would be helpful if that reality influenced its thinking. It would also be helpful if there was more consensus about the proper role of the military in the fight against drug gangs.