Saturday, January 31, 2009


PRD boss Jesús Ortega says that although Andrés Manuel López Obrador is supporting candidates from the Workers Party, he won't take any action to toss him from the party. It seems like Ortega wants to give AMLO the chance to save face and still come back to the PRD. That won't help the PRD in 2009, but perhaps it's the groundwork for future reconciliation. Or maybe Ortega doesn't want to provoke a split just yet, but could so in the future when his base of power is more consolidated. 

Off You Go

Miss Sinaloa, arrested in December along with a handful of drug traffickers and weapons, has been released from jail, for lack of proof. I'm a little disappointed in myself for not writing this sooner, but her case shows the danger in Mexico's practice of holding suspects for many weeks without charges. (I was under the understanding that after the judicial reform last year, the limit for detention without charges was 80 days, which provoked criticism from human rights groups. However, I wonder if the provision was changed without any fanfare, because I've never seen anyone consigned for more than 40 days.) She was in jail for 38 days, which seems silly given the circumstances. She was obviously hanging out with some shady characters, but that's not a crime in and of itself. A 22-year-old with no criminal background shouldn't have to spend five and a half weeks in jail while the authorities dig for scraps. The presumption of innocence, which doesn't have a long tradition in Mexico but which the judicial reform was supposed to help foster, is really missing here. I'm willing to be convinced that Theo's Soup-Maker, who claims to have been involved in up to 300 murders, needs his 40-day stay in jail while evidence is collected, but six-week detentions shouldn't be handed out like candy. There should be some accountability for the officials who stuck Laura Zúñiga in jail, and some recourse, aside from selling their story to sensationalist magazines, for those who suffer abuses of authority. 

Friday, January 30, 2009

Disappointing Demise

Culture 11 has folded. It was an original and eminently readable site with the misfortune of arriving just as the worst financial crisis in 70 years was exploding. Culture 11 deserved a far longer life. 

Mexico in Foreign Policy

At Shadow Government, Christian Brose has a saner take about Mexico than much of the American media has recently provided. In it, he makes three points: 
1) Mexico's drug traffickers fight each other more than the government. 

2) The drug traffickers have no political agenda. 

3) Calderón's government is fighting for its life, but it hasn't lost (yet). 
If you accept points one and two (and while not absolutely correct, I'd say they are more true than their opposite would be), than why is Calderón fighting for his life? Wouldn't the first two render the Calderón government's existence unchallenged? Whatever the case, it's occurred to me that all of the failed-state stuff is to a certain degree a natural byproduct of the grim rhetoric that the US used to sell the Mérida Initiative last year. If the Mérida Initiative was a matter or life or death a year ago, then it's only logical that a doubling of the drug murders, the attack in Morelia, and the extensive government-trafficker nexus discovered in Operation Clean-up would lead people to take their assessment to the next level of hysteria: Mexico is a failed state. 

Brose also writes: 
I would be interested to know what the counterinsurgency community's read of Mexico is: Does it fit the model of an insurgency? And if so, should Calderon be mounting more of a COIN campaign, focusing on population security as opposed to the largely seek-and-destroy operations his army seems to be waging?
I know next to nothing about counterinsurgency, so I remain open to the possibility of being shocked out how insightful the comment is, but this strikes me as an insane attempt to bang a round peg into a nonexistent hole. 

One other bone to pick (and after all this complaining, I feel the need to reiterate that the gist of the post is pretty good): he hails Alma Guillermoprieto's "beautiful prose" in her New Yorker article on Mexico from last fall. Such a label in regard to a New Yorker article is rather cliched; you would never say the same about a comparable article from Newsweek or The New York Times Magazine. (For my money, I thought the Kurtz-Phelan piece was far more informative.)


The Mexican army is using comics to teach soldiers tactics to use in counter-narcotics operations. Seriously, comics show a sergeant rounding up his platoon, and advancing 300 yards behind a grenade launcher and machine gun fire to take over a house filled with drug traffickers. Wouldn't comics like this be put to better use were the general public the target? Hopefully, the soldiers are already familiar with the lessons from the comics from their actual training and all, and the Mexican army certainly suffers a bit of a pop-culture deficit, which makes the public less familiar with and instinctively more hostile to it.

No word on whether the Mérida Initiative includes funds to turn those comics into Pixar flicks.

My Drug Czar Goes to 11

Not to make light of a depressing situation, but isn't the Mexican drug czar starting to look a little like Spinal Tap's drummer? Jesús Gutiérrez (in prison for taking payments from Amado Carrillo), Mariano Herrán (looking at prison because of corruption in a later job in Chiapas), José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos (killed in the Mexico City plane crash in November), Noé Ramírez (jailed and accused of taking close to half a million dollars from the Beltrán Leyva gang); who in their right mind would take that job?

Criticizing the President

Mexico City's La Jornada, a reliable opponent of Felipe Calderón and all things establishmentarian, slams the president with a phantom punch today. First, it tells us in a headline that the IMF says that Mexico's economic performance will be the worst in Latin America in 2009, before saying in the article that "the worst" merely means worse than Brazil's and below the regional average.

Also, the business group CCE has criticized the timidity of Calderón's anti-crisis plans, pointing out that the US and Brazil (embracing its role as Mexico's measuring stick, at least in this post) have both dedicated more funds to their rescue packages, with 1.4 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, of each nation's GDP. This continues an odd pattern of politicians being much more receptive to Calderón's anti-crisis plans than the businesses community. (Odd because for most of his term, business has been a better friend to the president than the political class.) The point is well taken, but the comparison with the US is not very helpful, because American banks are crashing, and a huge portion of the bailout funds have gone to shore up banks. Mexico's banks are fine, so the government has no need to toss hundreds of billions of dollars at them.

North American Events

The US is bidding to host its second World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Mexico, having already hosted two World* Cups, is looking to fry even bigger fish.

*Check out the emotion on the call of Maradona's famous goal in '86 against the English. With apologies to Gus Johnson, that's got to be the most enthusiastic sports broadcasting moment ever. It's not often that you have an announcer pleading with God, saying he wants to cry, asking the viewers for forgiveness, saying "Long live soccer!", thanking God, actually crying, and asking what planet the moment's protagonist is from, all in the span of about 30 seconds. You say over the top, I say passionate.

Manuel Espino: Superhero, Part 2

No one claims credit for things that had little to do with him better than Manuel Espino. Here he is in Coahuila, stopping a rebellion of local panistas, angered at the undemocratic selection of the candidates for deputy in this summer's election. In steamy Monclova, Coahuila, dozens of party activists, including heavyweights like Torreón's mayor José Ángel Pérez, were on the verge of taking over the party's state headquarters to demonstrate their discontent. But Espino would have none of it! Arriving in a brightly-colored, tight-fitting spandex suit adorned by a cape, Espino took the rebellious panistas to task:
No, you don't do that in the PAN. And I convinced them that such was not the path.
This article brings a local rivalry to the national stage: former Torreón mayor Guillermo Anaya (now a senator) is close to Felipe Calderón and Germán Martínez, and seems to have a bright future in national politics. Thanks to Torreón's many problems, the exact opposite is true for José Ángel Pérez. And they are both said to hate each other.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Less Bloody?

Excélsior is reporting that 310 people have been killed in murders related to organized crime, which, if accurate, would put Mexico on pace for around 4,050 murders this year. That's a lot, but it's also a significant decline from last years 5,600 executions. Maybe the cartel truce is taking hold.

El Tri, Losing Again

Mexico's national team, which has more players thriving in Europe with each passing year, yet whose performance as a group steadily declines, lost a friendly to Sweden last night 1-0. I can't remember el Tri playing a decent 90 minutes against a halfway decent team (no, Peru doesn't count) since the Copa America, when they beat Brazil and crushed Uruguay. As disappointing as the team was under Hugo Sánchez, I don't think there's much question that they've been worse since he was replaced by Sven-Goran Eriksson.

With such a gloomy climate surrounding them, Mexican soccer fans are turning to a new tactic ahead of the World Cup qualifier against the Americans on February 11: voodoo:
An advertisement in the sports daily Record on Tuesday invited fans to clip coupons and redeem them at their local Radio Shack store for a voodoo-doll likeness of a U.S. player. The hope was that a little black magic might help Mexico break a decade of futility on the road versus its northern neighbor.
A nice idea, and certainly at this point one has to think that the team won't go anywhere without a little supernatural support, but we gringos don't lose in Gringolandia.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Outsiders, Stay Outside!

Earlier this week, El Universal ran a front-page feature on the various figures from athletics and entertainment who are lending their faces to the campaigns. Whatever your opinion of the wrestler Atlantis speaking out for the PAN (with or without his mask, I wonder), it would be nice if a prominent someone from business or movies or sports or some other sphere didn't have to limit his or her contribution to a couple of TV spots and a vote. Perhaps this isn't the best way to make the point, because I don't think Mexico is losing a whole lot by not having Diego Luna as a PRD deputy (although people who've seen Criminal would probably argue that movie fans would gain were Luna otherwise occupied), but, with the country navigating its way through a global financial crisis and a recession, wouldn't now be a good time to shelve the career politicians in favor of, say, a banking exec? An economist? An entrepreneur? Unfortunately, as Ricardo Raphael wrote last week, "if you aspire to stand as a candidate for deputy, either you are a good friend of the parties’ principal leaders or you file away your desire to participate to use in a better moment."

Now That's Government Intervention

I'm not sure if this is an argument against that the US isn't doing enough for its banks, or that Mexico's handling of its own financial crisis a decade and a half ago was horribly wasteful, or both: former president Ernesto Zedillo points out that, proportionally speaking, Fobaproa cost Mexico much more than the United States has been willing to spend in the present crisis. At about 20 percent of the GDP, the US would have to spend about $3 trillion to approach Mexico's scale of intervention from the mid-90s. Such a figure would seem likely to spawn a class of American AMLOs, although more likely from the right.

Bad News

In 2009, Mexico's economy will contract by between 0.8 and 1.8 percent, and will shed 340,000 formal jobs, according to Mexico's central bank chief, Guillermo Ortiz. Three months ago, Banxico was saying that Mexico would grow in 2009 by a factor of between 0.5 to 1.5 percent. In 2008, just 37,000 jobs were lost in Mexico, and the economy grew by 1.8 percent.

Further Defections

A couple weeks ago, tens of thousands of Labor Party activists defected to the PRD. Now four mayors in Zacatecas are poised to do the same. It seems more and more like Ricardo Monreal hopped on a sinking ship.


Nineteen-year-old Andrea Cruz has become the first female pilot in the history Mexican armed forces. That's a nice step forward for gender equality in Mexico, though it bears mentioning that the corresponding accomplishment in the US took place 35 years ago.


Based on information from the Sinaloa newsmagazine Ríodoce and interviews with anonymous sources, Proceso is reporting that the major Mexican drug traffickers agreed to a truce earlier this year. The supposed impetus for the agreement was that as the cartels have warred with each other, independent organizations have gone directly to South American suppliers, and the market share of the Sinaloa heavyweights is being threatened. Most of the article focused on the various Sinaloa kingpins (including those operating other cities, as is the case with the Arellano Félix group in Tijuana, and Vicente Carrillo in Juárez), but it said that representatives of la Familia Michoacana and the Zetas have also acceded. Outside of Sinaloa, violence in 2009 has continued at the same levels as last year, although according to Proceso, this is because the groups agreed that all pending executions would be carried out before the truce comes into a effect. Such pacts in the past haven't held for long, but a truce that provides even a temporary respite is welcome.

It's odd how the run-up to this truce resembled the preparations for meetings between adversaries on the global stage: low-level feelers came first, then mid-level agenda-setting reunions, followed by the actual agreements hammered out by the leaders.

Stretching the Truth

The more you read quotes from DEA officials, the more you wonder whether hyperbole is a dialect that is taught at the academy, or if they really have zero judgment. Take this quote, from a recent article at The New Republic.
Countries are particularly determined to prevent the importation of illegal narcotics across their borders, whether by organized criminal networks, terrorists groups, or the hybrid narco-terrorist networks that DEA officials describe as "meaner and uglier than anything law enforcement or militaries have ever faced." [Emphasis mine.]
Relative to what? "Militaries" have faced the Nazis, the Red Army, Mao's hordes, Pol Pot's henchmen, Rwanda's Interhamwe, and sundry other villains. So Hezbollah's hashish-dealing wing is worse than any of them?

Otherwise, the article's quite good.

High Profile

The PRD's slippage presents an opportunity for the PAN in Mexico City. César Nava, formerly the personal secretary of Felipe Calderón's, is taking advantage, via a run for a deputy spot.

Bad Argument

In what is the worst attempt to demonstrate that Mexico is a failed state that I've come across, Marty Peretz marshalls as evidence not that 5,500 people were killed last year, nor the extensive links with drug trafficking and the government, nor Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana, but rather Ernesto Zedillo and Jorge Castañeda working for American universities. Seriously.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Making Mexico Happy, Gun Dealers Mad

A lot of attention has been paid to arms traffic along the US-Mexico border and the potential for curtailing it along the southern border since Obama was elected. That's good news, although I think it's unlikely to have a very direct impact on Mexican security, which in past posts I neglected to point out. One problem is that there are already tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of American weapons in Mexico, so even if the pistol spigot was turned completely off tomorrow, it's not like would be killers would have to switch to slingshots the day after. Further, drug-traffickers, being a part of a several-billion-dollar industry, will have little trouble finding their way to non-American arms dealers. After all, it's not like Colombia's cartels struggled to find weapons.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration (still fun to write seven days in!) would be smart to crack down on gun traffic. For one, it would buy some goodwill from the Mexican government. Two, it eventually would probably force the drug gangs to pay more for weapons, which will leave them either with fewer guns or less disposable income with which to corrupt government officials. In either case, that's a positive result. And third, it would hopefully make guns harder to come by for low-level criminals, which would make low-level crime less tied to murder. In other words, it would limit the organic growth of violent crime in Mexico, aside from the cartel battles, which are to some degree inevitable. 

Afternooon Silliness

I can’t decide whether or not to take this justification from the woman who is auctioning off her virginity seriously. Whatever your opinion of the idea itself, the piece is made more irritating by the author dressing up the stunt as some sort of high-minded comment on our sexual norms:
When I put my virginity up for auction in September, it was in part a sociological experiment—I wanted to study the public's response. Now it seems that the tables have turned, and the public is studying me.
Like most little girls, I was raised to believe that virginity is a sacred gift a woman should reserve for just the right man. But college taught me that this concept is just a tool to keep the status quo intact. Deflowering is historically oppressive—early European marriages began with a dowry, in which a father would sell his virginal rdaughter to the man whose family could offer the most agricultural wealth. Dads were basically their daughters’ pimps.

When I learned this, it became apparent to me that idealized virginity is just a tool to keep women in their place. But then I realized something else: if virginity is considered that valuable, what’s to stop me from benefiting from that? It is mine, after all. And the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with me. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism.
One conclusion my experiment has already borne out is that society isn’t ready for public auctions like mine—yet.
On behalf of "society," I'd like to say that it’s odd to be made to feel like an unenlightnened prude by a 22-year-old virgin.

Also, if The Onion has not yet run a story about someone auctioning off the opportunity to be his or her 43rd partner, or selling backseat oral sex outside of a dive bar online, now seems like the perfect time.

May the Institutions Be Welcomed Back from the Devil!

Ricardo Raphael says the time has come for Andrés Manuel López Obrador to put aside his cult of personality and take his movement inside the institutional tent by running for a deputy position in this summer's elections.
His sought-after moral force requires supporters in the Chamber of Deputies. The recent evidence shows it. This force has had voices --but above all votes-- in energy, fiscal, electoral, and security debates, thanks to congressional representation.

The force of his movement can no longer disdain the only political spaces in which it can have synergy. Renouncing the formal path of representation has translated into a weakening of his own political force.

The achievements of the Mexican left have come about, and they will continue coming about, only if it exists within the perimeter of the institutions and no outside of it. And this is a virtue --not a tragedy-- of the present democratic Mexican regime.

What there is no longer much time left to do is cook up an electoral single apparatus between so many factions infected by resentment and distrust: "How do you achieve that a new perredista leadership, accepts the detractors from Convergence and the Workers Party? How can you ensure that the radicals in each wing of the Aztec Sun reconsider costs of division and schizophrenia? How do you make the leaders of the lopezobradorista movement surrender to the logic of campaigning?

AMLO declares that his call for unity is not about satisfying personal ambitions, but rather strengthening a social movement that privileges principles and values. If what he wants is ensure the left of a robust congressional caucus, AMLO will have to do more than make declarations.

Crazy Stat

Mary Anastasia O'Grady wrote a column yesterday (again, thanks to the Mexico Institute) that listed the number of executed in drug violence in 2008 at 6,600. That's about 1,000 higher than any other number I'd seen. She says it came from the attorney general, but if you google "procuraduría 6,600 asesinados mexico 2008", no corroborating info comes up. In fact, this article places the attorney general figure for 2008 at 5,600, not 6,600. I've got fat fingers, so I make such mistakes occasionally, but isn't that what fact-checkers are for? In any event, that's a convenient mistake to make if your goal is to show that Mexico is going to hell in a hand basket.

Thanks Felipe!

I ran out of gas yesterday, so that meant no cooking or hot water until I replaced the tank. A new tank costs about 350 pesos, and I had about 400 in my bank account until payday on the 31st. Clearly, the tank was a necessity, so I was just going to have to make do with about four dollars in cash for five more days. But wait, when the gas truck arrived, the installation team told me that it was now only 291 pesos, thanks to a provision in the plan Felipe Calderón announced a couple of weeks ago, thus doubling my available income until payday. Fantastic news!

The real-world impact of Calderón's counter-crisis stimulus plan: helping middle-class foreigners scrape by!

Monday, January 26, 2009

I Know You So Well

I'm not sure if David Hajdu knows Lucinda Williams or not, but I kinda hope he does, because I'd be freaked out if a total stranger wrote the following about me:
Williams gives the impression that she would take you home in a blink, if she thought you wouldn't bore her, and that you would bore her if you haven't read Flannery O'Connor.
The piece is, however, saved by the following paragraph:
The latest hit from Fearless is a marvel of toothlessness called "Love Story, " in which Swift retells Romeo and Juliet truly fearlessly, changing all the stuff about dying that the morbid original writer had in there. "I wrote this song because I could relate to the whole Romeo and Juliet thing," she explained to an interviewer. "I was really inspired by that story. Except for the ending. I feel like they had such promise, and they were so crazy for each other, and if that had just gone a little bit differently, it could have been the best love story ever told."

All or Nothing

Macario Schettino sees two possible futures for Mexico:
One, which has become a topic in recent days, is the gradual but constant deterioration that turns us into a failed state. With different degrees of advancement, Latin America has a catalogue of these nations that will celebrate two centuries of independence with neither present nor future. The other possibility is that Mexico becomes the fifth greatest economy in the world, something a couple of years ago managed to get placed on the agenda, but that wound up fading away through our customary defeatism.
I'm not sure it's all sink-or-swim, but, as with the talented 17-year-old waiting for his parents at the police station after being picked up with a bag of weed, the range of possibilities for Mexico's future is strikingly large.

No Good Options

Saturday, Torreón suffered its fourth bank robbery of the new year. There were only three last year, all of them after September. It's not a coincidence that since last summer, the city has been flooded by army and federal police troops. This is another example of the dilemma Mexico faces in cracking down on drugs. The passage of tons of cocaine through the area is unsettling, but if carried out peacefully, drug traffic is less of a menace than bank robberies, assaults of armored cars, and home burglaries, which are also on the rise. This isn't argument for the police laying off the smugglers, but it just shows how for Mexican law enforcement, there are no options that don't carry negative side effects.

Life in Nuevo Laredo

Via the Mexico Institute, I see NPR has a report about how life in Nuevo Laredo has calmed down a lot in the past couple of years, and murders have dropped from 180 in 2006 (which was the apex of the hysteria about Nuevo Laredo) to 50 in 2008. Such statistics offer a comparison that contradicts the outcry about supposedly anarchic Mexico. In Washington, D.C., which is about the same size as Nuevo Laredo, 169 people were murdered in 2006. This marked a nadir following 15 years of steady decline; in 1991, almost 500 were killed. Does that mean that Washington is a failed state?

Calderón's Optimism

A criticism of it here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


The bridge between Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas was shut down after a passerby warned police about a bomb in a trash can under the bridge. The device turned out to be false, although El Universal reported the episode as having been real, and placed the story on the front page of today's paper. Oops. 

There must be something in the water in Nuevo Laredo: earlier this month, a flight originating from Nuevo Laredo had to make an emergency landing after a passenger untruthfully wrote that the plane was carrying a bomb on the bathroom mirror with lipstick. 


A day later, I'm still having a hard time absorbing the Margarito-Mosley result. I'm not sure I've ever seen a fight that surprised me more, not so much in the result, but in the way it went down. Margarito often starts slow and absorbs a lot of blows before he warms up, but he never got going last night. And when he did land punches, it looked like Mosley was taking his shots better than Margarito was taking Mosley's. Mosley's naturally faster than Cotto, but the difference in speed and reflexes from Margarito in his July bought with Cotto and last night's loss was astounding. Not to take anything away from Mosley, who fought brilliantly, but Margarito's flat performance and his unwillingness to agree to the fight for a number of weeks makes me wonder if there is something physically wrong with him. 

Also, Mosley is the latest older fighter to turn back the clock (Bernard Hopkins, Nate Campbell, Joe Calzaghe) against younger, stronger guys. I don't ever remember a comparable stretch where older boxers were so dominant. It makes you wonder if boxers' primes have been lengthened by advances in nutrition and training, and if, absent a significant deterioration in skills brought on by blows in the ring, we can look forward to boxers regularly competing at a championship level into their late 30s. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Good Day for the Army

The Mexican army arrested Santiago Meza in Tijuana, a man who has confessed to having murdered 300 people in the last year alone, and then having done away with the bodies in vats of acid. I can't imagine that number is accurate; that would be one murder every weekday of the year. It would also mean that he was involved in one third of the murders in that city this year. He may as well have admitted to having created evil. Nonetheless, much better to have him in jail than outside of it. 

Also, here in the Laguna, the army caught a group of kidnappers that included a municipal police officer from Nuevo León. In the articles summarizing such events, they always include the nickname of the criminals involved. For example, Meza from Tijuana is known as "Theo's Soup-Maker." In the case of the Laguna group, however, at least one of the criminals caught should look at the arrest as a chance to upgrade her moniker. In a blast of unimaginable creativity, Ana Rosa Delgado Guerrero is known as "The Ana."

Friday, January 23, 2009


If Mosley's in good shape, and if his sluggishness against Mayorga isn't indicative of a wholesale decline in his ability, he could give Margarito fits with his speed, chin, and endurance. In other words, he could do a lot of what Cotto did to him over the first half of their fight last summer. But given all the headaches (marital problems, dad problems, steroid questions) Mosley faces going in, and given that he seems to be a step slower and has traditionally had problems with taller guys (although Margarito doesn't fight tall), I don't see it happening. I like Tony by late knockout.

The Flawed Selection of Flawed Candidates

There’s been a flurry of general commentary in recent days about the upcoming electoral campaigns, regarding a) the undemocratic method with which the candidates are selected; and b) the worry that parties are insufficiently prepared to avoid the influx of drug money into campaigns.

Here’s Jorge Buendía, addressing Problem A:
A party with two or more pre-candidates [i.e. primary candidates] will be at a disadvantage in front of the “autocratic” party. The new legislation reduces the campaign timeline, but through introducing the primary campaign, it opens a space that the parties utilize today.

The internal democracy can bring electoral advantages for a party. In a primary election, the pre-candidates can become known, gain media coverage, and awaken citizen interest.

These objectives, nevertheless, are impossible to reach in elections to elect candidates to be deputies. Internal elections of this type generate little interest among the population and the media. Aside from that, before the new law, parties and pre-candidates have limited resources to promote each one of the 300 contests. In the cases in which there are primary elections, few voters will be aware.

Lastly, what will the criteria that party activists and adherents will use to evaluate the party leadership: electoral triumphs of the degree of openness in the selection of candidates? I suspect that the victories will weigh more heavily.
Ricardo Raphael tackles the same subject, but is more dejected in his conclusion:
Our democracy now travels along the path that takes us from bad to worse. Now it seems that for the upcoming federal elections, if you aspire to stand as a candidate for deputy, either you are a good friend of the parties’ principal leaders or you file away your desire to participate to use in a better moment.

The present political class –mediocre and petty—is not willing to lose even one seat in the train cars that pass by its door. The methods that are being used to select the parliamentary candidates have been placed in the complete service of the highest levels of the party.

Germán Martínez, president of the PAN, explains that in his institution they have taken such an arbitrary decision with the purpose of “guaranteeing the citizens that the candidates aren’t going to be linked with organized crime.” It’s a declaration with the aroma of a rotten lie.
Martínez's excuse may be more one of convenience than of reality, but, as I mentioned above, the effort to isolate the candidates from drug money is occupying a lot of attention these days, so it's not a totally off-the-wall explanation. Carlos Loret takes on this topic, and, instead of savaging the PAN, he is harder on the PRI, which he says, though marginally more democratic in its selection of candidates, hasn’t taken sufficient measures to counter the influx of drug money.
The interest of the criminals centers on mayors and governors that can put police at their service, but the penetration is such that there never before has been a greater risk that in the Chamber of Deputies is there exists, with legislators from various parties, a “Parliamentary Caucus from Organized Crime.”

When they talk about the topic, politicians from all the parties put on their “national security face,” but they don’t succeed in inspiring confidence that the campaign armor will resist the cannon blasts from the drug traffickers.

There are attempts. The IFE [the Mexican electoral authority] will put the names of all the aspirants and their teams into the hands of the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Finance Department so that their bank accounts are monitored. If they want the agency to reach its goal of modern and real-time oversight, they will have to allocate more personnel to the task.

The PGR, Cisen, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Public Security will collaborate with the parties that solicit investigations of the candidates about whom they have doubts, so that they “check off” their aspirants, despite what the parties promise to utilize as mechanisms of control.

The problem is that distrust is in the middle of everything. The reasonable suspicion is that if information is exchanged, if confidential data is placed in the hands of a political adversary, this will be used electorally. They’ve sworn that they won’t. But they don’t believe each other.

Furthermore, inside the federal government and even the IFE they are criticisms of the PRI: it’s the party that has accepted the fewest concrete measures to attempt to contain the narco-campaigns, such that they think that if the elections were today, it would organized crime’s easiest access to political power.
Taken together, Loret and Raphael seem to demonstrate an inherent conflict between democratic openness and the exclusion of drug money in politics. It’s a conflict that many argue is illustrated by Mexico’s recent history: as the country has democratized, drug money has had an increasingly prominent role in the nation’s politics. There’s an element of truth to this, but it certainly wasn’t inevitable, nor, more importantly, is it necessarily permanent. This post is already quite long, so I’ll elaborate at a later date.

Lack of Precision

The AP summary of the Celtics victory over the Magic in Orlando includes the following piece of scene-setting:
People pleaded for tickets three hours before tip-off, standing outside in unseasonably chilly air, and inside, there was a distinct something-other-than-ordinary feel.
But wait, why is the cool weather unseasonable? We're talking about January 22nd! If it's ever going to be chilly in Orlando, we are at the precise moment in the exact season when you would expect it. The author clearly means that it's cold for Orlando, but that's not a function of the season, but rather the climate. Therefore, it's not unseasonably chilly, but unclimatically chilly, a phrase which, despite the handicap of including a word that isn't, is far more suited to the circumstance.

Also, the song Gancho al Corazón (which serves as the theme for the soap opera of the same name) by Playa Limbo includes the line, Yo quiero vivir intensamente, or, I want to live intensely. That's ridiculous; how is an intense life in and of itself a reasonable objective? If your wife leaves you, and your boss fires you, and your ulcer flares up, and your lender forecloses on your house, and the police are investigating you for fraud, and the local gangster thinks you slept with his girlfriend, that's pretty intense, but it's also a nightmare. Why would they pick a modifier that is value-neutral?


World Politics Review has a pair of interesting (I hope) articles on Latin America under Barack Obama. First, I say that any attempt to consolidate regional policy into a few goals is a bad way to approach Latin America. Second, Frida Ghitis considers the limits of Obama-mania in Latin America.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rough Town

As the guest of honor at the inauguration of a few new DIF clinics, yesterday First Lady Margarita Zavala came to Torreón, a city that has witnessed, to put it charitably, a slight uptick in violence in recent months. As such, she was accompanied by no less than 500 federal troops.


The PAN is suggesting that the PRI wants former president Carlos Salinas to stand for governor in Nuevo León. Though intriguing, a Salinas candidacy would be more than a bit problematic, given Salinas's turbulent tenure and his fraught attempts to justify his actions.

Rogelio Carbajal, leader on the PAN National Executive Committee (which is heavily involved in doling out candidacies), also said dismissively that his party doesn't "recycle candidates." That's absolutely ridiculous. The problem with Salinas isn't that he was president per se, merely what he did with his presidency. In other circumstances, having an ex-president serve in a lower position after his (or her) term could be of great benefit. If you lived in a northern state whose economy depended heavily on foreign investment, wouldn't you want a guy with decades-long relationships with CEOs of multinational companies heading the entity? Essentially, Carbajal is suggesting that we should punish relevant experience, which, I repeat, is absolutely ridiculous.

Zuckermann on Obama's Inauguration

Here he is, correctly spelled and in Washington:
The most excited, for obvious reasons, are the black men, women, and children who came here to see something that they thought was impossible in their lifetime. I speak with several of them. I ask how they feel. Excited, overwhelmed, content, hopeful, are the answers I receive most often. I ask them if they feel proud of their country. They all tell me they do. One tells me that he is especially satisfied with the whites who finally voted for a black man for president. Until not long ago, this group of African-Americans felt, with good reason, discriminated. They were second-class citizens. Not today. This is their day. Today they feel that their political redemption finally arrived. Today, for that reason, their are many African-American tears.
It's possible that he did and I missed it, but I think Zuckermann is one of the few analysts who wrote regularly about the campaign and never expressed any doubt that being African-American wouldn't be an insurmountable obstacle to the presidency. That's probably because he has lived there and has a better grasp of the nuance of the US's racial stew.

Also, this passage appeared before the speech itself, so extra points for prognostication:
...I don't think we should expect any memorable phrases that remind us of Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Clinton.


I realized two nights ago that Leo Zuckermann's name is spelled with two "n"s at the end, rather than one, i.e. "Zuckerman." I apologize to the author, and to all who have realized my mistake in the perhaps two dozen posts that have appeared on this blog carrying his name.

In a weird way, this was quite a humbling moment for me. I don't know how it's possible that I let that slip by me. I've read ZuckermanN's column (which appears every weekday) perhaps 100 times since I've started this blog, and yet somehow, I managed to let that basic piece of info slip past me. What else that is right in front of me on a daily basis am I getting wrong?

Notes from Yesterday

The lower house of the Mexican Congress will formally debate the use of the death penalty. I don't think the return of capital punishment to Mexico is a good idea, and I don't think it's likely to be passed, but given its overwhelming popularity, a full hearing is certainly warranted.

Also, in happier news, unemployment dropped from 4.47 to 4.32 percent in December. That doesn't spell the end of the crisis (for a characteristically pessimistic take, check out yesterday's Rogelio Ramírez de la O column, where he laughs at the idea that the Mexican contraction will last a mere six months), but it's better than a rise in job losses.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


For anyone concerned about the Mexican left's messianic streak, the name of the PT-Convergencia coalition won't allay those fears. They will campaign under the banner of Let's Save Mexico.

Stephen Speaks

For my money, America's best interviewee just might be Stephen Malkmus. Always sharp and unpredictable, but not in a publicity-seeking sort of way. He pops up here on (Thanks, Culture 11.) My favorite part:
18. We've seen bands like Band of Horses and Of Montreal catch some heat for having their songs used in television commercials and now some Iron & Wine fans are groaning because one of Sam Beam's greatest tunes is getting a ton of exposure in the film Twilight. I'm happy these people are making cash and getting noticed for their work, but many people still resent this so-called "selling out," even when it's clearly the road many artists need to take to get paid in today's music industry. Your thoughts on selling songs for commercial use?

SM: No problems - to each his own. Gotta put bread on the table, within reason. It's like owning Kobe. Sometimes you gotta do it.
I was talking about the idea of selling out with my brother a few weeks ago, and we both basically agreed that it's kind of a silly complaint that you grow up making without thinking too much. The biggest problem is that, for a 19-year-old future lawyer (or insurance salesman or doctor or whatever), it's easy to call a singer a sell-out, but, as interviewer Steve Alexander points out, why should the artists have to be starving? Furthermore, artistic integrity isn't won through poverty and anonymity. London Calling is no less important for having appeared in a James Bond movie.

Modest Mouse helped clarify my thinking on this. They sold one of their cool songs from the Moon and Antarctica for a minivan ad in maybe 2004, but the song was no different afterward, and the album still had the really authentic and depressing mood that made the early Modest Mouse stuff so memorable, even post-minivan ad. When, shortly thereafter, the band stripped their music of that moodiness, that was much more off-putting to me than one of their songs appearing in a commercial. And even then, I wouldn't accuse the band of selling out; how do I know what was the inspiration that eventually resulted in more radio-friendly music?


This was to some degree inevitable as long as the levels of violence in Juárez remained stratospheric, but it's nonetheless worrying: a group of locals calling itself the Ciudad Juárez Citizen Command have promised to kill one criminal every 24 hours.


Eighty-six percent of respondents to a Grupo Imagen poll say that with Barack Obama as president, the United States will manage to maintain its position of global leadership. It's also odd that they use the word "maintain" instead of, say, "recover."

Hard to Refute

Andres Martinez makes a pretty convincing case against the wisdom of the New York Times selling a $250 million stake to Carlos Slim in Slate. The gist:

The prestige of the New York Times is such that it wields an unparalleled moral suasion. A few years ago, I wrote a Times editorial making the point that in flirting with succeeding her husband as president, Vicente Fox's wife was threatening to make a mockery of the nation's democratization. The Mexican press treated the editorial as news in itself, and Mrs. Fox backed down. (We were, to be sure, not the only ones making the point.) But from now on, any Times utterances on Mexico will now be interpreted, fairly or not, through the prism of Slim's stake in the company.

Such second-guessing will not be limited to news about Mexico. When the Times is tough on Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader can accuse the paper of doing its favorite investor's bidding. (Slim has businesses throughout Latin America.) And when the Times writes about extreme wealth concentration in other developing countries or unseemly business monopolies in Russia (or here in the United States, for that matter), second-guessers will ask why the paper of record doesn't take a closer look at what its white knight, Mr. Slim, is up to in Mexico.

The New York Times is facing difficult times, and it's easy to understand why it made this deal. But in the long run, in terms of the newspaper's global brand, that $250 million may appear far costlier than the high interest payments Slim is now due.

Word Choice

Excelsior ran an article today with the title, "Cholos shoot a pregnant woman." "Cholos" is a derogatory slang term used to refer to poor kids who dress with a hip-hop style. It's milder and more common than any American racial slur, but it's clearly derogatory, and it's not a word I've ever seen before in such a context here.

On a related note, I've also noticed that Mexican soap operas have begun sprinkling mildly offensive words into the dialogues. Gancho al Corazón (no relation to this blog) has used the words "naco" and "wey" a handful of times in the last two or three weeks, and I don't remember ever hearing them before, either in this telenovela or any other.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The PRI, Pros and Cons

David Agren has a good summary of the PRI's advantages going into the campaigns for this summer's elections at World Politics Review.

Priísta Carlos Meza Viveros offers a real-life example of why those advantages may not be overwhelming (especially if prominent PRI figures keep associating themselves with petty criminality): the former Puebla interior secretary has been linked via recorded conversations to a string of robberies of religious art from Puebla churches.

One thing about the PRI's support that is important to keep in mind: much of it is circumstantial and shallow. The PAN and the PRD are presently more dysfunctional than the PRI, but every incident like the above triggers memories of myriad other scandals, and reminds voters just how flawed the party is. 

Slim Media

Carlos Slim is upping his ownership stake in the New York Times, with a $250 million investment, which comes on top of the $128 billion injection last summer (which has since declined by more than half). Slim will be awarded shares through annual dividends over the course of several years, at the end of which he will own 17 percent of the Times' stock. (The Sulzbergers control 19 percent, which grants them control of the company because it's distributed in shares given greater voting power, which won't be the case for Slim.) One dispiriting stat about the future of the Times: as of September, it had $1.1 billion in debt, and a mere $46 million in cash on the books.

Fomenting Bitterness

This is a pretty good example of why people in Mexico are a bit defensive about American pronouncements on the drug trade: yesterday, there was a piece about the Justice Department reporting that since January 2007, $17 billion have been laundered in Mexico. First of all, drug war reports rarely include anything about the methodology that leads to their statistics, which is a bit problematic, since we're necessarily talking about estimations of hidden activities. Second, money-laundering is not exclusive to Mexico, so why doesn't the Department of Justice simultaneously release reports about the quantity of drug money laundered in American banks?

Chabat on State Failure

Jorge Chabat makes a logical point regarding the failed-state debates:
The drug traffickers have had a great presence in the country since at least the middle of the 90s and the country has been plagued by corruption since its creation.

In other words, the power of the drug traffickers isn't more than it was a decade ago, but it's more evident. The decomposition that drug trafficking generates has been hidden for years beneath the rug and Calderón simply uncovered it.


[T]he climate of violence through the country is living is simply a consequence of applying the law against drug traffickers, something the American government has demanded for years. So that generates chaos? Well, yes. But then, what do we do? Return to the policies of pretending to apply the law as in the past? Perhaps with that the governmental circles in the US would be calmer.
All this makes you wonder, why now? It's a bit like Iraq way back when in that it seems like a manufactured drumbeat to stir up concern about a problem which has existed for years. I am not suggesting any nefarious invasion plans, but it just feels kind of similar to the comments being made about Iraq around October of 2002.

The next question: how could the failed-state hypothesis change American policy? If it is indeed a failed state (and it's not, I repeat), what is the remedy? I don't think, as Chabat suggests, that government officials would be happy with a significant relaxation of drug enforcement in Mexico. So what do the Mexico hawks want? More money in the Mérida Initiative? Greater military interaction? More troops on the border? How does any of that make more than a marginal impact on Mexican security? It's a head-scratcher.

I'm going to dig deep into my bag of silly metaphors to explain this one: the failed-state theorists are like a quack doctor who is diagnosing a cancer that's never been seen before and that is not in fact a cancer, but is neither fatal nor necessarily permanent nor treatable by any known medicine.

Congrats to 44

First, to the left, we see how the Mexican media is celebrating the arrival of the new president: at Players of Life*, it's all about a new cool cat on the scene.

Andrew Sullivan has a pretty good analysis of why Obama is perfectly suited these times.

Obama acts like a kind of antacid to the American stomach. He has walked through the churn of racial and cultural and religious polarisation and somehow calmed everyone down.

Last spring he faced his biggest crisis — the exploitation by the Republican right of his incendiary former pastor Jeremiah Wright, a man whose penchant for polarisation was pathological. At a moment of extreme emotion and political peril, Obama found a way to give a speech that remains the greatest of recent times, to remind Americans of their complex and painful racial past, and not to condescend or cavil. The intellectual achievement of the speech was impressive enough — sufficient to provoke Garry Wills, the Lincoln scholar, to compare it to the Gettysburg address. That Obama wrote and delivered it as he heard in his ears every racial stereotype that had pummelled his psyche for his entire life bespoke an emotional maturity that still shocks.

He even managed — and this was a real achievement — to suck the drama out of the Clintons, to defeat them by quietly and methodically reducing their oxygen supply until they had no option but to surrender. Then he gave them their own night at the convention, a concession that many viewed as weakness but that only strengthened him. In the autumn he never took the Sarah Palin bait, treating her as one might handle the proverbial nutter on the bus even as she accused him of being a terrorist-loving socialist and whipped up largely white, southern crowds with paranoid fervour.

Even if Obama's legislative legacy falls a bit short of expectations, he has the chance to change the American political discourse for a generation. A couple decades of a more reasonable, more intelligent, and less hysterical brand of politics might not be quite as valuable as universal health care and a booming economy, but it'd be hugely significant anyway.

*If I ever publish a magazine with a foreign phrase as the title, especially if it's a phrase I am inventing, I'm going to be sure to ask a native speaker if said phrase sounds OK. Because if I screwed up the title, it would be hard for anyone to take my magazine seriously.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dispatch from Torreón's Bureaucracy

I went to pick up a package from the local post office, which was not the horrid experience for which I'd been told to brace myself. There was a bit of a wait, which gave me the opportunity to compare the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Mexicans with colonias named after them here in Torreón. The designation seems to have zero connection with the man's actual legacy.
Yes, they did have their colonia: Francisco I. Madero, Pancho Villa, Lázaro Cárdenas, Miguel Alemán, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría, José López Portillo, and Miguel de la Madrid.

No, they didn't: Venustiano Carranza (and he's from Coahuila!), Álvaro Obregón, Manuel Ávila Camacho, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, Adolfo López Mateos, Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, and Vicente Fox.

I forgot to check for them and didn't realize until I was driving home, which made me feel like Homer Simpson, but in any case I don't think they did: Plutarco Elías Calles and Emiliano Zapata.
No leader is without his flaws, but it's odd how those with colonias named for them include the most defective leaders of the last century: Villa was a bandit, Alemán presided over a kleptocracy, Díaz Ordaz and Echverría were butchers both, López Portillo was a thoroughly reviled economic incompetent, and de la Madrid was a generally ineffectual leader whose greatest legacy is the botched response to the Mexico City earthquake in 1985.

In contrast, Carranza and Obregón were titans of the Revolution. And although the rest of the men on the list (pre-Salinas, anyway; it seems premature to conclude that Carlos Salinas and his successors will never get a colonia) had no legendary accomplishments upon which to build a legacy, in view of the dubious nature of many of their colleagues' feats, a tranquil, uneventful presidency should count in their favor.

Also, I had to go pick up a set of papers at the high school from which recently deceased Fantasy Island star Ricardo Montalban graduated. I'd not been aware of his Laguna roots before his death last week. Fittingly, despite my having made an appointment, the papers were not available.

Goodbye Chegui

José Torres, former Olympic medalist, light heavyweight champ, sportswriter, contemporary of Muhammad Ali, friend of Norman Mailer, and author of one of the better biographies of the GOAT, has died. Condolences to his family. 

It's Gotta Be the PRD

Evidence arguing against the likelihood of the PRD losing its position of preeminence among Mexican leftists to the PT, even with the defection of Ricardo Monreal: 30,000 PT activists are defecting to the PRD, to protest corruption in the party.

Another piece of news that could be good for the PRD: Alejandro Encinas is launching his own PRD caucus. This could present headaches for Jesús Ortega, but it represents a better near-term outcome than Encinas heading elsewhere. In general, the hard-core leftists seem to be collectively hedging their bets about where the future of the hard-core Mexican left lies. AMLO seems more out of the PRD than in it these days, but Encinas, for years a close collaborator, is sticking around.

Farewell Gift

Not long before he leaves his post, Tony Garza made some new friends with the proclamation that Mexico is not a failed state.

Patricia Espinosa agrees.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


This has been a disappointing NFL postseason, both in terms of my favorite teams, and more generally from the perspective of wanting to see the best matchups. Today's lackluster games remind me a lot of the championship weekends from 2001 (when the Ravens won it) and 2003 (the Bucs' year), and serves as a reminder that the NFL is a lot better when two or three teams are clearly the best. I'd like to see McNabb win it, I suppose. I don't ever remember an elite quarterback having to put up with more nonsense than he has (Limbaugh, T.O., the NAACP guy who wrote the op-ed piece savaging him, and in general the fickle Philly fans). It'd be ironic if he won it this year, since he's no longer an elite quarterback in most people's eyes, and this is far from the best team he's had. But now that I've come out in his favor, he'll probably lose. 

One silver lining to these playoffs is that it will allow us to put to rest the idea that Eli Manning is the quarterbacking equal of his older brother. You may remember that Gregg Easterbrook made that very suggestion earlier this year, when Peyton was struggling and Eli was leading the league's best team. It was a silly idea then, and is even sillier now. 

Their statistics from year two through five (since Eli didn't play the whole rookie year, I tossed it. Also, thanks to for the data.):
Year 2: 4135 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs, 90.7 rating.
Year 3: 4414 yards, 33 TDs, 15 INTs, 94.7 rating.
Year 4: 4131 yards, 26 TDs, 23 INTs, 84.1 rating.
Year 5: 4200 yards, 27 TDs, 19 INTs, 88.8 rating.

Year 2: 3762 yards, 24 TDs, 17 INTs, 74.9 rating. 
Year 3: 3244 yards, 24 TDs, 18 INTs, 77.0 rating.
Year 4: 3336 yards, 23 TDs, 20 INTs, 73.9 rating.
Year 5: 3238 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs, 86.4 rating.
There's really no comparison. Peyton actually played a lot better from years 6 on, when he started to control his interceptions more (I remember thinking he turned the ball over too much when he was younger, but I didn't remember how much of a problem that was; 23 picks in one year?). Maybe Eli will show comparable improvement, but at year five of his career, Eli is not even in Peyton's league. The playoffs, however, are another story, as Peyton was really bad in the postseason early in his career, while Eli, after two pretty lame performances early in his career, played great last year. But then again, Eli reminded us last weekend that his playoff performance isn't necessarily on an upward trajectory. 

Provoking Controversy

Former White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey published an article in Lyndon LaRouche's Executive Intelligence Review in which the retired general said that Mexico was on the verge of turning into a narco-state. Hilariously, the article credits McCaffrey wtih "blowing the lid of the narco-insurgency," as if he was Bob Woodward and the heavily publicized, thoroughly documented, decades-long growth in Mexico's drug-trafficking industry was a Watergate-sized secret. 

Aside from the narco-state line, the article is thorough and straightforward, and makes a pretty good if not particularly ground-breaking case for paying more attention to Mexico. But, of course, everyone is focusing only that particular label. It's also frustrating that McCaffrey doesn't define narco-state (no one who makes the suggestion does), preferring to leave it to grow in the reader's imagination. 

Given McCaffrey's problematic history in assessing the Mexican drug trade, you'd think he'd want to steer clear of such bold pronouncements. McCaffrey should also have enough self-awareness to realize he remains one of, if not the, most controversial American drug warriors in Mexico, and any insight he has, no matter how penetrating, will only cause indignation here. Indeed, his article managed to unify the three major political parties (with some exceptions) behind the banner of Quiet Down, General. Such indignation does not bring out the best in Mexican politicians: the PAN's Felipe González said that if the United States was serious about tackling the drug trade, then Mexican organized crime "would end in a month." That is, of course, laughable. So, as his point is that Mexico and the United States both most work together to confront the matter, McCaffrey's readiness to make public comments on this in and of itself is an obstacle. 


A Mexican economic research group estimates that the economy will contract by 1.3 percent this year, which is the gloomiest prediction I've seen. Not that it's off base; if Agustín Carstens is saying zero growth in 2009, we can probably assume that his is an optimistic forecast, so minus 1.3 percent isn't too far afield. 


Witness how a local store combats thievery: this woman's name and visage live forever in infamy behind the counter, above the label "thief" and the warning to the rest of us, "Don't risk it."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

One More Drug War Post

I'd like to offer just two of the many amusing and logical points made by Luis Astorga in Seguridad, Traficantes, y Militares, which, in addition to its informational value, represents a powerful polemic against drug-war hypocrisy and illogic. 

In one of his declarations, the leader of the PGR affirmed that the Zetas were a myth, that its members were already dead or in prison. Shortly thereafter, General Vega, head of the Defense Department, symbolically revived and released them when he indicated at a meeting with senators that "he didn't want to alarm them," but "it seemed to be" that a group of Kaibiles "wanted to be invited" to join the Zetas and would be operating along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. Two months earlier, the US Department of Homeland Security had sent a memo to the Border Patrol in which it indicated that according to unconfirmed reports around 30 Kaibiles were training people from the Zetas "south of McAllen" (Texas), a twisted and bureaucratic way of saying Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Previously, the Mexican press had published reports about the supposed presence of Gurkha mercenaries from Nepal and other nationalities on the southern border, according to Guatemalan military sources. The only thing left was to report the presence of Darth Vader. 
According to the mayor of Zihuatanejo (PRD), the violence in his city and in Costa Grande was due to Fox having "come to an agreement" with one of the organized criminal groups. But if this was true, how do you explain that despite all the supposed aid for one group of all the force of the state, or at least of the presidency, that another group could compete with the "protected one"? What power greater than or equal to the president's protected the other group? Mysterious.

More Drug War Nonsense

In perusing the links in Radley Balko's article advocating the legalization of drugs, I came across this column, written by T. Michael Andrews, a "former senior policy adviser and assistant director of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security." He writes: 
Nevertheless, most professionals understand that the increase in violence in Mexico is a sign that Calderón's policies are working, not failing.
Actually, most objective professionals, if they are honest with themselves, realize that they don't really know what is going on. It's like Belfast: if you're not confused, you're not paying attention. So many variables are at play, so many known unknowns (thanks Rummy!) are floating around, there's no way to accurately measure the success of Calderón's policies. Something I wrote a couple of months ago seems relevant here: 
Two separate but related elements of Mexico's drug trade cloud the immediate reality, making it impossible to measure near-term success or failure, and all but scream for patience and moderation. The first is the fact that the most decisive players, i.e. the cartel leaders, operate hidden from public view. Their perceptions and intentions are unknown to the public. Does the recent peace and quiet in one city mean that it is already divvied up, or is one group merely biding its time and resources before making a violent play for the plaza? Will an escalation in violence send every cartel to the mattresses, or is it an opening for a pact that will reduce the bloodshed? We never know until after the fact.
Given that, absolute statements like "professionals understand that the increase in violence in Mexico is a sign that Calderón's policies are working" are of little value. Indeed, Calderón's government hasn't really told us what we should consider success to be. Fewer drugs in the US? Fewer drugs in Mexico? No more cartels with the power to challenge the state? Less violence? These are all very different goals. 

Another sign that we shouldn't take the author seriously: 
When U.S. and Mexican officials achieved the largest seizure of drug money in the Western Hemisphere — more than $200 million — it was due to cross-border law-enforcement cooperation and coordination.
Other recent successes include the arrest of methamphetamine kingpin Ye Gon in Mexico City...
First of all, the two cases are one and the same: it was Ye Gon's house where the money was found. Furthermore, Ye Gon was arrested in Maryland, which was the culmination (though not the end) of several weeks of frustration in Mexico about his walking freely in the US. (He even gave press conferences after the seizure.) Ye Gon was probably the biggest ongoing bilateral drug issue of 2007. Even if Andrews was no longer in his position, how could he not know this? Don't you want high-level drug warriors to have enough personal interest in the issue to have a basic familiarity with the most important episodes?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Arguing about Drugs

Culture 11 has all sides of the argument. Of the three articles, I think David Freddoso's Keep Drugs Illegal is the most problematic. At one point, he writes: 
The mob did not disappear when alcohol became legal again. It turned to narcotics and also used violence to create competitive advantage in otherwise legitimate trades (gambling, for example). There is no reason to believe that drug legalization would have a vastly different effect today. Under legalization, today’s drug dealers will run tomorrow’s rackets in money laundering, tax-free contraband, gun-running, human trafficking, identity theft, numbers, contract killings, perhaps even conflict diamonds. There are dozens of other such enterprises, including the more pedestrian forms of violent crime, which have been eclipsed in profitability by the drug trade. In the event of legalization, we can expect a migration back toward them. It would also be foolish to believe that a black market in drugs would disappear with legalization, especially if drugs are taxed and regulated by the government.
This argument, which seems to be the foundation of his piece, is correct to a certain point. I've written that in Mexico's case, aggressively interrupting cocaine-smuggling routes would lead to a spike in other crimes (as well as increased violence as everyone fights over the scraps), because a hit man today doesn't become an insurance agent tomorrow simply because his gang's supply ran dry. I think Mexico over the past eight years has demonstrated that. 

At the same time, it's very different in the long term; a 15-year-old would-be drug runner is more likely to divert his attention to other enterprises if he knows that there is no money in running drugs. His attention may drift to running an illegal sports book--wait, no it wouldn't, because gambling on sports is also legal in Mexico. He may drift to prostitution, but then again, he may not, because being a pimp is a lot less attractive than being a cartel operator. The point is, if we narrow the criminal options, if we take away the monetary incentive to become a certain type of criminal, some of those teenagers who today want to be a Zeta will instead open up a hamburger stand, or whatever. Already formed criminals may be unresponsive to changes in government policy, but the society as a whole can change, if you are patient. 

Freddoso also mentions the profitability in the drug trade, which, from the standpoint of Mexico residents, hints at something else that greatly undermines his argument. There are of course many crimes for criminals to commit, but when said crimes allow criminal organizations to amass tens of billions of dollars, these groups become far more serious threats to the country. The mob didn't disappear after prohibition, but the reason Al Capone was more powerful than John Gotti was alcohol. Even if you don't think that the number of criminals would eventually drop with the elimination of the drug trade, their profits, and with it their capacity to menace the state, certainly would. 

One other bone:
As with alcohol, minors would find it much easier to obtain drugs if they were legal.
This may be particular to my own experience, but that wasn't true when I was underage. When I was in high school, marijuana users probably had less difficulty in scoring weed than drinkers did buying booze. (Maybe it was different for users of hard drugs, but I suspect not.) Neither group battled too much, but the ease of purchase is not a serious argument against legalization. 

Rumor Mill

According to Bajo Reserva, Federico Peña, a former transportation secretary, is set to succeed Tony Garza as the American ambassador in Mexico. 

More on the Failure That Isn't

Ana María Salazar tackles the failed-state question in this week's column, concluding: 
Maybe Mexico isn't a failed state right now, but how can we ensure that it won't be?
That's a lot better than saying that Mexico is a failed state, but, for reasons I'm going to explain at greater length at some point, I don't think there's a reasonable chance of Mexico becoming a failed state either. 

First Two Weeks

Two weeks into 2009, there is no let-up in the violence: 205 people have been murdered in drug violence since January 1, which sets a pace of about 5,300 murders, or about the same as last year.

First Weekend

The first major network fights are here! Andre Berto squares off against Luis Collazo tomorrow night, and I can see either guy winning the fight. I have a feeling that whoever wins, it's going to seem obvious in retrospect. If Berto wins, it's going to be because he's so much more athletic and a heavier puncher; if it's Collazo, it's because he's much, much more experienced, and Berto, for all his flash, is not ready for prime time. I (sort of) like Berto's athleticism to carry him to a decision.

A couple of intriguing fights down the road were also announced this week: Marco Antonio Barrera versus Amir Khan, and James Kirkland versus Joel Julio. Khan could be dangerous for Barrera. The Mexican is naturally smaller, older, and he hasn't been a big puncher since he was at 126 pounds, so I don't think he'll be able to keep Khan off of him. Barrera's a better boxer, but I think Khan's athleticism will make this a really tough out for Barrera.

As far Kirkland and Julio, I have no clue.

Church to Women: Cover Up

Mexico is presently hosting the World Family Summit, a mostly Catholic affair which has led to a handful of silly comments about women dressing provocatively.
From the archbishop of Santo Domingo: Cleavage and miniskirts provoke men.

The archbishop of Juárez: It's not just a question of dress, but attitudes.
The Mexican family has lost its sense of shame.

The archbishop of Tegucigalpa: Women who dress provocatively devalue
themselves and their dignity, and put themselves at risk of rape.

An Ecuadorian attendee: Such women are to blame for men attacking them.
Women who dress in a style unbecoming of a Sunday mass are a periodic concern for the Mexican Church. Their lack of tact in addressing the issue --sexy clothes are so common in Latin America that even people inclined to agree with the general thrust of the comments will bristle, because they inevitably insult a person's mother, sister, daughter, aunt, et cetera-- is a pretty good demonstration of why the Church is ceding its role as the moral compass for many Mexicans. It's just so far removed from reality.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Parsing Poulos Predictions

His seventh:
Two words: Putin and Medvedev. When the going gets weird, a wise man once said, the weird turn pro, and when the Russian economy tanks as the price of oil craters, Russia’s historically vicious world of pro politics will turn positively monstrous. Medvedev will pull a Palin and go rogue, offering Europe the chance of a lifetime: a friendly Russia given a free hand in the Caucasus and Asia in exchange for admission to the EU in everything but name. Putin, of course, will not go down without a fight, or at least a quiet sushi dinner.
Present-day politics in Russia reminds me a bit of Lázaro Cárdenas' six year in the Mexican presidency. Like Medvedev, he arrived as the perceived puppet of a former president, in this case the Jefe Máximo de la Revolución, Plutarco Elías Calles. But instead of being pulled this way and that, Cárdenas outmaneuvered Calles, building his own base of power while eroding Calles', to the point that he had no need for his erstwhile patron. The cold war between the two was eventually resolved by Calles' exile to California in 1936. In supplanting Calles, Cárdenas ended his domination over the federal government. By voluntarily relinquishing the presidency at the end of his term in 1940, he established the (mostly) peaceful succession of the Mexican presidency. Anyone worried about the prospect of two more decades of Putin should hope that Medvedev turns into a Russian species of Cárdenas.

Lots of Reasons to Stay

Samuel Dillon wrote in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about how the violence in Mexico was discouraging immigrants from returning. The Migration Policy Institute just released a report that contradicts that article to a certain degree, deemphasizing security in an immigrant's home country as a factor, and talking more about the lack of economic opportunities in home countries and fears about re-entering the US. Here's the Washington Post write-up.


James Poulos places among his 11 predictions for 2009 amnesty-based immigration reform:
6. Amnesty. The issue of illegal immigration will remain urgent and vast, but anything resembling a guest worker program will be justly jeered from all sides as a Zombie Bush Plan. The left will be correct that the institutionalization of a mass of mobile labor without true citizenship will sacrifice the Mexican people at the altar of amoral, apolitical capital, and the right will be right to say ditto about the American republic. Any democracy, and especially ours, requires a maximum of humans inside it to be full citizens, rooted in the country and committed to their own shared governance. Obama will be looking for game-changing ways to overcome our apparently intractable ‘structural’ failings, and he will be looking for dealmaking Republicans working on a shocking and awesome relaunch of conservative policymaking. The deal is obvious: really seal the borders, then grant a blanket amnesty — and set up the redeeming, 21st-century equivalent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which will demand citizenship of those who have come here and empower them to govern themselves. The alternative is a future in which the rights of citizens are extended piecemeal to noncitizens—something all Americans should recoil against. And who’s that GOP bigwig Obama can rely on? That’s obvious, too: McCain.
I find this pretty unconvincing. If Obama can find his way to clear from the financial crisis long enough to devote some attention to his legislative agenda, health care is almost certainly going to come first. That's going to take months, so the window for immigration reform in 2009 is pretty small. Even if he does have sufficient time, an energy overhaul and education reform seem far more likely to occupy his attention than immigration. Immigration reform (much less amnesty) was not a campaign promise, so Obama has little incentive to dive head-first into what is inevitably going to be an extremely contentious issue. I think the best chance for immigration reform would be after another couple elections of Republicans getting pummeled by Hispanics, after Obama's already been reelected, with a new Mexican president in power, say in 2013.

This makes Bush's failure to jump on immigration in early 2005 all the more frustrating. Alex Massie's thoughts on that episode are very sharp.


Enrique Krauze and Jorge Chabat are two of the big names in Mexico who have rejected the American Joint Chiefs of Staff report that put Mexico alongside Pakistan as the world's most likely failed state.

New Tactic

Gas distributors in Zacatecas have suspended sales in four northern cities in protest of the state government's failure to combat a wave of kidnappings that have targeted their management. And Zacatecas gets cold in the winter!

Maybe the businessmen have hired Putin as a consultant. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the companies, who are surely at their wits' end, but the response punishes the people least responsible. Pretty harsh.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Best Journalism of the Day

Jeffrey Goldberg's New York Times piece on Hamas' envy for Hezbollah has deservedly gotten a lot of mention on the net today. It's fantastic.

This piece on Marvin Harrison is the most gripping and informative piece of sports reporting I remember reading in years.

Chabat on Obama and Calderón

A dose of reality was needed following the exuberance in Mexico of Obama's meeting with Calderón. So he called Calderón a key Latin American leader; Calderón is one, so what else was Obama going to say? Chabat elaborates:
The Calderón-Obama interview is without a doubt something from the Mexican government to celebrate. This meeting will put Mexico on Obama's radar, but to expect great changes in the bilateral relationship is illusory. The new president of the United States will be very busy in the coming months in solving the international financial crisis and, if he has success on that task, maybe he will start to dedicate some time to the relationship with Mexico.

So, the interview in Washington must be a motive for satisfaction for Mexican diplomacy but not to set the bells ringing. It could be the beginning of a cordial relationship between both presidents, but to think this alone will resolve all of the problems in the bilateral relationship is simply an error.

Valdes on the US Drug Problems and the DOJ Report

The author finds a little bit of institutional hypocrisy from the US government:
One hundred thousand individuals, who represent 52 percent of the total of federal prisoners, are convicts for crimes related to drugs. The US government will allocate $14 billion for the treatment, prevention, combat, and foreign aid to combat drugs.


From that amazing data inevitable questions emerge. If that country has more than 35 million addicts, why do they portion only $400 for each one of them to reign in the problem? The total figure is impressive (14 billion), but it's ridiculous considering the extension and gravity of the problem. Why don't the politicians in the United States, a country that fancies itself as the champion of individual liberty, commit to the legalization of drugs? Isn't at least plausible to propose that what each adult consumes is exclusively his business? Shouldn't a tax be established on consumption (as is the case with alcohol and tobacco) to cover the cost that we all pay to alleviate the damage of addiction, from armed violence to the destruction of health? That number of consumers deserves it?
Good points all, especially the gap between the number of addicts and the money to treat them.

Loret on Espinosa

This morning will be dedicated to the many interesting columns in the El Universal over the last few days. First up, Carlos Loret, talking about the excellent and unsung performance by the Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Relations:
In the press, the answer to the speculation was soon published: [Patricia] Espinosa would be secretary for two years, at which point [Arturo] Sarukhán would be preparing at the Mexican embassy in the United States to later arrive in relief.

The political equation didn't take into account that, in two years in office, "the perfect unknown", without any scandals, reconstructed the relationship with Mexico and Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, landed the country in the UN Security Council, also in the G-20, saved the delicate situation of Lucía Morett with the Colombian guerillas in Ecuador, and without letting herself dominated by Sarukhán's caginess, was key to the agreement on the Mérida Initiative and contributed to her boss being the only leader that the American president-elect received.
I'm not crazy about all of Calderón's foreign policy priorities, but there's no denying that Espinosa has done a pretty good job implementing them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaza in Latin America

Andrés Oppenheimer touched on something last week I've noticed in the coverage of the Israeli invasion of Gaza: it's extremely intense.
People seem to be following the Middle Eastern conflict in Gaza much more closely -- and passionately -- than in the United States.

Newspapers in this corner of the world are splashing headlines about the conflict across their front pages, much more prominently than the global financial crisis or local stories. On television, the Israeli attack on the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza after the group's constant rocket attacks is the focus of debates, with most voices criticizing Israel.

I meant to write about this last week, but I got sidetracked. Here's the covers of La Jornada, El Universal, and Excelsior the day after the ground invasion began. The last time all three papers (which, I should point out, have very different political slants, placed the same foreign event on their cover was Obama's election. Before that, I can't remember one.

As Oppenheimer mentions, the coverage is anti-Israel, but I don't see it as anti-Semitic, but rather anti-imperialist. (I'm not calling Israel imperialist, just pointing out that that's what I see in the coverage.) The negativity feels much more like the resentment of a bully than a more disturbing example of anti-Jewish bias. Oppenheimer also points out that for anti-American populists, knocking Israel is a way to take aim at the US.