Saturday, February 28, 2009

Making Lemonade from Lemons

The financial crisis would seem to be a perfect opportunity for Felipe Calderón to improve the quality of the federal police. With unemployment on the rise and tens of thousands of engineers and economists and lawyers graduating into an unwelcoming labor market each year, an aggressive recruiting program would fill the ranks of the PGR and the federal police with a capable cohort of professionals with a wide range of talents. Aside from the gain in abilities alone, it could also be a chance to build a sense of esprit de corps that seems to be sorely lacking. 

Maybe Mexico is already doing that --this NY Times piece from last summer spoke briefly about Calderón's recruiting college kids for the federal police-- but I've seen no reporting on specifically using the crisis to revitalize the security agencies, which means that millions of other potential recruits probably haven't either. 

Salazar's Unfriendly Crystal Ball

Yesterday's column from Ana María Salazar was a look back from 2019, several years after having legalized the consumption of drugs in Mexico. She imagines a nation much like today's, only worse: drug consumption equal to that of the United States, a kidnapping rate higher than any other nation's, and rampant identity theft. In her scenario, Mexico had many reasons to rue legalization. 

The problem with scenario is the same as that of legalization-as-utopia: it's fantasy. We don't have much idea of what would happen. Salazar presents as evidence Alaska, where decriminalization led to a sharp rise in marijuana usage in the 1970s and '80s, but this is a pretty weak supporting argument. First of all, drug use across the US was rising at that time, and Alaska was below the national average in high schoolers smoking pot before and well into the decriminalization. In any event, the differences between Alaska and Mexico are far more than the similarities, so extrapolating from the former's experience what would happen in Mexico is futile. Second of all, the primary goal of decriminalization isn't to lower rates of drug consumption, but to lower the mafia activity associated with it. Given that there are no Chapo Guzmáns running Alaska, the comparison isn't particularly useful. Arguments about what would happen to consumption are secondary to most legalization advocates' position. 

Salazar imagines mafiaosos jumping from drug trafficking into other crimes, such as credit card fraud and car theft. That seems like a pretty logical outcome to me, but a) if Mexico were able to develop a more capable law enforcement bodies, it would likely be temporary, and b) since said activities are less profitable than smuggling cocaine, it would represent far less of a threat to Mexican governments. That doesn't mean that a nation with 500,000 car thieves and petty crooks is better off than a nation with 500,000 drug smugglers/dealers/producers/money launderers (though I'd be interested to see what people think about that), but I don't think you can assume that a rise in other crimes following the legalization of drugs is evidence of its failure. 

I do find a lot to agree with in her penultimate paragraph: 
Mexico's historic error was trying to confront organized crime and the nation's insecurity without having developed a viable system of criminal justice. What the country continues needing are capable police, public ministers who are effective in their work, and judges that can confront organized crime. It's clear to us now that legalizing drugs is not the solution to the problems: it was only an easy way out to avoid doing the work required.
I get a little nervous when it seems like legalization proponents talk about it as though it alone would make Mexico's deficiencies vanish. Indeed, if you agree that legalization would lead to temporary increase in other crimes, in the near term those deficiencies would become all the more pressing. Regardless of what you think about legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, fixing Mexico's security agencies --from the federal to the local-- is an urgent task. 

Merino on the Cities

Mauricio Merino's column this week was thoughtful meditation on the decline of Mexico's city governments. In the years since the PRI disappeared as the preeminent party, governing responsibility has decentralized and the city has taken on greater significance. One consequence of this has been the corruption of many city governments (especially their police departments) to drug gangs. The response to this has been an effort to centralize police operations in the federal government. Merino worries about the impact of all that: 
I don't doubt the urgency of attending to the security crisis that demands the (temporary) concentration of the police power of the state. But the municipalities are much more than poorly paid and corrupt police. They are a form of political and social organization that doesn't have a substitute, and that today is lost and defeated, to our misfortune, for bureaucratic reasons. Precisely now, when they are at their most indispensable to put back together our torn fabric. 
I'm not a believer in police centralization as panacea, and Merino's concerns are all the more reason to consider ways to build local police forces (and the city governments that run them) up from the bottom, rather than look to replace them. 

Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Examples of Elitism, One Acceptable, the Other Irritating

The first (acceptable) one, from Jon Chait:
"Those Washington elite," Palin remarked, "don't like the idea of just an everyday working-class American running for such an office." It's true, we don't. On the other hand, we don't like the idea of an everyday upper-class American potentially assuming the presidency, either. Our ideal president would know much more about public policy than an everyday American of any social class.
The second (irritating) one, from Isaac Chotiner:

One rule of American politics (and American political discourse) is that commentators and (Democratic) politicians are not allowed to even suggest that a large percentage of the electorate is none-too-bright. Forty percent of people think Saddam was behind 9/11, huh? Don't say it is because they are dumb; don't you know how elitist and out-of-touch that makes you sound? (The other great answer given here is that people are too busy. Yes, people may watch four hours of television every day, but they do not possess the time to pick up a newspaper and learn that Obama is in fact a Christian). All of which is a belated way of saying that a report in this morning's New York Times is noteworthy. An excerpt:

For 90 minutes on Wednesday, during a lively, at times tense closed-door meeting in Manhattan, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pleaded his case, trying to persuade five Republican chairmen to let him run on their party’s ballot line this fall.


He is the undisputed front-runner in the race, but without the backing of a major party, his name could appear six rows over to the right on the ballot in November, turning off voters who have always favored brand names in municipal politics.

What is the implication here, and why is Bloomberg so concerned about getting his name listed with everyone else's? Is the mayor(-for-life) suggesting that the great and good American people are not intelligent enough to find the name of the person they want to vote for? And the New York press, of course, has been reporting on this story frequently, but without mentioning the obvious upshot. Apparently it is acceptable for everyone to take stupidity for granted, but only elitists have the indecency to say so.

These two both allude to the fact that most Americans don't follow politics or policy particularly closely, but a big difference between these two is that Chotiner is celebrating that fact simply for its own sake, while Chait is using it simply to affirm that being of the masses is not in and of itself a qualification for higher office. It's like the difference between being called stupid after confusing Freddie Mercury and David Bowie in front of a group of music experts, and having someone announce that you are stupid at a party with no provocation at all, with the far less worthy goal of disseminating knowledge of your stupidity. The first would be embarrassing, the second infuriating.

Random Football Gossip

Just ousted Atlético de Madrid boss Javier Aguirre is said to have been submarined by the potent combination of striker Kun Aguero and his suegro Diego Maradona. Aguirre, who should be made to replace Sven-Goran even if he says he's not interested, evidently offered some negative opinions on Aguero's conditioning and professionalism to his replacement, Abel Resino. The article notes that he has not played a full 90 minutes since Resino arrived a couple of weeks ago. Checking out Aguero's game log, the fall-off since the Christmas break is striking: one goal in his last ten games, compared to five goals in the five previous contests.

Interviews with the AP

Felipe Calderón and Eduardo Medina Mora each gave an interview to the AP about Mexico, in which they suggested that while drug violence will remain high for the foreseeable future, by the time Calderón leaves office in 2012, it will have dropped.

Calderón, perhaps considering the creation of a personality cult like that of AMLO, goes deep into the first person to deny the failure of the Mexican state:
"To say that Mexico is a failed state is absolutely false," Calderon said. "I have not lost any part - any single part - of Mexican territory."
For his part, Medina Mora affirmed that 90 percent of the victims of drug killings are active in the drug trade, while 4 percent are innocent bystanders, and the rest are cops and soldiers. I'd like to see a little more about where he got that information, especially in regard to how he went about pulling apart whether law enforcement officials were killed for doing their jobs or because they were working for smugglers.

The Mexican attorney general also provided this inadvertently revealing comment:
"We want to raise the opportunity cost of our country as a route of choice," he said.
The idea then is that the drugs will get to the United States regardless, but it doesn't have to be through Mexico. The truth of this comment (or at the very least the first half of it) is self-evident, but it's a rather striking admission coming from the highest law enforcement official in a nation receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid to fight the US war on drugs. Does it follow that even if the Mérida Initiative works better than anyone could have hope, if in 2012 the Zetas are a distant memory and Chapo Guzman and co. are all in jail and no one has replaced them, that drug consumption in the US will remain unchanged? I'd probably still be in favor of the Mérida Initiative, just for the simple reason that no one wants a basket case in the backyard, but didn't Medina Mora just admit that from an American perspective, the drug war is a joke? Again, the truth of this is self-evident, but it's odd to see a high-ranking Mexican law enforcement official support that position.

Weekend Pugs

Between the ropes, this weekend offers one decent, one very good, and one great matchup. I will deal with them in descending order.

Juan Diaz versus Juan Manuel Márquez: Diaz is the naturally bigger man with the relentless style that would seem tailor-made to bother Márquez. Márquez is the better boxer with the better skills who should be able to spin and potshot his opponent, but I'm not convinced that will be enough. Nate Campbell beat Diaz in large part because of his great work inside, and I don't have a lot of faith in Márquez's ability to do the same. One of the great pieces of advice I've heard in recent weeks about predicting fights is, Don't start with the fighter you think is going to win and then try to explain why he will do so. Instead, look at the fight as a blank slate, and try to imagine who is going have the stylistic advantage, and who is going to win the exchanges. Following that wisdom, Diaz has to be the pick. Plus, Diaz has the significant advantage of being the aggressor in front of a hometown crowd. But I'm going to ignore the above advice, and say that Márquez will find his way to a majority decision victory. If I'm wrong, I have only myself to blame, but sometimes, when selecting an entree and picking fights, you have to go with the gut over the brain.

Johnathon Banks vs. Tomasz Adamek: Banks is a likeable fighter who's showed a lot of heart and good pop on the (very few) occasions I've seen him in action, and I wouldn't be shocked to see him score an upset of Adamek. The Polish titlist has been in a lot of wars, and I think he will one day go from the height of his powers to looking like a has-been in just a few rounds. But I'm guessing that day is still far off into the future. The champ survives some early rough spots and scores a late-round knockout.

Chris John vs. Rocky Juarez: Like a handful of superstars in the '90s-era NBA, Juarez has the misfortune of being a very good competitor eclipsed by even better ones. Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Márquez have already played Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to his Charles Barkley, and I think Chris John may as well be Tim Duncan. I'd like to be wrong, but I just don't see Juarez's fifth title shot being the charm. He's still among the best 126 and 130-pounders, but he's looked listless and gun-shy in his last few bouts. I think he'd have to imitate Diaz to defeat John, but that's just not the kind of fighter he is. John cruises to a comfortable UD.

Gancho is 9-3 on the year, although the Cintron-Martínez fight is about as much a loss as was the 1972 US basketball squad's defeat at the hands of the USSR.

Learning Something New

Milenio Semanal has an interview with the the American author Paul Gootenberg, who explains that half a century ago, the nation that really fired up the international cocaine trade wasn't Bolivia, Peru, or even Colombia, but Chile, of all places. A group of families of Turkish descent controlled the cultivation and transport of the powder from Chile's border region with Bolivia, which I'd thought was mostly desert, but evidently not.

Gootenberg, whose book Andean Cocaine was the subject of the interview, also noted that the cocaine trade has always been in the hands of Latin Americans. This has always stumped me. Not being a botanist or cultivator of drugs, I speak with no expertise, but I can't imagine the Andes is the only mountain range conducive to growing coca in the world. Why, then, has an enterprising criminal in Bhutan or Afghanistan or Nepal never thought to open another center of production for cocaine? I'm not hoping they do, mind you, it's just that it seems to confound logic.

Not Coming

Felipe Calderón had been scheduled to visit Torreón today, but the visit was cancelled yesterday afternoon. Officials are denying that the cancellation has to do with security, but the following comment posted to the story linked above sums up the popular reception of that denial:
you're a coward come to torreon and stay one weekend without a security detail we'll see how you do...
It pretty much continues in that vain for another hundred words or so, with some gratuitous comments regarding the man's family.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Today's Sign that DF's Politics is Slightly Different than the Rest of Mexico's

Among the Workers Party's candidates for the legislative assembly in Mexico City is Lucía Morett, the 27-year-old activist who survived the Colombian attack on the FARC camp where Raúl Reyes' was staying last spring. Morett claimed to be in the FARC camp as part of an academic mission researching, among other things, guerillas and music. That episode and its aftermath, which didn't reflect particularly well on Morett, is essentially the only reason that Morett is in a position to run.

Spanish-speakers, check out past interviews with Morett.

Florida on the Crash

Usually, when a book or movie or article is prefaced with a modifier as unabashedly positive as "spell-bindingly brilliant", I approach the piece with the fastidiousness of a mother examining her only son's fiancée for the first time. After turning every dangling participle or two minutes of dead time into a pretext for intense disdain, I am inevitably disappointed. In the case of Richard Florida's "How The Crash Will Reshape America , the advance praise (supplied by John Judis) was well warranted. It was brilliant, and I was spellbound. I especially liked the last quarter of the article. Take this section:
The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real-estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy. And not least, it created a workforce too often stuck in place, anchored by houses that cannot be profitably sold, at a time when flexibility and mobility are of great importance.

So how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life? What’s the right spatial fix for the economy today, and how do we achieve it?

Not only is this a piercing observation that has been sorely lacking over the course of the last two decades, but it's also one I've had right in front of me my entire adult life. Even as friends and acquaintance have bought their own houses, I've never considered it, for the very reasons Florida mentions.* I didn't want to be tied down; if a job opened up in, say, Torreón, I didn't want to be stuck in Chicago in a lame job with an irritating boss simply because I'd bought a house. My home-buying instincts (and those of many like me) were shaped by the globalized world, but American policy was based on an ultimately unsustainable denial of that world. How could this observation have escaped me?


As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.

The foreclosure crisis creates a real opportunity here. Instead of resisting foreclosures, the government should seek to facilitate them in ways that can minimize pain and disruption. Banks that take back homes, for instance, could be required to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.) A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive.

Next, we need to encourage growth in the regions and cities that are best positioned to compete in the coming decades: the great mega-regions that already power the economy, and the smaller, talent-attracting innovation centers inside them—places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

Maybe it wouldn't work for a variety of reasons I can scarcely envision, but the foreclosure plan Florida mentions sounds better than any other plan I've heard tossed around. The people who made bad decisions would be punished but without ruining their lives, the banks would be able to maintain a revenue stream in declining real estate markets through the rent revenue, and it would counteract the rigidity imposed by the ownership society.

I do worry that Florida's scheme for the government favoring certain regions' growth would be problematic. This isn't a case of broadly favoring cities and close-in suburbs instead of exurbs, but punishing citizens simply for growing up in Detroit or Youngstown, while rewarding others for inhabiting specific areas thought to have the potential for high growth. It's hard to imagine a government policy that could achieve this fairly and smoothly.

To summarize: while reading, I felt like I was visiting a soothsayer. However, since I don't regularly read work by other demographers and don't really think about the world the way I imagine they do, I do wonder if most any demographer is capable of blowing my hair back the way that article did.

*Of course, a much more direct impediment to Gancho's entering the ownership society is the fact that I've never had enough money in my bank account to even consider purchasing a new car, much less a new house.

Delivering the AKs

Nice work James McKinley! The Times delivers a solid dispatch on the gun trade in Arizona, which helps supply the Mexican drug gangs. One guy featured in the article sold more than 515 AK-47s to straw buyers representing the Beltrán Leyvas. What's somewhat unsettling is that there appears to be nothing inherently illegal about selling 500 AKs in a couple of years in Arizona; what made the dealer a target for authorities were his efforts to circumvent regulations and his talking openly about how the guns were going to be used by smugglers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Schettino on Protests

Macario Schettino's weekly column begins thusly:
Forty years ago, showing inconformity publically was a challenge. Marching, shutting off streets, and occupying plazas demanded a great deal of courage: it was to challenge an authoritarian government, which perhaps wasn't essentially repressive, but nor did it hesitate a great deal before crushing the opposition. With the downfall of that regime, that sense of public demonstrations also disappeared, and they were transformed into parodies, into instruments of pressure for unscrupulous leaders...
There's a fundamental incongruence to a country in which voting abstention rates are often close to two thirds of the electorate, but in which traffic-snarling, commute-lengthening, potential customers-offending marches are more common than full moons. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but marching on the capital to protest something as banal as increases in the price of diesel fuel --and I don't mean to understate its importance to certain industries, but let's not mistake cheap gas for an inalienable right-- is a bit cynical. An eminently reasonable proposal to address this: anyone who hasn't voted in three of the last four gubernatorial, presidental, or congressional elections in his or her state is banned from marching on the Zócalo. Violators will be exiled to northern Greenland.

(Yes, I am still bitter about the de facto increase in taxi rates that AMLO's protests forced upon me in 2006, when I was living in Mexico City.)


The DEA has announced hundreds of arrests as part of an operation aimed at the American and Canadian network of Chapo Guzmán:
To date, Operation Xcellerator has led to the arrest of 755 individuals and the seizure of approximately $59.1 million in U.S. currency, more than 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, more than 16,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 8 kilograms of heroin, approximately 1.3 million pills of Ecstasy, more than $6.5 million in other assets, 149 vehicles, 3 aircraft, 3 maritime vessels and 169 weapons.
The operation's delightful name --once more, that's Xcellerator-- would seem to indicate that at least some of the people being laid off from marketing positions are finding work in the government. Even allowing for the tendency of American law enforcement to grossly overstate the impact of drug arrests, those are some large numbers.

Up, Up, Up

In a new report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation that measured advanced nations' capacity for innovation and competitiveness, Mexico placed toward the bottom in the majority of the indices. It was 38th out of 40 overall, one spot in behind Brazil and one in front of India. Of all the individual categories --ranging from corporate tax levels to the quality of higher education to the amount of dollars spent on research and development-- Mexico's best score was 23rd, in foreign direct investment.

However, though this is clearly not a cause for celebration, there is a silver lining. Mexicans should be pleased that Mexico was even included at all. Being measured against Finland and the US and Japan stacked the deck against Mexico, but other mid-level regional powers (South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, among others) would love to have been on the list. Moreover, the measures of improvement since the late 1990s offer a lot of optimistic pieces of data. Mexico ranked third thanks to a 20 percent leap in IT investments from 1999 to 2006; its improvements in higher education were the second most significant; the nation's rises in science publications and corporate spending on research and development both ranked sixth; its business climate and broadband access also landed in the top ten. This list proves that Mexico is out of its depth when compared to China, the US, and Western Europe, but we already knew that. Less expected but more welcome are the indications that, in certain areas, Mexico is bounding in the right direction.

Who's the Champ?

Is there any tournament that delivers better matchups year in, year out than the Champions League? There is not. It's like an organized version of the great welterweight-middleweight battles of the 1980s, only it takes place over a span of a few months, and we can look forward to it every year. Other than being broadcast in the middle of the week when most of us are working, and not delivering a trophy to the Special One for five years now, it is flawless.

To mark the round of 16, check out the Phrasenschwein Project, a very useful glossary of clichés for would-be football snobs. (You'll note I said "football snobs" instead of "soccer snobs." That's step one for American aspirants.) Highlights:
FIERY Euphemism for "alcoholic." Also: "Southern European."

MARADONA Better than Pele. See PELE.

METATARSAL A part of the body that was discovered shortly before the 2006 World Cup. A mark of weakness: "They didn't have those when I was playing."

PENALTY SHOOTOUT A lottery. Note that you can't practice for them. England will lose through one in the quarterfinals.

PELE Better than Maradona. See MARADONA.

PIPPO INZAGHI He was born in an offside position.

(Thanks JC.)

The Blame Game

The last few days have offered a tit-for-tat spat between PAN and PRI functionaries over who is to blame for the insecurity today. PAN chief Germán Martínez said Mexico is being rattled today because past PRI presidents dropped the ball; PRI Senator Jesus Murillo responded that such was stupidity; Interior Secretary Fernando Gómez Mont reaffirmed Martínez's comments, and threw a little leftover blame Vicente Fox's direction for good measure.

I'm not sure quite what PRI officials have to gain by defending their past presidents, none of whom hold public office and all of whom are widely (and correctly) considered to have been ineffective in combating the growth of Mexican drug gangs. They'd do better to simply focus on today. Similarly, I'm not sure what Calderón and co. think blaming the others does for them. It's a matter of fact that drug violence has reached unprecedented levels under his administration, so indirectly encouraging comparisons between today and, say, the halcyon days of Miguel de la Madrid is unhelpful. Aside from that, it's irrelevant. I don't think Mexicans much care who is to blame --they are mostly content fingering anyone powerful-- they just want it to get better.

Back and Forth

David Brooks' latest column and George Packer's response make a pretty good critique and rebuttal of said critique of Barack Obama's response to the crisis. Brooks' concerns --essentially the impossibility of the White House remaking the American economy on the fly and the inevitability of failure-- are worth keeping in mind, but Packer captures the flaws of his argument with the following passage:

Here’s the test Brooks should set: will Obama’s efforts lead to worse than the alternatives? Will they be worse than his predecessor’s? The conservative approach to economic and social policy, as refined to ideological purity under Bush, is to get government out of the way, trust free markets, and let chronic problems fester until they turn into disasters. The results are all around us (one example among hundreds: the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate Wall Street). Brooks pits a rigid, abstraction-loving liberalism against a wise, experience-loving conservatism. But recent American history has shown the truth to be closer to the opposite. We are where we are because the ruling conservative ideology of the past few decades refused to face facts, like the effect of private insurance on health-care costs, or the effect of deregulation on investment banking. Facts drove the Republicans out of power. And judging from their response to Obama’s first month in office, facts are very hard things to face in politics.

Obama isn’t trying to remake America’s economy and society out of ideological hubris. He’s initiating sweeping changes because he inherited a set of interrelated emergencies that require swift, decisive action.

What Karlo Castillo Has in Common with William Clay Ford

The chief of Torreón's police said that for the police force to meet his standards, he'd have to fire 90 percent of the officers working today. This is the same force that was not too long ago hailed as the best in northern Mexico.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Good Point

Leo Zuckermann is characteristically sharp in the opening to today's column:
One thing that the nation's attorney general and the federal secretary of public security agree on: the war against organized crime will be won the day that the society places itself on the side of the State. That's what happened in Colombia. Although the country has worse indices than Mexico in terms of insecurity, the idea that the corner has been turned on the problem is widely held. The question is: why? The answer has to do with the general attitude of the Colombian society that, sick of what was going on, began to support the State in its fight against organized crime. Social tolerance [of crime] ended. Not to mention the explicit support. That's what President Álvaro Uribe achieved: aligning the society with the State.

Schumacher-Matos Stands Up for Mexico and Legalization

I agree with the gist of this article (essentially, Mexico is not failing, but it's in bad shape in large part because of American drug consumption), but there are a couple of factual points here that bear questioning:
About 6,600 Mexicans were killed in fighting involving drug gangs last year, and alarms are going off in this country.
Where is this number coming from? The PGR says it was 5,600. Most media tallies are slightly less. How has what I will presume to be nothing more than a slip of O'Grady's finger turned into fact?

Two of our past three presidents...have tried drugs.
Of Clinton, Bush, and Obama, which hasn't tried drugs? I suppose this is because Bush has never admitted to doing drugs, but, unless I'm mistaken, nor has he denied it, and there's been plenty of reporting on the topic.

Impossible Task

Patricia Mercado's plan to go door to door to spread the word about the evil doings of the PSD's electoral adversaries is a perfect example of why the prohibition on negative campaign propaganda is both futile and silly. The IFE has said that Mercado's plan is unfortunate, and may be illegal, although it seems like it should be allowed to my inexpert eyes. More importantly, the episode demonstrates how negative campaigning is like water building up against a leaky dam: it will find a way to sneak through, one way or another. If it's not sanctioned by the electoral authorities, then negative propaganda will be disseminated via Youtube videos and anonymous email chains. As we all (sort of) learned from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, negative opinions will find a way. Even more importantly, a fundamental part of all political propaganda is that the other guy does it wrong, so you should vote for me. Restricting that essential message because it's ugly is like outlawing blocked shots in basketball.

(Gratuitous metaphors in this post: three. It's just a huge day for me. This is the perfect way to bounce back from the disappointment I alluded to in the previous post.)


I had a good idea for a random thought post bouncing around my mind all morning, and it has suddenly escaped without a trace, like an extremely vivid dream whose subject matter is somehow irretrievable the next morning. This is devastatingly irritating. I've not been so frustrated since a friend hanging out in a casino forgot to lay 100 bucks on Winky Wright before he fought Tito Trinidad. I may never blog again.


An ex-soldier has been arrested for the attack on the convoy of Chihuahua governor José Reyes Baeza. The PGR is saying that it wasn't an attempt on the governor's life. That may be the case, but it strains credulity to suggest that it wasn't supposed to be a message at the very least; otherwise, why not kill one of Reyes' escorts at his house, so as to avoid sparking a manic manhunt?

This is just one of approximately six billion recent criminal episodes that involve soldiers or ex-soldiers. I don't know if there's been an increase in criminal activity involving soldiers, or if I'm just paying more attention now, but I'd like to see some research on the subject that goes beyond the anecdotal.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Good Idea Although the Public Disagrees

The PRI has a proposal to link the president's cabinet on the approval of the senate. According to an Excelsior/Grupo Imagen online poll, 82 percent of Mexicans are against said plan.

At the risk of lazily thinking that more similarity to the US system implies greater effectiveness, I think the broad strokes of the PRI's scheme are sound. I suppose a lot would depend on how, along the continuum from perfunctory consent on one side to raking nominees over the coals as a matter of course on the other, the senate actually practiced its prerogative, but I like the fact that the senatorial approval in the States offers potential cabinet officers an incentive to stay clean. Such a mechanism could also serve as a filter of conflicted cabinet officers, as many people alleged that Juan Camilo Mouriño was after his family's contracts with Pemex were discovered last year. In that sense, senatorial approval would be a baby step in the direction of cleaner government, one of thousands needed in Mexico. Plus, this PRI plan not as unwieldy or as underhanded as the past scheme to superimpose a prime minister on the presidential system.

More Bad News in Chihuahua

A couple of days after the chief of the Juárez police was bullied into resigning, the governor of Chihuahua survived an assassination attempt.

Juárez is unusual in that it is a huge bordertown that is home to a drug cartel and also has significant drug consumption among its residents (Tijuana is the only other area that shares those characteristics). Consequently, the rest of the country isn't likely to simultaneously decay from above and below in quite the same way, but given that drug use in Mexico is relatively low and rising, it's conceivable that the rest of Mexico could look more like Juárez in ten years. That's more than a bit scary.

Aguayo on Failure

Sergio Aguayo Quezada tackles the Mexican state's grade. A bit like your blogger in tenth grade, he finds that Mexico is passing, though not in such a way that provokes optimism:
In general terms, the answer must be no [Mexico is not failing] – if only because the state still controls most of its territory. However, the situation becomes less clear if the actual, close working of cities and institutions are examined: here, the state's presence is often notional, as those who control the power-strings are the narcos. The government of Felipe Calderón is disoriented and passive in face of the corruption, inequality and impunity that bleed and debilitate society and the state. The feeling that we are marching towards a precipice is accentuated.

Another Post about a Somewhat Dated Piece

Philip Brenner and Saul Landau have authored a piece suggesting that Obama could mark a new era of the US government's Latin America policy by holding a mock funeral for the Monroe Doctrine. This is like apologizing profusely for a horrible insult that you delivered in grade school. If you're still a jerk, it doesn't really matter that you are apologizing for this single act, because you've done a million other things since then that merit anger. And if you aren't still a jerk, then it doesn't really matter to start off with, because it was so long ago.

I suppose a ceremony interring the Monroe Doctrine couldn't do much harm (I don't think the possible outcry from hard-right Latin Americanists would be worth more than a moment's consideration), but what good would it do? The target audience for such an act would be the small minority of Latin Americans who are still hung up on the Doctrine, but such a group's grievances go far beyond the policy implemented nearly 200 years ago (although it was invoked under the Roosevelt Corollary repeatedly in the twentieth century, up until the mid-1960s). Unless the fake funeral was coupled with a very visible reversal of the more recent iterations of heavy-handed and hypocritical American policy in Latin America, it would be seen as a cynical ploy. At the same time, if Obama were to step away from said heavy-handedness and hypocrisy --say, by deporting Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela or unilaterally lifting the Cuba embargo-- than the present status of the Monroe Doctrine would immediately become moot.

The same calculus applies even more so for the far larger group of Latin Americans whose lack of love for the US isn't due to lingering anger over the Monroe Doctrine, but rather modern frustrations like strict immigration restrictions and their zealous enforcement, the Iraq war, support for Chávez's ousters, et cetera. Without addressing the proximate causes of resentment of the US, declarations about policies implemented close to 40 administrations ago won't have much impact.

(Thanks Alterdestiny.)

Another Bad Year for the Press

This is a bit old, but I've been meaning to post something like this: in Poder, Carlos Lauría discusses last year's journalistic casualties of Mexico's insecurity. In 2008, five reporters were killed and another disappeared, which bring the total to 24 in the past eight years. Aside from that, numerous newspapers suffered threats that resulted in self-censorship. Mexico remains the Western Hemisphere's most dangerous country for journalists, as well as one of the most dangerous in the world.

Lauría also expresses dismay that the federal official charged with monitoring and combating journalists' killings, Octavio Orellana Wiarco, has shown a tendancy to downplay the violence. Another sign that Mexico simply isn't taking the issue seriously: the convicted murderer of journalist Manuel Buendía is being released, after having his 25-year sentence reduced to 19.

Back in Mexico

LA Times reporter Sam Quinones returns to Mexico for the first time since 2004, and expresses shock at the country's insecurity. The dark Foreign Policy piece, part of an "Axis of Upheaval" issue, includes this memorable line:
Sinaloa is that rare place where townies emulate hayseeds, and youths yearn to join their ranks.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bad Precedent

In Juárez, the police chief resigned two days after receiving threats that until he left his office, one policeman would be killed every 48 hours. In the interim, a guard at the city jail and a municipal cop were both gunned down.

I can't judge anyone who was in a situation so foreign from anything I've ever experienced, but the fact that such a gambit worked, that the police didn't circle the wagons to protect their boss and ward off criminals, offers an undeniable illustration of who runs that town.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Militarized Police

Mexican deputies have presented a plan to create a national guard, a militarized police unit that could combat drugs and leave the army to protect national security.

This could be a good idea, but I worry that it's just more uniform switching that doesn't get at the heart of the problem: effective police units that are relatively free of corruption. There's been so much of this in the past decade (just off the top of my head, and at the risk of getting mixed up: Feads becomes Siedo, the PJR is disbanded in favor of the PFP and AFI, the PFP is folded into the AFI, et cetera), and I think there's a lot to be said for simply avoiding the administrative hassles of modifying the bureaucratic structure in favor of just making the agencies that exist today as good as they can be.

Friday Fun

Jesús Silva-Herzog has compiled a handful of the worst ads from the campaigns for the summer elections on his blog. Prepare to cringe.

End of an Era

Cantarell is no longer the foremost producer of Mexican crude, for the first time in 30 years.

Poor Word Choice

Yesterday, Economy Secretary Gerardo Ruiz commented that had Felipe Calderón not been elected in 2006 and proceeded to attack the drug gangs, the next president would be a narcopresidente. Even beyond the impossibility of proving this hypothesis and the lack of semantic precision in the loaded term "narco-president," what a truly silly comment this is. With Mexico battling to maintain its image as a functioning state, how could a high-ranking cabinet official not realize that this is fodder for those who argue that Mexico is failing? And if the presence of the cartels in Los Pinos comes down to the election of just one man (who very nearly lost), what does that say about the Mexican state?

He's Back!

Actually, they're back: Kelly Pavlik and Miguel Cotto both rebound from devastating first losses on Saturday night, the former against Lagunero Marco Antonio Rubio and the latter against Brit Michael Jennings. While Pavlik is a likeable American with the potential to be a mainstream star, I like Rubio's style and I know his brother, so I wouldn't be crushed at seeing an upset. But unless Pavlik's confidence is totally shot or he's having a hard time getting down to 160, I don't see how he loses this. Rubio is a big puncher, but he's a limited mover who won't be able to spin Pavlik and kill him with combinations the way Bernard Hopkins did. Rubio's style has a lot in common with guys like Zertuche and Miranda, who were both tailor-made for Pavlik. It's a perfect rebound fight for Pavlik: a tough guy who will trade but won't frustrate Pavlik. I like Pavlik to win with a late knockout before a rowdy home crowd.

As for Cotto, his knockout loss to Margarito was more physically brutal than Pavlik's decision loss to Hopkins, but he was far more competitive up until he ran out of gas (and the accumulation of plastered punches?), and the Margarito suspension has to give him an added shot of confidence. I don't know much about Jennings, other than that he's not a world beater. I think Cotto will come out with the vintage meat-and-potatoes style he showed off coming up: lots of body work, not much flipping to the southpaw stance, and a solid knockout in the middle rounds.

Welcome back to the winner's circle, boys!


Erik Holder's characterization of the United States as a nation of cowards on racial issues has earned some coverage here. Aside from the politics (stupid, stupid, stupid comment) of the issue, I really think Holder is just plain wrong. We may be cowardly compared to some idealized utopia, but I think in terms of confronting our racial past, in terms of seeking out racism and addressing it, we are far ahead of many other nations. In Mexico, there is no legacy of institutionalized racial hatred, so there is less of an impetus to confront racism today, but examples of what Americans would call racism abound. Two good examples: 1) most soap operas have 80 percent lily-white faces; 2) on the Coahuila wikipedia page, someone wrote that 74 percent of the state has European ancestry. Anyone walking around Torreón with a pair of working eyes can tell you that this is flatly untrue, and according to the CIA Factbook, people of predominantly European ancestry make up just 9 percent of the Mexican population. My knowledge of other nations' racism is anecdotal and mostly related to sports, but the sprinkling of high-profile racist incidents that would be unacceptable in the States (in Spain, in England, in Spain, in Italy, and once more in Spain) suggests that much of the world is more like Mexico than the United States.

I don't mean to burn Mexico or any other nation, and most of the examples I see are superficial or ignorant rather than an expression of hatred, but the reason I see all this as borderline racist and Mexicans may not is that the US has become exceptionally astute at reading between the lines and determining racist intent. I don't think that means that the nations without our history and consequent racial self-consciousness are cowardly (it was really an odd choice of words by Holder), but nor is the US, so far ahead of many of its peers recognizing racism, a yellow nation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Not Liking What He Sees

Rogelio Ramírez de la O isn't thrilled by the stimulus plan offered by the Obama administration (saying it was hemmed in by the desire not to cause unrest on Wall Street) but compared with the Mexican government's reaction to the crisis, he's falling in love with Geithner:
Today the most powerful country in the world is trying to move its economy forward, utilizing infrastructure spending and public support, and even with this it will be very difficult to overcome the problems. Here the government already used the better part of its increase in resources in its current expenses. On the other side, oil income and tax revenues are going to fall, and there won't be anything left with which to confront the crisis.

And Water Is a Barrier to Dryness

The International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency that just released a report in Vienna, has identified corruption as a major obstacle to narcotics enforcement in Mexico.

Alterman on Newspapers

Eric Alterman has a thoughtful column in The Nation about the newspaper's demise. Here's a potential solution, as well as an interesting observation worth repeating:

Yet another potential panacea lies in government funding. If we can bail out banks and auto companies, goes the argument, why not an industry on which the health of democracy depends? And while direct government funding of the press is anathema to all who value free expression, we have the examples not only of the extremely independent-minded BBC and CBC but also an innovative set of steps taken by the French government to shore up that country's newspaper industry, none of which impinge on said industry's ability to write freely about the government.


Perhaps it is a mistake to try to save "the newspaper" per se. Given the unavoidable splintering of what once was a "mass" audience for just about all forms of culture and entertainment, the old-fashioned notion of a mass "newspaper" with a sports page, a comics page, a crossword puzzle and a heartwarming story about the winner of a local high school science fair is a predigital phenomenon, however great the devotion to its daily appearance on our doorstep by old farts like yours truly. Ironically, it is the sections of the paper most crucial to informed democratic discourse that are in danger of disappearing. Sports news, entertainment news, health news, fashion, celebrity and style reporting will always be with us in one form or another, because they are such delightful places to advertise.

Scary Photo

From Excélsior, one of a handful killed in Reynosa in fighting with federal troops in recent days.

Lacey on Mexico

Marc Lacey has written a couple of absorbing dispatches from Mexico City this week, one about Marcelo Ebrard's Viagra-distribution plan, and another about Carlos Slim. The latter offers a credible explanation for the relative popularity of the mega-billionaire: he comes across as basically normal, or as normal as such a rich man could be, which is just a roundabout way of congratulating him for not being a sociopath.

It is not merely Mr. Slim’s resources that help swing coverage his way, Mexican journalists say. Rather, they say, Mr. Slim, a widowed father of six, has an unassuming, avuncular persona.

He often shuffles into events alone, his bodyguards well out of sight. Addressing the press, Mr. Slim can appear ill at ease, resembling at times a small business owner rather than Mexico’s richest man.


“We journalists cover so many bad guys here in Mexico, so many big egos, that Slim, despite all his faults, doesn’t appear all that bad,” said Mr. Riva Palacio, the Mexico City journalist.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't Get Too Excited

Pemex expert David Shields explains why the historic discovery of oil beneath Puebla and Veracruz this week was neither historic nor a discovery. Discuss!

Honest Answer

Mike Schmidt, in the midst of an interview in which he said he would welcome Alex Rodriguez into the Hall of Fame, reponds to a question about whether he would have used steroids had he played in the modern era:
"Most likely. Why not?"

A Magic Number and Other Electoral Possibilities

Jorge Chabat is just one of several recent commentators wondering about the possibility of the PRI winning a majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the July elections. Leo Zuckermann indicated last month that he thought it was quite possible, noting that if the PRI wins as 167 of the 300 district races for deputy, as well as 42.2 percent of the national vote (which is used to apportion the 200 plurinominal seats), it will hit the magic number. In contrast, Jorge Buendía was more skeptical in this week's column. This isn't just an academic piece of arithmetic: a PRI with 251 deputies could paralyze Calderón's agenda for the next three years.

While Zuckermann offers a logical path for how it could happen, I'm also skeptical of the PRI's chances of reaching 251, basically for the reasons Buendía mentions. Self-identified PRI supporters are less certain of their votes than PAN supporters, although there are a greater number of the former. The PRI support is essentially a mild protest against the ruling-party PAN and the disintegrating-party PRD. It's possible because the worst side of the PRI is buried deeper in Mexicans' memories than those of its competitors. I expect that once the candidates are named and the campaigns start in earnest, at least some of the PRI will do a bang-up job reminding Mexico why 2000 was such a cause for celebration. When voters have a side-by-side view of the electoral options, the idea of punishing the PAN and the PRD will become less important than the relative strengths and weaknesses of the candidates themselves.

There are also a number of possible scenarios that aren't getting a whole lot of attention. What happens if the PAN and the PRD collectively hold a narrow majority? Would the PRD under Jesús Ortega be willing to find common ground with Calderón and the PAN in order to pass legislation? Would the perredistas in the senate go along with that? What would said legislation look like?

Also, let's say that the PRI and smaller parties like Nueva Alianza and the Green Party together hold a majority. In which direction will the smaller parties lean?

Silly Mistake

In its request for the extradition of Eduardo Arellano Félix, the US government mistakenly placed several photos of his brother Ramón, who was killed in 2002, in the file. Evidently, this oversight could place the extradition at risk, and even lead to Eduardo's release from Mexican prison.

Bloody Tuesday

Yesterday in Torreón and Gómez Palacio, in which slightly less than a million people live, 11 people were killed in drug violence. However, the events were pushed off the front page of the national papers by similar if not worse violence in Reynosa between drug traffickers and the army. I also wonder if the difference in coverage of yesterday's events compared with the attention devoted to the New Year's gunfight owes anything to the fact that this time around, most of the shooting was confined to poor neighborhoods.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Populist Drug Cartels

Over the past several days, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz have borne witness to protests of the presence of the army. Today, the governor of Nuevo León, Natividad González, accused the Gulf Cartel of paying the protesters. It's unfortunate that he offered no evidence (other than a vague reference to the arrests of people with a relationship to organized crime), because it's a lot easier to blow off the accusation as an embarrassed executive's blustering as a result. However, a couple of factors lead me to suspect that there may be some truth to González's comments: first, the states in question are the traditional stomping ground of the Gulf Cartel, and other states with an army presence have had no protests; second, there has not been, as far as I know, a rash of army abuses in any of those states in recent weeks (although, I haven't read Proceso in a couple of weeks, so I could be missing something), so it's an odd time for the protests to flare up; third, paying protesters for their objection has a long tradition in Mexican politics. 

Salam Is Universal

Reihan Salam earned a mention in El Universal's Bajo Reserva column for his recent Forbes piece about drug violence in Mexico. The Mexico City paper approved of his relative urgency in describing the situation (for anyone scoring at home, he didn't call Mexico a failed state, but he didn't exactly shoot the idea down, either), but I take issue with a couple points. First, Salam makes a lengthy comparison between Mexico and Iraq, which is about as useful as all the people who were comparing Iraq to post-Nazi Germany in 2003. All that section demonstrates is that Mexico and Iraq are so different as to render any analogy extremely misleading. 

Second, Salam draws the following conclusion: 
All I can think of is for Mexico to accept U.S. assistance that would include a massive effort to train Mexican forces to crush the cartels. But that's a step that won't appeal to Mexican nationalists, or, for that matter, to Americans who are wary of walking into an expensive military quagmire. 
Salam is right about the barriers to deepening the security links between the two nations, but I think he understates the limits of American policy in Mexico. Americans are prone to thinking that American policy, properly designed, can solve most any problem, but absent a huge decrease in drug demand, there's not a lot we can do to impact Mexico's drug wars in the near term. For Mexico, the missing commodity is honesty in the security forces, and the US can't supply that. As the Gafes (later the Zetas) show, there's no reason to think that American training even addresses corruption, much less eliminates it. We could theoretically train tens of thousands of Mexican Jason Bournes, but until Mexico can ensure that they don't end up working for drug gangs, its efforts to weaken the cartels are going to be hamstrung. 

Not True

Genaro García Luna, Mexico's Secretary of Public Security, said that the drug violence in Mexico has gotten so much worse because in the past four years, consumption of drugs has doubled. Much of the increase in violence is surely due to gang fighting spurred by the local market rather than cartel warfare driven by American drug use, but García Luna is factually incorrect: according to the most recent National Survey on Addiction (scroll down to the bottom right section of the paper for the relevant info), which measured the increase in the previous six years, shows that the number of users (as distinct from addicts) went from 4.6 percent to 5.5 percent of the population, which is an increase slightly less than 20 percent, and significantly less than the doubling that García Luna suggested. Of course, he was talking about total consumption, so I suppose it's possible that the 0.9 percent of Mexicans who started using accounted for a 100 percent increase in consumption, but that's highly unlikely. Or maybe he was referring to cocaine, which basically doubled in the past six years.

Given the above, perhaps we should take the rest of his statistics with a grain of salt, but this stat shows how Mexican criminal groups have branched out beyond cocaine smuggling: according to García Luna, in 2002 there were 50 complaints of extortion. Last year, there were 50,000.

Samuelson on the Japan Comparisons

Robert Samuelson made some interesting points in yesterday's column:
The president says that Japan's history demonstrates the need for his "stimulus package." To the contrary, claim Hannity and other conservatives, Japan shows that stimulus plans don't work. Up to a point, they're both right. But the possible parallels between Japan's experience and our own are much broader and pose the question of whether we, too, might face a "lost decade."

What happened to Japan in the 1990s?

It did not, as some commentators say, suffer a "depression." Not even a "great recession," as others put it. Japan experienced a listless, boring prosperity. Its economy expanded in all but two years (1998 and 1999), although the average annual growth rate was a meager 1.5 percent. Unemployment rose to 5 percent in 2001 from 2.1 percent in 1990. Not good, but hardly a calamity. Japan remained a hugely wealthy society.


The trouble is that this system broke down in the mid-1980s. The rising yen made Japanese exports costlier on world markets. New competitors -- South Korea, Taiwan -- emerged. Japan lost its engine of growth and hasn't found a new one. That is Japan's central economic problem.


Since the early 1980s, American economic growth has depended on a steady rise in consumer spending supported by more debt and increasing asset prices (stocks, homes). Just as the mid-1980s signaled the end of Japan's export-led growth, the present U.S. slump signals the end of upbeat, consumption-led growth. But its legacy is an overbuilt and overemployed consumption sector, from car dealers to malls. The question is whether our system is adaptive enough to create new sources of growth to fill the void left by retreating shoppers.

As Samuelson notes, Japan was a fantastically rich society at both the start and the end of the 1990s, and the economy was significantly bigger at the start of the decade than at the end, yet it's universally considered a disaster. But this is a bit silly; it may have been a statistical disaster, but it wasn't one in terms of living standards. Of course, the situation today is different in a number of ways, not least because the world is more dependent on American consumption than it was on Japanese exports, but still, a decade of 1.5 percent growth wouldn't be a disaster.

Counting to Ten

I've come to know Christopher Hitchens for his writing on Bush, Clinton, Nixon, and Kissinger, in which he is about as angry and unyielding as a writer could be. Hopefully, the Obama years will bring out a more mellow and contemplative side. It's a nice change of pace.

Good News, Sort Of

Pemex has found a new oil field that is almost four times bigger than Cantarell, which has been the engine of the Mexican oil industry for more than a generation. The new field of approximately 140 billion barrels, which lies beneath Puebla and Veracruz, places Mexico among the three nations with the largest oil reserves in the world. The problem is, the technology to extract the oil is not available, neither in Mexico nor abroad. Nor will it be available for another three decades or so. This all makes a nice reminder of why oil production is more relevant than oil reserves.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Not Voting and the Onset of Early Alzheimer

Jorge Chabat says that Mexico's prohibition on negative campaigning, which has led to a series of anodyne ads that make the election seem like a sensory deprivation chamber, fosters apathy. I'm not convinced that this is entirely true, since Mexico's problems with low voter turnout predate its recent electoral reform, but I certainly agree that the reform's prohibition on negativity was ill-conceived, has been poorly implemented, and will continue to be a burden on Mexican democracy. He also says that although the reform was driven by the PRD, it won't be the primary beneficiary:
Of course, this legislation can be changed. The problem is that if the PRI obtains a majority in Chamber of Deputies in July, do you know when the electoral laws will be changed? Never. Clearly, the PRD never knew whose bidding it was doing.
I guess the idea is that the PRI, with its long list of skeletons closeted away for now and its checkered history leading authoritarian governments, would have the most to lose from an open airing for the parties' warts. Nonetheless, he may be overstating things; the PRI will be able to block reform for at least three years, but then the electoral map will be scrambled once more in 2012.

César Cansino comes at the same question from a different angle:
The decision not to vote, when it is conscious, is also a legitimate choice: it has a significance that projects itself politically. Nor do I share the interpretation that considers the disenchantment of the citizens lies more with the parties or the politicians than with democracy itself, because they have discovered with reluctance that democracy doesn't resolve their immediate problems. Once more, voters here are labeled and their apathy at the ballot box is presumed to be a product more of ignorance and a misunderstanding of what democracy is, because they endow it with meaning it doesn't have. This supposed candor is misapplied; what the majority of Mexicans want from their democracy is that their representatives represent them adequately, better laws and guarantees, and to truly live under the rule of law. Nothing more or less.
This is a confusing paragraph, but if I may take a stab at untangling it, Cansino is saying that a) vote abstention isn't so bad if it reflects a genuine protest, and b) the parties and the politicians are not the problem, democracy itself is, because it can't provide voters with what they want.

First, I don't buy the idea that any significant proportion of the not voters are not voting in active protest. Such an explanation could be used to retroactively explain a lack of electoral enthusiasm, but it doesn't qualify as legitimate participation. I don't mean to wag my finger at non-voters, but who is Cansino kidding? They don't vote because voting is a pain and no candidate sets them on fire. It's not a crime, but let's not confuse ourselves by pretending it's a virtue. 

Second, I am astounded that he bases his critique on democracy on its failure to obtain meaningful results, and then all but absolves the political actors of any responsibility. Usually, commentators like to humanize their villains, to make them juicier targets. Here Cansino does the opposite; he "abstractifies" them. As a connoisseur of political punditry, I find the script-flipping intriguing, but ultimately it is ineffective, a bit like the wildcat offense. 

Tactics of argumentation aside, I don't understand how he can direct his guns at democracy in general, rather than at democracy as it is practiced in Mexico. Since democracy has produced the world's most liberal and wealthiest societies, and since the results Mexicans want from their government are not lacking in most developed democracies, wouldn't at least some of the blame have to be laid at the feet of the elected officials? To return to another football analogy: if the most effective defenses are 3-4s, but your team's 3-4 has you giving up 42 a game, then don't you have to take a look at the personnel? If Cansino's general point is that it's not fair to blame voters for not voting, well, I agree that such an explanation is limited and unhelpful, but to go from there to blaming democracy in the abstract seems like a step in the wrong direction. 

I read another piece on abstention in the last couple of days, but I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it or where I saw it, so no more comments on this subject as I worry about my enfeebled memory.

More Failed State Stuff

A not-too-surprising aspect of the failed-state debate playing out in the American media: the likelihood of an analyst to say that Mexico is failing is inversely proportional to the said analyst's experience the analyst has in Mexico. That should tell us something. Here's Jorge Castañeda, no pollyanna in assessing the country whose foreign policy he once led, offering perhaps the most succinct put-down of the theory that Mexico is failing:
The government represents the nation abroad, exercises a quasi monopoly on the use of force within its borders, collects taxes and ensures the integrity of its citizens against perils from within and without. By these measures— indeed by any standard definition of a failed state—Mexico is clearly acquitted, and the Calderón government's response to the charges, an insistence that Mexico is not a failed state, is accurate and well justified.

Zuckermann on Slim

Leo Zuckermann offers three possible reasons that Carlos Slim painted such a gloomy picture before the Mexican Senate last week: 1) he naively underestimated the weight of his words; 2) he saw a way to dominate the news for a week, and his vanity got the best of him; and 3) he is angry at the federal government for its (timid) efforts to crack down on Telmex's domination of the telephone industry, and this was a way to stick a finger in the eye of Calderón and company.

I don't know to hazard a guess as to which of the three might be the best explanation, but there all far more logical than a fourth theory that someone offered to me at work today: Slim's fortune is extremely solid, compared to many others' vulnerability before the crisis. Therefore, if he can sink the economy, he'll drag down the value of other companies relative to his own, and he will be able to scoop up new additions to his portfolio. For a variety of reasons, that seems preposterous to me, but it is illustrative of the national faith in ulterior motives.


The PAN and the PRI have both approved their campaign platforms for this summer's elections and turned them into the IFE. A complete list is not yet available on either party's website or on the IFE website, but the PRI is focusing on the creation of a national guard that could take over for the army in the fight against drug gangs and the fortification of the national development bank. For its part, the PAN has included a plan to shrink the congress by 20 percent. More to come.

Ironic Sequence

On Saturday, Excélsior ran an interview with the chief of a federal tourism agency in which the subject accused other countries of engaging in a "dirty war" in order to make Mexico look dangerous and thereby lower its appeal as a tourist destination.

The following day, in an apparent act of hyperbolic dirty war friendly fire, the same paper published a long and sensational cover story about the tendency of foreign nationals visiting Mexico to be murdered during their stay in the country. From June 2005 to July 2008, 110 Americans were murdered in Mexico. According to the article, in 70 of these cases the victim had no apparent link to organized crime, but was murdered as he or she went about his or her daily routine.

Perspective: with a conservative estimate of one million American residents of Mexico, that boils down to an annual murder rate of around 3.7 per 100,000 residents, which is not only below the Mexican average, but well below the American one as well. Or is my arithmetic off?


In response to the attack on the city jail in Torreón in which three inmates were murdered and nine more freed, three of the guards working at the time have been jailed. Nineteen others, including the chief of the facility, also face arrest warrants.

Random Real-Life Reminder that I Live in Mexico

Driving through a leafy residential neighborhood yesterday afternoon, in front of a house that appeared from the other side of its six-foot stone security wall to be bigger than the combined size of the last five residences which I have inhabited, I spotted a lone rooster, strutting contentedly and stylishly.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy Outlook

Ever the optimist, Felipe Calderón predicted at a navy ceremony that the Mexican economy will sail out of its recession in August, before the ship to which he was bidding farewell will again rest in a Mexican port.

When Headlines Lie

I clicked on the link to this article, titled "10 novelists to follow in 2009", with the idea that I would see a list of 10 novelists to follow in 2009. I was incorrect; there are two dozen authors mentioned, including the three occupants of the top two spots (there was a tie), but at no point did the article provide me with a list indicating the who comprised the remainder of the rankings (which was based on a survey of leading Mexican writers). I find this oversight extremely (and disproportionately) frustrating. It would be like writing one of those "501 vital verbs" books, and filling it with 1,500 verbs. 


The front page of Excélsior today asks a good (though not particularly vital) question. First, the background: yesterday, 39,897 people kissed in the Zócalo at once, setting a Guinness record. The question: how is it that there was an odd number? With whom was the odd man (or woman) out smooching?

Revisiting Libertarianism in Mexico

I commented a couple of times last year about how relatively invasive government programs that would provoke great vengeance and furious anger in the United States were accepted in Mexico without much outcry. Here's another example: Sonora has approved programs to randomly test high school students for drugs. According to the panista who sponsored the bill:
The results will be made known to the parents, the student, and the person in charge of the academic program and if they have a positive finding of consumption, the minor will receive the adequate treatment for his rehabilitation. 
It seems like this program's invasiveness and effectiveness depends a great deal on the details. If a positive finding doesn't carry a strictly punitive penalty, and if it is part of a broader treatment program for young addicts (both inside and outside of the school system), it could be of some benefit. The fact that parents can opt their children out also makes it less intrusive. But it's also not too hard to imagine the program being implemented unevenly, used as a method of simply expelling problem students, subjected to bribes and blackmail and other abuse, and generally not being worth the sacrifice in privacy. I imagine that's why the article linked above mentions some push-back from local residents.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


In the past week, I've had one teenager spit on me (accidentally, but still), another hide in the stall of a girl's bathroom to avoid going to class, another all but scream "Did you fart?" in the middle of a crowded classroom quietly working, and still another slam a desk into the hamstrings of a female classmate just for fun. All of the above are older than the subject of this article, a 13-year-old Brit marking the birth of his firstborn child. 

McCaffrey Backtracks

General Barry McCaffrey, speaking today in Washington: 
The possibilities of Mexico becoming a narco-state or a failed state are zero.
General Barry McCaffrey, writing last month in the Executive Intelligence Review
Mexico is on the edge of the abyss—it could become a narco-state in the coming decade.
I have no idea what could have provoke the change in tone --a valentine for Mexico?-- but I'd guess it might have something to do with the overheated nature of the debate on Mexico in recent weeks. Whatever the case, it is welcome. 

Taking it to Court

Luis Téllez says he will press charges against those responsible for the broadcast of the phone conversations in which he, among other comments, alleges malfeasance on the part of Carlos Salinas and proposes using President Calderón's name (presumably without his authorization) in a dispute with the Federal Telecommunications Commission. I suppose this means Diana Pando and Carmen Aristegui could be in some legal trouble. I don't know whether or not he has a strong case (anyone who does have a good handle on Mexican communications law, feel free to offer an opinion), but regardless this seems like a dubious decision politically. As long as those tapes continue being played on the radio and TV (or reprinted in the print media), everyone involved --from Téllez to Calderón-- looks bad. Pressing charges merely lengthens the shelf life of this story. 

Thousands of Words, No Insights

It is inevitably disappointing when active public officials put their names to articles about policy, made worse because of the initial excitement of seeing a famous name in the byline. Such officials/authors inevitably hide their salient points behind a style that reads like advertising copy and a disingenuous defense of their position that virtually always fails to adequately address the opposing point of view.  

Ignoring this reality, I bought Poder's El Mundo en 2009 (published in tandem with the Economist) thanks to the article on US-Mexico relations by Arturo Sarukhan and an economic synopsis by Agustín Carstens. Of course, this was an easily preventable waste of 39 pesos. Sarukhan's article in one compound-complex sentence: The two nations face many intricate challenges that must be addressed, and they must be prepared to increase the level of cooperation to adequately do so. Stunning conclusions from the Mexican ambassador to the United States!

Carstens' conclusion in one complex sentence: Although Mexico faces a challenging economic climate, Felipe Calderón's many anti-crisis measures will allow the country to grow again as soon as the global economy recovers. Again, nothing particularly earth-shattering. 

The most memorable sentence in the magazine is, not surprisingly, from an independent analyst (Pedro Ángel Palou) who can make some claim to objectivity: 
While the country continues debating as a massacre unfolds or keeps bleeding as uncertainty reigns, however you want to see it, the Mexican partidocracy will laugh once more at the citizens, spend millions on campaigns, bite even the final reaches of the body like a power-hungry psychopathic Hannibal Lecter, and there won't be, I can assure you right now, even one important idea, not one coherent project upon which to vote. 

Chávez's Future

Edward Schumacher-Matos has a smart piece about the future of Hugo Chávez in today's Washington Post. Even if the future for the Venezuelan isn't quite as grim as he paints it, the policy prescription --let Chávez lie in the bed he's made with minimal American attention-- makes good sense. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

Calderón in the Campaign

Jorge Buendía wades into the question of Calderón's participation in the upcoming elections by noting that he is the best card the PAN has to play. (The president is subject to restrictions on his campaigning, which are conceptually misguided and, partially as a consequence, poorly enforced.) While the PAN's voter support stands at somewhere between 25 and 40 percent, two thirds of the electorate approves of Calderón's performance. There is no other PAN figure who has anything approaching that resovoire of support or the president's high profile.  

However, I'm not sure that translates into votes for the PAN (nor did Buendía seem to be saying that it would, merely that it could). Fifty-six percent of the electorate thinks the country is on the wrong track, and the PAN is more likely that any other party to pay a penalty for that. The question is whether the support for Calderón or the nation's feeling that things aren't going well will have a greater bearing on voters' selections. Based on the polls, it seems like the latter will factor is weighing more heavily now.


There have been three grenade attacks against police in Michoacán in the last 14 hours. No info on who might be responsible, although that is the native land of the Family, which suffered a setback when several of its members were arrested earlier this week. More info to come.

Cartel Science Project

Evidently, drug gangs have come up with a new way to import cocaine: auto parts. Not hiding them in auto parts, mind you, but actually making the parts of an old Silverado out of a mixture of glass fiber and some 70-plus kilos of cocaine. The truck was seized in the port city of Manzanillo.

Precise Writing

An example of journalistic meticulousness, courtesy of El Universal:
The state attorney general's office stated that there are eight ditches, approximately one meter by seventy centimeters with a depth of approximately 50 to 60 centimeters, where there are the remains of between 14 and 16 victims surely of drug traffickers.
They victims more than likely were killed by drug traffickers, or some other organized crime group. Still, would a quote or some sort of supporting information be too much to ask?

The incident in question was the discovery of, as you might have deduced from the excerpt, of a mass grave, just outside of Saltillo. There is some speculation that Cuban-American kidnapping expert Felix Batista, kidnapped in Saltillo in December, might be among the dead.


I love the HBO triple-headers that don't have one huge fight, but three good matchups or showcases of up-and-coming fighters. It's like the first two days of March Madness. I feel like HBO used to do more of these, but maybe it just feels like that because the undercards of the big fights have been horrible lately.

This weekend we have two really interesting fights and one that would have been had Ricardo Mayorga not backed out against Alfredo Angulo. Let's start with Nate Campbell against Ali Funeka. Funeka is a 6-foot-1 lightweight, which is simply insane. He looks like a string bean, but he can crack. Funeka caught everyone's attention when he knocked Zahir Raheem down five times on his way to a huge fifth-round knockout. Funeka looked great in that bout, but Raheem had the ideal style for him. Raheem is long and lean and likes to box, but not nearly as long and lean as Funeka, so instead of boxing, Raheem had to go inside to get to his foe. It was clear that Raheem is not comfortable doing that, and he was ineffective. The knockout came on a massive straight right hand from Funeka, and if he can land a few similar punches against Campbell, he'll probably take the fight. But a guy like Campbell, who can go inside effectively and regularly, is going to give Funeka a lot more problems than Raheem. The key is whether Funeka can keep Campbell at a distance with his jab, or if he can land a big punch. I don't think he can. Campbell will win a tight decision.

Sergio Martínez faces off with Kermit Cintron in another really intriguing fight. Martínez is a good mover and throws great combinations--he's a 154-pounder who lets his hands go like a featherweight. For a guy who's only knocked out half of his opponents, he's a lot of fun to watch. The thing is, Martínez doesn't fight with that pressure style that really bugs Cintron. I think they will both look good in spots, and Cintron will have some big moments teeing off from a distance, but Martínez will take a competitive but clear decision victory.

And Angulo will walk through whomever winds up being thrown in front of him now that Pérez and Mayorga bailed.

Gancho is 5-2 on the year.

Speaking his Mind

Someone handed over to journalist Carmen Aristegui a conversation that Luis Téllez accidentally left recorded in a cell phone mailbox. In the conversation, Tellez, who is the secretary of communication and transportation under Calderón but was a longtime PRI heavyweight, refers to Carlos Salinas stealing half of the partida secreta, a discretionary slush fund that used to be at the disposal of the president, until it was eliminated under Ernesto Zedillo.

This is an insane sequence of events. First, we have Téllez calling the owner of the cell phone (a woman named Diana Pando), not realizing that the call hadn't ended and that the mailbox was recording everything, and proceeding to make the most inflammatory remarks possible at that precise moment. Assuming that Téllez doesn't walk around accusing his old boss (he was secretary of agriculture under Salinas) of chicanery all day long, that in and of itself is quite remarkable. Then, we have Pando, about whom I know nothing, telling Aristegui that she didn't erase the conversation "for personal reasons." (In the process, she takes the prize for the worst euphamism of 2009. Even though there are 11 months left, no one's topping that.)

Plus, we have the romantic scandal: Pando says that she and Téllez were close friends in constant contact, while Téllez says that he doesn't know her personally. She is quoted as saying, "He used me and threw me away. He insults me by accusing me of trying to extort him and by denying our relationship of two years. I never wanted money, I only wanted his affection." Plus we have a representative of Salinas, whom Pando informed of the conversation (she's also looking at the worst show of judgment in 2009 award, depending on what happens at the NBA trade deadline) essentially threatening the life of Pando.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Not Likely

Yesterday, I mentioned the possibility of revenge as a motive for the attack on the jail here in Torreón, during which three high-profile kidnappers were killed. A day later, the state's prosecutor downplayed that possibility, although he didn't discard it entirely.

More Arrests

The alleged intellectual author of the murder of General Mauro Enrique Tello has been arrested. He is said to be part of a cell of the Zetas that called itself the Soldier-Killers, which dedicated itself to assassinating members of the army around the nation.

I recently heard a theory that explained the relationship between the gangs and the government thusly: the army was protecting the Zetas, while the PGR and the Secretariat of Public Security was protecting Sinaloa. As all-encompassing Mexican conspiracy theories go, this is slightly more nuanced than the simple, "Calderón sold the country to Sinaloa," but it's pretty hard to reconcile with the above information. Or the fact that the Federal Police (under the control of the Secretariat of Public Security) just arrested a cell of La Familia Michoacana, said to be allies of the Sinaloa gangs.

It's Over

The hubbub over the electoral spots interrupting soccer and football games seems to be behind us: the IFE and a trade group of TV and radio broadcasters have agreed not to interrupt further sporting contests. This decision was reached just in time for the unmolested transmission of the US-Mexico qualifier last night, although, as I predicted last week, Mexicans probably would have been happier had there been an interruption or two. Say, in the 43rd, 64th, or 92nd minute.


Yesterday, the Mexican Supreme Court absolved Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the State of Mexico and likely PRI presidential candidate in 2012, and Eduardo Medino Mora, the present attorney general and former director of public security, of any responsibility for the events of May 2006, in which a protest devolved into a mass riot, with abductions of police officers and mass arrests of demonstrators and accusations of sexual assault on the part of the police. With different arguments and varying degrees of certainty, ten of the eleven justices declined to hold the two most important officials implicated in the episode guilty. Today, the court will decide if other mid-level officials are to be held guilty.

I have not followed the case as closely as I probably should have, but I think a couple of points warrant mentioning: first, there clearly was criminal behavior on both sides. This wasn't merely a bunch of police abusing disenfranchised protesters, and the radicals in San Salvador Atenco certainly provoked the police. But as Carlos Loret pointed out earlier this week, there has been a persistent failure to hold any of the police responsible for their criminally overzealous response, not just the big fish, but at every level. As a result of the rioting, there were 200 protesters arrested, and only 21 police officers. There are thirteen protestors serving prison sentence, compared to zero police officers. There were 26 complaints of sexual assault, which led to the formal investigation of one police officer, who remains outside of prison. Today's decision is an opportunity to address that.

One other comment: Loret obliquely mentions that PAN lawyers were working to implicate PRI officials, presumably Peña Nieto among them, in order to knock off a few prominent adversaries on the other side. That seems like a short-sighted tactic, reminiscent of the desafuero fiasco with AMLO a few years ago. First of all, although this is much lower-profile case than the desafuero, the PAN won't be able to hide its involvement, and it would come off badly as well if judicial penalties look like political hatchet jobs carried out on its behalf. Second, when there are scandals, every party suffers to a degree. The reaction for many Mexicans would be, "It was a PRI official who was guilty this time, but it could just as easily be a panista next. They're all dirty." I'm not saying the parties should wash each others' hands, but nor should they be actively working through a nominally independent judiciary to carry out political dirty work.