Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Op-ed Roundup

There have been a handful of interesting columns on the US-Mexico relationship, in regard to the latter's security. Here's Jorge Fernández Menéndez, considering Obama's comparison of Felipe Calderón with Eliot Ness:
...Obama equated Felipe Calderón with Eliot Ness, a figure doubtless known by all Americans. If he wanted it to be understood in terms of the dimension of the challenge of crime in Mexico, using the figure of the leader of the Untouchables is appropriate, although if we look at what are the true challenges that Mexico must face going forward, the distance [between the two men] turns out to be much greater.

Nobody can doubt that it's positive to value the struggle that the state is fighting against organized crime, but it's still worrying that, at moment of profound international changes, when the economic crisis obliges us to redefine the development models and even the mode of operation of the globalizing mechanisms, as will happen these next few days in London during a reunion of the G-20, where President Calderón will participate (he will also coordinate the so-called G-5: Mexico, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, considered the five most important emerging economic powers in the world), the most worrying thing is, we were saying, is that the recognition revolves around a figure like Eliot Ness and not the great reformers of the world.
It took me a while to follow the second part, but after a few minutes I managed to navigate the super-sentence from beginning to end and, yeah, good point. The choice of Ness instead of, say, George Marshall makes me wonder if that was a subtle sign that Obama thinks drug prohibition is analogous to alcohol prohibition.

Alberto Aziz Nassif says that Clinton's recognition of American responsibility in Mexico's drug wars owes to the increase in violence conflating the two nations' interests, but wonders whether that will turn out to be entirely good news:
The change in path is not only a good-faith gesture between neighbors and partners, but a matter of self interest. For the US the problems with its southern neighbor are part of its internal agenda. Drug trafficking and violence that consumption carries with it have increased the violence on the streets of many cities in the US.


The self-critical discourse that assumes shared responsibility between the two nations is, without a doubt, a breath of fresh air for Calderón's government. The promises of a new diplomacy from the US toward Mexico remains ambivalent: on the one hand, Clinton signaled that her nation will make an effort to reduce drug consumption, detain arms traffic, and track money laundering. At the same time, the head of security in the Obama Administration, Janet Napolitano, established a plan to reinforce security on the border with Mexico, which includes for now more Border Patrol, more immigration agents, greater presence of the DEA. Will all of these steps lead in the near term to a militarization of the border?
Jorge Chabat seems to agree about the confluence of interests, although he expresses it differently:
For decades Mexico has exported all types of products to the United States, from prime materials to manufactured goods, even undocumented workers and illegal goods. Nevertheless, in the last few months there's a new product that Mexico is exporting and that doesn't appear in a official statistics, but is, aside from that, very difficult to quantify but does exist: fear.

Owing to the increase in drug violence, there is a fear that is crossing the United States: the possibility that the murders and kidnappings that now plague Mexico will invade American territory, destroying the daily life of the citizens of our neighbor to the north. What worries Americans isn't the fear of illegal drugs that arrive from or through Mexico, which they've lived with for decades: it's the costs associated with this consumption that has them in a state of total paranoia.


For that reason it's possible to hope that now the Obama government will take collaboration with Mexico to combat drug violence seriously, and that behind the extremely kind gestures of Hillary Clinton, there will be real support.

Sullivan's Gancho Debut

Andrew Sullivan's irony meter explodes upon reading the following:

Alberto Gonzales sat down with the Houston Chronicle to offer some advice on the drug war:

He also said Mexico should have oral, public trials of major organized crime figures rather than having trials consist of written testimony read by a judge behind closed doors. Doing things in private breeds corruption, he said.

Also, something a perennial Marcial Maciel critic like Sullivan should like: Pope Benedict has ordered an investigation into the Legionnaires of Christ, the order the Maciel founded and which has fallen into disrepute as new allegations and revelations around the founder himself have emerged over the past several years.

Two Pieces on Mexico in WPR

Here's Patrick Burns with a positive dispatch from Juárez, and here's Joshua Kirschke on the program announced last week to curb violence along the border.

The Juárez article paints the picture of a town immeasurably safer than a few weeks ago (although the drop in murders may well be temporary, and if we are to believe Bajo Reserva from last week, it is at the expense of some serious human rights violations):
Following a spate of brutal killings early this year, media reports depicted Juarez as a war zone, a city on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. But while gun battles were all too frequent in 2008 and in early 2009, the violence has now subsided dramatically. In January and February, the city averaged 10 murders per day. The total so far for all of March is less than 10.
One reason for the decrease is the federal security forces that have poured into the city. Today in Juarez, 5,000 army troops and 2,000 federal police patrol the streets, together constituting more than five times the size of the city police force. Additionally, the newly inducted police chief is an army general, as are many of the top decision makers.
So the local police was/is about 1,300 strong? That's pretty darn small for a town of 1.5 million. Philadelphia, which is about the same size but with nothing like Juárez's criminal history, has about 6,900 cops.

Also, the concern about the short-lived nature of the Juárez success is warranted, but I don't think that a spike in violence after the army moves on would invalidate the present drop in violence. To someone living in Juárez, a six-month respite from followed by a return to stratospheric levels of violence is preferable the perpetual existence of said violence. Yes, it's a short-term strategy, but it's still worthwhile, and I hope the federal government is examining the reasons why the Juárez deployment worked so well in reducing the violence.

Sweet Pic

Here's Felipe Calderón checking out the guards at Buckingham Palace. Later, he collected a gift from Queen Elizabeth: 1984, by George Orwell. Was that supposed to be a message?

Calderón also reaffirmed his opposition to a military alliance between Mexico and the US to fight drug traffickers. Coincidentally, yesterday high-ranking military officials of both nations met in Hermosillo to discuss strategies for fighting organized crime.

(Photo courtesy of El Siglo de Torreón.)

Today's Sign that Newspapers are Sick

Actually, it's a sign from last week, but I didn't notice until yesterday: Cox Newspapers' Jeremy Schwartz is packing up and leaving Mexico, as the media company is shutting down its foreign bureaus. He writes:

It’s no revelation that struggling news organizations have been cutting back coverage, nowhere more so than in their foreign operations. Since I arrived in Mexico in 2005, I’ve seen the foreign press corps dwindle. One longtime correspondent remarked that any gathering of reporters quickly assumes the air of a wake. I’ve seen the bureau closures of the San Antonio Express-News, Newsday and the San Diego Union-Tribune, seen the McClatchy chain’s position remain unfilled, and a significant reduction in the size of the Dallas Morning News bureau. Great journalists remain in Mexico, doing amazing work. But too many are nervous about their jobs.

So what will the future look like? If the trend continues, regional papers will find themselves without a presence in places like Mexico. Newswires like AP and Bloomberg, along with national papers like the Washington Post and New York Times, will likely become the main sources for foreign news. Such operations do great job of covering breaking events and finding interesting features. But what will go missing are those local connections to Mexico, stories that illuminate immigrant communities and explore the connections between American cities and their vast neighbor to the south.

And on a somewhat related topic, Jack Shafer says all these closures don't matter all that much:
When Thomas Jefferson said he preferred newspapers without government to government without newspapers, he wasn't referring to anything we'd recognize as our local paper, says Stephen Bates, professor of journalism at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Slate contributor. The pre-modern press was captive of political parties, and their pages were filled with partisan fodder. What Jefferson was applauding was the newspapers' capacity as a forum for debate (and sometimes slander), not exposé.


The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Famous Relatives

Among the PRI's plurinominal candidates for deputy: the niece of Pepe Ruiz Massieu, the sister of Sub-commander Marcos, and the son of Roberto Madrazo. 


Writing about an OECD report on Latin America in the crisis, Andrés Oppenheimer wonders if the region's economic recovery will be harder because it will coincide with a rather busy election season. From 2010 to 2012, eleven Latin American nations will elect new leaders, which usually leads to unstable climates in which investors look elsewhere.

That sounds logical and is probably true, but 2010 to 2012 is three calendar years. Given that most presidents serve between four and six years, the fact that eleven out of twenty-plus nations have elections in that span is not all that usual. If anything, it's a smaller number than you'd expect. When I get a chance (it's lunchtime now, so it'll have to be later), I'd be interested to check out how many of the democratic nations in the G-20 will have elections over the same period. I'm willing to bet that the figure exceeds half, which is to say, it's comparable or more than the number in Latin America. This isn't so much a Latin American problem, but a universal problem most democracies are going to have to overcome, although Latin America's tradition of public spending binges ahead of elections makes it more problematic there. 

What Does Calderón Want?

In comments that raised some eyebrows here, Felipe Calderón followed up Hillary Clinton's visit by announcing to the Financial Times that American aid to Mexico was insufficient:
"The help should be equivalent to the flow of money that American consumers give to the criminals," he said in reference to US citizens' consumption of narcotics supplied by Mexico's drug cartels. When asked to estimate that sum, Mr Calderón replied: "Between $10bn and $35bn (€30bn, £24bn) - the truth is that nobody knows."
Keep in mind that virtually everyone in Mexico was flattered by Clinton's forthrightness in admitting American responsibility. Maybe Calderón meant to keep the American government's focus from straying; hours after the interview, he met with a handful of American law-makers, who emerged pledging more funds for Mexico. Or maybe it was just an honest though inconvenient and uncomfortable answer to a direct question.

The DEA in the (Skeptical) Times

Marc Lacey has a lengthy rundown of Mexican insecurity in which he refers to the DEA's position that the cartels are in their death throes. Not unlike the Iraq insurgency in 2005, I'd say, only less so. The world choice was, not surprisingly, Lacey's.

Lacey also refers to the DEA saying that cocaine prices had doubled. (Again, no direct quote.) Are they making that claim formally? I was aware that in 2007 the ONDCP had reported a 24 percent rise in the price of cocaine, but I don't remember seeing that the average price of cocaine had doubled across the nation.

What's Racist?

Last week, Jonah Goldberg criticized the liberal reaction to Marty Peretz's very negative characterization of Mexico on his blog last week:
One of the more interesting aspects of that JournoList thing is that none of the Heathers will really come to his defense. Jonathan Chait, who comes across as the most grown-up, mostly just points to the bad form of trash talking in the man's absence. But you can at least tell his heart's in the right place. Anyway, here's the "money quote" from Peretz that nearly all of the Heathers feel is "f***ing racist" and proof that he's a "Crazy-A** Racist":
"Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict. Then, there is the Mexican diaspora in America, hard-working and patriotic but mired in its untold numbers of illegals, about whom no one can talk with candor."
The "near-tropical work habits" line is unfortunate. But is this whole thing really so beyond the pale? If it is, no wonder it's hard to have that long-overdue conversation about race people keep talking about.

But it's pretty clear that racism — real or alleged — isn't the real issue. These guys hate Marty, hate TNR (no doubt in part because some of them couldn't get jobs there), and are willing to use racism against their own the same way they use it against conservatives: as a branding tool against heretics.

Personally, I don't feel the need to carry a lot of water for Martin Peretz (nor The New Republic, which has hardly been kind to me recently). I don't think we've ever met, though we did talk on the phone once over a decade ago. I've zinged him quite a bit about his over-the-top support for Al Gore over the years, too. But I'm really quite surprised no one will defend the man from the charge that he's a "f***ing racist." Not just a racist, mind you but a f***ing one. The man has devoted decades of his life to keeping the flagship liberal publication afloat. He's at the center of the liberal-academic-journalistic establishment. And yet where are his defenders?

I mean, doesn't this silence amount to shocking ingratitude from lots and lots of people who owe their careers to the man? Shouldn't the alumni of TNR — and they are not lacking for outlets to express themselves — mount something of a defense?
And Ta-Nehisi Coates' defended said reaction.

I don't know whether Goldberg's goal is defend Peretz's comments or denegrate the liberal vanguard denouncing him. Likewise, I don't know whether Peretz in his heart is a racist. Whatever. Broad generalizations about a whole nation are bad journalistic practice, and Peretz's were indefensible as a matter of fact.

All this does make me wonder how or why something borderline gets tagged as racist. As far as generalizations of a nation about which the author admittedly had very little advance understanding, it's hard to top Michael Lewis' recent piece on Iceland. It was one of the most gripping articles I've read in years, but if you changed every characterization of "Icelanders" to "Mexicans", it's hard to see what separates it from Peretz's post. Lewis describes a nation of scrappy fishermen blindly confusing themselves with the Masters of the Universe, run by a bunch of stupid, arrogant, aggressive, sexually repressed bull-men. At one point, he calls Icelanders "mousy-haired and lumpy." For the most part, Lewis approaches his subject with more eloquence and tact than Peretz does with Mexico (imagine that), but if racism --as defined as a biased, uninformed view of a nation of people leading to unfair conclusions about their character-- is the measuring stick, I wonder why there was no negative reaction to Lewis' piece. Aside from this, anyway. And this.

I don't mean to imply that the JournoListers are hypocrites, or at least that they are while I am not. (And for all I know, there was a heated debate about the article that wasn't leaked.) I was entertained by Lewis' piece, and alarmed by Peretz's post. I just wonder what it is about our mental framework on race that the Iceland article didn't trigger our "Racism!" alarm.

Big Bounce

Polling from the firm Berumen appearing in El Universal today revealed what is either a sea change in the electoral calculus this summer or an extreme outlier. As a glance at the graphic to my left indicates, the level of support for the PRI dropped from just under 40 percent to just over 30 percent, a decline of 9.6 percent in a month. PAN support went from 25.1 percent to 27.4 percent, while the proportion of PRD supporters slipped from 15.4 to 12.2 percent. The number of undecided voters leapt up by close to 10 percent. Absent some external shock, a 10 percent drop for a party in one month is hard to believe. The only thing that could explain the shift would be the PAN's recent campaign against the PRI, in which the former linked the latter to drug gangs and questioned its commitment to Calderón's government. I suppose that's possible, but I'm skeptical that the handful of comments from Germán Martínez would show such overwhelming results in such a short period of time.

(Graphic courtesy of El Universal)

Facing the Nation

Obama's "Face the Nation" interview yesterday offered rhetorical support for Calderón's government, but provided little indication that his government is willing to reconsider the way it fights the war on drugs:
Schieffer: Let me ask you about something closer to home and that is Mexico. You talked about sending more aid to the Mexican government. But things down there are really serious, as you well know. It's my understanding that 90 percent of the guns that they're getting down in Mexico are coming from the United States. We don't seem to be doing a very good job of cutting off the gun flow. Do you need any kind of legislative help on that front? Have you, for example, thought about asking Congress to reinstate the ban on assault weapons?

President Obama: Well, I think the main thing we need is better enforcement. And so this week we put forward a comprehensive initiative to assist those border regions that are being threatened by these drug cartels to provide assistance to the Mexican government to make sure that on our side of the border we've got more personnel, more surveillance equipment.

Schieffer: But why are we having so much trouble with that? I mean -

President Obama: Well, what's happened is that President Calderon I think has been very bold and rightly has decided that it's gotten carried away. The drug cartels have too much power, are undermining and corrupting huge segments of Mexican society. And so he has taken them on in the same way that when, you know, Elliot Ness took on Al Capone back during Prohibition, oftentimes that causes even more violence. And we're seeing that flare up.

Schieffer: Do you think it's a threat to the United States security?

President Obama: I don't think that it is what would be called an existential threat. But it is a serious threat to those border communities, and it's gotten out of hand. And so what we have to do is to recognize that, look, this is a two-way street -

Schieffer: Which -

President Obama: - as Secretary Clinton indicated -

Schieffer: Yes?

President Obama: - we've gotta reduce demand for drugs. We've got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south.

Schieffer: Are we anywhere close to putting U.S. troops on the border?

President Obama: You know, obviously there have been calls to increase National Guard troops on the borders. That's something that we are considering. But we want to first see whether some of the steps that we've taken can help quell some of the violence. And we want to make sure that we are consulting as effectively as we can with the Mexican government in moving this strategy forward.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Polls: Happy with Obama, Not So with Mexico

Poder has a series of polls on a number of topics in its latest episode, breaking the respondents into three groups: Mexicans, Latinos living in the US, and non-Mexican Latin Americans. One striking result repeated in a number of questions was each group's faith in Barack Obama, especially the Mexicans: 92 percent of those polled professed a favorable or very favorable opinion of the new president; 83 percent said that relations with Latin America would improve; and 87 percent said that he was among the leaders best positioned to guide his nation in the coming years. At the same time, only 28 percent of Mexicans said that Latin American leaders were managing the financial crisis well, and less than 24 percent agreed that Felipe Calderón "has the situation in his country under control."

The two craziest results: 80 percent of Mexicans believed that inequality is the driving factor behind the violence in the country, and 32 percent said support for the idea of the US intervening even militarily in order to maintain security in Mexico. 

Off the Hook

A federal judge exonerated Luis Echeverría, under house arrest since 2006 for his role in the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 (when he was Interior Secretary), for any role in the killings. He had previously been accused and found innocent of genocide for the same event. 

El Tri Vence!

I missed the first few minutes, but Mexico looked much improved based on the 75 minutes I saw of their 2-0 over Costa Rica last night. (Ignore the Soccernet write-up, it was Costa Rica and not Honduras they beat.) The forwards (Bravo and Vuoso) were pretty quiet other than the first goal, but the midfielders did a great job controlling the field. Guardado being back was a big part of that; the team is completely different when he is on the field. With a rotation of Torrado, Guardado, Arce, Leandro, Medina, and Pardo, they should be competitive at midfield with all but the very elite teams. Ochoa saved them a couple of times, but the defense was solid, too. Maybe they don't need Márquez throwing around dirty tackles and getting beat like a rented mule against the elite forwards. Now they just have to do it on the road. 

But the best performance of the night was by the play-by-play guy from TV Azteca, who at one point, with the camera locked on a despondent Costa Rican cheering section, cried out, "Look what we did to them! They want to cry, they want to cry!" This caused much laughter. 

Also, for the soccer feud of the week, click here


The Laguna's 118 murders so far this year represent a doubling of the rate from last year, and put the city on pace for about 480 this year. That would make the city roughly as violent as Detroit or Baltimore. It also could not be more diametrically opposed to how the city was when I first moved here in 2005. It was Mayberry, with cowboy hats and Spanish. 

Juárez, can you spare some troops?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday Observation

I saw No Way Out last night, which served as an amusing reminder of how different culture was in the '80s. Remember how Kevin Costner alone could once be counted on to carry a decent movie? And even more bizarre, do you recall the hilarious way Hollywood used to deal withcomputers? It reminds me of nothing so much as the way the stereotypical primitive tribe with a castigatory deity might have interpreted meteorological phenomena 1,500 years ago: a total lack of understanding; an anxiety-filled reaction, equal parts hope and fear; and blind faith placed in the one religious oracle who could make sense of the event, in the movie's case the wheelchair-bound computer geek who initially helps Costner and is then murdered after betraying him. 

Cooper's Cartel Interview

Anderson Cooper has a long interview with a ski-masked man said to be an operator in a cartel. The first is pretty basic, and the faux naivety Cooper employs is a bit much, but there's some interesting stuff in the second and third portion. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

Not a Lot on the Slate

It's a lackluster boxing weekend, but that's alright, since there have been a lot of big fights lately, and there are some good ones next weekend. I like Eddie Chambers to box circles around a plumped-up Samuel Peter. I'm ignoring Julio César Chávez Jr. until he fights someone worth watching, but in the other Tijuana bouts, I like Soto over Davis, Montiel over Silva, and Castro over Diaz, all by knockout.

Juárez Again

The second part of yesterday's "Bajo Reserva" that caught my attention was about the Mexico's most notorious border town:
Don't think that Ciudad Juárez is a bed of roses. The federal occupation has brought on a drop in executions, but the threat against civilians continues or has gotten worse. An NGO that asked not to be named for obvious reasons tells us that although the gunmen are feeling calmer with the presence of the police and soldiers (because, yes, they have stopped killing each other, the civilians aren't having such a great time. Reports of human rights violations, abuses, excesses, and disappearences are trickling out. A powerful document is being prepared. Pay attention.
Proceso, which had the generally favorable report from Juárez a couple of weeks ago, reports that there's been a 70 percent drop in executions since the army arrived.

So El Universal is taking a stronger anti-government, anti-law and order, human rights-conscious position than Proceso. I'm sure Proceso will bounce back to its muckraking roots, but this is unprecedented.


This story hasn't gotten a lot of news: Vicente Paul Bustamante, a US Marshall in El Paso on suspension for administrative violations, was murdered in Juárez earlier this week. Is he an example of corruption in US law enforcement? More information is needed.


Calderón several months ago announced the construction of a refinery with two ends in mind: a step toward a more modern energy industry, and a sizeable public works project to provide jobs. He neglected to decree the location of the project, which of course will be a boon to whatever state hosts it, instead opening the topic up for debate among the ten possible states' governors. (This decision was the subject of criticism here.) The idea was to increase the transparency in the process, but it seems like it would have been a lot simpler and less prone to horse-trading had Calderón's team just announced a location, and then a detailed explanation for why it went to, for example, Campeche instead of Michoacán. Anyway, the end result of the governors' debate was classic: now they want two refineries.

Legalizing Pot

Eugene Robinson says we should consider it. Barack Obama, a man of considerably more power, good-naturedly made fun of the idea and those who proposed it today. Obama's reaction is one that the political mainstream --of which he is firmly a part, despite the people crying socialist-- demands of him, but the fact that suggesting the legalization of marijuana provokes laughter says a lot about how far the US has to go in fundamentally altering (read: ending) the war on drugs, and how fundamentally conservative our politicians are, at least on drugs. Why is it only the crackpots and retired pols who consider this a serious topic?

More Krauze

A brief interview covering Hillary's visit to Mexico with the noted historian is now on The Plank.

Get Over It

Earlier this week in Guadalajara, Manú Chao referred to the events of San Salvador Atenco as state terrorism. I think the characterization is a bit strong, and incomplete aside from that, but for the Mexican government to stick him with a fine as punishment is ludicrous. The Mexican constitution says that "foreigners will not be allowed in any way to interfere with the political affairs of the country." To interpret Chao's speech as interference would imply that any foreign correspondent, analyst, academic, or blogger who publishes something critical of the government could be in violation. That makes Mexico look blindly nationalistic and afraid of dialogue.

Now let's all enjoy Mala Vida.

Opposing Views on Pascual

As is often the case, there were a couple of interesting nuggests in "Bajo Reserva" yesterday. Here's the first:
The ambassador of the United States in Mexico will be Carlos Pascual, they tell us. This was a hurried naming because they wanted Barack Obama to have the protocol for his visit to Mexico in place. The good news is that he's not a Washington or Chicago politician who was rewarded for being a friend of the president; he's a member of the foreign service. The bad news is that is "foreign service" es very foreign, so foreign as to not include Mexico. Pascual was born in Cuba and emigrated with his parents to the United States when he was three years old, but he has worked primarily in Eastern Europe and a bit more. He was the ambassador to Ukraine from 2000 to 2003; coordinator for assistence from the US to Europe and Eurasia; director of Russian, Ukranian, and Eurasian affairs in the National Security Council. And so on. Ah, he also participated in some forums on Latin American. They'll say in Washington: he speaks Spanish, he knows Mexico. Does he?
Jorge Castañeda's take is virtually the exact opposite:
Jorge G. Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister, said he was pleased that the administration was reaching outside the pool of Latin American specialists at the State Department. But he said he was concerned that Mr. Pascual did not have close ties to either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton.

Revising Criticism

I should point out that whatever my lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton's declarations, the Mexican media was by and large quite positive. CNN en Español gave her several flattering minutes on its nightly broadcast on Mexico. Her remark that there is no piece of Mexican territory that is ungovernable earned a huge headline on the front page of Milenio. El Universal's editorial on her visit was likewise impressed:
The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, admitted yesterday, on Mexican soil, that the "insatiable" demand for drugs in the United States and the sale of arms on that side of the border are the causes of the bloodshed in Mexico by the part of drug cartels. A self-critical speech like never heard before from a high-level American official. The words serve, aside from calming the feelings of the Calderón Administration, to achieve the indispensable objective of carrying out thorough changes in the drug policy of that nation: attracting the attention of the US public opinion.

The principal media sources of our neighbor nation highlighted the declarations of Hillary Clinton beneath only the ongoing discussion of the federal budget. It's not a minor issue; usually Mexico doesn't appear on the screens and in the newspapers of the United States beyond the southern region of the country.

And what does that matter to us? Simple: Mexico is not an obstacle for the government of Barack Obama, if it wants to, truly elaborating an effective anti-drug policy. It's the prevailing dogma of the American people and the anti-Mexican feeling that persist among the population and the systematic refusal of the Congressman to invest more money in this country, whether it's more the purchase of technology or to enact temporary employment programs. A cultural resistance that makes it difficult for any politician to regulate the sale of arms on the other side of the Rio Grande or drive down drug consumption with something more than a simple prohibition.

The government of Barack Obama, in the voice of Hillary Clinton, must convince their people that helping Mexico means helping themselves and that, to accomplish this, making sacrifices is necessary. Otherwise, it will be impossible to do away with the longest lasting war in US history.
As I reconsider all this, I believe that Clinton's direct affirmation of the Mexican state's function deserves more credit than I gave it. Speaking with the voice of the American government, she affirmed her belief in and commitment to the Mexican government, which should overwhelm the mixed messages from the rest of the government, at least for a little while. However, I remain unconvinced that her words on the drug war are going to have much value. I understand the editorial's point about softening up the public, but if El Universal thinks that one comment from Clinton is going to have a measurable impact on American public opinion, it's off the mark. If Mexico is willing to wait for the American public to get behind legalization before its politicians act, that means decades. On the drug policy issues in which public opinion truly matters (i.e. legalization or decriminalization), the government is going to have to be leading the public, or we're all going to have to be really patient. Where public opinion doesn't matter as much (increasing the number of ATF agents to the southwest gun trade, reducing penalties for non-violent drug offenses, ramping up the use of drug courts), speeches are irrelevant; we just need the politicians to get on it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fleeting Attention

Macario Schettino had an interesting column last Friday about the tendency of Mexicans to discuss important topics with extreme intensity and extreme brevity.
Something's happens. Nothing lasts. I'm not getting philosophical and meditative, I'm referring to the topics of published opinion, I don't know if it's public. There's no topic that resists a few days of discussion and commentary, and then fades away just as quickly. Phone conversations illegally recorded and played in the media rapidly disappear, as do arguments against the arrested Frenchwoman, sensible discussions about the failed state, opinions about the Mexican retaliatory tariffs against the United States. All of the topics become diluted, fleeting, in a sequence that doesn't appear to make any sense.

Maybe some of these topics don't deserve any more time than they receive, maybe they do. It's possible that they are subsumed by the grand national worries, those permanent ones, but I have no idea which they are, if they do in fact exist. There is no doubt that there are a pair of issues that occupy the mind of many Mexicans, the economic crisis and insecurity, but even with these issues the details escape up with the greatest of ease. A few weeks ago, Tijuana was the center of national insecurity; a few days ago, Ciudad Juárez. None of the two occupy the media's attention. And if it's because of those topics, they're better off that way.

The same thing occurs with the economy, in which a couple of months ago it was said that Mexican migrants would tumultuously return, and a few weeks ago that remittances were practically sinking. Then we worried about the value of the peso against the dollar, which a few days ago nobody remembers anymore.

But all these topics live for a few days, although in this ephemeral existence they achieve great intensity. Maybe because we discuss for such a short time, we do so as though our lives depended on it.
Today's kickoff of the debate about the death penalty in the Chamber of Deputies is a good example of this phenomenon. This was a huge story in December, when Humberto Moreira forced a bill legalizing capital punishment through the Coahuila legislature. Three months later, the issue hasn't been settled, the pros and cons haven't changed, and the national legislature is actually considering a change (Moreira's move was essentially symbolic), and there's barely a peep in the media. The way the outrage over Fernando Martí's murder unfolded is another example. The commitment to revitalize Mexico's security apparatus was great, but that was a job that required years of public vigilance, not a 100-day countdown. Now that the countdown has come and gone, where is the anger, where is the attention? I still see Alejandro Martí in the media hitting the same notes, but where are the millions who were behind him last year?

This isn't an exclusively Mexican phenomenon, but a more general consequence of the way narratives are formed in the age of blogs, Google, and Twitter. From frustration over the Democrats' lack of ideas a couple years ago, to the present despair over the "failure" of the Mexican state, popular narratives emerge from like waves from the ocean, splash on the beach, and then disappear, usually leaving everything essentially as it was before.

As Nicholas Carr argued in The Atlantic last summer, the way we learn today has granted the average person a vastly wider range of interests and tools with which to indulge them, but at the price of his or her capacity concentrate and understand a problem at great depth. Carr was referring to the way individual brains function, but it's only logical that the effect would be repeated on a grand scale in our public debates. To prove this, I could remind us of some issue that sustained a detailed public interest for months during the late 1980s or early 1990s, but my blog-riddled, Google-twisted mind can't recall anything from before 2007.

Castillo Blows Up

With el Tri facing two crucial games in the next week, rumors of Sven-Goran's ouster floating around, and a brewing controversy over Sinha being left off the team, the Mexican national-teamers are understandably a little testy. Here, Nery Castillo loses it in a press conference, telling the assembled press they don't know anything about soccer, accusing them of rooting against the team, and telling one reporter, "You know the difference between you and me? I'm in Europe, and you're in Mexico. And you'll always be in Mexico." And then he storms off, thus bringing the event to a rapid close.


The LA Times welcomes the border plan Janet Napolitano announced a couple of days ago.

What They Are Saying About Obama

Foreign English-speaking media are worried. Here's Martin Wolf at Financial Times, Terence Corcoran (fantastic last name!) from Canada's National Post, and Bartle Bull at The Prospect. Writing about the bank rescue and Bernake's monetary policy, respectively, Wolf (especially) and Corcoran are pretty convincing, but Bull's piece is astonishingly biased. There are dozens of faulty conclusions among his thousands of words, but I'll just focus on a few:
His challenge today is to sell this big debt, big government revolution to a public that thought—or rather hoped—that it was electing a post-partisan centrist.


But the greatest moment of candour to emerge from this administration to date came when chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief handler within the Chicago political machine that groomed this brilliant political phenomenon, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” Hillary Clinton, the other great power in the administration, made the same point in Brussels recently: “Never waste a good crisis… Don’t waste it when it can have a very positive impact on climate change and energy security.”

This is breathtaking stuff. Obama’s top people are publicly (if inadvertently) confessing to precisely the sort of cabalistic secret agenda that was most loathed about the Bush administration. Imagine the apoplexy of Obama’s political base if Dick Cheney had called 9/11 a “good crisis” because it provided cover for a long-intended invasion of Iraq.
As far as his umbrage about not wasting the crisis, this is just willfully misleading. A) It's not a cabalistic secret agenda if the chief of staff and secretary of state are speaking openly about it; B) It's not a cabalistic secret agenda when Obama spent much of the election season campaigning on the very issues (health care reform, energy reform) he's now trying to enact; and C) The 9/11 comparison is off-base, too put it mildly; Bull knows darn well that the administration is talking in terms of FDR creating social security, not capitalizing on the murder of 3,000 Americans. Lastly, Obama did campaign on being post-partisan, but not on being centrist. Just because his temperament is conservative doesn't mean anyone should have thought that his politics were. He's fallen short of his post-partisan potential, but at least half the blame for that should be tossed at the Republicans.

Later Bull tells us, "Ideology is back." If ideology was put into mothballs during the previous administration, Bush did a hell of a job hiding that fact. He finishes his piece with a similarly confused flourish: "More war and less growth is bad leadership and bad politics." Again, that's Obama he was talking about.

(Thanks to The Plank for the Bull and Wolf pieces.)

Garza's Replacement

President Obama has tabbed Carlos Pascual, a Cuban-American career diplomat, as the new ambassador to Mexico. The article refers to him as an expert in nation-building.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More On Clinton

Here's the Washington Post synopsis of her remarks today. As I referred to in my earlier post about Clinton, I think it's great that she is willing (on behalf of her nation) to accept responsibility for the violence in Mexico, and she went pretty far in declaring the drug war the bloated, ridiculous mess that it is. Kudos. That's a good step. However, when she moved from the rhetorical blame-taking to actual changes in policy, her boldness faded a bit:
Clinton signaled that the U.S. government planned to do more. She vowed to press for swift delivery of equipment promised under the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion package of anti-drug assistance to Mexico and Central America. Mexican officials and U.S. lawmakers say there are long lag times for helicopters and other gear that are desperately needed. In addition, Congress has approved only $700 million of the $950 million that the Bush administration requested for the program since it began last year.

Clinton also the administration would "try to get more tools to go after the gun dealers" and those who purchase weapons to pass on to the cartels. She did not elaborate. Several U.S. lawmakers have already balked at the idea of cracking down on guns on the American side of the border, and the idea could face an uphill battle in Congress.

So she didn't say anything about rescueing the $150 million that the Senate cut, nor did she mention legalizing pot (no surprise there), and she was non-commital and vague when discussing cracking down on the arms trade. That falls just a bit short of what is needed.

Shifting directions, at one point the author (Mary Beth Sheridan) wrote, "Mexico is facing perhaps the greatest challenge to its stability in a century." Really? Worse than the Mexican Revolution, which started 98-plus years ago and burned hot-and-cold for more than a decade, eventually killing an estimated one million Mexicans? Worse than the three-year Cristero War in the late 1920s, which I recently read killed 60,000? Worse than 1994, when Mexico's leading presidential candidate was assassinated, the Zapatistas were taking over San Cristobal de las Casas, and a financial crisis worse than today's was drilling Mexico? Let's not go overboard.

More from Juárez

I promised to write more about the Juárez story in Proceso by Monday, and when Gancho promises something by Monday, well damn it, you can count on it being there by Wednesday at the latest.

I'm struck by how positive the article is, at least by Proceso standards. The magazine stops short of praise (though I'm not sure a flattering word about the government has ever spilled from the magazine's pages), but the overwhelming majority of those interviewed from Juárez were essentially in favor of the army's arrival. They weren't too hopeful about the operation's long-term success, but almost all seemed to say that life in Juárez was better now than before the army arrived.

Here's a sampling: "For security it's good, because we were insecure, too," says a local cop at one point. A doctor says, "It won't work forever, but it's giving us the opportunity to unite as a society, to organize, to make Juárez different." A taxi driver adds, "I have faith in the soldiers that stop you and check you, that's all. But the federales made me pay 200 pesos for not carrying identification and they want to take away my car." A food vendor offers, "On the one hand it's good that they're here, there's a lot of protection, they scared all of us street kids, and as I have a business that's good for me because business is getting better." Probably the most perfect distillation of the prevailing view presented by Proceso is the following: "The soldiers yes they are some hard sons of bitches, the federales aren't like that, but, that's the way it goes, they had to bring the peace. And you see more peace."

It's way too soon to make any conclusions about the efficacy of the Juárez operation, but the basic acceptance that the army's arrival has made Juárez safer from Mexico's king of muckracking is quite unexpected.

Anti-Peña Tactics

Although his CV is short, his closet larded with skeletons, and his time in Mexico State less than an overwhelming success, Enrique Peña Nieto could make quite a formidable presidential candidate in 2012 should he get the nod from the PRI. PAN boss Germán Martínez seemed to be testing out a possible line of attack when he advised Peña "with all due respect" to reduce spending on his government's publicity and image as long as Mexico State was running short on funds for public works. The result: a headline reading "Peña asked to lower spending on image" in El Universal, which could be the first step in a several-year narrative painting him as a lightweight prima donna, more concerned with looking good and dating actresses than making his state run better.

The PRI's response was to call the ever-feistier Martínez schizophrenic, and assign Felipe Calderón partial responsibility for his comments.

Good Reading

Via The American Scene, check out the post-mortem on Culture11 here. The article's conclusions on the philosophical source of the page's demise are in the following paragraphs:
In a sense, Culture11 was running up against the natural limits of its niche. "We had expanded so much that I didn’t even know who was writing for us anymore," Carter said. "We were getting a lot of flack from conservatives—‘What’s conservative about your site?’ " While Carter was enthusiastic about Culture11’s coverage of television—the last medium still largely regulated by federally imposed decency standards—he had come to the conclusion that, faced with the explicitness of contemporary music, there was a limit to what the site had to say. "How do you talk about something like gangsta rap from a conservative perspective?" he said. "Are you going to critique it, or just disagree with it?" Friedersdorf tried gamely to square that circle in a piece exploring his conflicted feelings about dancing to Lil Jon at a wedding, but it was an essay that could have been written only so many times.


On the other hand, if new investors revive Culture11 and give it a proper launch, it will be an opportunity to find out if Kuo was right: whether there is a niche for an enterprise like Culture11, or whether right-leaning readers will opt in greater numbers for comforting cocoons like Big Hollywood. In the end, the market will decide—and what could be more conservative than that?

I really liked Culture11, and not just because it is part of the exclusive fraternity of publications that has paid me to write about boxing. It was an inventive, unpredictable website with a lot of unique, original voices. Its conservatism was thoughtful and genuine rather than knee-jerk, and therefore far more thought-provoking than, say, Fox News. Insofar as its failure is due to the limited appeal of its niche, that's quite an indictment of conservative readers. Slate occupies a very similar space on the left (though with more fame and pedigree behind it), and the idea that it would fail because it publishes Christopher Hitchens while competitors like the Huffington Post are more uniformly liberal is laughable.


Hillary Clinton declared in Mexico City that drug consumption in the US is behind the violence in Mexico. That's a nice, cost-free sentiment, and I think it's generally a good thing that American policy-makers are willing to make that concession, but at some point you have to ask them, OK, so what are you going to do about it? It's not enough to say that the US has a responsibility to help Mexico, and then slice $150 million of aid to Mexico, shy away from prohibiting the sale of assault weapons, and refuse to engage any discussion of legalizing marijuana. Hillary and co.: give those words some weight!

She followed up the above statement by telling her audience that the sky is blue and water is wet.

Running Juárez

Foreign Policy has a brief profile of Juárez mayor José Reyes on its website. It's a bit dated, since it doesn't mention the arrival of the army, but a good read nonetheless.


Janet Napolitano was asked in a Senate hearing today if Calderón faced an existential threat in the drug violence, to which she replied, "Yes." I don't see how this is so. The affirmative answer implies that the Mexican drug gangs want to do away with this government. So far as we know, they do not. So what about it is existential? Is the threat to the mayor of Baltimore, where the murder rate is four times that of Mexico's, also existential? This isn't just nit-picking; aside from misunderstanding the menace the gangs represent, calling them an existential threat is only a step below calling Mexico a failed state.

Granted, walking the fine line between ignoring a serious problem and overstating it is no easy task (especially when you have to take into account the political ramifications of every word that escapes your lips), but the DHS boss inclined to far toward the latter today.

Trapping Bad Guys, Bad Stuff

A couple of days ago, the PGR announced that it would be offering a collective reward of about 60 million dollars for the capture of 37 capos. Three of them had already been captured, including Vicente Zambada. Yesterday, another, Hector Huerta Ríos, was arrested in Nuevo León.

Also, earlier this week, authorities in Guerrero seized the third largest shipment of heroin in the history of the country.

The PRI's Irresponsibility, Exemplified

Among the pre-candidate to the governor's post in Colima, the PRI has designated Mario Anguiano, whose brother is in jail on charges relating to trafficking meth, and whose cousin is serving a prison sentence for crimes committed in Los Angeles. Anguiano was selected by the party's national leadership, which offers some support for the recent accusations that Beatriz Paredes and the PRI are not doing enough to take the presence of drug traffickers in their party seriously.


Hillary Clinton arrives in Mexico today, and the New York Times has the rundown on what's ailing the bilateral relationship.

Tec de Monterrey professor Susana Chacón argues that this is a moment to redefine the relationship:
Although the relationship is constant and the traditional topics maintain their course independent of the individual actors, moments of redefinition that must be taken advantage of appear. This is one and it's very important.


Security, commerce, and immigration will be the axis of the visit. The first will be situated as the most important point on the agenda. The unstable situation on the southern border worries our neighbors, while need for reciprocity in the measures taken and the responsibilities assumed worries Mexico. The problem is mutual, shared, and it must be attacked in concert and respond to common interests. There must be clarity in the agenda. We can't let slip away a this moment waiting for the posture of the US. The Mexican priorities must be put on the table ahead of time.

Many actors participate in the management of this topic. An adept coordination between all of them to avoid errors in the bilateral relationship is required. We are in a climate that requires sure-footed steps that reduce levels of uncertainty and difficulty. American arms traffic can't be stopped without coordinated actions. It's difficult to reduce drug traffic without reducing consumption. The levels of violence will be mitigated only if the government and security agencies, national and binational, act in cooperation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bad Press

Torreón is on the cover of the national news websites for all the wrong reasons: Santos coach Daniel Guzmán, less than a year removed from a championship and two removed from saving the team from relegation, is out. I'll miss chuckling at him picking his nose and contorting his body in all manner of unflattering positions on the sidelines. Guzmán is a good coach who's gotten some bad breaks this year; if Santos hadn't turned two different wins into ties in the closing minutes this season, he'd probably still have his job. But that's life as a coach in Mexican soccer, where the hook is quicker than it is for a hung-over reliever who's walked the bases loaded on 12 pitches. 

More alarmingly, five people riding in a car on a highway just outside of town were shot to death earlier tonight. There'd been a lot of rumors about something bad happening this evening over the past couple of days. ("My cousins friend's ex-girlfriend is now going out with a soldier, and his boss told him...") This explosion of rumors happens from every so often, and maybe half the time something occurs that seems to justify the concern. Of course, most of the violence here isn't preceded by any gossip, and you would have a pretty good chance of any night chosen at random bearing witness to a violent act, so maybe it's all just coincidence. 

New Plan

The Obama administration announced a new border control plan to help contain violence attributed to Mexican drug gangs. It will send 500 American officials to the southwest border, including 16 DEA agents and about 100 ATF agents. (Who are the remaining 384?) I imagine some of the ATF agents will be working on gun dealers, joining about 200 already dedicated to tracking arms traffic. Otherwise, it seems like small potatoes. Five hundred agents is one for every four miles of the US-Mexico border, or about 15 for each of the 32 towns along the division.

More on the PAN-PRI Unfriendly Fire

From José A. Crespo:
The PAN wants voters to identify the old hegemonic party as the primary responsible party for the present catatrophe in [security]. It seems that it's a campaign strategy --probably suggested by the Spanish publicist Antonio Sola--: pick at the PRI so that it loses its temper, in which case it would presumably scare off many voters. The PRI has avoided the fight as much as possible and defends its cause with reasonable serenity. If the PRI manages to keep calm, the PAN's strategy could be counterproductive, because such a scenario would leave its national leader looking like a barroom loudmouth who irresponsibly uses a grave and complex issue for petty electoral purposes.
That all seems pretty logical, and I imagine the result for the PAN will be somewhere in between stunning success and catastrophic failure. I'm of two minds about this dust-up. One the one hand, beyond the near-term electoral calculus, Germán Martínez has tarnished his image, and the PAN's strategy has sought to play on the electorate's fear in a way that reminds me a bit of George W. Bush and Iraq. Every time a politician accuses another of being linked to drug trafficking for electoral gain, it cheapens the charge and makes it a) easier for another politician to sling the same mud, and b) easier for the electorate to ignore, including in cases where the charge has merit.

At the same time, panistas have a point when they say that PRI politicians allowed multinational drug gangs to grab a toe-hold, and the PRI has been less than 100 percent cooperative with the PAN in terms of security. Here's Krauze (third time in Gancho in one day, he must be thrilled) from today's Times piece:
We could use more political cooperation as well: Mr. Calderón (and his National Action Party) are now fighting this battle without significant support from the opposition parties, the P.R.I. and the Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Much of the present PAN criticism has centered on the PRI's delaying the passage of the asset seizure law now before Congress, which is fair; Calderón has been hammered for not attacking the money-laundering networks that are a vital support for gangs, and here's a law that would allow Mexico to undercut their the financial supports, yet the PRI has dallied and, dare I say, sought to use the issue for political gain. After much stalling, they presented their own competing package as an earnest attempt to provide safeguards to protect Mexicans against the law's overly stringent application, effectively an instantaneous and no doubt temporary refashioning of the formerly all-powerful PRI as the libertarian party of the little guy.

Mexican Heavyweights in the American Media

Denise Dresser in the LA Times, Enrique Krauze in the NY Times. Both authors --who occupy very different political spaces here in Mexico-- shine. Here's Dresser on the confused version of Mexico coming from the American government, which she says Hillary Clinton should aim to straighten out when she comes to town later this month:
Undoubtedly, Mexico's crime-related problems have become a focus of attention among lawmakers, law enforcement and the media in the United States. Over the last several months, there have been more than six congressional hearings, a segment on "60 Minutes" and numerous public statements made by key people in the U.S. intelligence community stressing Mexico's plight. Although this sort of attention is welcome -- given the seriousness of the problems -- a panoply of inconsistent, disjointed, contradictory stances has generated ill will south of the border.

Mexico doesn't know whether it should pay more attention to those who advocate militarizing the border or to those -- like President Obama -- who have come out against it. Mexico doesn't know whether the United States will make a concerted effort to stem the illegal smuggling of guns into its territory, or whether the "right to bear arms" argument will shelve that issue. Mexico doesn't understand if it's being bashed in order to generate congressional support for further aid and deeper collaboration, or if recent criticism is just political posturing by those who would welcome a bigger wall between the two countries. Members of the U.S. government talk about the need for a "new paradigm" in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, but then lop off $150 million from the Merida Initiative, which is designed to enhance military cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Members of the Obama team talk about a "strategic partnership," but then Congress ends a demonstration project to allow some Mexican trucks onto American highways, as required under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico then retaliates by placing tariffs on 90 goods affecting $2.4 billion in U.S. trade.

And so the binational bickering goes on, while the Mexican porcupine moves into attack position.
And here's Krauze, pleading for a more realistic portrayal of Mexico from the American media:
While we bear responsibility for our problems, the caricature of Mexico being propagated in the United States only increases the despair on both sides of the Rio Grande. It is also profoundly hypocritical. America is the world’s largest market for illegal narcotics. The United States is the source for the majority of the guns used in Mexico’s drug cartel war, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border.

Washington should support Mexico’s war against the drug lords — first and foremost by recognizing its complexity. The Obama administration should recognize the considerable American responsibility for Mexico’s problems. Then, in keeping with equality and symmetry, the United States must reduce its drug consumption and its weapons trade to Mexico. It will be no easy task, but the United States has at least one advantage: No one thinks of it as a failed state.

Nor, for that matter, did anyone ever see Al Capone and the criminal gangs of Chicago as representative of the entire country. For Mexico as well, let’s leave caricatures where they belong, in the hands of cartoonists.

American Fobaproa

El Universal referred to the Obama bank rescue plan as the American Fobaproa, the first media source I've seen to do so. The article says that two elements of the Obama bank rescue --stricter controls on bank executives as well as promises to punish guilty parties-- will likely make it less controversial than in the States.

Based on what some experts are saying, Obama should be so lucky as to have his plan work as well as Fobaproa. Ernesto Zedillo pointed out in January that Fobaproa, at 20 percent of the Mexican GDB in 1995, was far more costly than the American rescue packages attempted up to that point. With the 1.55 trillion of new cash from TARP and this plan, the US is still barely spending half that amount to resurrect its banks.

Improving on Peretz

It's not all bad at TNR: Mexican historian and failed-state denier (which is to say, objective thinker) Enrique Krauze has a long article on Hugo Chávez that was posted today. I've not read it yet, but Krauze is usually at his best when directing his energies toward demagoguery.

Peretz on Mexico

Marty Peretz has an insane post on Mexico from his blog, The Spine. Here it is in its entirety (I'd love to post the comments, too, which are well worth the reading, but it's already long enough):
"Burn me. Don't treat me like this. Do not spare me." Berthold Brecht's books were not included in the Nazi book-burning pyres, and this is how he responded to the omission in one of his many great anti-Nazi poems, "The Burning of the Books." (I do not recall many great anti-communist poems by Brecht at all. But I do remember "The Solution," with its grim satiric suggestion that the "...government/ dissolve the people/and choose itself another.)

Well, any country that doesn't have a special envoy designated to it by the White House will feel that no one in the present administration cares for it. And, if a special envoys are the currency of a country importance, why shouldn't their absence be a sign of insignificance.

Today's Times carries a spooky story by Randal C. Archibold about drug cartel violence spilling over the Mexican border into America and, of course, "alarming" the U.S. This recalls Pancho Villa's raids across the frontier in 1916. Which further recalls the failed retaliatory missions of General Pershing and Lieutenant George Patton in 1916 and 1917.

Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict. Then, there is the Mexican diaspora in America, hard-working and patriotic but mired in its untold numbers of illegals, about whom no one can talk with candor.

The present political strife between the two countries is actually economic. But it is not wholly subsumed under the labels of "free trade" or "protectionism."

The fact is that Mexico is also a failed state, not like Pakistan, mind you. But a failed state, nonetheless, and its failures are magnified by its immediate proximity to the U.S. Its failures will increasingly cross the national boundary, like the drugs and the people, two very different manifestations of our intimacy. The fact is that America is threatened by a failed state, and the only way of dealing with that failure is to make it a success. Which requires not only a special envoy but much more.
The last time Peretz was calling Mexico a failed state, the only evidence he mustered was the fact that Ernesto Zedillo and Jorge Castañeda are working at American universities. I'm not sure whether putting forth no evidence whatsoever marks an improvement or a decline. I am, however, intrigued by the argumentative tactic he employs in writing, "Mexico is also a failed state, not like Pakistan, mind you." The fact is that Gancho is an extremely profitable company, you know; not like Microsoft, mind you. And no you can't see any accounting statements.

For those looking for a more objective analysis: at 11 per 100,000 residents, Mexico's murder rate is lower than that of El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil, and is one quarter of the figure in Detroit and Baltimore. The region of the country --Juárez-- most resembling a failed state has been made infinitely (and perhaps temporarily) safer by a state action, the deployment of 7,000 army troops late last month. Mexico's divided government has passed half a dozen major reforms in the past two years. The nation's economy has not cratered, neither because of drug violence nor because of the world financial crisis. Government institutions --from schools to Congressional sub-committees-- continue to function. Mexico meets almost none of the criteria that Fund for Peace uses to identify failed states, which is probably why 104 nations were measured as closer to failure than Mexico in last year's study.

On to Peretz's inappropriate blanket statement about the "characteristic deficiencies" of a Latin society: he doesn't offer a single piece of evidence to support the ills he mentions (something of a pattern), and they are easily refuted by someone with a working knowledge of the nation, (though in the interest of space, I'll only mention two). Catholic dogma? Mexico's separation of church and state is much stronger than that of the US. Priests weren't even allowed to vote a generation ago, and the Church suffers under (and often slips around) a prohibition against all political speech. Gay marriage and abortion are permitted in certain entities. The Church is a respected institution, but I know nobody who looks to the Church as their primary moral compass, and I live in the conservative, PAN-voting North. Authoritarian government? Unless he's talking about the residents of Oaxaca and Puebla, there's simply nothing to support this.
Just last week, a political rival of the president's was telling him to be a man, and no threats were made on his family. His house wasn't seized. Beltrones merely provoked a call from the Interior Secretary to show greater respect for the presidency. I don't even recall AMLO ever calling Calderón's government authoritarian. (He prefers "mafia.") Calderón's major problem isn't a surfeit of authority, but a lack of it.

And lastly, the inspiration behind the post, the idea that Mexico needs a special envoy: Why? Peretz says that all the other global trouble spots have one, so Mexico might take it is an insult if they weren't included. When your argument boils down to something used by excluded schoolchildren, you know it's weak. And as a regular reader of various Mexican media, I feel relatively confident saying that the appointment of a special envoy is far more likely to insult Mexican sentiments than the failure to do so. Beyond Mexico's feelings, what could said envoy do to improve the situation? Other envoyed nations --Iran, South Asia, and the Middle East-- all include major, legitimate political actors with whom the US has troublesome if not hostile relations. In those regions, the envoy's goal is to untangle a history of deceit and distrust in order to uncover and build on some mutual interests. That's not missing in Mexico. Our interests are quite simple, and they coincide; we both want Mexico to be safer, and the drug gangs to be weaker (although I do think our interests diverge a bit in how quickly and to what degree the gangs disappear). The US already has a million different points of contact with the Mexican government in which it can work toward this. What would a Mexican George Mitchell accomplish that we are unable to do today?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Places Where I'm Happy Not To Be

Top of the list today: The Zócalo, in a car.

(Thanks to David Jaramillo of El Universal for the photo.)

Measuring the PAN

According to Excélsior's "Populómetro", the most well liked panista in the country is none other than Margarita Zavala, Felipe Calderón's wife. I don't find this all that surprising: she has a perfectly likeable, non-controversial public persona who is married to a similarly well liked president. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, she comes after Marta Sahagún. Essentially, she's Laura Bush in late 2001 for a nation that's been dealing with a combination of Hillary Clinton circa 1993, Huey Long, and one of the ladies from Wisteria Lane. How could anyone not love her?

The second most admired member of the party was Calderón. Among the possible presidential hopefuls: Santiago Creel scored a 4.6 on the approval meter (compared to 6.8 for Zavala), Fernando Gómez-Mont registered a 6.3, Josefina Vázquez came in with a 5.8, Gustavo Madero tallied a 6.1 (why is his name never mentioned as a potential candidate?), and Germán Martínez notched a 4.9.

The Next Round

Germán Martínez continues tossing verbal volleys at the PRI, saying in his Sunday message that "although it hurts them to admit it, a PRI president never dared to unleash [a struggle against drug traffickers] like Felipe Calderón is doing."

In today's column, Ricardo Rafael worries that the PRI-PAN sniping is going to doom the chances for any legislative accomplishments in the next legislature, and says that the arguing reminds him of Calderón's multiple political personalities:
The mandate at the voting booths was very clear: a government divided and forced, at the same time, to cooperate with its adversary.

It was with this premise that Felipe Calderón approached his job during the first two years. And he has obtained --according to the polls-- a more than acceptable margin of popular approval. The Calderón that knows how to cook consensus has deserved the applause from the majority of citizens.

Despite that, before an electoral process that approaches, the other Calderón --the politician that likes to open up space with elbows and shoves-- would seem to have taken the forefront now. Overnight, the opposition party with which he had established his most important alliance is presented as a traitor.

Dispatch from Tuscon

The New York Times goes where George Will just came back from, detailing the rising crime levels in Tucson, Arizona. Tucson is an anomaly in that crime is on the rise, whereas violence in most of the big cities near the border is dropping, despite the increased activity of Mexican gangs. At one point, the author writes:
Although much of the violence is against people involved in the drug trade, law enforcement authorities said such crime should not be viewed as a “self-cleaning oven,” as one investigator put it, because of the danger it poses to the innocent. It has also put a strain on local departments.
Will's first column ended with a comment implying that the victims of Mexican gangs deserved their victimhood, which seemed like a misguided afterthought that didn't deserve a whole lot of attention at the time. Having read this, I've rethought the matter, and come to the following conclusion: Anyone who thinks that the self-cleaning oven scenario is an acceptable approach to Mexico has been imbibing what the gangs are selling. That is insane. Criminal gangs don't simply traffic drugs and shoot at their enemies, especially with Calderón cracking down. They extort. They rob banks. They kidnap. The victims of those crimes are not the disposable crumbs at the bottom of the oven, but the businesses, shoppers, and ordinary citizens upon whose safety a thriving civilized society depends. They are you and me, speaking Spanish.

The Case against Douthat

Some blowback against all the liberal enthusiasm for William Kristol's replacement was inevitable, but I don't find the case against Ross Douthat to be particularly convincing. Brad DeLong writes:

From Ross Douthat, Privilege, bottom of p. 184:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend's parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point--"Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?" she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn't sure what to say, but then I wasn't sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business... and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered--"You know, I'm on the pill..."

What squicks me out is (a) that the real turnoff for Ross Douthat is that she has taken responsibility for her own fertility and gone on the pill, and (b) that Ross Douthat does not take this to be a learning moment--is not self-reflective enough to say "Hmmm... If there are other men like me who are turned off by women who take responsibility for fertility control, isn't that likely to be a cause of more abortions?"

Combine that with what Ross Douthat's dismissal of Belle Sawhill's point that free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-no-hassle) birth control appears to prevent 1/5 of abortions--and there is an awful lot here not to like, and an awfully good reason to think that Tyler Cowen or Kerry Howley or Virginia Postrel or any of a large number of other candidates would be an infinitely better choice for the job.

And, of course, there is the other point: here is a Reese Witherspoon look-alike who has offered Ross Douthat the extremely precious gift of wanting to make love to him, and he writes her into his book in this way with what look to be sufficient identifying details. You can write that paragraph in a way that is calculated to try to make her feel bad about herself should she ever read it; you can write that paragraph in a way that does not try to make her feel bad about herself should she ever read it; normal human sociability and empathy suggests that one should try to do the first second; Ross Douthat chooses to do the second first.

Regarding the contradiction in his birth control/abortion positions, this isn't a Douthat-specific complaint so much as a complaint against the broader Catholic take on reproduction. Is there a Catholic pro-lifer who would be less objectionable to liberals? I suspect not. So the argument is not so much about whether Douthat deserves a place on the Times op-ed page, but whether Catholic pro-lifers do.

As to his description of the episode with the woman in college, of course this wouldn't be particularly classy were it a factual blow-by-blow account, but why does DeLong assume that Douthat didn't change enough of the facts so as to make the woman unrecognizable? For all we know, it was actually a Jessica Biel clone who mentioned her diaphragm over a coffee.

Katha Pollitt objects to a handful of past blog posts as well his lack of openness to women's views despite discussing issues that are very important to women. As to the posts, well, yes, I can't deny that Douthat comes off looking pretty silly during his meditation on the evolutionary advantages of the female orgasm, and rather petty when calling Michelle Obama a whiner. (As to his take on stem cells, again, I'm not sure what else you'd expect from a conservative Catholic author.) However, the presence of a few embarrassing reflections is as much a product of the medium as the man. Over the course of several thousand blog posts, where the writing often isn't chewed on for more than a few seconds between completion and publication, it's impossible to avoid having a few cringe-worthy entries. (I'm certain the same is true for Matt Yglesias or Ta-nehisi Coates, though surely the nature of the cringes their poorest posts induce are quite different.) A few wrong-minded blog posts aren't a powerful argument against Douthat.

As to his supposed close-mindedness to the woman's perspective, there may be something to that, but I don't think that during his time at the Times Bill Kristol ever touched an issue that could be described as remotely female-related. I'd also say that Douthat's wide-ranging interest and openness to debate are far more likely to make him an interesting (although at times infuriating) voice on women's issues, which is to say that he is a huge step up from the man he was replacing. Of course, not being a woman, I'm open to the possibility of being completely wrong on that score.

More generally, what were the big criticisms against Kristol? He was unoriginal, uncreative, lazy about facts, and a bit hysterical in his criticism of Democrats. Do any of the previous characterizations apply to Douthat? No. You can't please everybody, but he's clearly an improvement.

Sad Anniversary

A decade and a half ago today, Luis Colosio was murdered while campaigning in Tijuana.

More on Obama's Visit


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Proceso in Juárez

Whatever you might think about Proceso's muckraking, scandal-a-minute, one-anonymous-source-is-more-than-enough style of journalism, the greatness of the magazine's photography can't be denied. This shot of a nameless cop comes from a recent issue on Juárez, about which I'll have more to say tomorrow. It's simply mesmerizing. 

A Sort-of Happy Story

I guess no kidnapping story can't be entirely happy, but this was more so than most: Yesterday a 25-year-old here in Torreón was forced from his car by a bunch of men in assault rifles a couple blocks from my last house, and was taken to house a couple blocks from my novia the bread-snatcher's previous residence. Neighbors noticed the commotion when the victim was brought inside and called the federales, who saved the kid after a gunfight with the kidnappers. This is another example of what anecdotally seems like an increasing tendency of ordinary Mexicans to denounce criminal activity.

One question: the newspaper reports that no one was detained or killed. How is that possible?

Will on Phoenix's Mexico Problem

Don't look now, but George Will had a couple of mostly sensible columns on Mexican drug violence spilling over into Arizona this week. One part, however, that jumped out at me as not being particularly sensible was the finale to his first column: 
There are more than 6,600 licensed American gun dealers on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. They should obey the law, even though most of the victims of the cartels' violence deserve to be.
I'm not quite comfortable with calling the victims of Mexico's drug wars innocent, but nor do I think it fair to say that the majority of the people 5,600 or so Mexicans murdered last year deserved their fate. But really, a judgment on their end is beside the point (and above our pay grade); the fact is that the 100 million Mexicans who have nothing to do with the narcotics trade don't want to live in a nation where close to 6,000 are gunned down by criminal gangs each year, nor do the 300 million likewise uninvolved Americans want their southern neighbor to be such an unstable and violent place. 

I also disagree with his assertion that it is far-fetched to think that drug gangs can survive "a determined drive by the Mexican military, assisted by U.S. military technologies." I guess it depends what your threshold is for "determined", but Mexican drug gangs are certain to live on beyond Calderón's term, just as the Colombian suppliers have survived despite all the work of the Uribe government (which I would think would meet anyone's definition of a determined push assisted by American military technology). The Mexican government can hopefully make the gangs smaller, weaker, and more defensive organizations, but it cannot wipe them off the map any more than it can wish away American drug demand. To think otherwise strikes me as irrationally optimistic, as well as profoundly unconservative. 

But the columns were redeemed from those problems by this paragraph, along with a few others: 
We know how to close a border, says [Phoenix Police Chief Jack] Harris with acid dryness -- "build a wall" and deploy "machine gun nests." But, "I personally think that is stupid." For now, however, the United States "has turned immigration policy over to Mexican thugs." So we have reached a point at which barbed wire, car batteries and acid become the business tools of kidnapper-torturer-extortionists.

With a force large enough to police the nation's fifth-largest city, Harris can deploy 60 officers to deal with one kidnapping. That would be impossible in smaller cities, to which such crime might be driven by success here. But "don't give me 50 more" officers to "deal with the symptoms." Rather, says Harris, who was raised in a rough Phoenix neighborhood, give me comprehensive immigration reform that controls the borders, provides for whatever seasonal immigration the nation wants, and one way or another settles the status of the 12 million who are here illegally -- 55 percent of whom have been here at least eight years.
Every time the Post or the New York Times publishes an editorial about Mexico, it is much commented upon here. It strikes me as odd, then, that such an influential writer could devote 1,500 words to Mexico in the same space, and yet I've heard nothing about it in the Mexican media. George Will (or Tom Friedman or Paul Krugman or E.J. Dionne) is more likely to change someone's mind than the Post or Times editorial page, don't you think?