Monday, August 31, 2009

Seizing Loot

According to figures released by the PGR, in 2009 Mexico has seized $60 million in cash and $100 million in assets from drug gangs. Incidentally, the man whose confiscated cash alone made the corresponding stat for 2007 far higher, Zhenli Ye Gon, is now on his way to Mexico, having been exonerated of drug charges in the US.

Analysts Analyze Juanito

After pointing out that political subordinates rebelling against their masters is an ancient law of politics, Jorge Chabat writes that would-be institution buster AMLO is getting his just desserts with Juanito's disobedience:
He [Acosta], who kneeled before López Obrador. He, who promised in public to resign the post so that Clara Brugada could take over. He, whom AMLO belittled by telling him not to get a big head, that it wouldn't be on his own merit that he would win, rather because of the electoral machinery that el Peje and his allies in Iztapalapa managed. And it's evident that his victory can only be explained by López Obrador's electoral operation, but legally he is the delegate. And there is no way to make him fulfill his promise because it wasn't made in an institutional manner. That's why the institutions matter. That's why those who make arrangements outside of them later have no way to insure their fulfillment. Those who conduct politics through informal methods must understand that the results are those that Machiavelli predicted: politicians don't live up to their words --and in a strict political logic they don't have to-- precisely because there are no institutional mechanisms to make them do so.
Similarly, Ricardo Raphael sees Juanito's appeal as turning the tables on AMLO, painting the ex-PRD candidate's supporters as the elites looking their nose down on the man of the people:

He already tasted the sweetness of popularity and he won't accept missing out on the adrenaline derived from this pleasure. Juanito talks and talks. Ever since they chose him at the voting booths, he carries the truth around in his mouth. He is popular truth incarnate. What the people think and what the powers always disdain.

He is a mixture and reincarnation of Pepe el Toro, Cantinflas' Barrendero [street-sweeper], of the most modest of all of the children of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Juanito represents the triumph --always risky, always miraculous-- of the most screwed over.

[Break]

Juanito poses on the landing of a stairway. Juanito shows off his silhouette, in a public park. Juanito converses on television with the most popular interviewers. Juanito passes through all of the radio programs. Juanito appears and keeps himself on the front page of the big dailies. Juanito, emblam. Juanito, symbol. Juanito, saint. Juanito, from this moment on: unforgettable.

His popularity is barely getting off the ground. That's how he sees it. Nothing can stop him. The criticism doesn't hurt him, nor do the threats, real or imagined, from his enemies frighten him. When, from Mount Olympus, he is spotlighted for not knowing how to honor his promises, Fuente Ovejuna [a Spanish town featured in a classic play in which poor vassals rise up against a tyrannical master] laughs with him. Since when are politicians here known for honoring their commitments? That's a trait you can demand from other professions, but not from this one.

People have wanted to disqualify him by asserting that he is not prepared to occupy a post so burdened with responsibilities: he doesn't have the education, nor the bureaucratic experience, nor the administrative ability. And he knows it.

From the bottom of the revolutionary and nationalist throat emerges a voice that rescues him: Juanito didn't study at Harvard and that's precisely why he could turn into a great public official. How many times have we heard that the natural wisdom of the people is the best of the tools for governing.

Terror in Sinaloa?

An armed group opened fire on a multitude in an outdoor plaza in the small Sinaloa town of Navolato this weekend, killing eight, including three minors. It's unclear if there was a specific target, or if this was a terrorist act; two of those killed had prior arrests for car theft, an activity that is closely linked to organized crime groups in much of the country, and the PGR is investigating the possibility that the massacre was a revenge killing aimed at the pair. As far as is being reported thus far, there was no criminal background among the others killed.

Sinaloa is Chapo Guzmán's territory, and just last week American authorities were mentioning the possible descent into terrorism from Guzmán's gang. At the time, it seemed overblown, and perhaps it was; it also seems more possible now that the warning was prescient.

Consolation Prize

Former Interior Secretary Francisco Ramírez Acuña, who was the only plausible threat to Vázquez Mota's PAN leadership in the Chamber of Deputies and is a dark-horse presidential hopeful in the wide-open PAN, has been named president of the body for the next year. El Universal points out today that the race for 2012 will center on the inter- and intra-party power struggles in the Chamber that Ramírez now oversees. Perhaps with that fact in mind, shortly after he was installed in the post, Ramírez called for "responsibility, maturity, and a great commitment for Mexico" from the would-be candidates.

Welcome

Following the weekend inauguration of the deputies elected in July, Mexico's 61st Legislature has been installed in San Lázaro. The magazine Hoja de Ruta examined the professional background of 199 of the deputies, finding that 103 are lawyers, 53 are economic or management specialists, 18 are doctors, 17 come from education, and eight are political scientists. It also found that the PRI has the most legislatively experienced class: 60 percent of their incoming deputies have already served in a legislative post, compared to 46 percent for the PRD and 39 percent for the PAN. I'm not sure whether that's admirable or worrying, but interesting nonetheless.

Today in Ballsy Journalism

A couple of weeks after having its offices machine-gunned in the middle of the night, and a couple of months after a journalist was murdered here in the Laguna, El Siglo de Torreón published an article (that names specific criminal bands) yesterday about out-of-town criminal cells operating in town. The article, as well as others in yesterday's edition, named specific bands said to be operating in town.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Juanito Update: Marriage of Convenience

The Chuchos, the middle-left group of the PRD that would seem the wing of the party least likely to support a PT candidate, are now backing Rafael "Juanito" Acosta in his bid to renege on his promise to hand over the delegation chief post that he won to Clara Brugada. Background: Brugada was controversially stripped of her PRD candidacy in June, in favor of the Chuchos' choice, Silvia Oliva. Acosta defeated Oliva thanks to support from Brugada's supporters, who were under the assumption that he would give her the job after he won. Now, that seems decreasingly likely. 

Guns around Obama

When people first started showing up to Obama appearances with guns, I didn't expect anyone within light-years of respectability on the right to defend them. Then Megan McCardle and Will Wilkinson came along with a series of silly but creative arguments to confound my expectations. Much wiser responses have come from Jason Zengerle and E.D. Kain, among surely many others.

I read most of the above with great interest, which is in a way odd, because this issue is simple enough as to not require a great deal of consideration: Obama is both an obvious target to a relatively large swath of would-be assassins and someone whose death would throw the country into disarray and turmoil. The logical conclusion from that state of affairs is that the fewer number of weapons around him (or Bush, or any president), the better. Period. Further argument is superfluous.

Of all the US political issues that have arisen while I've been in Mexico, this is the one that has proved most likely to lead locals to the astonished conclusion that US world-power status is more a matter of luck than merit. Of course, the incredulous reaction of foreigners isn't necessarily a good indicator of whether or not the US is in the right, but it is in this case. It is, as Zengerle says, common sense.

Dead Ringers


The band playing at a bar where I was hanging out last night had two lead singers, one who was a carbon copy of Morrissey, and another who looked exactly like Joe the Plumber. The music wasn't bad, but a more bizarre, disconcerting combination of countenances would be simply impossible. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Something Else from Juárez

I mentioned Genaro García Luna's estimate about the revenues from the US drug trade earlier this week, but I missed this, which came during the same appearance:
Genaro García Luna said that recovering the social base in favor of the state is necessary, now that drug traffickers has succeeded in creating a counterculture that drives the belief that the capos are a model of success.
First, I wonder if this represents a post-election nod from Calderón's team toward his critics, who have long argued that his strategy lacks a broader, sociological focus. This is the second time in recent months that a high-level cabinet officer has addressed the issue, and García Luna's remarks seemed much more accommodating to an alternative approach. 

Incidentally, it would be interesting to see a detailed sociological study of the nature of that counterculture, specifically with regard to what motivates Mexico's young delinquents. Is it more about a lack of opportunities in high-crime areas, or a belief that a kingpin's existence is the essence of the good life? When you read about the dead-end youths in Juárez, it makes you lean toward the former explanation. Then again, Jesús Blancornelas' articles on the narcojuniors favor the latter reason. Other writing leaves the reader with the impression that it's a combination of both. Anyway, lots of people talk about the absent social element of Calderón's drug strategy, but it's not clear exactly what addressing the social issues involved in Mexico's drug trade entails. 

More Evidence of Absence

Supporting Zuckermann's thesis of a disappearing president, Calderón has canceled his delivery of the informe (Mexico's State of the Union Address), scheduled for September 1st. On the plus side, he's back in the news, but making news because of your absence isn't really the same thing as making news.

Making the Italians and Spanish Fight

Barcelona, who can't stop winning trophies, and Inter Milan were placed in the same group in the opening round of the 2009-10 Champions League. Each team's respective foremost rival, AC Milan and Real Madrid, are also paired together. Lucky us. 

Vigilanteism

El Universal ran a story today about the rise in execution-style killings of criminals in Culiacán, attributed to a vigilante group (or groups). There have been 36 in the past five months, usually aimed at car thieves and stick-up artists. The most recent revenge murder was yesterday, with the victim being a 16-year-old boy. There really isn't a whole lot of this in Mexico, by and large, but 2009 has borne witness to more of it: the matazetas in Cancún, the group in Juárez that warned of killing a criminal every day in January, and now this. 

Friday, August 28, 2009

The VAT Debate, Continued

The incoming deputies from the PAN are dismissing the possibility of a value-added tax, just as the PRI and PRD have for months. But Vázquez Mota later said it's not totally out of the question. And in a recent column, Jorge Fernández Menéndez argued that the PRI's opposition is bound to give way:
[E]ventually, the PRI will have to be the first to know that sooner or later it must accept that tax, above all if it wants to govern with a more solid economy in the future.
The PRI's opposition has been pretty absolute thus far, so I guess we'll have to see if Fernández's prophecy comes true. But the polling mentioned below and the worsening "fiscal shock" make it seem more likely than it did last month.

Reneging

This isn't exactly too surprising, but Rafael Acosta doesn't seem ready to let go of the spot he won in Iztapalapa but was to hand over to Clara Brugada. Earlier this week he told Brugada to "tie up her dogs", because Brugada's people had allegedly threatened him. Acosta is also imposing a demand (which, if they were made previously, were not known publicly) that Brugada grant him control over 50 percent of the official jobs in Iztapalapa. The PT is no longer supporting his position, and Acosta is threatening to leave the party. Indeed, delusions of grandeur seem to seeping into Acosta's self-image. He published the above image, essentially equating himself with the American president, claims to have overtaken AMLO in popularity among the left, and said that if the Iztapalapa elections were held today, he'd defeat Brugada, Silvia Oliva, and presumably even Benito Juárez.

Great Night for FNF

In what is perhaps ESPN's best night of boxing ever, Tavoris Cloud faces off against Clinton Woods this evening, while in the co-headliner Randall Bailey takes on Juan Urango, with both bouts being for titles. In the first scrap, Woods is a crafty vet who should pose more of a threat than Julio Gonzalez, the ex-champ who is the biggest name on Cloud's resume. Moreover, the Gonzalez fight, more than a year ago, was the last time Cloud stepped between the ropes; such a long layoff is never a good thing for a still developing fighter. I'm betting that Cloud, an exciting banger, will eventually find his rhythm and ice Woods in the later rounds, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Woods frustrate and bust Cloud up early, and hold on for a decision win.

In the 140-pound title fight, we get to see one of the best one-shot punchers this era against a brutal body puncher with an iron chin. Urango's last time out was at 147 against Andre Berto; fighting the much, much slower Bailey is like boxing's equivalent of taking the metal donut off the bat. If Bailey can put a shot on Urango's chin (like he did at 1:45 here, for instance), the fight will probably end, but I think Urango is going to avoid that one shot and body-punch his way to a late knockout.

Yesterday's Other Poll

Reams of interesting facts spilled out from the Strategic Communication Cabinet's National Poll yesterday. Among them:

Most of Mexico doesn't think that legislative reelection would bring about a big change in Mexican politics: 43 percent said it wouldn't make a difference, while another 31 percent said they would perform even worse. Ouch. As a stalwart believe in the need for legislative (and executive, for that matter) reelection, that wounds me. I can only hope that it is more a reflection of broad-based cynicism toward the pols, rather than a deeply considered and strongly held belief.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation (at least from an American who grew up under the shadow of the Club for Growth) is that most Mexicans are not reflexively tax-phobic: 23 percent say they would be willing to pay more with no strings attached, while another 35 said they would accept higher taxes in exchange for greater transparency and accountability in public spending- While 80 percent rejected a value-added tax on food and medicine, 41 percent said that they would pay it in exchange for greater funding of public works, while 54 percent the VAT would be acceptable in exchange for increased educational and medical service, compared to 51 percent willing to fork over the VAT in exchange for greater support for basic needs.

And, for everyone with an eye on 2012: Enrique Peña Nieto enjoyed the voter preference of a wide segment of the population. In a hypothetical matchup with Marcelo Ebrard and Alonso Lujambio, the Mexico governor takes 61 percent of the votes, compared to 16 for Ebrard and 7 for Lujambio. In a race with AMLO and Creel, Peña Nieto would win 58 percent of the votes, compared to 16 for AMLO and 13 for Creel. Peña Nieto also scored highly (though not quite as high) in questions measuring the friendliest and most trustworthy presidential candidates.

Among the specific parties' possibilities, Creel is the PAN favorite with the support of 30 percent of the respondents, followed by Josefina Vázquez (22 percent), Manuel Espino (14 percent), and Alonso Lujambio (4 percent). In the PRI, Peña Nieto is the favorite for 72 percent, with Beatriz Paredes (14 percent) and Manlio Fabio Beltrones (4 percent) way behind.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Disappearing Act

Returning from a long vacation, Leo Zuckermann asked on Monday where Felipe Calderón is:
Back from vacation, I wanted to inform myself about what had happened in Mexico in recent days. I read from cover to cover the principal sections of two papers published in the capital. I started with Excélsior and continued with Reforma. Before continuing with other newspapers, I realized that there was not a single article directly related to the president in either paper. Not one. Zero presence of Felipe Calderón. I inevitably asked: and where is the president?

Unlike that disappearance in the two above papers, I found various articles about Congress and the parties: 11 in Excélsior and five in Reforma. It seemed evident that those who are defining the national political agenda are the party caucuses of the legislature that is about to open. The president, in contrast, found himself in a sort of banishment in the Monday paper, although there did appear some reports, all of them minor, of cabinet secretaries: four in Excélsior and three in Reforma.

With the absence of the president and the presence of Congress, the following question that I asked myself is if the situation is an omen of what is to come during the second part of Calderón's term: weak president a strong Congress?

It's easy to oversell the irrelevance of a president after his party loses, and I think Zuckermann maybe does so here. (Although he writes the rest of the column as though it was more an open question than a foregone conclusion.) Calderón will definitely be weaker vis-a-vis Congress in the final three years than he was in the first, but that's built into the Mexican system. Whether he ends up like Bush during his final year (a virtual non-entity) or more like Clinton after the Republicans took over (concentrating on small victories rather than grand agenda items, but still relevant) seems like a question of will as much as anything. If I had to bet, I don't imagine that the post-election quiet from Los Pinos will last a whole lot longer.

Crime Poll

Today information from a Citizen Institute for Studies on Insecurity (ICESI) poll is spilling across newspaper pages around Mexico. Excélsior reports that 39 percent of criminal victims don't report their crimes to authorities because they feel it will be a waste of time, and 16 percent don't do so because they distrust authorities.

It also said that the murder rate in Chihuahua and Sinaloa is up above 40 (per 100,000 residents) in 2009, jumping from 28 and 18, respectively. Those two states are Mexico's most violent, followed by Baja California, Mexico City, and Guerrero. As far as the national murder rate, according to the poll, last year was the first time it rose nationally in ten years. Contrary to Eduardo Medina Mora's claim a couple of weeks ago, the figure was at around 12, not 10.7. This year, however, it is up to 18 per 100,000.

Factions

Jorge Fernández Menéndez wrote on Friday that the elections of the respective parties' leaders in the Chamber of Deputies has shown them to be factions more than coherent parties. I'd say that the analysis applies much more so the PAN and the PRD, as it did during the election, than to the PRI. The fight for the PRI leadership post (between the victor Francisco Rojas and César Augosto Santiago) was extremely muted, and wouldn't have occurred at all had Beatriz Paredes not withdrawn her name (according to Fernández, because it was decided that she couldn't simultaneously serve as PRI president and leader of the deputies, and that preferred the former post). It's only a matter of time before PRI disputes open up a bit more, but its factions are still getting along much better than those of the PAN and the PRD.

Municipal Problems

Mauricio Merino on Mexico's local governments:
[W]e have become aware that local expense also rose for reasons that are simply unacceptable: the rise in salaries and in current expenses that were used in many cities to finance whims and kickbacks for the functionaries that were on their way out or, even, to filter public funds to the electoral authority. No one talked about this "financial hole" before the elections, when it seemed more than likely that governments would have sufficient funds. And nobody knew precisely the magnitude of the problems that were hanging over them until the new governments began to arrive, with the surprise that the bank accounts were already exhausted. It's not a coincidence that the documents that the Hernández and Alvarado [two El Universal reporters] investigation referred to came about only until the end of July, when the electoral party was already over.

Nevertheless, the bankruptcy of the municipal or state governments is an impossible supposition. Mexico's local governments can't close (although some have done so during summer vacation, as in Guerrero), because they aren't family businesses or maquiladoras or a publicly traded company. If they come to declare themselves in financial bankruptcy, they'd still have to continue carrying out their basic obligations and paying their debts. It would be a gigantic disaster if, suddenly, the governments in the cities stopped worrying about trash or public lighting; if public transportation shut down; if the service windows for filing administrative forms closed until further notice; if the local police and firefighters when to their houses to look for new jobs, et cetera.
It seems like this is more of a dystopian fantasy than a reality. I wonder why is everyone looking to the federal government to solve this; wouldn't it be simpler for Mexican cities, who best know the scope of their difficulties, to issue municipal bonds? Do Mexican cities do that? I've never heard of one doing so, but is there any reason that they couldn't?

Drug Money

Genaro García Luna, who it occurs to me all of a sudden has been really quiet lately, said in Juárez yesterday that the retail drug market in the US generates $64 billion annually. As to how much of that comes back to Mexico, the article doesn't offer an estimate, but such a big chunk makes $30-plus billion sound plausible.

Mexicans without Jobs

Mexico's unemployment rate ticked up to 6.12 percent in July, up a full percentage point from the figure in June and the highest rate registered since the 1994-95 crisis. Furthermore, in the 32 primary urban areas in the country, the number was 7.68 percent in July. This is still well below the corresponding statistic in the US and other developed nations; a reliable figure for underemployment would be a nice complement to these figures.

Crossing the Border

William Booth has a more detailed version of this story in today's Washington Post. In a section about El Paso being the staging ground for Juárez's battles, this quote was a highlight:
"Without a doubt, there are a lot of cartel members among us," said Robert Almonte, executive director of the Texas Narcotic Officers Association and a retired deputy chief of the El Paso police. "They've been here for a long time. They come for the same reasons as you or me. It's safer here. And if they have wives and kids, this is the place to be."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Divided Government

Ezra Shabot's vision (like that of many of his colleagues) of Mexico over the next few years inspires little confidence:
Since 2000, when the panistas arrived to the presidency, the PRI and PRD have maintained a position of minimal collaboration with the executive. For their part, neither Fox nor Calderón managed to dismantle the old priísta machinery that still functions in the labor union structure, and impedes the implementation of a deep labor reform. Furthermore, the PAN administrations significantly increased state participation, with the governors then plumping up the money [from the federal government] whose destination they were not obligated to report.

In this way political change gave way to a weak executive overrun by a corporatist bureaucracy, by governors who run their states like a local viceroy without any counterweight, and finally by a Congress committed in the best of scenarios to minimal and incomplete reforms that don't modify in any way the form in which politics is conducted, nor the financial structure of the government as a whole. It is this paralysis that has left the country in the same place that it was years ago. Dependent on oil, tied irreversibly to the American economy for better or worse, and with very limited room for maneuver in resolving the principal national problems like poverty, marginalization, and educative, technological, and infrastructure gaps.

The result of the election on July 5 reinforced this tendency in a very deep way.

[Break]

The reality demonstrates that, for the balance of powers in a democracy to work, there has to exist a political class willing to commit itself to the idea that basic task is the creation of parliamentary majorities capable of arriving at agreements beyond the dispute for power. Without this condition, the paralyzing equilibriums lead only to paralysis, citizen disenchantment, and, worst of all, the deterioration of the quality of life in all sectors of society. Governing in a minority in Mexico is to be condemned to failure regardless of the party that holds the presidency.
I think this is a little pessimistic, in that it implies that Mexico's structure permanently prevents the parties from cooperating, rather than just acts as a disincentive. The thing is, the disincentive is not so overwhelming as to be insurmountable. While the reforms passed in the last three years were almost universally timid, they do mark a major improvement from the first nine years of divided government. As the prevailing political dynamic continues to evolve, as Mexico's political class continues to stumble forward, the conditions will (intermittently, at the very least) become more favorable toward intra-party cooperation.

Nonetheless, a thorough analysis. It's interesting how much recent commentary has focused on the dysfunction and irresponsibility of state and local governments.

Leading the PRI

We learned last week that it wouldn't be Paredes; now we know that it will be Francisco Rojas leading the PRI legislators in the Chamber of Deputies. Rojas, an ex-Pemex director, sounded notes of cooperation and tri-partisan dialogue upon his being named the leader. (Don't they all?)

Ramírez de la O on the Fiscal Shock

This is from last week, but still interesting:
The crisis was a shock for the government, a negative surprise. But why, if many of us already knew about it?

First of all, all of the budget plans and, still more, their execution, were always surrounded by a baseless optimism. Its only support were the high oil prices. State governments were infected by this illusion and spent their federal money without building permanent wealth or investing in education, science, or public works.

At the end of last year the government expected a gross domestic product of 13.1 trillion pesos in 2009. With the decline, which took it by surprise, it will be about 15 percent less, and as the budget was based on the first figure, it made a myth out of it. Furthermore, there is no way to compensate what has been lost with more taxes in 2010, especially if the attempt is to collect from those who have lost the most consumptive capacity, the middle class.

One problem is that the majority of the expenses fed the federal government scheme of not investing, but rather maintaining PAN and opposition governors content and therefore buying their support. Today you can complain that the governors have "spent the bonanza", but it must be remembered that it was the executive himself that told them on repeated occasions that together they were going to share more income.

The true exit to this shock turned crisis is not within reach of the government nor Congress. Inertia dominates them both. To start, public expenses will have to be cut by 500 billion pesos for there not to be a deficit.

Or government revenue could increase by this amount.

[Break]

The real solution should be to recalibrate the size of the bureaucracy. Without that there will never be the funds to invest. But doing that requires the best possible political leadership, because it involves states, cities, Congress, and the judicial branch. Only after that can you begin to discuss more taxes and from whom to collect them.

Because that leadership is absent, the "solution" after weeks of discussions in Congress and between public and private bodies, will be the false exit. The only thing they are going to achieve with an investment freeze is sinking the economy even more, which will in turn punish revenue collection even more in the coming years and defund any budget that is made...
As Noel Maurer pointed out recently, it's odd how Mexican analysts are very debt-phobic, when borrowing to offset a crisis is standard practice in the US. Ramírez de la O is one of Mexico's most prominent liberal economic voices (he was AMLO's principal economic advisor in the 2006 campaign), and he comes off as something of a fiscal hawk here. I tend to think the discomfort with debt to Mexico's checkered history with borrowing, but maybe there's more to it than that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More on the Failing Teachers

Either I'm missing something vital about the nature of the failure (and I haven't ruled that out), or the media's coverage of last week's teachers exam is one of the most egregious examples of willfully misinforming the public I've ever seen.

To summarize, there was a teacher's test last week to see which teachers would earn tenured position at public grade schools. Here's what Excélsior said last Monday:

...[O]f the 123,000 that answered the exam, only 25 percent will earn a post as a government teacher, owing to the fact that only 31,000 positions are available, which is to say that close to 92,000 aspirants will not obtain a position affiliated with the SNTE.
And here's what the same paper was saying yesterday:

Of the 123,856 aspirants that presented the National Exam for Teaching Ability and Knowledge, only 25 percent passed; which is to say, only 31,086 passed the test satisfactorily so as to obtain a position.

Again, unless I'm missing something, three quarters of the would-be teachers had to fail. And, the situation being what it was, three quarters did exactly that. What was going to happen happened. On top of that, the fact that Mexico is even testing its teachers now (which they weren't doing 18 months ago) is a huge step in the right direction. Why all the fuss, then? (And I should add that much of the coverage was far more breathlessly critical than the preceding passage.)

This wasn't a one-off thing, either; people were talking about it everywhere yesterday, and the narrative about the stupidity of Mexico's teaching core anchored into the Mexican psyche a little more deeply thanks to yesterday's coverage. But even beyond the unfairly maligned teachers, all the hand-wringing is a waste of time and an obfuscator of actual problems. Here is an article about how the Senate's committee on education is worried and looking into the matter. Assuming my understanding of the exam is correct, every minute the Senate (or any other institution) spends worrying about this is a minute that they aren't looking at the educational system's genuine obstacles, which are legion. Which is to say, a waste.

More on the Anniversary

Here's a portion of the op-ed piece from Alejandro Martí, in honor of last week's first anniversary of the National Agreement for Security, Legality, and Justice:
One year from the signing of the National Agreement for Security, Justice, and Legality offers an opportune moment to acknowledge that there have been advances and will in directly confronting organized crime. Nevertheless, said advances are clearly insufficient.

The balance is in general negative, tasks remain incomplete and there are irrefutable indicators that insecurity has worsened instead of improving.

There are at least four aspects that in Mexico SOS we consider to be a failure: first, all that having to do with the strengthening of the penitentiary system. Bands of kidnappers continue to operate with impunity, even from inside the jails, many of the bloodiest criminals that in recent months have been actors in heart-wrenching cases, are ex-convicts, and some even enjoyed the benefit of parole, which they took advantage of to return to the streets to commit crimes and harm society.

Second, the creation of Specialized Anti-kidnapping Units. According to Conago and the National Agreement's System of Information and Follow-up, 26 entities reported the creation of these entities, but only seven operate with the respective official decree of creation. Despite those "advances" a generalized increase in kidnapping and other crimes has been reported in practically the entire national territory.

Additionally, the meager advances in terms of cleaning up and strengthening security and justice institutions stand out. Every time there is a kidnapping we are surprised to see among the criminals one or several persons that are or were a part of the authority. As was recently published in some media, four of every ten agents who have resigned from the AFI --now the Federal Investigative Police-- have gone on to the ranks of organized crime. This the overwhelming proof of the degree of deterioration from which our principal "security" agencies suffer.

Lastly, we have everything that has to do with the system of indicators for monitoring crime. Even though we in civil society have made some important efforts and strides in the creation of these mechanisms, commonly called "observatories", we continue to suffer from a lack of solid, up-to-date, and verifiable information from the authorities that supply our systems and help us to evaluate the problem in her proper dimension.

More Cheddar

TV Azteca owner Ricardo Salinas has jacked up his personal fortune during perhaps the worst economic crisis in Mexico since the Great Depression, going from just over $4 billion to more than $10 billion since February. This corresponds to a jump of 89 places on the Forbes list, up to number 35. The added riches are mainly due to stock gains for Salinas' Elektra stores.

Punishing the Honest

Last week, Gerardo Priego, an outgoing PAN deputy, returned a little less than $100,000 in cash, which originally had been handed over to him as travel vouchers. (He then exchanged the four tickets a month he received for cash at a travel agency associated with the Chamber.) He returned the money, saying that he didn't feel like it was his, and that it would be untoward to accept cash for plane rides he didn't take given the country's economic straits.

Of course, drawing attention (and consequent disapproval) to this generosity toward the nation's ruling class has not endeared Priego to said ruling class. Indeed, one of his fellow panistas said he lacked the moral authority to make a significant gesture of this type, because he basically demanded a kickback in exchange for running for governor of Tabasco in 2000. Indeed, his own party has been Priego's harshest critic. Bajo Reserva:
Somehow it was understood that the PRI, PRD, and Green blocs would remain silent last week before the condemnation of Deputy Gerardo Priego about the way federal legislators have illegally extracted, for years, money from taxpayers. But for the PAN to not only turn their back on him, but also to scold him for being brave and a good citizen (at least in this episode), says a lot about what that party think of honesty. It also tells us how far the issue of transparency foes in the nation: until it touches the personal interests of certain characters. It would have been enormously sensible had the new leader of the party, César Nava, offered to address the complaint. The same for Josefina Vázquez Mota, the coordinator in the Chamber of Deputies. But that wasn't the case: Priego has been isolated in his party, as other political forces will surely isolated him. And the problem is that, if we are honest, it was very uncomfortable to acknowledge that for decades deputies have diverted funds. They would have had to wound up in the accounts of President Felipe Calderón, and of many other high-level panista, perredista, and priísta politicians that have bragged of clean hands, and that were legislators at some point in their careers.
Indeed.

More Support for Shrinking the Legislature

The three parties in the Senate are showing support for cuts to the number of plurinominal senators, just as Josefina Vázquez has as well. With members from all three parties and in both houses showing interest in a change, it seems more likely. One of the things that bothers me about this is that it's a big, showy gesture that's easy for people to understand (as opposed to the disparate impact of tax reform), but it accomplishes nothing in and of itself. I can just imagine the self-congratulatory ads from the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies: "We cut the number of plurinominal legislators, bringing your Congress closer to you!" Or some such nonsense. But unless the reduction of 32 senators and 100 deputies makes tax and labor and penal reform more likely (and I don't see why it would), this would be at best a lateral move, not an improvement.

Setting a Strategy

US officials are in Mexico putting together a strategy for slowing down US-to-Mexico arms traffic. As if on cue, the army yesterday found an arsenal in Juárez that included a "missile-launcher" (I imagine they mean rocket-launcher), grenades, several dozens firearms, and some 30,000 bullets.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More Arrests

Another in a long list of the recent hits to the Family: on Sunday in Manzanillo, federal authorities arrested Luis Ricardo Magaña (along with five bodyguards), described as a member with a standing comparable to that of La Tuta. 

Reporting on the Organized Criminals

There is a DEA or DoJ report floating around that I can't find on the internet (the websites of both agencies/departments are quite a bit lacking), but has earned a lot of press in Mexico. Evidently, it talks up the possibility of Chapo using terrorism and the increasingly heated battles between Mexican gangs for US territory. Without reading it, it's hard to know if the quotes are taken out of context, with important qualifications removed, or if they were major parts of the report. However, if the suggestion is that Chapo is going to turn into Escobar and the warfare in Juárez will soon arrive on American streets, that seems a bit overwrought, as is the case with much of what comes from the DEA.

Who's Running Things?

That's what Ricardo Raphael asks, adding that the fact that one even dares to wonder is an indication of the decline in the power of the modern presidency. He closes:
Who governs Mexico then? I repeat what I said at the beginning: I don't know. It looks like those who govern are a chaotic group of federal authorities, parties, governors, and special interests, which, until now, haven't been capable of substituting that authoritarian presidential setup with another in which intelligence and democratic cooperation prevail.
That seems right. I'd also add that in even the most developed democracies, intelligence and cooperation often aren't the driving factors. (See also: health care debate, United States.) And whatever its shortcomings, today's system is an unquestionable improvement over the years of Echeverría or Díaz Ordaz.

Ideas Making the Rounds

Josefina Vázquez's panista agenda will focus on, among other goals, cutting the number of federal bureaucrats and reducing the size of the Chamber of Deputies from 500 to 400 representatives. Beatriz Paredes has also announced her support for a smaller lower house.

I don't think there's a huge functional difference between 500 and 400 representatives (likewise for the 200 versus 100 plurinominal deputies from whom the reduction would be drawn), but there's a couple of reasons that this is hard to take too seriously. Among them, the chances of a political body effectively reducing its size are comparable to a boxer punching himself; not impossible, but contrary to the mindset and interests of elected officials and therefore very unlikely.

And while I don't think the cut would be a bad thing, I also don't think it provide any particular benefit. The tax-payer savings would be a drop in the bucket, it wouldn't make a tri-partisan congress any less unwieldy, and there is some value in avoiding vast reorganizations to vital institutions, just to avoid the inevitable upheaval it causes.

Mexico's Drug Laws in the Times

Marc Lacey has a dispatch from Tijuana in the wake of last week's decriminalization.

School's In

Today is the first of school, and while millions of kids are rediscovering miserable boredom, most of Mexico's newspapers today are scandalized by the "76 percent of teachers" who failed to pass the exam they presented for the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) last week. Of course, this is a bit misleading, because most of them failed only insofar as they failed to win a tenured position. The problem with that is that there were positions available only for about 25 percent of those taking the test. In other words, even if all of the 100,000-plus aspirants had aced the test, 76 percent still would have failed.

Putting that aside and digging a little deeper, the results are still nonetheless worrying. Four percent of the test-takers answered less than 30 percent of the 80 questions correctly, while the national average was only 54 percent of the questions correctly answered. And all but the four percent are eligible for future positions as they become available. As the maitre d' says in Ferris Bueller (incidentally not a bad movie for the kids today), I weep for the future.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Crossing Over

Slate has a series of dispatches on the life of the desert-trekking immigrants in Sacha Feinman in Sonora. Three pieces in, good stuff.

Mexico is Not Colombia

So say a pair of analysts from Eurasia Group, for the following reasons: 
First, the government still maintains control over its territory and has not ceded ground to narcotraffickers at any time. Second, although the fight against the cartels has resulted in higher rates of violence, the hostility remains largely contained in a few states and among narcotraffickers vying for improved positions within the cartels or between them. Third, Mexico's drug trafficking violence on a per capital basis remains significantly lower than Colombia's. Even after years of President Alvaro Uribe's successful hard-line security policy against Colombia's narcotraffickers, violence in this country remains quite high: There were a total of 16,000 reported homicides in 2008 in a country of 45 million people. In Mexico, in contrast, narcotrafficking related violence is expected to cause about 6,000 casualties in 2009, in a country of more than 100 million. Fourth, Mexico's narcotraffickers have not targeted civilians in order to support a campaign of fear against the government, even if they do continue to target public officials specifically involved in the fight against them.

In Colombia, in contrast, the nation's narcotraffickers embarked on a public fear campaign that targeted civilians and political elites, even if they had little to do with narcotrafficking or the fight against it. Finally, and most important, Mexico's narcotraffickers have no unifying political agenda.
They conclude with the following:
As long as President Calderon stays firm in his stance against organized crime, investors will continue to base their judgments about Mexico on the government's capacity to push through badly needed fiscal and economic reforms rather than the level of narcotrafficking violence.
I agree that Mexico is not Colombia, nor it it likely to descend into Colombian levels of violence in the near future. However, other than the first, none of the reasons that supposedly differentiate Mexico from Colombia would seem to be directly dependent on "Calderón stay[ing] firm in his stance in organized crime". Indeed, whether or not you are in favor of Calderón's crime policies (and I tend to think that Mexico eventually was going to need someone more aggressive than past presidents), it's hard to argue that they are investor-friendly, which seems to be the gist of the piece. 

Take the second point, about violence being limited to a couple of states, which contradicts the final conclusion more than it supports it. First of all, it's based on a dubious assumption; yes, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, and Baja California are the primary hot zones, but there is a long list of cities and regions where organized crime used to have a limited influence, but is now a major problem: Monterrey, Torreón, Veracruz, Guanajuato, the southern Pacific coast, Zacatecas, et cetera. The increased violence and vulnerability of these regions is attributed, correctly in my opinion, to the so-called cockroach effect: as federal troops have disrupted organized crime groups in their traditional nests (at Calderón's behest), gangs high-tailed it to new cities. Similarly, gangs have expanded into other criminal realms primarily because of Calderón's aggressive posture: they have had to replace declining smuggling income, and they have done so with activities far more disruptive to a free society than drug-running, such as kidnapping and extortion. 

The article implies that precisely because of Calderón's anti-crime strategy, Mexico will retain a friendly climate for investors. In a lot of ways, the opposite is true; Calderón's policies have turned out to be bitter pills for businesses. That doesn't necessarily make Calderón wrong, but the president's supporters do themselves a disservice when they overstate or misunderstand the impact of his presidency.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fukuyama in Poder

What conclusion can one draw from the recent cover of Poder, other than that the editor's goal was to make Francis Fukuyama look like some sort of species of ninja academic?

The cover story is built around an interview with Fukuyama, as well as a translation of this column from March. The interview doesn't propose anything ground-breaking, but it covers some interesting terrain on the Washington Consensus (he thinks it was a double-edged sword), the use of the army in Mexico (he's in favor of it), and the Mérida Initiative (he thinks it should be expanded to more countries with more cash to support it). Fukuyama also had perhaps the pithiest possible retort to people who call Mexico a failed state:
Many people in Mexico believe in the hypothesis that the country is a failed state.
That's because they've never lived in a failed state, like Somalia, Afghanistan, or Haiti, to name a few. 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nice Detail

I couldn't help but chuckle at the conclusion to an AP piece about a Jim Rice appearance before a group of little leaguers:
Rice's appearance was part of a promotion by Allstate Insurance Co. He got a standing ovation from players and coaches, though some of the 11- to 13-year-old players were yawning or had their heads in their arms on the table about 15 minutes into the talk.

Surprise

Beatriz Paredes won't serve as the PRI's coordinator in the lower house of congress, as had been widely expected. I'd never read any speculation that another priísta would fill the post, so I can't wait to see what everyone makes of this.

Blast from the Past

I can't even remember how I got started on the chain of links that led me here, but Buzz Bissinger's 1998 piece on Stephen Glass is great reading, even more than a decade after the fact.

Odd Combination

There is an out-of-stock listing for the memoirs of Gonzalo Santos (a book I have sought, without success, for years, in case anyone can point me to a copy for sale) at ecampus.com, which says that the autobiography of the San Luis Potosí caudillo is frequently purchased by readers of John Grisham's Ford County, The Smart Girl's Guide to Porn, and Biology with MasteringBiology. If you were asked to name the four books with the least number of common threads, you'd have a hard time beating these four.

A Big Day for Mexican Stoners

Starting today, Mexicans can carry small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroine, and other drugs, thanks to a law passed in April. (Click here for a cinematic celebration of the event.) I hope this doesn't become a talking point for anti-legalization voices. The chances are that this will have very little impact on levels of violence in Mexico, so I can imagine some people turning that into an argument against American legalization. Of course, the comparison is disingenuous; as long as the American prohibition is in place and the possession of large amounts of drugs in Mexico is illegal, the major drivers of violence remain in place. Legalization of personal supplies is a praiseworthy but not terribly significant change.

A Good Card

HBO has an entertaining slate of fights this weekend (which I hope will be televised here, but I'm not counting on it), headlined by Juan Diaz versus Paulie Malignaggi. I don't see Diaz carrying any kind of pop with him up to junior welterweight, and Malignaggi showed his whiskers against 140-pound monsters like Cotto and Hatton. Nonetheless, I don't think Malignaggi's movement is going to have Diaz swinging at air, and he can't crack enough to keep Diaz off of him, especially at the catchweight. Diaz will find Malignaggi often enough, and even if he can't hurt him, he'll rattle the New Yorker. Malignaggi's going to have to fire back to win, but I don't see him keeping up with Diaz's pace. In Diaz's Houston, this looks like a solid unanimous decision.

On the undercard, Robert Guerrero, at 130 pounds, shoots for a belt in his second division against Malcolm Klassen. Guerrero reminds me of one of those writers who put together perfect sentences and have entertaining characters and vivid sequences, but their novels always leave you flat. He does everything well, but there's something about him that feels somehow lacking. And this isn't about him bailing on the Yordan fight. Nevertheless, I think he'll find a way to a scrappy decision win here, making him a two-division champ without ever having beaten a significant foe, without ever having earned a signature win. Hopefully he'll step up the opposition should he win this one.

Lastly, I like Daniel Jacobs over Ishe Smith, but I'm not expecting a particularly interesting bout.

Economic News That's Not Horrible

Crisis or no, some investments are rolling into Mexico: GM recently announced a plan to sink $300 million into San Luis Potosí (which will generate 600 jobs), while Coca-Cola made public plans to invest more than $5 billion over the next five years.

Update: Another example: Thanks to favorable forecasts from Banxico, the peso today hit its best level of the year.

More on Mexico's Jails

Malcolm Beith has a new piece for Newsweek on the sorry state of Mexico's penal system. I suggested after the Gómez Palacio jailhouse riot that Mexico embark on a major prison-building project. The article informs us that Mexico is doing just that: twelve new maximum-security facilities are to be open by 2011.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Credulous Reporting

I remarked last month about how Newsweek's cover story/interview on AMLO was a bit soft on the ex-DF mayor, given the controversial path he's cut over the past three years. But compared to the magazine's recent piece on Santiago Creel (by the same pair of authors), the AMLO article comes off like something from Mike Wallace's greatest hits. Of the twelve questions, only one was in the least bit challenging (and it was only marginally so), and virtually all the rest were beach balls. For instance: 
Having made a law that affected the broadcasters has cost you a great deal. I remember a pathetic scene on TV when they covered your face during a news piece on Televisa. And despite it all you continue at the top of the list of electoral possibilities among PAN candidates. Why is that?
Ugh. It's even more nauseating the second time around. The above question was only one of a few that were built around Creel being many panistas' pick for the presidency. Another ridiculous "question":
The man at the front of the government comes from the most doctrinaire wing of the PAN, and the man who was until a few days ago the president of the PAN also comes from that wing and is a driver of PAN doctrine. In contrast you have been singled out as neo-panista. Now you are remaking PAN doctrine. 
The word question is in quotes above because, as you may have noticed, there is no query in the preceding passage. Borrowing a tactic used by ninth-grade girls flirting their way into the hearts of upperclassmen since time immemorial, the interviewer actually asked nothing, but instead coupled a slam of Creel's enemies with a flattering opinion, expressed with no great subtlety. And a questionable opinion, at that; I (and others) generally think about Calderón as having come from the technocratic wing of the party, not the hard-core social conservative branch. Indeed, that wing of the party is usually seen associated more with Vicente Fox and Manuel Espino, who of course are allies of Creel. 

The article covers some potentially interesting ground about Calderón's strategy of building alliances with the PRI (which would seem to contradict his image as a extremist doctrinaire), but it's hard to find your way past the piles of empty adulation to anything illuminating. 

Indictments

Attorney General Eric Holder (with Pat Fitzgerald by his side) today announced the indictment of 43 Mexican organized crime figures, among them Nacho Coronel, Chapo Guzmán, Vicente Carrillo, the Beltrán Leyva brothers, and Ismael Zambada. He also said that the organization known as the Gulf cartel now calls itself the Company, something I'd not heard before. 

Figures of the Day

I just got the nightly news summary text message, announcing a 10.3 percent second-quarter contraction in Mexico, and a new world record in the 200 meters from Usain Bolt of 19.19. It occurs to me that those two figures --Bolt's 200-meter world records and Mexican shrinkage-- have been steadily creeping closer since early last year. If present patterns held, I wonder when they would intersect, and at what number. The 2016 Olympics, and 17.6?

The Reasons for and the Solutions to the Fiscal Conundrum

I meant to get to this last week. Here's Macario Schettino on Mexico's "fiscal shock", as Carstens called it last week: 
The Secretary of Finance has recognized the historic magnitude of the fiscal problem. But he wasn’t sufficiently clear: it’s not a temporary problem, resulting from the global financial crisis. It’s a permanent phenomenon: the source of funds with which we lived for 30 years is gone; that which paid the external debt and allowed us to grow, although it was at very moderate levels, for three decades. Without counting the present year of crisis, Cantarell contributed more to the GDP in these three decades than the total growth of the economy.

The idea that the model has failed has become commonplace. Of course it failed, it has since the 1970s. The model is a political regime of distributing rents to maintain power. It’s not an economic problem, but a political one, and it always has been. It has nothing to do with neoliberalism or a mixed economy, neither of which ever existed. It has to do with a system constructed to extract resources from those who aren’t organized so as to hand it over to those who are and are therefore part of the political regime. And this didn’t come to an end with the arrival of the PAN to the presidency, because divided governments haven’t been able to confront the old regime.

The revolutionary regime constructed an economic system whose principal objective was the distribution of rent, and not growth. That’s why we didn’t grow. The defenders of revolutionary nationalism continue to insist that Mexico had a great post-war era, when we grew for 25 years. That’s false. We grew the same as the world grew, nothing spectacular, we did so because in those years there was available territory and scarce population. The 30 previous years Mexico hadn’t grown at all, and only slightly in the post-war era were we able to begin to catch up.

We didn’t grow so as to produce better, but rather because we went along occupying idle territory. When we ran out of territory, in 1965, the only form of maintaining fictitious growth was to put the country in debt, and later to base growth on oil…
But that is irreversibly over with. In the coming years oil production will continue to fall, to such a degree that we won’t have money with which to support the refinery that we haven’t begun to build. It’s a small temporary inconvenience, but a historic crisis.

To respond to that we have only two options. One is to do the same as always, which we know how to do: fake change and place the country in debt. It’s a direct and, unlike on other occasions, short path off the cliff. Remember: we haven’t had an economic crisis in Mexico without having oil behind; in every case, oil has provided us a way out.

The other path is more complicated. It implies recognizing the secular failure of a political project and making decisions of the same size as the crisis: historic. The changes necessary to resolve the fiscal problem aren’t otherworldly: in this space we have this week presented a proposal that was integrated, liberal, redistributive, and revenue-increasing all at the same time. That’s not the complicated part, which is the acceptance of failure that is required before the decisions. Which aren’t merely fiscal, let’s be clear. 

Looking the Part

One two different occasions in the past week, Marcelo Ebrard has made a conspicuously presidential-ish pronouncement. On Tuesday, he called on Calderón to implement a tri-partisan Council of Economic Reactivation. And today, he proposed a National Emergency Program that would support the 60 million Mexicans most affected by the crisis. His barriers to the presidency don't have a lot to do with people being unable to picture him in the role, but the statements struck me as noteworthy nonetheless. It'll be interesting to see if this, as well as the chatter about him standing up to AMLO on the Juanito/Brugada issue and the laudable example of accountability that we mentioned earlier today, will be part of him rolling out a candidacy as the responsible leftist option.

Concrete Proposals

One of the more reasonable objections to the National Agreement for Security, Justice, and Legality is the lack of short-term, specific, measureable goals. For instance, one of the goals is "strengthening Siedo". Well, of course that's a worthy objective, but that could mean a million different things.

Jorge Fernández Menéndez devotes today's column to laying out five objectives that are both urgently needed and achievable. They are paraphrased below:
1) The creation of a comprehensive national security system, which would lay out the relationships and mechanisms for coordination between the various security agencies. I imagine this would be something along the lines of the 1947 National Security Act in the US.

2) Give more investigative and prosecutorial powers to prosecutors at every level of government.

3) Centralize police command, if not through one central police, then through greater coordination between 32 different state police agencies and their federal counterparts.

4) Focus efforts primarily on the crimes that most affect the public: extortion and kidnapping.

5) Reform the penal system, through limiting contact with the convicts and the outside world, and by separating the most dangerous criminals from the general population.

Arms Traffic

Sylvia Longmire weighs in on the origin of the guns used by Mexican gangs:
According to the ATF, Mexican authorities submitted over 7,500 firearms for tracing in fiscal year 2008. That means that the ATF uses serial numbers stamped on the weapons to determine where they were sold and to whom they were sold. Of those 7,500+ firearms that were actually traced by the ATF, approximately 90 percent of them were sold to individuals in Texas, Arizona, and California.

This seems pretty cut and dried, but in reality, it’s not so simple. According to the Mexican government, over 20,000 guns were seized by Mexican authorities in drug-related crimes during the same time period. One has to ask why so many guns were not submitted to the ATF for tracing, and more importantly, where did those guns come from.

This is where it gets easy to fudge statistics because there is no easy answer. My sources within the ATF have been kind enough to explain to me some of the many reasons why those thousands of guns were never submitted by Mexican authorities for tracing.

Many of those untraced guns have serial numbers that have been filed off. Until recently, only a small percentage of U.S.-origin guns in Mexico had the serial numbers filed off, and that number has increased significantly—from roughly five to 20 percent. This renders those guns untraceable. Other guns are stolen or “misplaced” by corrupt law enforcement officials, either for personal use or for passing on to Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Some are never submitted because corrupt officials are attempting to protect the DTO-sponsored purchasers. And finally, some are simply destroyed without being traced.

Is it possible that less than 90 percent of those untraced guns came from U.S. sources? Yes. It’s also possible that more than 90 percent came from U.S. sources, but we will never know. This problem can be approached from a purely statistical standpoint, meaning the 7,500 guns submitted for tracing would represent a sample of the total gun “population.” If 90 percent of traced guns were sold in the U.S., then statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent of untraced guns also came from the U.S. This is because 7,500 is a large sample from a “population” of 20,000.
This isn't something I've thought or read about too much, but the above seems logical to me. The idea that the 12,500 guns not submitted for testing are much less likely to have come from the US relies on many in the Mexican government working together to manipulate the sample, and in so doing shame American authorities. I suppose that's possible, but it doesn't seem too likely.

Crystal Balling

A couple of voices look forward to 2012. First, Carlos Loret reminds us that Peña Nieto's victory is not a foregone conclusion:
Peña Nieto already has one foot in Los Pinos, Andrés Manuel is dead, Ebrard is the only one in position on the left, the PAN has no one and it is lost, Paredes this, Beltrones that, Josefina or Creel maybe.

One look at the recent history of Mexican presidents mocks any premature conclusion when there are three long, intense years left in which anything can happen:

Vicente Fox in 1997 was a loquacious governor of Guanajuato that without the approval at the national level of his party celebrated his birthday by announcing his presidential aspirations with a head start never before seen in the history of Mexican politics, 1095 days.

Felipe Calderón in 2003 was working discreetly at the head of the development bank Banobras where he was being questioned for a mortage self-loan. And that's to say nothing of Ernesto Zedillo, who in 1991 didn't figure in any of the long lists of the "veiled" from his anodyne post as the secretary pf public education.

In less than three years Colosio was assassinated, Labastido feel apart and López Obrador watched his electoral advantage plummet. They were the leaders and many assumed that they were the future presidents.
And Jorge Chabat explains one of the disadvantages facing Peña Nieto:
If the elections in 2009 are an indicator --and it's true that mid-term elections rarely are-- the final matchup will be between candidates from the PRI and the PAN. And then, as in any final, anything can happen. It's true that the PRI already has at least three visible pre-candidates for the big one and in the PAN it's muddier. Nevertheless, the lack of clarity of one candidate is a double-edged sword: although it helps to have one or various figures positioned among public opinion, it also makes possible candidates more vulnerable. And if you don't agree, look at the attacks received by Peña Nieto --many of them probably with reason-- while in the PAN there is no one to attack, except President Calderón himself, who won't be a candidate in 2012.

Not Taking a Seat

Julio César Godoy, the fugitive half-brother of the Michoacán governor, will be barred from taking the seat in the Chamber of Deputies that he won in July.

Accountability

As a consequence of the botched rescue of Yolanda Coppel in early July, the chief of Mexico City's Judicial Police and the city's anti-kidnapping prosecutor have both resigned. Kudos to Marcelo Ebrard; if more Mexican leaders would follow his lead, a big barrier to more effective institutions would be removed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Unsupportable Premise

After we ate a memorably horrible breakfast at Bob's Big Boy in maybe 1998, my brother commented that it was a good idea to eat there every so often, just to remind yourself how awful the food is. Sage advice. I follow a similar dictum with super-famous columnists whose writing I don't find particularly illuminating, Maureen Dowd* among them. Today's column opened with the following premise:
Sadly, there’s no such thing as a private affair anymore.
Well, sure that's true if you focus exclusively on the affairs that are public. Of course, by nature of being secret, the surely existent affairs that would refute Dowd's thesis are hidden from all except the principals. During every political scandal you hear people who ask, "How could he be so stupid to do something like that in this day and age, everyone gets caught." But they don't, we just don't know who the people are who get away with it, because their affairs remain private. I mean, the reason Spitzer was so casual was probably because he had been doing stuff like that for years without a whiff of scandal.

*I'd like to add that I don't find Dowd awful in a Bob's Big Boy sort of way, but, as with the breakfast bar at Bob's, I suffer from regular consumption of 800-word doses of Dowd.

Marcelo-AMLO

Carlos Loret reports that Marcelo Ebrard's people are considering a plan to renege on the Juanito-Brugada deal in Iztapalapa, in which Rafael Juanito Acosta won the delegation and, at the direction of AMLO, was to resign so as to hand the post over to the barred perredista candidate, Clara Brugada. According to Loret, Ebrard and co. are negotiating a deal whereby they would accept Acosta's resignation but hand the seat over not to Brugada but to another unnamed official. This, of course, would incense AMLO and his crew, and Loret describes it as potentially being the opening volley in the war for the left's favor ahead of the presidential race in 2012.

La Tuta's Mother

One of the grievances La Familia chief Servando La Tuta Gómez expressed during his televised comments in July was that the Federal Police was going after his family, not just him and his gang. This won't assuage his grief: La Tuta's mom was arrested (along with his brother) earlier this week.

That struck me as a questionable move on the government's part, especially as I read this:
High-level sources in the PGR said that until now they don't have any documents or testimony proving the direct involvement of the relatives of La Tuta with organized criminal activities or any other illicit act.
This is wrong both for moral and practical reasons. The moral reason is, of course, that someone shouldn't be arrested for a crime for which you have no evidence that he or she committed. The practical reason is two-fold: first, La Familia has shown the willingness to respond to arrests with terror. That's not an argument for ignoring the mafia, but why risk a wave of terror by arresting someone who may not have anything directly to with them? Especially if in so doing the government must arrest an old lady. Michoacán is one of the areas of Mexico that most resembles an insurgency, where local support for the government is said to be most lacking. All this does is make the eternal battle for hearts and minds a little harder to win.

Second, rather than taking down small fish, wouldn't it make a little more sense to try to monitor the relatives, so that they lead the government to La Tuta?

One Year On

Excélsior, a year ago one of the chief media proponents of the National Agreement for Security, Justice, and Legality, today devotes a lot of column space to condemning the lack of progress in reaching the agreement's goals. An entire page, in fact. One of the NGOs behind the agreement, Mexico United Against Crime, grades the different areas of government according to the progress they've made on different commitments. On a scale of 1 to 10, the executive branch drew an average of 5.8, the judicial branch scored 7.5, the legislative branch 7, state governments 3, and the association of the nation's mayors a staggeringly bad 0.9. In fact, the mayors scored below 2 on every one of its goals, including a big fat zero on, "Municipal security plan".

Alejandro Martí also declared himself unsatisfied with the progress. Although he appeared animated about the idea of organizing opposition to the most change-resistant politicians in their races 2012.

Another voice associated with the National Agreement, Ernesto López Portillo, points to the System of Indices and Indicators of Public Security as a success:
The System was conceived by a technical board of the highest specialization, integrated by representatives of academia and civil organizations. The exercise was possible thanks to the donation of funds coming from business leaders. This episode implies what I call the professionalization of civil society, which is to say, the expropriation, by independent actors, of recognition and instruments that allow them to approach authorities with technical and highly proactive language. Look at the relevance of the formula: we are passing from the growing self-isolation and sporadic marches, to organized, technical, and permanent vigilance of the authorities.

The Perks of Power

With César Nava's position at the head of the PAN now safely consolidated, he gets the party president's equivalent of a Super Bowl MVP's trip to Disney Land: a biweekly El Universal column. In his inaugural piece, Nava encourages Mexico to learn from Brazil's energy triumphs:
How was it possible for the Brazilians to make this qualitative and quantitative leap in their oil industry? They limited themselves to adopting other successful experiences from other countries: among other measures, they provided Petrobras with a flexible legal framework that allows shared contracts of association and production with other business; they authorized it to place a part of its social capital on the market, without ceding control of the Brazilian business and its subsidiaries; and they created a corporate governing structure that guarantees transparency and accountability to the society.

Do I suggest that we do the same? Not necessarily. There are formulas that we could adapt to the Mexican model that would be compatible with our constitutional regime, while there are others that possibly wouldn't be. True, we shouldn't blindly apply prescriptions. But maybe would start to gaze southward.
This of course dovetails with Calderón's (and Nava's, for the matter) trip to Brazil, in which the president called for an energy pact and a free trade agreement between the two nations.

Donovan to América?


No way it happens, but Greg Lalas has a column at Sports Illustrated in which he ponders all the reasons why Donovan makes sense on the Águilas. Again, given the several tons of liquid and invective hurled at Donovan every time he sets foot on a Mexican field, it's all but inconceivable, but I would looooooovvvvveee to see him wearing yellow. And based on the comments I scanned below an article on the column in El Universal, lots of Mexican fans are receptive to the idea as well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Odd Obsession

Mexico (or at least a part of it) has this weird crush on Yelena Isinbayeva. Who is Yelena you ask? She's a Russian pole vaulter who holds dozens of world records, and she dominated the airwaves throughout the Olympics last year. Seriously, she got ten times more face time than Lebron James. One broadcaster from TV Azteca (can't remember who, sorry) led the charge, hailing her beauty literally dozens if not hundreds of times during the Beijing games. 

Today, she was on the front page of Excélsior above the tagline, "The goddess falls", because she failed to win her event at the world championships. Mexico isn't a particularly track-obsessed country, nor is pole-vault a particularly prestigious sport within track and field, nor are the world championships the most important tournament in the sport. So how did a foreign, fringe-sport star wind up on the front page of a Mexican paper? I think Mexico's media is in love. 

Another Attack on the Mexican Press

Nothing reported by the media, but supposedly Torreón's own El Siglo was machine-gunned this morning. 

Update: Confirmation

Filming

Marcelo Ebrard has plans to install 11,500 cameras around Mexico City, in an effort to control crime. I don't know a whole lot about these cameras, but my understanding is that their efficacy is far from a foregone conclusion. (Here's an article about a study that failed to find a drop in crime in San Francisco after cameras were installed.) And 11,500 is a huge number, at least while the kinks are still being ironed out. Chicago, about a third of Mexico City's size, has only 560 cameras up and running. London, whose metro area is about half the size of Mexico City's but whose city limits hold a comparable number of residents, has only 3,000. There's no information about the cost of Ebrard's plan, but this article says that Chicago's cameras cost the city $5.6 million for the hardware and almost half a million a year on camera monitors. So multiply all that by ten (we'll assume that DF can find a way to do it on the cheap), and you are left with a rather pricey surveillance network. Furthermore, the previous linked article suggests that cameras are often used to bust people for such threats to the public welfare as sipping on a beer; that seems like a weak justification for such an expensive system.

Then again, London's cameras caught the tube bombers in 2005, and they probably provide some psychological benefit to residents of high-crime areas, and as I said my knowledge here is pretty limited, so I supposed I could be convinced that the above paragraph is mistaken.

Whoops

The army accidentally searched a Juárez house of Manuel Espino, one of Calderón's prickliest critics from the PAN. High-ranking officers have apologized to Espino, calling the incursion a "mistake". That's quite an embarrassing mistake to make. I have a friend in Los Pinos who tells me that other houses to be "mistakenly" searched in the comings weeks include those of Creel, AMLO, Ebrard, Encinas, and Beltrones.

Election Perceptions

According to Mitofsky, 27 percent of Mexicans say that the PAN was the big loser on July 5, compared to 15 percent for the PRD. Sixty-seven percent said that the PRI was the big winner, compared to a slightly blind 15 percent who said the PAN was the day's victor, and 5 percent who said the same about the PRD. Among those who believe the biggest loser was AMLO, Marcelo, and the gang: Felipe Calderón. In fact, he said so in front of an audience in Uruguay, which would certainly be a taboo injection of partisan politics in a foreign setting in the US, but has sparked no great outcry here.

Dubious Claim

Eduardo Medina Mora says that Mexico is more peaceful today than it was 15 years ago. That may well be true (I remember reading last year that Mexico in 2008 was still better than Mexico in 1999), although it's odd that no one in Calderon's government thought to use that piece of info until today. The measurement he used to make the claim is that the murder rate was 18 per 100,000 people in 1994, compared to 10.7 in 2008.

That last figure is the slippery one. I'm not sure where Medina Mora's numbers come from, but the UN figure of 10.8 is the lowest I'd seen. The problem is, the UN figure is from 2007. There were almost 4,000 more drug murders in 2008 than 2007, which would work out to about 3.5 more per 100,000 residents than in 2007. In other words, assuming the non-drug murders remained constant, and using the UN figure from 2007 as your baseline, you should come up with about 14 murders per 100,000 residents in 2008. That is still significantly less than 18 (not to mention the 75 in Colombia in the 1990s, or the 40-plus in El Salvador today), and it doesn't make Medina Mora's point any less valid, so why monkey with the stats?

It's a bit off topic, but this stat is impressive (in a bad way): Mexico has seized more than 52,000 firearms in the past two years, and more than 10,000 AR-15 or AK-47 assault rifles, or enough for a small infantry division, in 2009 alone.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An Urban Legend Come True

I always used to hear something like this in college, but I always assumed it was malarkey: according to a study presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, 90 percent of American bills have traces of cocaine on them. The figure jumps to 93 percent in cities like Baltimore and Boston. The corresponding statistic in Japan and China is less than 20 percent. 

Acteal Polling

Excélsior pollster BGC asked Mexicans about their reaction to Supreme Court direction to the PGR to release the 40 Chiapas residents who'd been erroneously jailed for eleven years following a massacre in Acteal, Chiapas. Oddly, while 65 percent of respondents labeled the ruling a good thing, 72 percent said it was only a minor event, because those responsible for the massacre are still free. Another 69 percent expressed little or no confidence that the Supreme Court's ruling will help prevent future massacres. The finding did result in a spike in esteem for the Court itself; only 13 percent expressed a negative opinion of the institution, compared to 20 percent in February. 

Bill Simmons from Azteca

This was a nice Monday surprise. Oddly, Simmons refers to Cuauhtémoc Blanco as simply Blanco, either confusing him with a Brazilian or not wanting to deal with any Aztec names. His characterization of Blanco's on-field agility is hilarious: "he moves like the "South Park" guys are animating him."

Also, for fans of Simmons' uniquely exuberant brand of hyperbole, this piece has a doozy: 
But if you don't think the next five years of Jozy's career could potentially swing the future of soccer, you're insane.
I'm not sure exactly what he means, but the players who have alone swung the future of soccer in any measurable way are really quite few. If he's talking about reaching a level of historic greatness and thus carrying the US to world-power status, wow, that's a lot of pressure. I sure as hell wouldn't take anything close to even money that Altidore will reach the Messi/Ronaldo/Torres stratum (to say nothing of the immortals like Maradona or Pele), which isn't a knock on Altidore. Should he fail to get there, that doesn't mean Jozy will have fallen short of his potential. 

For the record, no, I'm not insane. 

Bowden in Nexos

As some of you probably deduced from the title, Charles Bowden has a new piece profiling a hit man in Juárez in the Mexican magazine Nexos. I've only skimmed it thus far, but this quote leapt out at me:
I received orders from two people. They managed me. I never knew which cartel I worked for. In those days Vicente Carrillo was at war with El Chapo Guzmán. But I never met any boss, so when the war started in 2006, I didn't know who I was killing for. And the orders could be from one or the other. I lived in a cell and simply took orders. In Juárez 30 minutes are enough for 60 armed and trained guys to gather in 30 cars and drive out in the streets to show their power.

Later, we began to receive orders to kill people among our own group.
No one should ever accuse Mexico's drug problem of being simple.

Teachers' Tests

Mexico's teachers union yesterday applied its entry exam for aspirants seeking a tenured position, or plaza, in one of the nation's public schools. Around 123,000 were applying for 31,000 slots, which of course means that 75 percent of those tested are out of luck. These tests continue the institutionalization of new teachers standards first laid out by the Alliance for Quality in Education, the agreement hammered out last year by Josefina Vázquez and Elba Esther Gordillo.