Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Problems in Tamaulipas

The reported split between the Zetas and the erstwhile leading Gulf traffickers continues to cause an unusual amount of violence in Tamaulipas and other Zetas strongholds, which had been remarkably calm for a long while. The now-notorious narco-bloqueos popped up in Reynosa earlier today, several days after appearing in Monterrey, and 18 people have been killed in the city in the last day or so.

Communication Breakdown

Leo Zuckermann says that the Calderón administration has ceded way too much of the rhetorical terrain surrounding security to critics:
When a writer the size of Jorge Castañeda says, for example, that the war has failed and no one answers him, well the maxim of "I'll take your silence as a sign of agreement" applies. When the rector of the Tec, Rafael Rangel Sostmann, is the one who establishes how two of his students died in a confrontation with the military and the government remains silent, again the same principle applies. When no one, absolutely no one, explains how a drug trafficker arrested by the marines appears the next day dead, well the suspicion lingers that there is a "cleanup operation" where soldiers kill with complete impunity the enemies of the state.
I think the recent silence probably stems from Calderón's desire to downplay security as an agenda item in the second half of his term, which is clearly the wrong way to go about it. But even when he was focusing on security, Calderón's communications strategy never hit the right balance between educating and advocating, always inclining to much toward the latter, which led to events invalidating the administration's claims on a regular basis. Hopefully whoever is to be the next president is paying close attention to Calderón's missteps.

Now, in honor of the post's title, I present to you Led Zeppelin at no extra charge. Cheers!

A Positive Ranking

KPMG named Mexico the best nation in which to do business, besting the US, the UK, and seven other nations in the study. The two cities studied, Mexico City and Monterrey, were also tops on the list of competitiveness. The study took into account 26 factors, among real estate, wages, and taxes, and the places where costs for such things were lowest fared better. Which means that while it's nice to see Mexico at the top of an international ranking, this one doesn't actually indicate an improvement in quality of life for Mexicans.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mexico's "Wars"

Andrés Oppenheimer has a Freidman-esque column in which he says that Mexico suffers not just from the drug war, but five other wars:
• First, what will Mexico do when it runs out of oil? Oil revenues represent up to 40 percent of Mexico's federal budget, but it's rapidly running out of oil. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that the country will be forced to start importing oil in 2017.

• Second, what will Mexico do when it runs out of water? Mexico City already has acute water problems, and water shortages are already causing tensions along border states. And global climate change is likely to make Mexico even more arid than it is today, experts say.

• Third, what will Mexico do to better compete with China, India and other emerging powers with better education systems and more skilled work forces? A recent World Economic Forum study into Mexico's competitiveness conducted by Harvard University economists concluded that the country's main problem to compete in the world economy is its bad education system, and that it's not doing much about it.

• Fourth, what will Mexico do with its new generations of unemployed young people if it can no longer "export'' them to the United States because of stricter immigration procedures? An estimated 1 million young Mexicans enter the labor force every year, and Mexico needs to grow at about 5 percent a year -- much more than it has recently -- to absorb them.

• Fifth, what will Mexico do to bring its indigenous people, mostly living in its southern states, to the modern economy? While recent governments have poured billions into southern states since the 1994 Chiapas rebellion, it is not clear that the region is benefiting as much as northern states from Mexico's insertion in the global economy.
If "war" is a bad fit for combatting the drug trade, using the word for problems like water shortages and a weak job market is like squeezing an elephant into a Volkswagen Bug. Ill-fitting, misleading conceptual frameworks like economic policy as war are not ill-fitting and misleading in a vacuum, but rather encourage us to think of problems that require collaboration and can benefit many different groups as simple zero-sum games in which a villain needs to be identified and defeated, preferably with the maximum use of force.


Going Nuclear

This seems like a potentially important development: Mexico is planning to increase the proportion of its energy supply coming from nuclear power to 35 percent by 2024, which would be up from 22 percent today. So said Georgina Kessel in an interview earlier today.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Info on the Gubernatorial Races

Zacatecas is one of the few state races where the PRI is down, while the PRD is up; the latter party's candidate has a three-point lead ahead of the July 4 elections. Of course, three points is a narrow lead and a lot can happen there. There is no PAN-PRD alliance in place in Zacatecas (the PRD is so dominant that it presumably felt that it'd have nothing to gain there), but given broader climate of collaboration between the parties, I wonder if the PAN candidate (who ran a not-insignificant 14 percent in the same poll) will drop out if the race remains neck and neck.

In Oaxaca, the offices of the alliance candidate Gabino Cué, who is taking on the PRI machine of Ulises Ruiz, were sabotaged when the lights were cut off earlier this week.


A member of the Aztecas who was allegedly involved in the murder of the American consulate employees in Ciudad Juárez earlier this month was arrested by the Mexican army as he tried to cross the border. The arrest occurred a few days ago, though it was just made public today.

Fernández on Tijuana

There are examples of things being done better: one of them is Tijuana. Of course drug trafficking hasn't been ended in that city. But the simple comparison of life today with what happened several months ago is notable, but it hasn't been registered by society because the authorities haven't wanted to exhibit it. Nothing is simpler than launching a provocation to "demonstrate" that those advances aren't true.

What's happened in Tijuana? A few things: the municipal government of Jorge Hank Rhon left office; a thorough project of cleaning up the policy was carried out; the state and municipal government got involved; the federation sent military, police, and federal forces that worked with a unified local command and dealt out extremely tough blows to the organized crime groups in the region. There is no other remedy or exit: the same must happen in Ciudad Juárez and Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, to change the reality and the perception, break or mitigate the stagnation.
This is all the more striking because the city's biggest narco was arrested in January, which typically means warfare between the underlings. One thing that I think has been truly absent from the debate over Juárez (and elsewhere) is an explanation of why exactly Calderón's policy didn't tamp down violence, beyond broadsides against the use of the army. This column doesn't really dive into the specific differences between the policy in Tijuana and elsewhere, but it's a step in that direction. Although my worry is that the differences in government policy between Tijuana and elsewhere aren't that significant, and the reasons for the decline in violence in the former are due more than anything to dynamics at play within the criminal world, over which the government has little direct control.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bersin to Customs

Barack Obama has named Alan Bersin to head Customs-Border Patrol in a recess appointment, which has provoked a bit of commentary from the North. I agree that blocking his appointment was ludicrous, but I also think that, in a couple of interviews last year, Bersin came off as distinctly unwise on matters related to Mexican security. Such a relatively small window onto his thinking (though they were rather lengthy interviews) is not necessarily sufficient to make a comprehensive judgment on his philosophies and certainly not his performance in government, nor does having a bad guy at Customs doom Obama's Mexico policy, but Bersin seems like someone with a fundamentally outdated view of Mexico, which is worrying. More here and here. Although I should add that Armand Peschard and Leonardo Curzio approve of his appointment.

Mexico City Opinions on the Rest of Mexico

Mario Bellatin offers a rather DF-centric view of Mexico's security concerns in today's NY Times:
Ordinary citizens feel that this situation barely affects them. Bad things happen to other people ... over there.

It’s as if the whole country were made up of people who rent and people who are rented, as if one half of society has contracted the other to carry out the role of mutilated corpse, hit man, corrupt official or missing woman. There are no victims or criminals — just hired men.
I suspect that this is just a reflection of northern Mexico as opposed to Mexico City, but this couldn't be further from the truth in Torrón. Four years ago it probably was, but today it's hard to find anyone here who says that organized crime hasn't at some point had an impact on their daily life, much less that it "barely affects them". I don't mean to be overly dramatic or overstate the degree to which I've personally been affected (which is relatively low, thank God; now I shall go knock on wood), and part of this discrepancy surely comes from reading and writing about security in Mexico on a daily basis, but most of it is the fact that violence is in the atmosphere in Torreón, and I imagine most of the North. Ordinary citizens swap stories about extortions and kidnappings and car robberies and murders on a daily basis, the way in a normal city people will bitch about the weather or politics. And the typical number of degrees of separation for such conversations has declined. Just a couple of days ago, I heard about these unfortunate victims from someone who knew one of them. A coworker's brother was murdered in his car earlier this year. A kidnapping victim was released nearly naked in front of my house a few months ago. I could go on. Bad things may happen to other people, but the victims are decidedly not over there, and you worry that they could also happen to you or the people you love.

Straw Buyers

Excélsior has a front-page story on straw buyers of American arms, making their purchases on behalf of Mexican gangs. (The Mexican papers' aptly colorful label for the buyers: ants.) American officials quoted in the piece said that most gangs have about 30 to 40 ants that make their purchases for them on the US border, and that 40 percent of said purchases are made in Texas, with others spread around California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Perhaps I'm not thinking creatively enough about this, but I don't see how the government can do much about this without outlawing the guns that drug runners in Mexico want, which is not a likely possibility to put it mildly. Each gang has 30-40 people buying guns now, which keeps them more than amply armed. The best way to crack down on them would seem to be to start keeping a closer eye on people who make a lot of gun purchases, but that even that could cause enough of a political storm to be unfeasible. (Here's where I expose my ignorance on the subject, but I assume that if I were to make as many legal gun purchases as is possible in a given time frame, as long as I don't brag about selling them to Mexican gangs or start shooting the guns in public, no one will start investigating me.) But even if the US starts focusing on people who buy suspiciously large amounts of guns, couldn't the gangs just expand their ranks of ants five- or ten-fold, so as to make the frequency of the illegal purchases indistinguishable from your typical gun buyer? And if the straw buyers on retainer are already making so few purchases as to be not markedly different from the law-abiding gun fans, then where do we even begin?

So all this leads me to suspect that while the US should be doing more to crack down on the arms trade from a moral standpoint, within the present political boundaries, it's not realistic for US gun control policies to be a driver of a safer Mexico. Bummer.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Calderón as Corleone

Earlier this week, Leo Zuckermann compared Calderón to Michael Corleone in Godfather 3, in that every time he thinks he can move beyond security, they pull him back in. That's a pretty accurate depiction of the path of Calderón's agenda since last summer, and part of the reason that this piece from last November has been borne out by the course of events less than expected. It's probably part of the cause of Calderón's attacks on people who talk about security excessively, but, again, also something that he is largely responsible for, in that he made security the primary focus of his government for most of the first three years. We'll see how this shakes out, if Calderón will eventually be able to decisively shift the focus of the nation, or if, LBJ-style (who makes an appearance in the column), the single intractable issue will consume his government. One can only hope for the former result.

Wearing a New Hat

Click here to see me pretending to be a soccer expert.

As long as we're on soccer, I found this piece by Aleksandar Hemon slamming Real Madrid's galáctico approach extremely unfair. It was built around Real's now-annual failure in the Champions League, which is surely a fun event we can look forward to every spring. But to declare Real's present lineup nothing more than a bunch of preening underachievers without even mentioning the team's performance in La Liga is just dishonest. Real is keeping pace with Barcelona, despite the fact that the latter is enjoying the best moment (going back to late 2008) of any club team this decade and is employing the services of a latter-day Maradona playing some of the best soccer you could ever hope to see. In fact, Real is not just keeping pace, but is presently in first thanks to a greater goal differential. To ignore this accomplishment is to evaluate Ali without taking into account anything he did before Joe Frazier came into his life. Furthermore, Hemon slams their defense, while neglecting to mention that Real has given up only 11 goals in 28 games in Spain this year, bested by only two teams. In the Champions League, it wasn't the defense that failed Real, but the one goal they scored in 180 minutes of action against Lyon that did them in.*

*I stand by every word, but to be clear, I wrote this post to jinx Real down the stretch.

On the Mérida Upgrade

Dora Beszterczey has a nice, long rundown of the new Mérida Initiative emerging from the diplomatic visit last week at Latin American Thought. Highlights:
The first and second components are not new, but there’s a change is the allocation of the $310 million requested budget for 2011 away from hardware (much of it will have been delivered by the end of this year, after all), toward institutional strengthening. $207 million of the $310 million budget will support Mexico’s judicial reforms and ‘good governance.’

Pilot projects implemented at the local-level that facilitate policy coordination and information sharing will also be expanded. These include DEA agents, ATF and FBI analysts working together and sharing information with the Mexican military and federal police in Ciudad Juarez and the U.S. Border Patrol working with the Mexican federal police in various localities.
I'd not heard the bolded stat before, and it certainly sounds like an improvement, although without seeing exactly what the programs are, one can't help but succumb to skepticism. But even if we give the governments the benefit of the doubt, in general I don't think we should be too optimistic about the possible impact of any bilateral agreement, however well designed. Overly hopeful proclamations about collaboration and information-sharing have characterized the security relationship for a generation (as Jorge Castañeda and Rubén Aguilar discuss in their book La Guerra Fallida, which is much better than Castañeda's articles supporting it, though still fundamentally wrong in my view), and have plagued the Mérida Initiative throughout its existence. Lots of vital ingredients are missing from an effective Mexican security policy, but I'm not sure why we think a) that American collaboration has been lacking until now, and b) that close American involvement is even a key element in a safer Mexico. After all, in most cases, the gangs terrorizing Mexico are homegrown and operate principally in Mexico. And unless the US is ready to consider legalization of marijuana and perhaps much stricter crackdowns on drug money in American institutions than anything we have ever seen, most everything that can improve the situation in Mexico --the speedy implementation of the 2008 judicial reform, greater attention to dirty money in the Mexican economy, the creation of a more competent, honest police agency-- is going to have to come from Mexicans. The US can support that, but to consider Mexican security through the prism of what the US is contributing like telling the story of World War II exclusively through the North African theater: it's an important part of the whole, but only a part, and not exactly a central part at that.

I should add that the above rant is not directed at Beszterczey's piece, which was quite helpful, but just the general tendency.

Once More from Calderón

Yesterday, Calderón again rebuked Mexicans for speaking badly of Mexico abroad. As before, the feeling that motivates the comments is understandable, but the reaction is counter-productive, hypocritical (given that for close to three years, no one was more excited to talk security than Calderón himself), and inappropriate for a president. Calderón's power over the focus of the chattering class is limited, but if he wants to shift the conversation, telling people what not to talk about is always going to backfire.

Dirty Mau from San Pedro

Mauricio Fernández, who incidentally shares more than a passing resemblance with Danny Aiello, has been in trouble this week for the payments his government has admitted to making to Alberto Mendoza, a Beltrán Leyva associate who was recently arrested by federal authorities. Fernández said he was paying Mendoza for information, but of course, given Fernández's history, one wonders what exactly is the line between Mendoza being an informant on one hand, and corrupting and being protected by the local government on the other. In any event, the PAN knew exactly what kind of man it was sending to head the government in San Pedro, and the fact that no one from the federal government has come out and condemned Fernández's excesses (although he has had a few meetings/interrogations with federal authorities) makes something of a mockery of the PAN's self-identity as the one immaculate party.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Peña Nieto on the US

Enrique Peña Nieto had the following comment on the US diplomatic visit to Mexico:
I believe that the climate requires that in the framework of this visit we again revise the schemes of institutional collaboration that there could be between both governments, which will allow us to really spark policies and above all a more effective strategy in the combat of insecurity.
That doesn't really mean a whole lot to me, but he did say that US collaboration was "welcome" at one point. Since Peña Nieto is something of an open book on a lot of the biggest national issues facing Mexico, and since he's more likely than anyone to be the president from 2012 to 2018, comments like this are perhaps indicative of the philosophies that will be leading it for six of the next eight years. Or maybe he'll just change his mind in a few months.

Mexican Technology

The World Economic Forum has published some tech rankings that are unflattering toward Mexico, placing the nation than 58rd in the world in the use of information and communication technology, 99th in the availability of the same, and 73rd in the environment for information technology, which refers to regulation and infrastructure. The fact that the use of information and communication technology is so much higher than its availability would seem to suggest that the service-providers in the industry lag far behind what the consumer market would bear.

Good Point

I think Sean Goforth is dead on here:
Policies aimed at dismantling the so-called cartels can notch success after success, as they have done, but produce no overall reduction in violence. Violence is spinning off from the major syndicates, becoming more decentralized, with varying objectives. Roving gangs solicit hits starting at $20, their violence uncoordinated by a kingpin’s decree. And in resolving this problem Castañeda and Bowden are both right: the Mexican army is ill suited to be a police force.
This is a big reason why thinking about public security in Mexico as a war between the government and a handful of super-powerful cartels is unhelpful.

I also learned that Bowden has a new book about Juárez coming out.

Bank Problems

This piece of info from earlier this week is a striking example of the difference in lifestyle in rural and urban Mexico: 64 percent of Mexico's municipalities have not even a single bank. In Oaxaca, the state where the problem is worst, only 6 percent of the municipalities have a bank.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mass Escape

A group of 40 prisoners, most of them federal (which most likely means connected to drug traffickers), have escaped from a municipal jail in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. One thing that you hear complaints about in Mexico from time to time is the fact that not particularly well guarded local jails are overcrowded with organized crime figures, stemming from the lack of federally run prison facilities. This should serve as a wake-up call in that regard.

I also remember reading in a Malcolm Beith piece (I think) many months ago that there were plans to build something like twelve new federal prisons in Mexico. Malcolm, if my memory is correct and you're reading this, have those plans gotten off the ground?

Consequences of Obesity

According to José Ángel Córdova Villalobos, who has spent a great deal of effort in recent days warning the nation about the dangers of obesity, says that 350,000 Mexicans die annually from diseases related to obesity. By comparison, the corresponding figure used by the Bush Administration surgeon general as recently as 2007 was 300,000 Americans, despite the US having almost three times has many citizens. The nations have comparable percentages of overweight citizens, so I imagine that different interpretations of the data offer a partial explanations higher Mexican mortality, but I wonder how much of it is due to the respective health care system.

False Comparison

Dan Rosenheck argues in Newsweek that comparisons between Mexico's battles with organized crime and the invasion of Iraq are erroneous, basically because the former is a war of necessity, while the latter was not.

I made a similar argument a few years ago, for similar reasons; to equate the two is to gravely undersell the needlessness and arrogance motivating the Iraq war. And it's also worth mentioning that Mexico can't pull out of Mexico the way the US can from Iraq. Calderón can remove the army from the picture, but the Mexican government is going to have to do something address the insecurity in the nation regardless of whether people are calling it a war or not.

Per my point a couple of days ago, I also think Rosenheck and other analysts make a mistake in conceding that what Mexico is living through is even a war, comparable to other interstate conflicts. (To be sure, policy-makers are the most responsible for this fallacy, since they've been discussing drug policy in primarily bellicose terms for two generations.) Lots of people are certainly being killed, but it's no more a war than Capone in Chicago was in the 1930s, than the Colombians and the Cubans in Miami were in the 1970s and '80s, both of which situations also ended the lives of many people in the United States. The dynamic at play is fundamentally different, and comparing any of the above examples to Iraq or any other invasion of a foreign nation confuses far more than it illuminates. It's apples and oranges, basketball and monopoly.

Update: Forgot to mention before that this came from the Mexico Institute. Also, I found it odd that Newsweek says that Rosenheck "was recently the Mexico City bureau chief of a newsmagazine", evidently afraid to name that magazine as The Economist.

New Arrest

The Federal Police have arrested a man called José Antonio Medina, known as the King of Heroin. Evidently, he trafficked lots of the stuff. I don't ever remember hearing this guy's name before, which certainly doesn't mean that he isn't a big fish, but the government has been accused in the past of trumping up arrestees' erstwhile influence in the drug trade, and attributing big-sounding nicknames to people with low profiles has a tendency to further fuel that suspicion.

Opinions on the Americans

A pair of Imagen online/radio polls from the last couple of days: 51 percent felt that the diplomatic visit of this week was a sign of support, compared to 49 who saw it as a sign of pressure; and 72 percent said that combating organized crime in Mexico is now a priority for the Americans, compared to 28 percent who said that it still is not.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Another Dead Detainee?

There is another detainee in Santa Catarina, Nuevo León, whose whereabouts are unknown. As with the previous case (in which the suspect was subsequently found tortured and killed), there was an exchange of control between the local police and the marines, and there is some dispute as to who was responsible for the person at different points. In any event, this stinks. If it turns out that the marines killed these two, the fact that the biggest paper in the country is reporting on the issue essentially as it happens (as opposed than NGO investigating years later) would seem to make it more likely that there will be a thorough, publicly aired investigation, which is a rarity in cases of military abuse.

Update: He's not dead, and was at at the home of some relatives.


One of the nice things about European soccer is that I have no problem being a fairweather fan. I have no childhood connections to any team, so it's really more disingenuous to root for, say, Liverpool as though they were in my blood despite the team's recent misery. Instead, I just leap onto the best teams and players (Ronaldo excluded) and enjoy their greatness while it lasts, which is generally a lot more fun. Huge wins may not strike such a deep chord with you, but nor do heartbreaking losses (see Colts-Saints) make you a bitter ball of repressed hate for two weeks. Anyway, being a fairweather fan necessarily means being a huge Messi backer these days, so I liked this comment from Phil Ball:

Which brings us round to Mr Messi. I thought it was quite an achievement to manage 1,400 words without mentioning him, but as my friend the barman remarked in midweek, after the Argentine's stratospheric performance against poor Stuttgart, "Le tienen que prohibir. No es justo". (They should ban him. It's not fair). That came on the heels of a hat-trick against Valencia. Then he manages another one against Zaragoza, just in case anyone thought he was slacking.

Sigh--what can one say? Adjectives are beginning to fall short for this little man who seems to require neither space nor time to work his mojo. President Joan Laporta, frothing from every visible orifice, declared Messi the greatest player in history after the game, as if he [Laporta] were somehow qualified to say. He was getting a little carried away, and Messi will need to now prove his qualifications with his national side before any more can be seriously said on the subject. But, yes, the lad's a bit useful.


Were I the producer of a nighttime variety show, I'd try to work clips from Raphael's Escándalo video into the show as often as possible, especially the bizarre hand-punching dance he employs throughout the video. (Check the sequence beginning at around 0:30 for an example.) It's odd how much the motion resembles Kiddo's coffin-busting kung fu skills in Kill Bill 2. Raphael also deserves kudos for the simultaneously maniacal and non-threatening look he wears for most of the video (I think Jim Haslett copied his facial expression). All in all, a brilliant piece of art.

More on Majorities

Last week I complimented Enrique Peña Nieto's column on the need for congressional majorities for Mexico to be more legislatively productive. Jesús Silva-Herzog has reservations about his ideas:
When there were majorities in Mexico, when Congress was faithful to the president, we didn't enjoy the benefit of grand visionary reforms. Today, the states that have majority governments that are noted for their innovative drive. Gifting an addictive majority to the president is a shortcut and could be a trap.
Leo Zuckerman disagreed yesterday, pointing out that no one wants to give the president anything, but merely make a majority a more likely proposition than it is today, i.e. the US.

I think Herzog-Silva's point about the shortcut is worth remembering; Mexico's problems don't all come from a lack of majority. Although I'd add that a shortcut isn't necessarily a bad thing; why suffer from 40 years when you can suffer for just four? (The one about state governments is not; governing is completely different at the state level in Mexico.) But I'd say the bigger concern is with regard to reconstructing a strong presidential system that in the past facilitated authoritarianism. Such worries have a long historical precedent to back them up, but at some point Mexico needs to stop being governed by its fears* of a return to authoritarianism. If the first priority of your democracy is preventing the circumstances by which any leader can conceivably make his leadership permanent, then you necessarily shortchange many other worthy goals. Such a priority is understandable in a newly non-authoritarian country, but it can't be a permanent feature of government. Any mature democracy needs a certain measure of trust and acceptance; you accept the legitimacy of the opposing party's government, because you trust that they'll give you the chance to do the same when the time comes. But part of accepting the legitimacy of the winning party is giving it a reasonable chance to implement its agenda. Not a timid facsimile of said agenda, mind you, but the policies upon which it campaigned. In Mexico, all of this is absent, from the trust and acceptance (see López Obrador) to the implementation of an agenda to the campaigning on policies. The results have been manifest for the past decade; the system spins its wheels eternally, but it actually moves forward only in the rarest of fits and starts.

*I would have referred to such fears as "atavistic", but lately I can't use that word without feeling like a boorish showoff.

Not So Bad. Or Maybe It Was

Despite my irritation in the preceding post, the NY Times reports (H/T) that there actually was some positive stuff in the official press conference after the meetings:
Under the new strategy, officials said, American and Mexican agencies would work together to refocus border enforcement efforts away from building a better wall to creating systems that would allow goods and people to be screened before they reach the crossing points. The plan would also provide support for Mexican programs intended to strengthen communities where socioeconomic hardships force many young people into crime.

The most striking difference between the old strategy and the new one is the shift away from military assistance. More than half of the $1.3 billion spent under Mérida was used to buy aircraft, inspection equipment and information technology for the Mexican military and police. Next year’s foreign aid budget provides for civilian police training, not equipment.


This revised strategy, officials said, would first go into effect in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, the largest cities on Mexico’s border with the United States. Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.7 million, has become a symbol of the Mexican government’s failed attempts to rein in the drug gangs.

I like the part about focusing on specific cities, because in smaller spaces the relatively limited American contribution can still have a measurable impact on security. That bolded part makes you wonder how much faith to put in any of this, though. They aren't going to spend any money on equipment? All of a sudden the US has $300 for civilian police training? William Booth's Post writeup is rightly a bit more skeptical:

Faced with soaring drug violence that Mexico's military has failed to stem, U.S. and Mexican officials said Tuesday that they will seek to bolster nonmilitary spending on police and courts and look for ways to help ravaged communities, but they offered few concrete proposals for fighting the powerful drug cartels.

So all of this might actually represent a genuine, sea-changing shift of focus, or it might be a rather timid shift of actual focus coupled with a substantial change to the nations' rhetoric. I suspect it's the latter. Part of the problem is that spending hundreds of millions a year on helicopters is just a lot easier than spending the same amount on small-bore training and development programs. We have Blackhawks and Bells to spare, but scaring up the expert human resources necessary to implement such a program would be difficult in normal circumstances, all the more so when the US is engaged in two nation-building projects thousands of miles away.

I remain suspicious that the ease of implementation was one of the biggest reasons for Mérida's original focus on hardware. In 2007 as in 2010, Mexico's hardware needs were clearly secondary to the problems in their security agencies, and the idea that Mexico's armament problem was so severe that it had to be addressed first is simply not credible. But Bush and Calderón presumably wanted a big, showy agreement, and $1.4 billion in helicopters was a far better way to grab people's attention than, say, a $200 million training program implemented over five years, even if the latter would have delivered better results.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Emptiest Words You'll Hear Today

Hillary Clinton had the following to say after her meeting with Mexican officials today:
[W]e accept our share of the responsibility.
Does this mean an assault weapons ban with teeth? Not likely. A consideration of legalization of marijuana. Certainly not. Does it mean spending more on development projects in Juárez and than it does on helicopters? Also a negative. You see the pattern.

This is akin to an overweight linebacker apologizing profusely for his coach for not being able to keep the running back from getting to the corner, with both of them knowing full well that he eats six slices of pizza for dinner after each practice, and has no intention of improving his diet.

Troublesome Death

A wounded gunman who'd been detained after a firefight by the Mexican marines on Sunday was found lifeless on the streets of Santa Catarina, Nuevo León the following day. Stories about the military executing suspects are relatively common, but such bald disrespect for human rights and due process is not usual, at least not in the sense that it makes the papers. The marines say that the suspect was taken to the hospital in the same helicopter as a wounded marine, after which point they have no knowledge of what happened to him. The marines' explanation isn't implausible (presumably his ex-associates would have reason to want the man dead), but the local authorities contradict it, saying that the marines remained in charge. All this should be easy enough to verify, though I suspect it won't turn out that way. If the marines took him to the hospital, somebody was certainly in charge of keeping watch. If it wasn't the marines, then they presumably knew who that somebody was, and that somebody has got some explaining to do.

Tangentially relevant: the CNDH will be training soldiers on human rights. I don't remember the CNDH doing anything like this under the previous boss, so insofar as it is indicative of a greater focus on addressing army abuses, this is good news. Although it may well be window dressing, and Mexico could do a lot more to prevent said abuses by, say, prosecuting them consistently.

Bar Polling. Or, An Illustration of How Having Children Affects Your Outlook on Nightlife.

According to a new El Universal poll, 61 percent of Mexico City residents are not in favor of the plan to extend legal drinking hours in the city to 5 a.m., compared to 31 percent who are. The number for people who have children is 69 percent opposed, while it's basically even for the childless. Among Mexico City residents who regularly hang out in bars and nightclubs, 72 percent favor the extension, but only 19 percent of the poll's respondents label themselves as such.

The Randomness of Mexican Soccer

One of the striking features of Mexican club soccer, at least when compared to the European model, is the lack of dominance. There is no equivalent to Barca and Real's two-horse race, or the four straight titles from Inter Milan, or the big four providing all of the competition in England. In the past seven tournaments, seven different teams have won the title in Mexico. In the 20 tourneys of the past decade (Mexico has two seasons per year), nine different teams have taken home a trophy. By contrast, seven Spanish teams have accounted for every title in La Liga since the mid-1940s.

The Mexican leagues resembles less the parity of the NFL than the randomness of the NCAA tournament. Teams are great until all of a sudden they suck, with little explanation for the change. Take Chivas of Guadalajara, who opened the season with a record-setting eight consecutive wins. They lost their ninth to a team that hadn't won at home in almost a year, comprehensively bested by a score of 4-0. And it wasn't even a shocker; in the majority of the pre-game comments on the matchup, analysts were picking Jaguares to win. Chivas then looked really flat in a goalless draw in their following game, and lost another this past weekend. Most seem to agree that Chivas is a good but flawed team, rather than a potentially great team struggling through a rough patch.

The timing of Chivas's run had consequences for all of Mexican soccer. The revelation of the year for Mexican soccer has been Javier Chicharito Hernández, the previously unheralded 21-year-old striker from Guadalajara who began scoring goals in bunches this season. Called up to the national team for the first time in February, in the midst of Chivas' streak, he has scored four goals (two of them really quality efforts) with the big team in three games, and now seems a lock to be on the South Africa squad. But the emergence of Chicharito on the national team seems as much as anything a question of luck; had Chivas not been on such a hot run, which is to say had they played to their potential, Hernández would have just been one more promising forward off to a good start, and may well never have gotten the look from Mexican coach Javier Aguirre.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Gringos Have Come, and Other Bilateral Doings

The US delegation that includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Michael Mullen, and Janet Napolitano is in Mexico. Presumably, they and their staffs are all kicking around ideas to make unprecedented rhetorical nods toward the bilateral security partnership, while keeping their commitments firmly in the realm of the precedented.

Obama called Calderón ahead of the visit earlier today, and offered whatever he can do to support Mexico in its security problems, provided that doesn't mean reconsidering the drug prohibition that is causing them. Calderón congratulated Obama for the health care reform, which evidently precipitated a strengthening of the peso, and asked him if he could borrow Pelosi for the next legislative session.

The US continues its assault on the Aztecas gang, which operates in Juárez and El Paso, arresting another 25 on the American side of the border earlier today.

Via Bajo Reserva, a Mexican army general responds obliquely to the criticisms of the army from Janet Napolitano last week:
"In the struggle against the drug trade and organized crime neither the army nor Mexico can confront the problem alone. International cooperation is required." As a sort of answer to Janet Napolitano --who declared that the army hasn't helped contain the violence in Juárez-- and a vaccine to any future objection from our neighbors, the general establishes that the axis of the problem of drug trafficking: consumption, financial resources, and guns. In each of them, the US is, at the very least, also responsible.
Lastly, the El Universal editorial speculates that what's to come is an announcement of greater cooperation between the two armies, or a Mexico-US joint anti-narco command. Somehow I suspect not; it would go against the recent tenor of the debate on both sides of the border, and there is, of course, the problematic history of US military operations on Mexican soil. On the other hand, times change, and the links between the countries' armies have grown enormously in the past few years, so some ratcheting up of American military participation is not out of the question. I guess we'll know soon enough.

Image Control

Chihuahua's attorney general is planning to invite victims' family members to the oral trials (Chihuahua is one of the states where pilot programs are farthest along) of 101 alleged gunmen detained in the state:
The idea, she said, is that the residents of Ciudad Juárez, who have been burdened and affected by violence from organized crime, specifically by the murders, can witness the process that is carried out against these alleged criminals and can perceive that the state is working to end their impunity.
This is, in the scheme of things, a small step, but in that it takes into account the importance of the population's confidence in the government, this is undeniably a move in a positive direction.

Sports Make Life Better

The old narrative about a troubled city/university/country uniting behind a sports team and riding success on the field to improvements in real life is quite tired and usually overblown. But here's an example of how sporting events have made an undeniable impact on the life of a city: after a six-week period in which the night-life declined precipitously in Torreón thanks to the massacre of ten partying teenagers on January 31, people began to hit the town with more gusto last week, thanks to el Tri coming to town to face off against North Korea, and the first game of the new baseball season. And there was much celebrating from restaurant owners.

Of course, the respite from the city's problems was only temporary; the baseball stadium is maybe a mile or so from my house, and for the second straight year, they kicked off the season with fireworks. And for the second straight year, people in my neighborhood hurried inside, think it was gunfire.

On Narco-novelas

New piece.

Winning and Losing

A column in from Robert Haddick wonders if, with the murder of two consular employees in Juárez, this is "the week that Mexico lost the drug war". With all due respect and sadness for the deaths of the three people connected to the consulate, in a country where around 7,500 people were killed last year in drug violence, and in a city commonly referred to as the world's most violent, it would be odd to choose this as the straw that breaks the camel's back. Around 2,500 dead bodies were collected in Juárez in 2009, but evidently it's only when they are American that we need to start reconsidering the policies.

But even beyond that questionable landmark, determining whether and when Mexico will win or lose the drug war is just an asinine way of approaching the subject. As long as prohibition is in place, Mexico will never win the drug war, just as Colombia, for all its successes, hasn't under Uribe. Nor will Mexico ever decisively lose the drug war. It'll keep grinding along much the way it is now, trying to reduce the scope of operations for drug gangs as well as the nation's murder rates. Calling the whole thing a "war" is generations-old semantic trick, and if it's merely used as shorthand for "public security policies to confront drug traffickers and organized crime", there's nothing particularly wrong with the term. But when people refer to winning or losing as though this were 1944, as though either were a serious possibility, well, we are tossing sand in our own eyes.

More Bad Stuff in Nuevo León

In addition to the deaths of two grad students at one of the nation's premier academic institutions, Monterrey has been rocked last week by the narco-bloqueos, in which gang-members working for drug traffickers placed dozens of blockades (consisting of busses and cars and such) in the city's main thoroughfares so as to impede the movement of the army and the marines. In addition to no small amount of anger, this has led to the firing of 81 state police officers and the arrest of four municipal officers in Monterrey. The city has been mostly quiet for the past couple of years, after a really nasty stretch around 2007 and 2008, but the last few days make one wonder if it will stay that way.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

It's Becoming Routine

Another Barca game, another dominating performance by Lionel Messi. He's now scored nine goals in his last four games in La Liga, along with a double against Stuttgart in this week's Champions League contest. He reminds me of myself in FIFA 2002 for the PlayStation 2, only he's got a bit more explosiveness.

Man Bites Dog, Mexico Edition

According to a new poll of DF residents, 33 percent have a very or somewhat high opinion of the local police department. That's a distressingly low figure, but it is 12 points higher than it was five years ago. Assuming that the gains in the poll are not static and do indeed reflect an improvement in perception, this is a welcome reminder that the low opinion of police in Mexico is not etched in stone. I'd like to read a some attempts to explain the improvement, so that it might be repeated elsewhere.

This stat was also mind-blowing: there are 75,000 officers in the Mexico City SSP, some 30,000 more than the NYPD.

Friday, March 19, 2010


A Beltrán Leyva big shot in San Pedro, the posh suburb of Monterrey, has been arrested, the latest blow to an organization that has seen a lot of them over the past four months. Also in Monterrey, there was a gunfight between the army and another group that led to two gunmen being killed right by the campus of the prestigious Tec de Monterrey, which is analogous to the Ivy League here in Mexico. Actually, it's more like a cross between MIT and the University of Phoenix, but you get the idea.

Also, US officials arrested more than a 100 alleged gang-members in El Paso, specifically the Barrio Azteca, which is said to house many of those doing the killing in Juárez, including those of the gang Los Aztecas. I've read in the past about how a lot of the biggest fish fighting it out in Juárez spend almost all their time in El Paso (safety is an issue for them, too, or perhaps for them, especially), and this is an unexplored area in which the US could potentially do a lot to help calm things in Juárez.

Update: The two people killed were actually graduate students at the Tec, which explains why the story was all over the airwaves. Calderón and Zavala are the latest to express condolences.

Cops in Torreón

I recently mentioned that the police were on strike here in Torreón, so it was kind of surprising to see two patrol trucks outside of a convenience store by my house last night. As I walked in, a uniformed officer was joking with a kid in line next to him, which was also kind of unusual, since they are typically not particularly sociable. After he paid, just before he left the premises, he turned around he said, "We're not the same police as before. Just so you know, and so you aren't suspicious of us." I have no idea of the replacements will turn out to be more honest and effective than their predecessors, but his desire to win over the customers seemed genuine, and it was an oddly moving moment. In a lot of ways, there must be no job so depressing as that of an honest municipal police officer in northern Mexico.

Off to the United States

Los Pinos announced yesterday that Calderón will be heading off to Washington to meet with Obama in May.

Also, Napolitano is now expressing support for the "brave fight" with drug gangs, presumably an attempt to make amends for her comment that the use of the army in Juárez had failed.

This really has been a busy period in US-Mexican bilateral relationship news. Unfortunately, most of the news has consisted of tedious sideshows. I wonder if this happens every spring, a sort of diplomatic flower coming into bloom, and I just haven't paid attention.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Félix Fuentes says that Fernando Gómez Mont is soon to be out of his post as Secretary of the Interior, maybe to be replaced by Alonso Lujambio or Javier Lozano.

With the Chip!!!!!!!

If you need a little kick-start for your hopes for the US National team at the head of the 2010 World Cup, check out Clint Dempsey's goal 15 seconds in for Fulham earlier today. Nasty!

O'Reilly on (Vicente) Fox

Via Malcolm Beith, here's a brief discussion of Mexico between Bill O'Reilly and Janet Napolitano:

O'REILLY: OK. Now the — we did a segment the other night on the Mexican drug wars. I think that President Calderon should welcome U.S. federal agents and perhaps military people down to assist. Do you agree?

NAPOLITANO: Yes, and he is. We are working with President Calderon at the federal level, and that includes…

O'REILLY: But this would be a scoop if we can get our military and federal agents armed down there in Mexico because they have not been welcomed up to this point. Do you think they will be welcomed?

NAPOLITANO: Well, they're welcomed in terms of arms. There are different arrangements with different agencies. But here's the thing. There are large cartels in Mexico. They've been allowed to grow for a number of years. I prosecuted some of the cartel members when I was U.S. Attorney. We need to help Mexico any way we can.

O'REILLY: Yes, Mexico needs to let us help.


O'REILLY: And they have been reluctant to let our federal agents to carry arms down there, and they've been reluctant to use our military. I hope they'll change.

NAPOLITANO: Well, let me tell you, I've been working border crime for a number of years as an attorney general and as a U.S. Attorney. I've never seen the Mexican government more committed to deal with these…

O'REILLY: Calderon's a good man, unlike Fox. Fox was a crook.


I think Fox is as much of a clown as the next guy, and Napolitano was probably agreeing more with the first part of that final sentence than the second, but agreeing with personal attacks on the former leader of an ally is not good practice.

As far as the rest of it, a) American agents do operate in Mexico, so all of this recent discussion and denials on both sides of the border are just a weird jaunt into fantasy land, and b) the American military is not the solution to every problem.

The Alliance Deepens

Two days ago, it was reported that Jesús Ortega and César Nava are talking about a legislative alliance that would extend the PAN-PRD collaboration well beyond teaming up to take down authoritarian PRI governors. It may just be a formalization of the present mode of operation --if they agree, the vote as a group; if they don't, they don't-- but if not, this is getting ridiculous. I'm not certain what is the ideal limit to a party's willingness to shove ideology to one side in favor of immediate practical benefits, but an enduring legislative alliance between what are supposed to be the parties of the left and right, respectively, would surpass it by many hundreds of miles. Marcelo Ebrard recently said that alliances for the presidential race in 2012 are a no-go.

More for Mexico

The Washington Post today calls for more cash for Mexico and a broadening of focus for the Mérida Initiative:
A new four-pronged architecture for Merida has been drawn up that adds police and judicial training, border projects, and the promotion of civil society and human rights to the original focus on attacking drug gangs and their leaders. The new programs are to be ratified next week at a bilateral cabinet meeting in Mexico that will be attended by a host of senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The broadening of the Merida program is logical. Mr. Calderón has recognized that military force alone will not save Juarez, and in any case the Mexican army and Congress remain cautious about further expanding such collaboration with the United States. Still, given that the level of violence is still rising, the sharp reduction in U.S. assistance makes little sense. The United States should be doing everything that Mexico will allow it to do to aid its security forces. It also should be doing more on the U.S. side of the border. While the Obama administration has taken some steps to crack down on the trafficking of guns to Mexico, most of the guns of the drug gangs still come from the United States.

The editorial has gotten a lot of attention here.

The Gringos are Coming

Obama Administration heavyweights Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Janet Napolitano, Dennis Blair will be visiting Mexico next week to discuss the Mérida Initiative and other security matters. Given the murders in Juárez, the recent upsurge in official American commentary on Mexico's security policy, and the consequent frustration in Mexico with said commentary, this could be more heated than the typical bilateral meeting. I'd guess not, though, or at least not in any way that will be reported. More likely, we'll have a mild restructuring of the Mérida money away from hardware.

Immigration News

Not a huge surprise here, but the virtual fence along the Arizona border has turned out to be less than successful. (H/T)

Here's another immigration proposal I came across yesterday:

Each year, Congress would set the number of visas available for auction. They would then go up for bid by anybody. With a visa in hand, anybody who passed some form of security check to make sure you’re not a criminal, spy, terrorist, etc. would be permitted to reside in the U.S.A. for the duration of the visa, and work, study – whatever.

NGOs could purchase visas for political or economic refugees. Employers could purchase visas for desired employees. Universities could purchase visas for desired students. Individuals could purchase their own visas to do whatever.

Work here without a valid visa? Somebody’s defrauded the government; you should have purchased that visa at auction. There’s really no good excuse for not having one. Sanctions could be split between the individual and the employer according to some formula. Take the whole question out of the hands of the INS and give it to the IRS, who seem to get better results generally.

That's an interesting idea, but a few problems remain: first, some of the anti-immigration fervor is based on a rejection of illegal immigration only, but much of it also stems from the desire to limit immigration in general. The auction is only better than the status quo if it means increasing the number of immigrants to something approximating what the labor market requires. I suspect that the latter group, which I'd say constitutes the most vocal opposition to immigration, isn't going to be placated by going from 500,000 desert-crossing illegal immigrants to 500,000 auction-winning legal immigrants.

Second, presumably this means skewing the immigration flow away from Mexicans, and away from the poor. There's certainly a reasonable argument to be made for doing that, but I wonder how successful that would be addressing the drivers of Latin American immigration today. And supposing we replace 100,000 busboys with 100,000 IT experts; is the idea that the Americans displaced by the influx of foreign IT experts would then work in restaurants? If so, that could mean a fairly significant quality-of-life downgrade as a result of our new immigration policies, which would make it politically unfeasible. If not, there's still going to be a powerful magnet pulling people toward the States. All this makes me wonder if, despite the obvious ugliness of our present immigration situation, the US isn't collectively rather invested in having a semi-permanent imported underclass.

Also, when it comes to restricting immigration flows, two points can't be made often enough: first, roughly half of the undocumented immigrants living in the US entered legally and overstayed their visa. Even a fence more successful than any we could have imagined won't come close to ending illegal immigration. Second, the aging of Mexico's population (hopefully coupled with a more dynamic local labor market) will likely eliminate most illegal immigration in the next generation.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Juárez Stuff

Janet Napolitano yesterday criticized the use of the army in Juárez saying that it "has not helped at all", which, though a defensible position as a matter of fact, must rankle Calderón. It demonstrably did rankle the NGO Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, which rather fairly pointed out that the US wouldn't like to hear similar comments from Mexico on Afghanistan.

Also, the FBI is suggesting that the consulate murders might not be connected to the victims' ties to the US, and might be a total coincidence. This possibility actually occurred to me when I first read about the crime, although then I banished it from my brain and chided myself for being naive.

Lastly, the alleged intellectual author of the murder of the teenagers in Juárez on January 31 has been captured. He is the second-in-command of the La Linea.

Lack of Respect

Zuckermann on the criminals in Juárez and their newest enemy:

The problem is when citizens neither fear nor respect the authorities. It's what, it would seem, is happening with organized crime groups and gangs in Ciudad Juárez. The state and municipal police make them laugh. Or they are corrupted or threatened: "Silver pieces or bullets: either you cooperate, and take home some cash, or we kill you because we have better weapons that you". Maybe the Federal Police were a bit more feared and respected, but not much. It would seem that they already had them figured out, too.

All that was left, then, was the army. It was said that the criminals did in fact hold "the greens" in awe. After all, the soldiers were well trained, they had powerful firearms and were less corruptible due to their loyalty to country. President Calderón decided to utilize the armed forces as the last resort of the Mexican state to inspire respect and fear in the criminals.

It's awful to say it but it would seem that the criminals also have the army ion Juárez figured out. The intervention of the armed forces in that city, far from calming the situation, has made it worse. And along the way, there occurred a disgrace for the Mexican state: the criminals lost their fear and respect of the armed forces. The last card failed. The cartels and the gangs in Juárez demonstrated that they don't hold in awe any institution of the Mexican state.

And now they've started to murder authorities from the most powerful state on Earth, the United States of America. With complete tranquility, they killed three functionaries of the American government. The question is what will the Americans do to demonstrate that it's better not to mess with them. What will be the reaction of the American authorities to instill fear and respect in Mexican criminals?

I think we'll see the response soon. And if we go by the reaction of the Americans for the murder in 1985 of the DEA agent Enrique Camarena, they will apply all of the power of the superpotency to instill that awe in the criminals who dare to confront them.
Mexicans and Americans both should pause to think about what it means for the US to be the biggest dude in Juárez. If that means that the US will impose a certain amount of pressure on Mexican officials to arrest not only the triggermen but also take down the gangs they are a part of, well that would be a powerful incentive for other criminals to avoid killing Americans. But the specific goal of reminding the criminals that there is a greater power even in anarchic Juárez just seems misguided, for both countries. First, there's the question of how. The aftermath of the Camarena affair wound up causing deep rifts that both countries would hope to avoid this time around, hence the quick denials that American agents would be operating in Mexico this time around. So if the US isn't going to be adopting a greater presence, well we're back where we started: relying on Mexican security officials to improve security.

Furthermore, Zuckermann's desire for the murderous criminals to fear and respect something, anything, is understandable and natural. Anyone who lives in Mexico has a side of them that just wants the bad guys to start losing, and it's better if the criminals in any town operate with the understanding that they are weaker than the government. But using the instillation of fear as the starting point for policy prescriptions is a recipe for less security, more abuse, and continued disaster.

In any event, I do think this points to the fact that the Calderón government, either because of lack of imagination or will, has not done a good job drawing a line in the sand as to which behavior simply won't be tolerated. Even at its most powerful, the Italian mob in the US didn't run around killing FBI agents or foreign nationals. It is a horrible mistake to turn security concerns into a simple test of strength (a war of attrition might be the surest way to gut the gangs, but it wouldn't be a happy development), but a prerequisite for a comprehensive strategy that tilts the playing field in the government's favor is the capacity to take down a gang should it cross that line.

This Week's Revelation

I can't say I was expecting to write this anytime soon: Enrique Peña Nieto (or someone on his staff) published a really sharp column yesterday:
The state in a democratic system needs majorities to be effective. Without majorities, the capacity to decide and transform is lost, which ends up eroding the capacity to govern. Without definitions, the democratic system of government itself is vulnerable, because it becomes incapable of meeting the needs and expectations of the population.

Mexico has lived more than a decade without big reforms because our institutional system makes it hard to build majorities. Today, the Mexican state is ineffective because it hasn't been transformed. In this year of the Bicentennial of Independence and the Centennial of the Revolution, we must generate the will to create the cement of an effective state, where the population enjoys the practice of the fundamental rights that the Constitution establishes and the country grows to its true economic potential. The first step to achieve this objective is pushing a political reform that helps to generate congressional majorities.

There are three concrete political reform proposals. All make valuable contributions and share certain elements. Nevertheless, in none of the three is the formation of majorities the principal objective.
He goes on to suggest mandatory majorities for the party with a congressional plurality, the elimination of the plurinominals, and the increase in the minimum vote total to maintain registration. As a matter of making Mexico's politics more productive, the importance of majorities is hard to deny. So the options are letting things stand as they are and hoping that the PRI slides leftward and the PRD shrinks into insignificance, or to take more proactive measures like those that Peña Nieto mentions.

The piece is also politically smart in that it subtly addresses Peña Nieto's PRI-ness, and the lingering fear that the PRI of today might be no different than the PRI of 40 years ago. He doesn't deny the PRI's authoritarian past, but he emphasizes that times have changed. This sentence, about the automatic majority clause, is typical:
In our present democratic context, the three big parties have the possibility of reaching this vote total, so the rule wouldn't be, as it could have in the past, unjust.
I mentioned months ago that I think the basic path for Peña Nieto is to slowly take the air out of his celebrity while building a profile as a sharp thinker on policy issues. This is a good step in that direction. And even if he falls flat in 2012, he (or someone on his staff) would seem to have a bright future as a columnist.

Also, just so I don't go overboard in flattering him, here's a couple of posts where he's been rightfully criticized.

Consider the Source

Good news for Calderón: someone outside of his inner circle is praising the president's criminal strategy. The bad news: it's Carlos Salinas. It's odd how Salinas, who has been consistently critical of most other major figures to dominate the national scene after he left it, has always shown a conspicuous sympathy toward Calderón.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A New Celebrity-Politician Pairing

César Nava is engaged to the former teeny-bopping singer Patylu. Gancho hopes that Nava's personal life compensates him with all the joy that his professional life has siphoned off in recent weeks. Best wishes to them both.

Also, let's get the Draft Nava bandwagon warmed up! With Nava, we now have a major politician from each party (Peña Nieto for the PRI and Ebrard for the PRD being the others, of course) whose significant other is in showbiz. The election-campaign-as-reality-show has never been closer to reality! And since the 2012 elections essentially ask the PAN to win a gunfight with a butter-knife, they've got nothing to lose.

The Americans Killed in Juárez

Here's a sign that the story about Americans in danger in Juárez has boiled over: John Ackerman has an op-ed about it in the LA Times. It is predictably a bit hard on Calderón for my taste, but the piece's basic argument, that Mexico should focus much more on improving the rule of law and transparency, is hard to dispute.

He frames Mexico's security dilemma as a question of "strongman tactics" (which we can just take to mean more direct confrontation of organized crime) versus rule of law, which is not uncommon but I think an unnecessarily polarizing way of looking at the issue. If we replace the loaded term quoted above, it's not an either-or proposition; whether or not you favor direct confrontation or coexistence with organized crime, everyone can agree that Calderón's government should do more to advance transparency. The reason this doesn't happen seems partly due to the fact that the dilemma is turned into a proxy for your opinion on the president, which is to say that it feels like a betrayal for Calderón supporters to call for more transparency and strengthen the rule of law. This is unfortunate.


The police here in Torreón have been on strike for three days. (They want their new boss to resign, angered at, among other things, his not allowing a wounded patrolman to be treated at a private hospital.) The idea was surely that in this time of chaos, Torreón needs its cops more than ever, so the mayor would quickly relent and send the chief packing. Instead, this dispute feels more like a coach on the hot seat threatening to quit. Please, go ahead!, the fan base shouts. The police haven't been on duty for half a week, and the city feels no different whatsoever. (State police cruisers are also patrolling, though less of them.) I participated in a conversation last night in which the topic was whether the city would be any more or less violent if the municipal police disappeared forever, which is, at the very least, a sign that their performance is not widely appreciated.

Evidently, the mayor is planning to fire 80 of the striking officers, which may be the correct move but is worrying because some of them will likely find their way into illicit occupations.


According to a recent Berumen poll, 70 percent of Mexicans feel somewhat or completely unsatisfied with Mexico's democracy. Fifty-six percent also said that the country is very or somewhat unstable.

Berumen has evidently been asking these questions for most of the decade, but there's an odd five-year gap since the last time a similar poll has been published. With that grain of salt, the disappointed 70 percent is higher than ever before, although the 56 percent labeling the country very or slightly unstable is less than in April of 2005.

Accompanying Felipe

As we speak (or, more precisely, as I write), Felipe Calderón is hanging out in Juárez, accompanied by 5,000 federal troops and one American ambassador. I've not seen a whole lot of indignation about meddling regarding the high profile Carlos Pascual has taken on Mexican security in recent days (though perhaps that's just because I've not read a lot of La Jornada recently), but I imagine there will be more of it in days to come.

More News from Last Week

I've got a few stories hanging over from the last week that I wanted to mention. Here's the first:
The PAN deputy María Elena Pérez de Tajada mentioned in the halls of San Lázaro the death of the wife of Governor Enrique Peña Nieto, Mónica Pretelini, and even said that some media outlets have blamed the governor for said death.

"I'm not saying, they say it in many media outlets, he is accused of killing his wife and they should file a complaint and investigate," she said to discomfort and rejection from the PRI caucus.
Truly ugly stuff. I really hope that such ugly implication as this doesn't become a part of a broader whisper campaign (or, in this case, a public declaration campaign) in 2012. If Peña Nieto's opponents don't aggressively nip this kind of thing in the bud (say, by banishing Pérez de Tajada from the party or by denouncing her comments), it could take on a life of its own.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Newest Cabinet Member

Leo Zuckermann on the newest cabinet change, the replacement of the tourism secretary:
In her new job, [Gloria] Guevara will have to sell Mexico as a tourist destination, which is going to be difficult in the present climate. Not so much for the economic recession of the past year (which is already fading) nor for the A H1N1 influenza epidemic that started in Mexico and scared off foreign tourism. The most important problem, that which is scaring off tourists from other countries, above all Americans, is the growing perception that Mexico is a violent country where a tourist can die from gunshots at any moment.
He goes on to mention that Mexico gets painted in an unfavorable light by a trio of American TV programs: Law and Order, Lie to Me, and Weeds. As always, this is a tricky problem, but I don't think you can blame the TV producers. They are selling fiction, and look for a story wherever they can find one. It's true that it's not great news for Mexico when the mayor of Tijuana appears as a criminal mastermind in an American series, but that's more a product of a narrative generated by the news media (which is to say, by the news in Mexico itself, although some blame the media for that) than it is an unprovoked shot.

I think it's hard to find anyone individually responsible for the gap between the perception and the reality in Mexico. Drug violence is a story in the American media because it's newsworthy and presumably because people like to read about it, and it's unfair to point the finger at a single reporter for offering a factual story. It's only a problem when you pull back and realize that 80 percent of the stories trickling to the States from Mexico are about security. A reporter can perform admirably and professionally, even perfectly, yet still contribute to this distorted perception. I guess it's more than anything a reflection of journalism's shortcomings as a chronicler of truth.

El Universal on the Court

This is from last week, but worth posting:
First, the ministers removed the ability of human rights commissions to go before international tribunals when there charges need it or deserve it; they want to be the only judges to make decisions regarding violations. That's what is confirmed by the second decision from the Court, made just yesterday. It turns out that for the justices the PGR is correct in requesting to be the only agency to define, without any control, when it grants or denies the CNDH an initial request.


Where does this tendency from the members of the highest court in the country come from? The Court gives the impression that the it prefers those in government more than the regular citizens, even when the power granted to the former goes overboard, as in this case.
More here. The Supreme Court had been on a contrary run, ruling against the power and for the people in many cases last year. That seems to have come to an end.

A Recognition Decades Late in Coming

The Vatican has announced that Marciel Maciel was guilty of pedophilia. Good for them, I guess, but this article demonstrates that there was ample evidence of horrible doings in the Legionnaires going back decades, which the Church did nothing to stop.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Unsettling News for Americans

A trio of people connected to the American consulate in Ciudad Juárez have been killed, including an American employee and her husband. Obama expressed concern and condolences, which is appropriate but really means little.

Update: Thus far, the investigation is pointing to the Línea as the group responsible.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


As always, styles make fights, and tonight's matchup would figure to favor Manny Pacquiao far more than Josh Clottey. (Of course, most style matchups tend to favor the Filipino these days.) Clottey's shell defense works pretty well against guys who don't throw a great deal, but it won't keep Pacquiao, whose punching arsenal the displays angular variety of Roy Jones and the volume of Meldrick Taylor, from touching him consistently. Clottey needs to avoid turning into a stationary target and throw a lot of punches to win; he's never done either of those things. Indeed, his lack of output handed the Cotto fight to the Puerto Rican, who isn't half as feverish a fighter as is Pacquiao. Unless he walks into something, Pacquiao's going to look sensational in winning by an easy decision or late knockout.

Let's hope the next one is Pacquiao-Mosley or Pacquiao-Mayweather.

On Juárez and All the President's Men

I have a new piece about Calderón's Juárez recovery plan at Global Comment.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The US Opinion

Carlos Pascual, in a meeting with Mexican senators from various parties, encouraged them to introduce legislation to regulate the participation of the army in domestic security operations. He also voiced support for efforts to strengthen the local and state police agencies.

Also, in typical Mexican daily fashion, the front-page story from Excélsior with the above information appears to one side of a full-length shot of a shirtless Bar Refaeli. Maybe it's part of a nefarious plan to distract readers from the US's outsized influence in Mexico.

Great Photo

Courtesy of the AP, Evo and Lugo react to an earthquake at Piñera's inauguration. Or maybe a woman claiming to be raising a child of Lugo's appeared in the rafters.

Any News from Juárez is Bad News

I mentioned earlier this week that it seemed as though news of mass killings in Juárez had ceased over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case, with the murder of six people during a wake for another murdered youth breaking the quiet.

More Bad News for Reporters

Via Passport, the AP is reporting (based on info from the Inter-American Press Society) that eight reporters in Reynosa were abducted over the past two weeks. Two of them have been released, another found dead, with the remaining five still unaccounted for. Oddly, this hasn't gotten a lot of press in Mexico.

Drug War Tea Leaves

Mexican officials are saying that the fighting between Osiel Cárdenas's criminal heirs will end up benefitting Chapo Guzmán.

Calderón's Call

Yesterday, Felipe Calderón issued a call for a more dignified brand of politics, which was quickly seconded by other heavyweights. This comes several days after the president and Manlio Fabio Beltrones both asked the parties to put aside their immediate differences and get to work. Clearly, the president is frustrated with the ongoing bickering between the PRI and the PAN, insofar as it is clogging his legislative agenda.

So why isn't Nava, supposedly a Calderón loyalist who was essentially appointed to the PAN presidency by the president, heeding his wishes? Nothing could be less dignified than a public polygraph test as a way to settle a he-said, she-said political dispute. (Random historical note that is kinda relevant: according to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, George Bush threatened to resign when it was suggested he take a polygraph while serving as vice president.) It's hard to imagine a more distracting sideshow to the legislative priorities than a debate between Nava and Beatriz Paredes. Rather than advocating for Calderón's legislative agenda, Nava dedicated his column space in El Universal to clarifying and defending his actions regarding his spat with Paredes and Peña Nieto.

Furthermore, beyond the uselessness of it all, is there anyone outside of the principals who's not completely bored by this story? It's more tedious than painting window trim.

However, as ugly as this last month has been, of the last two PAN bosses, somehow Nava is the more dignified of the two.

More here.

Shady Dealings on the Northern Side

One of the consistent complaints from Mexicans on security is that for the all the judgment coming from Washington, all of the drugs crossing the border to be bought and sold in the US necessarily implies at least some corruption on the part of American officials. It's a fair complaint, although it gets taken in unhelpful directions when people start accusing US officials of ignoring the Cartel of the Potomac. In any event, this piece of news should interest that group: according to the FBI, in the past two years more than 400 cases of corruption along the border have been investigated. In 2009 alone, more than 100 civilian officials as well as 130 state and federal police were arrested for illegal activities along the border.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Random Notes on the Mexican Screen

Last night, I caught a few minutes of Spanglish dubbed into Spanish. Dubbed movies, especially those of actors whose voices you know well, are always hard to watch, but my God this was a miserable experience. The problem with Spanglish is that language barriers between Paz Vega and Sandler/Leoni are a running plotline in the movie, so they couldn't have them all speaking perfect Spanish. So the solution was to have the American couple speak horribly accented, utterly unpalatable Spanish throughout the picture. Since Sandler and Leoni occupy the screen for the majority of the movie, it feels like two hours of screeching chalk. (At least, I assume so, since as I said I watched only ten minutes or so.)

Also, the telenovela Corazón Salvaje (as you can tell, I have been really up on the high culture lately) has a big, climactic trial scene this week, and in typical novela fashion, what could take ten minutes has been stretched out over the course of two hours. (And I'm not sure it's over, since I didn't watch the end last night.) It's a rather absurd version of a scene you've seen millions of times before in Law and Order and My Cousin Vinnie and other such productions, with the judge trying in vain to control order amid alternatively damning and revelatory testimony, et cetera, et cetera. Which is to say, it resembles in no way the actual trials that an accused Mexican actually faces, given that Mexico's trials (outside of a few pilot programs initiated in the last few years) are almost all written and closed to the public. It's odd how the archetypal trial scene is Mexico has bypassed the reality of the Mexican legal system to anchor itself in Mexico's pop culture.

Mexico City, Where the Problems Are Solved by Marching

Mexico City's night owls hit the streets! Bar owners, employees, and patrons marched in front of the local legislature on Wednesday to protest the 3 a.m. closing time in the capital's nighttime establishments, which have been enforced much more strictly since Salvador Cabañas was shot in the head while partying in a nightclub at 5 a.m.

For the record, I support their cause, but this propensity to march at the least provocation demands parody. I'd like to read a novel set in Mexico City where street marches were a constant feature of the background, with the absurdity of the cause steadily increasing. Chapter one: a march to protest delays in pension payments. Chapter five: a demonstration to protest the lack of bathroom breaks at city construction sites. Chapter twelve: a march against tolerance of flatulence in office spaces. Or something like that.

Another Thing about Schools in Mexico

Building on Schettino's comments about elite schools in Mexico, I think it's worth noting that the ability to develop first-rate English skills is the vital quality for most of the elite private grade schools in the nation. In my experience, science and math skills are waaaaaaaaaay down on the list of priorities, and don't figure into the schools' marketing much at all. The focus on English is not a bad thing in and of itself, and it reflects the needs of the local labor market. But developing a cohort of professionals perfectly able to translate mediocre skills into a foreign language is not a country-reshaping achievement.

In tangentially related news, a quartet of evidently quite gifted Mexican students have founded a group called Telegenio to encourage similarly talented youngsters. That's good news, but the fact that the article uses as its hook the students' similarities to the characters from The Big Bang Theory, which implies that only a tenuous connection to a third-rate sitcom will make readers care about such a topic, is less heartening.