Friday, October 15, 2010

More on Finnegan's Tijuana

Bajo Reserva ran an item on the New Yorker piece on Tijuana yesterday, comparing Julián Leyzaola to John Wayne and noting the article's focus on "kicking ass".

That leads me to another element of that story that I found interesting, the idea of Leyzaola being Tijuana's biggest badass (which is Finnegan's characterization). This reflects a tricky problem for the Mexican authorities. Ideally, you don't want security officials in a democratic society motivated by schoolyard passions like being the king of the mountain. This lends itself to an overly macho, insufficiently comprehensive approach, where vital but boring problems are not given due attention. (Rick Atkinson's account of Patton's logistical oversights leading up to the invasion of North Africa in An Army at Dawn comes to mind.) It would also lend itself to the security officer seeing any check on his power as a challenge to his manhood, which in turn lends itself to authoritarian abuses. The distance from this mindset to the torture allegations is short indeed.

At the same time, Mexico's security problems are much more complicated because people have so little respect for law enforcement. A part of that is the badass quotient, which is nonexistent for cops (and, among certain segments of the population, off the charts for narcos). I've mentioned once or twice that if Mexicans want a fictional example of a heroic government officer, they need to look abroad to Jack Bauer or James Bond. In Mexican movies and television, that guy doesn't exist, though corrupt or bumbling officers are all over the place. There clearly needs to be more police who inspire respect, in fiction if possible, without question in real life.

So can Mexico find officials who fit that profile but without demonstrating signs of authoritarianism? Will the Mexican public, which generally treats officials like their children greet piñatas, recognize them as a different class?


jd said...

Hmmm, Patton...or possibly R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, if he keeps making so many enemies (to be clear - not a threat or prediction, jus' sayin, he's pissing off a lot of people in an intensely personal way).

The Bajo Reserva piece is interesting in that it has the John Wayne bit as the primary takeaway, whereas my main reading was that Leyzaola is a brutal criminal whose policing skills are probably overrated. I wouldn't expect everyone to read it through my NGO-colored glasses, but the gap between my summary and Bajo's still seems notable.

Another thing that comes to mind but may be an overly personal reading is that I wonder if Finnegan didn't consciously mean to create an analogy for the US torture debate. The parallels are obvious, including the strings of false confessions - which are arguably worse for the US in its black site-type operations, since you're talking about goose chases potentially across the entire Islamic world, rather than among one city's police force.

Finally, when reading about the calming effect of El Teo's arrest, I also couldn't help but think about the surge, and how all the cheerleaders gave it total credit for diminishing Iraq's violence, while others pointed to a) the awakening councils b) successful ethnic cleansing in Baghdad and c) the Sadrists standing down as other factors. The obvious point is that you should be highly wary of giving too much credit to any one factor in a complex environment of violence, and all the more so when it's a tough guy schtick like Leyzaola's.

Anyway, I think it's to the article's credit that it causes such varied reactions and that I keep thinking about it.

malcolm said...

Tijuana has had their badasses before (capella springs to mind) and they've been run out of town either through threats or politics. This guy will be gone soon too, particularly given Chapo's apparent growing clout there. The article is a really good one, lots to think about, but it fails to address the fact that a badass authoritarian doesn't inspire people to follow in his footsteps and be clean, he inspires fear. as soon as he leaves, his subordinates will be corrupt as hell again. they need firm, fair police chiefs, as idealistic as it sounds, and need to learn from them. And tons of on the ground intelligence to both prevent and contain violence. That's the only way I can see it working.
The article also fails to mention previous cleanups/overhauls of the TJ police. This has happened so many times. The real reason for the calm in the city is Chapo's influence, I'm pretty convinced of that. Those are my two cents. Good read though.

pc said...

JD kinda interesting that you had that reading, I don't think I did. I do feel like Leyzoala probably is overrated, but I necessarily think that Bajo Reserva had any illusions about what that meant either. They mentioned the torture headline in the first sentence. But other parts did make you wonder what their point was. Maybe the fact that it's written by "los periodistas de el universal" means sometimes their are six different people pulling the column in different directions.

RE the analogies to US War on Terror, this blog post would make you think that Finnegan wanted to make them a lot more direct, but that they were edited out.

RE whether it's the chapo or the cop who's most responsible for the drop in violence, I think anytime there is a sustained drop in violence over the short term (I realize that's contradictory, but I mean consistently lowering levels over a period of several months rather than just a calm week), it's almost always the narcos. I think that's one basic point that gets lost in a lot of the criticism/celebration of Calderón is that government policy can make a huge difference in the long-term, but the people who are determining how many people get killed tomorrow aren't in the government.

"they need firm, fair police chiefs, as idealistic as it sounds, and need to learn from them. And tons of on the ground intelligence to both prevent and contain violence. That's the only way I can see it working."

I agree with all of that too. Not a lot of idealism in Mexico, and there needs to be. Not pollyanna-ism, but just lofty, comprehensive goals and can-doism.