Saturday, April 30, 2011

Another Rescue in Tamaulipas

For third time since the most recent discovery of the mass grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexican authorities have rescued a large number of kidnapping victims in Reynosa, the border town in the same state. This time, it was the army freeing 52 Central Americans.

One Positive Element of Mexican Insecurity

Vacations in Mexico City, which until relatively recently enjoyed a reputation (which was basically unjustified, but whatever) as one of the scariest places in the nation, were evidently off the charts this Semana Santa. Leads like this one would have been all-but-unthinkable five years ago:
Getting away from Ciudad Valles, San Luis Potosí, allowed María Hernández and Teresa Ramírez to spend at least a few days without hearing the gunfights that now form part of the daily soundtrack in the region where they live.

For them, this vacation in Semana Santa turned into an opportunity to avoid hearing news of kidnappings of neighbors, of acquaintances, of friends. They got away from Ciudad Valles to take a break from that violence that immersed itself in their daily lives for the past couple of years.

Mildly Creepy, Basically Unimportant Element of Mexican Insecurity Present in the US, Too

As Excélsior reports, Jesús Malverde and la Santa Muerte are popping up in the US. According to a Texas lawman:
These beliefs have been maintained by the new generation of drug traffickers, but they are also developing new beliefes, such as their love of the American character "Scarface", who in the movie was the principal cocaine trafficker in the Florida and in him they see a model to follow, Almonte explained.
Except for that part where the Bolivian gives him a shotgun blast to the midsection from close range. That part kind of sucked, and is not to be scrupulously followed.
"I think an important important point that I'd like to emphasize is that the agents and investigators must be careful and not assume that every person that has one of these types of images is in reality a drug trafficker," the agent said.
I strenuously object to Almonte's caution. I think that every person who has ever enjoyed Scarface or has an image of Jesús Malverde or la Santa Muerte on their person is as dangerous as Pablo Escobar.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wrong People in Control of Mexican Jails

David Agren on "autogobierno" in Mexico prisons:
When the Los Zetas drug cartel offered to re-paint the prison chapel here, chaplain Robert Coogan declined the offer because the leaking roof would ruin the paint job anyway.

So the Zetas inmates fixed the roof, then painted the chapel, in one day.

"I asked (the leader) why you're not a politician," said Coogan, a New York native and Catholic priest. "He said, 'I like things done quickly.'"

The Zetas have the run of the prison in this industrial city 190 miles southwest of Lardeo, Texas, in what is known as autogobierno or self-rule. It dates back decades and forms of it exist in correctional facilities the world over.

But self-rule has become more of a problem in Mexico recently as prison populations swell with suspects detained in the ongoing crackdown on organized crime and the country's drug cartels seize power behind bars.

Storm inside the PAN

Bajo Reserva reported earlier this week that Josefina Vázquez Mota's presidential ambitions and consequent neglect of her role as the leader of the PAN deputies is ruffling feathers. Indeed, they've asked party president Gustavo Madero to demand her resignation. She refused such requests in an interview days later.

Odd that there is so much of this around Vázquez Mota, but not so much with regard to other preseidenciables like Santiago Creel, Alonso Lujambio, and Ernesto Cordero, all of whom have rather important jobs as well. I wonder if the anonymous complaining is a product of special resentment for Vázquez Mota, or if she's doing more electoral legwork than the others. With regard to Senator Creel and Education Secretary Lujambio, you could argue that she has a more vital post and her giving a half-arsed effort will be more conspicuous, but I don't think that holds as much for Finance Minister Cordero.

Big Extradition

Benjamín Arellano Félix, arguably Mexico's most notorious living drug trafficker from 1997 until his arrest in 2002, has been extradited to the US.

No Reforms

The political reform legislation that had been promised earlier this week has been effectively killed in the Chamber of Deputies. The lower house is where the Congressional power of Enrique Peña Nieto is concentrated, and his bet has long seemed to be that gridlock helps his presidential chances. The security bill was also not approved, though there was talk of an extraordinary legislative session in the coming months to deal with that reform.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Charging Minors

The number of minors arrested with connection to organized crime has spiked in recent years, which is a shock to no one. According to a recent report from Reforma, 1,107 minors have been arrested for connections to organized crime under Calderón, with 339 of them being later accused. (This seems to indicate that almost 70 percent are released without trial. This is likewise not a shocker, given this report, but nonetheless a rather damning statistic.) The number of detainees was just 71 in 2007, but had jumped to 402 in 2010.

Calderón's government recently said that 30,000 people had been arrested for nacro-related crimes during his term. That would indicate that just 4 percent or so involved in the drug trade are minors. That seemed a bit low to me, but it is inline with the proportion of minors among those killed in drug-related crimes.

Firings as a Response to a Crisis

In the seven months since the summer massacre of migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico's immigration agency, Inami, has fired 168 employees out of a total of 5,000 in the seven months for violations of civil rights of migrants. That's good news as far as it goes, but it's plain that there remains a culture of abuse of migrants in Mexico, and much work remains.

On Mexican Television

The Economist on some pieces of data in Mexico's census:
The Mexican home has been transformed. In 1990, one in five dwellings had a bare-earth floor. Now only 6% do. Virtually all have electricity, whereas 20 years ago one in ten went without. A tenth still lack sewerage, but this is better than the figure of one in three in 1990.

More interesting still is what Mexicans put in those homes. More houses have televisions (93%) than fridges (82%) or showers (65%). In a hot country with dreadful television this is curious. Communications habits are interesting too: despite some of the world’s highest charges, two thirds of Mexicans have a mobile phone—though only four out of ten have a landline.

Television is awful? How dare he?! This is the country that brought Rubí to life! He should be deported ASAP.

I'm not a big fan of Mexico's reality television, but as far as telenovelas go, I think Americans/Brits are too quick to discount them because of the unrealistic dialogue and melodramatic direction. It's a little jarring to anyone who thinks The Sopranos is the pinnacle of drama (I include myself in that group), but gritty realism isn't the only way to tell a story. Lots of popular narrative, from Hemingway to Shakespeare to any musical play, is larded with human interaction that is completely unrealistic, but people manage to overlook the realistic shortcomings and enjoy such works on their own terms. If you can get past the surface silliness in most novelas, there are some that are quite well done. (Not on the level of The Sopranos, perhaps, but that's a high standard.) Some, however, are crap through and through.

A Collection of Whiners

Reading the reaction of the Real Madrid players to yesterday 2-0 home loss to Barça, it's hard to believe that they actually are so poorly behaved and lacking in self-awareness, and they aren't just playing a role. For instance, Ronaldo:
I do not understand why everyone playing against them (Barcelona) in the Champions League ends with ten men, Arsenal, Chelsea... It is not an excuse but playing against ten is very different to playing with 11.'
It's not an excuse, but allow me to excuse our loss. And:
We controlled the game at 11 versus 11 but we conceded two goals when we were down to ten. Every year is the same and I do not understand. The truth is that getting through the tie is now very difficult, but in football anything can happen.
They controlled the action 11 versus 11 for portions of the first half of the Copa final. That is all. And:
I wish I had the chance as Messi did to play against 10 because then everything is so much easier.
And, of course, Mourinho:

"I just have one question: Why?,'' he added. ''Why Ovrebo [Chelsea vs. Barcelona referee in 2007 semi-final], Busacca [Barcelona vs. Arsenal in this year's Champions League], Stark? In each semi-final it is the same. We are talking about an absolutely fantastic team. Why didn't Chelsea make the final? Why did Inter have to be saved by a miracle?

''Congratulations to Barcelona. But I just do not understand why Barcelona always receive the help of the referee. All my life I will be asking myself this question, and one day I hope to receive an answer.

''I am not too sad, I have a great family. But I don't understand why Barcelona have this power. It happened two years ago to Chelsea (in the 2009 semi-finals), almost to my Inter last year, and also to Arsenal this year.

''Why do the opponents of Barcelona always have a man sent off? Where does this power come from? Maybe it is to give more publicity to UNICEF, maybe because of the power of (Spanish federation president Jose Angel) Villar in UEFA.''


I have already won two Champions Leagues, and I won them on the pitch, with two teams that weren't Barcelona. I won one with Porto, a small team from a weaker league. And I won another with Inter, sweating and fighting hard.

''Josep Guardiola is a fantastic football coach, but the Champions League he won was an embarrassment because of what happened at Stamford Bridge - it was a scandal. And if he wins it this year, he will win after the scandal at the Bernabeu. Let's hope he gets the chance to win a clean Champions League (in future), without scandals.

Gah, what a pair of whiners. If you willingly concede 70 percent of possession, you will be tackling more. More tackles overall means more card-inducing tackles. If you do that enough, eventually you will get burned. They didn't get burned in the Copa del Rey, despite Pepe's studs-up tackle to the junk (at least, I think it was Pepe), and Alonso's takedown from behind on Messi. It goes both ways. As far as last year, Mourinho got by them with Inter thanks to a goal being disallowed by a questionable handball in the vuelta. Plus, Inter was offside on one of its goals in its 3-1 win in the first leg. Inter played great, the slap on Busquets was not worthy of a red, and Piqué might have been offsides on his goal, but there was certainly an element of luck to Inter's win. There usually is in close games; moaning about afterward when the luck doesn't go your way is just lame.

Hopefully, I'm Wrong. Probably, I'm Not

I dismissed the possibility of significant legislative reform earlier this week, despite reports of a political and security reform moving toward passage. This was perhaps a bit premature, as the Senate has passed a political reform that, surprisingly, would allow the reelection of mayors. That's something I've long been a fan of, and I think it has the potential to create a much more responsive local governing ethos. Presently, a mayoralty is more than anything the chance to initiate a lot of unnecessary projects and build a political profile. Despite being a position with a great deal of influence over a citizen's day-to-day life, it is in practice the most temporary and frivolous of stepping-stones, rather than the culmination of a career. So, good news if the prohibition on reelection gets booted.

However, the Chamber of Deputies has to approve the political reform, an even which has been called "highly unlikely". This divide between the two houses of Congress, which mimics the split between PRI leaders Enrique Peña Nieto and Manlio Fabio Beltrones, was always pointed to as the foremost proximate barrier to reform, so all of the excitement over the reform over the past few days seems a bit overstated.

Charging Soldiers

This is perhaps a small step in the right direction regarding military impunity:
After a week of investigation, the governor of Nuevo León, Rodrigo Medina, reported that seven soldiers assigned to the State Support Forces are under arraigo for the death of Jorge Otilio Cantú Cantú, a citizen who died April 18 in an apparent crossfire, in Monterrey.

The executive referred on various occasions to the arraigados as police, although he later specified that they are..."of military origin".

Medina de la Cruz said that the soldiers could be judged in federal court, but at this moment they are at the disposition of the local authorities, waiting to be processed.
I am a bit skeptical that this marks a major shift (and it's also not clear that the soldiers acted inappropriately); this is more like the exception that proves the rule. The only cases I'm aware of in which military personnel have been judged in civilian court have had unusual circumstances like this one.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trouble in La Laguna

Security in the Laguna has long been on the federal government backburner, despite a skyrocketing murder rate and some episodes of terrorism. It will be interesting to see if the murder of Carlos Valdés, a major shareholder in dairy giant Lala, outside of his house earlier this week, will change that. With the fallout of the Durango and Tamaulipas occupying most of the current federal attention (which calls to mind the way the mass murder in La Ferrie in January 2010 was overshadowed by the attack on the birthday party in Juárez the same night), I doubt it.

Sincerest condolences to the Valdés family.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Open to an Alliance

It was interesting to see that in Torreón, where the PRI has dominated the last few electoral cycles, only 37 percent of respondents to an online poll from El Siglo expressed disapproval of a PRD-PAN alliance in the July gubernatorial elections. That could be interpreted either as overwhelming confidence in the prospects of Rubén Moreira, or a sign of the lack of deep roots of the PRI in Torreón (until maybe four years ago, it was a PAN town). Based on the 40-50-point advantage of Moreira in polls, I'll go with the former.

Rescue in Tamaulipas

Federal Police rescued 51 kidnapped migrants in Tamaulipas today, days after they saved another 68 in the same state. Such rescues were not common before the discovery of scores and scores of dead bodies last week in San Fernando, and now we've had two in a week.

You see this pattern a lot in Mexico: a public security issue reaches critical mass, and all of a sudden, the not entirely competent institutions snap into action and seem much more competent, for a little while. (Here's Jorge Chabat making a similar point in 2008.) That leads to a couple of questions, all of them related to the most obvious: Why can't they always operate like that? What can Mexico and Mexicans do to lower that threshold for when institutions start taking a given issue seriously? Another way of looking at it: why was it this latest incident in San Fernando, and not the massacre of 72 migrants last summer, that triggered the intensified response? What changes about the incentives up and down the chain of command when there is a sudden rush of attention on a given topic? What can be done to lengthen or institutionalize the "This is serious" mindset? Are all of these really legitimate operations, or are they just some species of montaje?

Painful Illustration of Judicial Ineffectiveness

Last year, only 28 percent of those arrested in Mexico on federal crimes, which includes most organized crime-related offenses, wound up going to trial. The remaining the 72 out of 100 were released before facing a judge for lack of evidence. This is a useful counterpoint to anyone who says that Mexico's principal law-enforcement problem is lack of firepower. It has tens of thousands of Federal Police armed like infantrymen out on the streets, but if they can't build cases that stick, they're not an effective law-enforcement agency.

On Colombia and Mexico, for the Millionth Time

Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby have a piece at Foreign Policy looking at the so-called Medellín miracle. It is not a simplistic piece, which many in this genre are, and it does acknowledge the spikes in violence over the past couple of years, but it does seem to me to be conjuring a miracle where, if there ever was one, it has disappeared. (Plus, it has a number of facts wrong.) Take the various comments on violence in the city:
In 1991, the city had an astronomical 381 homicides per 100,000 residents (by contrast, the murder rate in Ciudad Juárez, the bloody epicenter of Mexico's drug war, was only half that last year). But today Medellín has, incredibly, become as safe as Washington.


The harder lesson here, however, is that there are no quick fixes in a drug war, and two steps forward are often followed by one step back. After bottoming out in 2007, Medellín's homicide rate has since doubled (though it is still one-fifth of what it was at the city's early-1990s nadir).
But by their accounting, that's a murder rate of roughly 80 per 100,000 people; that's really violent! (That's also not nearly as safe as Washington, which had a murder rate of just over 20 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. Not sure where that assertion came from.) I wonder if the mistake in this approach is assuming that the Medellín of the early 1990s was in some sense the natural state of the city, and anything better than that indicates some sort of success. If so, I disagree. Escobar's Medellín was an anomaly of violence. It may be better than that now, but we're talking about a city in which almost 3,000 people were killed in 2009 (good enough for a murder rate well above 100), which in 2010 was one of the three most violent cities in a particularly violent country. The city is certainly worth examining and there are surely some lessons to be gleaned, but the "miracle" label is plainly ill-fitting.

As far as Mexico, a couple of points: First, Juárez had 3,951 murders in 2010, according to state authorities. It's hard to pin down an exact murder rate because it's hard to pin down an exact population, but with 1.3 million (a common, pre-violence-induced exodus figure), that would be roughly 300 per 100,000 residents, which is to say, well above the figure of 190 alluded to in the article.

Second, the prescriptions:
That said, there are useful lessons Mexico can draw from the Medellín miracle. Like Colombia in the 1990s, Mexico is vastly underpoliced and has a weak judiciary, problems that can be solved in time with sufficient resources and will. But Colombia's drug war shows that the battle will not be won by military force alone. The government needs to bolster its legitimacy by offering people alternatives to crime and violence, as well as a renewed commitment to public services -- something Medellín's metro, its starkly beautiful new buildings, and civilized public spaces now do.
As indicated above, Medellín's miracle really isn't one. Nuevo León, for instance, would have to get a lot more violent to follow Medellín's miraculous path. Furthermore, Mexico is not, at least according to some sources, underpoliced; it's problem is competency of police forces, not the quantity of officers. I completely agree that Mexico needs a more effective judicial system and better police, but I don't see what special insight Colombia provides as a model in that regard. Every country could use a more effective judiciary and better police.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Not a Close Race

According to Milenio, Eruviel Ávila enjoys a 30-point lead over his PAN and PRD adversaries: Ávila has 47.7 percent of voter support, Alejandro Encinas 15.8 percent, and Luis Felipe Bravo Mena just 14.4 percent. Assuming this is not a horribly anomalous poll, absent the sudden reincarnation of Benito Juárez as a PAN-PRD alliance candidate or some Jack Ryan-type skeleton in Ávila's closet, it's hard to see him losing this one. And the alliance probably wouldn't have made much of a difference.

Mexican Gangs in Malaysia

Three brothers from Culiacán who had worked almost their entire lives in a brickyard before moving to Malaysia for business opportunity now stand accused of operating a meth lab there. The trio now face death by hanging if convicted.

Even ignoring that potentially gruesome end, I can't imagine Mexican traffickers are jumping over each other to go to Malaysia. I wonder how it gets decided who are the unlucky ducks who get sent halfway across the world to risk a caning or a hanging to set up links in Asia. Do the draw straws? Is it the guy whose girlfriend caught Chapo's eye?

Wrongfooting the Predictions?

Various political blocs in the Congress are promising to pass political and security reforms this week. This would seem to disprove the theory that nothing historically important happens in the last couple of years of a Mexican presidency, but then again, every piece of legislation in Mexico gets tabbed a reform, but that doesn't make them all the equivalent of the Affordable Care Act. I'd still be surprised if there is any major change to Mexico's political system. As far as the security reform, it's supposed to establish a legal framework for the army's participation in domestic police work, which is to say, it's codifying the status quo. I'll be interested to see how it all comes out, of course, but I don't think this week will remake Mexico.

Poor Jobs, but Lots of Them

So far in 2011, Mexico has created 271,000 new jobs. That's a relatively good number that indicates a more robust recovery than might have been expected. Assuming the cutoff is March 31, Mexico is on pace to create more than a million jobs for the first time in a long time. In 2010, the first year out of the recession (typically an anomalously big year for job creation), just 730,000 jobs were created.

Now, the bad news: as is typically the case in Mexico, good employment numbers are submarined by inconvenient facts about the quality of the jobs. The average salary in Mexico is just 246 pesos a day, which is roughly $20. Most of the new jobs pay between 3,000 and 7,000 pesos a month, according to an independent firm, a salary at which ends struggle to meet. More on that here: also said that salaries are falling behind and Mexicans' buying power has become more precarious in recent years.

"The majority of Mexicans are in a range of one to two minimum salaries [somewhere between 50 and 120 pesos a day], this has grown in the past year, and approximately 20 percent of the working population earns somewhere from two to three minimum salaries", said Margarita Chico, director of México.

Plus, according to economist Jesús Sánchez Arciniega, Mexico needs 1.3 million new jobs a year to feed the labor market, so we're not quite there yet, positive numbers from the first quarter notwithstanding.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Untrained Teachers

In 2009, the Calderón administration launched a program to outfit 75 percent of the nation's elementary and middle school classrooms with internet-connected laptops for every student and projector screens. This was a not insufficient program, which implied going from essentially zero to 26 million students and teachers in three years. Finding competent teachers has proven a significant barrier to the program's success, with only 1.5 percent of them trained to work in the digital classrooms. One teacher offers his thoughts as to why:
[The training] isn't enough and it's never going to be enough because technology is advancing. We were students of chalk and poster-board. Of giving the class with a drawing, if you knew how to draw. We weren't born with computers. The first project was the classroom with media, and we didn't know how, we didn't want to touch them because we thought we would break them.
The teacher in question says he eventually learned how to use the equipment, motivated primarily by the desire to not be seen as a "caveman" by the students.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Weekend Observations

It's odd how Mexicans by and large take Semana Santa much more seriously than do even Catholic Americans, but that the festivities largely don't extend to Easter. There is no Easter bunny, no Easter baskets, and, at least in my experience, there was never much of an Easter dinner, but the recreation of the Passion is on national TV and on the front page of national newspapers every Good Friday. (See above.)

Also, recent polling from Inegi shows that 84 percent of Mexicans identify as Catholics, while 4.6 do not practice a religion. The latter number has been steadily declining for decades (the figure was 96.4 in 1960), while the latter has jumped by more than 50 percent since 2000.

On Violence

Leo Zuckermann talks to drug-policy expert Eduardo Guerrero on why the violence is rising in Mexico:
His argument is simple: insofar as the government has arrested or killed capos, the cartels have fragmented and more organizations have appeared; this, in turn, have caused a greater amount of violence in the cities.

In 2006 there were six cartels. In 2010, there were already 12, smaller and with less access to the transfer of drugs to the US. This obligated them to traffic here in Mexico, aside from kidnapping and extorting. To this we have to add the institutional weakness of the states and municipalities to attack this phenomenon.

It seems incredible but precisely what the Calderón government shows off as grand successes in this war is what produces the violence. The graphics of Guerrero are eloquent: homicides grow when the government seizes great quantities of drugs or when cartel leaders are arrested/killed. The number compiled by Guerrero demonstrate, in contrast, that the violence lowers when the arrests are of leaders of hit men and with seizures of guns or money.
Interesting stuff, but that last part doesn't make sense. Stopping the flow of drugs makes violence go up, but stopping the flow of money doesn't? Money is essentially the end state of those drugs; anyone willing to kill for a stopped shipment of meth would surely be willing to kill from an equivalent seizure of profits.

Grizzly Count

The number of dead bodies in Tamaulipas has risen to 177. In Durango, another mass grave, which has received far less attention than it otherwise would have because of the San Fernando graves, has led to the discovery of 58 more bodies. In less negative news, the Federal Police rescued 68 migrants who had been kidnapped in Reynosa, Tamaulipas yesterday. Interestingly, Gulf traffickers and not the Zetas, who were behind the San Fernando massacre and have been more heavily engaged in human trafficking, were thought to be responsible.

Freedom of Expression in Mexico

A few weeks ago, Leonardo Curzio noted that only 38 percent of Mexicans expressed support for freedom to criticize of the government in all circumstances, while 58 percent said either that it depends on the circumstances or that the government shouldn't be criticized, period:
Freedom of expression and criticism of the government or other institutions is valued if it coincides with their perceptions or preferences. In contrast, this same respect for freedom changes if criticisms are made against institutions or even ideological currents that one sympathizes with. If we take the argument to the extreme, we could say that the motto for this group of citizens is: "freedom of expression is great as long as it is used to say whatever confirms my beliefs and preferences".


Some of this has been evident in some of the criticisms of the Agreement for the Informative Coverage of Violence [Iniciativa México], which seem more motivated by the people and the institutions that signed than by the content of the agreement and above all by the possibility of demanding all of us signees to abide by the provisions. It must not be that we demand certain things and that when they are done (with those with whom we disagree) then we criticize these same things. In consequence, it is clear that the freedom of expression and its merits will always be with those who are on my side and never those opposed. But as Arafat said, peace is made not with friends but with enemies. The great compromises that change a country are achieved when different sensibilities and editorial lines agree that it is prudent to follow new paths for the coverage of topics related to public insecurity.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

More on the Intra-PRI Rivalries

From Leo Zuckermann:
Senator Beltrones proposed the fiscal and political reforms to position himself as the Mexican politician of ideas; the one who is thinking about the serious issues of the country; the one who is proposing the urgent reforms; the one who sent the agenda. But, from the other side of the party, we have Enrique Peña Nieto with a more pragmatic posture with an electoral viewpoints. The strategy of the Mexico State governor, who controls the PRI caucus in the Chamber of Deputies, is to make no move that can put into danger the election his state, and later the presidential race. "Don't make waves", seems to be the motto of Peña Nieto, the precandidate for the presidency who is ahead in the polls.

There are those that think this strategy of gridlock could cost the PRI votes next year. That could be. But the opposite could also be true, which is to say, that in these circumstances passing a fiscal, labor, or political reform carries with it the risk of affecting powerful interests that could hold it against the PRI in the coming elections. I think that, at the end of the day, Peña Nieto's strategy will be imposed on the PRI, and from here to the presidential elections, there won't be any important legislative reforms.
I don't think there's any doubt about that last part. What's more worrying is the possibility that it's not a product of this PRI and these candidates jockeying for position, but rather an extremely long presidency with no second term and a three-party political system. These are, of course, rather more enduring features of the Mexican political system than Peña Nieto v. Beltrones. We've only had two full presidencies in the democratic era, but, assuming Zuckermann's prediction is right, in neither case has the Congress done much of anything in the final two years of the administration.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I am doing some writing for InSight (which is a great resource for organized crime info, independent of me being there), and one of my first pieces is about the inconsistent reports from the government regarding the number of troops killed combating organized crime.
For instance, according to August reports using figures from Mexico's Secretariat of Defense (SEDENA), 191 soldiers and marines had been killed in operations against drug traffickers during Calderon's time in office. In October 2010, however, SEDENA offered a figure of 111 soldiers killed from January 2007 through July 2010. Interestingly, the same figure of 111 soldiers killed appeared as well in reports from July 2009.

Furthermore, according to the book "Politics in Mexico: The Democratic Consolidation" by Roderic Ai Camp and also based on an IFAI request of SEDENA, 55 soldiers were killed during the first three years of the Vicente Fox administration. While not entirely inconsistent with the military's most recent report, such a large proportion of dead soldiers – 39 percent of the 132 reported most recently-- coming from just the first half of the Fox administration, coupled with the much heavier reliance on the military under Calderon, is an unlikely proposition.
It's hard to avoid one of two conclusions, neither of which is very comforting: either the government is lying or they don't have a very good idea of the circumstances in which their soldiers are dying.

Perps on Parade

This comment from Ciro Gómez is the first time that I remember reading a criticism from a Mexican commentator about the government's habit of parading arrestees in front of the camera:
In the official version, a criminal group opposed to the group of El Chemis, detained him, punched, then told the authorities. Perhaps things occurred in that way, perhaps they are telling the truth. But instead of giving the news, the army came out to show off the trophy. The pressure of the Sicilia case weighed more than respect for a human being, even the most miserable of humans.

Showing off a tortured guy justifies the methods and forms of the criminals. Who cares if they have mistreated him, if the essential thing was to show him defeated and humiliated. If the essential thing was to demonstrate efficiency and power.
It's also kind of an odd case on which to focus indignation for the army's lack of respect for the suspects, given the much more alarming cases documented elsewhere.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Intra-PRI Disharmony

Via Bajo Reserva:
The unity among the PRI higher-ups hides holes that threaten to reach dangerous depths. There's the cold relationship between senatorial boss Manlio Fabio Beltrones and Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, adopted as the swordsman by party leader Humberto Moreira and Governor Enrique Peña Nieto. More evidence comes from the worsening results of the deputy leader of the PRI, Francisco Rojas, who couldn't untangle the labor reform that heads his list of priorities in the present session.
Of course, intra-party squabbling is normal, and this doesn't anything particularly noteworthy yet, at least in terms of PRI disunity having an impact on 2012. Here, the overwhelming electoral advantage of Peña Nieto has also turned into a broader advantage, in that it appears so insurmountable that the party may well avoid the broken plates inevitable from various powerful figures doggedly chasing a contestable nomination.

Partially Free Mexico

Freedom House says Mexico is merely partially free in terms of internet, thanks in large part to the high cost of usage. (The nation's score of 32 was good enough for ninth best among the 37 nations measured, even with Kenya and South Korea.) You read a lot about the high price of Mexican utilities, but they were generally cheaper than in the States in my experience. After a cheaper six-month month rate at Megacable, I settled into a price of 588 pesos a month for internet and cable, which is just shy of $50 per month. (I'm not sure why that number remains burned in my memory.) The six-month introductory price from Comcast Xfinity is $69.99 per month for the same two services (though it comes with HBO in the latter case), or around 850 pesos. I did not have a phone for very long in Mexico and it was many years ago, but I also remember thinking it was less expensive than it would have been in the US.

The price of service as a percentage of per capita income is certainly higher than in the US, which certainly inhibits internet penetration, but that's a much more complicated problem than just the high cost of service.

More News on Mass Graves

I was interested to see that the alleged author of all the killings in Tamaulipas in recent months, Martín Omar Estrada, reportedly disobeyed orders from his Zeta superiors to reduce the violence in the region. This kind of principal-agent problem suggests a really worrying lack of control lack of any control. I've never quite been convinced that Chapo, El Lazca, El Azul, et al had the power to reduce violence through the power of their agreement alone but the fact that the big gangs can't even control violence within their own hierarchies suggests an ominous level of underworld anarchy. I don't think the rest of Mexico will turn into Juárez, but this element --the violence spilling outside the boundaries of the gang feuds and profit motive that initially sparked it, and in the process creating an all-encompassing, self-perpetuating logic of its own-- has been mostly limited to Juárez.

Also, more mass graves have been found in Santa Catarina, Nuevo León.

Di Stefano on Real

Shades of Johan Cruyff on Holland this summer in the Real great's comments on his old squad's defensive approach to Saturday's Clásico:
In a strong criticism, the honorary president of Madrid said the merengue club played like a "mouse" against the "lion" that was Barcelona.


"I like and admire the great dominance over the game that Barcelona has", commented Di Stefano, who is 84. "Football isn't watched with the eyes, but rather with the soul. They treat the ball with respect, adoration, almost spoiling it. Watching this team in action is a delight for everyone."

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Less Violent Response

I thought it was pretty interesting that the gang that caught one of the alleged killers of Juan Francisco Sicilia didn't just kill him and leave a sign on his body identify him as such, but rather called the local military base with his whereabouts. Mexico's gangs are not entirely immune to shaming, especially in isolated incidents of immense public attention (to take an earlier incident, the bombing of the plaza in Morelia in 2008), and here they seem to have responded to the author's pleas with some modicum of reserve. Second, it's also striking in that they implicitly recognized the legitimacy of the government by calling the military. This was an isolated incident and I certainly wouldn't yet draw any sweeping conclusions, but it was unusual.

Another Day, Another CPI Report Humiliates the ATF

This is turning into a routine:

An Arizona gun dealer pressed by federal agents to continue selling weapons to suspected straw buyers for Mexican cartels repeatedly sought assurances from prosecutors and law enforcement that the government would not let the guns cross into Mexico or be used against U.S. border agents, according to evidence gathered by Senate investigators.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors assured the dealer in e-mails that they were “continually monitoring the suspects” who ended up buying more than 1,700 guns in 2009 and 2010 with the government’s knowledge as part of a controversial investigation code-named Operation Fast and Furious, the e-mails show.

But the government’s promises, detailed in emails obtained the Center for Public Integrity, turned out to be hollow. In fact, almost 800 of the weapons turned up after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or seized through other law enforcement operations, including 195 in Mexico alone. Two weapons traced to the Fast and Furious operation were recovered near the scene of a murdered Border Patrol agent – an outcome that the firearms dealer specifically feared, according to the e-mails.

When an arms dealer is urging more caution with regard to arms traffic than the agency specifically charged with combating it, something is very wrong.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Un Clásico Clásico

Another 5-0 might be a lot to ask for in today's Clásico, now that the venue has shifted to the Bernabeu, but here's to a smashing victory for Lio, Xavi, and the rest.

Also, GolTV has a promotion for the Copa el Rey final (sorry, I can't find it online) based on the November crush job that is simply the finest piece of narrative ever to appear on American television, after The Wire and The Sopranos. I can't do it justice by describing it, but it has black and white footage and overly dramatic music and makes me want to challenge everyone in my apartment complex to an arm-wrestling contest whenever I watch after more than two coffees/beers. (The only person who ever responds --my wife-- declines the challenge.) It's just awesome; it's worth watching a soccer game on GolTV even if you don't speak Spanish or like soccer.

Off for the weekend!

How a Non-Democrat Remains Popular in a Democracy

Macario Schettino has a theory on why AMLO supporters overlook his foibles:
The interesting part of this issue isn't that Señor Andrés Manuel López Obrador is authoritarian, dishonest, and associates with thugs (there are other politicians like that). What is striking is that his followers are with him precisely because of that. Although it seems unbelievable, those who support him insist that he can change this country thanks to his moral superiority.

This is surely an issue for further study. The reason for many thousands of people closely following and celebrating an autocrat and a self-mythologizer as a leader, arguing that moral superiority, deserves a deep investigation. How they manage to reconcile the supposed democratic character of the leader with his authoritarian actions, how they can believe in the affirmations of a demonstrated liar, how they can think a person who has been demonstrated a person very close to corruption will confront corruption, those are all great mysteries.

The hypothesis that best explains this phenomenon, it seems to me, is the conversation of the señor López Obrador in a "mythic hero" on the part of his followers. For them, it's not important what he does, but rather what he represents, and therefore his actions aren't evaluated on their own terms, but rather with respect to utopia, which in this case is a sort of recovery of revolutionary national in the abstract. And because his actions don't make sense on the merits, they are not bound by legality. That's why the señor López Obrador and his followers live on the margin of the law: they block roads, they impede Congressional sessions, they publicize the image of their leader despite the spirit of the electoral law. Nothing matters, because the reality is irrelevent, the only thing that exists is the utopia.

Notes on Mexico State

The PRI says it will not legally challenge Alejandro Encinas' fulfillment of the residency requirement to run for governor. That doesn't mean, of course, that they can't bring it up time and again in search of political gain, so it will be interesting to see what tactic they take on that.

Also, the SME says it has an agreement with Alejandro Encinas and AMLO for Mexico State and the presidency in 2012. If they win, SME boss Martín Esparza says, they will revive LyFC. This should make even a de facto agreement with the PAN a little trickier in Mexico State. It also provides another piece of evidence of how it is that PAN leaders think that winning by piggy-backing on Encinas than losing with their own candidate, along with Encinas, to Eruviel Ávila. There is just a huge gap between the goals, philosophy, and political ideals of Encinas et al on one hand, and the PAN on the others.

Friday, April 15, 2011

One of Juan Francisco Sicilia's Murderers Caught

One of the men allegedly involved in the murder of Juan Francisco Sicilia and six buddies was arrested by the army today, after being picked up and left tied in a pickup truck by a rival gang, who then informed the local military base of his whereabouts. The suspect said that Sicilia and his friends intervened when a member of his gang was harassing a woman in a bar, which led to a confrontation and, eventually, their murder.

AMLO on the Army

The WikiLeaks revelation that AMLO had a plan to use the army in domestic security in 2006 doesn't shock me all that much. I don't remember him calling for the immediate removal of the army, and his anti-Calderón rhetoric has really not focused all that much on security, especially compared to the outsized role given to insecurity in the overall anti-Calderón narrative in Mexico. It does, however, show the paucity of options when it comes to insecurity. AMLO pointed out to American Ambassador Tony Garza that the military, while imperfect, was more honest and capable than the PGR. That hasn't changed, and whoever replaces Calderón will face that same dilemma.

Troops to Tamaulipas

The governor of the Tamaulipas, where the total of bodies found in mass graves in San Fernando has risen to 145, announced that the federal government had agreed to three new military deployments in the state: one in Mier, one San Fernando, and another Mante. The troops will be given a 2,000-peso bonus for serving in the region, which seems comparable to combat bonuses in the US army, though I don't remember about their use in Mexico before. As Juárez has shown, the mere presence of the army alone doesn't mean much, but mass kidnappings should hopefully be a little easier for troops to stifle than is anarchy in large portions of a 1.3 million-person city.

Also, 16 local cops have been detained for allegedly protecting the Zetas who are believed to be responsible for the massacres.

On Washing Dirty Cash

Shannon O'Neil had a really worthwhile piece about trade-based money-laundering earlier this week:

At the Mexican port of Lázaro Cárdenas, containers arrive from China laden with toys and electronics. Some never make it into the hands of customers: they are dumped as worthless merchandise. Their value, instead, lies in a simple bill of sale that allows the buyers – drug trafficking organizations and organized crime syndicates – to launder billions of funds through seemingly legitimate trade.

Drug-related money laundering conjures up images of plastic-wrapped bundles of $20 or $100 bills stashed in car tires and dashboards, or hauled across the U.S.-Mexico border in semi-trailers. It includes tales of storied banks moving billions in sophisticated operations and entangles Western Union and other money transfer companies in the flow of profits south. Some worry that prepaid cards or even “virtual worlds” will be the new avenues for illegally moving billions and billions of dollars.

But trade-based money laundering is likely where the real money is. Less understood and perhaps more pernicious, this includes the stereotypical restaurant that never seems to serve any customers, except for a few toughs at the back table, but “rakes in” profits. But it is much more than that. It can involve jewelry stores, textile factories, travel agencies, or car dealerships. Any type of trade across borders is a potential opportunity for nefarious transactions, buried among the billions of legal ones.

For what it's worth, the most notorious money-launderers in Torreón, at least according to the word on the street, were also really successful businesses, especially nightclubs and car dealerships. There were a couple that were always empty yet stayed open for years, but more common were the ones that would have made money with or without the dirty cash flowing through. I can only imagine the huge volume of legitimate sales makes it harder to identify a place as a money-laundry.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chapo Down Under

The Australian Crime Commission says that Chapo Guzmán is the major cocaine supplier in that country. This comes months after the newspaper The Age reported that Guzmán smuggles 500 kilos into the country every month. The ACC also points out that despite the distance, the fact that Australians are prolific users of illegal drugs and prices there are far higher in Australia than in other developed nations makes the market an attractive one for global networks. I'm not sue when it all started, Mexicans have been getting detained in Australia for drug trafficking with some regularity since at least 2008.

Two Points from Dresser's Speech

I still haven't watched Denise Dresser's speech from the Wilson Center the other day (and I may not; even good speeches are invariably boring, unless they are less than five minutes or they are about you), but I did catch Boz's summary, which is the next best thing. Two points leap out at me:
  • While the audience was probably more interested in the drugs and politics issues, it was the systemic criticisms that Dresser clearly cares most about. She said the power brokers in Mexico, the corporations, unions and political parties, have blocked reforms that are necessary for democracy. She said the PAN, instead of reforming the problems the PRI created in the Mexican system, had become a "less effective version of the PRI." She said Mexico's political reforms in the 1990's had created rotation and competition among the political parties but failed to make them representative or accountable to the population.
  • Dresser indicated that Mexico needs a progressive movement to break up the power structures similar to the era President Teddy Roosevelt in the US.
The second point is a pretty good sketch of what Mexico has lacked in its presidents. With regard to monopolies and entrenched powers, Calderón has a mixed record. He went after the SME, but did nothing on the SNTE, leaves a media environment not markedly different from the one he inherited, has not loosened up the Telecom industry a great deal, et cetera. But even had he been wholly committed to the cause, he did not have a political coalition to really make an assault on all the concentrations of power, nor did he have Roosevelt's charisma or talent in order to build one. The only politician who has had that talent in recent history was probably Salinas, but he was only interested in the special interests that threatened him, i.e. the SNTE of Carlos Jonguitud Barrios.

However, I think the bolded sentence from the first point couldn't be more incorrect. It's a comment that gets made with great frequency. As a bit of hyperbole, it's harmless, but as a serious analysis, it is simplistic and flawed. Mexico had a self-imposed financial crisis every five years or so under the PRI, as of the 1970s. The PRI massacred hundreds of protesting citizens in 1968. The PRI mastered electoral fraud, and demonstrated their mastery on a regular basis. The PRI launched a campaign of murder against the leftist opposition when the PRD was formed, in which resulted in hundreds of dead activists.

It's fair to say that the PAN hasn't gone far enough to dismantle the PRI's governing structures, but that's very different from saying the Calderón and Fox, for all their flaws, have been worse than an authoritarian regime that clung to power for 70 years. Mexico has not reached its potential over the past decade, but if you value democracy, competent macroeconomic policies, and some semblance of liberalism (i.e. the federal government not systematically killing its constituents*), the PAN presidencies have been significantly better. There is a danger once you get a bit of distance from an authoritarian regime to remember it in a far more benign light than it deserves. This should be resisted as much as possible. Cheapening the awful legacy of authoritarian regimes makes it easier for such policies to resurface.

*The deaths from organized crime complicate this assertion a tad. The big difference in my eyes is that the deaths at the hands of government agents related to organized crime are not the product of Los Pinos (at least, not as far as we know), but rather local officials and incompetence. Under the PRI, the highest levels of the executive orchestrated mass murder. This is a bit of a simplification, but it's like the difference between weakness and evil. The results may look similar at times, but the latter is morally worse and more dangerous.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


A recent story from the Christian Science Monitor has the following headline and subhead:
Mexico drug war's latest victim: the lime

The lime, a staple of Mexico's taco culture, quadrupled in price to almost $4 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in December and January, with drug traffickers blamed for meddling in the supply chain.
Immediately, skeptical brains should wonder: a four-fold increase in price because of a long-existing mafia problem? Hmmm. As it turns out, here's the most robust piece of statistical support for the initial assertion, which appears in the lead sentence:
Tania Tamayo's family of farmers coughs up 800 pesos ($66) to local drug traffickers for every truckload of limes they ship from the violent state of Michoacán, which supplies most of Mexico's lime market in the winter months.
I don't how many kilos of limes constitute a truckload, but I will offer the very conservative estimate of 500. Even if the entire burden of the extortion was passed off to the consumer (unlikely, though demand elasticity is like quite low, because what else are you going to out on your tacos?), the price of limes in that truck would not move more than a couple of pesos as a result. You'd need truckloads of roughly 20 kilos for such a tax to provoke such a drastic increase. In other words, the thesis presented in the headline seems to be crap, though it's more exciting than information about this year's crop yields.

Here's another "supporting" quote from a Mexican official:
"There are security costs that companies have had to absorb," acknowledges Beatriz Léycegui, deputy minister at Mexico's Economy Ministry.
Unfortunately for the strength of the piece, this quote doesn't say anything like the piece's thesis is, i.e. that insecurity has caused the price of limes to quadruple in Mexico City. Yes, insecurity imposes costs on businesses in Mexico. That is a well known and relatively banal point. That doesn't mean it causes basic commodities to quadruple in price.

Insecurity imposes a hell of a cost on the society, in ways both and measurable and hidden. But it is not the entire country, and it doesn't cause everything. Stories like these, which are probably just a function of people scrambling for new ways to cover a big story that doesn't have that many new angles, are doubly misleading, because they not only make the problem seem bigger than it is, they also distract us from the actual symptoms and the ways to combat them.

End of an Era

The last of the Michoacán officials arrested in the michoacanazo in May 2009 has been released. Thus ends one of the most embarrassing episodes of the Calderón presidency, about which we still don't have a satisfying explanation.

Local Boy Does Well Abroad

Excélsior celebrated Chicharito's goal-scoring performance in the defeat over Chelsea yesterday with the above banner at the top of its front page. Of all the goal scorers with ten goals or more in Italy, England, and Spain, I wonder if there is one who has a smaller average distance from the net on his scores than Hernández. I don't mean to discount his success, because finding space is certainly a talent and he fills a role at Man Utd. that no one else has been able to, but it is striking how many of his goals have been point-blank or close to it. A lot of the goals he scored with Chivas and certainly the World Cup strike against Argentina suggest the potentially for more dazzling goals, but for now I imagine Sir Alex is content to let him scoop up what he can right around the net.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

San Fernando Update

Dozens more bodies have been found in mass graves in San Fernando, bringing the total up to 120 murder victims found since last week. The first two bodies, belonging to a Guatemalan and a resident of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, have been identified. Many of the murdered are suspected to be residents of Guanajuato who have gone missing in recent weeks. The governor of Tamaulipas, Egidio Torre Cantú, has gone to Mexico City to talk about the situation with José Francisco Blake.

More than 200 people have been found in mass graves in two different episodes in less than a year. The first time, the victims were migrants; the second, they were pulled off of commuter buses traveling through the region. The same group, the Zetas, was behind both of them.

Americans Talking Up the Mexican Threat

For the past two days, El Universal has run two cover stories about US officials trumping up the threat of Mexican gangs in the US. They are running the criminal show in 230 cities around the country, according to the State Department's Roberta Jacobson. Or, they are controlling the drug market in 143 American cities but have a presence in a total of 1,286, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. In response to this claim (the gist of which is not new), I'll quote myself writing about Los Angeles, though the logic applies across the nation:
[A]lthough there certainly are ample amounts of Mexican drugs in Los Angeles, and surely there are a handful of representatives of some of the most powerful gangs in Mexico, the context in which this is presented is quite misleading. When you talk about seven different Mexican drug gangs fighting it out for control of a city, the images that are called to mind are of car-bombs or mass executions. Yet, there is absolutely no reason to think that LA officials should spend much of their day worrying about that eventuality. Furthermore, any global smuggling network, a label that includes the suppliers of a huge quantity of drugs consumed in the US, will necessarily have to include local distributors. They, in turn, must have a relationship with the foreign suppliers. While these foreign suppliers often have deservedly scary reputations, their linking up with American street gangs to distribute their merchandise does not mean that the Mexican drug wars are going to be fought out on the streets of LA, or any other city. Until we have evidence of something more sinister, all that the people in the article are describing is a black-market supply chain, not the mass invasion of Los Angeles by Mexican drug thugs.
That's not to say that there are no dangerous Mexican smugglers in the US, but I would stake my life savings (or, even more riskily, the couch I am perched upon) on the fact that Mexican gangs do not control criminal activity or even retail drug sales in 230 American cities. Indeed, I'd be shocked if they controlled even a single American city to anything like the degree that they do Torreón or Matamoros.

There is always going to be tendency of experts on any given ill to lose sight of the forest and overstate the size of the threat. This is made far worse because of budgetary incentives: the department that succeeds in trumping up the potential danger of the threat is rewarded with a bigger budget.

Taking this and the previous post in tandem, it has been a bad day for clear-headed thinking on the part of American officials.

Congresswoman Embarrasses Herself. Blogger Worries about the Future of the Republic

In an interview with Fox News regarding Mexican security, Congresswoman Kay Granger declares that "My subcommittee was there and foreign operations. I served on the Homeland Security committee. I know what I'm talking about." She later says, "You can't make progress if you're not clear about the problem is."

Sandwiched between those two remarks was the assertion that the biggest difference between Mexico and Colombia from 20 years ago is that the former is more violent. For the record, homicide rates in Colombia in the 1990s were several times what they are today in Mexico. Indeed murder rates in Colombia today are greater than what they are in Mexico. So I guess we shouldn't look for any progress coming from Rep. Granger.

Minutes later, she also refers to the Meredith Initiative, according to the transcript, although it seemed like just a case of stumbling over a foreign word rather than ignorance. Less tolerably, she brought up the Mérida Initiative to support her affirmative answer to a question about whether Congress had given Janet Napolitano all the funding she needs to ensure border safety. This is odd because Napolitano heads an American cabinet agency and doesn't get her money from foreign aid packages. It's also odd because the Mérida Initiative funding has been reduced significantly since it was originally passed.

I don't expect a Congressman to have a detailed knowledge of all foreign countries, but Mexico is an important one, and those pieces of info --the name and status of our four-year-old aid package and the level of violence relative to other nations-- are two of the first questions you should be asking about it. If you can't get that right, well, you should keep any comments on Mexico restricted to private conversations. Also, you probably shouldn't be chairing subcommittees that have anything to with Mexican security.

Furthermore, when asked what the solution was, she had zero suggestions.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More on the Protests

Jorge Chabat makes a couple of really good points in his most recent column:
What is most striking is that the letter from Sicilia, stemming from the lamentable murder of his son and various others, is that it is directed to "politicians and criminals", perhaps because the author assumes that the action of the politicians is not sufficient. Perhaps for the same reason the Diario de Juárez a few months ago made its public call to the criminals so that they would tell them what they wanted so as to stop killing their reporters. In other words, the society intuits that the state is no longer a trustworthy interlocutor and that you have to talk with the criminals, to see if the situation improves that way. That tells us the size of the crisis in the country. The only interlocutor should be the state.
What is needed is to channel the discontent to more concrete steps. The disaffection with the political system should carry us to establish mechanisms for accountability and carrots and sticks for the political class, such as the possibility of the immediate reelection. That is a concrete proposal. Along those lines, the protests against violence should concentrate on improving the Mexican state: pressing so that all the police in the country are certified, so that the judicial reform is implemented, so that protocols are established for the use force for all the force tasked with combating organized crime and therefore human rights abuses are avoided.

Protests have to be anchored to concrete measures. Only then will the ire and indignation of the citizens not evaporate...
This last bit is what is most flawed with the recent demonstrations. Part of this is just a function of the problem: many protest-inducing issues (second-class citizenship of African-Americans, the recent Mubarak protests) have relatively simple solutions. Crime in Mexico, unfortunately, does not, so using the anger to engineer a specific response is tough. But it's also a function of this particular spate of demonstrations. I have criticized the agreement that eventually resulted from Iluminemos México for a similar though not as severe ignorance of concrete goals, but the fact that the leaders actually had something approaching a policy change in mind is admirable. In contrast, this latest wave seems much more a roar in a vacuum. The emotion is genuine and justified, but is likely to be more limited in its impact.

From Overly Optimistic to Not Optimistic Enough

I mentioned over the course of the crisis how the government's growth projections were consistently more optimistic than the reality, which isn't that much of a shocker. However, it does surprise me to see that with Mexico once again growing, the pattern seems to have reversed, at least to an extent. Days after the Calderón administration projected growth of 4.2 percent, the IMF pegged its 2011 forecast for Mexico at 4.6 percent. I wonder how much of this is related to Carstens being replaced by Cordero.

Displacement in Mexico

This is unsettling:
Just after Christmas, drug hitmen rolled into the isolated village of Tierras Coloradas and burned it down, leaving more than 150 people, mostly children, homeless in the raw mountain winter.

The residents, Tepehuan Indians who speak Spanish as a second language and have no electricity or running water, had already fled into the woods, sleeping under trees or hiding in caves after a raid by a feared drug gang on December 26.


In the northern states of Durango, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, cartels fighting for control of lucrative smuggling routes to the United States have threatened entire towns with ultimatums to flee or be killed.

No official numbers exist, but the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, or IDMC, estimates 115,000 people have been displaced by Mexico's drug violence.

Another 115,000 or more have fled and slipped into the United States, IDMC says. Some leave and then move back, creating a floating population that is hard to track.
It strikes me that it can be hard to pin down categories regarding displacement and flight from crime. If you are told to leave town or you'll be killed and you subsequently do so, you are clearly displaced (and smart). If you leave town without being told to do so but to escape extortion, I imagine that qualifies as fleeing crime. But the line gets a little fuzzy further down that slope. Suppose you receive a job offer in another town, the job is a bit better than your present one and the city is a bit safer. You decide to move in part because of the crime, but even if the cities were the same in terms of security, the move would still be a coin flip. In this case, crime played a role in your thinking, but at the same time it didn't quite drive you out of your town. Did you flee? Probably not, but you can see how the definitions aren't crystal clear.

When Speed Fails

There was an interesting piece from ESPN about the importance of the what the Brits call pace last week:
Pace and explosiveness can launch a player into a team, but their gifts can blight in the long run. If you're a very good player, and you happen to have pace, then you can become a great. If you're a quick player and nothing more than that, then when your spark goes and you can't change, you can jog on.


Zinedine Zidane wasn't slow at the start of career, but always clearly better than his pace would suggest. John Sheridan was a flair player without speed before the Premier League became a global product. Andres Iniesta is no slouch, but his genius resides in his head rather than his muscles.

As impressive are the players who start a career off the back of blistering pace, and remain at the top until they retire. This might also be the hardest career to build - any player can be born with pace, but few become vital to a team in their thirties.

Ryan Giggs is celebrated for maintaining a career at Manchester United, praised for transforming himself from greyhound in the '90s to grey and vital in the next decade. A visceral player before the turn of the millennium, he then became more intelligent, effective and consistent.

Adjusting to the imitations imposed by age is an issue in virtually every human pursuit, but basketball seems the other sport where this is a particularly huge challenge. Some guys, namely Jordan with his fadeaway jumper, are differently though equally dominant when their physical skills begin to go. Others --Iverson comes to mind, but there's surely a better example-- can't make the switch so successfully, and their impact drops in direct proportion to their athletic prowess.

Behind the Murder of Sicilia's Son, and Sicilia's Plea

Javier Sicilia's son, whose death with six friends and he subsequent plea for peace from Sicilia sparked the protests last week, was killed by the Pacific South Cartel, according to Morelos authorities. The initial reports were that it was the Gulf Cartel.

Also, Sicilia issued a statement directed at the drug gangs:
Return to your honor codes, I want you to tell us if you are willing to respect us as a population; if you are not going to kill us, you are not going to screw with us, you are not going to sow terror in the nation, you are not going to kill our children. Let us not in a decent way, if you like with mantas, but not with corpses, through networks on the web, with calls to the press, however you want, but let us know if you are willing, as we ask the army to protect us.
This could be interesting, because many gangs have not been entirely unresponsive to public shaming. That's why many of the mantas seek to shift blame for particularly provocative crimes to other groups. And eventually, if Mexico is to become safer, the gangs will have to adopt a more defensive MO with regard to the society at large, much like what Sicilia is laying out here. However, it seems unlikely that there will be a sudden shift on the part of organized crime. While individual gangs do seem to pay attention to public opinion in spurts, in the long term, the industry as a whole seems largely immune to public scorn. I suspect it won't be a sudden decision on the part of the underworld, which is far to diverse to make collective decisions about behavioral norms, that drives the change in the criminal behavior, but rather a gradual shift over many years.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

An Argument against Removing the Military from the Stage

Alfonso Zárate on the demands for the military to return to the barracks:
It is said that the work of the military has to do with national security and not public security; it's true, but it also omits that a long time ago public security flooded the banks and turned into an issue of national security, which is to say, a threat to the institutions of the republic.

Some argue that the soldiers are poorly trained to play the role of police, but they forget that the police are even worse; not only that, but many commanders and police personnel are in the service of the cartels. Is it necessary to refresh the memory? In the attack on Minerva Bautista, then the secretary of public security in Michoacán, the commanders remained impassive despite the calls for support, awaiting the death of their superior; recently, in Monterrey, two criminals recovered the body of a murdered man, before the inaction of the municipal police; in one out of every two documented cases of kidnapping, an active or retired police officer is involved...

Do we want to leave public security in their hands? Returning the soldiers to the barracks implies surrendering space to the criminals that today kidnap, extort, smuggle people and murder not only their enemies, but people who have nothing to do with their criminal business.


The Federal Police --the seed of a professional police force-- has just 34,000 agents, roughly 10 percent of the officers that make up the local and state police. This implies that, even while maintaining programs of renovation, recruiting, and technical training, there won't be results in the short term. Much less when you take into account this disturbing fact: the resistance of the majority of the state governors to the "certification" of their commanders, which is to say, submitting them to controls of honesty.

I don't share the idea of returning the soldiers to their barracks. Their presence in the cities, highways, and rural areas isn't the whim of the politicians, but rather a necessity of the state before the existence of criminal power. But this doesn't mean handing them a blank check. We are obligated to demand that the armed forces put into practice very rigorous mechanisms and protocols so that the conduct of soldiers and marines in security tasks abides by the most scrupulous respect for human rights. The integrity of the armed forces demands a robust effort on this issue.

Lula on Mexico's Oil Industry

Evidently, the ex-president of Brazil, whose state oil company is widely considered the best run in Latin America, told a conference in Acapulco that Mexico shouldn't fear the participation of private businesses in its oil industries.

Update: More here from Aguachile.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Is It a Sea Change?

Al Giordano of NarcoNews on the protests this Wednesday:
A sea change has occurred in Mexican public opinion. The people have turned definitively against the use of the Mexican Army to combat against drug traffickers. The cry from every city square yesterday was for the Army to return to its barracks and go back to doing the job it was formed to do; protect Mexico from foreign invasion and provide human aid relief in case of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Since President Felipe Calderón unleashed the Armed Forces, four years ago, to combat drug trafficking organizations, the violence between it and the competing narco organizations has led to a daily body count, widespread human rights abuses against civilians, and more than 40,000 deaths, so many of them of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and used by all sides in the armed conflict that still has no winners, that never will have any winner.
Giordano was there, and I wasn't. Plus, he lives in Mexico (I think), and I've been in the US since late July. So he's got that going for him. Nonetheless, I am skeptical of the sea change hypothesis. One reason is that the protests weren't actually that large. The marches this week managed to pull together 8,000 or 10,000 people in Mexico City, another 10,000 in Morelos, and lower numbers in many other cities. In contrast, the Iluminemos México march in 2008 had hundreds of thousands of marchers in Mexico City alone, and tens of thousands in other cities (indeed, in other countries). Some 250,000 marched against insecurity in Mexico City 2004. With the recent march being a less attended repetition of previous events, which also failed to be definitive turning points, it's hard to see why this one specifically is going to mark a change in direction.

Second, the polls don't yet support the notion. A September poll from BGC had 88 percent supporting a strong anti-drug policy. Mitofsky showed 74 percent in favor of the army being deployed in domestic police tasks last April. Pew had 80 percent responding in the affirmative to the same question in an August report from the Global Attitudes Project. If this march really was the turning point, of course, it will take a while to show up in polls, which we should keep an eye on. However, support for the army in the streets would have to fall a long way to support the hypothesis that the public is together calling for the immediate return of the troops to the barracks. However, one poll that might offer a hint of growing hostility: Mitofksy's approval rating for Calderón, which had been mostly stable for the last few months, dipped below 50 percent for the first time in his presidency in March.

Lastly, I haven't seen much change on the opinion pages. It seems like everyone has the same opinion they did a week ago, with the opposition to Calderón concentrated among the same voices it was previously. While this an imperfect barometer, you'd expect some big-time centrists, a la Cronkite with Vietnam, to get swept along with the tide of opposition.

Why Specific Criticisms Are Better

I mentioned yesterday that the opposition tendency toward the widest possible attack on Calderón's policies --i.e., all the violence is his fault, this is his war, he's in bed with Chapo-- limits its ability to modify his policies in smaller ways. For instance, a persistent complaint from media critics and their political allies about the weakness of, say, government money-laundering efforts would likely have provoked more aggressive attacks on dirty cash. To take another example, the same is true of constructing more prisons. Unfortunately, the opposition to Calderón spends most of its rhetoric on mere sloganeering.

Calderón's comment yesterday that since no one can suggest a better strategy, he will continue with his own, is a pretty good reflection of that. Of course, there have been suggestions of specific policy adjustments to Calderón's policy over the past four years (here's mine), but the calls to "end the war" and the like have been much more common, and they don't amount to a sustainable strategic alternative so much as a series of mottos, which makes it easier to Calderón to get away with comments like the above.

Pascual: No Hurt Feelings

In what I believe is his first interview with the media since submitting his resignation, ex-Ambassador-to-be Carlos Pascual spoke to Milenio about his ouster earlier this week:
Feelings have nothing to do with feelings between nations. What we have to focus on here are the national interests and when I eventually go, I will go recognizing that the two countries have, want to, and will continue to continue putting the national interests of Mexico and United States above [feelings]. That's what we must focus on so as to serve the interests of the citizens in both nations.
He then cut the interview short with tears rolling down his cheeks.

Accusing the DEA

Lawyers for Vicente Zambada, son of el Mayo, said in a Chicago courtroom that the criminal activities with which he is charged were carried out with the knowledge and complicity of the DEA, FBI, and ICE. This is not the first time charges of this kind have emerged, and it's pretty easy to see how the line between target and informant could get a little blurry. Hopefully, this trial will offer the chance to learn a bit more about how US law enforcement does business in Mexico today. This was famously not the case with Osiel Cárdenas's trial.

Questioning the Viability of a Narco Pact

Miguel Carbonell doesn't think a pact with the drug trade could work:
There is where it gets very complicated to follow Sicilia [and his proposal to forge a peace pact with the capos]. I don't see how or in what way the Mexico state could pact an end to the violence. Would all the big capos have to be seated around a table and sign a sort of contract or agreement of good faith? Who would participate: el Chapo, el Mayo, el Lazca? Their representatives, their chief hit men? Would the agreement take into account the bands of kidnappers and those who charge extortion in many cities in the North of the country?

There is no doubt that the President Calderón deserves to be questioned for the scale of violence in recent years and that we must always have the wisdom to change direction when the one we are on is not taking us to desirable results, but the idea that the state pact with criminals seems to me an unacceptable capitulation.

How do you explain it to the victims of their crimes? How would those who have seen their children kidnapped feel when they see the secretary of public security at the table with the chief of a band or a dangerous hit man? Is that the image we want to project about the future of the country?
And beyond the unseemliness of it, how is it workable? More on that topic from me, here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ackerman v. Gómez

Yesterday's anti-crime marches in Mexico (background on that here) has led to an entertaining set-to between John Ackerman and Ciro Gómez Leyva, each of them taking shots at the other's most recent movement (No More Blood for Ackerman, the Iniciativa México media agreement for Leyva). Ackerman closes his rebuttal with the following:
At the end of his column the journalist asks me a question: "And after the marches, what do we do then?" I will answer. Direct our efforts toward the full democratization of the electronic media outlets so as to assure the public presence of the great plurality of voices and perspectives that characterize our society. The indignation of those that marched this Wednesday isn't directed only at the government, the parties, and the criminals, but also at the great media oligopolies that have us sick of so much lying and disinformation.
Here was a pretty good chance for one of Calderón's more prominent critics to do offer a more pointed criticism, and I'm not really sure what specifically Ackerman is proposing here. Nor am I sure why he thought the answer to the question lies primarily with changing the media. At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, it's striking that Calderón's more strident adversaries often don't offer much in the way of specific policy alternatives. And it's not for lack of opportunity--there's plenty of stuff that should be changed in Calderón's approach. But for whatever reason, the preferred terrain is the simplicity of "Calderón's war" and the like. That's a useful line of political attack, but it dominates the opposition narrative way too much. It's too much bludgeon, not enough scalpel. Insofar as a loyal opposition can moderate the worst tendencies of the government, the incessant broadsides, which are pretty easy to tune out, instead of specific complaints, which are less so, are counterproductive from a policy standpoint.

Also, Ackerman, continuing his habitual lack of proportion, referred to Iniciativa México as "totalitarian" the other day. You can read a straight-ahead take on the agreement here; you tell me if you see Stalin lurking between the lines.

A Story You've Read Before: Huge Bust in Manzanillo

For the fourth time in just over a year and a half, there was a huge bust of meth precursor chemicals in Manzanillo, with a seizure of 38 tons worth announced earlier today. This follows a 20-ton seizure in September of 2009, and two 80-ton busts in May of last year. There have also been lots of smaller seizures of several hundred pounds or a few tons here and there. So if more than 200 tons are getting seized every 18 months in just Manzanillo, how much is getting through in all of the nation's ports?

Bad Idea

The renewed efforts to end the right of citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the United States seem unlikely to pass, which is thankful. This law would likely result in the expulsion of adult residents who lived their entire lives in the United States to another country with which they have only the most tenuous connection. I honestly can't fathom the mindset of someone who thinks that's an appropriate approach to illegal immigration. The people in such a situation, who were of course born and raised in the US through no decision of their own, would be forced to find work, a place to live, and, if they are lucky, friends, spouses, and all that other stuff just a bit further down Maslow's pyramid, in what is likely to be a completely alien culture. That is a really ugly, unfortunate outcome for the people in question; imagine being forced to move to El Salvador or Bangladesh tomorrow because of something your parents did before you were born. To intentionally engineer that outcome strikes me as obscenely immoral.

I suppose that the idea is that such a result will be very rare, and the threat to deport adults born in the US will more than anything serve as a deterrent. However, the deterrent would have to be exercised to be credible. Furthermore, to be useful on its own terms, it would have to disincentive something presently motivating immigrants to come to the US; I'm pretty skeptical that anything beyond a very small minority of the undocumented population in the US was motivated by the desire to come to the US, have babies, and use them as a way to stick around legally. Most people don't think that far in advance.

Paco Stanley's Alleged Murderer Arrested

One of the more notorious crimes in the late 1990s Mexican crime surge was the murder of TV personality Paco Stanley in Mexico City in 1999. His alleged murderer, José Luis Salazar, was captured by the army yesterday in Tijuana, with kidnapped man in his possession. He also had five AK-47s in the house where he was found.

Update: El Universal says his name is Luis Alberto Salazar, not José Luis as Excélsior had said. Both agree that his nom de narco is El Bolas.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Deja Vu in Tamaulipas

Authorities in Tamaulipas are reporting the discovery of mass graves in San Fernando, the same municipality where the 72 migrants were executed last August in one of the most horrific incidents of the Calderón presidency. So far, 59 bodies have been found in 8 common graves. Additionally, 11 people involved in the killings have been arrested. The state attorney general described the operation to arrest these people as being a coordinated federal and state effort of the sort you rarely read about in Mexico. Good for them for working together, assuming that's true.

But how is it possible that in the exact same town as the worst massacre in recent memory in Mexico, the level of governmental attention is such that what might be the second worst massacre occurs barely six months later? You would hope that the response to the initial episode would at the very least be sufficient to make the criminal groups change up their operations a bit, if not discontinue mass killings altogether. This crime makes it seem as though, following the August killings, business continued basically unchanged.

Cash for Money-Laundering Tips

Earlier this week, the PGR announced a plan to give 25 percent of the value of confiscated assets used in money laundering to the person who made the denunciation. This could be a good idea, although a lot depends on the details of how it is applied. Or if it is applied, for that matter: the Ley de Extinción de Dominio was a good idea, too, but the big complaint is that the government has done little with it since its passage in 2009. And it seems like more than anything the lack of money-laundering cases in Mexico isn't the product of a lack of leads, but a lack of will to pursue such cases, especially as they spill over into the part of the economy basically considered legitimate. I'm not sure that this will change that at all.


I was beaten to this story, but it's pretty interesting nonetheless:
Young adult Mexican migrants in the United States are much more likely to suffer depression and anxiety disorders than family members of migrants who remain in Mexico, a new study finds.

Researchers compared the mental health of 259 male and 295 female migrants in the United States with 904 male and 1,615 female non-migrants in Mexico.

"After arrival in the United States, migrants had a significantly higher risk for first onset of any depressive or anxiety disorder than did non-migrant family members of migrants in Mexico," Joshua Breslau, of the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, and colleagues, wrote in a journal news release.

However, this increased risk was limited to those aged 18 to 35, with the greatest risk among those aged 18 to 25.

"The finding that migrants are at a higher risk for onset of depressive and anxiety disorders after migration compared with family members of migrants who remained in Mexico provides the first direct evidence that experiences as a migrant might lead to the onset of clinically significant mental health problems in this population," the researchers wrote.