Thursday, October 20, 2011

New Monterrey Piece

Letras Libres has a new piece on Monterrey, which very long and full of good interviews, and about which I wrote here. Highlights:

Between the Mariano Escobedo Airport, in the industrial municipality of Apodaca, and my hotel in San Pedro Garza Garcia, a bit past 11 at night and after crossing the entire city of Monterrey, I don’t see a single soldier or policeman, despite being just a week after Mexico’s worst attack against the civilian population: the burning of Casino Royale, perpetrated by gunmen who acted with impunity in the broad daylight, where 52 people died. And that will be one of the most unusual constants during this visit. Not even in the interview with the secretary of governance, Javier Treviño, nor with the threatened mayor of Guadalupe, Ivonne Alvarez, nor on the drive around the Barrio Antiguo, not even to enter the Tec [de Monterrey] for a ceremony presided over by two of the most important businessmen in Mexico, no one ever asked me for identification, checked my backpack, nor confirmed that I had an appointment or an invitation.

The explanation for this lack of control was given to me by Jorge Tello Peon, unsalaried cabinet coordinator for security in the Nuevo Leon government. The creator of Cisen, the old collaborator of Fernando Gutierrez Barrios and maybe the man who best understands what goes behind the scenes in Mexico’s security agencies, Tello is emphatic during a breakfast in a restaurant simply named Wall Street: “Nuevo Leon is facing an alarming deficit of police officers.” The systematic clean-ups of officers who are corrupt, if not on the payroll of organized criminal groups, has left the state agencies, and the majority of the municipalities, with negligible numbers. Bernardo Gonzalez-Arechiga, director of the Tec’s Graduate School of Public Administration and an expert on security issues, corroborates the statistics: “Nuevo Leon has less than 8,000 police officers and it should have, given its population and under the UN standards [at least 2.8 police per 1,000 inhabitants], 20,000, and under the Goode standards [which measures the number of losses among the police to calculate the required number], 40,000.” There is a state program in place to build a new police agency, but it’s not easy to recruit. No one wants a job in which you risk your life if you don’t become corrupt. And that’s the case despite conditions having radically improved: the government offers a salary of 14,000 pesos a month with good benefits. The recruiting drive has had to go outside the state and offer housing for those who aren’t residents. Not even that works. Furthermore, the process of incorporating the recruits is inevitably slow. Nothing is more dangerous than recruiting desperate people and giving them a weapon without any training. The Mexican Army knows it, as it confronts the desertion of a significant number of commanders of its special battalions who have turned into leaders of the Zetas. “In February,” Tello tells me as an example, “we fired 30 police, and we need 500 per month.”


With a per capita income of 40,000 dollars, figures above those of Canada, and with more finance and marketing graduates from North American universities than any other place in the world, San Pedro Garza Garcia, in the wooded foothills of the Sierra Madres, has the luxury of starting with the ceiling, as in the house of the mayor. [Mayor Mauricio Fernandez, a wealthy businessman outside of politics, has an exquisitely painted ceiling on the top of his home.] That is, firing all of its police and hiring as many as it needs, comfortably surpassing the indices recommended by the UN. Creating a municipal intelligence agency. Carrying out a scandalous registration of domestic workers. Even the mayor proposes a reduction in the penal minimum age to 12 years. That’s not to mention the rumors running around about a “group of tough guys” at the mayor’s service. With approval ratings of more than 80 percent, according to various polls, Fernandez Garza can brag of zero kidnappings at this point in the year and only two murders, before 40 per week in the rest of the metropolitan area of Monterrey. Obviously, the mayor-sheriff “method” cannot be transplanted.

Part of the success is owed to a historic revenue collection in his first year in office. He discovered that many of the wealthiest men in the city, some of them his neighbors estate to estate, had gone years without paying the predial, the tax that cities charge and that is the most basic for keeping its books in order: “Tricks from their lawyers to justify their jobs,” he tells me to excuse them. And he threatened them with publicizing their delinquency in the social life supplement Sierra Madre, which is edited by El Norte [one of the biggest daily papers in Monterrey] for subscribers from that city. An effective change: one thing is to cheat the tax man, a bothersome abstraction, but quite another to be chewed over at the country club.

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