It’s “like mowing grass,” a former Sinaloa trafficker tells the Economist, describing Mexico’s fight against organized crime. “You can cut it down. But it always grows back.” In a feature this week, the magazine takes us through the Calderón government’s struggling struggle against Mexican cartels. And as the above quote indicates, signs of success are hard to find.
“Gang-related homicides have more than doubled” since the US Defense Dept. issued a controversial report last year, claiming Mexico was on the precipice of “failed state” status -- the second quarter of this year saw more than 4,000 such murders: twice as many as the beginning of last year, and about eight times more than at the beginning of 2007, the Economist reports. Public support for the fight has dropped [Today only one-quarter of Mexicans believe the fight is worth the cost, down from a third three years ago]. And perhaps most worrisome, experts say, is the growing power cartels are exerting over Mexican politics and society. From appropriating “resources and manpower” from old Colombian drug gangs to the control of new distribution networks in the United States to a position of political influence and intimidation, particularly in local politics, the Economist writes today in Mexico it’s “woe betide public figures who do not march to their tune.” [More from the AP yesterday, on the local politics-drug cartel connection]
One of the most dramatic transformations in drug violence has been its arrival at the doorstep of Mexico’s rich. The Economist, like the Wall Street Journal yesterday, looks at the country’s industrial capital of Monterrey. Luis Rubio, head of the Mexico City think-tank CIDAC, calls Monterrey a “decisive battle” in the fight against the cartels. And at least some of the city’s rich and economically power appear to be digging in for the fight. For his part, Mexican building supplies magnate, Lorenzo Zambrano (the focus of the Journal’s report on Monterrey) famously called those who have fled the city “cowards” last summer. Zambrano believes his aggressive rhetoric has helped. His evidence, however, is questionable, at best. In the Wall Street Journal’s interview, Zambrano tells how he measures changing attitudes by way of his Twitter followers:
“What was so wonderful was the response I got. First, I had about 1,500 followers. And now I have about 21,000 and growing.”
At the heart of the cartel problem is a series of more structural concerns – very few of which have been addressed effectively. Corrupt security forces arise out of the fact that “police are treated as second class-citizens,” contends Ernesto Lopez Portillo. He cites the obstacles imposed by the Mexican constitution itself which separates police officers from other civil servants, denying them a “standard minimum wage and the 40-hour weekly work limit.” Similarly, judicial reform has thus far been met with “enormous resistance,” according to the Economist – in no small part due to Mexico’s heavily decentralized federal system of government.
The report suggests that what glimmers of success there have been mainly consist in the arrest or killing of top drug lords. But as discussed here earlier in the week, there are doubts among many drug war analysts that such high profile arrests really amount to any sort of lasting progress. Indeed, as the Economist itself argues, the “weakening of some criminal gangs” may in fact be having the “unforeseen consequence” of “ramping up” cartel recruitment in Northern Mexico’s poorest neighborhoods. And in this week’s New Yorker, William Finnegan has a decidedly different take on the Mexican government’s self-proclaimed “success story”: Tijuana’s police force “purification.” You’ll need a subscription to read Finnegan’s piece in-full but it looks like a good one. “Tijuana is an anomaly,” writes Finnegan in the abstract – “it’s a place where public security has actually improved.” But the price for temporary peace may be very high. Finnegan:
“Purges proceed by their own blinkered logic, particularly when they are conducted by torture, and are themselves subject to corruption. Numerous people said it was all a show. The intended audience was the public and ‘Obama.’ The latter is shorthand for the many U.S. agencies funneling more than a billion dollars into the Mexican government’s anti-drug efforts through the Mérida Initiative.”
To the other-half of the drug story,
· That of the legalization debate. The most recent issue of Mexico’s respected political magazine, Nexos, dedicates itself to the subject this month, coming out strong in favor of legalization. The magazine provides its detailed pro-legalization case here, touching on issues of economy, citizen security, health, and politics. In the United States, meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald argues in favor of Prop. 19 in California (and drug legalization, more broadly) at Politico – using the case study of Portuguese decriminalization as his model [Greenwald was the author of the Cato Institute’s 2009 report on Portuguese decriminalization]. He also has more on the issue at Salon. And in today’s Washington Post, Edward Schumacher-Matos adds his support for California’s Prop. 19. He says Felipe Calderon and US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske are both “missing the forest for the weed” by coming out against the initiative. Calderon may be right that Prop. 19 alone could be “hypocritical,” argues Schumacher-Matos, “but only if you don't see the California referendum for what it is: a step.” And what the findings of the Rand Corp. study really indicate, he argues, is “that more steps away from prohibition need to follow.”
· From Al-Jazeera, news that the UN has extended the mandate of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in Haiti. The Security Council also called for presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for November 28, to be “credible and legitimate”. On that issue, CEPR has more on the letter sent to the State Dept. by 45 members of Congress last week. The writers of that letter argued that “the U.S. should not provide funding” for elections that do not “include all eligible political parties and ready access to voting for all Haitians, including the displaced.” The whole CEPR piece is worth a look and suggests the State Dept. has barely even considered the potential implications of the Nov. 28 vote.
· Fresh off winning a Nobel Prize, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa made a powerful statement this week, arguing other Latin American countries should follow Peru’s example of prosecuting human rights-violating heads of state.
· El País reports that the family of former Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata will be allowed to leave the island for Spain. Zapata’s mother, however, says she will not leave without the “bones and ashes” of her son. Zapata died after an 85-day hunger strike earlier in the year.
· Newsweek reports on the controversy surrounding Alvaro Uribe’s visiting appointment at Georgetown.
· In at the New York Review of Books blog, Lilia Schwarz with more on Brazil’s clown-elect, Tiririca.
· Two opinions on Ecuador. Pablo Espinel, who filled in with our daily briefing list over the summer, has an excellent analysis of the fall-out of the Ecuadorean crisis, at Poder 360. And, at AQ, Lindsay Green-Barber, writes a very critical assessment of media freedom and democracy within Correa’s “citizen’s revolution.”
· On Honduras and the OAS, Honduras Culture and Politics says Sec. General José Miguel Insulza is preparing the release of a new report on the Central American country, to be released within the coming weeks.
· Andres Oppenheimer, in the Miami Herald, on why Peru, in his opinion, is the region’s success story – and potentially the “next Chile.”
· And Speaking of Chile, a final wrap-up of post-miner rescue. The Wall Street Journal says the country is promising serious “labor reform” as well as action against the operators of the now infamous mine. The LA Times blog shows the other side of the mining “miracle” – the major accidents involving mines around Latin America that have gone largely unreported this year. Greg Weeks lists some potential political effects. And Michael Shifter, at Foreign Policy, on one of the unexpected consequences of the incident: the presence of a Chilean and Bolivian president together at a podium after over a century of tenuous relations – perhaps a hopeful signal of a deepening commitment to regional integration?