Thursday, December 23, 2010

The politics of placas

License plates, in combination with make and model, have become very telling here in Narcolandia Lite, aka Guadalajara. Newspaper articles chronicling the weekend's homicides habitually list the plates and details of the cars spotted near the killings. Apparently the sicarios tend to drive often older sedans with out of state plates, which makes sense given that they are usually narcochavos seeking to prove themselves and move up the narcoladder. In general, the more pesado (heavyweight) narcos tend to favor Suburbans and Ford Lobos, to the point that Lobo sales have actually fallen recently because the model is so clearly associated with the narcos. Things get more complicated in a wealthy town with a strong agricultural sector surrounding it, as one must also consider that these models have also been popular with suburban (with a small s) moms and ranchers, albeit for different reasons.  Around the fancy malls and in the wealthy neighborhoods of the ZMG (the greater metropolitan area of GDL, but doesn't it have a nice ring not unlike DMZ?), the combo of plate, make, and model makes for a diverting anthropological game. The Volvo with Sinaloa plates is probably someone here on business, visiting family, or perhaps a refugee fleeing threats of kidnapping or extortion, but the Escalade SUV with the same plates merits at least a raised eyebrow. The Hummers appear to be old money, hijo de papi vehicles of choice, and most sport local plates. But enormous and enormously expensive tricked out SUVs from states like Sinaloa, Michoacan, and even Colima require wide berth and not too much curiosity, even if the windows are too darkened to afford more than a shadowy glimpse of what rides alongside.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Not feeling the cheer: Mexico's minimum wage

Among the more ambitious clauses of the Mexican constitution is Article 123, which mandates the provision of a living wage for Mexican workers. After a predictably nasty legislative battle in the Mexican congress, the government has raised the minimum wage to just under 60 pesos a day. That translates to less than $5 dollars a day (about US$4.80 at current exchange rates, to be more specific, with slight variations by region). Consider that figure, in a country where perhaps half of its citizens work in the informal economy and the narcos can recruit at will from among the so-called ni-ni (those that neither work nor study) and one finds the snow machines at the malls and the Hummers with reindeer ears and the garish decorations of the wealthy neighbors rivaling those in that horrible Tim Allen movie some years ago to make one feel slightly sick to one's eggnog.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Boo to boots on the ground

Edward Schumacher-Matos said the unsayable when he recommended that it was time for Mexican elites and the military to call in the U.S. Marines. Mexican editorialists will be up late tonight, drafting heated replies, and Schumacher-Matos is not wrong to fault them for clinging to a nationalism forged during the nineteenth century in the wake of the U.S.'s devastating show of force, although it's really more a cultural tick, much like our need to compulsively talk about bringing democracy to the world. But Schumacher-Matos is off the mark when he defends Secretary of State Clinton's remark conflating the narcos and a growing (and by the way--nonexistent) insurgency. That's what stuck in the craw of the Mexican intelligentsia, as it is fairly obvious that no one out there in the campo is offering any sort of political alternative a la the guerrilla in Colombia several decades ago, and while the leading narcos occasionally engage in the some populist hospital-building or vigilante justice, neither has anyone been fooled into thinking that the cartels themselves are offering a political alternative. They don't need to, as they are part and parcel of the existing political system, even if Calderon had the poor grace to go and rock the boat by actually aspiring to bring them to justice. It's easy from the comfortable perspective of the U.S. to stand in judgment of the precarious position in which the Mexican state now finds itself. The study Schumacher-Matos cites, on the growing threat that the cartels pose to states within the hemisphere, appears to build on a concept, that of the "captive state," that has been a fashionable alternative to the highly inaccurate notion of the failed one for some time here in Mexico. The corruption issue, the other side of the coin of some (imagined?) debate Schumacher-Matos suggests is occurring in the U.S. on what to do about its southern neighbor, might better be understood as complicity, both willing and coerced, as the influence of the narcos has penetrated virtually every aspect of Mexican life, even if there is still much more than narco-trafficking to Mexico today, a point easily forgotten if one relies upon the U.S. media for one's perspective. But retaining one's honesty and integrity as a public servant, or even as a private citizen today in Mexico is far more complicated than what most gringos can imagine, and in many cases, might well be suicidal if one has been approached by the narcos. Perhaps only someone who takes it at face value that Plan Colombia has indeed succeeded, regardless of the costs (which were not merely financial) or the rather obvious fact that the Colombian cartels still exist, still produce most of the cocaine consumed on the planet through their control of poppy production throughout the Andean countries, and still exert tremendous influence, whether financial or otherwise, within Colombia, can suggest that a few boots on the ground will make the difference here in Mexico.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Modern day "obedezco pero no cumplo"

The phrase "I obey but I do not comply" surfaces in virtually every undergraduate class on colonial Latin America as a means of describing the attitude of colonial officials toward the Spanish crown across the Atlantic who, while loyal to their king, found it sometimes impractical to carry out royal mandates in the colonies. Mexico today suffers from a modern day version of the trope in the sense that this is a nation obsessed with the law at a moment of complete and utter lawlessness. If one attempts to follow the law, or to even use the law to pursue justice in some matter, one will inevitably find oneself bogged down in what most opine is still one of the most inefficient and complicated bureaucracies in Latin America (and that's saying something). Take the Law of Transparency, for example. This law exists to make public institutions accountable, for their spending, for their activities, for their practices, yet using the law in most cases allows the institution in question to appear to comply with the law, by virtue of having followed the procedure dictated by the law, without typically providing any substantive data to the public in the end. Mexicans themselves appear to be suffering from an extreme case of "obedezco pero no cumplo" these days as well, as virtually any citizen will publicly decry the climate of lawlessness that exists in much of the country (with perhaps half of it under the control of the narcos, according to a recent study) but then turn around and contribute to the the general atmosphere of lawlessness by flaunting their disregard for the most quotidian of laws. One could perhaps argue that running red lights or lying about one's taxable income have become the gateway drugs for more serious infractions, like money laundering and the wanton killing of one's fellow citizens.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Krauze's cop out

On the eve of Mexico's bicentennial celebration, Enrique Krauze came out with a predictable editorial in the NYT about Mexico's tendency to explode every hundred years, "In Mexico, a War Every Century". The piece summarizes the social tensions leading to the explosions of violence that morphed first into Mexico's war of independence two centuries ago and then the revolution of the early 20th century with all the ease one would expect of an accomplished historian and writer like Krauze. However, when it comes time to explain Mexico's current descent into violence, Krauze takes the easy way out, blaming Mexico's problems on the U.S. and our insatiable demand for drugs as well as our gun-happy culture, which has clearly facilitated the acquisition of weapons for the narcochavos. These are valid points, but also easily exaggerated ones, especially the former. Historians have long struggled to explain the rise of consumption patterns of items like coffee and tea, sugar, and tobacco, without much success in disentangling the question of supply versus demand as the principal explanation for why mass markets for these products emerged. The drug economy is no easier to explain. Furthermore, the notion that local, state, and federal authorities in the U.S., as well as other elements of society, have stood idly by with respect to the flow of drugs into our country belies common sense for anyone familiar with the huge sums of money, public and private, devoted to counter drug use and addiction.
Krauze also argues that the so-called transition to democracy, another favorite albatross upon which Mexican intellectuals blame a multitude of problems, led to a kind of decentralization that gave rise to a variety of forces within Mexican society, among them the narcos. The transition itself merits a discussion too complex to delve into here, but what is most striking about Krauze's facile explanation of Mexico's current state of narco-terror is the absence of any mention of the frustrated social forces now contending for space, both political and economic, within this country. In the past two decades, Mexico has undergone a remarkable transition, which one could argue owes more to NAFTA than to the fall of the PRI, or perhaps in recent years, to the narco-stimulus provided by money laundering and the move from illegitimate to legitimate businesses on the part of the narco capos. As a result, the middle class has indeed expanded, while at the same time, nearly 45% of the population, according to President Calderon's recent state of the union address, remains in poverty. That contradiction suggests, as has been quite the norm in Mexican history, that this tremendous country has once again managed to achieve growth, but growth with a price. The price lies in the frustrated aspirations of the poor, who in the face of barriers to upward mobility still thrown up on a daily basis by this country's elite, have turned to the narco-economy. Mexico's upper classes still persist in perpetuating the same prejudices of caste, color, name, and education that frustrated the aspirations of the popular classes in the late colonial period and in the late 19th century. And to make matters worse, amidst their cries for greater governmental control, for a culture of legality and transparency, it is those same elites who flaunt their impunity in the face of the law, by continuing to set a poor example in their business practices, their cronyism in politics, and in their lack of common courtesy for people less fortunate than themselves. The social tensions that made possible the rise of the narcos are markedly absent from Krauze's analysis, as is any sense of accountability on the part of those Mexicans most empowered to change it for the better.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hillary beat me to the punch: Mexico's Medellin moment

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested today in a speech given to the Council on Foreign Relations that Mexico appears more and more like Colombia a couple of decades ago. This is a fairly obvious comparison, so the fact that I have been batting this idea around for a couple of weeks but had not yet gotten anything down in writing says less about my own analytical prowess and more about the zeitgeist of the drug war here and analysis of it back in DC. I should credit a New Yorker article by William Finnegan ("Silver or Lead" May 31 2010) for having triggered the thought on my part. His article described the activities of La Familia, a cartel active in Michoacan, whose ability to mete out justice in the stead of a weakened state made me think of a place I used to go to in Colombia, a tiny and beautiful town called San Agustin, in the early 1990s, where the locals described the guerrillas' (the FARC, if memory serves me right) role in very similar terms. In the absence of a fully functioning legal system, sometimes your best bet for dealing with an abusive husband or a petty thief was then and there, the FARC, and here and now, the narcos. Clinton's comparison is a difficult one, however, as the U.S. conflated the guerrilla and narcotraffickers in Colombia long before the guerrilla did indeed cross over into that line of business, for the obvious reasons of seeking a steady source of funding. Twenty, thirty years ago, the guerrilla were a far more respected element within Colombian society and very much at odds with the narcos. The most accurate comparison of Mexico today would be a more local one in Colombia, that of Medellin in the 1980s and 1990s, when the drug lords were duking it out and the common folk paid the price in bodies strewn along the roads on the outskirts of the city every morning (that description comes from a conversation with a taxi driver on such a road in that very same city, circa 1995). The guerrilla in Colombia then operated in different zones than the narcos rather than overlapping ones, although they have since taken the low road of kidnapping and narco-trafficking, and as a result, their politics have become murkier but their links to the narcos clearer. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments here, and by here I mean around Guadalajara, is the emergence of a narco-gang promoting some sort of political agenda, moving in apparently the opposite direction of the guerrilla in Colombia, from criminal activities to social activism. More on this to come....

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Only a matter of time?

According to a new article in Proceso, "Explosion de violencia", the rate of narco-executions in the greater metropolitan area of Guadalajara has risen to 60 in the last month, in comparison to a total of 84 for all of 2009. The spike appears to be related to the death of Nacho Coronel, of the Sinaloa cartel, here in the city at the end of July. The ensuing power struggle has been accompanied by a slew of problems with and for the local police, who are both victims and accomplices of such violence.
Guadalajara has long been sheltered from the narco-violence shattering other regions of the country, but at the same time, that does not mean that this is untainted ground. Rather, Guadalajara was a kind of safe zone, where the Sinaloan cartel held the peace, and narco-families, at least the wives and children and perhaps a few other relatives, could enjoy the good schools and relative calm of the city. As I noted in the previous post, there are plenty of signs that the narcos are happily disposed to spend money here too. Since Nacho's death a month or so ago, all the speculation has been about whether or not GDL would go the way of Monterrey, once one of Mexico's premier cities in terms of industry, medicine, and overall development. So far, the violence in GDL has not appeared to make much of a mark in the city's more prosperous neighborhoods, as it has for some time in Monterrey (imagine sitting at a posh restaurant at your neighborhood mall and seeing a lawyer shot at a nearby table while you were eating lunch). But unfortunately for Guadalajara, it may be a matter of when rather than whether or not that slide into "la inseguridad" begins.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

GDL's construction boom: legit or lavado de dinero?

Mexico was hit particularly hard by the recent/ongoing recession in the U.S. because of its symbiotic relationship with our economy. We drive a good part of the Mexican economy through our consumption of agricultural products and manufactures. Gringos also make up the majority of the international tourist market here in Mexico lindo, and when American families cut back on vacations, Mexico really feels the pinch. The recession was additionally hard for our neighbor to the south because of its dependence upon remittances, the money that immigrants send back home to families in Mexico. As their jobs disappeared, Mexican families on both sides of the border have suffered.
So, in the midst of economic crisis, how does one explain Guadalajara's apparently booming construction industry? One sees high-rise office buildings and apartments, condos, exclusive gated communities, upscale restaurants and commerical plazas in the works all over the city. Where has all this investment come from during such hard economic times? There are likely a number of sources of capital for these projects, some legitimate, others not. Guadalajara is one of Mexico's strongest industrial centers and the state of Jalisco is very productive agriculturally. There's a great deal of money in this town accumulated through perfectly legal means and apparently the numbers for the manufacturing sector are nothing shabby at the moment. That capital needs an outlet and well-to-do Guadalajarans are not exactly shy about conspicuous consumption. U.S. and European businesses have also taken note of that tendency and are making inroads here (our local mall boasts a P.F. Chang's, a Stuart Weitzman  boutique, and tons of very cool, modern furniture imported from Europe, to give just a few examples of international capital's interest in the city).
However, the sheer quantity of construction projects raises many eyebrows, as does the fact that many recently completed projects are unoccupied. A local journalist and numerous taxi drivers have confirmed that many here think that there's too much building in the city in the midst of a recession for it to not involve a great deal of money-laundering. What is perhaps the most ironic is that as the narcos diversify their holdings and wash their profits at the same time, the result is actually pretty positive for Mexico in terms of creating jobs and generating momentum for the the increasingly large middle class in this country. NAFTA and the narcos have brought Mexico out of the lost decade of the 1980s and helped it survive the current crisis, but with sad, sad consequences for the overall level of civility and security.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The "real" Cancun

Last night, several molotov cocktails were pitched into a strip club in the heart of Puerto Juarez, killing six women and two men at last count. The local and national press have suggested that those to blame belong to Las Zetas, the very same narcogang presumably behind the terrible massacre recently discovered in Tamaulipas. There may also be some link to the capture, two days ago, of a capo, Edgar Valdez Villareal, aka La Barbie, whose activities extended to Quintana Roo. The story has apparently been picked up by the media in the U.S. and Europe, provoking further concern among those in the tourism industry here in Mexico lindo.
A couple of clarifications are merited here. First, this did not occur in what gringos think of as Cancun. Rather, it occurred in a part of the city that virtually no gringos ever venture into, although some think they have (they have typically ventured as far as the city center, Cancun viejo, if you can call anything built after 1970 old in a country full of colonial architecture. The city center is still very tame but a tad decrepit and third worldish looking in comparison to the hotel zone but nonetheless sends many Americans into a kind of panic). Puerto Juarez, where this incident occurred, is another world altogether. This part of the city started as a shantytown in the 1970s in the shadow of the planned city created by economists from the Banco de Mexico. It is now very much part of the city proper but still the hood in terms of criminal activity, which is very unfortunate for the many honest and hard-working Mexicans who live there. Second, while this is a particularly grisly incident, especially because it involved women working in the bar who had in all likelihood been victimized quite enough, narcocrimes are not new to Cancun or the Yucatan peninsula in general. Drugs have been moving through the peninsula in large quantities (think tons) since the 1970s, when drug busts by mostly local police occurred every couple of months at least, and the laundering of money is clearly one of the major factors driving the Riviera Maya's rapid development in the past couple of decades. As a consequence, the narcochavitos have been killing each other and the occasional police officer for years, with bodies found quite regularly in the ditches and sidestreets of Puerto Juarez and Solidaridad, the equivalent of Puerto Juarez for Playa del Carmen, in similar neighborhoods in Merida on the Yucatan side of the peninsula, and even occasionally in Chetumal, Quintana Roo's sleepy capital, which sits right on the border of Belize. Quintana Roo's murder rate is still very, very low compared to most states in the federation. Is it only a matter of time before such incidents occur in the hotel zone or on Playa del Carmen's strip of restaurants and nightclubs? That's anyone's guess. Until now, a level of civility has prevailed with regard to the tourist economy, perhaps because the narcotraffickers recognize that the industry provides a convenient shelter for them, in terms of covering up both the transport of their products and for washing their profits in region's many hotels and restaurants and commercial plazas, etc.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A grenade is a grenade

This past Wednesday night a grenade exploded at a bar (Pinkcheladas--check out its FB site for a load of interesting comments about this venue's past notoriety, from fires to fights and a great deal of delincuencia in between) in Puerto Vallarta, killing one so far as of this morning and causing serious injuries to a number of others present. The U.S. consulate immediately issued a security warning about possible sites of retaliation for the incident, which was presumed to be the result of some sort of narcobronca. The guy fingered for possession of the grenade is allegedly linked to the Sinaloan cartel. State and local authorities, included the governor, Jalisco's AG, and others responded defensively to the consulate's warning, arguing that the incident had been an accident rather than an actual attack, and that therefore, the consulate's position was overkill. Their position is quite predictable in light of the fact that the state of Jalisco is heavily invested in the tourism industry and that such reports have very real economic repercussions. Nonetheless, one must ask the obvious question--does it really matter if it was an accident or a purposeful attack? Regardless, some drugged up and/or drunk guy working for a cartel was walking around with a grenade, presumable with the intention of using it at some point. I don't think anyone should cancel their vacation yet, but one might stick to the more gringo-esque bars if venturing out at night.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

La nota roja and Venezuela's violence

The NYT is running an article on Venezuela's murder rate, "Venezuela, More Deadly than Iraq, Wonders Why", which apparently exceeds that of Iraq at the moment. While some grim events have occurred in recent days in Mexico lindo, one does still hold out hope that the narcochavitos stick to murdering each other rather than everyone else. In Venezuela, the causes are many but its remarkable inequality (perhaps the greatest condemnation for Chavez--that his Bolivarian revolution has accomplished so little on that front) combined with a gun culture have combined to create a deadly culture.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Back to the future in Mexico lindo

Mexico has changed so much in recent years, between NAFTA, the narcos, its recent and still fledgling democratization, etc., but some things remain constant here. Here are a few of the sights, sounds and smells from the first few bittersweet days back in Mexico lindo.
-teenagers making out in an illicit corner of the water treatment plant.
-children selling sweets in the street
-a young woman, lacquered in makeup, and a much older and more prosperous man, perhaps in his fifties, conversing intimately in a car parked on the street
-maids scrubbing down the tiled entrances to wealthy homes with bleach
-gardeners manicuring every last leaf and blade of landscaping
-water jug sellers announcing their passing in the streets
-a handicapped man in a hand-pedaled cart begging along a busy avenue
-portly couples heading to the park to work out in matching jerseys
-two elderly women dressed in black watching the world go by from a balcony
-women of all ages tottering around in six inch heels
-middle class men sporting brightly colored polo shirts, usually of Italian origin (the shirts, not the men)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dangerous DC

By the way, did you know that DC's murder rate is four times that of the DF (that's Mexico City to you gringos, aka el defecal to more cynical locals)? And a think tank in Mexico, which I have not had a chance to check out yet, claims that Mexico's murder rate is still lower today than it was a decade ago when the PRI, who many assume looked the other way while the narcos built the foundations of Mexico's current drug economy, was about to lose their first presidential election (well, by official counts anyway) in seven decades. Brazil and a number of Caribbean and Central American countries look quite nasty in comparison to Mexico lindo too. Thanks to USA Today for this surprisingly positive bit of a reality check--see the article in this past Wednesday's edition (8/4/2010).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Narcos in the neighborhood

About a week ago, La Jornada, Mexico's main left-leaning paper (think The Nation, but a daily and quite a bit more credible in terms of investigative journalism and with a much larger and more varied readership) published an editorial that again raised the whole "failed state" debate I mentioned previously. The recent massacre of seventeen people in Torreon, Durango, apparently committed by inmates from a local prison who were permitted under the cover of darkness to leave the facility and use state-owned vehicles and the weapons of their own prison guards to carry out the killings raises serious questions about Mexico's penal system and its penetration by the narcos (apparently this kind of thing goes on all the time). In true La Jornada style, the editorial pointed out, quite rightly, that the prison system also suffers from serious problems with human rights abuses, so that the overall perception of the penal system is one that the paper characterized as "extreme weakness." A few days later, the headlines in all of the major papers trumpeted the news of the killing of two major figures in the Sinaloa cartel in neighborhoods uncomfortable close to our soon-to-be home. So while the Mexican state may indeed be on the ropes, it is by no means a complete failure, but as public opinion increasingly leans toward the consensus that the war is futile and endless, I'm just hoping that the gunfire will have abated by the time we hit town.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Narcos, nomenclature and the view from el norte

A few days ago, Mexico's attorney general announced a figure depressingly near the 25,000 mark for the number of deaths attributed to the drug war since President Calderon took office in 2006. This shocking statistic will inevitably fuel another spasm of condemnation from the American media on Mexico's many inadequacies, which by the way, our southern neighbor takes rather personally. For example, about a year (and a couple of months, give or take) ago, it became fashionable among a certain set to pronounce upon the moribundity of the Mexican state and its impending failure, much as if it were a poorly-run business on the verge of bankruptcy or a bad marriage about to go down in flames, rather than a sovereign country in its own right. Not surprisingly, the diagnosis provoked a paroxysm of responses defending Mexico's stability. (One of my dear friends,Tanya, penned one of those responses in the Guardian, in which she mentioned that she did not in fact run with "embassy crowd," and I, for better or worse, now do, so I pinched the phrase from her--hence the name). Now, poor Mexico will face another round of censure from the very neighbor that should most support it through this conflict (although the means of support are very much a matter of debate), especially since we are the ones driving the demand for all that coke and meth and whatever else they are slinging these days. And, just a few weeks before our departure to the country in question here, I'm now faced with the eternal burden of anyone in or of the foreign service, the constant queries from family et al about our personal safety. More on that later, but for now, let's take it easy on Mexico lindo, as there's a lot more going on there than narcos killing each other. 
By the way, my friend Tanya is a woman of many talents, so if you liked her article, check out her painting: Tanya Huntington Hyde

Monday, July 19, 2010

Does the chatter matter?

Much has been made in the last couple of years of the impact of social networking sites and technologies on political processes (Iran last summer or the most recent election in Colombia being two salient examples) and the State Department is certainly taking note, as that NYT article mentioned in a previous post makes clear. In some cases, these chattering mechanisms can truly reshape the political landscape, but I can't help but feel a little skepticism on a couple of different fronts. First, in spite of the increasing availability of mobile technologies and wider access to the internet, the reality is that most people on this planet do not enjoy such privileges. Think of the stats on the number of people living on roughly $1.25 a day, the sum currently used the World Bank to define extreme poverty. There are apparently some 1.4 billion human beings, again according to the World Bank, who fit into that category, and a whole lot more of the total of about 7 billion of us living on sums not much greater than that buck and a quarter. For most of these people, cell phones and computers don't even exist. Second--and admittedly I may be showing my age here as well as a rather jaded opinion of the individualism inherent in American culture--it's hard not to think on occasion that the younger generation might be ascribing a little too much significance to all the electronic and cyber-chatter, when again, for most people on the planet, political participation is something that you do in a room or on the street with a group of like-minded people. That's not to say that cell phones and computers can't facilitate activism and even become game-changers in political processes but let's not get carried away with their potential impact, or not quite yet anyway.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Digital Diplomacy" in NYT Magazine

Check out this week's NYT Magazine's piece on "Digital Diplomacy" on social networking and the two chicos at the forefront of bringing new technologies into the State Department. While I remain on the fence, generationally and otherwise, about the impact of twittering one's way through diplomatic relations, the fact that mobile phones have become such widely accessible tool for even the world's poor makes a strong case for paying attention to these newish means of communicating.