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.