In the macabre world of Mexican gangland violence, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Zetas chief who was captured on Monday, stands out in his taste for violence. Dismemberment, acid baths, and decapitation were standard tactics for the man who helped build the Zetas into Mexico's most-feared cartel.
He built that reputation on enormous personal cruelty.
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As Barack Obama heads to Mexico, U.S. involvement in Mexico's battle against drug cartels is getting a lot of press. But it's worth noting that Mexico's notorious narcotics trade isn't just Mexico's problem anymore. And Obama should be well aware of that, considering that this past February Chicago declared Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán its first "Public Enemy No. 1" since Al Capone. "While Chicago is 1,500 miles from Mexico, the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in the city that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are on the border," Jack Riley, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, told CNN.
The infiltration of the Windy City shows the extent to which Mexican drug syndicates have made inroads in the United States -- the Associated Press and others have reported that cartel cells are operating in Atlanta, Ga., Louisville, Ky., Columbus, Ohio, and rural North Carolina. In fact, according to an excellent National Post infographic based on data from a U.S. Justice Department report and other sources, it's much easier to list states that don't have a drug trade tied to Mexican gangs. There are only twelve that haven't reported the presence of one of four Mexican cartels since 2008: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Mexican drug trade is everywhere else.
Detected cartel operations range from traditional drug-running to using a horse ranch as a front for laundering drug money, as one group did in Oklahoma. The Sinaloa cartel, which has emerged as Mexico's dominant syndicate, has carved out new territory in the United States by controlling 80 percent of its meth trade (Mexican cartels have come to dominate the U.S. market by aggressively bumping up the purity of their meth while dropping the price per gram).
All told, Mexican cartels reside in 1,200 American communities as of 2011, up from 230 in 2008, according to the Associated Press. Below is a map that shows just how many states have been penetrated, according to the National Post's special report on the topic.
View Cartel Penetration in the US in a larger map
Fraying cooperation in the drug war will surely be top of mind as President Obama meets with his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week. And perhaps nothing encapsulates Mexico's growing impatience with America's heavy-handed approach to combating drug trafficking than this nugget from a New York Times report on Tuesday. Apparently, the United States has been subjecting Mexican security officials to regular polygraph tests in an effort to identify rotten apples. But that could soon change:
Shortly after Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office in December, American agents got a clear message that the dynamics, with Washington holding the clear upper hand, were about to change.
"So do we get to polygraph you?" one incoming Mexican official asked his American counterparts, alarming United States security officials who consider the vetting of the Mexicans central to tracking down drug kingpins. The Mexican government briefly stopped its vetted officials from cooperating in sensitive investigations. The Americans are waiting to see if Mexico allows polygraphs when assigning new members to units, a senior Obama administration official said.
While the practice is not widely publicized, it has been an element of the two countries' security relationship for some time. In a 1997 article on U.S.-Mexican plans to join hands in the drug war, the Associated Press noted that Mexican counternarcotics agents would undergo the "kind of extensive background, financial, and polygraph tests required of U.S. drug agents." The plans came after the arrest of Mexico's drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, for taking bribes from drug traffickers.
What's more, the United States hasn't just applied this policy to Mexico. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Washington has given elite Colombian counternarcotics agents polygraph tests as well.
The bad blood over polygraph tests isn't the only sign that U.S.-Mexican cooperation on the drug war is deteriorating. In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE on his new book, the Mexican journalist Jesús Esquivel claimed that the Mexican military recently waved off a U.S. offer to capture famed drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Gúzman. The United States had the Sinaloa cartel chief's location and said the operation would take only 15 minutes. So why the hang-up? Mexican military officials reportedly didn't want the American military to lead the operation.
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More than 800,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Monday to listen to President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, but many more were listening around the world. Here are a few interesting global reactions:
In the Chinese media, Obama's promise to "try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully" and argument that "engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" than military force was taken as a sign that the U.S.-China relationship will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda for the next four years. Of course, as the state-run Global Times notes, there's a bit of skepticism that the president will live up to his words:
"If the president really lives his words, he would agree that for the sake of the world's peace and prosperity, it is important for the United States and China to foster mutual trust, for trust is the cornerstone for every relationship, no matter between people or between nations...The words also show that he agrees that the two nations should properly solve their disputes, either economic or political."
News agency Xinhua was a little more positive, describing the overall approach Obama outlined in his Monday address as "balanced" and "decidedly progressive."
One Guardian writer described Obama's speech as "urg[ing] Americans to reclaim from conservatives the spirit of the founding fathers" and as "more inspirational than 2009," praising Obama's strong support of climate change and gay rights. Another was more cautious in hispraise, maintaining that Obama's speech was less of a populist manifesto and more of a "to-do list [covering] what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term."
Peter Foster of the more conservative Telegraph granted that Obama's speech was well-received
by the spectators on the Mall, he reminded readers just how deeply divided the United States still is: "It was apparent," writes Foster, "that only half of the nation had showed up to listen
to [Obama's] call...Overwhelmingly, the crowd of 800,000 people was filled with
the faces of the young, female, urban, African-American coalition that ensured Mr. Obama's re-election for a second term last November. They were Obama's people, and they
were there to celebrate their victory."
In his article for the Australian, Troy Bramston praised Obama's rhetoric, but argued that Obama cannot rank amongst the truly great American presidents until he "translate[s] a presidency of promise into a presidency of action."
That may be hard to do, claims Janet Hook in another article for the Australian, in which she points out that Obama's speech made little effort to readch out to the GOP.
After the inaugural address, the headline of Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat read "The decade of war is over," referencing a line from Obama's speech. Yet in an op-ed for the same paper, Abdul Rahman Rashed, though praising Obama's experience in Middle Eastern affairs, was not so sure about peace in the coming decade. "Obama's second term will possibly be reconciliatory, particularly after John Kerry and Chuck Hagel join his administration...but who can tell if the region will be in a reconciliatory mood?"
In his article for Palestinian-run, London based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (translated into English by the Times of Israel), Abdel Al-Bari Atwan writes that Obama "completely shut the door on any military intervention, stressing that a decade of wars has ended and that the only way to peace is dialogue." "President Obama's message is very clear," the article continued. "In short, he said that he does not intend to militarily intervene in Syria; will not wage a war on Iran, succumbing to Israeli pressure; and will focus on rescuing his country from its crippling economic crisis."
Atwan continues: "Obama disappointed many of his allies in the Middle East by neglecting to mention any of them in his speech." (Obama didn't mention any foreign countries by name in his address.)
Obama's equal opportunity rhetoric made news in Mexico. In its coverage of the inaugural address, El Universal highlighted Obama's commitment to immigrants, women, and gays. The article quoted Obama's statement promising immigration reform:
"Our trip (as a nation) will not be complete until we find a better way to welcome the hopeful, striving immigrants in the U.S. are still the land of opportunity, until the brightest students and engineers are listed on our strengths work instead of being expelled from our country."
The headline of the article read, in Spanish, "Obama calls for welcoming immigrants."
The president's inaugural address was a chance for Canadians to pat themselves on the back, the Ottowa Citizen snarkily reports:
"On the key issues that President Barack Obama pledged to dedicate his second term to in his inaugural address, Canada has already made substantive progress: on supporting democracy around the world; on providing equal rights to gays and lesbians; on creating an aspirational immigration system."
It doesn't stop there either. The column went to on say that Canada has also beat Obama to the punch in securing a budget deal and repairing its economy.
When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird hosted a largely American gathering at the Canadian embassy on Monday, he was more tactful. "This is not a time for long speeches," he said. "We have very different systems, so we don't exactly want to be bragging," a Canadian embassy spokesman said.
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A recently discovered video from online hacker group, Anonymous, has threatened to expose collaborators of the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel in retaliation for the kidnapping one of the members of the online collective. The video claimed that they would release the names of journalists, taxi drivers and others who have worked with Los Zetas in the past.
The video, published on Oct. 6, and picked up today by major media outlets, was in response to an alleged kidnapping of an Anonymous member following a street protest in the Veracruz state. The video deptics a man wearing a suit and a Guy Fawkes mask delivered his threat in Spanish. The style is similar to other videos put out by Anonymous group in the past. The original video is embedded below, with a translated version provided by The Guardian linked here.
Global intelligence company, STRATFOR, released a report several days ago, where they argued that any action by Anonymous was certain to lead to more violence on the part of the cartels. In the report, they specified that this could be especially detrimental on bloggers and journalists who have risked their lives to report on the drug cartels activities.
Last month, a separate set of online activists who used social media platforms to deliver news and reports about the drug cartels to local citizens, were found hanging from a bridge. A message found next to their bodies was clear to all passersby: "This is what happens to people who post funny things on the Internet. Pay attention." As a result, many journalists and activists may face a new threat in their quest to increase transparency and report on the crisis facing Mexico.
Nearly five years into an increasingly bloody war against the drug cartels that has killed 35,000 people and shaken the entire population, there is certainly little to cheer about. Nevertheless, the government's strategy of targeting the "kingpins" has had some success. The goal is to nab or kill the big guys and hope their organizations crumble without them. Certainly, every time a powerful drug boss is hauled before cameras in chains, there's a psychological effect on the public.
This week, the government was able to boast of one of its most significant victories so far with the arrest of Jesus Mendez (or "The Monkey"), who headed the powerful La Familia organization, which analysts say is one of the most violent in the country.
President Felipe Calderón tweeted that Mendez's capture is a "great blow by the Federal Police against organized crime."
La Familia, one of six major cartels in Mexico, was known for the almost pseudo-religious devotion of its followers.
"This is a huge deal," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "There's a lot of reason to believe the cartel will splinter at this point."
Selee said that could mean more violence in the short term, as people fight over what remains of the cartel.
Here's where things stand with some of the other major drug kingpins.
A new congressionally commissioned report has some interesting statistics on the weapons fueling Mexico's ever-bloodier drug war, including this: 70 percent of the firearms recovered in Mexico originated in the United States. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) are behind the report.
"Congress has been virtually moribund while powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations continue to gain unfettered access to military-style firearms coming from the United States," Senator Feinstein said in a statement.
- 20,504 out 29,284 firearms recovered in Mexico in the past two years came from the U.S.
- 15,131 of those weapons were made in the U.S.
- 5,373 were foreign made but came through the U.S. (the remainder were of "undetermined origin").
- The firearms overwhelmingly came from the southwest U.S. The top three states were Texas (39 percent); California (20 percent); and Arizona (10 percent).
- 34,612 people have died in organized crime-related killings since Dec. 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office.
- 2010 was the bloodiest year yet in Mexico. Killings jumped 60 percent from the year before, with 15,273 people killed, up from 9,616.
Marisol Valles, a 20-year-old criminology student, has just been named police chief for the town of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero, near the U.S. border. Reportedly, there wasn't a whole lot of competition for the job -- others members of the force have been abducted and killed by narcotraffickers in recent years:
The new police chief heads a force of just 13 agents, nine of them women, with one working patrol car, three automatic rifles and a pistol. Gunmen killed a local official and his son last weekend as Valles prepared to start her job.
"We are doing this for a new generation of people who don't want to be afraid anymore. Everyone is frightened - it is very natural," she told Mexican media. "My motive for being here is that one can do a lot for the town ... we are going to make changes and get rid of a little of the fear in every person."
Her force would focus on a non-violent role of promoting values and principles and preventing crime, she added.
Asked about her force's lack of firepower, Valles says, "The weapons we have are principles and values, which are the best weapons for prevention."
Valles fully deserves the media coverage that has described her as the "bravest woman in Mexico" for taking the job. But of course, the cynical take on this story is that the town seems to have basically given up on combating traffickers. A small force devoted to promoting public welfare rather than making arrests seems a lot like like de facto legalization. It will be interesting to see if the model spreads.
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White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowke is hailing the release of a new Rand report which finds that if Californians vote to legalize marijuana on Nov. 2, it won't put much of a dent in the profits of Mexican drug cartels:
"This report shows that despite the millions spent on marketing the idea, legalized marijuana won’t reduce the revenue or violence generated by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations," Kerlikowske said.
The report finds that legalized pot in California would cut drug export profits by about 2 to 4 percent. There's a big however though:
However, the impact of legalization on Mexican drug trafficking organizations' bottom line could be magnified if marijuana cultivated in California is smuggled into other states, according to the study. After legalization, if low-cost, high-quality marijuana produced in California dominates the U.S. marijuana market, then the Mexican drug trafficking organizations' revenue from exporting marijuana could decline by more than 65 percent and probably closer to 85 percent. In this scenario, results from the RAND study suggest the drug trafficking organizations would lose roughly 20 percent of their total drug export revenues.
With this caveat, couldn't the report be viewed less as a case against legalization in California than an argument for extending it nationwide?
To be fair to Kerlikoswske, I'm not sure that framing this issue in terms of it's effect on Mexican drug cartels is the most effective argument. Things shouldn't be legalized just because criminals are making money off them. The more important question is whether the social ill from marijuana justifies the cost of keeping it illegal.
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Gunmen shot a journalist dead last week, and wounded another, to express their displeasure with media coverage of their group. The murder added to the tens of journalists who have been killed in the country over the last four years.
In response to this latest attack, the paper's editors wrote a front-page editorial with the headline: "What do you want from us?" Though they claimed it wasn't a surrender, it seemed clear that the media outlet had offered to limit its coverage, writing in the editorial that "no story is worth the life of anyone anymore."
But this isn't the Kabul Times. No, the newspaper highlighted above is El Diario de Juarez, of the not-an-insurgency Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
Score another one for new media: an anonymous, twenty-something blogger has become Mexico's go-to for information on the country's deadly drug war. Blog del Narco, launched in March, includes postings from both drug traffickers (such as warnings and even a beheading) and law enforcement (crime scenes accessible only to the police and military). In one case, Blog del Narco helped lead to a major arrest, when a video posted detailed a prison warden's system of setting inmates free at night to carry out drug cartel murders.
The AP tracked down this mysterious blogger, who revealed that he is a student in northern Mexico majoring in computer security. When he launched the blog, he intended it to be a hobby, but has grown faster than his wildest expectations, now receiving 3 million hits weekly. The blogger also uses Facebook and Twitter.
Since late 2006, over 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico. The country has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists: at least 30 have been killed or have disappeared since 2006 and many news organizations have been attacked with bombs and gunfire. Many journalists engage in self-censorship to avoid crossing the increasingly brazen cartels that attempt to control the press. On August 7, hundreds of journalists marched in Mexico City to protest escalating violence against their peers.
This helps explain why Blog del Narco, now an essential resource for Mexicans concerned about which streets to avoid during shootouts, engages in intense anonymity.
The AP listed some examples of recent posts:
- A video of a man being decapitated. While media only reported police finding a beheaded body, the video shows the man confessing to working for drug lord Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villareal, who is locked in a fight with both the Beltran Leyva and Sinaloa cartels;
- The prison warden affair, which unfolded in a video of masked members of the Zetas drug gang interrogating a police officer, who reveals that inmates allied with the Sinaloa cartel are given guns and cars and sent off to commit murders. At the end of the video the officer is shot to death;
- Links to Facebook pages of alleged traffickers and their children, weapons, cars and lavish parties;
- Photos of Mexican pop music stars at a birthday party for an alleged drug dealer's teenage daughter in the border state of Coahuila, across from Texas.
Right around the time that Barack Obama was giving his prime time address to the nation, his counterpoint in Mexico, Felipe Calderon, was doing the same thing. The subjects were different, but the political stakes for both countries were equally high. While Obama talked about doing battle against the BP oil spill in the Gulf -- to "fight this spill with everything we’ve got," Calderon was talking about a far less metaphorical war: Against the country's drug cartels. The fate of both presidencies may well rest on their respective battlegrounds.
The drug war launched by Calderon's administration has been much analyzed, criticized, and picked apart for its efficacy, the wisdom of its undertaking, and the care with which it has been carried out. The criticisms are many: That the effort has made things worse, exacerbated social tensions, unleashed a human rights-violating military against the Mexican people, and all done little to stop the trafficking. (He addressed all these critiques in his speech to the nation.)
But no matter your opinion of how things have gone so far, it's hard to argue for the alternative of accomodation with the drug lords, something that persisted prior to Calderon's term. He clearly doesn't see that as an option either: "We have fought with force and determination against these criminal organziations. And we, the Federal Government, have done so not only because it is our obligation, but also because what hinges upon this fight is your well-being and the future of our children." (my translation).
The speech was notable for two other reasons, one rhetorical and one political. First, Calderon took a page from Obama's book by using the first half of his speech to explain how Mexico arrived at this point -- reminding listeners that, by the time he entered office, things were already a mess. This has been a tactic employed by Obama often on the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has reminded voters that these crises was not of his making. And so did Calderon: "It would have been easy to ignore this problem, as some have proposed, but it is the responsibility of the government to protect its people."
The second bit of note for an American audience was Calderon's clear linking of the escalation of Mexico's drug woes to the lifting of a U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons in 2004. (Indeed, weapons sales over the border have grown into big business in recent years, arming cartels with more and better guns.) This issue has been a sticking point in relationship between Washington and Mexico City -- Calderon pleaded for the ban to be re-established ban during his address to a joint-session of Congress last month.
Both speeches were more about convincing people than laying out concrete steps, but in many ways, that's the point. Calderon was explicit: "With your support, we will succeed." The negative is also true... Without it, Mexico won't.
Mexico's government no longer believes its citizens are safe in the state of Arizona:
The Mexican government Tuesday took the unusual step of issuing a travel alert urging extreme caution by Mexicans working, studying or otherwise spending time in Arizona. The warning came in response to that state's tough new immigration measure, which is to go into effect this summer, requiring people in Arizona to carry proof of their legal right to be in the United States and requiring police to check for it.[...]
"As was clear during the [Arizona] legislative process, there is a negative political environment for migrant communities and for all Mexican visitors," the alert said, posted in Spanish and English on the ministry's website.
Although details on how the law will be enforced remain unclear, the alert said, "it must be assumed that every Mexican citizen may be harassed and questioned without further cause at any time."
Obviously addressing the probelm of illegal immigration is going to require taking action on both sides of the border, and thanks to Arizona, Mexico now seems a lot less likely to cooperate in efforts to find an effective remedy.
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Last month, FP highlighted five of the weirdest tax laws in the world. One of those five tax laws discussed was Ireland's artist tax exemption, under which rule artists are tax-free to help soften their often meagre earnings. USA Today reports that Mexico has a similar rule, though they've apparently copied the old feudal-model of taxation -- but instead of providing foodstuffs to their lords, artists are allowed to produce works for the government in lieu of income tax:
"It's really an amazing concept," says José San Cristóbal Larrea, director of the program. "We're helping out artists while building a cultural inheritance for the country."
There's a sliding scale: If you sell five artworks in a year, you must give the government one. Sell 21 pieces, the government gets six. A 10-member jury of artists ensures that no one tries to unload junk.
The rule has been in place since 1957, and has contributed to a flourishing Mexican art museum scene, with other pieces being loaned out for exhibitions worldwide. As one would expect, the creation story is plenty amusing:
The art program was the idea of two muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Gerardo "Dr. Atl" Murillo. In 1957, an artist friend of theirs was about to go to jail over tax debts so the two men approached Mexico's tax director and talked him into an art-for-amnesty deal.
Soon the tax office was accepting original art on a regular basis. In 1975, the Payment in Kind Program became an official part of the tax code.
Sorry to all writers, filmmakers and musicians, but the provision is only for visual art.
OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images
The frequent stories of grusome beheadings and seemingly rand mass-murders coming out of Mexico's drug war can make the country sound like its on the brink of anarchy. But as Alexandra Olson points out, by regional and historical standards, the country's violence is not unusually high:
Mexico's homicide rate has fallen steadily from a high in 1997 of 17 per 100,000 people to 14 per 100,000 in 2009, a year marked by an unprecedented spate of drug slayings concentrated in a few states and cities, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. The national rate hit a low of 10 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to government figures compiled by the independent Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies.
By comparison, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates of between 40 and 60 per 100,000 people, according to recent government statistics. Colombia was close behind with a rate of 33 in 2008. Brazil's was 24 in 2006, the last year when national figures were available.
Mexico City's rate was about 9 per 100,000 in 2008, while Washington, D.C. was more than 30 that year.
Of course, all of that is cold comfort to residents of Ciudad Juarez, which had a mind-boggling homicide rate of "173 per 100,000 in the city of 1.3 million, or more than 2,500 murders last year."
Mexico's relative national stability combined with what can only be described as out of control carnage in the drug war zone, supports Jorge Castaneda's argument that Mexico should be looked at not as a state under seige, but as a country increasingly embroiled in a military quagmire inside its own borders.
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went a little off-script yesterday and floated a novel solution for his state's overcrowded prison system:
"We pay them to build the prisons down in Mexico and then we have those undocumented immigrants be down there in a prison. ... And all this, it would be half the cost to build the prisons and half the cost to run the prisons," Schwarzenegger said, predicting it would save the state $1 billion that could be spent on higher education.
About 19,000 of the state's 171,000 prisoners are illegal immigrants, according to the most recent statistics available online. The state spends more than $8 billion a year on the prison system.
Aaron McLear, spokesman for the governor, said later that Schwarzenegger's comments did not represent a concrete proposal, but "a concept somebody mentioned to him" and he could not say where the governor came up with the $1 billion figure.
Aside from the troubling fact that Schwarnegger seems to have just made up the $1 billion figure and not consulted anyone before bringing up this idea, his timing is a bit unfortunate given that just five days ago 23 Mexican inmates were killed in a prison riot in Durango. Two other riots last year killed at least 20 inmates each. Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the country's penal system:
Mexican prisons have grown more crowded and dangerous as the government carries out a war against cartels, with more than 67,000 drug arrests in three years. The increased incarcerations have often created an incendiary mix by jamming members of rival gangs inside the same walls.
The penal facilities also have seen dramatic breakout attempts as drug gangs seek to rescue captured members, sometimes with success. In May, a convoy of men dressed in what appeared to be police uniforms cruised into a prison in the northern state of Zacatecas and calmly led 53 inmates to freedom as surveillance cameras rolled. Authorities said it was an inside job.
Yes, definitely sounds like a place that could use another 19,000 prisoners.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
The bill passed the capital's local assembly 39-20 to the cheers of supporters who yelled, "Yes, we could! Yes, we could!"
Leftist Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the Democratic Revolution Party is widely expected to sign the measure into law.
The bill calls for changing the definition of marriage in the city's civil code. Marriage is currently defined as the union of a man and a woman. The new definition will be "the free uniting of two people."
In recent years, Mexican politics have increasingly been defined by the kind of social and cultural disputes that the U.S. has long wrestled with. Alexis Okeowo profiled the country's ongoing abortion war for FP last week.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
With more than 2,000 killings this year in Ciudad Juarez, pictures of gunshot victims strewn about the streets and bulletproof-vested shopkeepers attending terrified customers, potential paramilitiary group formation, calls for UN peacekeeping troops and dire predictions of the violence spreading north the United States-Mexico border is increasingly looking like an all out war zone.
Perhaps it is because of this that I was surprised this morning to attend a conference calling for recognition that the transborder region is increasingly more a region than a border. Speakers at "Rethinking the U.S.-Mexico Border," came from both sides of the border, but it's more accurate to see their flawless bilingualism as an expression that they truly do view the area as a region that must work as one in order to harness the potential of what is already a $300 billion economy.
Among the recommendations presented by one group, the "Binational Task Force on the United States-Mexico Border," was the need to target demand for illicit drugs on both sides of the border (20 percent of drugs produced in Mexico are consumed there, most of the rest goes to the US), as well as the creation of parallel border agencies (such as the synergy between Canada and the US) facilitating coordination between the two countries. Importantly, they called for a reinstating of the American ban on assault weapons, and more work on preventing arms and cash smuggling south. They also advocate immigration reform in the US and more focus on development in Mexico to stem flows north. On the flip side, Mexico also needs to start taking illegal immigration seriously.
Given that NAFTA is now 15 years old, none of this should sound very surprising. But remembering that a lot of the talk about the border in recent years has involved walls (electrified or otherwise), vigilantes, and how to make everybody just stay put on their own side, this all sounded pretty good. As most of the speakers emphasized, it's not about philosophically agreeing with unilateral solutions or not, they simply don't seem to work.
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
While being sworn in for a second term as mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico, Mauricio Fernandez jumped the gun a bit in announcing the death of a notorious narcotrafficker:
"Black Saldana, who apparently is the one who was asking for my head, was found dead today in Mexico City," he told his cheering supporters Saturday in San Pedro Garza Garcia, near Monterrey.
The problem was that the barefoot, blindfolded corpse of "Black Saldana" - whose real first name is Hector - wasn't found for another 3 1/2 hours, according to Mexico City prosecutors. And he wouldn't be identified for two days.
When asked about his remarkable foresight, the mayor first responded, "Sometimes there are coincidences in life; it's better to look at it this way."
A new bill approved by Mexico's congress would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under the new law, treatment programs would be suggested for the first two offences and mandated for the third. Visiting U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske seems not quite sure how to feel about it:
"I guess if I was looking at it strictly from our viewpoint, the use of the government as a strong sanction is often pretty helpful in getting people into treatment," said Kerlikowske, who heads the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. "If the sanction becomes completely nonexistent I think that would be a concern, but I actually didn't read quite that level of de-facto (decriminalization) in the law."
"I would actually give this a bit of a wait and see attitude," said Kerlikowske. "I've always found about laws, whether they've been enacted by states or our own federal government, is that it is the application and the use of the law and how it's actually done" are key.
Kerlikowske was much more enthusiastic about Mexican President Felipe Calderon's tougher proposal, which would mandate treatment for first offenders through special drug courts. Still, the fact that a U.S. drug czar is this open to any decriminalization program from its drug-war ally, does seem significant. The United States publicly criticized a similar bill in 2006.
Kerlikowske disappointed marijuana legalization advocates last week by saying, "Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it's not in mine." But Kerlikowske has previously explained that he does not in any way support legalization, but favors a treatment model over a law-enforcement approach.
The question is whether the drug czar is going to back up his rhetoric with any real reform, especially at a time when the Obama administration has little political capital to spare. His measured response to the Mexican bill and presence at the release of a UN report, which praises Portugal's decriminalization program, may indicate that he's dipping his toe into this debate while making it very clear that legalization is out of the question.
For now, drug law reform advocates will probably have to take a "wait and see attitude" toward him as well.
UIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
After a year of deadly drug violence and the swine flu scare, Mexico's tourism industry is on the ropes, but that's not to say that politicians aren't willing to think outside the box.
The governor of Veracruz wants to erect a statue of kindergartner Edgar Hernandez, the first person known to have contracted swine flu, in the town where he lives:
Gov. Fidel Herrera of the coastal state of Veracruz said the statue of Édgar, 5, could help attract tourists to La Gloria, a poor village where hundreds of residents came down with mysterious flulike symptoms beginning in late winter...
He considers Édgar to be not “Patient Zero,” the source of a global outbreak, but rather the first person in the world known to have survived the virus. In an interview with local reporters on Sunday, the governor likened the statue, which might be made of concrete or bronze, to the Manneken Pis in Brussels, the sculpture of a little boy peeing in a fountain.
Not that Edgar isn't cute as a button, but I'm not quite convinced this would be on top of anyone's Mexican vacation itinerary.
My colleague Beth Dickinson wrote about Colombia's efforts to transform its image from drug war zone to tourist destination last February.
Pablo Spencer/AFP/Getty Images
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox is the latest Latin American leader to advocate the legalization of marijuana (or at least open the debate) in an interview with CNN's Jim Clancy, comparing Mexico's current war on drugs to prohibition in the United States during the 1920s:
His predecessor Ernesto Zedillo, along with former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso also recently advocated decriminalization.
Tyler Cowen looks for a silver lining for Mexico in the swine flu:
Once the national government discovered what is going on, they acted decisively and without undue panic. There has been very little denial, a common feature in the early stages of health crises (how long was it until the U.S. government acknowledged AIDS?). No one is treating the Mexican federal government like a banana republic or a basket case or thinking that the Canadian government would have done so much better.
Am I wrong? Could this episode in the longer run bring Mexico closer to the community of developed nations? Might Mexicans now be more likely to self-identify with a government that is at least partially competent?
Most Mexicans seem to agree. Over 70 percent give Felipe Calderon's government high marks for its handling of the crisis.
Thanks to Mexico's raging drug violence, there's been a growing meme in the U.S. media -- including this magazine -- that the country was teetering on the brink of anarchy. The Obama administration even chose an expert on state failure as its ambassador to the country. The Calderon administration's decisive response to swine flu at least complicates this notion.
Compare, for instance, Mexico's fast and seemingly effective handling of swine flu to China's disastrous initial denial of the 2003 SARS outbreak and ask which one looks more like a failed state.
Mexico's problems haven't gone away. This is still a country where 11,000 public servants have been sanctioned for corruption in the last three years and more people have been killed in drug violence than all the U.S. troops killed in Iraq. There are also new fears that Calderon will use the flu crisis to consolidate power.
However, I think it's safe to say that more than a few governments around the world would have collapsed or reverted to dictatorship given the horrendous few months that Mexico has had on the economic, crime, and public health fronts. Mexico, on the other hand, is gearing up for what promises to be a lively and close-fought midterm election.
It shouldn't be shocking that stable and functioning states can sometimes respond to crises in ways that seem hopelessly inept (Just ask anyone in New Orleans) or that weak and corrupt ones can provide some public services quite well. Where Mexico falls on this spectrum is certainly open for debate, but the fundamental strength of the country's political institutions are stronger than they're often given credit for.
ALFREDO GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images
Horrific drug violence, the financial crisis, a deadly epidemic, and now an earthquake. You can't really blame Mexico City residents for being in an apocalyptic frame of mind:
"I'm scared," said Sarai Luna Pajas, a 22-year-old social services worker standing outside her office building moments after it hit. "We Mexicans are not used to living with so much fear, but all that is happening — the economic crisis, the illnesses and now this — it feels like the Apocalypse."
Co-worker Harold Gutierrez, 21, said the country was taking comfort from its religious faith, but he too was gripped by the sensation that the world might be coming to an end.
"If it is, it is God's plan," Gutierrez said, speaking over a green mask he wore to ward off swine flu.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
Here at FP, we don't always pay much attention to U.S. domestic policy, obviously, and the tax-day tea parties confused us a bit. Why weren't the protesters dressed up as Native Americans (like in the Boston Tea Party) or Mad Hatters? Weren't top-bracket taxes higher under Reagan?
Regardless, we've glommed onto a U.S. domestic issue which suggests a foreign-policy disaster: the U.S. state of Texas threatening to secede. Texas Governor Rick Perry, angered, like the tea-bag-partiers, over Obama's spending and tax policies, has implied that Texas might leave the Union.
So what would Texas look like as a foreign country?
It would be the world's thirteenth largest economy -- bigger than South Korea, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. But its worth would crater precipitously, after NAFTA rejected it and the United States slapped it with an embargo that would make Cuba look like a free-trade zone. Indeed, Texas would quick become the next North Korea, relying on foreign aid due to its insistence on relying on itself.
On the foreign policy front, a seceded Texas would suffer for deserting the world superpower. Obama wouldn't look kindly on secessionists, and would send in the military to tamp down rebellion. If Texas miraculously managed to hold its borders, Obama would not establish relations with the country -- though he might send a special rapporteur. (We nominate Kinky Friedman.)
So, Texas would need to court Mexico and Central American nations as a trading partners and protectors. Those very nations would also pose a host of problems for Texas. President Perry might find friends in anti-U.S. nations like Venezuela and Cuba, but their socialist politics would rankle the libertarian nation.
And Texas would become a conduit for drugs moving north to the United States from Mexico, maybe even becoming a narco-state. It would need to invest heavily in its own military and policing force to stop drug violence within its borders -- taking away valuable resources from, oh, feeding its people, fending off U.S. border incursions, and improving its standing in the world.
In short: the state of Texas would rapidly become direly impoverished, would need to be heavily armed, and would be wracked with existential domestic and foreign policy threats. It would probably make our failed states list in short order. Probably better to pay the damn taxes.
And of course -- Texas isn't seceding. Only regions in civil war or self-governing areas in very weak states manage independence. Perry was floating a piece of asinine political rhetoric, running a heated race against fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson and courting small-government conservatives of all stripes. Plus, more importantly, Texas can't secede, according to the 1869 Supreme Court Case, Texas v. White. Ah well.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Chuck Norris has offered to be President of Texas, greatly reducing the possible internal threat of unionists or external threat of U.S. military forces to the seceded country. (H/t Ezra Klein.)
Photo: Flickr user Susan E. Gray
In an interview with the BBC before the G-20 summit last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon responded to charges that his country is becoming a failed state.
The president cautiously admitted that there is a drug problem, but placed most of the blame on his country's geographic proximity to the world's largest drug market: the United States. More blame falls on the U.S. as well: for allowing weapons to flow across the border. And Calderon theorizes that U.S. corruption is also partly to blame. He theorizes that if corruption allows drugs on the Mexican side of the border, it also must be true that corruption in the U.S. has something to do with the continuing passage of narcotics into that country. Hmm. Does he have a point?
For all those pondering the much-talked-of question of Mexico's stability, it's a must watch.
The New York Times reports, following the Mexican media, that Hillary Clinton's visit to Mexico is in danger of being upstaged by concerns over Obama's reported pick for ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual. Pascual, who is director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and former ambassador to Ukraine, has written extensively about failed states and ran the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization under the Bush administration:
That could raise hackles among some Mexicans, who take umbrage at recent assertions by American analysts that drug-related violence has so destabilized Mexico that it is danger of becoming a failed state.
Pascual's views on state failure are state laid out in this 2005 Foreign Affairs piece (subscribers only) co-written with Stephen Krasner:
In today's increasingly interconnected world, weak and failed states pose an acute risk to U.S. and global security. Indeed, they present one of the most important foreign policy challenges of the contemporary era. States are most vulnerable to collapse in the time immediately before, during, and after conflict. When chaos prevails, terrorism, narcotics trade, weapons proliferation, and other forms of organized crime can flourish. Left in dire straits, subject to depredation, and denied access to basic services, people become susceptible to the exhortations of demagogues and hatemongers.
Most of Pascual's work concerns post-conflict scenarios like Iraq and Afghanistan and doesn't quite apply to Mexico's current situation. I haven't been able to find anything he's written specifically on Mexico and he didn't mention drugs or Mexico as major concerns in his Brookings "memo to the President.
It'll be interesting to see if he shares the view, put forth by Niall Ferguson and Sam Quinones in the most recent issue of FP, that the Mexican state is in danger of being overwhelmed by a "criminal-capitalist insurgency." His appointment does seem to indicate that the Obama adminsitration is taking that possibility seriously.
Photo: Brookings Institution
Good for Hillary Clinton for stating the blatantly obvious fact that Americans' "insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade" and is exacerbating the violence in Mexico. But if the Obama administration is acknowledging that the drug trade is largely a demand-side issue, why is it still pursuing a supply-side solution?
Washington on Tuesday said it plans to ramp up border security with a $184 million program to add 360 security agents to border posts and step up searches for smuggled drugs, guns and cash.
The Obama administration plans to provide more than $80 million to buy Black Hawk helicopters to go after drug traffickers, Clinton said.
What was that about "insatiable demand"?
The new spending shows that the administration is taking the problem seriously, but I'll take the power of supply-and-demand over security agents and helicopters any day. (See Blake's take-down of William Saletan's "high-tech" solution for smuggling in Gaza.) The U.S. has spent over $6 billion on a military solution to Colombia's drug production and all we have to show for it is a 15 percent increase in cocaine cultivation.
Maybe it's time for some more out-of-the-box ideas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Between NAFTA and the drug war, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have a lot to talk about on her visit to Mexico today, but she probably wasn't anticipating defending the U.S. conquest of a Mexican sidewalk. Some Mexico City politicians that security barriers set up around the U.S. embassy have effectively annexed an ajacent side street:
"It seems to me to be a lack of respect, and it is also a violation of national sovereignty," said city legislator Tomas Pliego of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, who pledged to force the Embassy obey a law against occupying public streets, parks and sidewalks.
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, of the same party, also has taken up the cause of reopening Rio Danubio, a narrow one-way street off Paseo de la Reforma, the capital's main promenade modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
"The Embassy has not had, nor does it have, authorization to occupy public spaces," Ebrard told reporters. "They shouldn't be the ones who occupy the city with the aim of providing security."
SUSANA GONZALEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Unsettling violence in Mexico over the past year and a half has understandably provoked the question: is Mexico becoming a failed state? In our current edition of Foreign Policy, Sam Quinones argues that -- with more deaths due to drug violence than all U.S. deaths in Iraq since 2003 -- Mexico's chaos is spiraling out of control.
While we bear responsibility for our problems, the caricature of Mexico being propagated in the United States only increases the despair on both sides of the Rio Grande. It is also profoundly hypocritical. America is the world's largest market for illegal narcotics. The United States is the source for the majority of the guns used in Mexico's drug cartel war, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border.
Back in October, Krauze told Foreign Policy much the same thing. While he worried about Mexico becoming a narco-state, he maintained that the government was in control:
There are many municipalities that are clearly under the rule of the drug traffickers, and that’s frightening because of course they kill the journalists and they corrupt everything. There is a danger [of Mexico becoming a narco state], but it’s still an embryo.
Read FP's the full interview with Krauze, as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Michael Sanders, here.
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