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09/30/2011

Romney ad hits Perry on Mexico

Check out this new attack ad in which the Mitt Romney campaign hits at Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting a move to let the children of undocumented immigrants attend state universities in Texas by paying in-state tuition.

The ad is interesting on several levels. For one, it allows former Mexican President Vicente Fox to speak at length in praise of Perry. Romney's PR people seem to be playing on a belief of some Americans that anything that Mexicans like Fox may praise is no good. In other words, if it's good for Mexicans, it must be bad for Americans.

It starts off showing photos of Obama, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- all clearly lacking in patriotism for part of the GOP base -- then casts them as agreeing with Fox, who heads a sovereign nation that is not the United States. So the ad also plays off patriotism and loyalty-to-the-country feelings.

Then there's the matter of Romney's ancestry and the way that Mexico opened its doors to his Mormon relatives who fled U.S. territory so they could continue to practice polygamy. There was a great Washington Post story on this a few weeks back. The attack ad was posted at New York magazine's website, and drew the following post from a reader:

... the entire Romney family might at one time have been considered "illegal." See, Romney's great (or great-great, or even great-great-great) grandfathers made a run for the border with his wives and kids in tow when polygamy was made illegal here in the U.S. At least one generation of Romneys, if not more, were born, raised and settled in Mexico. Then another grandfather (great?) headed back across the border, where the family fortune -- and runs for political office by various and sundry Romneys through the years -- was made. I believe Vicente Fox did say at one time that Romney DOES qualify for dual U.S./Mexican citizenship. Fascinating how this whole immigration thing works, isn't it?

This may come back to haunt Romney in a general election (if he is the Republican candidate) as he tries to rally Latino voters, many of whom are of Mexican origin. We'll monitor what other ways Mexico arises as a theme in the campaign.

Mexican peso stretches a long ways

American retirees have known this for a long: The Mexican peso can stretch a long ways.

Recently, there’s been further proof. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook report this month carries the latest statistics that can be used to rank countries using different standards.

Without delving too deeply into the dismal science (which is not my forte), one of those standards measures how much goods and services you can buy given the average income in your country. It is called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). So a Frenchman earning a lot of money in euros may not “feel” as well off as someone in a less developed country with a smaller salary but where PPP is pronounced.

Turns out that Mexico ranks No. 11 worldwide in per capita income based on PPP. 

That’s ahead of Indonesia (No. 12), South Korea (13), Spain (14) and Canada (15). 

That means that despite all of its problems, Mexicans who are near the average in per capita income for their nation may actually be living pretty well. 

Nearly a million U.S. citizens are believed to spend at least part of each year in Mexico. Their pesos can buy a lot of fajitas and margaritas.

Here's a broader definition of PPP, according to the WiseGeek website:

Purchasing Power Parity is based on the idea that in a healthy global economy, any given good will have roughly the same price. That means that if the prices seem to differ, it is because the value of currency differs between the two countries. By looking at certain benchmark items, such as a loaf of bread, or a Big Mac hamburger, economies can be normalized among themselves, allowing for a better comparison between nations. Because any item can be chosen, however, and because the way of measuring costs of those items may differ, various groups come up with different scales of PPP.

09/28/2011

The specter of paramilitary revenge

How long will it be before vigilante-style paramilitary groups form in Mexico to fight back against gangsters and their rampant extortion and mayhem?

The question has been lingering for some time now. And it’s coming to the fore with a group that calls itself “Zeta killers” in Veracruz state. They are the ones who claimed responsibility for dumping the bodies of 35 people, presumed members of the Zetas gangster group, on a city boulevard in Veracruz Sept. 20.

The “Zeta killers” group posted an eerie YouTube video on the internet over the weekend. I’ve embedded it above. You can see the five members, all wearing black hoods, offering their Spanish-language justification for going after Los Zetas. 

“Our only objective is the cartel of Los Zetas,” the man says, reading from a statement. He concludes by saying that his group’s “intention is to let people in Veracruz know that this social scourge is not invincible…”

The paramilitary phenomenon is far from new in Latin America, reaching its height in Colombia, where wealthy ranchers formed armed groups to battle leftist FARC guerrillas seeking to abduct large landowners for ransom or squeeze payments from them. The paramilitaries often held right-wing political beliefs, carrying out executions of union bosses and others sympathetic to the left. Despite their brutality, the paramilitaries enjoyed a significant measure of social support. Many Colombians were fed up with the excesses of the FARC. 

But in Colombia, paramilitary actions descended into broad criminality. The paramilitary units became major cocaine traffickers. 

In a strictly semantic sense, the criminal gangs in Mexico might also be called paramilitary units. But they don’t hold the ideological edge that their Colombian counterparts once did. So far, there hasn’t been any social cleansing. Rather, one crime group goes after another, mainly because it wants to take over the underworld activities of its rival. But all Mexican crime groups engage in reprehensible tactics.

Alejandra Sota, the new spokeswoman on national security for President Felipe Calderon, made this point in a public statement this afternoon, sweeping away the argument that the killing of the 35 presumed Zetas was an act of social cleansing by a “better” vigilante force acting in the interests of society at large.

“While it is true that from information offered by local authorities, it is understood that some of the victims had criminal records, I underscore that for the federal government this circumstance does not in any way lessen the gravity of the deeds, nor does it diminish our determination to bring those responsible to justice,” she said.

“We must not grow confused over what happened recently in Veracruz. It is a matter of delinquents from one band who are trying to take over control of criminal activities of another criminal band.”

Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point a group of wealthy Mexicans did band together to finance a straight-forward vigilante style group. This Univision article (in Spanish) quotes a Mexican lawmaker saying it is already happening, and cites reports of Israelis and Iraq war veterans coming to Mexico. I personally haven’t heard such reports.          

Obama: Mexicans lack skills training

President Barack Obama sat down at the White House yesterday to answer questions from Hispanics who had emailed questions to Yahoo Espanol, AOL Latino, MSN Latino or Huff-Post Latino Voices.  Two of the questions were pertinent to Mexico. I've put in bold the part of the official transcript that I found interesting:

MS. KARINE MEDINA (MSN LATINO):  So the next question comes from California and was asked by Mike:  Is there anything the United States can do to strengthen the Mexican economy?  Could we form a stronger partnership with Mexico that would result in less illegal immigration and lowered expense of Border Patrol? 

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think it's very important to recognize, as the question recognizes, that if we can strengthen the Mexican economy then people have less incentive to look for work in the United States. We welcome immigration, but obviously a lot of people in Mexico would love to stay home and create businesses and find jobs that allowed them to support their family if they could, but the Mexican economy has not always been able to generate all the jobs that it needs.

This is a long-term challenge.  The Mexican economy is very integrated to the world economy and the U.S. economy, so they were affected by the recession very badly themselves.  I have a great relationship with President Calderón and we have looked for a whole range of ways that we can improve cross-border trade.  For example, we've been focused on how we can change the borders infrastructure so that goods are flowing more easily back and forth.

Ultimately, though, the Mexican economy is going to depend also on changing some of the structures internally to increase productivity, to train the workforce there, so education in Mexico is going to be also very important.  Part of what's happened in Mexico is, is that a lot of people have been displaced from the agricultural sector and they've moved to the cities; they don't have the skills necessarily for the higher-skilled jobs that exist in urban areas.  And so an education agenda in Mexico is also important, just as it is here in the United States.

But we very much want to work with Mexico around their development agenda because the more they are able to generate industry and businesses in Mexico, to some extent that's probably going to be one of the best solutions for the immigration pressures that we've been seeing over the last decade or so.

///

MR. JOSE SIADE (Yahoo Espanol):  Mr. President, this question comes from Karina in Ohio:  Mr. President, what is your strategy to stop the flow of weapons bought with drug money in the U.S. and then sent to Mexico, especially after what happened in Operation Fast and Furious?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, this is a great challenge, and I’ve been the first one to admit -- I’ve said this publicly in  bilateral meetings with President Calderón that there's a two-way street in terms of the problems of transnational drug operations. The Mexican government I think has been very courageous in taking on these cartels, at great cost, obviously, with respect to violence in Mexico.  That's the right thing to do.

We have to be a more effective partner in both reducing demand for drugs here in the United States and for stemming the flow of weapons and cash that help to finance and facilitate these cartels.  So we're working very hard to have a much more effective interdiction effort of south to north -- or north to south traffic than we have in the past, so we are checking southbound transit to try to capture illegal guns, illegal cash transfers to drug cartels.  It is something that we have been building over the last couple of years; it's not yet finished.And there's going to be more work to do.

Part of the issue here, obviously, is budgetary.  At a time when the federal government is looking for ways to save money, we're going to have to figure out ways to operate smarter and more effective in our investigations without a huge expansion of resources because those resources aren’t there.

09/27/2011

The offspring of Mexico's top drug lord

Hats off to colleagues over at LA Times for their scoop that the wife of the world’s most wanted drug lord recently traveled to a California hospital to give birth to twins.

The story of Emma Coronel, a former beauty queen who Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman married on her 18th birthday in 2007, is interesting in multiple ways.

Coronel, who apparently holds dual citizenship, can travel in and out of the U.S. at will. She crossed over at Calexico and went to Lancaster (in the greater LA area) and gave birth Aug. 15 at Antelope Valley Hospital so that her twin girls would have automatic U.S. citizenship.

Feds told the LA Times that no charges are pending against Coronel so they couldn’t arrest her. But they kept an eye on her. On the birth certificates, the name of the father is left blank. The story also notes that while Coronel might have given useful information on her husband’s whereabouts, the problem is not locating him but ensuring that Mexican troops can seize him.

My first thought on reading this was how astonishingly many of the family members of top narcos seem to have U.S. citizenship or active U.S. visas. That certainly was the case in Colombia in the 1990s. I recall visiting a sprawling ranch owned by a confessed drug smuggler, accompanying his Miami lawyer, long before the man went to a U.S. prison, and realizing that his immediate family seemed to travel all the time to Florida for shopping trips. They were all decked out in clothes that I thought were slightly peculiar, only later to learn that “Prada” was a really expensive designer brand. (OK, so I don’t read GQ. This was, like, 1998.)

The U.S. government increasingly uses denial of visas as a political weapon against corrupt politicians in Latin America. Panama’s tourism minister no longer has an active U.S. visa, according to press reports, and numerous Honduran politicians had visas cancelled after the 2009 coup.

The granting of visas _ and monitoring of the suspicious people who have them while they are in the United States _ may also be a valuable tool.

This all comes to mind because I’m headed to the Miami airport in an hour or two to return to Mexico, and came through there before the weekend. It is always entertaining to observe the immigration agents do their jobs, the lines of fidgety travelers, and particularly the behavior of those travelers who seem to arouse the interest of the agents as they present their passports. 

09/24/2011

Street level dope sales in Mexico

As crime groups battle each other in Mexico, journalists (including me) often describe it as a battle over smuggling routes and turf. 

But what doesn’t emerge clearly is that the cartels have found new revenue streams in selling dope at home, and fight to protect sales on the street.

In Spanish, it’s called “narco-menudeo,” and it is a significant cause of the violence in Mexico today. This came to mind as I read the text of a speech Attorney General Marisela Morales gave in Veracruz on Thursday. She brought the narcomenudeo aspect in stark terms.

“The effects of this illicit activity are reflected not only in the poisoning of our society but in the fact that it is the true cause of violence. It is one of the factors in the atrocious killings here in Veracruz, where 35 people lost their lives. …

“Gentlemen, it is not a surprise to anyone here that the battle among crime groups is over territorial control and the submission of those who sell at the street level.”

“That’s why we need to confront this crime, and it requires coordination for solid investigations that lead to convictions.”

09/22/2011

Selling Mexico's beaches, not mayhem

Liberan Tuiteros6
The photo above is of the two "Twitter terrorists" leaving their prison yesterday at 4 p.m. Authorities in the state of Veracruz decided to drop terrorism and sabotage charges against Maria de Jesus Bravo (below left) and Gilberto Martinez nearly a month after accusing them of creating chaos on the streets of the Boca del Rio district of the port.

Liberan Tuiteros1 The two used Twitter and Facebook Aug. 25 to propogate and repeat accounts that gangsters were shooting at schools in the district. Rumors were rampant that day, beginning around 8:30 a.m. Martinez's tweets came several hours later. In any case, authorities were enraged, claiming that false accounts on Twitter and Facebook contributed to "hysteria" that led parents to crash their cars in the rush to get to the schools. The two could have faced up to 30 years in prison.

In reality, there probably is a bit of hysteria in Veracruz these days. But it's not from accurate or inaccurate tweets. It's because gangsters are at war. On Tuesday at around 5 p.m., criminals halted traffic on a major roadway in Boca del Rio and dumped 35 freshly killed bodies on the pavement. A group calling itself Gente Nueva, or New People, claimed that the victims were from the rival Los Zetas band.

With such a major display of brutality and terrorism on the streets of Mexico's oldest port, the governor decided to drop the case against the "Twitter terrorists" and focus on the evident criminality rampant in the city. Here's my story from yesterday. The AP photo below is of the street scene following the discovery of the bodies.

Mexico Drug War_Nost
My colleague Bill Booth over at the Washington Post took an interesting slant in his story today about the killings. He contrasted it was President Felipe Calderon's current trip to the United States. Calderon's agenda included a number of important events, including speaking at the U.N. General Assembly and at the Council of the Americas. But he scheduled events in New York City and Los Angeles to help promote Mexican tourism. At both events, sponsors showed the upcoming TV program, "Mexico, The Royal Tour," in which Calderon dons scuba gear, rappelling harnesses and other togs to show off Mexico's wonders to host Peter Greenberg (AP photo below). The program is certainly well done. Regular readers will remember this post a few days ago with a promo for the show. But it's been a headspinning week for intersecting themes in Mexico. Just as Calderon touts his country's wonders, gangsters bloody Veracruz streets with a gruesome display of barbarity. And as Veracruz's leaders go after citizens who threaten the image of their state, those who are the real danger let loose with their wrath. And so far, there have been no arrests.

TV Touring with Royal_Nost

09/21/2011

Veracruz chief: victims were thugs

The dumping of 35 bodies on a roadway below an underpass in the tourist district of Veracruz is shocking. The bodies were splayed around two trucks, either on the pavement or still in the truck beds. Gunmen blocked traffic as motorists looked on at the gruesome scene.

The state prosecutor says of the victims that 23 were men, 12 women and that two were adolescents.
A sign left at the site indicates that those behind the murders were from “Gente Nueva,” or “New People,” an armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel.

The sign indicated that the victims were linked to Los Zetas, a rival cartel.

It said: "This is going to happen to all those Zeta s--ts that stay in Veracruz. The turf has a new boss G.N."

What I have found interesting this morning are tweets by Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte, who apparently views the killings as a positive type of social cleansing. Without further commentary, here is my translation of his last five tweets:

“The violence here now is linked to the fighting against crime and not criminal activity. Extortions have ended and no one talks about this.” 11 minutes ago.

“These 35 executed people have criminal records, are linked to organized crime and are listed in the Mexico platform.”  28 minutes ago

“The assassination of 35 people is unfortunate but even more so is that these people chose a life of extortion, kidnapping and killing.” 1 hour ago

“It is aberrant and outrageous. I repudiate what happened yesterday, nonetheless the message is very clear, in Veracruz there is no room for crime.” 1 hour ago

09/20/2011

A new law against 'alarming' tweets

A couple of hours ago, Veracruz state legislators approved a bill that would punish those who “disturb public order” with one to four years in jail.

Doesn’t sound like much, except there’s a huge backstory. In late August, Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte ordered terrorism charges brought against two local people who posted false tweets about alleged mayhem and shootings at schools in the Boca del Rio district.

The two were hauled off to prison for their tweets. The terrorism and sabotage charge carried a potential 30-year sentence for the two.

Perhaps Duarte thought he’d gotten rid of some troublemakers and the matter would die down, but no. The story bounced around the world. Type the name of one of the jailed tweeters, María de Jesús Bravo, into Google and you get 318,000 hits. Veracruz was ridiculed for jailing people like Bravo, a grandmother, while a lot of gangsters are on the loose, setting bombs and gunning people down, and rarely getting brought in by the police.

Looking to lighten the sentence on the two tweeters, and take some heat off his own back, Duarte proposed a lesser crime. Problem was, the crime was not on the books. So he proposed a new one, disturbing the public order, and that’s what sailed through the state legislature on a vote of 33-14 after a little more than an hour of debate today.

Fellow members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, backed Duarte’s plan and belittled those who said it would stifle freedom of speech.

“Freedom of expression does not consist of insulting, lying and broadcasting things that agitate society,” legislator Carlos Aceves Amezcua told elgolfo.com. 

Protesters who held up placards in the chambers evidently didn’t agree. Click here to see a photo. One said: “I don’t bring chaos. I don’t bring death. We are not terrorists.” Another said simply: “Free the Twitter users.”

The new law takes aim at those who falsely divulge information of a bombing, attacks by gunfire or other incidents that cause alarm, unease, panic or uncontrolled and anarchic movement of people.

Now that the new law will go into effect, it’ll be quite some legal trick to figure out how to apply it retroactively to people for actions that weren’t a crime at the time they were carried out.

09/19/2011

A legislator's murder gets little press

A federal legislator goes missing, then two weeks later his corpse turns up  -- and yet it still doesn’t make the front pages of most Mexican newspapers.

That’s what happened in the murder of Moises Villanueva, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a legislator in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

Villanueva went missing Sept. 4 when he and his driver, Erick Estrada Vazquez, left Tlapa, a town in the southern state of Guerrero. The bodies of Villanueva and Estrada turned up Saturday in a mountainous zone of Guerrero state. Both had been shot.

The congressman’s vehicle was later found abandoned, so his assailants were unlikely to have been thieves. 

I heard fellow PRI legislator Cuauhtemoc Salgado Romero talk about the murder in a radio interview this afternoon. Salgado said Villanueva was not a kidnap victim because there was no ransom attempt. The killers were targeting the legislator, he added.

“He was executed in a vile manner. They tortured him,” Salgado said. The corpse was so mangled that “it was very difficult to recognize him by sight.”

Some PRI activists in Villanueva’s native Guerrero took out newspaper ads today asking prosecutors to question Guerrero state secretary for rural development Sofio Ramirez in the killing. Ramirez broke away from the PRI and serves in a center-left party. Ramirez says his accusers better come up with some proof.

Criminal homicide? Political killing? Whatever, you’d think the murder of a federal lawmaker might deserve more attention.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Tim

This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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