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How to handle a press conference badly

A week ago, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli gave a textbook example of how to handle a news conference badly. This is what you do: Instead of coolly responding to questions, lash out at a reporter and call him a drug addict.

The conference April 20 was set up to answer questions that are roiling the Martinelli government over allegations it had sought bribes in a kickback scheme with Italian companies over prison construction in Panama. This is the kind of topic that can lead to testy exchanges.

Martinelli, a former business tycoon, got riled. In response to a question from Hugo Famania of RPC Television, the president said: "Sir, be a little more responsible in your outlook. I don't know if you are having problems with your old habits or what ...  I respect you a lot, I love you a lot, and I hope that you don't get messed up with drugs again."

At another point, Martinelli said to Famania, "For the love of God, Hugo, you have had problems with drugs but that doesn't mean I won't speak to you."

Several days ago, as journalists marched on the Las Garzas presidential palace to demand "dignity and respect" for their profession, Martinelli spoke to Radio Panama and publicly apologized: "I was wrong ... I shouldn't have made those comments the way I did."

Then today Martinelli met with a group of journalists and said he'd treat the media better.

Martinelli has had a tense relationship with journalists. While inaugurating a housing complex April 11, he dropped the "F-bomb" when referring to a tabloid he doesn't like and its coverage of him.



A deficit of honest campaign debate

A lot isn’t getting talked about in this presidential campaign.

For one thing, the three main candidates are providing little information about how they’d change public security strategy. Rather, they basically simply say they’d do things “better,” and get “more results.”

But security – a big issue that has seen more than 50,000 violent deaths during the current presidential term – is only one of many issues not getting talked about much.

Some Mexican commentators are noticing this. One, Victor Sanchez Banos, wrote a column about it on the Quadratin website, citing a number of “hot potato” issues which might not bring benefits to a candidate staking out a firm position.

“It’s like watching a soccer game in which the 11 players from each team stand around their own goal posts without trying to score a goal on the other side,” he wrote.

He went on to say that the “true national issues are not being addressed … All the candidates … want to maintain the hard votes and win over votes from their adversaries. But they don’t want to make bets or show their true faces.”

Here are 15 issues on which Sanchez says candidates hide their positions:
1) Abortion
2) Same-sex marriages
3) Adoptions by same-sex couples
4) Impunity
5) Drug addiction
6) How to combat public insecurity
7) How to create jobs
8) When to end the war on narcos
9) An increase in the value-added tax, and elimination of the “flat tax on business operation” and “tax on cash”
10) A new constitution and form of government
11) Life sentences for corrupt public officials
12) An end to state monopolies like the Pemex oil company and the CFE power company
13) Reduction in size of the Senate and Lower House
14) End to legal privilege, or fuero, to avoid prosecutions
15) End to abuses by electoral authorities


The wrong turn into Mexico

A few days ago, a 27-year-old American truck driver was arrested in Ciudad Juarez carrying a quarter-million rounds of ammo in his rig. He told authorities that he’d taken a wrong turn on I-10 in El Paso and ended up on the bridge crossing into Mexico.

The employer of driver Jabin Bogan, a company in Memphis called Demco Express, said Bogan was legally transporting the ammunition to a facility in Phoenix, Arizona.

So did Bogan make a monumental boo-boo, or was he taking ammo to gangsters? His mother, perhaps predictably, said it was a mistake. Check the video above from a Dallas newscast.

And consider the following letter published this morning in the El Paso Times:

Wrong turn

Five years ago, at the height of the Christmas season, I was driving home from Five Points and got on the North-South Freeway. I accidentally got into the southbound lane to Mexico.

Traffic was heavy and I was locked into going to the bridge and into Mexico. I told the agent on the U.S. side I did not want to go into Mexico.

He said to just cross, drive one mile, and then make a U-turn to get back into the United States.

I finally got back to the U.S. side, but the 90 minutes was a terrifying experience for me.

What the ammo driver experienced is completely believable. I lived it.

Flying him to Mexico City and possible organized-crime charges against him are insane. Our federal government needs to step in, get him back on our soil and stop the flow of our dollars to Mexico when human rights are violated.

We need clearly stated signs, lanes to turn around in, and retraining of U.S. agents who guide drivers into Mexico and then say just turn around.

Nancy Brown
East El Paso


Dodging flak from Wal-Mart

Mexican politicians, President Felipe Calderon among them, are dodging fallout from the report that Wal-Mart Mexico may have paid as much as $24 million in bribes from 2003 to 2005 to build new stores. Click here if you haven’t read the lengthy New York Times expose.

A little more than a week ago, Calderon (right) met with Wal-Mart CEO Michael T. Duke in Cartagena, Colombia, and his office released the photo above.

They probably wish they could recall the photo now.

At that meeting, Calderon “congratulated Wal-Mart on its commitment to the environment by generating increasing amounts of clean energy” and praised the company for buying directly from Mexican farmers, his office said.

Duke, for his part, “declared that Mexico is an example for the rest of the chain worldwide,” according to the statement.

Last night, Calderon’s office issued what it called a “bulletin,” unusual wording that emphasized that no blame should be laid on the federal government. Instead, the report referred to alleged “practices of bribery realized by Wal-Mart Mexico between 2003 and 2005 to local and state functionaries.”

“These practices, if true, would have been intended to acquire land and to obtain licenses and permits in order to accelerate the construction and opening of new stores. These correspond to the local authority, whether state or municipal. For this reason, the Federal Government has no jurisdiction in the matters referred to in this investigation.”

Calderon didn’t come to office till late 2006 more than a year after the period in question. Yet Wal-Mart is now slightly radioactive, and the issue has ripple effects. Wal-Mart Mexico stock fell 12.1 percent on the Mexican exchange yesterday, erasing $530 million in value. And those whose suspicions were raised by the report are already looking at individual Wal-Mart stores.

Several news articles in the Mexican press today refer to the 2004 opening of a Wal-Mart store near the Teotihuacan archaeological zone, less than two miles from the Sun and Moon pyramids. The Teotihuacan ruins are in the Mexico City metropolitan area and are among the nation’s signature sites. Think Statue of Liberty or Yellowstone National Park. An environmental group and some local residents fought the store at the time (link in Spanish). I have no access to the internal Wal-Mart documents that led to the New York Times story, so I don’t know if it is one of the stores in which “gestores” reportedly made payoffs to grease permits.

If so, the flak may only grow more intense.


How drug lords launder profits

Here's a short report from Al Jazeera on what Mexican drug lords do with their profits. It notes that the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has slapped sanctions on some 500 business entities in Mexico due to alleged links to the narcotics trade. It also notes something about the empty restaurants that seem to stay in business endlessly: They may be fronts for organized crime.


Another army general is gunned down

Somebody really, really wanted to see retired Gen. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro dead.

Back in 2010, a gunman intercepted and shot the retired army general in the gut in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. He survived.

He didn't survive a second attack, which came Friday afternoon as he descended from his chauffeured vehicle to pick up his Mercedes Benz (how many generals can afford to buy MBs?) in a suburban area of Mexico City. A guy in a motorcycle fired 3 rounds from a 9mm handgun into Acosta's head.

During his military career, Acosta was accused both of human rights abuses in a campaign to quell leftist guerrillas in the 1970s and 1980s and of links to the head of the Juarez narcotics cartel in 2007 a panel of judges overturned his conviction.

Acosta is not the only general to be gunned down in recent years. Last May, gunmen killed the recently retired No. 3 general, Jorge Juarez Loera, in suburban Mexico City. Assailants tortured and executed another retired general, Mauro Enrique Tello, near Cancun in 2009. Tello had just assumed a civilian public security post in the area.

Don Goyo's volcanic rumblings

I was about to post another video I found on YouTube of the rumblings of Popocatepetl, the volcano near Mexico City that is known as Don Gregorio, or for short Don Goyo, by many chilangos, or Mexico City residents. But then I noticed that someone claimed the video was actually of Krakatoa in Indonesia. So I chose this video, which is actually of a smaller eruption of Popo back in November. Normally, I can see the volcano on clear mornings from my window. But since it began acting up a week or so ago it's been hazy in the capital and I have seen any of the fireworks. The rumblings and volcanic distress of Don Goyo has provided a refreshing respite from the usual topics of conversation in the capital -- terrible traffic, upcoming elections, and turmoil elsewhere in the nation. The turmoil, this time, is distinctly not man-made. As the header of the national center for disaster preparedness, Roberto Quaas, said yesterday: "The volcano is calling the shots, and we must adapt to it." No disputing that.


The Mexican army's AWOL problem

The Mexican military is afflicted by desertions. According to documents from the Defense Ministry, 56,886 soldiers and officers have fled the army and air force over the past six years. The figures were published (in Spanish) on the animalpolitico.com website here.

That's a lot of soldiers, and to make matters worse the Mexican army has lost track of the majority of those gone AWOL. No one knows if they've joined the gangsters or are simply on the lam.

By my calculations, this is somewhere around a fourth or a fifth the number of the standing army, although trying to figure out how many soldiers Mexico has is not easy. I've just spent 10 minutes researching and come up with figures between 242,000 and over 300,000. This may be a reflection of featherbedding ranks so that higher ranking officers can pocket the salaries.

Animal Politico said that Sedena has tracked down and sanctioned only two of every 10 soldiers gone missing. The rest have escaped any punishment. The site says punishments can range from a month to six years in prison, depending on the rank of the desertor.

If this figure seems high, it was even higher for the period 2000-2006. The website says the ministry told it 106,813 soldiers went missing during that period.

To understand why the desertion problem is so severe, one can catch a glimmer of the reasons from the comments posted to the article.

One person writes: "With those starvation salaries and the risks, let's see who turns out the lights."

Another writes: "Is it because Mexican military tradition is a tradition of an army staying in the barracks or marching in an annual military parade? An army at the personal service of politicians, their relatives and friends? An army at the service of those temporarily in power? That is to say, a shoddy army?..."

The world's highest political ad

A Mexican mountaineer, Leonardo Fernandez, recently reached the summit of Mt. Everest, the world's highest mountain at 29,035 feet in elevation. Fernandez does more than just gaze out at the stunning panorama from the rooftop of the world. He records a video endorsing the presidential campaign of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

What interested me more about the video (in Spanish), though, was how deeply out of breath Fernandez appears to be. It's for logical reasons. At the top of Everest, there is only a third of the level of oxygen in the air as at sea level. Even at base camp on the Tibetan side, at a little more than 15,000 feet in elevation, oxygen levels are only half what they are at sea level.

I can attest to this personally. Click here for a video I did in 2007 of the scene at base camp as climbers prepare for the ascent. That's me about half way through the video, gasping for air and complaining how I woke up every half hour during the night.

So Sr. Fernandez, my advice is to forget about Lopez Obrador for the moment. Take some long oxygen-deprived breaths and get off the mountain. Otherwise, you'll be one more victim of the Everest "death zone" (that I wrote about here) littered with corpses.


A new U.S. regional sidekick: Colombia

The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Fred Flintstone had Barney Rubble. Batman had Robin. And the United States has Colombia.

Or so it seems when it comes to public security issues in the Western Hemisphere -- and even in Afghanistan. Colombia is becoming the U.S. sidekick, the go-to guy, subcontractor Numero Uno, on all matters security-related.

With dollars tight in Washington, the Obama administration (and the Bush administration before it) increasingly has asked Bogota to shoulder some of the burden on training police and prosecutors around the hemisphere.

After all, Colombia has vast experience in battling insurgents and drug cartels, dating back to the emergence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels to 1964. When I lived in Bogota for nearly half a decade in the latter part of the 1990s, the Attorney General’s Office was a heavily guarded bunker. Upon entry, there was a sandpit where one was expected to discharge any remaining cartridges in one’s sidearm.

The intelligence unit of the National Police was good and getting better.  I’d regularly stop in to see a young lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the unit. Today, Oscar Naranjo is the national police chief with a hemispheric reputation.

Just how much the Colombians have done has not been made public. Much of it is under wraps. Few will talk about Colombian help in spotting and tailing drug planes leaving Venezuela for Central America. Colombia-Venezuela relations are too tense to risk provoking them with this kind of information.

But with last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, the State Department issued a number of statements and “fact sheets” regarding Colombia’s broadened role.

This one noted that Colombian trainers over the past three years have trained 11,000 police officers from 21 Latin American and African countries, and even in Afghanistan.
Curiously, the webpage omits the following paragraph about Colombian activity in Mexico that was included in the U.S. "fact sheet" emailed to me:

“Colombia has trained more than 6,000 Mexican federal and state law enforcement personnel, over 500 prosecutors and judicial personnel, and 24 Mexican helicopter pilots. To complement this bilateral relationship, the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative supports a training program being conducted by Colombia’s National Police Junglas for the Mexican Federal Police. Colombia and Mexico are sharing information, are seeking to expand their bilateral extradition treaty, and are planning to conclude an evidence-sharing agreement.”

It went on to say that “Colombia's security assistance in the region also includes training programs and exchanges with Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, Peru, and Paraguay.”

And all this is only what is said publicly. Like a good sidekick, Colombia has learned to remain silent about all it does.



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

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