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Offering handouts to lure voters

This is a very good report on the abundant handouts given by political parties in the run-up to Sunday's election. Parties deny it but it is clear the handouts (and cash) have drawn people to candidate rallies, making each candidate appear more popular than they really are. Try filling the Azteca Stadium without handouts. Only Justin Bieber and Paul McCartney can do that. There's also been controversy about voters taking cell phones into voting booths. The electoral institute has ruled that they will be allowed -- amid reports that voters who take photos of their filled out ballots inside the booth can get compensation from some parties. This may be true on municipal levels but several analysts say it would be far to expensive to carry out on a national level.


Holes in the airport shooting story

Security officials are sticking to their story about how three federal police officers ended up slain at Mexico City airport’s Terminal Two yesterday.

Yet the story doesn’t add up.

A statement by the Public Security Secretariat issued late last night says the federal police have had their eye on cocaine trafficking through the airport for 18 months.

As a result, it said, “an investigations unit of the federal police launched an operation Monday morning, June 25th, to capture red handed two federal police officers posted at AICM (the international airport of Mexico City) and linked to activities of a drug trafficking network.”

“Upon seeing themselves discovered by the federal police investigations unit, the two men opened fire to avoid capture, killing three federal police,” it said.

Okay, so you got crooked cops at the airport. They have side arms. Do you send just three investigating officers to arrest them? Never. You overwhelm them. Why is there no mention of other officers? If there were backup officers, at least one of them would have gotten off a few shots and wounded one of the crooked cops. But it didn’t happen. The crooked cops got away, certainly aided by confederates at the airport.

One astute reader sent me similar observations:

“I just thought I'd point out that this shooting doesn't look like narcos dressed as police. It looks like two groups of police fighting over the drug routes through the airport.

“If the police were going to do an arrest, would they have three approach two others, in the food court area, and confront them? This is not how professional police work, especially at the federal level, is done.”

More worrisome, in my view, is the cold-blooded nature of the killing. Either the crooked cops were tipped off, and fully prepared to kill the approaching cops, or the investigations team did not come to make arrests but to negotiate a cut. And it seems clear that these were not cops offering simple protection to traffickers. They are part of the drug gang themselves. You probably don’t open fire on fellow cops to let a few kilos of coke through. You open fire because you have been ushering hundreds of kilos through.

The four airlines using Terminal Two are Aeromexico, Delta, Taca and Lan. Taca and Lan fly south to Panama and South America, respectively. Cocaine doesn’t generally head in that direction. That means cocaine stashed aboard planes is moving on Aeromexico or Delta northward. Delta should be worried.

Lest you think these are cynical ramblings, some Mexican commentators think even worse.

Horacio Zaldivar, writing in Vanguardia this morning, said there’s no way professional cops would make this kind of arrest in an airport food court “before hundreds of citizens (who could be) ‘collateral damage.’”

“The incident was certainly a vendetta between those involved in the mega cocaine trafficking business …” Zaldivar writes.

If a thorough house cleaning of all security personnel does not occur at Terminal Two, it means that someone in power wants the smuggling to go on uninterrupted.


A gunfight at the airport

Mexico Airport Shooti_Nost
Air travelers have a new worry. Shooting broke out this morning at 8:50 a.m. at Mexico City’s airport Terminal Two, which is the terminal that serves all Aeromexico flights and many of its SkyTeam partners, such as Delta.

The shooting erupted in a spacious food court away from the airline counters. Two federal police were killed on the spot, and a third died later at a hospital. That's an AP photo above minutes after the gunshots.

Authorities said federal police were carrying out an anti-drug operation at the airport.

Here’s the scary thing: El Universal reports that the narcos were also wearing uniforms of the federal police. Imagine being caught in a gunfight where both sides look like they are the police.

While it may offer little solace to jittery travelers, Mexico City still remains largely safe from the drug violence in Mexico. A group of us journalists sat down one day last week with the leftist candidate who is likely to be Mexico City’s next mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera.

Mancera was succinct about the reasons why narcos haven’t sunk their talons into the capital. The city has 70,000 police officers and 13,000 closed-circuit security cameras, he said. “Mexico City is not an attractive place … for organized crime,” he said.

In other parts of the country, gangsters move about in fleets of identifiable vehicles.

“They go around in convoys, six or seven pickup trucks. They carry assault weapons,” Mancera said. Mexico City has bases of both soldiers and naval marines, as well as large police precincts scatter over the metropolitan area. Narcos would be close to trouble wherever they went. “It’s hard for them to operate here.”

The airport is a different story, an enclave withing the city. It’s essentially in the hands of federal authorities, and signs that gangsters have a foothold there are clear. So far this year, officials said they’d confiscated 200 kilos of cocaine there. Aeromexico personnel have been involved in several smuggling cases originating from Terminal Two.

In December 2010, three Aeromexico flight attendants were arrested in Madrid trying to bring in 300 pounds of cocaine to Spain from Mexico City. In August of last year, an Aeromexico co-pilot was busted in Madrid taking 93 pounds of cocaine from Mexico.

All of that happened in Terminal Two. Anybody seeing a link here?


Why can't Mexico get ahead?

Mexico has abundant resources, an industrious population and open doors to the most powerful economic locomotive on Earth. So why isn’t it doing better?

It’s a question I’ve spent two months looking at, and the result is a package of stories that you can see here. It’s a look at where Mexico is headed, not next month or next year but in a couple of decades.

Economists say there is no reason why Mexico couldn’t reach the level of a moderately well off European country (presuming there is no euro-meltdown) by mid-century. But it would take dramatic reforms to knock off the political and economic shackles that hold back the country.

My articles look at some of the structural root problems in the country, issues that have hardly emerged in the current campaign because they cut to the core of power and privilege in modern Mexico. One article examines the monopolies that control what we eat, drink and watch on TV in Mexico. Another looks at the sad shape of the educational system. Still another – perhaps of some controversy – looks at whether the ‘maquiladora’ model is in fact a good long-term strategy for Mexico or if it is just trapping workers in poverty.

That article generated a few comments on various newspaper websites, some of them quite thoughtful. Here’s one example:

“Would the author suggest that things would be better without the 1.9 million manufacturing jobs in these factories, and the US$1.5 billion (yes, with a 'B') that these same factories pay each month in salaries and benefits? What domestic industry in Mexico could be substituted and provide such jobs and wage levels (wages that are very often higher than other job opportunities for lower-skilled workers in Mexico)? The answer, unfortunately (and not a subject that this article addresses) is there is none. So, my opinion: don't cast maquiladoras as the source of the problem - as they are one of the only options nearly 2 million people in Mexico have for jobs.”

Those are good, deep philosophical questions, and one that anyone concerned about development should ponder. I recall living in Central America in the 1990s where my attitude shifted quite sharply on the role of the assembly plants popping up there. Yes, owners of the plants could easily pick up stakes and move production elsewhere around the globe. Many did. But jobs were so desperately needed that I figured these plants were far better than having no job at all.

I’ve also spent time visiting factories all across China, from northern Shenyang and Ningbo near Shanghai to the Pearl River Delta while covering China for six years.

What I saw there – in addition to tremendous industriousness – was an implicit guarantee from the Chinese state: Do these jobs and your children will have a better life. You will, too, because we’ll ensure that wages rise (and they have).

Mexico is different. I detect little commitment from the Mexican state that those employed in low-wage jobs can build a better life for their children. I’ve rarely heard the Ivy League-trained technocrats in Mexico City voice concern about the children of the maquiladora workers even though many belong to the six million “ni-nis” – they neither go to school nor work.

And that’s a flaw in the Mexican model. I can see a country asking for one generation to sacrifice itself in jobs that keep its members only barely out of poverty. But for the sake of future generations, a strong government would ensure that children stay in school and that housing and other subsidy programs are not riddled with corruption. School is emphatically not free in Mexico, despite what the constitution mandates. And subsidy programs often appear to be slush funds for corrupt politicians. If the government were to try to lift wages gradually as it educates workers and retools the economy, Mexico’s future would indeed be different.

Fists fly in Panama's congress

Check out what happened earlier today in Panama's Congress. What started out as shouting, shoving of chairs and arm waving turned into something more serious. Raul Pineda, a deputy from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, rose to the speaker's platform, whacked something that looked like a can in front of the session leader, then started pushing him down. Quite a scene.

And it only got worse. When sparring between legislators continued outside the building, riot police were called in. They used pepper spray to break up squabbling lawmakers. At one point, angry legislators pushed down a metal fence outside Congress.

President Ricardo Martinelli late in the day withdrew a proposal to sell shares in the electric and telephone utilities, which opposition lawmakers claimed was irregular. Martinelli also wants to name three new judges to the Supreme Court, in which case eight of the 12 judges would owe their jobs to him.

Denying spouses their 'cuchi-cuchi'

Lysistrata tried it in ancient Greece. Now Josefina Vazquez Mota employs the strategy.

Vazquez Mota is a trailing candidate in Mexico for the ruling National Action Party. As the first woman presidential candidate in the nation’s history, she has sometimes met enthusiastic crowds of women.

At one campaign gathering late last week in Mazatlan, Vazquez Mota said this to the boisterous crowd, according to the Rio Doce newspaper (h/t to the Narco Mexico blog):

"Everybody get out to vote, but don't do it alone, go with 15 or 30 other votes, go early before anyone else gets to the polls, invite your children, your friends and your partners: warn your partner (a man) that if he doesn't go there won't be any cuchi cuchi for a month.”

If he does get up, then give him double “cuchi-cuchi,” she added.

With that outburst, Vazquez Mota introduced a new expression into the campaign argot – one that has engendered countless columns, political cartoons and spoofs. Cuchi-cuchi is, of course, a made-up expression. It doesn’t appear in the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, the final arbiter of Spanish usage.

Regardless, the concept is not new. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the main character gathers the women of ancient Greece and urges them to deny sex to their husbands until a peace treaty has been signed to end the Peloponnesian War.

In Colombia in the mid-1990s, armed forces Commander Manuel Jose Bonnet (a big buff of all things Greek) picked up on the Lysistrata theme, encouraging Colombian women to deny sex to leftist guerrillas taking part in a kidnapping campaign. I don’t think his plea had any effect, but if I remember correctly the government later sent him as ambassador to Greece.

The cost of the biofuels 'land grab'

The rush for alternative energy sources has a downside. Reports in the past year have filtered out of Honduras, Guatemala and the Chiapas region of Mexico of wealthy agro-industrialists pushing peasants off lands so they can grow palm oil to make bio-diesel and other alternative fuels.

The issue even grabbed the attention of Scientific American, which said small farmers are losing land worldwide to make way for energy crop plantations.

And it’s not just for biofuels. I’m also hearing of poor farmers in the Tihuantepec isthmus of Mexico getting shafted by global wind energy companies wanting their land for 40-year contracts. Read here for an article about the "dark side" of wind energy in the isthmus. 

The video above came via email to me this morning from ActionAid USA, a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks global poverty eradication. I can’t verify their claims of how much ethanol is responsible for tortilla price increases. But certainly activists who promote small-scale agriculture in Mexico are angry at the policies of the Calderon government. Read a scathing post here about the agriculture minister’s appearance in Los Cabos just before the G20 summit ending today


The freebies of the campaign

My favorite T-shirt and baseball cap bear the name of a certain senator from South Dakota who happens to be my homonym. I’ve never met the man but I love the slogan on his campaign material: Tim Johnson – Working Harder, Making a Difference. So I bought the T-shirt and cap through the mail the last time he ran for office, which I think was 2008. I'm sure his campaign workers did a double take when they saw my name on the request.

A lot of people like campaign giveaways, and that is especially true here in Mexico. Candidates wouldn’t draw much in the way of crowds if they didn’t give stuff away.

The video above came out in recent hours. It purports to show a huge warehouse in the capital of Veracruz state, Xalapa, jammed with freebies to give away at campaign appearances by PRI candidates.

The narration is in Spanish but even if you don’t understand it’s worth taking a look at the massive piles of goods, which include umbrellas, boots, raincoats, plastic garbage bins, blankets, plastic chairs, mugs and -- what else? -- T-shirts.

It’s all purportedly for the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidates in Veracruz. But the reality is that all parties are giving away stuff. We can only guess at how much of it is paid off-the-books and away from campaign disclosure laws.


Huge Baja project gets the axe

President Felipe Calderon has put the kibosh on a giant condo/hotel project in Baja California that could have rivaled Cancun in size.

The project, Cabo Cortes, was to be near the tip of Baja California and adjacent to the largest and northernmost coral reef system in Mexico.

The cancellation of the project is a reprieve to the marine park, known as Cabo Pulmo, which over the past decade has recovered from overfishing to become an example of how marine environments can come back to health.

The villagers of Cabo Pulmo, who fought hard against the development, may have the European financial crisis to thank for the suspension. The Spanish developer, Hansa Baja Developments, owes big time to Spanish banks, one of which was taken over by the Spanish government. Needless to say, Spain doesn’t have money to be throwing at major tourism projects overseas, especially ones that critics like Greenpeace say is damaging to the environment.

Read here for a story I did after visiting Cabo Pulmo last summer, and here and here for stories by my colleagues from other media.

In its statement, Calderon’s office said that it has become clear that “the project has not yet demonstrated its sustainability clearly and without question, particularly since the area is so important to the Gulf of California, Mexico and the world.”

The environmental and natural resources secretariat under Calderon had drawn withering criticism from foreign scientists for giving an initial green light to the project. And Greenpeace Mexico has basically suggested that payoffs may have led the secretariat to let the project continue until today, approving it at two levels.

In a tweet, Greenpeace demanded "punishment for the functionaries that approved this project twice."

To read more reaction to the cancellation, largely in Spanish, follow the hashtag #cabopulmo on Twitter.

Photo by Tim Johnson


Police do narco bidding in Jalisco

This video from Jan. 20 shows incontrovertible proof that police officers in parts of Jalisco state collude with organized crime. In the images, which were released by authorities Wednesday night, one sees at least four uniformed police officers arriving at a hotel in the city of Lagos de Moreno.

They go into the hotel, speak at the front desk, then pull at least three men from their rooms, marching them in their underwear to the back of a pickup truck. Lurking about are other gunmen, clearly gangsters, who oversee the operation.

The victims were strangled, beaten and killed. Five of six hours later, their bodies turn up near the city's main square.

It's far from the first time that municipal police have proven to be on the payroll of organized crime. Whole police forces have been sacked for it. But the video puts on full display the connivance of corrupt officers who lead these three men to their death. The victims were from Coahuila state, and this AP story indicates that the local gangsters -- the Jalisco New Generation -- may have thought they were from a rival gang.

So there you have it: Police officers upholding the law, the law of the jungle, that is.



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

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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