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02/28/2013

Latest narco tactic: 'Pot cannons'

CNN had a report earlier today on these air-powered "pot cannons" that drug smugglers are using to lob marijuana over the border into the United States. This is the latest permutation on other smuggling tactics. I blogged here when they found a drug catapult. And I've written here about the use of ultralight aircraft to take drugs over the border. Then there are the tunnels. What's left? Fleets of carrier pigeons?

02/24/2013

Mexico and its contrarian indicators

For those bullish on Mexico, Sunday was a big day. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, published a glowing essay on why Americans should look next door to Mexico as the country to watch, not China or India.

The essay, titled How Mexico got Back in the Game, notes that Mexico has 44 free-trade agreements, more than any other country in the world, and the country sits atop “massive cheap natural gas finds.”

The three main political parties have signed a pact “to fight the big energy, telecom and teacher monopolies that have held Mexico back.” Americans, Friedman says, need a “more nuanced” view of Mexico but should be quite bullish on the nation.

There are many ways to slice Friedman’s essay. And some analysts went to work immediately. One is George Baker, a Houston-based energy analyst who lived for a time in Mexico. He quickly whipped off a comment to the Grey Lady taking apart Friedman’s argument. Here is one paragraph on trade:

“Take out intra-firm transactions in which Chrysler-Mexico sells to Chrysler-China, and daily trade will shrink to the value of commerce in oil and food products, services (including oilfield services), plus the remnants of a tourism industry battered by violence. Meanwhile, Carlos Slim skims off the top of the Mexican economy monopolistic rent whose value has been estimated by Mexican economists at 3% of Mexico’s GDP.”

Baker dismissed the reference to huge shale oil reserves – “Pemex has no plans to develop shale fields” – and concludes that, “Celebrations about Mexico’s advances in its economy and governance are premature.”

If the enthusiasm (or hype) about Mexico is reminiscent of the euphoria for Brazil back around 2009, then Friedman’s essay may actually be a contrarian indicator. Friedman was a regular visitor to Brazil back then. Here’s one of his columns. 

As a colleague noted at a weekly bull session we foreign reporters hold on Friday evenings, Brazil seemed at the top of the emerging market heap back then, the lead nation of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and, later, South Africa). But the BRICS are now passé. And Brazil has posted anemic growth for several years.

Indeed, the benchmark Bovespa index is down 16% since the end of 2010.

Maybe the apathy for Brazil is overdone. And the euphoria for Mexico also an overreaction.

Certainly the number of free-trade agreements that Mexico has signed does not indicate how open the economy is. It only takes a trip to Office Max, the neighborhood supermarket or a furniture stores to see hidden barriers to entry in Mexico. Why are Hewlett Packard printers assembled in Mexico not available here? Why are Sony plasma screen TVs assembled in Mexico cheaper in the States than here? If it's so open, why are there so many monopolies and duopolies? 

This is not Taipei, Singapore or even some Central American capitals. There are many things you cannot get here or that are quite costly. Anybody go in the Liverpool department store and look at prices lately?

I don’t find my reporting colleagues here a cynical group. Mexico-bashing is not a practice. Many are married to Mexicans, are Mexican themselves or have lived here for decades. That’s a short way of saying they want Mexico to progress and flourish. But the obstacles are many. Governance and security issues are critical. Corruption is rampant. It is too early to pop the champagne.

02/20/2013

Why is Chicago gunning for 'El Chapo'?

ElChapoWantedPoster1
A few days ago, the Chicago Crime Commission held a press conference to declare Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman the city’s Public Enemy No. 1.

This is a storied, if dubious, honor. The last person to win that title in Chicago was Al Capone in 1930 during Prohibition. Chicago’s crime fighters said in a release that “up until now (they) had yet to witness a criminal worthy of the same moniker.”

They now deem Guzman (has he ever set foot in the Windy City?) worthy.

He “is accused of having used Chicago as his drug trafficking hub for the Midwest, allegedly having trafficked 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine through Chicago per month,” the release said.

Anti-drug officials laid it on thick.

"In my opinion, Guzman is the new Al Capone of Chicago. His ability to corrupt and enforce his sanctions with his endless supply of revenue is more powerful than Chicago's Italian organized crime gang," said John Riley, the DEA’s special agent in charge in Chicago.

The Crime Commission’s president, J.R. Davis, called Guzman “one of society's most vicious, ruthless and powerful individuals."

Commission Executive Vice President Arthur Bilek added: "Because of the direct link between the violence of the street gangs and the narcotics business, it can be said that Guzman's fingerprints are on the guns used in many of the shootings plaguing Chicago today.”

Let me add another possible motive for finding a new Public Enemy No. 1. Chicago’s murder rates are skyrocketing. Some 535 people were killed there last year, up sharply from 2011’s 433 murders. So far, 2013 is shaping up as bloody as 2012. According to this story, Chicago is a deadlier place now than during Al Capone’s gangland era.

Perhaps crime fighters need an external enemy to blame the spate of murders on rather than draw attention to their flawed strategy in slowing down the homicide rate.

02/18/2013

The amazing 'birdmen of Mexico'

Anyone who visits Veracruz and environs at fiesta time is likely to see the age-old Dance of the Voladores, the ancient Mesoamerican acrobatic dance that brings awe to viewers. I was in Cuetzalan, on the border between Puebla and Veracruz states over the weekend. To my delight, be-costumed dancers arrived at the Zocalo on Sunday morning and began to climb the huge pole. It must have been over 100 feet in height. 

According to the history books, the ritual began many centuries ago as a supplication to the gods to end drought and return rain and fertility to the soil. As recently as a few decades ago, the dancers would still adorn their bodies with feathers to appear as birds to the gods. They'd apply feathers from eagles, owls, crows, parrots and the brightly colored quetzal bird.

Check out this January 1954 Popular Mechanics article titled "The Weird Birdmen of Mexico." The article notes that after the dancers climb to the top of the pole, they "drop off into space with blood-curdling shrieks and glide in widening circles until they hit the ground."

I didn't hear any shrieks. Rather, the whole ceremony was accompanied by lilting fife and drum music, and the pealing of church bells. The costumes include long pastel ribbons that flutter as the dancers descend to the ground.

In 2009, UNESCO chose the ritual ceremony of the 'voladores' as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, putting it up there with Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities.  

Clambering into Mexico's depths

IMG_4840
One of the charms of Cuetzalan, which the Washington Post once called the “perfect mountain town,” is that it is in the mountains of Puebla atop a massive cave system.

Photo-2A lover of caves, I badgered my traveling companions along on a weekend trip to enter a cave with me named Los Corales, which turned into quite an adventure. We descended 700 meters into the cave, all of us wearing helmets with headlamps and led by a guide who said she’d been in Los Corales hundreds of times.

It was raining up above, and the family that manages the cave suggested we wear rented boots. We all said no. That was mistake No. 1. Once we got into the cave, we were engulfed by several inches of rushing water in several spots. In one area we had to descend (and later ascend) what felt like a small rushing waterfall.

That said, the cave was beautiful, the darkness deep inside profound, and the crystals and stalactites otherworldly. One of my companions, Swedish television journalist Bosse Lindwall, took the video that accompanies this post. You can hear the rushing water at times in the video.

 

'I just got totally raped by the police'

This video is a few months old. It shows an American driver getting stopped in Aguascalientes by a traffic cop who proceeds to tell him his fine comes to 6,400 pesos, or more than $500 US. The cop seems VERY eager to receive the cash immediately. The driver, who doesn't speak Spanish, says he's in a Budget rental car, but the cop insists that he doesn't have the proper "verification" for the car.

Finally, the cop takes some 600 pesos from the driver and tells him to scram.

As the American drives off, he says, "Dude! I just got totally raped by the police, dude! Hola Mexico! Viva Mexico!"

I'm glad he kept his good humor. Makes me recall a time a policeman stopped me outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras. When he saw my rental car contract, he said, "This isn't notarized." I could hardly stop laughing. I told him no auto rental contract is ever notarized. His bristles went up. It was only when I told him I was a journalist and started taking down his name and badge number that he relented.

02/15/2013

Houses without dignity for the poor

This is a video I picked up from The Guardian's blog on global development, and pertains to a sham housing project in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state where 78 percent of people are poor. When contractors in Mexico win bids to erect low-cost housing projects, they often do so because of their good relations with politicians. They then sometimes cheat on the building materials, kicking back profits to the politicos. When all is done, the political parties say they fulfilled pledges to attend to the poor, the contractors build what initially appear to be extensive tracts of decent housing, then the poor are told to occupy them. Only some can't live there. The housing grows dilapidated quickly. Cracks open in walls. Then people move out. It's a sad and massive waste. 

P.S. I may have had a coding problem with the video. If it appears too tiny on your screen, either refresh the page or go to the The Guardian hyperlink above to see the video.

02/13/2013

The need for a new 'green revolution'

Cimmyt
Some half a century ago in the arid hills 30 miles north of Mexico City, an American agronomist and humanitarian, Normal Borlaug, developed the hybrid seeds and new ideas that became known as the “green revolution.”

Borlaug and other scientists would pass on to nations in South Asia the high-yielding varieties of grains that averted starvation among one billion people.

Today, the world needs a new “green revolution.” I heard about it at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center where Borlaug did decades of work before winning the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. That's a new bioscience facility at the center above.

I was there on a different matter but fell into conversation with Kevin V. Pixley, an American who is the director of the genetic resources program.

Here’s the key takeaway: The world population now is 6.8 billion people. By 2050, estimates say it will hit 9.2 billion. But by 2050, the developing world will need 60 percent more wheat and twice as much corn. Yes, double. Demand will soar.

“Not only is population growing but, thankfully, poverty is declining,” Pixley explained. “So what happens in India when people start to have a little more expendable income? Well, first of all they want to eat a little more dairy products. They want to eat more chicken, in the case of India. If you go up to China, they want to eat more pork and more beef.

“Those foods – the dairy products and the meat products – require several times more grain than a human (does). If I feed myself on maize and soybeans, I can eat a few kilos a week. But if I’m eating beef and chicken, those beef cattle use many kilos to produce one kilo of beef. So you need a lot more food to maintain a higher standard of diet, which of course is desirable. We want this to happen. But it does imply a lot more food than if you’re eating a basic diet of basic grains.”

But guess what? It’s harder than ever to produce more food. Water tables are falling, extreme weather is increasing, climate change is coming, and new pestilent diseases have emerged.

“We have a new epidemic in Kenya, maize lethal necrosis. We have a new disease of wheat in Brazil called wheat blast, which is completely new,” said Thomas Lumpkin, the director of the maize and wheat center.

Lumpkin laid out what may happen if scientists can’t bring about a new green revolution: “Failing to meet it will be disastrous for millions of people. … We have all the ingredients for a new global food crisis, even a political crisis.”

“We’ve already seen how high wheat prices fueled the revolutions in the Arab world – in Libya, in Egypt. I’m sure you can remember the 2007 tortilla crisis here in Mexico. The world must grow more food with less inputs, with less land, with less water, with less labor, with less fertilizer.”

Lumpkin cited the “enormous challenge” of meeting greater demand for grains. If a new green revolution comes about, it is likely to sprout from the high-tech laboratories and 200 scientists at this agricultural center in Texcoco, in the arid plains north of Mexico City.

Saving Mexico's national symbol

Aguila real1
The aguila real, or golden eagle, is such a powerful national symbol in Mexico that it is the centerpiece of the national flag, perched on a cactus with a snake clutched in its beak and talon.
But the avian predator is endangered. The Environmental and Natural Resources Secretariat sent out a release a few hours ago noting that there are only 81 known pairs of golden eagles in Mexico, with habitats in 13 of the nation's 31 states.
Ornithologists have identified 145 eagle nests spread in the states of Aguascalientes, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Durango, Queretaro, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Sonora. 
So what's endangering the golden eagle? In a nutshell, powerlines. According to this Nature Conservancy website, the eagles are suffering electrocutions and collisions with power lines at an alarming rate. Along one small stretch alone near the El Uno Nature Reserve, as many as three golden eagles die a year. What can be done? Some measures are simple, such as replacing metal crossbars on power poles with wooden ones. The eagles like to nest and perch on the power poles to survey prairies in areas like Chihuahua.
 

02/11/2013

A grotesque assassination in Honduras

Only watch the above video if you have a strong stomach. It shows a cold-blooded gangland style assassination of two youths on Nov. 21, 2012, in the Comayagüela neighborhood of the capital, Tegucigalpa. The images are from a security camera.

The video appeared on the website of the El Heraldo newspaper in Honduras last week. According to this blog, "El Heraldo claimed that the authorities failed to open an investigation into the shoot-out and that the prosecutor's office had not filed the video as evidence."

Since then, the public security minister, Pompeyo Bonilla, who has failed to rein in a runaway murder rate that has made Honduras the world's most homicidal country, or oversee the capture of a single suspect in the slayings, had the audacity to lash out at the newspaper, claiming the video marked "total disrespect for the bereaved" and also defamed the image of Honduras.

My opinion: These videos, as awful as they are, need to be in the public sphere. Maybe someone will recognize one of the killers and help bring them to justice. Only if the killers are handed to Bonilla on a platter will he have courage to take action rather than taking aim at the journalists. If he takes effective action, the image of Honduras will improve.  

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Tim

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

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