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The roots of Mexico's drug violence

This is an 8-minute video from the Council on Foreign Relations that goes beyond the current hype about "Mexico's Moment" to look at the entrenched causes of drug violence. Deep economic inequality has left millions of Mexicans on the margins, and they are easy recruits for organized crime. After all, the common phrase in Mexican slang is "It's better to live five years as a king than 50 years as an ox" ("Más vale vivir cinco años como rey, que 50 como buey" ). In short, even if I'm slain in gangland violence in a few years, I'll be rich and powerful till then. If I were to critique the analysis, though, I believe emphasizing how "open" Mexico's economy is is misleading. While Mexico has changed dramatically in the past three decades, many barriers to trade exist, some of them non-financial. True open economies lead to greater social mobility, something Mexico lacks.  

A rise in border horse patrols

As undocumented migrants look for more remote trails to cross into the United States, the Customs and Border Patrol is returning to a tried-and-true tactic -- horse patrols. According to this article, the Border Patrol now has 334 horse units, a 33 percent rise since 2008. Horse patrols date back more than a century along the border, to the time when agents policed against Chinese immigrants. "The stealthiness of the horse is great," Border Patrol supervisor Jaime Cluff says on the video. "They get us to areas where not even the ATVs can access."



Mexico helps avoid a heist

It was a mugging, but the hemisphere’s “moral conscience” survived. And Mexico played a key role.

A body that you may not have heard of – the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – survived an attack by four countries: Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The commission has been around for nearly half a century. It is despised by dictators, abhorred by autocrats and loathed by the Latin nations under the shadow of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez. Those countries mounted a dark alley assault on what one columnist calls a “human rights heavyweight.”

So foreign ministers from around the hemisphere on Friday poured into Washington to the stately headquarters of the Organization of American States, the hemisphere’s oldest body, to debate the IACHR’s future. Debate lasted nearly 12 hours and concluded with a vote of confidence in the commission.

The strong support of Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade drew the attention of my colleague Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald. He examines here whether Mexico’s ruling PRI – long a friend of dictatorial regimes in the hemisphere – has changed its stripes. His conclusion: No, this was one-off support.

Ecuador Chavez_NostFirst, a little background: the human rights commission is a bit of an orphan. Nations don’t even want to pay for it. European governments and entities finance nearly a third of its budget. Aspects of the commission’s charter also make some U.S. politicians uncomfortable. The charter rejects the death penalty, for instance.

So despite playing a role in setting up the legal scaffolding of the hemisphere’s human rights structure in 1969, U.S. lawmakers have never ratified the treaty.

This is the flank where Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa aims his dagger. Correa (that's him in an AP photo) has taken the lead in flaying the commission and a second OAS institution that seeks to protect freedom of expression (aiming its wrath at Correa’s own attacks on the press in his country).

Correa railed against the commission in a special preparatory meeting before the OAS in Guayaquil on March 11:


“How is it possible that the commission is financed almost entirely, exactly 96.5%, by countries that have not ratified the Convention on Human Rights of the OAS, by countries so called "Observer States," which are not part of the Inter-American System, and by organizations and international cooperation foundations of those same countries?

“In the name of human rights, they pay to control others. How long will we endure such a contradiction? We all know that since the world began, who finances imposes the conditions. Enough of such hypocrisy!”

Correa blasted the OAS for putting the headquarters of the rights commission in Washington, a nation that hasn’t ratified the overarching rights treaty, saying it should be in a nation that respects all aspects of rights (implying his own nation).

“Here, torture is not allowed, there is no death penalty, we have not invaded anyone at all, no drones and selectively killing of terrorism suspects without trials, along with ‘collateral damage’ of family, neighbors, etc.”

In his speech before the OAS Friday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns lauded the commission as the “moral conscience” of the region, and said that during the Cold War years it “faced down military strongmen, documented forced disappearances, and catalogued the human costs” of civil wars.

He said the U.S. supports the commission’s work “even as it raises challenging issues for us – from the death penalty and the human rights of migrants and incarcerated children, to the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

Meade, the Mexican secretary, strongly urged Latin nations to pony up more money for the cash-strapped commission, ratify the overarching treaty and obey the resolutions of the commission among:

“Now is the time for states to give full support to the Commission, particularly financial, to implement these reforms.”

Whether Mexico’s PRI vote was a one-off, President Enrique Pena Nieto wants to reassert Mexican leadership in Latin America. Meade took the trouble to travel to DC for the assembly, rather than deploying a lower level diplomat, and his support comes even though Mexico is likely to feel a pinch from future commission rulings again in the future.

Facing death to get the story

This is a CNN interview of Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico's most renowned investigative journalists. Cacho won her fame for reporting on the intersection between sex trafficking, pedophilia rings and powerful elected politicians. Her foes have tried repeatedly to have Cacho arrested -- or worse -- for her reports exposing their ties to sex trafficking. Read here to learn more about her early reporting on the under side of Cancun.


Spring equinox at the pyramids

Some 41,000 tourists flocked to the main 12 pre-Columbian ruins in Mexico Thursday to celebrate the spring equinox. Apparently the tradition is to wear all white clothing, maybe some red beads, and to raise one's hands to "recharge" one's energies. It's not precisely my cup of tea, so I haven't done it, and I'm on the Texas border to boot where there are no ruins. Above is the Temple of Kukulkan at the Chichen Itza ruin in the Yucatan above. The government said the greatest number of tourists -- 21,200 -- went to the Teotihuacan ruins near Mexico City. Below is a photo from Teotihuacan today, provided by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, as is the one above.

A black eye for San Miguel de Allende

If you travel occasionally to Mexico, certainly you have heard of San Miguel de Allende, the charming colonial city in Guanajuato state about three hours drive from Mexico City. According to this website, some 6,000 Americans, Canadians and other foreigners live permanently in San Miguel, giving it a cosmopolitan patina.

Not all is peace and love, though. A week ago, two Mexican brothers were visiting the town and local cops tried to rough them up. This is a 5-minute video that one of the young men shot through the window as a cop tried to pull the driver, who identified himself as a law student, from the car, first grabbing him, then hitting him in the groin and locking him by the neck to try to pull him from the vehicle. The police eventually tossed pepper gas to get the men out of the car. There's no explanation from the police of what they wanted. Near the end of the video, another officer approaches and tells them to stop taping the scene or that it would go "very badly" for them.

The video has gone viral. At the time I uploaded here, it's been seen by 270,000 or so people. Clearly Mexicans can related to abuse by police officers. Among those who saw the video on YouTube was Guanajuato Gov. Miguel Marquez Marquez, and he was not pleased.

This morning's Milenio newspaper says two of the four officers have been fired, and a probe may lead to more dismissals. San Miguel de Allende Mayor Mauricio Trejo Pureco is clearly worried about the consequences of the video. Earlier this week, he (@mauriciotrejop) tweeted that "my government will not tolerate abuse by authorities."

By the way, after the end of the tape, the police succeeded in getting the two brothers, Osvaldo and Alan Zuniga, out of the car. Alan Zuniga, 27, told reporters that police handcuffed him,threw him on the ground, took him to a station, stripped him and held him for 90 minutes (link in Spanish). The two brothers both had to pay 600-peso fines (roughly 50 bucks). Their car is still impounded.

San Miguel de Allende is still a lovely place. Certainly, this is atypical of life there. What's more, police are sometimes on the receiving end of terrible abuse as well. Remember the Ladies of Polanco case? If not, click here for my blog post.




What's going on in Reynosa?

Reynosa, which lies across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, is a black hole of information.

What goes on in Reynosa matters. But when it comes to drug war violence, you are unlikely to find out. That’s because the newspapers in the city purposefully do not provide news of public security. It is too dangerous to report.

So last Sunday night, mayhem erupted in Reynosa. The Monitor, McAllen’s newspaper, posted a story later citing a state law enforcement officer saying that “there were four trucks filled with bodies” that gangsters retrieved after a fierce firefight.

Newspapers in Mexico City, like Excelsior, reported only what their journalists could learn about the gunfight on Twitter _ that a “presumed clash between the army and members of the Gulf Cartel” broke out near the state attorney’s office. No mention of casualties.

But you only have to listen to a bit of the 15-minute video above to realize that this firefight was extremely fierce with automatic weapons volleys and hundreds of rounds being fired. It sounds like Fallujah or Kandahar.

Reynosa and McAllen have a combined population of 1.7 million people. It is the third largest metropolitan area along the US-Mexico border. Since it is a major border crossing, truckers are eager to learn about incidents there. Here’s what a blog called Mexico Trucker Online said:

“All hell broke loose Sunday night in the border town of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen Texas as various factions of the Gulf Cartel took to the streets to settle internal conflicts within the group.

“For about 3 hours, gunfire, grenade explosions and convoys of armed combatants were seen and reported through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Not surprisingly, mainstream media in Mexico refrained from reporting the incidents.”

Another blog, called Reynosa Libre, also reported on the gunfight but said it left only four or five people dead. Typically, the blog has no name attached to it, no way to verify its accuracy. But the posting does sum up the lack of information nicely:

“Given the obstinacy of the local media and newspapers _ El Mañana, La Tarde, La Prensa, Metro Noticias, En Linea Directa, the local Tv Azteca and Televisa affiliates, among other outlets _ what we have is a sepulchral silence of the voluntary and involuntary accomplices to that which is occurring here.”

The blogger is pretty harsh. The journalists at those outlets might not survive the week if they went up against Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in Reynosa, which by many accounts is totally subjugated to organized crime. As the Los Angeles Times said in this 2010 story, Reynosa is behind enemy lines.

The Tamaulipas governor, Egidio Torre Cantu, visited Reynosa today and Twitter reports and the NarcoViolencia blog say new firefights broke out around 2 p.m. between “armed civilians” _ gangsters _ and federal police. The blog says the cartel henchmen were moving about in 20 vehicles.

Imagine that: A caravan of heavily armed civilians moving around the city, terrorizing the civilian population right on the border of Texas, and no one can provide trustworthy information.


Crazy brawl on the diamond

In case you missed the dugout-clearing crazy brawl in the Mexico-Canada game over the weekend, here is how the World Baseball Classic matchout came to resemble a World Boxing Classic bout. The brawl broke out in the ninth inning with Canada holding a commanding 9-3 lead. As a result of the loss Saturday in Phoenix, Mexico is out of the tournament, held every four years. Mexican pitcher Arnold Leon's beaning of Canadian batter Rene Tosoni appeared to be on purpose. Leon brushed him back in pitch one and two, then hit him full on on the third pitch. The Mexican side apparently was miffed that Canadians were running up the score on them to knock them out of the tournament.


The outsize role of Hugo Chavez

The first of many times I met Hugo Chavez was in his modest apartment in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas in May 1998. I spent probably an hour or so with him.

He was alone, even though his campaign for president of Venezuela was ramping up quickly. As I re-read the profile I did of him, I’m struck by his consistency. I ended my article with this quote from him:

"Hugo Chavez is the expression of the reality in Venezuela. So whoever studies this reality, whoever analyzes it, should not be afraid.”

In hindsight, few would argue that Chavez was indeed a natural outcome of a decayed political system that ignored the 60 percent of Venezuelans who lived in poverty. Chavez ruled Venezuela for 14 years until his death Tuesday.

In that long-ago interview I did for the Miami Herald, the self-taught Chavez quoted Rousseau and Lincoln, Bolivar and De Gaulle. He referred constantly to Simon Bolivar, the national hero of Venezuela. And he spoke of himself in larger than life terms.

"A lot of people say I am Hitler combined with Mussolini. Others say I am Gadhafi with a bit of Castro," he told me, mocking the image of himself as a tyrant.

I went on to cover Chavez during his first two years in office, attending his lengthy press conferences, both admiring his street-savvy political ways and weary of speeches that would drag on for four or five hours.

Then, curiously, even though I had been assigned to Beijing, I kept running into Chavez, probably two or three times. My wife and I became friendly with the Venezuelan ambassador, and every time Chavez would come to China I would go to his press conferences. He would look at me for a moment, a hint of recognition in his eyes.

No one now says Chavez was a Gadhafi combined with Castro. He’s just Chavez. That was how big his impact has been in Latin America. I co-wrote this story today here about his gravitational pull in the hemisphere. My colleague Kevin Hall penned another personal story about his interactions with Chavez.

This is tangential to Mexico, but in fact Chavez and past Mexican leaders have tangled. Former President Vicente Fox notoriously clashed with Chavez in Argentina in late 2005, leading to a near rupture in relations. After Fox criticized Chavez for anti-free-trade remarks, the fiery Venezuelan labeled Fox a “puppy of the empire,” referring to the United States, his favorite bogeyman.

The two countries did not send ambassadors again until August of 2007 but relations hit a new low in 2008 when Chavez expropriated assets of the Mexican companies Cemex and Gruma. It wasn’t till late 2011 that the two sides agreed on compensation.

Former President Felipe Calderon couldn’t keep his distaste for Chavez to himself, often spilling his feelings to U.S. diplomats. According to this leaked cable, he believed Chavez funneled money to his opponent in the 2006 elections. He asked the U.S. government to do more to counter Chavez. Only death was able to do that. 


Carlos Slim, the richest .0001%

If you want to know more about Carlos Slim in 90 seconds, take a look at this video. Forbes Magazine this week listed Slim for a fourth year in a row as the world's richest man, with a fortune estimated at $73 billion. Trailing slightly is Bill Gates, the Microsoft found, at $67 billion. The two men, who were recently together here in Mexico, have some differences when it comes to philanthropy. Click here to see my story on the issue.



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

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