Monday, February 28, 2011

Media and the drug war

I've been thinking a little about media coverage of the drug war, after an email from a Mexican friend in Mexico who asked me what was happening in his own country.

The reason for his questions and lack of clarity from his standpoint, is that the media is doing a horrendous job of covering the drug war. Simple as that. It's hard, no doubt, to find out exactly what is going on in the fog of this war. It's messy, confusing and dangerous. But for some reason, a lot of print media has turned toward TV-style, lazy reporting.

For instance, quotes like this in a Reuters story:

"Restaurants, bars, delicatessens, shoe shops, everyone is paying extortion money," said a business man with an car dealership who has been extorted by drug gangs and declined to be named. "And if you can't pay both extortion fees and your taxes, you tell the gangs and they sort it out for you."

This quote was in an "analysis" piece about how "Mexico risks losing large areas to drug gangs." But the quote offers no context or even evidence of anything except the man's general vague interpretation of what's happening. Details, please. Average Mexicans living in the midst of organized crime are not prone to giving up details, but you have to probe. You have to ask, for instance, what this businessman means by "everyone." Everyone on his block? Everyone he knows? Every one of Reynosa's 200,000 residents? And was it worse six months ago? Two years ago?

Well, according to a Reuters story a little over 6 months ago, it appeared to be worse then. "In another sign of escalating violence, men threw three grenades in the center of the manufacturing city of Reynosa," Reuters reported.

In a 2009 story, Marc Lacey of the New York Times quoted one Reynosa resident as saying: "You begin to wonder what the truth is... Is it what you saw, or what the media and the officials say? You even wonder if you were imagining it."

I think this is a great quote to describe just how little everyone actually knows.

A Mexican colleague of mine at The News once told me that Mexicans have no memory, which explains why it's difficult to get detailed answers. But she also advised me that if I wanted to get people talking, I should try to trigger their memories with gentle suggestions or hints, which might help them open up or reveal details. It worked at times, and I think is necessary. The authorities can pay their informants, but journalists have to work a little more ethically. (With poverty come principles.)

Of course, the problem with having no memory is that the general public is extremely susceptible to manipulation by the authorities and the media. We like to think of the media as the good pillar of society, but that's not always the case.

Take, for instance, the recent stories about the drug war encroaching on Mexico City. Folks, this is not happening. And I would be willing to put my money where my mouth is.

In late 2007, El Universal ran a story about the cartels surrounding the capital. In 2008, they published a similar story. I believe there was one in 2009, too. There was one late last year, and now again this year.

The reasons for the cartels not coming to the capital are the following: there are about 70,000 cops in Mexico City. Sure, some are corrupt, but by and large, it's a cohesive force that operates properly, and is certainly impossible to buy off entirely. There are also gangs, and those gangs are very well-established. Muscling in on them and their turf will cause serious problems. These gangs have ties to the cartels, to deliver drugs and whatnot, but the cartels don't operate in the capital. There is no reason for them to: Mexico City is neither a major production hub nor a transit route. The State of Mexico and Morelos, where the recent violence has occurred, are.

Mexico City is attractive as a place for big-time narcos to hide out, and sometimes, live a quiet life of luxury. Chapo and his cronies have long nicknamed the capital "the smoke," because of their ability to just disappear there.

But they don't want to take over Mexico City. These scare stories unfortunately do nothing to inform the Mexican people, they simply seek to sensationalize and scare. Neither do soundbite-like quotes which sound good in a TV story but don't give me enough information for a print story.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unknown unknowns

In his interview with the Daily Show, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Jon Stewart that "there are 3 million people in that operation," referring to the Pentagon.

Newsflash: The Pentagon has about 23,000 employees, non-military and civilian. Even if Rumsfeld was including the entire military (which is quite possible) the total number comes to about 2.3 million. Here are some other Pentagon numbers, for those who are interested.

There are 131 stairways in the Pentagon, and 19 escalators. There are 4,200 clocks, 691 water fountains, 284 rest rooms, 1 dining room, 2 cafeterias, and 7 snack bars.

The interview is really quite interesting, I've included the link above. I know this isn't my field of expertise, but I thought it worth mentioning.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Calderon interview

A few comments about Calderon's interview with El Universal the other day, in which he condemns the US and says "institutional cooperation" has been "notoriously insufficient." He also lambastes US Ambassador Carlos Pascual.

As a member of the press, I'm all for spilling your guts when there's good reason. But in this instance, I don't get it. Why is Calderon pulling a Nicolas Anelka?

I believe in institutions, and I certainly believe in diplomacy. If Calderon has a problem with Pascual, and the content of the leaked cables, why stoop to the level of a leaker yourself? Why not approach the diplomat, uh, diplomatically, and tell him you take issue with what he has supposedly said/written? Surely that would be the presidential thing to do? And then resolve the issues?

The Calderon administration has failed, since Day One, to communicate its message of the drug war to the people, and now it risks relations with the US (they won't fall apart, of course, but there's a good chance trust will erode between the agencies who are actually working together). There will no doubt be some very annoyed people in Washington and at the US Embassy right now.

There is the off-chance that Calderon was playing up the anti-American stuff to resonate well with an electorate he needs to win over, as the nationalism card always works nicely. But I hope not, because I have seen little sign in Mexico that people are genuinely against US cooperation on the drug war; they just want the violence to stop. The fact that US military advisers are on the ground to train their Sedena counterparts hasn't even raised much of a stink.

Speaking of:
On his blog yesterday, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, head of Northcom – which in turn heads the military advising team – wrote the following:

"Yesterday, the Mexican Army (known as SEDENA) conducted a quite impressive and highly successful operation to arrest some of the suspected perpetrators of this crime (the killing of ICE agent Jaime Zapata). This operation is yet another testament to the courage and skill of SEDENA and is typical of all our partners in the Mexican military and security services. On behalf of USNORTHCOM, I simply want to express my personal appreciation for the determined, rapid, and capable response to the murder of Agent Zapata."

I'm not a huge fan of the overblown cheerleading you sometimes hear from US officials (see ganchoblog for his latest on the Justice Dept.'s 'mission accomplished' talk) but this comment from Winnefield is amazingly positive when contrasted with Calderon's comments. And it is just the thing I'd like to see more of, given that US-Mexico cooperation in this drug war is without a doubt at an all-time high. Perhaps realistic, positive talk can drown out the fearmongers, cheerleaders, whiners and doomsayers.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hitting the Zetas?

How will the authorities respond to the killing of a US agent and the wounding of another?

You'd expect them to come down hard on Los Zetas. But Los Zetas, right now, are not really in any state to be taken down. They're still pretty disorganized and independent, and not really all that powerful. A roundup like the one against La Familia back in late 2008 might work, and in any event would help stop Los Zetas from organizing and consolidating along the east coast and southern border, which is what they're trying to do right now.

The authorities already claim to have caught one of the shooters of ICE agent Jaime Zapata, in San Luis Potosi. I'm suspicious, of course, but it could well be that the guy received no protection from any of his Zeta crew on account of the severity of his crime.

Anyway, what to expect now? I think the authorities are going to go after El Lazca and El 40, the two old guard Zetas, and try to put a stop to the Zetas' attempts to organize nationwide. They'll get a little help from the Sinaloa/Gulf alliance, which to the best of my knowledge still holds.

What the authorities SHOULD do, however, is exactly the opposite. Leave Los Zetas for now and send in the big guns after Chapo and the big Sinaloa guys. They'll be expecting a crackdown on the Zetas, so why not give them a little surprise?

Interestingly, the military has been pretty quiet in Sinaloa in recent days. Perhaps the army is up to something? (Or of course, they could be just sitting around all day pulling up marijuana plants as usual.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Drug war suggestions

I usually shy away from making suggestions on how to combat the drug war in Mexico, preferring to leave that to the policymakers. But a few things have struck me in recent weeks, so I thought I'd comment over the course of the next few days.

First off, I and others have argued against talk of the Colombianization of Mexico in the past. But Mexico is now at risk of becoming Colombianized, in the following way.

When Uribe took office in 2002, he faced one major challenge, and it wasn't making sure the cartels or FARC etc launched an insurgency. He needed to secure the country's main roads for economic purposes.

So he bought some tanks from Spain, which everyone laughed at because everyone knows tanks can't patrol Andean roads or jungles. And they sat outside Bogota, looking menacing to anyone (read: no one) who wanted to take on the capital.

But Uribe did eventually secure the roads, particularly the one from Medellin to Bogota, and trade picked up.

Calderon, when he took office, didn't face such a problem. He has pledged to invest $10.25 billion into highway construction, a promise which I have read is being followed up on, albeit slowly.

But at the same time, the government doesn't appear to control some of those highways. In Sinaloa, a new highway is being built from Badiraguato through to Chihuahua. I saw a gunman standing atop a hillside near the end of the currently paved road. Once built, the road will serve as a gateway for the drugs, not as a legitimate transportation route. (Admittedly, the two go hand in hand everywhere, so Mexico is not really an exception here.)

Dozens of attacks have occurred on highways throughout Mexico, often on major routes like Highway 16 – through Ojinaga – or Highway 45, which goes up through Ciudad Juarez.

The road from Mexico City to Monterrey has been blockaded several times in recent months; last week, two US agents were attacked along the route in San Luis Potosi. A Mexican military official told the AP that the military doesn't have checkpoints along the route.

It needs to. The Mexican military must prevent Mexico's roads from falling into the hands of the narcos. If they allow this to happen, then unfortunately, we will be able to talk about the Colombianization of Mexico. A few permanent checkpoints (you have to arm them well, given the narcos' propensity for attacking such outposts) will act as a deterrent, at the very least.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Silver lining

Mexico's violence may show no signs of abating, but that hasn't bothered business. In the World Bank's latest Doing Business survey, Mexico ranked No. 1 in Latin America, having overtaken another drug-troubled spot, Colombia.


The Mexican military reported that in 2008, drug-related killings represented roughly 17 percent of the 10,700 intentional homicides in Mexico, according to one of the Wikileaks cables.

Hmm. I've always wondered and tried on occasion to check into how many of the killings were actually drug-related. The military does not have much investigative capacity, but this estimate is really interesting. It supports my theory that a lot of the homicides in Mexico are nothing to do with drugs or organized crime and more due to the simple fact that law enforcement is lacking and in some places, you can get away with murder, literally.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ICE agents attacked

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent was killed and another wounded in Mexico today. They were driving through San Luis Potosi on their way to the northern city of Monterrey when they stopped at a checkpoint. Gunmen opened fire on their black SUV.

According to a Mexican military official quoted by the AP, the checkpoint may have appeared to be a military one, but the military does not have checkpoints in that area.

Right now it's not clear whether the ICE agents were targeted specifically because they were ICE agents or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their black SUV, with tinted windows, is the kind often used by narcos, so they could easily have been mistaken for narcos by either rival narcos or the army. It's unclear whether they had diplomatic plates.

Was the checkpoint a "narco-bloqueo," as blockades often set up by the narcos are known? Or was it a military checkpoint, and the military screwed up?

Narcobloqueos have been set up on this road before. And if the narcos knew a pair of ICE agents were on their way to Monterrey, that would have been an easy time to get them.

That would be a definite escalation from what we've seen in the past. Ten DEA
law enforcement liaison officers have been killed since 2007, 51 FBI contacts
have been murdered, and more than 60 top Mexican law enforcement officers have died, but US officials have not been targeted specifically.

According to one of the diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, US officials "frankly don't know enough about how DTO (cartel) members think and operate to know what factors might trigger a decision to mount such an attack, but the potential threat is very real. We assess that the threat to U.S. personnel could increase if the violence continues to escalate and more high-level government officials and political leaders are targeted."

If the ICE agents were indeed targeted, it would be the first killing of a US agent on Mexican soil since DEA agent Kiki Camarena was kidnapped and killed in 1985.

Agents have since been threatened – in 1999, Osiel Cardenas Guillen famously told two of them: ‘You fucking gringos. This is my town, so get the fuck out of here before I kill you" – but none have been killed.

Camarena's death prompted what I believe is the largest DEA investigation in history; it led to the capture of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (El Padrino), Ernesto Fonseca and Rafael Caro Quintero. A handful of Mexican cops were also involved in Camarena's kidnap/killing.

Could the military have accidentally shot at the agents? Well, I sincerely hope not, because if it did, and the checkpoint is no longer there, then the military realized what it had done and bolted. A hit-and-run on US agents would not be advisable.

One last thing: This occurred on the main highway to Monterrey. In recent months, the narcos have ratcheted up their blockades and caused trouble along this road, albeit further north. San Luis Potosi is usually not so problematic, but wouldn't it pay to think a little, and put up some military checkpoints all along this road to prevent the narcos from doing it first? Just a thought.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chavez and Uribe do lunch

It had been a tough morning. The heat had blasted down on his beret as he had addressed the crowd. But he had held forth. His nation would host a summit in 2011, he had declared proudly, and his people would commemorate the realization of the Bolivarian themes of Latin American solidarity in the birthplace of the "Great Liberator.” He had denounced the Organization of American States, and rightly so, and even showed a bit of support for his Argentine brethren fighting British drilling in the Malvinas.

Now, for some lunch. Hugo Chavez pulled up his chair at the table. He glared across at his eating companions. There sat Alvaro Uribe, his long-standing foe, on one side. He was getting tired of Uribe, to put it mildly. The two had already bickered this morning; Chavez was pretty sure they'd have some sort of argument during lunch, too.

Chavez smirked as Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president, sat down opposite him. Leftie-lite, he thought. You may be part of my movement, but you, sir, have nothing on me. Uribe bombs a rebel camp in your country and the best you can do is cry for help? Launch long-winded investigations? Fight back for your people next time! (And quit protesting too much about those money-laundering allegations, man. Just stay quiet, and the storm will pass.)

What's that? A mouse? Something nudged Chavez's right elbow. The Venezuelan looked down; it wasn't a mouse. It was little Evo.

Ah, Evo Morales. Chavez's little boy from Bolivia. He was so wonderfully idealistic sometimes. But so annoying, too. Eh, well, at least he was loyal. All morning, he'd been parroting Chavez's speeches, and praising Cuba to boot. So what if he's diminutive, loves his coca and is totally deluded about his perceived influence over the people of Los Altos, Chavez thought; at least he makes a good sidekick.

Enter Felipe Calderon, stage right. Chavez got up. He gave his Mexican counterpart a big bear hug.

So tempting. So damn tempting. He could have crushed him like an ant just then. He could have put the Mexican Left out of its misery and crushed that conservative right then and there. Then he wouldn't have had to pay all that money to the pendejos in the PRD just so they can lose an election. Ah, coulda, woulda, shoulda, Chavez thought.

Lunch was served, and they all talked a bit of nonsense. Chavez was bored. This diplomatic stuff had never interested him much; he'd rather be hanging out with Naomi, or smoking a nice cigar and shooting the shit with Fidel.

Calderon was droning on and on. He kept bringing up the need to talk, to discuss, to share ideas within the region. Correa agreed quietly and with a bit of reservation. At one point, Raul Castro hobbled into the room and sat at the table, but no one really paid attention. Chavez missed Fidel.


Uribe was talking. Chavez kept looking at the waitress, not hearing a thing.

"NNANANNNANNot happy…"

Chavez couldn't ignore him any longer. Uribe was mumbling, quietly. Why couldn't he just blurt it out like a man? Chavez leaned over, and listened more closely. Uribe was lamenting Venezuela's economic embargo on Colombia, calling it unhelpful and inconsistent with the region's economic interests. Whine, whine, whine.

Chavez listened. He held his tongue. He thought of his mother, how she had always told him to think before he spoke, to count to ten, to listen to other people before responding. To be patient.

He couldn't do it. This guy had tried to kill him! He had sent his assassins to kill him, and here was Chavez, being polite and diplomatic, the better man, sitting next to him at lunch and listening to him whine about economic sanctions? Are you kidding? Are you out of your mind?

Chavez stood up, red in the face. He accused Uribe point blank. The assassins. You sent them. You sent them to kill me.

"You can go to hell," yelled Chavez “I am leaving!”

With that, he turned to go. But Uribe had to get one more word in.

“Don’t be a coward and leave just to insult me from a distance,” he yelled.

Right, that's it. Chavez strutted over to the Colombian. Uribe stood up.

He was bigger than Chavez thought. Not a brute, obviously, but quicker than Chavez on his feet. The two exchanged words. They both swore furiously. Chavez edged forward; Uribe quickly moved his elbows up to block him.

Raul Castro stepped between the two. Come on guys, basta, he pleaded. He didn't have time for these shenanigans. He was getting old, he was quite weary. He couldn't waste his time watching two grownups, leaders of their respective nations, duke it out like a pair of schoolboys.

They backed away from each other. Chavez adjusted his beret. Uribe hunched over to pick up his glasses. He picked them up and gave them a wipe.

Outside of the dining room, Venezuelan security officials ran toward the door to help their president. Mexican security guards blocked them; a scuffle ensued.

NOTE: This is an account of a lunch attended by Uribe and Chavez in Cancun, described in one of the Wikileaks cables. I thought it'd be fun to write it up, and took some liberties in doing so; please read it as a piece of creative writing. Still, quite a bit of it is accurate according to the cable's description.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Is Mexico's fight against organized crime a war?

McClatchy has a good piece about the debate over the use of the word "war" to describe Mexico's conflict. Indeed, it's worthy of a discussion:

Calderon himself has never used the word war. He prefers "lucha contra el crimen organizado" or "lucha contra el narcotrafico." The military, too, uses these terms, rather than "war" (guerra).

But as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words: if it's just a struggle, or fight, then why has Calderon donned military garb on more than one occasion? Why has he so often been pictured alongside the military when surveying what can only be described as battlefields?

Some experts argue that it can't be a war because the end result won't bring about a clear winner or loser. "With a war, you either win or lose. And with this one, how are we going to win it?" asks security analyst Jorge Chabat in the McClatchy piece.

But he's not exactly right in this argument, in my opinion. After all, war isn't as black and white as that. In Iraq and Afghanistan, which surely must be defined as wars, there is no clear winner or loser. There are multiple elements to these wars – invasion, regime overthrow, counterinsurgency, reconstruction, peacekeeping, and so on – that take time, prompt the evolution of strategies, and often don't produce clear and tangible results immediately. There are other players in the game, too, who cannot be considered the enemy in a conventional sense. The same goes for Mexico's lucha against the drug cartels and organized crime.

Standard definitions of war boil it down to a state of armed conflict between different nations/states or different groups within a nation/state.

Some 50,000 Mexican soldiers are currently using force to fight some extremely well-armed drug trafficking organizations. I think this is a war, personally.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Concerns over Egypt

It's not really my field of expertise, but I've been thinking about the events in Egypt. While anyone of democratic mind is rightly cheering the turn of events there, we should be thinking of the possible repercussions.

And the repercussions are that whatever regime takes Mubarak's place will likely be far worse and more repressive than he was. The reason is that this is how it has always played out in the region after protests and overthrows, and there is no reason to believe this time will be any different, unless all the players are thinking ahead to this likely eventuality and coming up with solid plans to avoid it.

According to an Associated Press report, Obama's response to the crisis in Egypt is "drawing fierce criticism in Israel, where many view the U.S. leader as a political naif whose pressure on a stalwart ally to hand over power is liable to backfire."

Israeli officials have made no secret of their view that shunning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and pushing for swift elections in Egypt could bring unintended results, the Associated Press reports.

Then again, while I don't doubt the AP claims that Israeli officials are concerned, we should be wary of who is being quoted.

"I don't think the Americans understand yet the disaster they have pushed the Middle East into," lawmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told the Associated Press. (DISCLAIMER: he's a longtime friend of Mubarak)

"If there are elections like the Americans want, I wouldn't be surprised if the Muslim Brotherhood didn't win a majority, it would win half of the seats in parliament," he told Army Radio. "It will be a new Middle East, extremist radical Islam."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Botox behind bars

Hold my thoughts on the use of the term "cartel": The Associated Press reports that Sandra Avila Beltran, aka The Queen of the Pacific, received Botox injections during her stay in Santa Marta Acatitla, a women's prison in Mexico City. ((link above in title of post.)

Christ, it only gets worse, doesn't it. Mexico's prisons are notoriously lax – part of this is justified by the fact that they are considered rehabilitation centers rather than just lock-ups – but this is a bit ridiculous. A doctor was improperly admitted to give the Botox injection, the authorities say.

I visited Santa Marta Acatitla several times during my time in Mexico. It was one of the few prisons which journalists were allowed to visit regularly; I also made some contacts inside who put me on their list of registered visitors, which allowed me more regular access while researching The Last Narco (one of the inmates who I visited several times had a brother in the army who had worked for Los Zetas and been arrested for it). The guards who were supposed to regulate contraband smuggling left much to be desired, to say the least. On one occasion, I brought my mobile phone, and the guard found it when searching me. He lifted a finger to his lips as if to say "It's between you and me."

Unsurprisingly, many of the inmates had cellphones. They had food smuggled in from outside, clothing, and allegedly, some even had weapons.

Ms Avila Beltran, when I saw her in the prison, was wearing what must have been a designer pantsuit (it was regulation beige, which is obligatory for inmates awaiting sentencing). She had popped into the courtyard to make a call at the payphone; I assume she was using said payphone because cellphones might be tapped. (My understanding is that the prison payphone can't be tapped because inmates have a right to privacy).

Anyway, Ms Avila Beltran apparently had a few quibbles with conditions in the prison. There were cockroaches in her cell, she complained to the human rights commission. In addition, she reputedly had complained about the noise in the cellblock, and behavior of the guards. (This is hearsay from other inmates; I couldn't verify any of it with officials.)

During his stay in Puente Grande, Chapo had women and booze smuggled in; the Queen of the Pacific had a doctor come in to make her a bit more beautiful.

You've got to be kidding me.

Incidentally, all charges against Ms Avila Beltran were dropped late last year; she's currently fighting extradition to the US. She denies all charges.