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Feature 050310 Grayson

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mexico Today and the Fight against Vicious Drug Cartels

 

By George W. Grayson

Whenever I complete a talk on Mexico’s struggle with drugs and thugs, the first audience question is invariably: How can the United States thwart the cartel-related bloodshed that has erased almost 23,000 Mexican lives since Felipe Calderón swore the presidential oath on December 1, 2006?

 

I point out that despite preoccupation with two wars, health-care reform and a shaky economy, the White House has followed through on President George W. Bush’s $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a multiyear program designed to enhance Mexico’s capacity to combat the drug cartels and attendant violence. In addition to training Mexico’s army, navy and law enforcement units, this effort provides helicopters, surveillance aircraft, forensics equipment, scanners, polygraph machines and inspection devices.

 

The Pentagon has contributed additional hardware, and is cooperating with Canadian and Mexican officers in an attempt to reform the “Star Chamber” judicial regimen (characterized by secrecy and arbitrariness) used by the armed forces—a change abhorred by the Mexican brass. In addition, the FBI, the DEA and three other U.S. agencies worked with local officials in investigating the slaying of two Americans and a Mexican linked to the U.S. consulate in violence-torn Ciudad Juárez. Authorities arrested members of the ruthless binational Barrio Azteca gang—which has ties to the Juárez drug cartel—for these killings.

 

Mexico inches up the priority ladder

 

The mid-March murders lofted Mexico onto Washington’s list of priorities. On March 23 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed a delegation to Mexico that included Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

 

Subsequently, the U.S. “security cabinet” agreed to collaborate more extensively with the Calderón government, supply additional materiel and instruction and redouble efforts to curb the southbound tsunami of heavy weapons from Texas, Arizona and New Mexico (even though legislators in these states believe that the “Ten Commandments” protect the ownership and sale of AK-47 assault rifles). From the high-level parlays also emerged the strategy of “mirrored enforcement,” whereby U.S. Border Patrol agents notify their Mexican counterparts of the frontier zone they plan to concentrate on each day. This information allows Mexican police and armed forces to patrol that same area on their side of the border. Senior U.S. officials also committed $331 million to upgrade civilian police and rehabilitate communities beset by poverty and violence.

 

Limits on what Uncle Sam can do

 

In anticipation of the high-level parlays, The Washington Post editorialized: “The Administration has an abundance of foreign challenges. But it’s hard to think of a higher priority than stabilizing a neighbor and major trading partner.”

 

This admonition, combined with recent State Department pronouncements, reflects the naïve belief that Uncle Sam can fix serious problems abroad, especially in an adjacent nation. Self-interest dictates that the U.S. assume a no-nonsense, muscular position against the narco syndicates that have branched into kidnapping, extortion, murder-for-hire, contraband, human smuggling, loan-sharking, auto thefts and, possibly, the marketing of their victims’ organs.

 

Nevertheless, success in advancing security, democracy and the rule of law presupposes that the power structure of Mexico fully supports these goals. Although Calderón is a decent man, a large segment of the country’s establishment turns a blind eye to the roots of the turmoil afflicting the Federal District and most of Mexico’s 31 states: the lack of decent education, health care and employment opportunities for the 40 percent of their fellow citizens who eke out a living as rag pickers in fetid slums or subsist on barren postage stamp-sized plots of land.

 

‘Have-nots’: ignored by elites and exploited by narcos

 

Lacking other alternatives, these “have-nots” often take jobs as lookouts, couriers, drug growers and hit men for the syndicates. Capos like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera have developed a cult following highlighted by popular narco corridos—ballads that venerate the macho courage of the drug lords and the contributions they make to their communities.

 

At the same time, the elite cocoon themselves from the drug-related mayhem with high-tech security systems, platoons of tough-as-nails bodyguards, heavily armored vehicles and second homes north of the border. Many of Ciudad Juárez’s top policemen, elected officials and businessmen live in El Paso, Texas, where they are protected not only by their own defenders but also by U.S. authorities.

 

Politicians often reach key positions despite, if not because of, their links to the underworld. The current governor of Colima, a Pacific coast portal for narcotics entering Mexico, comes from a family of drug dealers, two of whom are in prison. The favored candidate in the July 4 election for governor of poppy- and marijuana-rich Sinaloa state has been photographed with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, a Mafiosi who is the devoted confidant of El Chapo.

 

Intolerance thrives

 

The multiple ties between politicos and lawbreakers outrage the Mexican public, but impunity reigns because of the structure of Mexico’s political system. For instance, a constitutional ban restricts the president to one term of six years, while the electoral system calls for the winning standard-bearer to snag only one vote more than his nearest rival. In 2006 President Calderón entered the Los Pinos presidential residence with 33.9 percent of the ballots cast, winning the election by only 0.6 percent over the runner-up. A second round of voting to achieve a 50 percent mandate would likely have forced parties to negotiate, bargain and compromise in pursuit of a successful mandate. The crystallization of a winning coalition might have contributed to cooperation in Congress, where intolerance between and among political parties thrives and continually fosters deadlock and drift. Elections are important to democracy; tolerance is crucial.

 

Other statutes that further divorce government officials and the economic elite from the masses are (1) prohibiting independent candidacies; (2) forbidding civic groups from airing media ads during campaigns; (3) continuing the hegemony of party chiefs—not the people—in handpicking nominees and determining which candidates will fare best on lists used to select one fourth of the 128-seat Senate and two fifths of the 500-member Chamber of Deputies; (4) disallowing deputies, senators, governors, state legislators and mayors from serving consecutive terms in their offices; and (5) failing to forge a coherent, responsible party on the left.

 

These factors, combined with the fact that so many lawmakers lack defined constituencies, mean that legislators do not have incentives to advance the interests of average citizens. All the while, elected officials line their pockets with generous salaries, hefty fringe benefits, Christmas bonuses, expense accounts, “leaving office” stipends and many other benefits of the good life.

 

At the same time, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE)—which registers voters, supervises elections and reports preliminary vote tallies—lavishes monies on political parties ($288 million in 2009). No wonder the late legend and political dinosaur Carlos Hank González uttered the lapidary phrase: “Show me a politician who is poor and I will show you a poor politician.”

 

Like feudal barons

 

The national media sheds some light on irresponsible and crooked officials, but governors call the shots in their “fiefdoms.” These state executives rule like barons, thanks to a compliant press (whose owners fear losing state advertising), cozy economic bonds to businessmen (who want government contracts) and blatant manipulation of state legislatures (whose members often receive extravagant salaries and benefits in return for rubber-stamping executive initiatives).

 

Mexico State’s governor and 2012 presidential front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto has flouted a legal ban on out-of-campaign-season TV commercials by overloading the airways with self-promoting “public service” messages. In late January, Zeferino Torreblanca, governor of desperately impoverished Guerrero state, led 37 state functionaries to Madrid, Spain, to attend the International Tourism Fair. On February 22, television cameras captured the speaker of the Baja California state legislature driving while intoxicated with cocaine stashed in his official car.

 

Education, health care and oil

 

Meanwhile, the public education agenda and policies have been taken over by the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) and its multimillionaire self-proclaimed “moral leader” Elba Esther Gordillo, whom the late M. Delal Baer described as “Jimmy Hoffa in a dress.” Mexico ranked last in reading, science and mathematics among the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment exam. The rich can educate their offspring anywhere in the world; middle class families make whatever sacrifices necessary to enroll their children in private schools; the less fortunate endure teachers who may have bought their jobs and whose devotion to the SNTE trumps their competence in the classroom.

 

Anemic federal outlays mean that Mexico earmarks only 6 to 7 percent of its national income for health care—a percentage below such countries as El Salvador (8 percent), Nicaragua (7.9 percent), Haiti (7.6 percent) and Cuba (7.5 percent). The problem is not only low expenditure, but also the crazy quilt of publicly subsidized providers, which are characterized by inefficiency, duplication of services, hugely venal unions and extremely generous retirement benefits for their employees.

 

Meanwhile, the boss-ridden state-owned PEMEX petroleum monopoly has seen declining output in recent years despite Mexico’s vast oil reserves. It has failed to sufficiently invest in new production, and has neither the technology nor expertise to explore and exploit potential deepwater hydrocarbon reservoirs. State oil companies from Norway and Brazil are among those interested in developing these deposits under “risk contracts,” a type of agreement where the foreign firms would finance their operations in return for a portion of any oil recovered. Risk contracts are the norm in the oil industry, and even countries like China and Cuba routinely enter into such agreements, yet they are not allowed under Mexican law. It appears that a majority of Mexican deputies and senators would rather leave the oil under the Gulf of Mexico than authorize risk contracts—with the result that within a decade their nation will become a net importer of oil, the commodity which currently generates one third of the country’s revenue.

 

Impunity reigns

 

Highly publicized violence and cruel actions have sparked fear within the population, but they have also conveyed the idea that wrongdoers can act without accountability. In early 2009 the government admitted the existence of 233 “zones of impunity,” where crime runs rampant. Although Mexican officials did not specify these areas, they are believed to include (1) the Tierra Caliente, a mountainous region contiguous to Michoacán, Guerrero, Colima and Mexico state; (2) the “Golden Triangle,” a drug-growing mecca where the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango converge in the Sierra Madre mountains; (3) the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southeast; (4) neighborhoods in cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Reynosa along the U.S.- Mexican border, where cartel thugs carve up judges, behead police officers and kidnap journalists who incur their wrath; (5) metropolitan areas around Mexico City; and (6) the porous border between the southern Chiapas state and Guatemala.

 

The unsolved murders and disappearances of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez has become an international cause célèbre. Arch criminals and drug kingpins use influence, super lawyers, cash and a Kafkaesque court system to evade punishment.

 

In the wake of especially gruesome kidnappings and murders, citizens have staged candlelight marches in downtown Mexico City, swarmed into the Zócalo central plaza to vent their anger and screamed insults at lawmakers as they enter their legislative precincts. Still, surveys consistently find that most Mexicans feel impotent with respect to influencing policy and policymakers. Four out of five respondents to an early 2010 Mitofsky survey stated that they felt less secure than a year ago.

 

Shamefully low tax collections and economic bottlenecks

 

The weakness of the Mexican state also manifests itself in the nation’s antiquated and loophole-infested fiscal regime. Tax collections, which have fallen during the 2009–2010 recession, approach only 12 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—roughly on a par with hurricane-ravaged Haiti, an utterly failed state, and one third the percentage that Brazil and Canada take in.

 

In the private sector, a small number of firms—intimately connected to officialdom— hold sway over telecommunications, television, food processing, radio, transportation, construction and cement manufacturing. Carlos Slim, whom Forbes Magazine recently recognized as the world’s richest man, makes money hand over fist thanks to the stranglehold that TELMEX (Teléfonos de México), which his Grupo Carso empire controls, exerts over the country’s telephone land lines. Like the “crony capitalists” in America’s late 19th-century “Gilded Age,” Mr. Slim gives generously to charities and research. Yet he and scores of other monopolists and oligopolists drive up the cost of goods and services, diminishing their nation’s ability to compete with China, India and other developing countries. Moreover, this distorted economic system gives rise to low growth and high unemployment, further limiting opportunities for young people and thus enhancing the attractiveness of performing menial tasks for cartels. For similar reasons, Mexico is also confronted with burgeoning domestic drug use.

 

Conclusion

 

Our cornucopia-shaped neighbor abounds in oil, natural gas, gold, silver, copper, beaches, mountains, ports, fishing resources, ancient treasures, incomparable art, premier museums, the world’s twelfth largest economy and hard-working people.

 

Yet for the time being, self-serving policies permit Mexico's elite to live like princes at the expense of average citizens, paying, at best, a widow's mite in taxes. They ignore the imperative to upgrade employment creation, education and health care—the primary factors for social development and economic mobility. Immensely wealthy and powerful moguls have fattened their bank accounts thanks to the economic conditions fostered by well-to-do politicians.

 

Security concerns dictate that the United States take an assertive, cooperative stance against the raging conflict that is spilling across the Rio Grande. However, until Mexico's elite commits itself to this crusade, Washington's impact will be marginal, at best, and the death rate will continue to soar.

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George Grayson is the Class of 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The Foreign Policy Association (FPA) published his monograph, Mexico’s Struggle with Drugs and Thugs (2009). Transaction Publishers has recently brought out his Mexico: Narco Violence and a Failed State? He has made two hundred research trips to Mexico, appears regularly on national media, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. 757-221-3031; gwgray@wm.edu.

Republished with FPA permission.

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