• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
The second round of El Salvador's presidential election will be Sunday, March 9. The second round includes the two highest finishers from the first round of voting – Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN on the left, and Norman Quijano of ARENA on the right. The winner of this fifth post-civil war election will take office on June 1. In this [blog] post, I'll take a look at some of the coverage and issues going into Sunday's vote.
For a comprehensive overview of El Salvador's 2014 presidential elections, including a look at previous elections, make sure and look at this entry from the World Elections blog.
The polls certainly suggest an easy victory for Mr. Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN in the second round. Linda Garrett at Center for Democracy in the Americas has assembled a tally of all the recent polls, and Sánchez Cerén's lead ranges from 10 percent to 18 percent. In his blog, Mike Allison points to questions asked in the UCA [Central American University in El Salvador] poll to explain ARENA's collapse:
According to the UCA's recent poll, roughly 30 percent of the voters made their mind up in the months before, including the day of, the election. At the same time, 66 percent of the respondents said that the [corruption] accusations against [former President Francisco] Flores strongly influenced their choice of candidates. Flores seems responsible for turning a close race into a lopsided victory for Sánchez Cerén in round one.
ARENA now has to convince the Salvadoran voters that they are a clean party, competent to govern. They get rid of their corrupt officials like Flores and [former President Tony] Saca .... I swear, everybody else is honest. It's going to be really tough. So many respondents do not believe that ARENA should return to power (55 percent said no) and so many say that they would never vote for ARENA in March (46 percent said never).
Mr. Allison also has a nice overview of the elections following the first round results in World Politics Review titled El Salvador Elections Show FMLN Hitting Its Political Stride Before Runoff. He notes:
One major difference with previous elections is that the FMLN now has the benefit of running on actual achievements in office. The FMLN and Sánchez Cerén could take credit for a variety of popular social programs that provided public elementary and middle school students with meals, uniforms and school supplies. The FMLN also worked to establish several “Ciudad Mujer” ["Women cities"] centers throughout the country that provide essential social services for women. The benefits from the ALBA-Petroleos de El Salvador partnership, in which several FMLN-run municipalities share profits from energy projects, might also have proved an electoral benefit for Sánchez Cerén.
Other looks at the FMLN and the elections include Seth Robins at Christian Science Monitor in an article prior to the election titled El Salvador election: Is 'democratic revolution' fading? which looks at the FMLN's challenges in moving from a guerrilla force, to the main opposition party, to the party in power looking for reelection. The Brookings Institution has an article which is better than its horrible title, Concerns for Democratic Institutions in El Salvador After FMLN First Round Win.
Much more partisan views of the election process come from the left with this article at Truthout: Union-Backed Candidate Wins First Round in El Salvador Election and from the right with Roger Noriega's piece in the Miami Herald titled Is El Salvador the next Venezuela?.
Sánchez Cerén carried 13 or the country's 14 departments, trailing Quijano only in Cabañas. Quijano outpolled Sánchez Cerén in a number of rural municipalities in the northern part of the country, as well as the municipality of San Salvador, its wealthier suburbs of Santa Tecla, Antiguo Cuscatlan, and Nuevo Cuscatlan, and along the coast in Libertad.
Perhaps most interesting is San Salvador. In 2009, Mauricio Funes carried the municipality with 104,544 to Avila's 98,105 votes. Five years later, Sánchez Cerén received only 84,336 first round votes in the capital city, while Quijano, San Salvador's mayor, received 97,850 votes and Tony Saca received another 18,000 votes. Funes' significant success in attracting the urban middle class in the capital city in 2009 has not transferred to his vice president, Sánchez Cerén. But Sánchez Cerén was able to recapture the municipalities to the east of San Salvador such as Mejicanos, Apopa, and Soyapango which had thrown out FMLN mayors and elected mayors from ARENA in 2012.
Earlier accounts of voter turnout, including this blog, described turnout as only 53 percent. The country's election authorities have now revised that number up significantly. Voter turnout in the election was actually 63 percent of the eligible voters according to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, who said that the original count of 4.9 million eligible voters was overstated by 700,000 with hundreds of thousands of expired identity cards from people who had either died, left the country, or simply never renewed their cards. (I don't think the TSE did a similar post-election review of the voting roll in the 2009 presidential elections, so I do not think one can compare this revised number with the similar reported turnout in 2009).
US solidarity groups had many delegations of election observers in the country on Feb. 2 (including me). Many of those observers have described their experiences of seeing a free and fair election process, including these articles:
- Observing Democracy in El Salvador
- El Salvador election impresses observers
- El Salvador: A new democratic norm?
There seems to be little doubt that the FMLN and Sánchez Cerén will win on Sunday. The only question is by how much. El Salvador will proceed to another 5 years of an FMLN government, but this time headed by a president from the traditional leadership of the party rooted in the civil war years. The election outcome will continue El Salvador on path to the left.
The question is perhaps, "how far to the left?"
It is worth noting that after its losses in 2012, the FMLN only has 31 seats in the National Assembly, and can only legislate by making deals. There is also the growing strength of the Constitutional Chamber in the Supreme Judicial Court which is helping protect democratic processes.
I don't think that the FMLN ruling the country is the FMLN of the 1990s and 2000s. The rhetoric of the party is not of Marx, but of "social investment." The US is no longer denounced publicly by high party officials as the "evil empire." The party wants a former Salvadoran army officer from the civil war to remain as Minister of Defense. We will need to see how Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN fill other high government positions.
Much will depend on the 2015 legislative elections and whether the FMLN can gain back strength in the legislature as well. Bottom line – the trend in Salvadoran government affairs will have a more socialist bent, but do not expect to see any dramatic shifts.
There will be some ugly fighting within ARENA after this election. The party has already removed Flores from any position of influence because of his scandals – a move which is too little too late after allowing Flores to be a key campaign adviser up until the final month before February's first round voting. Quijano's star is fading fast in the party, after being its greatest hope when he dominated the 2012 election for mayor in the capital city. The party remains mired in its hatred of the FMLN and its cold war rhetoric, and needs new leadership if it expects to compete in the future.
What the elections will not accomplish is a solution to El Salvador's problems of gangs, crime, and narco-trafficking. The crime issue has not been the issue which has impacted voter's choice of a president, even though voters believe that it is the most important issue affecting the country. Salvadoran voters did not decide based on this issue, because they do not believe that any of the parties have any good ideas for how to address crime.
The color red sets off alarm bells these days in this western Venezuelan city, where antigovernment protests sparked nationwide demonstrations that have endured since early February.
Save for the red stripe on the Venezuelan flag, which also has yellow and blue, here anything of that color looks suspiciously allusive to the late president Hugo Chávez, who popularized red among his supporters as the official color of his self-styled “Bolivarian” revolution.
In this bastion of anti-Chavismo, however, it puts protesters on alert.
As I wandered on a recent afternoon from barricade to barricade along Carabobo Avenue, a normally busy road that has been choked off from traffic for a month by protesters, I caught the eye of a young man with an air of authority. He was one of the leaders of the student-organized protests. “Are you with the press?” he asked tensely, glancing at the press credentials hanging from my neck. “Do you mind if I look?”
I showed him the credentials and he relaxed. There’s no problem, he assured me. It was just that the lanyard on my press card happened to be red and he thought I was with one of the government media outlets, whose reporters, the opposition says, often spy on their movement.
“Hopefully soon we will all be able to wear red again,” he said, alluding to stripping the color of its political tinge.
As the protests continue here, the opposition is becoming more radicalized. But for now, most analysts agree, there is little chance that the government of President Nicolás Maduro – Chavez’s hand-picked successor – will be changing its colors any time soon.
Recently back in Mexico City for some reporting more than 12 years after I left my post as the Monitor's Latin America correspondent here, I had my eye out for what had changed – the good and the bad.
After a few days it struck me that most of the changes I was noticing were for the better.
One was the proliferation of bicycles. Just a decade ago bicycles were pretty much for little kids, a few Tour de France wannabes, or the poor. As a mode of transportation, bicycles were often used by modest local vendors: the gardener who pedaled over to cut our patch of grass every couple of weeks, or the knife sharpener who announced his arrival in the neighborhood by blowing on a whistle.
Now Mexico City is teeming with bicyclists. And it’s not just on Sundays, when the monument- and fountain-studded Paseo de la Reforma, a grand boulevard rivaling any in the world, is closed to automobile traffic. Reforma was lifeless on Sundays when I lived here, but now it's a day-long parade of joggers, people with their dogs, strollers (both the animate and inanimate varieties), and most of all, bikers.
At some point bicycles became utilitarian and chic for getting around the urban core here. It was stunning to see men in suits and young women in office work-clothes pedaling along at all times of day. Often the bikers were using the increasingly popular bike-share system, known as Ecobici.
Security and crime
Another positive change? The disappearance of crime from the top of people’s conversations. Granted, that’s not the same as saying crime has disappeared or that insecurity is no longer the national issue it was in the 1990s. It is. But crime does seem to have retreated. No longer do people in Mexico City talk about daily assaults and common “express kidnappings” – where victims are driven around town and forced to drain their bank accounts at gunpoint – like they did in my day.
There may be a dark side to this reduction of crime in the city's better neighborhoods. Crime has been pushed out to the surrounding, humble suburbs, some social experts here theorize.
It’s also true that insecurity is widespread and worse than a decade ago in some Mexican states, especially in poor rural areas, where kidnapping and extortion have skyrocketed.
Another theory is that the crime gangs are complicit in Mexico City's safer streets. The thought is that the criminals know – and this is true not just here but in other major cities around the world – that as long as they leave the image-conscious center of the metropolis alone, they are given more latitude to operate elsewhere.
A new, but familiar, sound
Another plus I discovered is that the air seems to be better. Maybe I just hit good days, but it seemed I could see the mountains surrounding the city more regularly than in the 1990s. When I lived here and ventured to take my bicycle out, people said it was a bad idea because of what was then Mexico City’s notoriously bad air.
Of course change does not have to be either good or bad for one to take note.
As I took a seat one evening at one of Mexico’s greatest culinary experiences, the stool-and-counter taqueria, or taco stand, I ended up coming face to face with the kind of change that is making the capital more of a global city than when I lived here.
As I happily munched on my tacos al pastor and alambre, I noticed that the two very local-looking young men on the stools next to me were speaking a lightly accented American English. This had me wondering: If they were Mexican, why were they speaking English to each other? And if they were American Hispanics, were they visiting family, or maybe studying here?
So I asked – and met Luis and Gary, both in fact Mexicans, but both 23-year-olds who had lived most of their lives in the United States. Now back in Mexico, they were on a dinner break from their job at an international call center down the street.
Luis had lived most of his life in Houston; Gary, in Grand Rapids. Their parents had taken them across the border to live when the young men were age 3 and 5 respectively. Now they take calls from Dish television customers in the US having trouble with their service. According to Luis, the building where they work has four floors of call centers for American companies like Best Buy and Time Warner Cable. Speaking American English is a selling point.
“I get people all the time saying, “Oh thank God you speak English,” Luis says. “Sometimes they ask where I am, and when I say Mexico City they say, 'Well you sound like you’re from here.'”
I tell them I used to live in Mexico City with my family and that we loved it here. I ask them how they like it, and they look at each other as if to mentally agree on their response. They say they’ve gotten used to it and it’s fine.
Leaving the taqueria, I walk down the street to check out the call center I’ve just learned about. There are no signs on the building, but I figure it must be the right one because several young women are seated out in front, also apparently on their dinner break. And they are all speaking English with a familiar accent.
AULA BLOG lets policymakers’ own words characterize the state of relations between Washington and Caracas.
United States government
In general, when it comes to Venezuela, we’ve made clear that we’re open to having a constructive relationship with the Government of Venezuela. Quite frankly, we haven’t seen that – we have not seen that reciprocated, to be clear. So we also, I think, see a lot of conspiracy theories or rumors out there in the press about how the U.S. is interested in influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela, which is absolutely not true. It’s not up to us to comment on internal Venezuelan politics.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 13
So we are deeply concerned by rising tensions, by the violence surrounding these February 12th protests, and by the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. We join the Secretary General of the OAS in condemning the violence and calling on authorities to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of peaceful protestors. We also call on the Venezuelan Government to release the 19 detained protestors and urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 14
The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela. Our condolences go to the families of those killed as a result of this tragic violence.
We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.
We join the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and others in condemning this senseless violence. We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protestors. We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.
Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are universal human rights. They are essential to a functioning democracy, and the Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms and the safety of its citizens.
—Secretary of State Kerry, February 15
I have ordered the Foreign Minister of the Republic … to declare persona non-grata [and] to expel from the country these three consular officers from the United States Embassy in Venezuela. We have been watching them for two months already, holding meetings in universities. The story is that they’re offering visas. … Well, let them go and conspire in Washington. …
The demands [made in a statement delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee to Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton] are unacceptable, insolent. I ordered a diplomatic response. In Venezuela, we are willing to accept all consequences in defense of democracy. I take orders from no one. …
The government of the United States should take responsibility, before the Venezuelan people and the world, for allowing U.S. institutions and individuals to finance, legitimize and promote the actions of persons and groups who attack Venezuelan society violently, and who look to twist the democratically expressed will of our people to build their sovereign destiny in peace.
—President Maduro, February 16
AP, EFE (CLALS translation)
United States government
The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 17
We have seen many times that the Venezuelan Government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan Government to deal with the grave situation it faces. … With the OAS and our regional partners, we are working to urge calm and encourage a genuine dialogue among all Venezuelans. There is no room for violence by either side.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 18
In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people. So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protestors that it’s detained and engage in real dialogue. And all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.
—President Obama, February 19
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela forcefully rejects the statements made today, Wednesday, February 19, by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, insofar as they constitute new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country, made worse by being based on false information and baseless accusations.
This is an offense to the heroic land of the Aztecs, of Juárez, of Villa, and of Zapata; to the noble and courageous people of Mexico, the sister nation from which President Obama continues attacking a free and sovereign nation of Latin America and the Caribbean because its policies, principles, and decisions are the result the democratic expression of popular will.
The statement that the independent governments and people of the world await is that in which the government of the United States of America explains why it finances, encourages, and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country, and clears up what right Deputy Assistant Secretary [of State] Alex Lee has in sending a message from his government that tries to impose conditions on and threaten the Venezuelan state for having taken judicial action against those responsible for the violent acts of recent days.
As a final point, the Venezuelan government reiterates that it will continue monitoring and taking the necessary actions to prevent U.S. agents attempting to cause violence and destabilization, and informs the world of the nature of the interventionist policies of the Obama administration in our country.
—Despacho de la Presidencia, February 20
I have just read recent statements by John Kerry – arrogant, interventionist and insolent – that confirm the terms of the threat that I denounced. John Kerry is threatening Venezuela with more violence through his statements giving the green light to violent groups to attack our people. Let the brutal and insolent imperialists know that we will continue defeating it with the force of our people, which is the force of Bolívar and Chávez.
—President Maduro, February 21
Tweets, via TeleSur (CLALS translation)
I call for a dialogue with you, President Obama. I call for a dialogue between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government. Accept the challenge. Let’s initiate a high-level dialogue and let’s put the truth out on the table. … I say this, and some will say, ‘Maduro is naïve.’ No, we will always find a new situation through political dialogue – a change in the historic relations between the U.S. elite and Latin America and Venezuela. … I propose therefore a grand dialogue, and that we name ambassadors, since they haven’t been accepted so far, so they can sit down and talk.
—President Maduro, February 21
Various media (CLALS translation)
There’s a global campaign against Venezuela. It’s a campaign to justify an intervention in the domestic affairs of Venezuela. … [There is] a brutal manipulation campaign, [which] has created a perception in the world that Venezuela is on the verge of civil war, that here in Venezuela we have a group of docile students opposing an illegitimate government.
—President Maduro, February 22
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
Latin America Advisor:
Deadly protests, the largest since President Nicolás Maduro’s election last year, have wracked Venezuela in recent weeks. The demonstrations were punctuated on Feb. 18 by the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who had been organizing the protests. Why did these protests erupt now, and why did they turn deadly this time? Does the situation pose a threat to Maduro’s government? How will López’s jailing affect the opposition?
Like any protest wave, the sources are multiple.
The basic motor of these protests has been students, protesting against the criminalization of protest and in favor of freedom of expression. The movement was latched on to and fueled by radical elements of the opposition who were not in agreement with their coalition’s more moderate line aimed at growing the opposition coalition and negotiating with the government. Leopoldo López and others pushed forward with street protests seeking Maduro’s resignation.
In a couple of the protests, larger swaths of the opposition base have hit the streets to raise their voices as well. Protests in Venezuela frequently involve violence. Protestors themselves engage in (usually non-lethal) violence. The National Guard, which works to control the protests, has inconsistent professional standards. Mix that in with pro-government but semi-autonomous armed collectives, and it is a perfect recipe for violence.
I doubt it was ordered from the top, but suggestions made by Maduro and Chavista governors about the defense of the revolution can easily be interpreted by followers as a green light for violence. The government could control it by sending crystal-clear messages to its followers and making sure that security forces work protests without lethal weaponry.
The protests seem to be dying down and are focusing on ‘guarimba’ tactics in which small groups of people block off streets to disrupt daily life. They likely will not end as long as the government and government supporters continue to repress them.
At the present the protest movement is really leading the actions of opposition politicians rather than the other way around.
The arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – whose outsized legend hogged the limelight and resources – means the government can get down to the real business of fighting crime.
Part of Mr. Guzman's legend was based on reality. From the time of his escape from prison in 2001 until his arrest on Feb. 22, Guzman dominated Mexico’s organized crime like no other. Much of this was operational: he turned the Sinaloa Cartel into Mexico’s most notorious group, built links to suppliers and retailers in far-flung countries like Malaysia and Australia, and started gangland feuds that rattled virtually the entire nation.
But Guzman’s relevance was also a product of the myth that surrounds him, as he was a celebrity trafficker in the tradition of Pablo Escobar and Amado Carrillo, the famed "Lord of the Skies." He dominated Mexican media coverage more than virtually all political figures, even becoming the subject of a soap opera earlier this year. (InSight Crime is not immune; we have some 70 articles that touch on Chapo.)
He appeared (with great controversy) in the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, which led to the label of “billionaire kingpin.” Guzman was arguably the foremost emblem of modern Mexico, in which organized crime emerged as the principal challenge of the democratic era.
When Mexico, under Felipe Calderóon, began its frontal assault on organized crime in 2006, Guzman became the ultimate trophy. But the central focus of the plan, dubbed the kingpin strategy, was based on a false premise that arresting or killing men like Guzman would cripple the trafficking groups, which would allow the government to impose their authority over the organizations and thereby limit the violence. While many disagreed with the logic, former President Calderón gave his tacit endorsement to the strategy, publishing in 2009 a list of the 37 most-wanted capos.
To be fair, in terms of actually getting the kingpins, the strategy has been successful: Calderón captured or killed 25 of the 37 on his list by the time he left office; Guzman is one of the last of this disappearing breed of celebrity criminals in Mexico. What's more, although President Enrique Peña Nieto has disavowed his predecessor’s focus on kingpins, both he and Calderón have overseen a wave of arrests that have seen almost all of the most infamous traffickers either captured or killed.
To cite just a few of the top ones who have fallen since 2009: Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal and Arturo, Alfredo, and Carlos Beltran Leyva, of the Beltran Leyva Organization; Miguel Angel Treviño and Heriberto Lazcano, leaders of the Zetas; Nazario Moreno and Jose de Jesus Mendez, of la Familia Michoacana; Ezequiel Cardenas and Jorge Costilla, erstwhile leaders of the Gulf Cartel; and Ignacio Coronel and Vicente Zambada, of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Following this wave of takedowns, only a handful of capos with any degree of national fame remain: Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza, Hector Beltran Leyva, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, and Vicente “El Viceroy” Carrillo. The first two are Guzman’s lesser known partners, the latter three lead organizations that are shells of the former selves.
None of them, in any event, are likely to appear in Forbes or spawn their own soap opera in the near future. Indeed, with Chapo’s demise, it appears as if the era of celebrity capos in Mexico is coming to an end. Guzman’s heirs are likely to adopt a lower profile, and Mexico’s government is unlikely to allow another drug trafficker to achieve such cult status.
To be sure, one of Peña Nieto's first acts was to forbid the perp walk, thus taking the "protagonism" away from the traffickers. It is fitting that Guzman's mini-perp walk may be the last one we will ever see during this administration.
This shift has antecedents in Colombia, where the 1990s saw the death and arrest of the old line capos like Pablo Escobar and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. The implosion of the Cali and Medellin Cartels begot a new era of lower-profile trafficking organizations, as well as the incursion of armed groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries into the industry.
On the whole, this shift was positive in Colombia and likely will be so in Mexico. Peña Nieto has been eager to reduce the role crime plays in global perceptions of Mexico. It has so far been working pretty well (see recent cover of Time magazine).
Guzman’s arrest will aid that effort, just as the stereotyping of Colombia as an anarchic narco-state has given way to a more nuanced conception. Moreover, the reduction of impunity is a vital step in Mexico’s attempts to shift the balance of power away from drug trafficking groups. It is becoming less likely that government agents will be cowed by criminal figures of mythical stature, because the latter group no longer exists.
However, homicides remain more than double the rate than when Calderon took office, and other crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion, are worse. In sum, the kingpin strategy did not remove the public security challenge, just as it did not in Colombia even though Escobar was killed and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were arrested; Colombia remains among the more violent countries in the world. On the contrary, now that the obvious villains have largely been removed from the scene in Mexico, the challenge actually grows more complicated.
Clearly new capos leading new organizations, different in their scope and their ambitions, will arise to replace Guzman and today’s Sinaloa Cartel. Colombia’s Urabeños and Rastrojos are not the Cali and Medellin Cartels, but they are major sources of insecurity nonetheless.
Moreover, rather than a handful of obvious targets to check off a short list, Mexico’s security policymakers now must confront an endless list of minor to-dos, which are collectively far more daunting than the cohort of infamous capos hiding in mountain lairs or in beachside hotels.
Insecurity in Mexico, as in much of Latin America, is a product of many interrelated factors, such as institutional decay, lack of education and economic opportunity, low tax rates, limited faith in government, and insufficient checks on corruption. The US drug market simply creates the possibility of massive profits stemming from these pre-existing problems that are organic to Mexico. Guzman exploited all of these in one way or another.
While arresting him is a positive step, addressing the factors that allowed for his emergence is the work of generations. It requires political will and creativity, but also patience and support from the society at large. The arrest of Guzman and other celebrity capos occupying an inordinate amount of government attention will allow for more work on this constellation of other issues, but it actually does rather little to advance the broader cause.
It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that now that Guzman has been arrested, the real work can begin, but only a slight one.
– Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.
A roundup of news and analysis.
The capture of one of the Western Hemisphere’s most-wanted drug traffickers over the weekend ended a 13-year manhunt in Mexico and the United States. As US federal prosecutors now push to extradite Joaquín Guzmán, known as “El Chapo” or "Shorty," there is concern that his arrest could lead to a spike in violence across Mexico as rival drug cartels jostle for turf.
Whether Mr. Guzmán's arrest will lead to bloody, internecine cartel warfare in Mexico could depend on how the landscape of organized crime has changed, analysts say.
Guzmán is the face of the Sinaloa Cartel, named after the Pacific Coast state where the group originated. Under his leadership, their influence has grown far beyond Mexico, reaching deeper into Latin America, the US, and, by some accounts, Europe and Asia. Guzmán rose to international notoriety in 2001 after escaping from a high-security Mexican prison by allegedly bribing prison guards and getting smuggled out in a laundry basket. The US offered a nearly $5 million reward for his capture.
Often when a cartel leader is eliminated from the equation, infighting can quickly follow. At the same time, competing cartels may try to muscle into their territory, resulting in violence and bloodshed. According to Time:
…Mexican communities have seen the trail of blood left by gunmen who fought in the name of Guzman. The druglord’s Sinaloa Cartel battled along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border for space to smuggle marijuana, heroin, cocaine and crystal meth to a U.S. drug market estimated by the United Nations to be worth about $60 billion a year, half of which is believed to go to Mexican gangsters. Squads of assassins used assault rifles and grenade launchers to protect Guzman’s empire. At one scene in Nuevo Laredo in 2012, 14 bodies were hung from meat hooks, along with a note signed, “Attentively, Chapo. Remember I am your real daddy.”
With the arrest of Guzman, there is concern that junior lieutenants could fight to take over the Sinaloa cartel empire. The cartel’s second most powerful figure Ismael “Mayo” Zambada is a veteran trafficker in his sixties, who is believed to have distanced himself from the cartel wars of recent years. “Zambada is trying to avoid arrest himself, so it will be hard for him to exert control,” Vigil said. Another fear is of rivals pushing into Chapo’s territory.
The Zetas, whose territorial bloodshed has reportedly left mass graves with hundreds of bodies, have long fought the Sinaloa Cartel. Another Sinaloan trafficker Hector Beltran Leyva has waged war with Guzman, leaving piles of severed heads and bullet ridden bodies in Sinaloa. “People are scared about more violence breaking out, of what reaction the cartels will have,” Valdez said.
But not everyone buys the idea that eliminating the head of a Mexican drug cartel automatically triggers widespread infighting. Steven Dudley, codirector of InSight Crime, which writes on organized crime in the Americas, said that a “change in the dynamics and makeup of the underworld [in Mexico] has been coming for a long time. What were once five major cartels in the late 1990s had morphed into 80 criminal groups operating in nearly every state by late 2012.”
To a certain extent, Guzman’s organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, had taken advantage of this atomization, spreading into new territory in recent years, most notably Tijuana and Juarez. Along the way, the Sinaloa Cartel could not avoid atomizing itself, thus leaving its structures greatly weakened and its leaders vulnerable….
With at least 80 criminal organizations operating throughout the country, the competition is fierce. Their objectives vary but increasingly the battleground is not the international but the national market.
Paradoxically, this is what the government wants. These are smaller organizations, with less ability, connections and capital to compromise the state. They therefore represent less of a national and more of a local threat.
They have less ability and fewer connections on an international level as well. In fact, it appears as if the days of the vertically integrated, monolithic trafficking organizations are coming to an end.
This doesn’t mean the next steps in Mexico’s fight against drug violence and trafficking will be easy, writes Mr. Dudley. He notes that the Sinaloa Cartel is still alive and kicking, with a "sophisticated structure" spread across a large swath of Mexico.
"But its power is waning. And it is difficult to imagine Guzman passing the torch to anyone from a younger generation, at least one that could successfully restore it to its former status," Dudley writes.
Guzmán was captured in the Pacific beach town of Mazatlan on Saturday morning in an operation run by the Mexican Marines, based on intelligence gathered by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. No shots were fired, and for many, this arrest signaled concrete progress in Mexico’s long fight against drug trafficking and violence. More than 70,000 people have died as a result of drug-related violence since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderón unleashed the military to fight traffickers head on.
The arrest was a huge boost for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, now in his second year in office. “This is the most significant arrest of a drug trafficker in decades,” Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Time.
“Chapo Guzman was definitely the biggest trafficker in Latin America, and in my opinion in the world.”
Bolivia is suffering from weeks of heavy rains that are causing rivers to swell, homes to flood, and crops to rot.
More than 58,000 families have been affected over the past month, according to official counts, with 56 people reported dead. Limited reporting from isolated communities could mean the actual number is significantly higher. A lack of potable water, the destruction of crops and livestock, and the threat of mosquito-born disease all pose long-term risks.
Bolivia's government says a massive aid operation, which includes food and tents, is well underway, but not everyone is satisfied with the response. Carmelo Lens, governor of Beni, one of the country's worst-hit departments, says the government should declare a regional disaster and allow a broad range of international aid organizations into the area, as it did in the past.
Bolivia's minister of defense, Ruben Saavedra, has rejected Mr. Lens' request, and said the government will distribute national and international aid to affected areas. Severe flooding is a fairly frequent occurrence in Bolivia, and some observers say that President Evo Morales is determined to prove that Bolivia can successfully manage its own relief efforts during an election year.
Bolivia's lowlands are traced by broad, winding waterways that serve as lifelines for hundreds of remote riverside villages, many of which have been inundated by unusually high waters. "I lost all my kitchen things, the river washed away the gas tank, and my house collapsed," says Basilio Vie, a member of the 36-family indigenous Tsimane community of Altagracia, which is located in Beni.
Mr. Vie, his wife, and their two children fled the community six days ago to the town of San Borja, fearing the Maniqui river would rise even more.
Government aid is now reaching many towns and cities via helicopter and plane, but the Bolivian lowlands are a vast, hard-to-reach area dominated by small indigenous and campesino, or farming, communities. One of the biggest problems for flooded communities is access to drinking water, because rivers filled with rotting animal carcasses and sewage have inundated wells and other sources of potable water.
As the rainy season winds down next month and waters begin to recede, another challenge will be mosquito-born disease: damp earth expands breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can carry dengue fever.
"As dire as the situation is for campesino and Tsimane communities close to San Borja, it's really bleak for the further-out communities," says Matthew Schwartz, an anthropology student at the University of New Mexico, who works with the Tsimane. He describes the difficulty of navigating high rivers to reach isolated communities as "mind-boggling," and says the loss of crops is especially severe.
"Some of the communities are very far away. A lot of them don't work in a wage economy, they don't have access to money, and they engage in subsistence horticulture. The destruction of crops will really affect them," Mr. Schwartz says.
It's not just the loss of subsistence crops, many of which cannot be replanted until late this year, and disease that will have long-term effects in the Bolivian lowlands. Across the region, raising cattle is an important source of income, and the herds can be a family's main asset. To date, some 48,000 cattle have drowned or starved to death, according to reports in the national press.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
Below is a written interview I did with Isabel Fleck of Folha de Sao Paolo.
How do you feel about the last demonstrations in Venezuela and the government’s response?
The demonstrations began with students supporting Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado’s #lasalida mobilization. Ms. Machado and Mr. López do not agree with the opposition coalition’s (called the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, or MUD) strategy of trying to grow their constituency through longer term groundwork, nor with their willingness to dialogue with the government in January.
They want a more aggressive and immediate strategy because they feel the situation is unsustainable and that in a couple years’ time there will not be enough democratic liberties for them to fight for power.
They have successfully tapped into the discontent of middle class students. The first round of protests in the Andean states two weeks ago were small. However student protesters were arrested and this motivated protests in Caracas. The Feb. 12 protest in Caracas was impressive but not massive by Venezuelan standards, approximately 10,000. Here again there was violence and arrests and this motivated protests every day since. The Feb. 18 concentration in support of López brought together a larger segment of the opposition base and was even larger, probably 20,000 – 30,000.
The student protests as currently formulated have little chance of developing a strong cross-class alliance. Their themes are the typical themes of the Venezuelan middle class focusing on issues of liberty: freedom of expression, freedom to protest, democratic liberties, and economic opportunity. Images of Cuban dictatorship are important symbolic foils. However, Venezuela’s popular classes are more responsive to messages of equality and the fight against poverty.
Nevertheless, the government of President Nicolás Maduro has swung wildly in response to this challenge. It has arrested and fired on protesters, and tragically failed to ensure their safety from armed pro-government collectives. This has energized opposition protest to the point that students have been in the street every day since the Feb. 12 violence. It is not easy to understand why the Maduro government has reacted this way. This could be an effect of the number of military officers that hold important government ministries and are not trained for governance and therefore have little tolerance for political contention. Or it could be because they find it more desirable to confront a radical opposition than a moderate opposition.
Do you think that this tough reaction from the government is a signal of President Maduro’s political desperation? How do you evaluate his first ten months as president?
I don’t think desperation is the right word. I do think Maduro does not provide a clear vision and authority to a government that is extraordinarily centralized in the executive branch. This leads to many confrontations, stalemates, and paralysis among and between ministers and other government officials. This, combined with the number of military officers in key positions means the Maduro government shows much less political effectiveness than the government of Hugo Chávez did.
It is important to remember that the core economic and political problems that Maduro is confronting were inherited from former President Chávez. Chávez presided over several years of significant growth in the Venezuelan economy based on high oil prices. Nevertheless, he exacerbated Venezuela’s traditional vulnerability to “Dutch disease” whereby a high priced export overwhelms domestic production of everything else. He sought to control inflation by keeping the local currency strong. During Maduro’s year at the helm, this inflated exchange rate has reached epic proportions and has led to destructive distortions in the economy.
Chávez also created a coalition of leftists, progressives, nationalists, military, and popular sectors that perhaps only he could keep together. Maduro has considerable support and legitimacy in this coalition because he was publicly designated by Chávez as his successor. But any leader would struggle to keep this coalition together and someone with limited charisma like Maduro struggles even more.
Overall, Maduro has done a more effective job at keeping together Chavismo than many of us expected. But in objective terms, the Maduro government has not been successful at addressing the major issues that Venezuelans confront: crime, inflation, scarcities and economic opportunity. And there has been serious deterioration in terms of the freedom of expression, protest as well as in electoral democracy.
Do you see any possible political solution for this crisis in Venezuela?
Sure. There was some movement towards dialogue in January as the Maduro government attempted to address issues of citizen security. Furthermore the opposition coalition – MUD – seemed to be moving towards a strategy of coalition building. That spirit could be revived once the cycle of protests dies down, something that is likely given the class endogenous nature of their demands. However, López behind bars will likely keep the radical opposition energized and generate more governmental dysfunction. In addition, the economic situation is difficult and there are signs that it could get worse. That by itself could produce a broader opposition movement.
Last Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomatic officials, accusing them of conspiring against his government. How do you feel US-Venezuela relations will be during Maduro’s term? Could the relations become even more complicated than in the Chávez years?
Maduro is subject to the same tensions as Chávez. On the one hand, the US is the one Venezuelan oil client that pays in cash and is, at this point, an irreplaceable source of revenue. On the other hand, the US and its history of domination and intervention in the region serves as the most important symbolic foil for the government’s calls for unity. Add to this the fact that the US does not like the Venezuelan government and feels it complicates its regional alliances, and you have a very complicated relationship indeed.
The Maduro government has made overtures to the US in a way that the Chávez government rarely did. Nevertheless, occasional overtures on each side have been overwhelmed by Venezuela’s interests in a multipolar world — for example by offering asylum to Edward Snowden. Furthermore, it should be said that the US has not been less important in South America for more than a century. Venezuela’s main reference points are Brazil, Argentina, and multi-lateral institutions such as CELAC, UNASUR, and MERCOSUR. The US is considered politically expendable.
What should be the US response to this new move?
As is true in any country, US foreign policy statements are as much about domestic constituencies as relationships with other countries. The Obama administration is under continual attack from conservative members of Congress for not taking a harder line in foreign relations — witness the difficulty it has had developing a constructive relationship with Iran because of opposition in Congress.
And of course Venezuela is ever less important to the US as the latter’s demand for foreign oil declines as does Venezuela’s regional leadership. This means that the Obama administration can use Venezuela to demonstrate its toughness, in order gain domestic political space for more complicated diplomatic efforts with countries like Iran, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, and China.
What critical statements the US does make only provide substance to the Maduro government’s use of anti-imperialist rhetoric to deflect citizen demands.
Upon arriving in Mexico City last fall and stepping into this megalopolis for the first time in nearly three years, I noticed a few changes: More express buses zipping along dedicated lanes, fewer bootleg DVD salesmen hawking Hollywood flicks, and subway riders staring into the screens of their smartphones.
I grabbed a meal with a friend shortly after touching down. She asked me if I had WhatsApp yet.
"You don't have Whats?" she said scoldingly, as if I were someone who'd gone to the beach without sunscreen.
It’s the most popular texting service in Mexico, and as of yesterday Facebook declared that it has a market value in the billions. The smartphone app, which is little known in the US but widely used across Latin America and the developing world, was purchased by the social network for $19 billion. That’s over twice what Microsoft paid for Skype in 2011.
The app has a streamlined look with an almost translucent but busy background full of pictures of bicycles, astronauts, and other images. Some in Mexico have told me that what sets the app apart is the speed with which it sends messages. There may be some truth to that, but the main driver of its popularity is, in fact, its fame. Users can only send messages to other users inside its ecosystem, forcing more and more people to declare an allegiance.
If you're a new smartphone user here, WhatsApp is the first messaging application you will download – not Viber, not Skype, and not any other of the multitude of options. Why? Because that's what your friends use. The app's value for Facebook is its 450 million global users – people who mostly live outside the US.
The $19-billion price tag might surprise American observers accustomed to easy texting, but the reality of phone plans in places like Mexico City tells a different story. Here, monthly cell phone plans are not as common as in the US, where unlimited texting is assumed. Many Mexican users buy phone credit – usually at a local convenience store – which they then gradually consume. A text message gobbles up about $0.07 on the country's Telcel network (owned by billionaire Carlos Slim), even though it costs the company a small fraction of that amount.
WhatsApp, along with similar products like Viber and Skype, offers another texting option. Internet-based messengers allow their users to exchange texts and make calls via a simple wifi or data connection. Most of these alternatives are free.
And that brings up the big question surrounding Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp: How will it monetize its new half-billion-strong user base? Charging a fee could be a nonstarter for Mexican users. As one local told me, part of WhatsApp's appeal is "it's cheap."