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Two members of the Achilles Heel theater troop perform in the street car Trolébus Doble Vida in Mexico City's first Festival of Theater in Unusual Spaces. (Whitney Eulich/TCSM)

Mexico's got theater in unusual spaces

By Staff writer / 05.02.13

Some 25 people were trapped in a small street car in Mexico City last week; backs pushed up against the walls, watching uncomfortably as a man grabbed a stranger by the hair and yanked her to the ground.

The police weren’t called, and the incident couldn’t be found in any crime blotters the day after. But this wasn’t an example of Mexico’s troubled security situation. In fact, the aggression taking place had been rehearsed many times before, as a part of Mexico City’s first annual Festival of Theater in Unusual Spaces.

Two 1970s-era Japanese street cars situated near parks in trendy Mexico City neighborhoods serve as the staging ground for the festival, now entering its third and final week.

Mexico City has a long, rich history in the arts – from well-know painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to the world-renowned Mexican Folkloric Ballet and more experimental performance artists like Jesusa Rodríguez. According to the Ministry of Culture there are five main theater companies in Mexico City, but that doesn’t include the scores of smaller troops and venues in the federal district and surrounding Mexico State.

Eloy Hernández oversees the street car theater Trolébus Doble Vida and is a festival producer. The two street cars, along with a third that hasn’t been incorporated in this first performance series, were transformed into weekly theater spaces between 2009 and 2012. But when Mr. Hernández began receiving more scripts and requests to use the space than he could accommodate, he thought it was time to organize a festival that showcases the skills of many emerging Mexico City artists thirsting for an outlet.

“Mexico City has a lot of theaters,” says Mariano Ruiz, an actor and director hanging out by the Trolebús Doble Vida before last week’s show. But no matter the city, “there are always lots of actors and too little work.” It can be very hard to enter large, official theaters in Mexico, Mr. Ruiz says. “You’re competing with the big names.”

Stolen lights and an 'unforgiving' space

The Achilles Heel theater troop performed the play "Dulces Compañias" last week, by Mexican playwright Oscar Liera. It wasn’t written for a performance in a trolly car, but it was created for a small theater, so the roughly 8-meter long and 1-meter wide space delivered the intended impact.

“[Audience members] feel trapped, claustrophobic,” says actor Francisco Bentacourt, who plays the lead role of a psychotic park dweller who preys on naive strangers who invite him back to their homes. “This is very intimate.”

There isn’t room for elaborate scene changes or set design, but the actors and small crew did an impressive job with what they had.

“The space is so small, it’s unforgiving,” says Hernández. You have to be more attentive than you would in a main stage theater, he says. “There have to be good actors, because they are right in your face, and the director has to come up with solutions” to communicate with the audience when there is no curtain to drop at the end of a scene or sophisticated lighting options to evoke a certain emotion or energy. (In fact, any light at all is a challenge: The street car has had its electric wiring stolen twice, and now connects lamps via extension cords to a power outlet at a nearby hotel.)

But creative they were. When the end of the first act started heating up, a man who had until that point appeared to be just another audience member began tapping his feet – louder and louder, faster and faster – to correspond with the increasingly heated dialogue taking place up and down the trolly car aisle. A tall lamp that looked like it belonged in a college dorm room was snapped off after Mr. Bentacourt’s character killed the woman who had invited him in from the park.

Suddenly a small projector stored under another audience member’s seat was pulled into the aisle. A woman sitting by a computer on one of the wheel wells began a video montage of the main character walking through a park, set to music. It was projected on the partition behind the driver’s seat, and kept the audience’s attention as a few small tweaks were made to the modest set before Act II.

Yellow “caution” tape lined the floor of the street car to indicate where audience members risked exiting their spots as voyeurs and encroaching on the actors’ domain.

Next spaces: bodegas, apartments

If theater demands a certain suspension of reality, theater in a street car flushes an extra bit of reality into the drama. “You want me to go out there in the rain?” Mr. Bentacourt’s character yells at one point, just after a real-time rain storm started pounding outside.

Rodrigo Minor attended the show and says he liked the experience. “It’s a new side of theater for me,” says Mr. Minor, a systems engineer who works nearby and saw festival advertisements in the neighborhood. This was his first time watching a play in a street car, and says it’s something he would gladly try again.

The festival is free to attend (they don’t have the necessary permits to charge for tickets, but do accept tips) and the shows vary greatly. Though this play was quite dark and menacing, others generate roars of laughter.

Next year, Hernández hopes to expand the festival to include even more unusual spaces in Mexico City: bodegas and private apartments, for starters.

“In the past, actors and directors were always waiting for a call,” Hernández says. “But now people make their own spaces. There’s less knocking on doors, and more creating.”

Death or imprisonment? El Salvador's strict antiabortion law

By Tim MuthGuest blogger / 05.02.13

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

El Salvador has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world. El Salvador outlaws abortion for any reason. There are no exceptions for rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. Moreover, El Salvador arrests and imprisons women who have abortions, sometime charging them with murder and sending them to prison for thirty years.

A 2012 report from the Central American Women's Network details the status of maternal and reproductive health in El Salvador.

El Salvador’s stringent anti-abortion legislation has imprisoned 628 women since a law was enacted in 1998. Twenty-four of these women were indicted for “aggravated murder,” after an abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Morena Herrera, president of CFDA maintains the majority of women who have been charged are extremely vulnerable for being poor, young and with low levels of education.

The human consequences of that law are in abundantly clear today in a single case. The Huffington Post has this article on a case highlighted by Amnesty International:

A critically ill young woman in El Salvador may have to decide between jail and a life-saving abortion, according to a new report from Amnesty International.  The 22-year-old woman, identified only as Beatriz, is four-and-a-half months pregnant but could die if she doesn't get an abortion, per the report.  Beatriz has been diagnosed with several illnesses, including lupus and kidney disease, Amnesty wrote, and her baby is missing a large part of its brain and skull and would likely die within hours or days of birth...

Salon reports that Beatriz's hospital petitioned El Salvador's Supreme Court a month ago but is still awaiting a ruling on the matter.

“Beatriz’s situation is desperate and must not wait any longer. Her very chances of survival depend on a decision from the authorities,” Esther Major, Amnesty International’s researcher on Central America, said in a statement. “The delay is nothing short of cruel and inhuman."

Amnesty International has organized an urgent campaign to get messages of support for Beatriz to Salvadoran authorities.

 Tim Muth covers the news and politics of El Salvador on his blog.

Women wearing dresses and high heels ride bicycles down a street in Mexico City March 9. About 300 women wearing high heels and dresses participated in the event as part of activities to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8 and to promote the use of bicycle for women living in the city, according to the organizer 'Women in Bike.' (Bernardo Montoya/Reuters/File)

Today, we ride: Women join Mexico City's cycling revolution

By Staff writer / 04.30.13

Scores of bikers pedal by the Parque España in Mexico City each weekday morning, sporting suits, wearing backpacks, and in some cases balancing a mug of coffee in one hand.

Commuting by bike has become increasingly popular in the traffic-choked capital of 22 million since the creation of dedicated bike lanes starting in 2006 and a bike share program in 2010. Pay attention, however, and you'll see that the bikers are mostly men. Are women missing out? 

A little more than 80 percent of Mexico City’s cyclists are male, according to a 2012 study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). But the number of women pedalers has started to slowly rise, increasing by 2 percent between 2010 and 2011. And peer-taught classes may have something to do with it.

Every Sunday, the city’s main thoroughfare, Reforma, is closed to vehicular traffic and taken over by bikers, runners, and rollerbladers. Laura Bustos Endoqui comes out each weekend for her volunteer “Sunday job” of teaching between one and three women to ride bikes. “I teach them balance, how to pedal, how to brake. It’s not about capability, but overcoming the fear,” Ms. Bustos says.

Some of Bustos’s students never learned to ride when they were kids; while others learned but haven’t tried for more than two decades.

“When they realize they can do this, there’s a change,” Bustos says. “When they are moving around the city on their own, they feel more independent.”

Few of the women learning through Bustos can put their finger on why they don’t know how to ride bikes. Melissa Ibañez, who met with Bustos for lessons two months ago and now helps teach, asks whether it might be social.

“In my family I’ve always felt supported, but society stereotypes women. That we’re weak, or fragile,” she says. “But I knew that if I could do this, I could make other goals happen in my life. It’s an indescribable power.”

A new city

Bustos taught herself how to ride about five years ago at the behest of cyclist friends.

“When I got on a bike, it changed my entire perception of the city,” she says. She felt more engaged with the people around her, making eye contact with street vendors and pedestrians. That eventually translated into feeling more secure as a woman in what she describes as a “slightly unsafe” megacity.

She uses her bike to go everywhere – rain or shine, day or night – and finds it more comfortable than the often “suffocating” experience of crowded public transport. She recently started working with the city’s bike-share program, called Ecobici, and when she picks up her phone, a sticker on the back reads “BIKE.”

Biking has exploded in parts of Mexico City. Ecobici has installed 275 stations across different neighborhoods, with about 4,000 bikes in circulation, and plans to bring stations into even more areas. The cost of membership is relatively affordable, with an annual subscription coming out to 400 pesos a year, or $35. There are more than 70,000 people signed up for the program in Mexico City today, according to Ecobici, and the majority of riders are between 20 and 40 years old.

Move yourself

On a recent Sunday afternoon three students join Bustos for lessons, and each is in a different stage of the learning process. One woman practices how to brake, one works on her balance by sitting on the seat and taking baby steps to propel herself forward, and another tracks back and forth, with Ms. Ibañez running beside her holding onto the rear of the bike.

Ibañez munches on a lollipop as she ticks off the reasons she’s taken to biking, just two months after learning how: She’s saving time and money on public transportation, she’s seen changes in her body from the exercise, and she feels a new sense of freedom.

So far, Bustos has taught around 40 women to ride, and she recently launched a crowd-funding project called Muévase Usted Misma, or “Move Yourself,” to expand her reach. The more bikes she has to loan out, she says, the more women she can turn on to bike commuting.

'Untrammeled womanhood'

At the end of the afternoon on Sunday, first-time rider Yamanic zips over to Bustos, showing off her new braking skills (right brake before left, and not too hard, she explains.)

“This was amazing,” she tells Bustos, stringing together five “thank yous” and smiling from ear to ear.

The idea that riding a bike might be empowering isn’t exactly new. Women suffragist Susan B. Anthony once said that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.

“It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat … away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” 

Venezuela's opposition leader Henrique Capriles arrives for a news conference at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday. Capriles urged Venezuela's electoral commission to begin the audit of the April 14 disputed presidential vote, that handed Capriles's rival, Nicolas Maduro, a victory. (Fernando Llano/AP)

Venezuela's opposition asks election audit to include fingerprint verification

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 04.26.13

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Wednesday, [opposition leader] Henrique Capriles went on television to demand the [National Election Council] CNE offer his data as part of the [election] audit. The government of Nicolás Maduro quickly insisted that all television stations go to cadena, [where all channels must broadcast the same message from the government] in order to broadcast a prerecorded infomercial accusing Mr. Capriles of instigating violence. This had the added effect of blocking the Capriles press conference from the few stations that were broadcasting it.

Miguel has the specifics of Capriles campaign's audit request from Venezuela's CNE. Capriles wants the audit to look at who voted and how the fingerprint scanners that are supposed to prevent double voting functioned. For years, the opposition criticized the fingerprint scanners as an unnecessary intimidation while the government insisted the scanners are necessary to prevent voter fraud. So there is a bit of irony in that the Capriles campaign now wants the fingerprint data to be audited to look for voter fraud while the government is fighting against that effort as somehow unnecessary. Going through the voter records and fingerprint data is a completely legitimate request in the audit and within Capriles's rights as a candidate.

Meanwhile, media outlets and citizens have [reported] that the government has lied about the violence. Clinics allegedly destroyed by opposition mobs have been photographed as being just fine. Photos shown on state media of injured "chavistas" have [reportedly] turned out to actually be opposition supporters who were beaten by pro-government thugs.

Indeed, the government appears to be engaged in a relatively severe crackdown of its own, even as it accuses the opposition. The AP reports on several hundred Capriles supporters who were arrested, beaten, and otherwise abused. Several recordings have surfaced online showing the government is threatening to fire workers who voted for Capriles in the election.

At the very top, National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello plans to investigate Capriles for violence. The minister of prisons suggested/joked that a jail cell has already been prepared for the candidate and he should accept arrest and rehabilitation.

All of this should raise the question of what the Venezuelan government is trying to hide or cover up. If they were certain of a Maduro victory, then they'd gladly open up the books for a full audit. Polls show a large majority of Venezuelans believe an audit is a legitimate request and statements by UNASUR and the OAS supported the audit as well. Maduro's attempts to avoid close scrutiny of the election process and change the subject by attacking Capriles and his supporters are going to hurt his legitimacy.

– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in ManaguaNicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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A teacher gives the thumb down sign as he holds a photograph of Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto outside of the office of the Secretary of Educations after they attacked the building causing significant damage in Chilpancingo, Mexico, Wednesday. (Alejandrino Gonzalez/AP)

Teachers in Mexico break windows, torch offices to protest anti-union reforms

By Staff writer / 04.25.13

Mexican teachers and teachers-in-training once again abandoned lesson plans to protest education reform in the southwestern state of Guerrero this week.

The individuals charged with educating Guerrero's children, and helping build a brighter future for a country lauded for its economic promise, have been on strike since a federal education reform bill was introduced almost two months ago.

The bill is part of a wider reform agenda by President Enrique Peña Nieto which aims to feed economic opportunity and growth in Mexico. Other initiatives discussed include boosting competition in the telecommunications industry and increasing bank lending rates.

But in yet another sign that President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing pushback on his ambitious reform plan, this week scores of educators took to the streets armed with sticks and spray paint. They broke windows, threw papers and plants out of buildings, vandalized furniture and office equipment, and set fire to political offices, according to Mexican news outlets.

“Teach and learn … vandalism,” read today’s front page of Mexican newspaper Reforma, with photos splashed above the fold showing a political party office in Guerrero engulfed in flames, and a highway road block using a “kidnapped” 18-wheeler from state-owned oil company PEMEX in the neighboring state Michoacán, which is also experiencing teacher protests.

Earlier this year President Peña Nieto passed far-reaching education reform that aims to diminish the tight grasp of Mexico’s powerful teachers union and reverse common practices like teachers receiving pay despite not showing up to work. According to The Christian Science Monitor:

The reform strips the education union – arguably the most powerful in Latin America – of its influence over the hiring of teachers. It provides for a system of merit-based pay and promotions, subjects Mexico’s estimated 1 million teachers to evaluations, and requires exams of those entering the profession. All with greater oversight by the federal government.

In Guerrero state, educators upped protests after state legislators failed to incorporate the 200,000-member education union’s demands to water down the federal legislation at the state level on Tuesday.

The mayor of Chilpancingo, where the vandalism took place yesterday afternoon, told Mexican newspaper Milenio that he’s requested federal assistance. The governor of Guerrero announced via Twitter that arrest warrants had been issued for the head of the state Education Workers Union, Minervino Moran, and another union leader, for “masterminding” the destruction of property, reports the Associated Press.

Guerrero, home of the well-known beach destination Acapulco, has repeatedly made headlines this year for violence and the uptick in vigilante militias and self-defense groups.

Supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles hit pots and pans while taking part in a demonstration asking for a recount of the votes in Sunday's election in Caracas, April 17. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

Post-election disputes and Venezuelan law

By David SmildeWOLA / 04.18.13

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

On April 14, Venezuela’s voters shocked the world by electing Nicolás Maduro to the presidency with a narrow margin-just weeks after he enjoyed a fifteen point lead in the polls. This is not the first time that Venezuelans have upended expectations. On August 15, 2004, they reaffirmed support for then-president Hugo Chávez in a recall referendum that most people were confident Chávez would lose. On December 2, 2007, they turned back Chávez’s attempt to change the constitution, less than a year after they reelected him with an overwhelming majority. 

Universal and anonymous suffrage gives citizens a unique ability to change the course of history, a course normally determined by people in power. Venezuelans have done it time and again, a fact that Venezuela’s leaders would do well to remember as they navigate the current political crisis.

Henrique Capriles deserves applause for having called off the opposition march to the offices of the CNE (National Electoral Council) that was to have taken place [yesterday] in Caracas. In the face of Mr. Maduro’s refusal to permit the march and the likelihood of violence occurring between opposition and government supporters, Mr. Capriles made the right decision. He also deserves applause for beginning to discuss in more details the evidence for the electoral irregularities being alleged by the opposition.

But given the severity of the allegations that the opposition has made, much more is needed from Capriles. Venezuela has a detailed electoral law and accompanying regulations that describe procedures for contesting election results. The law itself is not ambiguous and has been used before. And the opposition coalition has any number of legal experts and electoral technicians who fully understand the system and what they need to do. If they actually have a case to make, they should have no problem putting it together and presenting it accordingly. 

Specifically, the opposition needs to assemble a dossier of denunciations with clear numeric estimates of how many votes each denunciation supposedly accounts for. Saying, for example, that 535 voting machines were damaged and they accounted for 190,000 votes is not enough. They need to show that past tendencies in that electoral center suggest these damaged machines would have narrowed the gap in favor of Capriles. That would be easy enough given that detailed information on past elections is publicly available.

As well, they need to explain how these denunciations relate to their demand for a 100 percent recount. The types of denunciations they have mentioned so far have led, in the past, to re-votes in given electoral centers where irregularities were shown to have occurred. But given that the paper ballots form the April 14 election are simply receipts of the electronic vote, such a recount would only make sense if the oppositions is contending that there were errors or irregularities in the electronic transmissions to the CNE, or in the tabulation of votes in the CNE. Yet the opposition has not mentioned any such error or irregularity.

To submit their allegations for consideration, the opposition coalition needs to file this information with the CNE. If they don’t, it is going to look like they are recklessly immersing the country into a political crisis before having their facts straight. They should also make this evidence public so that independent journalists and experts can follow up on it. 

It should be noted that filing a complaint against an electoral result has nothing to do with the “winning” candidate being proclaimed, sworn in, or recognized by the opposition. The law says the aggrieved party has twenty days to submit their complaint, the CNE has five days to decide whether to admit it, and then measures can be taken to address the complaint. If the irregularities alleged by the opposition were to affect enough votes to change votes outcome, then Maduro could be removed from the presidency. This has never happened in Venezuela at the presidential level, but it has occurred several times at lower-levels of government.

Sunday’s election result has left the opposition in its strongest position in years – a position they have gained by working through democratic institutions in a context in which it is evident to everyone that those institutions are not fully fair. And they are positioned vis-à-vis a weakened government that will face difficult problems in the coming years. Just continuing to play by the rules will put them in a strong position for upcoming electoral events: the possibility of recalls of legislators in the coming months, municipal elections in October, legislative elections in 2015, and a potential presidential recall referendum in 2016. But they are in very clear danger of overplaying their hand as they have done so many times in the past.   

President Maduro and the governing coalition also need to take a pause and choose their words and actions carefully. The Maduro government transmitted three cadenas [on Tuesday]. The second of them forced a delay in a previously announced Capriles press conference. The third cut broadcast coverage of that press conference short. Maduro’s language was incredibly divisive and dismissive of the half of the population that did not vote for him. His decision to not allow Capriles march to go downtown made no reference to law or institutions. His suggestion that he is not going to recognize Capriles and will not provide a budget to Miranda State also has no basis in law. All of these actions are a very poor start to his term in office. They sounded desperate and autocratic.

Even more worrying were the declarations of others in the government. Fiscal General Luisa Ortega said that those detained in protests on Sunday and Monday could be prosecuted for “instigation of hate” and “civil rebellion” and that if they had acted in coordination they would be prosecuted using the law against organized crime. Head of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello said he would call for an investigation of Capriles within the National Assembly regarding Sunday and Monday’s violence. He also tweeted “Capriles, you fascist, I will take personal responsibility for making sure that you pay for all the damage that you are doing to the Fatherland and the People.” 

The Maduro government has all the institutions on its side and is not vulnerable. It can afford to behave with a little more confidence and stick close to the law. The close electoral result is a clear wake up call. Their focus now should be on “a new legitimacy,” as Maduro himself said. They need to focus on building their coalition by winning back some of the supporters they lost during the campaign. In 2003, Hugo Chávez’s support was only in the mid-thirties, but he managed to win back support through concrete governing actions that citizens liked, and ultimately prevailed in the 2004 recall referendum.

In contrast, engaging in a witch hunt and taking arbitrary decisions will undermine the government’s legitimacy among supporters. And tiring the public with continual, self-serving cadenas will only further reduce the government’s electoral viability.

–  David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. 

Are some Mexican cartels aiming for a more peaceful coexistence?

By Elyssa PachicoInSight Crime / 04.17.13

Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

In one indication that the Sinaloa Cartel may be wary of attracting federal government attention back to Tijuana, one of the cartel's top leaders reportedly told other criminal bosses to keep homicide levels low in Baja California state. The message seems to fit a pattern in which there may be a move towards a more peaceful coexistence in some traditionally critical hotspots.

According to a new report by Zeta magazine, one of the Sinaloa Cartel's top leaders, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo," issued a warning to at least eight sub-commanders responsible for overseeing drug trafficking operations in Baja California to "stop heating up the plaza" – that is, clamp down on homicides that could be disrupting the international drug trade and attracting too much of the government's attention.

During the first 100 days of President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration (December 1 to March 10), Baja California saw 161 homicides, making it the tenth most violent state in the country. This is only a slight increase from a similar time period last year (January 1 to March 31, or 90 days), when the state registered 145 murders.

According to Zeta magazine, a band of assassins led by Luis Mendoza, alias "El Güero Chompas," is behind the uptick in violence. Baja California's largest city, Tijuana, where the violence is concentrated, saw 42 homicides in January alone. The magazine says that Mr. Mendoza's group is no longer following orders from the upper ranks of the Sinaloa Cartel leadership, and are aggressively assassinating small-time drug dealers in order to take over their business. 

Mr. Zambada's order to slow the fighting may be hard to enact. Zeta says that none of the eight Sinaloa Cartel lieutenants warned by Zambada are currently based in Baja California, having set up expensive hideouts in Sinaloa, Guadalajara, and Sonora states. As a result, the day-to-day running of their Baja California operations has been left in the hands of more undisciplined and inexperienced family members, who are more prone to using violence as a way to resolve disputes. 

Zeta magazine notes that even though the Baja California State Security Council and the state and national Attorney General's Office have identified these eight Sinaloa Cartel sub-commanders, no arrest warrants have been issued against any of them. Only two of the eight suspects have ever been targeted in police operations, and both managed to escape. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Baja California may be the country's first test of a whether a pax-mafioso is even sustainable. Violence has dropped overall in Baja California in part due to government efforts, but also thanks to an uneasy peace enforced between rival criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel, a.k.a. the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), in Tijuana.

With violence levels slipping downwards, federal forces have scaled back their efforts in Baja California.The military has shut down at least six road checkpoints in the state so far this year. Meanwhile, the controversial and combative security chief Julian Leyzaola, who was praised for helping pacify Tijuana, has since been transferred to Ciudad Juarez.

What's more, as Zeta magazine points out, the fact that the Sinaloa Cartel's operatives in Baja California have all committed federal crimes -- yet have no federal arrest warrants issued against them (which would make it easier to pursue them in states outside of Baja California) -- supports the theory that the Mexican government, under new Peña Nieto, is scaling back its attacks on drug trafficking groups in an effort to lower the intensity of the state-cartel conflict. Peña Nieto took power December 1, after which there has been a significant drop in prosecutions of drug trafficking crimes. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior (pdf), government prosecutors opened an average of 2,322 criminal cases per month during 2012 for what are known as "crimes against health," which are mostly drug trafficking crimes; while during the first two months of 2013, government prosecutors opened an average of 821 cases per month for "crimes against health."

To be fair, this tendency towards less drug prosecutions was already in motion prior to December 1, but it is exactly what an international drug trafficking syndicate like the Sinaloa Cartel wants and may be willing to trade for enforcing a policy of less violence. And it may help explain why El Mayo saw fit to warn his sub-commanders about letting the violence in Baja California get out of control.

There are certainly counterarguments to this theory. The other Sinaloa Cartel strongholds, including Chihuahua (417 murders during Peña Nieto's first 100 days in office) and Sinaloa (324 murders) are among the tops in murder rates. And the government maintains troop and federal police levels in most of Mexico

But it is also clear that it is in both the Sinaloa Cartel's and the government's interest to keep the peace in Tijuana, an area that has a history of organized crime-related violence but could be a model for criminal-state coexistence. The current homicide rate in Baja California still represents a marked improvement in security compared to five years ago, when the state was the third-most violent in Mexico, registering a total of 1,019 deaths for the entire year. 

However, it is a difficult balance to strike. Nationwide, the government recently reported a slight drop in homicides. But the atomization of these criminal groups, as evidenced in Tijuana, may be a dynamic that neither the government nor the strongest criminal groups can counteract.

  Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

Venezuela's acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro (r.) holds a painting of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez during a campaign rally in the state of Vargas April 9, 2013. Venezuelans will hold presidential elections on April 14. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS)

Think Chávez was paranoid? Venezuela's Maduro warns of US-funded biker gangs.

By Hugo Pérez Hernáiz & David SmildeWOLA / 04.11.13

Since the day of Hugo Chávez’s death, acting president and presidential candidate Nicolás Maduro and other top government officials have put forward a steady flow of conspiracy theories unmatched by any period in the Chávez era, eight by our count.

March 5, acting President Maduro expels two US attachés for “searching for active military personal in order to propose conspiratorial plans to them.”

March 5, Maduro, in the last public announcement before the passing of the President, suggests that Chávez was “inoculated” with cancer by foreign enemies (See our previous post on the issue). He afterwards insisted many times on this theory, originally proposed by Chávez himself, the latest on March 21. On that day he promised that after winning the elections, he would name a scientific commission in charge of investigating the issue. He also mentioned that “there are already a lot of articles on the internet on this. You only have to look them up. The Empire has created these types of experimental viruses since the 40s. They are methods of biological, bacteriological warfare.”

March 6, Maduro says there is a conspiracy led by Otto Reich and Roger Noriega to assassinate, not him, but the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, with the purpose of destabilizing the government. On March 17, in a TV interview with José Vicente Rangel, Maduro insists on the existence of the plot. He announces that he has proof of this plot and that he will make them public, but [that] proof has never surfaced. Otto Reich has denied the accusations.

March 20, Maduro claims that the United States government has “ordered” the Venezuelan opposition to withdraw from the elections, generate “situations of violence,” and cry foul once the electoral results are public.

April 5, in a meeting with supporters in Cojedes, Maduro declares that the opposition “took down the electricity of all the poor areas of Aragua on Wednesday night. There is no technical justification for this, so we have dismissed the Corpoelec [State electricity company] of Aragua and he is under investigation, and all the public officials that plot against the people will go to prison.” Maduro also accuses the opposition of planning a total energy black out in the country.

April 6, in an interview for Telesur, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua declares that “we have filtered through our intelligence agencies' conversations from groups of the right referring to the inclusion of mercenaries from Central America in the destabilization activities in the country.” On April 7 Maduro elaborates this plot during a public meeting in Guayana. He denounces a plot of to kill him “generate chaos, and sabotage the electric grid”. He directly accused Armando Briquet, a top manager of the opposition campaign, of being the link between Capriles and “mercenaries sent by the right from El Salvador” that, according to Maduro, are already in Venezuela to carry out the plot. In these new plot denunciations, Maduro has assured [Venezuelans] that at first he though Capriles was not directly responsible for the wide ranging conspiracies, and that he was only being duped by “sectors of the right” (indeed in the previous version of the “mercenaries plot” Capriles was considered the potential victim of assassination attempts). Now he claims to have been forced by his sources to realize that Capriles, through Mr. Briquet, is directly behind the plots.

April 8, Minister of Penitentiary Services, Iris Valera, denounces “a destabilization plan by a well-known NGO led by someone called Humberto Prado.”  This NGO would promote violence in Venezuela´s prisons in order to “rarify” the electoral environment of the next days.

April 8, an opposition group of students protesting for “clean elections” in Chacao is violently attacked by motorbikers wearing pro-government paraphernalia. Six students are injured. Maduro immediately orders an investigation saying: “I have been informed of violent events in the Chacao Municipality, strange violent events involving a small violent group, financed by the government of the United States.”

Of course, conspiracy theories can sometimes [hold an element of truth] – Watergate, Iran-Contra, Chávez’s 1992 coup, the opposition’s 2002 coup – the list of actual conspiracies is endless.

And in a region in which the US has a long history of intervention, the population does not necessarily regard theories of foreign conspiracy as crazy and irresponsible but with a “could be” attitude.

But they are also a political tool for unifying a population and silencing criticism. They essentially make dissent look out of place by pointing to an imminent threat that only those in power understand. They also deflect blame for administrative problems such as food shortages, power outages, and lack of security by suggesting that the problem lies elsewhere.

Cuban entrepreneurs determined to 'resolver'

By Melissa Lockhart FortnerGuest blogger / 04.10.13

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, cuba.foreignpolicyblogs.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

I returned recently from several weeks in Cuba spent at a fascinating time. The Cuban government is in the middle of a gradual series of economic reforms that amount to an overhaul of the inefficient, troubled Cuban economy. The current centrally managed system is becoming one that allows for more freedom of entrepreneurship and private enterprise. I had the privilege of meeting a number of the new entrepreneurs of Cuba – those that have opened bed and breakfast-like operations in a spare bedroom, transformed living rooms into a two-chair hair salon or barbershop, or turned their homes into cafes, bars and restaurants. I also met some of the economists who are at the helm directing the current step-by-step reforms.

In a country where personal freedoms have often been limited – and in many cases continue to be – the moves to expand personal economic freedoms are historic. They are promising. They challenge long-standing status quos, and they point to a future for Cuba that is more open-minded and flexible as a younger generation (finally) takes the reins. I watched a number of American onlookers and visitors puzzle that Washington did not seem to recognize what was happening: freedoms are expanding in Cuba and opinions are changing with generational shifts in Miami – why hasn’t US policy followed suit?

In the course of a discussion with one Cuban economist who was a 40 year veteran of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, he shared an old African proverb: whether the elephant makes love or makes war, the grass always gets trampled. His point was somewhat counter to the lament that many share about the detrimental effect of the US embargo on the island economy, suggesting instead that whatever US policy does, Cubans will – as they always have – resolver.

The word resolvemos evokes something like we’ll figure it out, and it is used liberally in Cuba to refer to the ability to invent, get by, and overcome challenges as they arise. During the “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the word became commonplace in Cuban households. It maintains its place today as a staple in the language.

My husband and I spent a few nights of our trip at the home of a young couple in Viñales. On day two, we returned from our explorations to a bathroom teeming with ants. Hundreds were pouring in through a crack beneath the windowsill, and there was nothing I could see attracting them, no clear way to try solving this on my own. I dreaded breaking the news to our hosts.

It was the weekend, so the young man of the house was not far away. When I found him, I started guiltily with: “Tenemos un problema.” We have a problem. I explained the issue, then led him to the bathroom and showed him the scene.

I looked back at his face, expecting to see him upset, perhaps angry with us, and at the very least, worried about an overwhelming ant infestation. He was still smiling. Lo resuelvo, he assured me. And don’t worry; it’s not your fault, he added. I sighed with relief. So this has happened before? I asked. No, he responded brightly. Never.

Resolvemos. We’ll figure it out.

– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.

A man sits near crosses honouring Argentina's soldiers who were killed in the 1982 Falkland Islands war, commonly known in Argentina as the 'Malvinas,' at the Plazo de Mayo square in Buenos Aires Monday. Margaret Thatcher, the 'Iron Lady' who transformed Britain and inspired conservatives around the world by radically rolling back the state during her 11 years in power, died on Monday morning. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

Falklands loom large in Argentine view of Thatcher

By Correspondent / 04.08.13

Margaret Thatcher, who died today at the age of 87, was a hugely divisive figure in Britain. Supporters say her free-market policies brought the country economic prosperity while critics despise her for closing coal mines, forcing people out of work, and eroding the welfare state. 
 
In Argentina, however, there is a consensus: Mrs. Thatcher is loathed.

The former British prime minister's lack of popularity in this southern cone nation has to do with having personally ordered the sinking of the Belgrano warship during the 1982 Falklands War. Some 323 Argentines died as a result.

“Nobody here is going to be very upset [at her passing],” says Andrés Udvari, a newspaper seller in his 60s.

 Britain’s defeat of Argentina in the 74-day conflict boosted Thatcher’s ailing popularity at home and helped propel her to re-election. But her decision to torpedo the Belgrano was hugely controversial since the ship was outside the 200-mile exclusion zone surrounding the islands. Many here consider the order illegal.
 
“Sinking the Belgrano ended the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict,” says Ernesto Alonso, president of the National Commission for Malvinas Veterans. Argentina refers to the Falklands as the Malvinas.
 
“She took the decision knowing it would impede any chance of negotiation,” said Francisco Pestanha, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires.

Opposed to invasion

The government of the Falkland Islands today issued a statement thanking Thatcher for her “decisiveness in sending a task force to liberate our home.”
 
The 2,800 Islanders reaffirmed their desire to remain a British Overseas Territory in a referendum last month. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has waged a diplomatic assault in an attempt to force the United Kingdom to negotiate sovereignty.
 
Her battle, however, is a peaceful one. Argentines today are utterly opposed to another invasion, which the military dictatorship used in 1982 to whip up nationalist pride and distract from a collapsing economy.

The dictatorship's plan was for the invasion to spark negotiations: Britain's military response was unexpected. Thatcher’s decision to send a task force, leading to all-out war and the deaths of nearly 1,000 troops, will forever be criticized here.

“Thatcher was bloodthirsty,” says Mercedes Castillo, a school secretary in Buenos Aires. “She hurt the Argentine people deeply.”

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