- Ecuador had seven different presidents in the decade before President Rafael Correa and the current president faced his own odd coup attempt in September 2010. While President Correa remains popular, the tensions within the political system have led to protests and tension among the branches of government.
- After several years of coup threats and rumors, Paraguay controversially impeached President Fernando Lugo last year. It sets a bad precedent that the first post-Colorado [the political party which ran Paraguay for six decades] president failed to finish his term.
- Honduras had its coup against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. President Profirio Lobo has had his share of institutional turmoil. The country is also hit hard by corruption, organized crime, and violent crime.
So three countries that have had one or several irregular power transitions in the past decade are all going to hold elections this year. An optimist might see these elections as a big win for democracy. Indeed, the fact that the hemisphere now expects a quick return to regular elections, even in the face of coups and quasi-coups, is a victory over the trends of decades past.
But democracy has its bookends in an election and inauguration on one side and a peaceful, normal power transfer while stepping down on the other. The ability and normality of handing off power to the next elected leader may be a bigger symbol of democracy than the elections. Given their recent histories, there should be doubts whether all three of the presidents elected will make it to the finishing point of their democratic term.
I'm sure various international organizations will send observers to the 2013 elections in these countries and declare them free and fair and wonderful victories for democracy in countries that have faced so many problems. Then those observers will leave and the real questions about democratic stability will begin.
Editor's note: The photo caption has been edited for clarity.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, cuba.foreignpolicyblogs.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Fidel Castro’s long-declining health and the high average age of his successors are well-worn topics in Cuba discussions. As we turn the page on 2012, Cuba watchers and Cubans alike are now discussing the health of the leader of a different country: Venezuela. Hugo Chávez recently suffered still new complications from his cancer surgery, and he has taken a surprising step in flagging his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as the person he would like his followers to vote for should he be unable to carry out his duties as president. President Chávez won a new six-year term in October, but if he has to step down during the first four years of his next term, a new election must be called within 30 days.
Experts suggest that a change in leadership in Venezuela could have huge consequences for Cuba. The two countries have a partnership that is rooted deeply in the personal relationship between Chávez and the Castros — particularly Fidel, whom Chávez considers to be a mentor. Business with Venezuela consists of 40 percent of all Cuban trade, and Cuba receives 60 percent of its energy needs on preferential terms from Venezuela. Such a high level of dependency leaves the island vulnerable to the political and economic swings of its partner.
A victory by the opposition in Venezuela would have the greatest impact for Cuba: during the recent campaign, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles told voters that with his election, the distribution of oil to Cuba and other countries at reduced prices or in barter deals would end. But this is an unlikely outcome. In the short term, there are essentially three possible scenarios for the Cuba-Venezuela relationship:
First, Chávez may indeed continue to govern in Venezuela and see the same arrangement with Cuba continue.
Second, Chávez’s health may decline, in which case his Vice President Maduro would almost certainly win a new election and maintain the special relationship. Maduro has been a close collaborator in the relationship with Cuba and affirmed a line used many times by Chávez himself: that Cuba and Venezuela are two countries as one.
Third is the most unsettling scenario for Havana, but it is also highly unlikely: the Venezuelan opposition could come to power in a new election and change the tenor of the relationship with Cuba, as Capriles promised during the campaign.
However, even if this final scenario ends up being the right one, Havana has some forces working in its favor. In its bilateral deals with Caracas, Havana returns the favor of preferential terms for its energy supply with a steady stream of 30,000-50,000 Cuban technical personnel working in Venezuela as physicians, teachers, and other instructors, many in impoverished areas that depend upon the social services and training they provide. A newly elected opposition — whatever its campaign rhetoric — would be foolish to do anything to endanger the continuity of these services to large swaths of the Venezuelan population. Changes in the relationship between the two countries would therefore have to be gradual and mutually negotiated in order to protect the assets provided by each side to the other, which are of great value to the receiving country.
Still, Cuba in the coming year must continue to prepare for eventual changes to its relationship with Venezuela: such an arrangement cannot continue forever. Diversification of foreign partners will ensure that instability in one will not in turn destabilize the Cuban economy. Diversification of Cuba’s own production will lessen its vulnerability to external price shocks for commodities like nickel. And actively enabling the current economic reforms that have been slowly moving Cuba from a centrally planned economy to a model more friendly toward private enterprise will augment the number of Cubans that are independent of the government payroll.
We can expect to see more on all of these fronts in 2013.
– 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.
Dec. 31 is typically a time to recap the biggest events of the year. But in Venezuela this year, news that President Hugo Chavez has suffered “new complications” after surgery on Dec. 11 has kept Venezuelans anxiously fixated on what’s to come in 2013.
In downtown Caracas, an annual free concert in Plaza Bolivar to welcome the New Year has been canceled, government officials said. They instead called on Venezuelans to unite in prayer for the prompt recuperation of President Chavez, according to the Venezuelan daily El Universal.
President Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for a recurrence of cancer. Since then, the nation has been faced with uncertainty about his chances for recovery, whether he’ll be able to attend his Jan. 10 inauguration – after winning a fourth presidential election in October – and if not, who will be Venezuela’s new president.
That uncertainty increased a notch after Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro went on television to say the following (translated into English by VenezuelanAnalysis): “Nineteen days after having undergone his surgical intervention, President Chavez’s state of health continues to be delicate; he has presented complications that are being attended to with treatment that is not without risk.”
Venezuela is, of course, not alone in looking at what lies ahead in 2013. US President Barack Obama and US Congress are scrambling to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” as they try to hammer out an agreement on taxes for the wealthy and budget cuts. And across the world, as the Monitor wrote in a round-up, nations are hoping that in 2013 they can bridge such political divides, some of them deadly. Venezuela, in hoping for more unity, was included on that list. But for now it is a nation holding its breath.
David Smilde, a guest blogger for the Monitor, told the Associated Press that the fact that Nicolas Maduro, the nation’s vice president, traveled to Cuba to personally meet with the president in recent days is itself telling. “The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba, leaving Hector Navarro in charge, only seems understandable if Chavez’s health is precarious,” said Mr. Smilde, who runs a blog on Venezuela for the Washington Office on Latin America.
The trip likely gave Mr. Maduro a chance “to be able to talk to Chavez himself and perhaps to talk to the Castros and other Cuban advisers about how to navigate the possibility of Chavez not being able to be sworn in on Jan. 10,” Mr. Smilde said. “Mentioning twice in his nationally televised speech that Chavez has suffered new complications only reinforces the appearance that the situation is serious.”
If Chavez does not recover, there are many questions about what is next for the oil-rich, Andean nation that has been dominated by Chavez since he took office in 1999.
- Article 231: The president-elect shall take office on January 10 of the first year of their constitutional term, by taking an oath before the National Assembly. If for any reason, (they) cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, they shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Court.
- Article 233: (...) When an elected President becomes absolutely absent prior to inauguration, a new election...shall be held within 30 days.
- Article 234: When the President is temporarily unable to serve, they shall be replaced by the Executive Vice-President for a period of up to 90 days, which may be extended by resolution of the National Assembly for an additional 90 days.
But recently, a Chavez ally and head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said that the inauguration should be delayed – a move that the opposition has declared unconstitutional and casting doubt on what will happen. In the meantime, all of the problems that face Venezuela are on hold, as another guest blogger for Caracas Chronicles describes in his own personal experience here.
Chavez and his government, however, are trying to maintain a semblance of order – with Maduro sending out New Year’s greetings and avoiding mention of the radical changes that could await the nation in the year to come.
“Commander Chavez wanted us to transmit a special end of year greeting to Venezuelan families, who are gathered together over this period throughout the country; in particular he wanted to send a warm embrace to the children of Venezuela, and remind them that they are always in his heart," he said. "The embrace was extended to all of our people, so that they see in the year 2013 with love; a year which should bring the greatest of happiness to our homeland, as well as the definitive consolidation of our independence and national unity.”
The Venezuelan Observatory Of Violence (Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia) has released a study on homicides during 2012 putting the national homicide rate at 73 per 100,000 of the population, with Caracas registering 122 per 100,000. As a point of comparison, neighboring Colombia, still in the midst of the civil conflict, last year registered just over 31 homicides per 100,000.
The study was conducted by the NGO working with six national universities. It put the number of homicides during the year at 21,692, a significant increase on 2011 (19,336), which had gone down as the most violent year on record in Venezuelan history.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the statistics can be challenged, the upward trend in homicides cannot.
These figures are just part of a wider pattern that began with the election of Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1999. The blame for this lies on both internal and external factors.
The internal factors include rampant corruption in almost all branches of the security forces, a lack of investment in the police force, weak gun control that has led to a proliferation of arms, and a lack of coherent security policy on the part of the Chávez regime.
On the external side, there is the fact that Venezuela has become a principal transit nation for Colombian cocaine. This has led not only to the presence of Colombian criminal networks in Venezuela, along with Colombian Marxist rebel groups, but the development of Venezuelan organized crime. Principal among this homegrown organized crime is the "Cartel of the Suns," a powerful drug trafficking network allegedly led by senior members of the military.
This month an index of global happiness was released, and the results showed that many countries in Latin America were the world’s happiest. Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Costa Rica were all at the top of the survey. Colombia was ranked 11th, and Mexico and Brazil ranked around 20th.
Experts have suggested many reasons for the results. One includes the ability of Latin Americans to look beyond immediate problems and live life day-by-day, despite what is going on externally. It suggests that constant problems make people adapt and live positively, perhaps because it is difficult to constantly fear the worse and still live a productive life. Other explanations include cultural aspects that teach Latin Americans to keep a positive face on things, even if there are personal problems.
These are both interesting suggestions. The fact that having less might make someone feel as if he has more to be positive about could come from an appreciation for the smaller things in life. This could also be a reason why countries like France and Germany did not do well on the survey: if you are higher up, you will hit the ground harder if you do happen to fall. Regarding a positive attitude, I think the culture of Latin America does not just place a happy face on every situation, as families and close friends do have constant, open, and honest discussions, both positive and negative. It might be that in difficult times the support people get from those around them helps lift everyone in general. Even if negative things do happen, it is the support from families and close friends that makes the negativity more bearable.
In addition, there is also a culture in Latin America that does not promote negativity with every aspect of life. Being constantly negative may not thrive when a community of open and honest individuals is there for support. There is simply no room to seek out the worst-case scenario when you have so many in your corner.
While not exclusive to Latin America, the culture of family, support, and living a life to spend time with your family, I think, is an important part of Latin American culture that keeps people positive. Being with those close to you and finding other friends and partners that value that way of life is a key part of Latin American culture. That might be the main reason why people remain positive: they are never truly alone. Interestingly, many discussions and documentaries about immigrant groups in the United States show an internal conflict among many who move to the US and who do not wish to lose their support systems in a new culture rooted in individualism. While being motivated and entrepreneurial is valued, a life being with your family, where you are never truly alone, is the basis for many cultures in many parts of the world. Many new Americans frown on the thought that children can detach themselves from their family at 18 years of age. They believe people can only truly thrive as a family.
– Rich Basas is a Latin America blogger and Europe blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read the blogs here for both Latin America and Europe.
Rio de Janeiro has changed hugely in just the last four years. Thanks to economic growth, investment, and pacification (in the notoriously violent slums known as favelas), the city is more integrated and vibrant than perhaps it has ever been. Cariocas— what Rio inhabitants are known as — of all classes are freer than they were before to move around and try out a gamut of cultural experiences, to invest in their dreams, and forge new partnerships.
In 2010, Sérgio Cabral was reelected governor of Rio state and this year, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes received his own overwhelming show of approval. Clearly most citizens of both Rio state and the capital city support the continuity, consolidation, and deepening of their urban policies.
As the overall context has improved (with exceptions and backtracking), hardworking, visionary, and creative cariocas have done much to contribute to the tricky process of urban integration.
Notably, O Globo newspaper’s Faz Diferença award candidates this year include United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik, who has criticized the city’s removal policy, and the pioneering FLUPP, or International Literary Festival in Pacified Favelas, organized by Écio Salles, Toni Marques, and Julio Ludemir. Other candidates include the telenovela Avenida Brasil, which brought hidden aspects of life in Rio de Janeiro to national television; Marcus Faustin, the creator of the groundbreaking pacified favela youth program Agência de Redes para a Juventude; Jailson da Silva e Souza’s instrumental think-tank Observatório de Favelas; and the overwhelmingly successful new art fair on the wharves, ArtRio.
By comparison, last year’s winners included businessman and philanthropist Eike Batista, the animated film “Rio” creator Carlos Saldanha, and Tião Santos, the trashpicker discovered by artist Vik Muniz for his film Wasteland.
Last month, RioRealblog reported on a new move to manage the city’s social needs, which may augur well for the most problematic aspect of Rio’s transformation. With so much activity and forward movement, one could easily conclude that all is well in the world’s most exciting seaside city.
But herewith is a to-do list for us all (and please do comment, publicly or privately, if you have information, leads, additional questions, or items, contacts, etc.):
Morar Carioca: what are the program’s exact plans, budget, and timeline? What has been accomplished so far, and what remains to be done? Will the goal of bringing all of Rio’s favelas up to standard (urbanizar, in Portuguese) by 2020 be met? How is urbanizar defined? What sort of community participation is occurring? Who’s in charge and who’s checking up on them? What does the Inter-American Development Bank, which funds the program, have to say about it? Is there any coordination with the federal PAC program, responsible for upgrading the favelas Rocinha, Manguinhos, and Complexo do Alemão? And what exactly is the PAC up to? Is there any sharing of methodology or information between these two levels of government? Does the Olympic Committee have any role in the Morar Carioca program?
Sanitation: both in favelas and in formal areas of the city, who is responsible for what? What is the cost and what is the timeline for collecting and treating all of Rio’s sewage? What favelas already have sewage collection/treatment and what needs to be done to bring all of them into the system? Is it true that 70 percent of Rio de Janeiro doesn’t have adequately treated sewage? What can we do to improve trash collection in favelas, still a widespread problem? Is there a task force working on sanitation? If not, why not?
Gentrification: How can a dialogue among residents, government agencies, and other interested participants be established to determine what aspects of life in Zona Sul favelas can and should be preserved? How can this be done and who should do it? Or are we just going to let gentrification happen?
Removals: Who determines the removal policies of favela residents and procedures of the Municipal Housing Secretariat? Is there adequate oversight and governance, to ensure that residents’ rights are respected? Are they really being removed to areas close to where they used to live, as the city says?
Financial sustainability of pacification: How much does pacification cost and who pays? What’s the budget for upcoming years? Can the outlays be sustained for as long as needed? Who will determine this, and how?
Port area and mixed-income housing: What happened to the mixed-income housing proposal drafted by Columbia University students at the request of the Municipal Housing Secretariat? How can we evaluate current plans for the port with regard to the kind of healthy urban mixing of resident income and land use that Jane Jacobs taught urban planners back in the 1960s? Or is it too late to include this?
Slavery memorial: the Cais do Valongo, over which an estimated 900,000 slaves passed between 1758 and 1843, has been excavated and preserved, and is now open for visits. Will Rio erect a memorial to these people, their origins, and their descendants? Writer Alex Castro compares slavery to the Holocaust here.
Access to power and light: large swaths of the city’s population don’t have a dependable supply of power and light. Some pacified favela residents say the lights go out now that Light’s in charge, than in the days of informal hookups, or gatos. What’s going on? What’s being done to improve the situation?
Education: Is there an independent evaluation of work being done to improve education at the city and state levels? What are the findings and recommendations? If there’s no independent evaluation, what official information, findings and recommendations exist? What plans and budgets are in effect?
Health: Is there an independent evaluation of work being done to improve health care at the city and state levels? What are the findings and recommendations? If there’s no independent evaluation, what official information, findings and recommendations exist? What plans and budgets are in effect?
Public neglect of many of these questions could truncate Rio’s transformation. Civil society must play a larger role than it now does. Brazilian media need to move away from traditional biases and towards making a contribution to the process of urban change — with un-blinkered emphasis on the common good.
Uruguay has been on the vanguard of drug policy reform in the Americas, proposing a state regulatory market for the cultivation and consumption of marijuana. (See our cover on “Latin America reinventing the War on Drugs” here).
But last week the project’s No. 1 proponent – and perhaps the globe’s most trailblazing reformer – Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, told Parliament to postpone the vote.
President Mujica always said he would not go forward with the proposal if a majority of Uruguayans did not accept it. And a new poll by the firm Cifra shows 64 percent of those surveyed remain opposed.
“Don’t pass a law because it has a majority in Parliament,” the president was quoted as saying in the local press. “The majority has to be in the streets.”
But few think it means the project has been forever shelved, including those who don't explicitly favor it. In fact, Pablo Stratta, who is the secretary of the Mothers of the Plaza, an organization that fights against drug addiction, says that the polls do not reflect that people are necessarily against Mujica’s project but that it is simply not their top priority – an opinion his organization shares.
“Before we talk about legalizing any substance, whether it’s marijuana or any other, we have to start talking about addiction from a health perspective,” Mr. Stratta says. “There are many other problems to be talking about, such as the families of drug addicts, or the number of addicts living on the streets.”
Still, the news surprised those who support the increasingly bold moves around drug reform. Many proponents have looked at Uruguay’s proposal as a model for the globe; from new ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado that make recreational marijuana use legal, to presidents in Mexico and Colombia calling for new solutions to the US “war on drugs.”
Martin Jelsma, a foremost drug policy reform proponent at the Transnational Institute, was attending a drug reform meeting in Bangkok when he read an article insinuating that Mr. Mujica’s motive in delaying the parliamentary vote on the subject stemmed from doubt.
He called his colleagues from the Uruguayan drug commission, where he is an adviser. And he says he, like Mr. Stratta, is convinced that it will pass in the future – the timing is just not right.
"There have been several other quite controversial and difficult issues to deal with,” Mr. Jelsma says, including abortion and gay rights.
“And there was still the clear hope from the president’s side that this project would be carried through with a clearer majority of support population wise. In that context there are still deep details to sort out … like the details of the proposal, how it relates to UN treaties, legal issues,” Jelsma says.
"I don’t have doubts myself that a good communication strategy and a good poll that does not reduce [the issue] to overly simplistic questions will show that there is a majority support for the direction in which Mujica and his government wants to go.”
The American ex-Marine who has been holed up in a Mexican prison in one of the most dangerous regions along the US-Mexico border is reportedly going to be released today, in time to return home for Christmas.
Jon Hammar's crime: He carried an antique gun across the border from Texas that, his family says, he was planning to use on a hunting trip in Costa Rica. But en route, he passed through Mexico, where despite record levels of violence, such arms are prohibited without permission from the Mexican government.
Republican lawmakers rallied around Mr. Hammar's case, circulating photos of him chained to his jail bed. Some even called for Americans to boycott travel to Mexico until his release.
Hammar’s case came to light at a sensitive time in the gun-control debate. News broke of his August arrest in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, where an American took the lives of 20 elementary school students ages 6 and 7 last week, as well as six adults at the school and his mother.
The Newtown shooting has sparked sympathy around the world but generated renewed criticism from south of the border, where politicians point the finger at the US, saying lax gun laws have contributed to Mexican drug violence.
John Ackerman, a professor of Mexican law, writing in The Huffington Post, said this week that among the 60,000-plus death toll in Mexico, there are many innocent victims, including children. Regarding Newtown, he writes, “The National Rifle Association (NRA) should be applauded for its willingness to 'offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.' But the discussion should be guided just as much by the plight of Mexican children as by the fears of suburban mothers.”
Mexican gun laws
Hammar’s case has highlighted the stark difference between American and Mexican gun laws.
Hammar's mother, Olivia Hammar, told CNN that her 27-year-old son has been behind Mexican bars since August, after he stopped for gas in Matamoros, the notorious border town across from Brownsville, Texas, en route to Central America.
He was driving with a friend in his Winnebago, and the vehicle carried four surf boards, according to Mrs. Hammar. But he also packed an antique shotgun passed down from his great-grandfather, CNN reports.
His family only took the case public recently.
Hammar reportedly declared the weapon with US border agents and then Mexican officials, and Republican lawmakers lobbying for Hammar’s release have said he was given “bad” information by US officials about the laws in Mexico, where gun laws are, at least on the books, prohibitive.
Guns are as easy to buy on the black market here, like any illegal good, but unlike in the US, Mexican citizens who seek to legally own a weapon must apply for one through the country’s department of defense. There are no gun stores; all weapons are purchased through the government, after extensive background checks.
But this case also carries a certain amount of irony.
Over the six years of former President Felipe Calderon's administration, when the "drug war" hit a fever pitch, drug traffickers have been documented using all manner of weaponry, from grenades to so-called “matapolicias” or “police killers” to monster “narco” tanks.
Some of those weapons, ammunition, and defense mechanisms are confiscated and their owners arrested. But with impunity rates at over 90 percent, most of the perpetrators go free.
But the one sitting in Mexican jail for four months was this young American carrying an antique shotgun. And while he did break Mexican law, his plight also highlights the extreme challenges facing the Mexican justice system, as drug traffickers are employing combat-style weapons with little fear of getting caught, let alone languishing in jail.
The Zetas have many sides. The group is at once sophisticated and ruthless, coordinating multicaravan ambushes and sending hooligans to launch a wild assault on a police station. It has gang-bangers and Special Forces snipers on its payroll. It uses a sophisticated radio system and a machete in the same operation. It has a political platform that consists of shaking down the entire political class. And it has the accounting system of a multinational company, but the uncanny ability to destroy its own sources of income.
It is, in essence, more organism than organization. For this reason, we tend to see what we want to see when we look at them, even when we analyze the same event. Take the August 25, 2011, afternoon assault on the Casino Royale in Monterrey. When eight men piled in the casino in four cars with automatic weapons, gasoline and lighters, two seasoned security analysts saw entirely different things.
To one analyst, the group was a sophisticated and well-trained shock unit. A security camera video of the attack, obtained via YouTube, showed “professionalism on display,” he told InSight Crime via email. He said the first vehicle was “the screen gun truck,” which was shielding the commander in his Mini Cooper. The “elements” enter the building swiftly, while another car blocked parallel traffic. Then the gun truck sealed off the driveway. He marveled how various lookouts and vehicles cleared space near where the operation was taking place and wondered aloud how many more lookouts there were in the area.
However, another very experienced security analyst said the Monterrey arsonists were amateurs with little ability to restrain themselves.
“These guys are a joke,” former Mexican intelligence officer Alejandro Hope* told InSight Crime at the time. “They let themselves be filmed. They left fingerprints everywhere. They were caught by the Nuevo Leon police. How sophisticated could you be if you let the Nuevo Leon police capture you?”
Amateurs or not, the results were the same: 52 dead, mostly middle-aged women who were trapped by the flames that engulfed the building in a matter of seconds. The ensuing scandal about criminal control of casinos would envelop Monterrey’s mayor, whose brother was videotaped taking a large sum of money from a casino in what appeared to be an extortion payment. But his case was just as confounding as the arson attack. Journalists and opposition politicians told InSight Crime that the payment was part of the Zetas’ extortion racket, while a local counternarcotics official said it was a separate matter and a separate extortion scheme.
From Safe Haven to Beachhead
How and why the Zetas settled in Monterrey goes a long way toward explaining who they are and how they operate. The group, as has been documented, was not always free to do what it pleased. It was part of a larger structure, one of many enforcer groups that was beholden to its boss, the Gulf Cartel. This cartel had long worked in and around Metropolitan Monterrey. (When I speak of Monterrey or the area, I am talking about Metropolitan Monterrey, which, as defined by the government statistical body INEGI, includes the municipalities Apodaca, Garcia, General Escobedo, Guadalupe, Juarez, Monterrey, San Nicolás de los Garza, San Pedro Garza Garcia, Santa Catarina, and Santiago.) The first leader of the Gulf Cartel, Juan Garcia Abrego, was captured on the outskirts of this city. But his successor, Osiel Cardenas, was less interested in Monterrey, and kept his distance. By most accounts, the Zetas did as well.
In fact, Monterrey is not the Zetas’ birthplace. It’s not where its top commanders come from. It has no particular connection to Zetas’ lore. It was not even considered a place for them to do business until recently. Monterrey has long been known more as a safe haven for large-scale drug traffickers – a place where they could send their families to be safe from the mayhem in Juarez or Tijuana or Culiacan. Amado Carrillo, the legendary “Lord of the Skies,” reportedly moved his wife and kids to San Pedro Garza Garcia, on the city’s outskirts, in the 1990s. Others did as well.
With the country’s wealthiest county per capita, San Pedro is appealing for many of the same reasons as the rest of Metropolitan Monterrey. It is close to the United States. Mexican and US companies, such as Caterpillar and Callaway Golf, have long manufactured their products in the area before taking them on the quick trip north to the various border crossings. The presence of foreign companies has meant large flows of US dollars in and out of a sophisticated and extensive banking system. And with shopping malls and nice restaurants, it has often been compared to Dallas. But it is also decidedly NOT the United States. The most obvious example is San Pedro’s former municipal president, Mauricio Fernandez Garza, who openly admitted to creating a paramilitary organization to “clean” the area of criminals.
Mr. Fernandez’s allies in this venture were the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), who decided to make it their home around 2008, to escape the fighting in other parts of the country. At the time, Mexico’s drug trafficking world was going through a profound transformation, splintering and realigning in the most unpredictable of ways. Following the arrest of one of its leaders, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, the BLO split with its long-time partners, the Sinaloa Cartel.
The fighting between the two groups left their headquarters of Culiacan and Morelos in shambles, and made San Pedro seem like a safe haven. The BLO, however, took the arrangement to the next level, using San Pedro as a place of both respite and business. They co-opted politicians and businessmen, and created high-level, complex extortion schemes, one of which involved a life insurance scam. They also brought in their new partner, the Zetas.
Take the 'plaza,' win the war
The Zetas were going through their own transformation at the time. They had been growing steadily since their formation in the late 1990s, and had realized that being the enforcers was a natural way to get income from other sources, which also gave them an opportunity to expand their mini-army. The money came mostly from taking a cut of the extortion, or quota system, the Gulf Cartel imposed in its areas of influence.
Mexico’s underworld operates with the logic that other trafficking groups have to pay whoever controls the “plaza,” or trafficking corridor, “piso,” or rent, if they want to use the territory for their criminal activities. At first, any Zeta extortion scheme required the nod of Gulf Cartel leader Cardenas. But after Cardenas was captured and jailed in 2003, they began to operate more independently. By the time the Mexican government extradited Cardenas to the US in January 2007, the Zetas were effectively an independent organization.
What this meant in practice leads us to the heart of what makes the Zetas so difficult to decipher. Their military background and prowess made them the most effective and dangerous criminal organization in Mexico. Other criminal groups were not ready for them, and expanding their territory, they would find, was the easy part of the job. It took but a few well-trained ex-soldiers and former police, for example, to overrun a small city.
To get these recruits, they tapped into their networks of current and former security personnel, many of whom were unemployed or underemployed. The Mexican military also expels or releases thousands of soldiers per year – nearly 85,000 between December 2006, when former President [Felipe] Calderon took office, through May 2012. The police have also expelled thousands since 2006. And the Zetas have long used advertisements that appeal to a sense of camaraderie and core military values.
However, it was the money more than the values that attracted one ex-soldier I will call “Dragon,” for a tattoo he had. In his testimony to officials after his capture, which was part of a case against the Zetas, Dragon said after leaving the army, he studied education at a university in Veracruz state, and when he could not find a job in his field, he started working with a company that builds boats.
Economic crisis hit, and he was laid off. His daughter got sick around the same time, and he asked a friend of his, who was working as a “hawk,” or lookout, for the Zetas, for a loan. The lookout gave him the money and asked him if wanted to join. He declined, but when he still could not find work, he accepted.
After working as a “hawk” for a time, the Zetas saw he had promise and skills with weapons and promoted him to hitman duties. He was then sent to Ciudad del Carmen, in Campeche state, a city of 150,000 people in the southeastern corner of the Yucatan, where he joined a small team of Zetas preparing to take over the plaza.
Dragon told investigators that to do the job the Zetas sent three lieutenants with five soldiers each, a number they’d reached because they could fit each six-person unit into its own vehicle. One of the top guys in his cell was an ex-Honduran military officer, Dragon said. The others were all former Mexican police and military.
The group started the takeover by sending out two men to purchase drugs. Within hours, they located what is commonly called a “tienda” in Mexico. That night, they organized and executed a raid. The head of tienda, they found, was a woman, nicknamed “La Reina del Sur,” a nod perhaps to another, more famous drug trafficker who’d been jailed in the previous weeks. After torturing her and extracting information about the other tiendas and top drug distributors, the Zetas explained to her that they were the new bosses and that she would be paying them piso.
“Either you align yourself or you die,” they added.
(It is a powerful axiom in the underworld: "O te alineas o te mueres.")
They then went to the rest of the tiendas and repeated the process. This led them to other criminal activities such as the piracy vendors, and the prostitution rings. Within a week, the Zetas were collecting “piso” on every criminal enterprise in Ciudad del Carmen. It was a model they were replicating throughout the country.
But the Zetas also learned that controlling this highly trained, highly efficient military cadre would itself be a daunting challenge. They were, in a way, a victim of their own success. It was so easy to take a plaza, and they were so good at it, that their own men sought the same independence that has made the group such a wild card in the underworld.
To be sure, they instituted a discipline system. Dragon told investigators that it was based on the military regime: a “tablazo,” or a whack with a wooden paddle to the ass, when soldiers disobeyed. Fail to answer the radio, two “tablazos;” don’t go to headquarters when called, 10 “tablazos.”
The Zetas also discovered they needed a disciplined accountant who operated separately from the military side of the organization. This was necessary to keep an eye on their complicated and multifaceted revenue stream, which by now included extortion, kidnapping, piracy, contraband, theft, prostitution, human smuggling, and human trafficking.
Simultaneously, they were making a push into the local drug markets. They were focused on the local market because they had been largely cut out of the major drug trafficking market by their bosses, the Gulf Cartel, hence their concerted push into other industries.
Given this portfolio, Monterrey did not just look good, it looked like the crown jewels. But Monterrey was not Ciudad del Carmen. It was where the big players like the BLO were, and the opening would have to come via an arrangement with one of these players, or risk a bloody war.
Such were the circumstances in 2007. The two groups were at a crossroads: the BLO in its relations with the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Zetas with regards to the Gulf Cartel. For reasons that are not clear, neither was happy with its arrangement with these bosses. The infamous drug trafficker and enforcer “La Barbie,” described it like this: “Comenzaron las envidias y se volvio toda a la guerra.” Rivalries exploded, and everything went to hell.
Even though they had been mortal enemies in the past, the Zetas and the BLO reportedly met in 2007 to talk business. Barbie said Arturo Beltran Leyva spoke with the Zetas’ leaders.
“We are not friends but we have a pact, and we don’t fight,” Barbie told police, before adding. “They are slimeballs.”
By 2008, with the BLO now in open confrontation with Sinaloa Cartel, those first meetings gave the opening the Zetas sought in Monterrey. Metropolitan Monterrey, minus San Pedro, was theirs.
[Claire McClesky and Christopher Looft contributed reporting to this article. Special thanks to Southern Pulse as well for its assistance on this report and coverage of the area.]
*Alejandro Hope is a member of InSight Crime's Board of Directors.
– Steven Dudley is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
- Hold: Miranda, Lara, Amazonas
- Gain: None
- Hold: Anzoategui, Apure, Aragua, Barinas, Bolívar, Cojedes, Delta Amacuro, Falcón, Guárico, Mérida, Portuguesa, Sucre, Trujillo, Vargas, Yaracuy
- Gain: Carabobo, Monagas, Nueva Esparta, Táchira, Zulia.
Taken as a referendum on Chávez’s legacy and the carryover of his charisma to other candidates, this result provides clear reason for celebration for the Chávez coalition. It is, of course, a brutal result for the opposition which lost opposition strongholds such as Zulia, Carabobo, and Táchira – the last two by large margins – and gained none. However, it was not a fatal result insofar as Henrique Capriles squeaked out a win in Miranda.
Taken as a primary, the vote provided some clarity for the opposition. Capriles won on a night that most other opposition candidates lost, including his most viable rival, Pablo Pérez. The only other opposition candidates to win are “dissidents” who were pro-Chávez only a couple of years ago. Thus there is little chance that they could be viable national leaders within the opposition coalition.
The elections show that Chávez’s charisma can indeed carry-over to other politicians in his coalition, at least in the short term. It is important to remember how compressed this time frame has been. In the week immediately preceding the elections, Chávez announced the recurrence of his cancer, designated a successor, and underwent surgery. This wave of attention and emotion clearly had a significant impact on the elections.
It is likely that if, in the coming month or two, Chávez were incapacitated and had to step aside this same transfer of charisma could deliver the presidency to Nicolás Maduro. However, if Chávez’s health crisis were to extend and he did not step aside for another three or four or six months, the situation could be quite different. The government has a number of issues it needs to confront in 2013, most importantly the economy, and doing so will surely spend some of its political capital. So while their performance in [yesterday]’s elections certainly makes the PSUV the odds on favorite if new presidential elections were to be called, there are a lot of intervening variables that keep the future less than certain.
One last note. Chávez’s designation of Nicolás Maduro as successor has been rightly seen as a big plus for the civilian over the military wing of the Chávez coalition. However, it should be pointed out that tonight four of the five states that flipped to the PSUV had former military officers as candidates: Arias Cardenas in Zulia, Francisco Ameliach in Carabobo, Jose Vielma Mora in Táchira, and Carlos Mata Figueroa in Nueva Esparta. And five of the states the PSUV held were won by former or current military officers as candidates: Ramón Carrizalez in Apure, Henry Rangel Silva in Trujillo, Jorge García Carneiro in Vargas, Wilmar Castro in Portuguesa, and Francisco Rangel Gómez in Bolívar.
– David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.