During Sunday night's second and final presidential debate, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who has been ahead in the polls since the race began, didn't have to dodge a lot of bullets. He wasn't attacked any more than the three other candidates.
In fact, his top rival, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, barely criticized Mr. Peña Nieto, or anyone else. Meanwhile his rival on the right, Josefina Vazquez Mota, spent her time attacking everyone equally, including the candidate on the fringes of the race, Gabriel Quadri, who has only about 2 percent of votes.
It was almost as if the debate's goal was not about trying to knock Peña Nieto from the top, but secure the second place slot. And so it is likely that Sunday night alone will do little to steer supporters away from Peña Nieto, point undecided voters in a clear direction, or shuffle up the statistics in any significant way. "A statistical tie," analysts declared during after-debate television programs.
The main criticism that Peña Nieto has had to contend with throughout the race is his party's past, as the authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for 71 years before finally getting edged out by Ms. Vazquez Mota's National Action Party (PAN). The theme surfaced again Sunday night – broached particularly by Vazquez Mota.
Peña Nieto has faced a dip in polling numbers as of late, but that's not directly due to maneuvers by the candidates. It's been because of outside factors, most notably a student movement that gained ground exactly a month ago today, opposing the comeback of the PRI.
As Peña Nieto's polling numbers have gone down since students took to the streets – those of Lopez Obrador's have gone up. Lopez Obrador almost won the presidential race in 2006 (he lost to President Felipe Calderon of the PAN, who is constitutionally barred from running again), and his biggest handicap has been his radicalization after losing that race. He refused to recognize the results and named himself the legitimate president of the country. He has also been painted as a “danger” to Mexico. Ahead of the 2006 race conservatives in the nation sought to paint him as Venezuela's radical Hugo Chavez.
But instead of attacking Peña Nieto, he presented himself as a statesman. He never once got riled. He never made a low blow. He named specifically who would be part of his cabinet before his time ran out. It was as if he was presenting himself as the frontrunner, said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo, on the after-debate show on Canal 11, one of Mexico's most popular television stations.
It was Vazquez Mota who was on the attack. Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the debate was hers: she began asking the audience to imagine that she were running against three women. At first it seemed as if she were, once again, trying to rally the “woman vote,” but then she zinged each of the candidates. She said Mexicans will never know how Lopez Obrador will wake up, if he is feeling “loving” or not – a dig at his image makeover this election, which included calling for a “loving republic.” She also said Mr. Quadri as president would have to get advice from his "mother" every step of the way, a criticism of the support he has received from booster Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the teacher's union, who is largely perceived as one of the most corrupt actors in Mexican society.
Her attack mode was perceived by many users across Twitter as an attempt to steal the 2 percent of voters aligned with Quadri. More likely, her strategy was to use an attack tactic to at least get back into second place. Her party, the PAN, was cheered by Mexican society after the fall of the PRI in 2000, but her lagging campaign has shown Mexico's disillusionment with their rule over the past 12 years.
Quadri spent his time trying to drive the debate: he called upon the candidates to declare their stances on abortion and same-sex marriage, and tried to bring up the role of China in Mexico. He was paid some attention, but not much.
But Peña Nieto, who has led the polls since the race officially began in March, didn't garner much more attention than Quadri did. He was instead left to repeat his stances on creating jobs, diminishing inequality, providing better security, efficiency, transparency, and the list goes on.
Anyone seeking a game-changing debate was sorely disappointed last night. But in stark contrast to the debate itself, tens of thousands of students took to the streets to protest the PRI yesterday, indicating that what happens off the airwaves and on the streets could deliver some major surprises – especially among the high number of undecided voters, many of whom are surely still undecided after last night.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Four ALBA countries, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela announced they are formally pulling out of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR or Rio Pact). The treaty, signed in 1947, is a cold war relic. It says an attack against any country in the hemisphere will be treated as an attack against all. Similar to NATO's Article 5, it's a collective defense mechanism meant to deter a Soviet invasion.
Of course, the Soviet Union is long gone. Today, there is little threat of a military attack from a country outside this hemisphere against one inside this hemisphere. My first reaction to the TIAR announcement was to joke about it. The Russians aren't going to invade Nicaragua and the North Koreans aren't going to launch a ballistic missile at Bolivia because the deterrent threat of TIAR is being removed. Mexico pulled out of TIAR in 2002 due to its dispute with the US over the Iraq war and the lack of a collective defense treaty appears the least of Mexico's military and security concerns today.
The withdrawal from the treaty by the ALBA countries is symbolic. The Rio Pact is one of the founding documents of the modern inter-American system, coming from a time period in which the US was far more dominant over the region than it is now. The countries withdrawing are looking to rewrite inter-American relations as well as weaken or destroy the institutions of the current regional system that do not benefit their current leadership.
Even if you disagree with the motives of Bolivian President Morales and his allies, it's not wrong to think that TIAR is an anachronism. Collective defense in the 21st century must mean something very different than what it meant as World War II ended and the cold war began. TIAR may be symbolically important to the history of inter-American relations, but it's questionable whether it's relevant to the threats that are faced today.
If Brazil is hit by a Chinese cyber attack, do other countries in the hemisphere respond? If the US is bombed by Iranian-backed terrorists, what does Latin America do? The honest answer is that if some unlikely military threat scenario were to occur in this hemisphere, the regional response would be based on modern political will and diplomacy, not the language of a treaty that's 65 years old and gathering dust.
So is TIAR worth keeping around? Sure. The concept of collective defense is a good one to have in this hemisphere. TIAR has symbolic value that the hemisphere is united against common threats, even if the specifics of the treaty haven't been used much. But it wouldn't be the end of the world if TIAR fell apart or other countries withdrew. Every country in the hemisphere should work with their neighbors to prepare for modern threats whether or not an old-fashion treaty is in place.
– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
It’s not been a banner week – or month – for Cuba on the trade, investment, and economic front.
After its second attempt in 10 years to find commercial quantities of oil in Cuban deep water in the Gulf of Mexico – its latest well came up dry – Spain’s Repsol is “almost certain” it won’t try again. Repsol has the option to drill again later this year before the Italian-owned Scarabeo rig – which, due to the US embargo, had to be specially built with no more than 10 percent of American parts for exploration in Cuba – moves on to Brazil. Next up are two Malaysian and Russian firms, whose explorations this summer could be crucial to Cuba’s near-to-mid-term hopes of accessing undersea reserves it estimates to be as high as 20 billion barrels (the US estimates it to have around 5 billion).
As Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive and an expert on Cuba’s oil prospects, points out, once the only rig in the world that can drill in Cuban waters without violating the US embargo moves on, it could be years before it’s available and another player is willing to invest millions in the gamble – especially when larger reserves beckon elsewhere around the world. The prospect of an energy-independent Cuba was intriguing from a geopolitical standpoint, and surely a blow to Cuba’s hopes of digging out of its continuing economic troubles. Just as some wondered if success in the Gulf could derail the economic reforms underway out of necessity, it might soon be time to ask if failure could spur on the painfully slow pace of the reforms.
The pace seems even slower for foreign investments on the island as of late. Cuban officials have cracked down on foreign investors and their domestic partners found to be involved in corruption – two British executives have recently landed in jail. Other partners such as Unilever and a group of Israeli investors in Cuban citrus are on their way out following unsuccessful contract renewal negotiations. It’s mystifying to watch Cuban officials working harder to chase off investors than to bring them in when, as one western diplomat put it, such concessions are “inevitable”. With plans to drastically cut government payrolls (that the small domestic private sector can’t quickly or totally absorb), Cuba’s main benefactor and trading partner, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez’s health (and hold on power) uncertain, and big bills to pay with not enough hard currency earnings to pay them, it’s hard to understand what’s going on. And that is exactly the sort of climate that will scare off investors for the time being.
And in perhaps the most bitter news for Cuba, the US Supreme Court has rejected a petition over the US trademark rights to the Havana Club rum name. Given that the US accounts for 40 percent of the worldwide rum market, CubaExport and its French distributor partner Pernod Ricard, which distribute Cuba’s flagship rum to more than 80 other countries around the world but not in the US yet, had hoped the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) would hold their seat in the US market until the embargo is eventually lifted. That’s because CubaExport had registered the US rights to the name in 1976 (after the prior owner, who’s rum distillery was expropriated by the Cuban government, failed to renew the US trademark rights in 1973), and renewed its rights every ten years thereafter in order to keep its rights current.
Two decades and no US imports from Cuba later, Pernod Ricard’s competitor (and reigning worldwide rum distributor) Bacardi started bottling its own Havana Club rum. Pernod Ricard responded by suing Bacardi for the trademark infringement. Then, in 1998, Bacardi triumphed by getting allies in Congress to pass a rider, Section 211 of the 1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act, to block registration and renewal of trademark rights associated with expropriated Cuban properties (without “consent” of the “original owner” of the trademark), and to even block a US court from hearing a complaint on their behalf.
Pernod would likely have argued in court that the new law didn’t apply because the original owner of the Havana Club label had failed to renew their trademark rights in the US and thus was no longer considered the original owner, but it never got the chance, since Section 211 forced a Florida court to throw out the pending suit by Pernod Ricard against Bacardi. Then, when CubaExport tried to pay for the Havana Club rights renewal in 2006, as it had done for three decades, Section 211 now prevented the USPTO from accepting the payment.
The Havana Club rum dispute remains as obscure as ever to the larger American public. It’s simply too complicated, and there isn’t a big enough constituency to care. And that’s the real shame. Thanks to a backroom deal on a fast-moving, must-pass bill , the intended targets aren’t the only losers. The United States’ sterling reputation for intellectual property rights protection has taken a hit, and if renewed threats of retaliation by Cuba bear out, US businesses that have nothing to do with the row and enjoy trademark protection in Cuba today could lose that protection. Whatever one thinks of the Cuban government’s expropriation of businesses in the early days of the Revolution (and the American business community that overwhelmingly opposes Section 211 is surely no fan), it's hard to see how following Cuba’s usurping example is really the answer.
The latest episode of "Pablo Escobar: The Boss of Evil" airs June 4 on Caracol TV. The debut last week attracted some 11 million viewers, the network said, a number that is expected to climb until the series finale.
One promotional spot for "The Boss of Evil" (see video at original post) is indicative of some of the difficulties that the show's creators face in packaging the program for a Colombian audience. The ad has several segments, each representing a different facet of Escobar's life: ruthless killer, rich businessman, lover, and finally the world's most hunted man. A deep-voiced narrator describes well-known stories about Escobar, such as the fact that he paid assassins 1 million pesos (today worth about $545) for each police officer killed. Each segment ends with the narrator asking the audience, "What do you believe?"
The implication is that the Colombian public – including a new generation not quite old enough to remember Escobar's era – can select the vision of Escobar they most want to believe in. One of Escobar's greatest public relations skills was blurring the line between truth and lies, forcing Colombians to choose between his version of reality and the state's, which had its own serious credibility problems. Escobar's hand-scrawled communiques often lambasted police brutality in the Medellin slums that served as his powerbase. These accusations had some truth to them. But Escobar's depiction of reality was fundamentally warped: he denied his involvement in drug trafficking until the very end, and famously described his 1991 surrender to the government as a "sacrifice for peace." The implication was similar to the question posed by "The Boss of Evil" promos: Did Colombians believe Escobar's presentation of himself as a populist businessman, or the state's picture of him as murderous kingpin?
An article on Escobar published by Semana news magazine in 1983 (in Spanish) gave one of the most popular visions of Escobar, describing him as a "Robin Hood" who strolled around Medellin neighborhoods, addressed by inhabitants as "Don Pablo." This ambiguity of Escobar's legacy is one reason he continues to fascinate, and why he makes for great TV. Contradictory characters are the most interesting ones. And audiences are drawn to stories of hubris – by the end of Escobar's life his $3 billion fortune was squandered, and he was on the run, unable to stay more than six hours in a single location.
"The Boss of Evil" is not the first time that a Colombian telenovela has mined the world of drug trafficking for material. But by making Escobar the protagonist, the TV show is courting controversy, asking its audience to view him with curiosity and interest. This raises difficult questions over whether such a position borders on complacency towards Escobar's crimes, or approval of his lifestyle. Two of the show's creators had family members who were victims of Escobar's violent campaigns, allowing Caracol TV to avoid accusations that the TV show is painting too sympathetic a portrait of the Colombian drug lord.
Escobar's mystique is also related to his ambiguous position as Colombia's ultimate capitalist. He brought a flush of foreign cash into the country, fueling building booms and propping up businesses. He was an independent innovator and a micro-manager who hated to delegate.
And in his own twisted way, Escobar could make an argument that his cocaine trafficking business was a patriotic effort. Dating back to the 19th century, coca and cocaine were controlled and consumed by Western commercial interests. Unlike other natural resources in South America, Escobar made cocaine a Colombian-run business, bringing in huge profits that actually stayed in the country.
Escobar was behind other innovations. He used urban terrorism in a way never before seen during Colombia's decades of conflict. He made casual, brutal violence an accepted tactic of the drug trade. His cunning communiques, aimed at manipulating public opinion and justifying the acts of violence he described as "reprisals" against the state, are echoed today in the "narco-banners" hung across Mexico. And as Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes in "News of A Kidnapping," an account of Escobar's campaign to force the government to revoke its extradition laws, Escobar's cultural influence still lingers:
Easy money ... was injected into the national culture. The idea prospered: The law is the greatest obstacle to happiness, it is a waste of time learning how to read and write, you can live a better, more secure life as a criminal than as a law-abiding citizen – this was the social breakdown typical of all undeclared wars.
But as much as Escobar was an innovator, setting the tone for how organized crime continues to do business today, it is impossible to separate him from Colombia's history. Many members of Colombia's traditional land-owning elite could also trace their wealth back to criminal enterprises: contraband smuggling, land seizures, and slavery. Escobar's wealth came from just another industry that was technically illegal. And like Escobar, Colombia's elite long practiced their own system of violent justice, forming private armies to protect their interests in the countryside. By using violence as a tool to achieve his economic interests, Escobar formed part of the same tradition. The Medellin kingpin did not emerge from a vacuum.
The creators of "The Boss of Evil" argue that the TV show is intended as a way to relive one of the most difficult periods of Colombia's past. By emphasizing historical accuracy, the show will not act as a justification of Escobar's actions, the show creators say. As Semana points out (in Spanish), telling stories about bad guys is seductive. The irony is that the TV show is asking is audience to do something that Escobar repeatedly proved he was totally incapable of doing: distinguishing between good and evil.
The ancient Maya, famed for their knowledge of astronomy and highly precise calendar, closely followed the movements of Venus – possibly including the planet’s rare transits across the sun.
Now modern Mexico gets to view this last-in-a-lifetime planetary show tonight, along with the rest of the western hemisphere, when Venus will travel across the sun, appearing like a freckle on the face of our distant star.
“Venus will pass between the earth and the sun, creating a small shadow,” says Alejandro Farah, an astronomer with Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
There won’t be another chance to see this phenomenon for another 105 years. Mercury circles the sun fast enough that its shadow can be seen across the sun every 13 to 14 years. However, the tilted orbit of Venus makes its transit exceedingly rare. The transits occur in pairs spread eight years apart, separated from the next pair by more than a century. The last set was visible in 1874 and 1882. Tonight's phenomenon is the second of a pair (the first was in 2004) and won't be seen again until 2117.
For viewers in Mexico City, the second planet from the sun will make its move at approximately 5 p.m.
While June weather in the capital is typically hot and clear during the day, rain showers and thunderstorms often obscure the late afternoon sky. Weather.com predicts “scattered showers” for the capital beginning around 3 p.m. But, as often happens in the sprawling metropolis, rain may fall in one borough while the sun shines on another.
Venus’ five-hour journey will be visible for about three hours in Mexico City, until the sun sets at 8:13 p.m. local time. (The three top spots in the country to witness the journey are in Torreon, Coahuila, and Los Cabos and San Pedro Martir, Baja California, where Venus will be visible on the face of the sun for about six hours.)
IN PICTURES: Venus
The Maya followed Venus closely. Archeological studies of wall paintings in the ancient city of Mayapan suggest that the twin transits of Venus in 1153 and 1275 were likely seen and registered by the Maya, according to UNAM astronomer Jesus Galindo Trejo.
The Mayan studies of this planet were based on the “full capacity that the Maya had to carefully follow the apparent movement of this planet,” Mr. Galindo Trejo wrote in an academic article. “They meticulously registered the seasons of appearance and disappearance of Venus in its movement around the sun, seen from the Earth.”
Viewing activities are planned around the capital. UNAM’s science museum, Universum, plans to set up about a dozen telescopes on an esplanade for people to safely witness the phenomenon and will host talks, astronomy workshops, and children’s activities. Chapultepec Castle in the heart of the city’s largest park will also set up viewing stations.
The city’s Institute of Science and Technology is advising viewers to take special precautions, including never looking at the sun directly and using special filtered glasses to view the phenomenon for just seconds at a time.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
The first step taken on a path from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Rua Barão da Torre in Ipanema was when Sam Flowers was a mere ten-year-old, begging his mother to let him learn how to decorate cakes. That led to a BS degree in hotel administration from Cornell University, with an eye towards opening a restaurant.
“The irony is that I learned enough about the business to get frightened away,” Flowers admits with his easy smile. Even so, while earning an MBA he continued to decorate cakes, dreams on a back burner.
During eight years in executive management at Universal Studios, Flowers took a couple of vacations to Rio. “The first time I came alone and it rained every day. I didn’t speak Portuguese,” he recalls. “But I had never been anywhere before where I blended in, a country of mixed-race people.”
Flowers spent eighteen months here in 2004-5, that included a stint at PUC to learn Portuguese. He also scouted out locations, entertaining thoughts of chocolate chip cookies and brunch. On learning that opening a business will get you a resident visa, Flowers reserved the name Gringo Café on the internet. Then he went home to develop a business plan and put together the necessary funding for his enterprise.
“You have to have a back-up plan,” he advises. “With enough resources for a worst-case scenario. Not having enough cash set aside is one of the top reasons restaurants fail.” According to Flowers, nine restaurants in the vicinity of the Gringo Café have opened and closed in the two years he’s been in business. No positive cash flow from one to three years is typical in the restaurant business, he adds.
What are the biggest problems a gringo restaurateur faces in Rio de Janeiro?
- Customers shy away from new foods; Brazilians eat crêpes and pasta, but have little experience with delights such as Sam’s mouthwatering blueberry pancakes or comforting macaroni-and-cheese.
- Employee turnover; the current low unemployment rate means training lots of chefs and waiters, only to have them move on.
- High payroll costs, due to taxes; “The burden is dramatic,” says Flowers. “And you pay income tax even if you’re losing money!”
Economists have long described and lamented the so-called “Brazil Cost“, which retards business vitality for everyone, not just foreigners. Steps have been taken to reduce this at different levels of government. But much remains to be done.
Meanwhile, revenue in the Gringo Café’s second year is up 15 - 20 percent from its first year. Rio’s high dining-out prices have actually helped business, as tourists and locals head away from prime venues on Avenida Visconde de Pirajá to find more affordable meals on back streets.
When Flowers began to dream of the Gringo Café, he looked for someone who could describe to him all the steps of the process of making the investment, getting a visa, and setting up the business. Such a person didn’t exist, he discovered. Now he’s doing some consulting on the side for other dreamers. “You really have no way to know what [the business] is going to look like until you’re in it,” Flowers concludes – despite so much careful preparation. “You have to test and adjust.”
– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.
A flood of villagers are fleeing their homes in the state of Sinaloa, driven out by a battle between two of the country's biggest criminal organizations – the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organization – for the crown jewel of Mexico's drug production: the Sierra Madre mountain range.
In May, the Sinaloa state government released a report (see pdf in original post) claiming 1,203 families, or an estimated 5,000 people, had been forced to leave their homes in the last several months, but blamed the displacements on both increasing violence in the area and a severe drought. The Sinaloa Human Rights Commission, a non-governmental organization, says the number of displaced in the state is closer to 25,000 people over roughly the same period, the vast majority of whom are fleeing the fighting between drug cartels.
Both the state and the human rights organization reports agree that the majority of these people come from municipalities in the Sierra Mountains, which cut through the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. This region makes up part of the so-called Golden Triangle, the epicenter of marijuana and poppy (the raw ingredient for heroin) production in the country. Authorities also believe there are large, industrial-size methamphetamine labs in the area.
The Sierra is a symbolic center of operations for the Sinaloa Cartel and the cartel's birthplace. For opposition forces, taking this strategic and symbolic center of operations would represent a seismic shift in the Mexican underworld and may help explain why the Sinaloa cartel forces have targeted the Zetas' stronghold of Nuevo Laredo in recent weeks.
Displaced people, interviewed during a visit to the area by InSight Crime, say that beginning in July of last year caravans of vehicles carrying large groups of heavily armed men have poured into their territory to commit assassinations, burn houses, and run them from their villages.
"They say: 'If you stay, you work with us. If you don't work with us, you die,'" one frightened displaced resident of Sinaloa de Levya told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
As many as a dozen people were killed in his community in the municipality of Sinaloa de Leyva at the end of last year, he said. The final straw came in January, when villagers say between 8 and 9 vehicles – some of which had makeshift machine-gun turrets in the pickup beds – with 70 to 80 heavily armed men arrived and burned several houses.
Nearly 300 families fled to nearby Surutato, in the neighboring municipality of Badiraguato, where the majority remain. Some of these displaced say the villagers have regrouped, armed themselves and are employing guerrilla tactics, such as putting obstacles in the road, to keep the opposition forces, who they say are from the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) – Zetas – Juarez Cartel at bay. The Mexican army is also present, sending reinforcements to the small battalion based in Surutato.
The pattern of attacks in Sinaloa de Leyva is repeating itself further north in the municipality of Choix and south in the municipalities of San Ignacio and Concordia, where mixed groups of suspected BLO, Zetas, and Juarez Cartel members make regular incursions in an attempt to root residents suspected of supporting the Sinaloa Cartel from their areas of production.
In Concordia, the prize may be control of the new highway that will slice through the mountains, connecting the key port city of Mazatlan with Durango, where a similarly bloody battle is playing out between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas.
But it is in Choix where the recent battles have been the fiercest. During one five-day stretch beginning in late April, at least 21 were killed in running battles through the mountainous region. (Press reports oscillated between 21 and 40 dead.)
The Sierra is the birthplace of the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," who, along with his partner Ismael Zambada, alias "El Mayo," has ruled this territory for years. For a time, they were partnered with the Beltran Leyva Organization, which also hails from the Sierra.
But a dispute between the Chapo – Mayo faction and the Beltran Leyva family erupted in January 2008 when authorities arrested a top member of the family, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The BLO, believing Chapo had betrayed the clan, killed Chapo's son as he entered a Culiacan mall in May of that same year.
Since then, the state has seen some of the highest homicide rates in the country as the groups' various factions, all of whom have networks that stretch into urban areas, eliminate soldiers and alleged supporters of the other. A third faction, remnants of the Juarez Cartel based in the Sinaloa municipality of Navolato, also entered the fray against the Chapo – Mayo clans. Those two groups, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel, have fought for control of Ciudad Juarez over the past three years.
When authorities killed the Beltran Leyva clan's head, Arturo, alias "El Jefe de los Jefes," in a dramatic December 2009 shootout in Cuernavaca, it was thought the Chapo – Mayo faction had won. Police arrested Alfredo's brother Carlos just days later, leaving Hector, alias "H," as the only one to run the family's affairs. However, Hector has surprised, steadily rebuilding his forces by aligning himself with one-time enemies – the Zetas and the Juarez Cartel.
The Zetas' core is former military personnel, while the heart of the Juarez Cartel hails from Sinaloa. Using the Zetas' military prowess, the Juarez Cartel's soldiers and local know-how, and the BLO's institutional and historical presence in municipalities like Guasave, the BLO-Zetas-Juarez group is now making regular incursions into Chapo – Mayo controlled areas in the Sierra mountains.
The dispute is more than personal and drug-related. The Sierra is also a known refuge for criminal groups. Stretching back to Mexico's civil war, so-called "gavillas," – or small, mostly blood-related criminal clans – have operated in the region. Both the Beltran Leyvas and Chapo ran their own gavillas for a time. They later graduated to creating more regional "commandos" and used the local gavillas as proxies.
As long as there was one boss or one organization controlling the Sierra, the gavillas were quiet and under control. But the current war has forced numerous gavillas into choosing sides or, in at least one case, breaking off on their own, creating an even more unstable situation.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said in a recent report 230,000 Mexicans had fled their homes because of drug-related violence since 2006. In contrast, the United Nations identifies a mere 1,570 people as a "population of concern”. Meanwhile the national government continues to refer to the displaced as "internal migrants," downplaying the relation to the drug cartels.
In some ways, the growing problem of displacement resembles Colombia where armed groups fight for control of drug production zones. Like Colombia, the threat to villagers is explicit: work for us or leave. And like Colombia, authorities have been slow to recognize the problem, thus leaving villagers to arm themselves and fight back.
– 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.
Costa Rican authorities announced that the country registered its first yearly decrease in homicides in six years. The country registered 474 homicides in 2011, 53 less than 2010. That brings the rate per 100,000 down to 10.3 from 11.5.
Homicides in Guatemala decreased in both 2010 and 2011 and it appears as if the trend will continue in 2012. Homicides look to be down between 10 – 20 percent compared to this time last year.
While homicides did not decrease in El Salvador last year, the country will experience a sharp reduction in homicides for 2012 should the gang truce hold for the rest of the year. Homicides are down around 60 percent compared to the first few months of the year.
Homicides aren't the only measure of violence and the region's numbers are still higher than everyone wants. However, better governance and creativity can bring about improvements in the daily lives of the region's citizens.
– Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, cuba.foreignpolicyblogs.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Mariela Castro’s US tour continued this week with a visit to the United Nations, a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and a public presentation at the New York Public Library. The East Coast stopover followed a busy agenda in San Francisco last week, and has upset those who say that Castro used the visit to “bash” the United States, others who found her comments regarding President Obama (that she would vote for him if she could) overly controversial, and of course, those who believe that she should never have been granted a US visa for the visit in the first place.
But in reality, the visit appears to have gone quite well, and is deserving of some kudos.
The beauty of free speech in a country like the United States is that Mariela Castro is allowed to visit and share beliefs with which many people agree – say, regarding the rights and equality of LGBT persons – as well as beliefs with which many people disagree – for instance, that the current political system in Cuba is open, fair, and democratic, as she stated Tuesday evening. Those who listen and participate in an exchange with her are able to formulate their own opinions, and should be allowed that privilege.
David da Silva Cornell, an international business attorney based in Miami, appeared to provide the most reasonable treatment of the issues around this visit in a Huffington Post article this week. He repeated Moshe Dayan’s famous quote “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” and added: “Refusing even to engage in dialogue with those with whom one disagrees never seems to yield results.”
In his opinion piece, da Silva Cornell called upon Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and Castro’s co-panelist for the New York Public Library session on Tuesday, to challenge Castro by raising the connection of LGBT rights to the larger context of universal human and civil rights that are so limited in Cuba. And sure enough, Carey did. She asked Castro on Tuesday evening whether she would anticipate expanding her push for LGBT rights to “people with different religious or political views.”
The fact that Carey did not receive much of a reply matters little. What is important is the clear difference in certain convictions between Carey and Castro as interlocutors, and the peaceful exchange of ideas nonetheless.
– 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.
The story of a Brazilian campaigner forced to flee her Amazon home by death threats from illegal loggers underscores the dangers faced by land activists in the country, and the government's failure to protect them.
On May 19, land activist Nilcilene Miguel de Lima left her community in Labrea municipality in the south of Amazonas state, fearing that she would be killed by illegal loggers if she stayed. Since November last year, she had been under the protection of nine armed police officers. However, the guard was withdrawn after its initial six-month term ended, leaving her vulnerable to attacks, reported Publica (in Portuguese).
According to residents of Labrea, illegal loggers celebrated Miguel de Lima's departure, telling residents, "We've put the National [Police] Force on the run," the news website reported.
Miguel de Lima has been the target of numerous threats and attacks since 2009 when she became head of God Will Provide (Deus Provera), an association of local farmers and rubber tappers. In June 2010 she was beaten by a group of illegal loggers, and her house was burned down in August of that year, apparently in retaliation for her activist work, reported Oeco Amazonia (in Portuguese). She fled Labrea in May 2011 but returned under a government guarantee of protection.
Now, she has been forced to flee again. Though the government paid her airfare out of Labrea, acknowledging the danger if she stayed, it appears little is being done to protect others in the community at risk. As Publica notes, seven people have been killed in the region since 2007.
InSight Crime Analysis
Miguel de Lima's case highlights the dangers associated with land activism in Brazil. Much of this is connected to illegal logging, which represents up to 80 percent of the country's timber industry, according to Greenpeace. Many have died as a result of clashes between communities trying to protect their land from large businesses and criminal groups moving in to exploit the highly lucrative trade.
Five campaigners against illegal logging were assassinated in the Amazon state of Para in one month last year. Some 1,000 land activists have been murdered in the last two decades, but only 80 hitmen and 15 landowners have been convicted for these crimes, according to the Guardian.
Neide Lourenco of the campaign group Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) said that the withdrawal of Miguel de Lima's security unit was "a message of impunity and a victory for lawlessness. Those who denounce deforestation are expelled and the criminals have all the freedom to continue extracting resources from the forest."