Thursday, September 29, 2011

Could Paramilitarism turn Mexico into Another Colombia?

The Wall Street Journal looks at the rise of “vigilante justice” in Mexico, following the release of a video over the weekend by a group calling themselves the “Mata Zetas” or “Zeta Killers.” In the video, members of the group present themselves in a highly theatrical manner: masked, gloved and dressed in black, they sit in a line facing the camera, press conference-style, each with a bottle of water carefully placed in front of them.

As noted in Tuesday’s brief, this is not the first public statement from the group, which announced their presence in a video in July, in which they promised to expel the Zetas from Veracruz. There have been other groups who have used the same name in the past, including one apparently operating in Cancun in 2009.

In what appeared to be a carefully prepared statement, the group declare that they are “the armed wing of the people,” describing themselves as a “paramilitary” force which does not extort, kidnap, steal or disturb the nation’s well-being. In a particularly curious twist, the Zeta Killers claim to respect the Mexican authorities and their fight against organized crime.

This it at least partly pure rhetoric on the part of the group, who are thought to be part of the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation, which is associated with the Sinaloa Cartel - long Mexico’s biggest drug trafficking organization. But, for the WSJ, the appearance of the Zeta Killers represents a worrying development in Mexico’s security situation, as

The rise of any paramilitary gangs could propel Mexico into an even more violent stage of a drug war.
The WSJ draws parallels with the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia, where the AUC army grew out of local self-protection groups that were set up to protect civilians against leftist guerrillas. The AUC declared itself to be a force on the side of law and order, but ended up being responsible for some of the worst abuses of the recent decades of the conflict, with a big role in trafficking drugs out of the country.

Despite the alarming appearance of the Zeta Killers, who were likely responsible for a massacre of 35 alleged Zetas members whose bodies were left on a Veracruz street last week, the Mexican conflict does not seem likely to morph into anything resembling that of Colombia in the heyday of the paramilitaries. The situation is far less politically polarized, and the self-proclaimed paramilitary force are presumably motivated as much by a wish to push the aggressive Zetas gang out of their territory as by any real disgust at the Zetas’ unpatriotic activities.

However, the WSJ is right to raise concerns about the phenomenon of groups taking the law into their own hands in Mexico. In the face of raging violence from gangs who seem able to act with impunity, some communities are forming vigilante groups to protect themselves. One well-known example is the town of Cheran, in southern Mexico, where indigenous peoples formed a militia to patrol the town, repelling both the security forces and the Familia Michoacana drug gang.

News Briefs

  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was rushed to hospital with signs of kidney failure, according to El Nuevo Herald newspaper, whose sources said that the cancer-stricken leader was in “quite serious condition” when he was admitted. Kidney problems can be a product of chemotherapy, according to the report. Chavez’s government responded to the reports in typically robust style, with Information Minister Andres Izarra Tweeting that El Nuevo Herald’s journalists were the ones who should be admitted, “into a madhouse.” The socialist president has repeatedly played down his illness, saying recently that it had not affected any of his internal organs, and claiming that the opposition were taking advantage of it to portray him as incapable of running in the 2012 elections.
  • In more U.S. coverage of the effects of organized crime in Mexico, NPR warns that “eduation is the latest casualty” in that country’s drug war. The radio station takes a look at the situation in resort city Acapulco, where teachers are striking in protest against the authorities’ failure to protect them from extortion, kidnap and harassment by drug gangs. One striker told NPR that many groups were suffering the same pressure, from taxi drivers to shopkeepers, but the teachers were the ones taking a stand. The state government is considering sending in retired teachers to break the strike. In what is likely an attempt to intimidate the protesters and force them to back down, a sack containing five severed heads was left outside one primary school in the city on Tuesday morning.
  • President Obama has nominated Roberta Jacobson to take the role of the administration’s top official on Latin America. Jacobson is set to become the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, replacing Arturo Valenzuela, who stepped down in July. Valenzuela had presided over a lackluster policy towards the region, and had been criticized as ineffectual and pushed to the sidelines of policy formation, according to a Foreign Policy blog. Jacobson has served as acting assistant secretary since Valenzuela’s departure.
  • Bolivia’s embattled President Evo Morales has seen tens of thousands take to the streets in protest against a crackdown on indigenous groups. Police reportedly used heavy-handed tactics to cut off a march against the construction of a road in a protected zone to the east of the country. Morales quickly backpedalled in the face of the public outrage, suspending construction of the highway, as noted in Wednesday’s brief, and denying that he had ordered police to stop the march. The Associated Press notes that “It remains unclear who ordered air force planes to fly to a tourist town near where the march was broken up to collect detainees.” Bolivia has a tradition of strong street protests, which have often toppled governments, and Morales has already lost at least four top officials in the fallout.
  • The Guardian newspaper reports from Brazil on this year’s spate of murders of environmental activists in Para state, in the Amazon, noting that the killings showed that authorities are unable to protect the area’s environmentalists. The newspaper reports on the lawless nature of many parts of the jungle, which are inaccessible to environmentalists and even dangerous for government officials. One environmental official, speaking from a particularly remote part of Para, warned that, “If NGOs such as Greenpeace tried to come here they would definitely be eliminated." However, in a victory for those fighting to protect Para’s environment, a federal judge on Wednesday halted work on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam planned for the Xingu River. The dam was set to be the third largest in the world, and formed a key part of the government’s energy plans.
  • A planned conference of governors from states along both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border had a disappointing turnout, with New Mexico being the only American state to send a representative for the third year in a row. The 2010 conference was also hit by controversy, as Mexican governors pulled out in the wake of Arizona’s tough immigration laws. Latin Intelligence notes that the conference has suffered from “a sprawling agenda and size” as well as from political polarization. Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute told the AP that “The governors are in a position to set the agenda for border issues, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do it.”
  • Protesters blocked rivers in west Colombia’s Choco department on Wednesday to take a stand against aerial coca eradication. Representatives of indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups in the region said that they did not support the cultivation of coca, the crop used to manufacture cocaine, but that the aerial spraying damaged legal crops, as well as the environment, and the health of locals.
  • In Mexico, the Supreme Court failed to overturn a Baja California state measure banning elective abortion, despite seven of the 11 justices voting that it was unconstitutional. This effectively puts the issue in the hands of state governments.
  • Guatemalan website Plaza Publica issued a statement rejecting what it said was an electoral smear campaign falsely issued in its name. The material was reportedly printed with Plaza Publica’s logo and address, and accused presidential candidate Otto Perez of having played a part in a financial corruption scandal involving funds of the country’s Congress.
  • Sexual violence is on the rise in Guatemala, according to a report from Prensa Libre, with the Attorney General’s Office receiving an average of six complaints a day. According to Doctors Without Borders, the under-reporting rate for sexual assault could be as high as 70 percent.

  • The Washington Post reports on an initiative to bring world-famous art to rural areas of Cuba, with works by artists including Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro touring the country in a traveling exhibition funded by a U.S. philanthropist.