Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mexico City No Longer Spared Ravages of Drug Violence

The New York Times has a report on the expansion of Mexico’s drug war to parts of the country previously considered safe, including areas to the interior and south, far from the US border.

Despite the headline-grabbing ferocity of drug violence in Mexico, the country as a whole has in recent years seen murder rates considerably lower than many others in Latin America. Many media reports use the narrative that the worst battles of the drug war have now shifted from Colombia to Mexico, Colombia having cleaned up its act in the 2000s. However, the murder rate in Colombia remains significantly higher, at around 30 per 100,000 in 2011, compared to under 20 in Mexico.

Part of the reason for this is that Mexico has isolated pockets where violence is extremely high -- border city Juarez has famously been one of the world’s most dangerous cities for several years, with murder rates topping 200 per 100,000. Meanwhile other areas have lower murder rates, famously, than many US cities.

The murder rate in Mexico City, for example, has hovered for the last few years around 8 per 100,000, and the capital has long been considered to be relatively exempt from cartel wars. The NYT notes that this may be changing, with the recent discovery of two severed heads near an upscale shopping mall, and reports on a 30 percent rise in homicide rates in Mexico State, which borders the capital. The NYT compares this to outbreaks of violence in Guadalajara and Veracruz, “two other cities considered safe just six months ago,” and in the Pacific beach resort city of Acapulco.

CNN also has a report which asks if Mexico City could be the “next target” of the cartel war. It quotes Ana Maria Salazar, a former Pentagon counternarcotics official, who says "Mexico City, for whatever reason, has not been a battleground … It could very easily become that." Another analyst who spoke to the network mentioned one factor that contributes to the lower violence rates:

the capital has a strong police force that is easier to control and harder to corrupt than local forces in Mexico's 31 states, where notoriously low salaries and unclear command structures have allowed drug cartels to make significant inroads.
CNN notes that the federal forces would simply not tolerate high rates of violence in the nation’s capital, while, as InSight Crime has reported “There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest the existence of a tacit understanding among the most powerful drug lords to treat the capital as a neutral territory, free to all.”

This could be coming to an end, with the encroachment into Mexico City and State of a group known as the Mano con Ojos (Hand with Eyes), which is thought to be responsible for the severed heads recently found in the city. The growing insecurity could have a negative impact on the presidential chances of Enrique Peña Nieto, frontrunner for the July elections, who has made the relative safety of Mexico State, where he was governor until September, a feature of his campaign.

Meanwhile, as formerly safe zones become more turbulent, murder rates have fallen in some parts of the border region, where the violence has in the last few years been most intense. Juarez finally saw something of a turnaround in 2011, dropping to the position of second most dangerous city in the world, with homicides below 150 per 100,000. However, as the NYT points out;

Mexican officials say the decrease is proof that they are making headway, but analysts say it may have more to do with one rival group’s defeat of another, reducing competition and the bloodshed that comes with it.
According to the NYT’s analysis, the broadening of violence into previously calm areas reflects “a widening turf war between two of the biggest criminal organizations in the country” -- the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. The Zetas, according to recent reports, are expanding their presence to more than 70 percent of the country, bringing them into conflict with the criminal groups that previously held those areas.

However, it can be difficult to ascribe meaning or explanations to the shifts in killings. As the NYT puts it:

Discerning patterns of violence in the drug war can be perilous; it is often like a tornado skipping across terrain, devastating one area while leaving another untouched.
A new report by Southern Pulse, "Beyond 2012," fits with this analysis, predicting that the conflict will grow ever more fragmented, with street gangs taking a larger rolerelative to old, monolithic players like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.

News Briefs

  • The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the case of Alan Gross, a US contractor who has been in prison in Cuba for more than two years accused of aiding dissidents. It notes that his case “is helping to ensure Washington's relationship with Havana stays frozen in Cold War ice,” with Republican politicians using the case to argue against President Obama’s steps towards rolling back sanctions against the regime. The Associated Press reports on the emergence of new details of the case against Gross, with the leak of a document purporting to be a court filing, which says the authorities had been tracking him since 2004. The accused’s lawyer responded that “The trial evidence cited in the document confirms that Alan’s actions were intended to improve the Internet and Intranet connectivity of Cuba’s small, peaceful, non-dissident, Jewish community,” not to undermine the Cuban government. As one analyst told the WSJ: “"Ironically, if [Gross] had worked for the CIA, the levers to get him out would almost certainly have been pulled by now."
  • The Miami Herald has an opinion piece on the economic boom in Panama, arguing that dissatisfaction with President Ricardo Martinelli and his moves to concentrate power are putting a dampener on outlooks on the country’s growing prosperity. Andres Oppenheimer reports that, despite the fact that the country is predicted to be the biggest growing economy in Latin America in 2011, with a 6.8 percent expansion, there is “growing political turmoil over Martinelli’s strong-armed ruling style, which many fear will lead to an autocratic state with no checks and balances, more corruption, capital flight and economic decline.”
  • The New York Times has an engaging feature on the homes of Mexican drug traffickers, with Damien Cave visiting many houses vacated by (alleged) capos. One interesting point he makes is that some of these residences are not as flashy as the stereotype narco-home; “as conflicts have increased among the cartels, and as the Mexican and American governments have tried harder to crack down on trafficking, drug lords have been keeping a lower profile, buying existing houses rather than building obvious, ostentatious houses from scratch.”
  • With more on the country’s conflict, InSight Crime has a piece on decoding the murder rituals of the Mexican drug trafficker, which looks at the case of a policeman burnt alive in Juarez in December. It says that while the killing is due in part to the new equilibrium being struck between battling drug gangs in the city, the hideous nature of its execution tells us something; “this violence always has a point, and generates pleasure. Narco-horror is becoming a type of narco-snuff, because the criminals enjoy killing and putting the results on display in public places where the other war is fought -- the media war.”
  • The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that the US is planning to impose tougher penalties on people attempting to cross the Mexican border, including transferring them hundreds of miles to other parts of the border, in an effort to break their links with guides who helped them cross. This policy could put attempted migrants in far greater danger, if they are deposited in an area where they have no connections and are at the mercy of Mexican drug gangs.
  • The LA Times reports on the plight of Mexico’s Tarahumara indigenous community, who are facing a food crisis, as noted in yesterday’s post. The newspaper says that it took false reports that 50 members of the group had committed mass suicide over the famine, before the crisis got publicity and aid began to flow.
  • Puerto Ricans are set to vote in a referendum on getting rid of dozens of lawmakers who have been accused of corruption and drug use. The Associated Press says the US territory is likely to approve the measures, that would reduce the size of Congress by almost 30 percent.
  • UK Prime Minister David Cameron has accused Argentina’s government of “colonialism” for its attempts to claim sovereignty over the Falklands Islands, or the Malvinas. The Kirchner government has shot back, pointing out that the UK itself is "synonymous with colonialism".
  • Teachers in northern Colombia are being targeted by criminal groups, who have killed 20 in Cordoba province in less than three years. A report in the UK’s Times Educational Supplement says that some 4,000 children in the province may be unable to finish the school year, due to the lack of teachers. Many have been forced to flee by the violence, which is linked to extortion and to the teachers’ ties to unions.
  • Colombian football authorities are under investigation after apparently paying a shaman $2,000 to perform magic rituals to stop rain blighting the closing ceremony of last year’s Fifa U-20 World Cup. “A dark joke doing the rounds in the capital, Bogota, asks why the shaman was not also hired to minimise the impact of the last rainy season, which killed 477 people and affected some 2.6 million Colombians,” reports the BBC.

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