The single best account I've read (in English, anyway) of Mexico's drug war is an article in the current New York Review of Books by Alma Guillermoprieto. Looking at four books on the personalities, politics, and events surrounding the violence that has claimed nearly 28,000 lives in the past four years, her review rings true on all the gruesome and terrible points it touches. From her introduction:
We, the people in charge of telling the story, know far too little ourselves about a clandestine upstart society we long viewed as marginal, and what little we know cannot be explained in print media’s standard eight hundred words or less (or broadcast’s two minutes or under). And the story, like the murders, is endlessly repetitive and confusing: there are the double-barreled family names, the shifting alliances, the double-crossing army generals, the capo betrayed by a close associate who is in turn killed by another betrayer in a small town with an impossible name, followed by another capo with a double-barreled last name who is betrayed by a high-ranking army officer who is killed in turn. The absence of understanding of these surface narratives is what keeps the story static, and readers feeling impotent. Enough time has passed, though, since the beginning of the drug war nightmare1 that there is now a little perspective on the problem. Academics on both sides of the border have been busy writing, and so have the journalists with the most experience. Thanks to their efforts, we can now begin to place some of the better-known traffickers in their proper landscape.
From Guillermoprieto's discussion of Howard Campbell's book "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez," which I now want to read:
Campbell’s central contention, stated in the title of his book, is that the whole idea of a Mexican drug smuggling enterprise, or problem, is untenable: a land so thoroughly bilingual, bicultural, miscegenated, and porous—despite the arbitrary demarcation of a border and the increasingly weird and futile efforts to seal it—can really only be studied and understood as a united territory and a single problem. This is an idea so breathtakingly sensible as to amount to genius,2 and one wonders how many deaths could be avoided if policymakers on both sides of the Rio Grande shared this vision and coordinated not only their law enforcement efforts but their education, development, and immigration policies accordingly.
And from her conclusion:
An easy conclusion would be that Mexico, or the drug war zone, is in the hands of a failed state. But a failed state does not constantly build new roads and schools, or collect taxes, or generate legitimate industrial and commercial activity sufficient to qualify it as one of the twelve largest economies in the world. In a failed state drivers do not stop at red lights and garbage is not collected punctually. The question is, rather, whether in the face of unstoppable activity by highly organized criminals, the Mexican government can adequately enforce the rule of law and guarantee the safety of its citizens everywhere in the country. This, at the moment, the administration of Felipe Calderón does not seem able to do, either in large parts of the countryside or in major cities like Monterrey. There is little doubt that Calderón’s strategy of waging all-out war to solve a criminal problem has not worked. Whether any strategy at all can work, as long as global demand persists for a product that is illegal throughout the world, is a question that has been repeated ad nauseam. But it remains the indispensable question to consider.
On Tuesday, the Mexican Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging President Felipe Calderon to withdraw from negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The grounds of their opposition? Concern about the treaty's restrictions on privacy on the internet and free access to information.
If that sounds like an uncommon concern of the Mexican Senate, you would be right. So how did we get here? Come back with me to October 2009...
A year ago, the Mexican Senate proposed a new excise tax of 4% on all telecommunications. After a minor outcry, they revised the rate down to 3%, but it was hardly the cost that rankled Mexico's netroots-- the tax would add just a few pesos to their monthly bill. Rather, the devil lay in the scheme of the tax, which put telecommunications-- including internet access-- in a category typically reserved for tobacco, liquor, and luxury items.
It's hard to imagine an opportunity more ripe for web-based protest, and the Twitter users of Mexico coalesced around the hashtag #internetnecesario ("the internet is a necessity"). In a week in late October, thousands of irate Mexicans pushed the phrase into Twitter's trending topics-- one of the first times a Spanish phrase had made the cut-- and brought the proposed tax to the attention of the media and the Senate itself.
By week's end-- the last day of the legislative session-- "Internet Necessario" had surpassed negotiations over the federal budget as the country's top political story, and Mexican Senators were getting crash courses in the internet age. With many of the capital's Twitterati sitting in the room for negotiations over the tax, the proceedings were broadcast live across the internet, and the Senators' words were subject to instantaneous scrutiny, ridicule, or praise: an unusual circumstance for policymakers who typically operated at a distance from their constituents.
In the end, the tax was voted down unanimously, and the idea of the internet as a "luxury" was cast out of the discourse with derision. The lesson for the Senators was clear: don't mess with the internet, because people are paying attention, and can make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable.
Senator Francisco Javier Castellón Fonseca, Chair of the Senate's Science and Technology Commission, was a leader in the fight against the telecommunications tax. He was also a leader in social media-- a year ago, he was the only member of the Senate on Twitter; now over 40 Senators are tweeting madly. By all accounts, Senators are engaging with citizens over Twitter to an extent that has never been seen before in Mexican democracy.
The end of this story (for now) is of course that ACTA suffered a harsh blow from the Mexican Senate this week. A year since this country's netroots first made their voices heard, they have enjoyed ever more direct contact with their government, and were able to successfully mobilize for a cause once again. The Calderon government is likely to continue negotiations over the treaty, despite the unanimous resolution against it. Still, a treaty like this would require ratification from the Senate, so its chances of passing into law here seem far dimmer since the Mexican netroots made their voices heard.
In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango. The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials. The journalists' respective employers-- most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America-- negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.
For many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar-- caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).
Within a week, the journalists' simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances. Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.
The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested. Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that "can't and won't protect them."
In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder. Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet. The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice. Online news sources published the story on their front pages. And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.
It's not clear who made it up. What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.
So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.
If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world-- perhaps even more so than before-- we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.
On Monday, May 24th, at noon ET, I hope you will tune into NDN/NPI for a special event looking at a vital new initiative - a newly announced joint US-Mexican vision for a "21st Century Border."
Joining us for this discussion will be the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, and the Department of Homeland Security's Commissioner of Customs and Border Projection, Alan Bersin.
This week, during the very successful State Visit of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the United States and Mexican signed a new Declaration concerning Twenty-First Century Border Management. This declaration lays out a comprehensive new approach to the joint management of the US-Mexican border, and expresses a strong commitment to:
Enhancing economic competitiveness by expediting lawful trade, while preventing the transit of illegal merchandise between their two countries,
Facilitating lawful travel in a manner that also prevents the illegal movement of people between their two countries,
Sharing information that enhances secure flows of goods and people, and
Disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal organizations and punishing their members and supporters.
This declaration was one of the most important achievements of the visit by President Calderon this week. We are pleased to be hosting this event which will take a much deeper look at what this all means for our two countries in the years ahead.
The speaking program will begin at 12:15pm ET on Monday, May 24th. You can watch on the NDN website by going to www.ndn.org/livecast.
Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, may be the most violent city in the world; the spectacular murder rate and the uncounted headless bodies are attributable primarily to the drug trade that plagues the entire border region. Back in October, a State Department Tech Delegation to Mexico City kicked off a collaborative effort to allow citizens of the border region to offer the police anonymous tips via free text message whenever they witness violence.
But that's not all that's going on in Juárez to combat the pandemic of grusome violence. A bottom-up movement organized by one librarian has been holding protests, vigils, and speaking out against the violence in their city. Daniel Cruz Batista was fed up with all the violence in Juárez, so he started a Facebook group called “Ya Basta de Violencia en Juárez!!” (Enough With the Violence in Juárez). He gained 6,000 followers within a week, and now has more than 9,000. Another Facebook group, “Jóvenes Por Juárez” (Young People For Juárez), has 4,000 members, and has similarly acted as a forum for citizens to connect, share information, and organize.
In an essay I highlighted a few days ago, Ethan Zuckerman offers three theories of how internet access can change closed societies. Two of those theories can, I think, be applied to a place like Mexico's border region, where the problem isn't government oppression, it's that average people are powerless in the face of violent crime syndicates. The first, which Zuckerman calls the "Twitter Revolution Theory" is the idea that if people have web access, they'll be able to use that connectivity to communicate and organize with like-minded people. The second, the "Public Sphere Theory," holds that the web provides people a place to think, speak, and express themselves freely, and to create a "parallel public sphere" to empower social actors.
The problem in Juárez is, on its face, a problem of law enforcement's inability to stand up to a powerful criminal element. But it runs deeper to a weak local government, and, at its root, a civil society that lacks the power, cohesion, or capability to stop the violence. While social networking tools like Facebook are clearly not the whole solution to this kind of a problem, they are a crucial step, through the mechanisms described by the above theories. Via two Facebook groups, begun by average citizens, the rational, peaceful, law-abiding majority is able to communicate and organize, and then, ultimately, build a civil society that is strong enough and cohesive enough to stand up for security, stability, and justice in Juárez.
Violence can be a force as oppressive as authoritarianism, violating rights to life, liberty, and security of person. Fortunately, tools of connectivity have the potential to be as powerful in standing up to drug lords as they can be in standing up to dictators.
Salon Magazine asked me and a few others to offer their thoughts on the first year of the Obama Presidency. My short essay is below. A version of the essay can be found on the Salon site here.
Crafting an American Response to the Rise of the Rest
The first year of the Obama Administration was largely reactive to an agenda left by the previous Administration. The new President and his team have spent their time cleaning up the extraordinary messes left for them – financial crisis, the Great Recession, Guantanamo, exploding deficits, Iraq, deteriorating Afghanistan and Pakistan – and attempting to tackle problems left unaddressed for far too long – climate change and energy policy, health care reform and immigration reform.
In that regard the agenda of President Obama’s first year was determined to a great degree by the Bush Administration’s strategic reaction to a global political and economic environment which no longer exists. While President Obama cannot escape the governing inheritance left to him, he can do more to discard the outdated vision and rhetorical framework which came along with it, and begin to offer a much more compelling, modern and Obama-driven take on the challenges ahead and how we must meet them.
At the core of this 2nd generation Obama narrative must be a strategic response to the most significant transformation taking place in the world today, what Fareed Zakaria has called the “rise of the rest.” The twenty years of American-led economic liberalization and globalization which followed the collapse of communism has brought – with extraordinary rapidity - dozens of countries and billions of people into the modern economy. Their growing geopolitical and economic might is creating a radically different global environment than America faced in the 20th century, and arguably even 5-10 years ago when the Bush Administration made the strategic choices Obama is wrestling with today.
The true scope of this transformation is only really becoming apparent now, and it leaves our new President with the historic opportunity, and tremendous responsibility, to craft a comprehensive strategic response to this global “new politics” of the 21st century. It will also allow him to extricate himself from the anachronistic rhetorical framework suited for another day and another President.
This new strategy might have three main elements: Challenge America To Raise Its Game – The global economy of the 21st century will be much more competitive for our companies, workers and capital than the century just past. In the decade since China entered the WTO, for example, median income in the US has actually declined, an unprecedented event we believe is directly tied to more virulent global competition characteristic of this new age. If America is to have rising standard of livings in the face of what will be extraordinary competition coming from China, India, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries, we will have to raise our game, try harder, invest smarter, accelerate innovation, lessen our exposure to foreign energy sources, over time bring our government's spending and income more in line, modernize our health care system, continuously upgrade our skills and radically improve our public schools. This agenda is not about enabling the “recovery" of an economic age which will never return, but about building a 21st century American economy and workforce that can successfully compete in a much more competitive world.
Reimagine the Architecture of Global Governance – The rising powers and their people will want – and deserve – a seat at the global rulemaking table. We’ve seen the early stages of this new era with the recent discussions about updating the IMF, the swapping of the G20 for the G8 and the assertiveness of India, China and other nations at the recent Copenhagen conference. The day in which the “Western powers” can call the global shots has come to an end, new arrangements will have to made, and a new and different role for America will have to be crafted. Existing foreign commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our global counter-terrorism efforts, will need to be explained in this new geopolitical context.
But at the same time America will have to become a much more spirited advocate for ensuring that this new global political table is one where the traditional American formula of free markets, political liberty, democracy and the rule of law is not watered down or worse replaced by a much less liberal global formula. At this time when so many people across the world are working to improve their own societies is the most important time for America to recommit itself to the values which have done so much to improve the human condition in recent decades. Modernize Government So It Can Do More With Less – With a huge percentage of the federal workforce hitting retirement age soon, it is an opportune time to start thinking creatively about we can reinvent America’s government for the digital age. Can we replace large bureaucracies with more entrepreneurial, problem-solving oriented, leaner work forces using the extraordinarily powerful set of new digital tools available to them to deliver better outcomes for less money? Getting more for less will not only help deal with the growing federal debt, but also help free money up to make the investments needed for America to build a 21st century economy.
By reorienting his government around meeting the challenge of the rise of the rest and a much more competitive age, President Obama can extricate himself from a faded strategic orientation of a bygone era; give the nation a powerful national mission to rally around in the years ahead; and help ensure continued American prosperity and pre-eminence in a vastly changed world outside our shores.
Update: See this related essay about the role of the ever tougher struggle of every day people in recent American elections, The Great Volatility in the American Electorate Today.
At his press conference a few minutes ago in Mexico, President Obama was asked about the prospects for immigration reform in the United States. This is answer, as provided by the White House:
With respect to immigration reform, I continue to believe that is also in the long-term interests of the United States. We have a broken immigration system. Nobody denies it. And if we continue on a path we're on, we will continue to have tensions with our Mexican neighbors; we will continue to have people crossing the borders in a way that is dangerous for them, unfair for those who are applying legally to immigrate; we're going to continue to have employers who are exploiting workers because they're not within a legal system, and so oftentimes are receiving less than minimum wage, or don't have overtime, or being abused in other fashion. That's going to depress U.S. wages. It's causing ongoing tensions inside the United States. It's not fair and it's not right, and we're going to change it.
Now, I've got a lot on my plate, and it's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don't all just crash at the same time. And what we've said is in the fall when we come back, we're going to complete health care reform. We still have to act on energy legislation that has passed the House, but the Senate, I'm sure, is going to have its own ideas about how it wants to approach it. We still have financial regulatory reform that has to get done because we don't want a situation in which irresponsible actions in the global financial markets can precipitate another crisis. That's a pretty big stack of bills.
Fortunately, what we've been able to do is to begin meeting with both Democrats and Republicans from the House and the Senate. Secretary Napolitano is coordinating these discussions, and I would anticipate that before the year is out we will have draft legislation along with sponsors potentially in the House and the Senate who are ready to move this forward, and when we come back next year, that we should be in a position to start acting.
Now, am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No. This is going to be difficult; it's going to require bipartisan cooperation. There are going to be demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable. And those are fights that I'd have to have if my poll numbers are at 70 or if my poll numbers are at 40. That's just the nature of the U.S. immigration debate.
But ultimately, I think the American people want fairness. And we can create a system in which you have strong border security, we have an orderly process for people to come in, but we're also giving an opportunity for those who are already in the United States to be able to achieve a pathway to citizenship so that they don't have to live in the shadows, and their children and their grandchildren can have a full participation in the United States. So I'm confident we can get it done.
We are particularly pleased to see the President making the case about immigration reform and wages, an argument we helped introduce into the debate last year. Removing this "trap door" under the minimum wage is one of the most powerful arguments that can be made for immigration reform in a down economy.
As advocates for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, we are pleased with this thoughtful and encouraging answer. Though of course we think it would be much better to move it this year than next.
This was originally published as an op-ed in the June 7 Houston Chronicle.
Presidential summits have a well-deserved reputation for being much talk and much less action. President Barack Obama’s April 16 summit in Mexico City with that country’s president, Felipe Calderon, certainly had its share of high-flown, friendly sounding rhetoric.
“Today … we have confirmed the determination of both governments to consolidate the very, very close contacts and links that join and bring together Mexico and the United States,” President Calderon offered. “I see this visit … as an opportunity to launch a new era of cooperation and partnership between our two countries,” President Obama responded.
And then, just seven days later, that rhetoric was put to a real test. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican citizens were thought to be sick with a new epidemic flu, and dozens or even hundreds were thought to be already dead. The disease seemed to have almost immediately spread to the United States — including at least one member of President Obama’s traveling party in Mexico. Within days, Mexico City was effectively shut down and newspapers in both countries — and around the world — blared the possible arrival of a major new pandemic influenza with the potential to kill millions around the world.
And in the face of mounting hysteria, the response of both Mexico and the United States was an almost perfect display of the cooperation and partnership the presidents had loftily promised.
As the H1N1 virus broke out, some countries hastily canceled flights to Mexico and some halted trade. Not the United States. When some in this country called for shutting the border, President Obama forcefully rejected the idea and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called it “pointless.” This decision not only made practical sense — since the virus had already jumped to the United States, closing the border would have done nothing more than wreak economic havoc on both economies — but the symbolism carried great weight in Mexico. After all, just a year ago the United States was talking about building a wall between the countries. All three Mexican political parties, in a rare demonstration of agreement, applauded the Obama administration’s response.
Mexico did its part to act responsibly. Rather than hiding its problem or refusing to accept outside help out of a misplaced sense of “dignidad,” or the fear of exposing holes in its public health system, Mexico did not hesitate to immediately ask the United States for material support. The Mexican authorities worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and their Canadian counterparts, sending them suspected samples for testing that went beyond Mexico’s capabilities. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the United States would send 400,000 regimens of antivirals to Mexico. Dr. Richard Besser of the CDC reported that 34 CDC staff were in the field in five locations in Mexico. The CDC helped Mexico build a lab capability to do diagnosis and confirmation of the H1N1 virus in Mexico itself — a major step that allowed faster confirmation and response, and a shorter path to identifying risk factors.
In short, officials in both countries cooperated closely without the crippling lack of trust that has frustrated our joint efforts in the past, and that we still find to an extent in law enforcement and narcotics matters.
Now that the immediate threat of a killer pandemic has receded (the CDC recently dropped the advisory against unnecessary travel to Mexico, though a recent death and more infections and school closings in New York and elsewhere suggest the danger is not past), it is possible to look back on these events of the past month and see true signs of a new, stable and confident relationship between the United States and Mexico.
In fairness, of course, Obama and Calderon did not wave a wand and create this new relationship. They have benefited from nearly 20 years of close cooperation — from Bush 41 and Carlos Salinas to Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo, and then to Bush 43 and Vicente Fox — that started with the negotiation of NAFTA. Setting aside the lingering public unease over NAFTA’s economic impact, it’s plain that NAFTA did one thing very well: It helped cement a mindset of shared responsibility and institutional frameworks that promote open exchanges between our governments. Notably, of course, President Obama is no longer talking of renegotiating NAFTA.
Presidents Obama and Calderon are both mature, thoughtful leaders, and they have fully embraced this 20-year evolution and may yet bring it to a new level — truly a “new era of cooperation and partnership.” How they and their governments handled the brief but intense H1N1 public hysteria tells us a lot about how we can expect them to develop their own personal relationship, and that of our countries, in the years ahead.
Next up, perhaps, is an issue that touches deep emotional chords in both nations: immigration, and the fate of the millions of Mexican “illegals” living in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform is an urgent political need; but maneuvering through the political backlash that progress will unleash will require the skilled management and cooperation we showed during the H1N1 scare.
In August, the three leaders of North America — Mexico, Canada, United States — will meet in what has now become a once-yearly North American Summit. President Obama deserves credit for seeing the value of these meetings, which started during the time of his predecessor George Bush. The flu tested our relationships — and found them strong. Now, on to new challenges.
I thought I would share this piece in honor of today. A nice window into what is happening as we speak in the city of Puebla, heart of 5 de Mayo celebrations.
Little swine flu concern in Cinco de Mayo city By Kerry Sanders, NBC News correspondent
PUEBLA, MEXICO – It’s difficult to spot any evidence folks here are concerned about the swine flu.
In this city, about 60 miles southeast of Mexico City, few residents are wearing masks. Stores and restaurants are open. The town center, called el zocalo, is awash with families, children holding balloons. Lovers are in clutches on city benches, smooching.
In Mexico City, streets are empty, restaurants are closed and it’s so quiet you can hear the birds chirping. But Puebla is alive.
Double decker buses giving city tours are filled – mind you, there are few tourists. Most of those taking the tour, learning the history that dates back to the 16th century, are locals, or families who fled the boredom of the rules in Mexico City.
Puebla is famous for the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when the Mexican Army was victorious over the French occupying forces. It was considered an unlikely victory. While most Americans may know little about that war, it’s become a popular celebration of sorts North of the border. The victory was on May 5, or as it’s better known: Cinco de Mayo.
There is a saying that education is expensive, but ignorance is infinitely costlier. As highlighted by Simon and Nezua today on HuffPo, at today's hearing on immigration reform in the Senate we will surely see among the most offensive and shocking displays of anti-immigrant hate mongering to date. It is expected that the usual divisive and ignorant suspects will zoom in on the swine flu as an excuse to portray all immigrants as Mexicans, and all immigrants and Hispanics (Mexican or not) as diseased, and undesirable. What is truly shocking is how the swine flu media craze has shone a light on the profound depth of ignorance in the U.S. about Mexico. Even some of the most reputable and thorough sources in the U.S. still fail to do their due diligence and truly know the country with whom we share a long history, a border, business, trade, friends, and families. And how does this ignorance affect our business, our personal life, and our economics?