Friday, June 25, 2010

From the "Johnson" blog

An electromagnetic theory of language

Jun 25th 2010 | MEXICO CITY

EVERY morning as I reach for breakfast I am cruelly mocked by my fridge. “You are an enormous nude strawberry,” it tells me, in Spanish. “Your delicious food is in the fire with a cow.”

When we moved to Mexico a few months ago someone thought that our language skills might be helped along by a set of magnetic poetry. About a hundred Spanish words are printed on plastic, backed by a magnetic strip that you can stick to the fridge door in whatever amusing or obscene combination appeals. I have no idea what our cleaner makes of it.

We had a similar set in English when we lived in London, and they make an interesting comparison of the grammar of each language. It is fair to say that when Spanish was invented, its developers did not have magnetic fridge-poetry in mind. The main problem is the verbs: whereas in English “I vomit” just as “you vomit” and “we vomit”, in Spanish I vomito, whereas you would vomitas or indeed vomita if we were using the polite form of address. A group vomiting session would require vomitamos or vomitan. In Spain, you might even need vomitáis, the informal second-person plural.

This is a serious blow to fridge poetry. My Spanish edition is a mess of dismembered verbs, their infinitive endings removed, and a sea of suffixes. In English one only needs an “s” and one can form every version of the present tense of nearly all verbs. The same feat in Spanish requires six fiddly new magnetic pieces. Even humble adjectives are a pain: separate “o”, “a” and “s” pieces are required to make them agree with gender and number.

Advanced fridge poets quickly tire of the present tense, and this is when Spanish really falls apart. English just needs “will” for the future; Spanish once more requires a string of new endings: vomitaré, vomitarás, and so on. The past is no better. In Latin America the past tense is arguably even more problematic than in Spain: whereas the Spanish make liberal use of the present-perfect tense (“I have vomited”), Latinos tend to use the indefinite-past (simply “I vomited”), which requires yet more troublesome suffixes.

Outside the kitchen, Spanish grammar has great benefits: spoken Spanish is much neater than English, with no need for personal pronouns, as the verb-endings usually make clear enough who is doing what. Spanish speeches can be more dramatic than English ones, and mottos can be as succinct as Latin. But it is absolute hell for fridges.

From the "Gulliver" blog

Carrying weight in Mexico

Jun 25th 2010 | MEXICO CITY

WHO’S that idiot with the titanic carry-on bag that ought to have gone in the hold? Shamefully, it’s sometimes me. The joy of skipping off the plane and out of the airport, without having to wait for the luggage conveyor-belt to crank into action, is so great that it’s tempting to cram everything into a carry-on bag (or two) until it creeps over the 10kg limit.

Here in Latin America such naughtiness is indulged. Equipaje de mano is normally not weighed at all and, when it is, the check-in police can be appeased by the transfer of a few items from one carry-on bag to another. Having sometimes thought my own hand luggage was a bit big, I’ve been encouraged to see fellow passengers hulking suitcases that would be better suited to a shipping container.

It’s a great contrast with Europe, where going over the weight limit reliably elicits tuts and fines. Last year Ryanair was attacked for applying a £30 ($45) penalty to anyone who couldn’t fit their duty-free shopping into their single piece of hand-luggage. The same airline charges extra for check-in baggage, of any weight: £45 for the first bag and £70 for the second, if you pay at the airport. Overweight baggage is charged at an additional £20 per kilo.

Latin American airlines can afford to be so generous because they charge such whopping amounts for the ticket in the first place. My glee at avoiding a penalty of a few pesos is mad considering that I may already have forked out $500 for a two-hour flight. Ryanair and co’s fees are hideous, but at least the flights themselves can be bought for pocket money.

And not everywhere in the Americas is relaxed. On a recent internal flight in Costa Rica, in a plane so tiny I wondered if someone was flying it by remote control, the check-in staff weighed not only the suitcases but their holders. Fortunately for The Economist, bulging luggage was offset by skinny correspondent.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The drugs business

Full circle

Jun 24th 2010

Successes in the war on drugs expose the policy's limits

Mr Coke’s unexpected capture was a coup for the Jamaican government. On May 17th Bruce Golding, the prime minister, authorised his extradition to America and launched a search for him. The effort caused 73 deaths in firefights between the security forces and his supporters, but found no trace of him.

Yet after a month on the run, Mr Coke decided to turn himself in. Police had conducted raids on his associates, which may have made him think they were closing in. He contacted a pastor to arrange a surrender at the American embassy. But Jamaican police were tipped off and stopped Mr Coke, dressed in a wig and hat, en route.

At first sight, the coca figures are equally encouraging. According to the UN’s data, derived from satellite images, the total amount of Andean land under coca has dropped by nearly a quarter since 1990. Colombia has done especially well: partly because it switched from ineffective crop-spraying to large-scale manual eradication, its coca-growing land has been reduced by 60% in the last decade.

Yet it is precisely such achievements that produce the most scepticism about counter-narcotics. The surrender or capture of 27 Jamaican gang leaders in the past month has created a power vacuum that may be filled by bloodshed. As long as political parties depend on the mobs at elections and the police cannot provide security, citizens will still suffer.

Similarly, the drop in land used to grow coca has been offset by better productivity. Since 2000, yields per hectare have risen by nearly two-thirds. And crude machines are replacing bare feet as macerators, while washing machines are being used as makeshift centrifuges. As a result, the UN’s current estimate of global cocaine production is 10% higher than it was in 2005.

Moreover, growers continue to find the weak links in the enforcement chain. In 1995 Peru and Bolivia were the world’s top cocaine producers. Much blood and money was spent driving the trade out of those countries and, inadvertently, into Colombia (see chart). In 1999 America sponsored a big anti-drug programme in Colombia. As a result, growers have moved back: in the past decade, the area used for coca rose by 55% in Peru and 42% in Bolivia.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, still leads a coca-growers’ union. He wants the leaf taken off the UN’s banned-substances list to allow its industrialisation in drinks and creams. The new constitution passed last year calls coca part of Bolivia’s “cultural heritage”. No matter that cocaine is not.

Peru’s president, Alan García, refuses to eradicate coca in a key valley, in part to avoid agitating Maoist guerrillas. The UN report found that Peru may have passed Colombia as the world’s top coca grower last year. As a senior Mexican official says: “Until legalisation, the only thing you can do is make it someone else’s problem.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Crime and politics in Guatemala

Kamikaze mission
June 17th 2010 | GUATEMALA CITY
From The Economist print edition
The UN's prosecutor resigns, taking an enemy with him
ASH still smears the pavements of Guatemala City, three weeks after nearby Mount Pacaya blew its top. On June 7th the city was shaken by a second explosion, this time of the political sort: the resignation of Carlos Castresana, a Spanish prosecutor who heads the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a body set up in 2007 by the UN and Guatemala’s government to investigate organised crime and its links to the state. In a brief statement, Mr Castresana blamed the government for failing to support his effort to root out the mafias that have long penetrated its ranks.
His departure came as a shock. It followed a string of successes. In January CICIG secured the arrest of Alfonso Portillo, a former president charged with embezzling $15.7m, as he tried to flee the country. In the same month it cracked the stranger-than-fiction case of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer who, the commission found, had arranged his own murder in a bid to frame the president, Álvaro Colom. In all, CICIG has forced out some 2,000 police officers, ten prosecutors and, in its first year, an attorney-general.
The trigger for Mr Castresana’s resignation was the naming on May 25th of a new attorney-general, Conrado Reyes, whom CICIG had publicly accused of having ties to drug-traffickers and illegal-adoption rings. Once in office, Mr Reyes sacked more than 20 officials and demanded to oversee all wiretaps. Fearing a slow death of CICIG, Mr Castresana sacrificed himself instead. It worked: his resignation generated enough fuss to force the Constitutional Court to annul Mr Reyes’s appointment.
Whoever replaces Mr Castresana can expect plenty of opposition. In a final press conference on June 14th, he presented evidence that various criminal factions had joined together since January to fight CICIG with a campaign of smears and intimidation. In one wiretapped phone call, two suspected criminals discussed cooking up a rumour that Mr Castresana was having an affair with a colleague. He also said that two suspects in the Rosenberg case bribed the officials that choose the attorney general with designer suits and ties, in order to secure Mr Reyes’s nomination.
Mr Castresana also accused the government of failing to boost the powers and resources of the justice system—a witness-protection programme now exists in name only, after the government stopped funding safe houses, for instance. And no one can explain why the president keeps appointing senior officials who later turn out to have criminal links.
The government counters that it has no money (central-government spending is the lowest as a share of GDP in Latin America) and that it is politically hamstrung, now that Mr Colom’s party holds barely a fifth of the seats in the legislature. Many appointments, including Mr Reyes’s, are partly in the hands of (allegedly crooked) independent commissions.
As Mexico and Colombia crack down on them, drug gangs are finding refuge in Guatemala. In the jungle state of Petén, the Zetas, a Mexican drug-trafficking group, have hung up signs recruiting soldiers. A report from America’s state department says that “entire regions of Guatemala are now essentially under [their] control.” The country’s lawlessness exposes it to the appeal of a strongman. Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who promises an “iron fist” against crime, leads the opinion polls for the next presidential election in September 2011. Much-needed change is unlikely to come from the left: the candidate most likely to run for Mr Colom’s party is Sandra Torres, his wife.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mexico's drug wars

Re-organised crime
June 3rd 2010 | REYNOSA
From The Economist print edition
Shifting battle-lines bring violence to new parts of Mexico
THE blood and cartridge cases have been cleared away, and the small upholstery shop across the road is turning out cheerfully coloured chairs once again. Less than 24 hours earlier, five blocks from the city hall and a few hundred metres from the border with the United States, a municipal official was killed on this corner in broad daylight with an AK-47 assault rifle. But it already seems forgotten. Reynosa, where cut-price dentists and prostitutes attract streams of Texan visitors, has become accustomed to such violence.
Until this year an uneasy alliance held in Mexico’s north-east between the drug-trafficking Gulf “cartel” and the Zetas, a band of former special-forces soldiers enlisted as hit men by Gulf bosses in the late 1990s. Large-scale violence of the sort seen in Ciudad Juárez, to the north-west, was unknown. But the relationship has soured: the Zetas have outgrown their role as enforcers, and the Gulf leadership has been shaken up by killings and extraditions.
In January a Gulf gunman murdered a top Zeta; his handlers refused to hand over the killer to the Zetas for retribution. Moreover, the Zetas began to suspect that Osiel Cárdenas, the extradited former Gulf kingpin who originally recruited them, was co-operating with American authorities in return for a more lenient sentence. Both sides declared all-out war in banners hung from motorway bridges in March.
The schism has made the north-east one of the most dangerous places in Mexico. The border cities in this region are smaller than those further west. But the violence in Tamaulipas state, where Reynosa is located, is now as bad or worse than in Juárez, reckons Jesús Cantú, a political scientist at the Technological Institute of Monterrey. Politicians who try to make a difference pay dearly. On May 13th José Mario Guajardo, a mayoral candidate in the town of Valle Hermoso, was murdered along with his son and an employee.
Journalists who delve into crime do not last long either. In Reynosa one was murdered and five disappeared in March, colleagues say. In the same month two journalists from Mexico City were kidnapped there and beaten, and an American reporter was ordered to leave shortly after arriving. Fear and insurance premiums now keep much of the media away. The city government has set up a Twitter account to warn citizens about shoot-outs. “Situation of risk in the area west of the gateway. Exercise caution,” reads one recent message. The all-clear came two hours later.
The Zetas are thought to be losing the showdown. On May 12th the army overran a Zeta camp in the state of Nuevo León, seizing 55,000 rounds of ammunition, 109 grenades and 124 heavy weapons, among other booty. Several dozen Zetas fled—perhaps a sign that its latest crop of foot-soldiers lack the professionalism of their predecessors. Given the death toll since Mexico’s government declared war on the gangs in 2006, this is not surprising. “When 23,000 people have been killed, you face a recruitment problem,” says Jaime López-Aranda of CIDAC, a Mexico City think-tank.
Privately, many politicians seem pleased that Gulf and its allies are getting the better of the Zetas, who have moved into kidnapping and domestic drug-pushing (80% of bars in Nuevo León state are forced to sell Zeta drugs or Z-branded whisky, officials say). Rivals, too, have particular reason to want to see the back of them, as the Zetas’ kidnapping and extortion attracts more attention from the police. This is especially unwelcome at the moment: organised crime’s latest diversification is crystal methamphetamine, a drug that requires “factories” which are safe from police interference. The sooner the traffickers are rid of the troublesome Zetas, the sooner they can get on with business.

Shootings in Cumbria

Lakeland terror
June 3rd 2010
From The Economist print edition
A murderous rampage questions assumptions about quiet Britain
“IT’S like watching something from America,” said one resident of Whitehaven, a gentle Georgian town on the north-western English coast. Shooting sprees are mercifully rare in Britain, and seem stranger still in the county of Cumbria, a picture-postcard wilderness of hills, sheep and cream teas. But on June 2nd a dozen people were killed and about as many injured when a lone gunman went on a 20-mile killing spree, bizarrely stopping, at one point, for a red light.
No one yet knows what made Derrick Bird attack these people, who seem to have included his twin brother and colleagues from work as well as total strangers, before killing himself. Perhaps no one ever will. One theory is a family dispute of some sort: there are reports of an argument before the shooting rampage. Mr Bird was an apparently normal 52-year-old divorcee who lived apart from his two sons, working as a taxi driver by day and propping up Whitehaven bars in the evening. Friends and neighbours are baffled.
The tragedy will mean that Whitehaven, 2010, goes down in history alongside such grim tags as Dunblane, 1996, and Hungerford, 1987, the only other mass shooting sprees in recent British history. Thomas Hamilton, a failed businessman and Scout leader, murdered 16 children and a teacher at a primary school in the Scottish town of Dunblane before committing suicide. (Andy Murray, Britain’s best tennis player, was among the pupils in school that day.) In Hungerford, Berkshire, a gun enthusiast called Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead and wounded another 15 before turning his gun on himself.
Both the previous shootings led to tougher laws on gun ownership, which were already strict. Firearms have been regulated since 1671, when Charles II banned anyone without property worth £100 a year from owning guns, bows or ferrets. (Game stocks were the motive, rather than public safety.) Since Dunblane, handguns have been outlawed, meaning that even the Olympic shooting squad has had to train abroad. Because of these strict laws, plus Britain’s relative lack of a hunting culture, gun ownership is unusual: there are just 56 guns per thousand people in Britain, compared with 300 per thousand in Germany and 900 in America.
Gun murders are consequently rare, at just over one killing per million people per year, one of the lowest rates in the rich world. And lately it has been getting lower. In the year to April 2009, 39 people were shot dead in England and Wales, the fewest in more than 15 years. Britain is certainly not without violence: assaults and threats are in fact more common in London than New York, for instance. But its overall homicide rate is modest, at 1.2 per hundred thousand people in England and Wales.
None of this matters to the people of Cumbria, who in one day witnessed more murders than had taken place in the county in the previous four years. The investigation will challenge the 1,300 officers of Cumbria Constabulary, which is one of Britain’s smallest forces. Policemen there sometimes go for a year without a single murder to deal with. In 2008-09 officers recorded just 28 firearm offences, including threats made with air-rifles and imitation weapons. It is the “most exceptional and challenging incident” the force has ever had to deal with, it said in a statement.
Attention will focus on how easy it is to come by guns these days. Mr Bird was a licensed firearms-holder for 20 years; the police have confirmed that he had valid permits for the murder weapons (a shotgun and a rifle with telescopic sights). But there is a broader point. Rural Cumbria is hardly gangland, but it is home to a chunk of the 1.4m shotguns that are legally registered in Britain. Each year a few hundred of these find their way out of carelessly guarded farms—indeed, last year saw a record number of such thefts. Farmers in the region, who have already been warned by the Home Office to keep their fertiliser better protected from bomb-making terrorists, may now face calls to tighten up security on their firearms.
It is hard to know what other lessons might be learned from the murders, but politicians should prepare for the answer to be “none”. David Cameron, the new prime minister, recently linked a series of shocking crimes to spin a tale of violence and decline that he dubbed “broken Britain”, a story that was mostly at odds with reality. Mr Bird’s rampage, along with the recent case of an alleged serial killer of prostitutes in Yorkshire, will make it tempting to resurrect such a narrative. Harder still than understanding the significance of such barbarism may be accepting that it can never be completely prevented.