Friday, August 27, 2010

From the Gulliver blog

Mexico: safer than Canada

Aug 27th 2010, 14:36 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

OK, so the headline is a bit of a fib. But a report on Mexico’s security situation has painted a more detailed picture than the one we hear about in the news most of the time. When I told friends I was moving to Mexico City, some asked if I would be provided with a bodyguard (no). Business travellers are thinking twice about coming, according to chambers of commerce here. But a detailed breakdown of violence released this week shows that, if you pick your state, you’re as safe—or safer—than in any other North American country.

Mexico’s overall homicide rate is 14 per 100,000 inhabitants: fearsomely high (and possibly an underestimate, given the drugs cartels' habit of hiding bodies in old mines), but quite a lot lower than its great Latin rival Brazil, whose rate is more like 25. As the chart below shows, Mexico’s death rate is bumped up by extraordinarily high levels of violence in four states: Chihuahua (home of Ciudad Juárez, widely labelled the world’s most murderous city), Durango, Sinaloa and Guerrero (see p.29 of this document). Of the rest, some are blissfully serene: Yucatán, where tourists flock to swim with whale sharks and clamber over Chichen Itzá, has a murder rate of 1.7—slightly lower than Canada’s average of 2.1.

Before I am buried an avalanche of polite Canadian emails, I should acknowledge that comparing an entire country with one quiet state is hardly fair: there are no doubt parts of Canada where no-one has been so much as kicked in the shin for decades. But Mexico’s predicament is worth highlighting, because the extreme violence around its border with the United States colours people’s view of the rest of the country, though much of it is pretty quiet. A third of Mexico’s states hover around 5 murders per 100,000, about the same rate as the United States. Another third are around 8 per 100,000, similar to Thailand, for instance. A handful of states have rates in the teens—like Russia, say—and a couple are in the low twenties, a little lower than Brazil’s average. Then you have the chaos of the four very violent states, which sends the average soaring.

The carnage in Mexico’s badlands is not to be underestimated, and nor does it seem to be getting any better. Business travellers should certainly watch out in places such as Juárez and, these days, even in cities such as Monterrey. But people doing business south of the Rio Grande should remember that, even on average, Mexico is a less murderous country than places such as Brazil, and that once you avoid the hotspots, it’s downright safe.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gender politics in Mexico City

Pink cabs rev up

A blow for feminism—or against it?

SINCE electing its first left-wing mayor in 1997, Mexico City has been a self-consciously liberal oasis in a conservative country. The current mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, has legalised abortion on demand, gay marriage and gay adoption in his first four years in office. His latest move, cheered by environmentalists, was a ban on free plastic shopping bags, implemented on August 19th. Eye-catching reforms such as these are enhancing Mr Ebrard’s profile ahead of a likely presidential bid in two years’ time.

The latest controversy concerns women-only public transport. During rush hour, men have long been barred from a third of the carriages of metro trains. Some see that as offering a blessed sanctuary from wandering macho hands; for others it is a backward step on the march to equality. But whereas Puebla, a nearby city of more conservative bent, runs a women-only “pink taxi” service (pictured above), Mexico City had resisted. Susana Sánchez, a Mexico City taxista, first requested permission to run such a service in 1998. She was told it would be discriminatory.

City officials have now come round to thinking that cabs for women would be safer for both passengers and drivers (Ms Sánchez began her crusade after being stabbed by a male client). From next month, a fleet of pink taxis driven by and for women will roam the streets of the capital, charging the same fares as ordinary cabs. The city government is training a first batch of approved drivers in security and women’s rights.

The suburban railway and buses have followed the metro in providing women-only services. Victor Ramírez, a transport official, says he is now fielding requests to segregate the pesero microbuses which rattle around town.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

From The Guardian

Cycling lessons from Mexico City

The Mexican capital is a surprisingly bike-friendly city, but are the British nice enough to follow its lead on our roads?
Mexico cycle
The author rides his bike on the streets of Mexico City

Twenty million people, most of them bad drivers, whizzing around a smoggy city a mile above sea level: Mexico City doesn't seem like the ideal place to navigate by bike. Before I moved here a few months ago, I almost put my Bianchi into storage. But I packed it at the last minute, and thank goodness. Mexico's sprawling capital is one of the most bike-friendly cities I've been to. It beat London to the bike-hire business with the launch of its Ecobici scheme in February. And it's still ahead in two other areas, which cities in Britain could and should copy.

The first is shutting off stretches of road to cars. La Reforma, the eight-lane highway that runs through the middle of the metropolis, is closed to cars every Sunday and turns into a riot of bikes, rollerskaters and joggers. Families come to whoosh round and round the majestic Ángel de Independencia, and shoppers and tourists use it to zip into the city centre, which is far quicker by bike than by metro (though that is speedy, too, and at 15p somewhat more tempting than the Tube). Nor does it seem to mess things up too much for motorists: I drive in the city as well, and Sundays are no more clogged than the rest of the week.

Britain has a few similar schemes. This month and next see a series of "Skyrides" across the country, where roads are shut off in the same way. Last year there were five; this year there are 13, from Glasgow to Southampton. Long may they proliferate.

But Mexico City shows how much further Britain could go. The La Reforma route is 24km (15 miles) long, and open every week, while a longer 32km (20-mile) route is open once a month. Last year's London Skyride was just 15km long and lasted all of one day. Boris Johnson says, admirably, that he wants his city to be the world's cycling capital. But London is being trounced by a country whose average income is just over $10,000.

Mexico also has lessons for Britain in what urban planners call "shared space", and what everyone else calls a free-for-all. One of the distinctive features of British roads is that space is strictly allocated and ruthlessly guarded: cyclists give an earful to motorcyclists who nudge into the cycle-box at traffic lights; pedestrians vent fury at cyclists who stray on to the pavement. It's horrible.

Other countries are more relaxed. In Seville, for instance, the city centre is open to pedestrians, cyclists and trams, all of which just have to keep an eye out for each other. Here in Mexico, cycling on the wider pavements, carefully, is allowed (even the police do it). And a lot of the quieter crossroads are unmarked, relying on cyclists' and drivers' caution rather than forcing people to sit at red lights when no one is around.

This kind of thing must seem like blasphemy in Britain, which likes to think of itself as more liberal than its Euro neighbours, but actually rather likes its rules and regulations. The ban on cycling in some parks reminds me of the extraordinary law against so-called "wild camping" (known to the rest of the world simply as "camping"), and relies on the same dismal logic that because some people are thoughtless, no one can be trusted.

Some parts of Britain are experimenting with loosening the rules: a "shared space" project is planned for London's museum district and in Ashford, cars, cyclists and pedestrians have equal priority. The best thing to happen to Leeds when I was growing up there was thepedestrianisation (and, from memory, bike-ification) of most of the city centre. In these cases, at least, fewer rules has meant better behaviour.

I have one reservation about recommending these schemes more broadly in Britain: I'm not sure we are nice enough. I always resisted the temptation to complain about London being unfriendly – it's the same with any big, anonymous city, I told myself, as people shouted at me for being in their bit of road (women have it much worse, as this illuminating blog reveals).

Well, Mexico City is nearly twice as big and faces social problems graver than anything Tower Hamlets has seen in a few decades. But its inhabitants are much, much more easygoing. Last week I saw a cyclist almost taken out by a thoughtlessly opened car door – he and the driver ended up having a joke about it. Would that happen in London or Leeds?

Shared space works very well over here. The only thing that might stop it working in Britain could be Britons.

From the Americas View blog

The elephant in the room

Aug 22nd 2010, 17:59 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

TO HELP Mexico battle the drug traffickers who smuggle cannabis, cocaine and other delights to American consumers, the United States sends its southern neighbour support in the form of equipment and training. Under the Mérida Initiative, signed into law in 2008, America's Congress has so far approved some $1.3 billion of anti-drugs aid for Mexico (though, as of March, only 9% of the funds had actually been spent).

Under Mérida’s rules, 15% of the money is to be withheld unless Mexico meets four human-rights requirements, related to improving police accountability; talking to civil society; investigating alleged abuses by the police and army; and enforcing the ban on torture. Congress decides whether the requirements are being met each year based on a report from the State Department.

It’s report time. The State Department is expected to publish its findings within the next week or so, and Mexico can expect a bumpy ride. An indication of the department’s thinking came in a preliminary report at the end of July, which contained criticisms that will be hard to reconcile with the four requirements.

Most damaging is criticism of the investigation of alleged military abuses. The third requirement states that Mexico must ensure that “civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities are investigating and prosecuting…members of the federal police and military forces who have been credibly alleged to have committed violations of human rights” (our emphasis). Yet the July report found otherwise: although “information on military prosecutions is difficult to obtain,” it noted that the “limited information on military prosecutions and complaints filed suggests that actual prosecutions are rare.”

There was more: even though “legal scholars agree in most instances that [the attorney general’s office] has the authority to receive and investigate violations against civilians regardless of whether they have been committed by military officials,” in practice “the military systematically claims jurisdiction over these cases…and civilian courts readily transfer them.” In other words, the army is still investigating complaints against itself.

Congress is unlikely to hold back funds, whatever the report says. Liberals and conservatives alike want to stop the flow of drugs to the United States, and taking away Mérida money—which now goes towards strengthening the Mexican legal system, among other things—would hardly help. Last year’s State Department report was not entirely flattering, but the cash flowed anyway.

But it is becoming more embarrassing to rubber-stamp the funds, as human-rights complaints multiply. Following an amendment, this year’s State Department report must not only provide evidence on Mexico’s progress, but reach a firm conclusion on whether the requirements are being met. “Based on the State Department’s own findings, there is no way they should conclude Mexico is meeting the requirements, and the funds should be withheld,” says Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group. At the same time, recommending the withdrawal of help is more or less unimaginable. Expect great feats of diplomatic draftsmanship when the report comes out in the next few days.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From the Johnson blog

It wasn't the dragon tattoo

Aug 18th 2010, 20:10 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

A FEW weeks ago my colleague wrote about the difficulties of translating Pushkin. But that isn't to say that low-brow stuff is easier to render. This seems to happen especially often with film titles.

Consider the 1989 film "K-9", a policeman-and-his-dog caper which is known variously as “Four-legged policeman” (Italy) and “My partner with the cold snout” (Germany). Puns, to be fair, are usually impossible to translate faithfully. But even simple titles sometimes undergo big changes—especially, it seems, in China, where "Free Willy" is known as “A very powerful whale runs to heaven”. ("Boogie Nights", wonderfully, is “His great device makes him famous”.)

Sometimes this tinkering is unwarranted: I imagine that the denouement of "Thelma and Louise" was rather spoiled for audiences in Mexico, where the film was known as “Thelma and Louise: an unexpected end”. And I was sad that, for Americans, Philip Pullman’s evocative "Northern Lights" became the tedious “Golden Compass”.

Often, though, one has no idea that the title one knows and loves has been dreamed up by a translator. When I arrived in Mexico I wanted something easy to practice my Spanish, so I went looking for “La chica con el tatuaje del dragón”, as I assumed Stieg Larsson’s thriller might be known. It isn’t: the title here is “Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres” (“The men who didn’t love women”).

What a rubbish name, I thought: why couldn’t Mexicans be given a direct translation? In fact, it’s English-speakers who have been duped: the original, in Swedish, is simply “Men who hate women”. (“It was considered too scary for foreign audiences, while just hitting the politically-correct spot in Sweden,” reckons my neighbourhood Swede.)

The meddling continues: the sequel, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” in English, is faithful to the Swedish title, but in Spanish is needlessly elaborated as, “The girl who dreamed of a match and a can of petrol”. The third in the series—“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”, to us—is completely divorced from Swedish (“The air castle that exploded”). Here in Mexico, the same book is “The queen in the palace of the air currents”. Surely there’s an argument for a little less artistic licence?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mexican airlines

A clumsy giant stumbles

Mexicana’s bankruptcy will bring welcome turbulence to Mexican skies

Storms ahead

AFTER 89 years in the skies, North America’s oldest airline seems ready to ditch. Compañía Mexicana de Aviación filed for bankruptcy protection on August 2nd and has been in a tailspin ever since: ticket sales were stopped on August 4th and a third of its routes were suspended a few days later. The airline says it has lost $350m since 2007 and now owes nearly $800m.

These are difficult times for airlines everywhere. But despite the entry of several low-cost carriers since 2005, fares in Mexico have remained old-fashionedly high: an hour’s flight from the capital’s main airport to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city, cannot be had next month for much less than $175 return. São Paulo to Rio, a similar hop, can be done for $100. Partly because of this, middle-class Brazilians fly three times more often than their Mexican counterparts.

Some of Mexico’s costs are imposed by fate. The thin air of Mexico City, which lies at 2,250m (7,380 feet), reduces a plane’s range and the weight it can carry. (Flights to Tokyo, for instance, must refuel in Tijuana.) Its international airport, Latin America’s busiest, is in a built-up area with no room for a third runway, though the airport is running at capacity. Last year was especially cruel: while suffering the deepest recession in the Americas, Mexico was hit by the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu, which emptied the country’s popular beach resorts and cut airport traffic by one-sixth.

However, some of Mexicana’s problems are man-made. The firm blames its bankruptcy on onerous labour contracts, under which it says pilots earn 49% more than their counterparts at big American airlines although America is a rich country and Mexico is not. The Mexican pilots’ union says this figure is “inexact” but has not provided one of its own. Working hours are capped so that return flights sometimes require two separate crews, and in some cases the company must train its own pilots rather than hire cheaper outsiders.

These burdens are hangovers from Mexicana’s days as a state airline, which ended in 2005 but whose influence has never quite been shaken off. It is a rarity in Latin America, “the one region in the world where state-backed carriers have faded out of existence to be replaced by or reborn as fully private airlines,” says Alex Dichter, head of the airline practice of McKinsey, a firm of consultants. The continent claims several success stories, including Panama’s Copa Airlines, one of the most profitable carriers in the world.

Mexicana’s failure may have a silver lining. For a start, it will give breathing space to low-cost carriers such as Interjet and Volaris, which have gobbled up 21% of domestic traffic since 2005 but have been kept out of many of the most profitable routes by the older airlines. By bilateral agreement, most routes to the United States may only be operated by two airlines from each country, so popular hops such as Mexico City to New York are the exclusive business of Mexicana and its rival Aeroméxico, another pricey, formerly state-run carrier. These two old fossils also hold most of the take-off and landing slots at Mexico City’s main airport, relegating the upstarts to the out-of-town Toluca airport (from which a flight to Guadalajara costs more like $115).

Vultures are already circling over Mexicana’s valuable slots. But the airline’s chances of surviving in some form have been helped by a ruling by America’s Federal Aviation Administration on July 30th, which downgraded Mexico’s flight-safety rating a notch, owing to a lack of air-traffic controllers. One impact of the ruling is that Mexican airlines cannot open new services to the United States, meaning that rivals cannot take over routes that Mexicana has been forced to shut down. Existing routes, however, are not affected—so any airline that took over Mexicana would inherit the American routes it already flies. “It’s a problem for the Mexican airline industry that could hold an answer for Mexicana,” says Tomás Lajous, head of Mexico strategy at UBS, an investment bank. Mexicana may end up attracting more bids than a bankrupt airline might expect.

Mexico and drugs

Thinking the unthinkable

Amid drug-war weariness, Felipe Calderón calls for a debate on legalisation

THE nota roja, a section reporting the previous day’s murders and car crashes in all their bloodstained detail, is an established feature of Mexican newspapers. It is also an expanding one, as fighting over the drug trail to the United States inspires ever-greater feats of violence. Last month in the northern state of Durango, a group of prisoners was apparently released from jail for the night to murder 18 partygoers in a next-door state. A few days later, 14 inmates were murdered in a prison in Tamaulipas. In all, since Felipe Calderón sent the army against the drug gangs when he took office as president almost four years ago, some 28,000 people have been killed, the government says. There is no sign of a let-up, on either side.

So it came as a surprise when on August 3rd Mr Calderón called for a debate on whether to legalise drugs. Though several former Latin American leaders have spoken out in favour of legalisation, and many politicians privately support it, Mr Calderón became the first incumbent president to call for open discussion of the merits of legalising a trade he has opposed with such determination. At a round-table on security, he said this was “a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality [of opinions]…You have to analyse carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides.” It was hardly a call to start snorting—and Mr Calderón subsequently made clear that he was opposed to the “absurd” idea of allowing millions more people to become addicted. But it has brought into the open an argument that appears to be gaining currency in Mexico.

The president spoke despite some recent success for his military campaign, with several important mafia bosses captured or killed. The latest was Ignacio Coronel, whose killing last month when the army raided his house was important for the government, which has been accused of giving the Sinaloa mob an easier ride than other gangs. (A car-bomb last month in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States, may have been planted by rival traffickers to draw in America as a “neutral referee”, speculates Stratfor, a Texas-based security-analysis firm.) Half a dozen government agencies are said to be searching for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Sinaloa’s boss and the country’s most notorious trafficker. Officials claim success in strengthening the police and bringing recalcitrant state governors into line.

Yet kicking the hornets’ nest has provoked stinging turf battles, increasing the body count. In Cuernavaca, a pretty town near Mexico City that is popular with foreigners learning Spanish, a drug lord was killed by the army in December. Since then a spate of hangings around the edge of town has indicated that a gruesome succession battle is under way.

Many Mexicans are starting to weary of the horror. Four days after Mr Calderón’s cautious call for debate, Vicente Fox, his predecessor as president, issued a forthright demand for the legalisation of the production, sale and distribution of all drugs. Legalisation “does not mean that drugs are good…rather we have to see it as a strategy to strike and break the economic structure that allows mafias to generate huge profits in their business, which in turn serve to corrupt and to increase their power,” he wrote on his blog. Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico’s president from 1994 to 2000, last year jointly authored a report with two other former heads of state, Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso and César Gaviria of Colombia, calling for legalisation of marijuana (ie, cannabis). Mr Cardoso later said the same of cocaine.

It is easier to be radical in retirement than in office. As president, Mr Fox backed down after George W. Bush’s administration protested against his attempts to decriminalise possession of drugs. (Last year Mexico decriminalised possession of small quantities, a change designed mainly to limit the scope for police to demand bribes.) But it is striking that all these former leaders are middle-of-the-road moderates, not wild-eyed leftists.

Some in the United States are now pushing in the same direction. Californians will vote in November on whether to legalise and tax the sale of marijuana to adults (it is already legal to buy and sell pot for medical complaints, which some liberal doctors consider to include insomnia, migraines and the like). The initiative may fail: polls show opinion evenly divided, and it would also have to survive scrutiny by federal authorities. Although Barack Obama’s administration has stopped prosecuting the sale of “medical” marijuana, it is opposed to legalisation.

But were the proposal to pass it would render Mexico’s assault on drug traffickers untenable, reckons Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister. “How would you continue with a war on drugs in Tijuana, when across the border grocery stores were selling marijuana?” he asks.

The problem is recognised by the politicians too. Nexos, a Mexican magazine, recently asked six likely contenders for the presidency in 2012 whether Mexico should legalise marijuana if California did. One said no, but four answered yes, albeit with qualifications. Enrique Peña Nieto, the early leader in the polls, said carefully: “We would have to reconsider the view of the Mexican state on the subject.”

Since marijuana provides the gangs with up to half their income, taking that business out of their hands would change the balance of financial power in the drug war. But curiously, polls suggest that one of the groups most strongly opposed to the initiative in California is Latinos.

Monday, August 9, 2010

From the Gulliver blog

Staying safe in dangerous cities

Aug 9th 2010, 9:56 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

BEFORE being sent off anywhere deemed to be dangerous, Economist correspondents undergo a not-especially-gruelling week of first aid and fine dining in a hotel on the Welsh borders. I had my suspicions that the course was as much to reassure our insurers as it was about safety. But I picked up two offbeat safety tips that have stuck in my mind and which I now pass on in case they might save the life of a subscriber or two.

The first concerns how not be blown up when in Kabul, and comes courtesy of an American TV journalist who was on the course with us. You do not need Kevlar, or night-vision goggles, or an armoured car to evade the Taliban, he said: your secret weapon is to have a jolly good long lie-in every morning. In Kabul, at least, suicide bombs apparently almost always go off early in the morning. Have a leisurely breakfast and, once you venture out after 11am or so, your chances of being killed are drastically reduced. The explanation given was that the bombers spend all night psyching themselves up, then say their prayers at dawn, and go off to murder. A second helping of Corn Flakes could save your life.

The second tip is useful even for those of us who don’t travel to warzones. When booking a hotel, we were told, try to get a room between the second and sixth floors. Being on at least the second floor means you’re a little further away from whatever dangers may lurk near reception: opportunist robbers won’t venture deep into the hotel, and if things get nastier—car-bombs, shootouts and so on—you’re a little further away from the action. So far, pretty obvious.

But why not go above the sixth floor—wouldn’t that be even safer? Apparently not. More likely than a bomb or a shootout is a plain old fire, in which case you will want to make a hasty exit. More storeys mean more stairs and more delay, of course. But the killer, literally, is this: if the stairs are blocked, you will need rescuing from your window by a ladder. And in many parts of the world, the sixth floor is as high as the local fire-engines can reach.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mexico's indigenous conflicts

Murder in the backwoods

Attempts to repress peasant uprisings have backfired

A Triqui situation

GUNFIRE rings out almost every day around the village of San Juan Copala, as marksmen in the woods take potshots into the town. Eight residents are recovering from injuries, including an eight-year-old girl who was hit twice as she tried to leave the village. The gunmen have cut electricity and blocked access roads, allowing only a single party of women out once a week on an eight-hour hike to fetch food. The siege is entering its ninth month.

The tiny hamlet of some 400 Triqui Indians lies in the north-west of the state of Oaxaca. The shooters are thought to belong to the Union for the Social Wellbeing of the Triqui Region (UBISORT)—a deceptively beneficent-sounding group set up by the ruling party in 1994 to enforce its authority in the remote mountain area.

In 2007 San Juan Copala and various nearby villages declared themselves an “autonomous municipality”. Since then the violence has worsened: over 100 people are thought to have been killed since the beginning of 2008. The terrorisation of the village, probably orchestrated in part by UBISORT paramilitaries, is punishment for this rebelliousness, says Marcos Albino, a Triqui spokesman. The message to other indigenous towns is clear, he says: “You take the risks and you pay the price.”

The state’s backing of local strongmen has only made the region harder to govern. UBISORT is at war with the Movement for Triqui Unification and Struggle (MULT), a resistance group wooed by the government in the 1990s. It now receives over 17m pesos ($1.35m) of public money a year, supposedly for social projects. Fighting between these rivals has made entering the area dangerous. On June 8th a caravan carrying doctors and federal deputies was turned back by gunmen. That followed an attack on human-rights activists and journalists on April 27th, which killed a local campaigner and a Finnish observer. Prosecutors have not inspected the crime scene because of worries about their own safety.

Two developments may force progress. First, on July 4th Oaxacan voters booted out the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI still acknowledges its links with UBISORT, although it says it opposes the group’s violent activities. In contrast, the new lot, an alliance of the PRI’s main rivals, will probably be less accommodating. Heriberto Pazos, the leader of MULT’s political wing, says he is willing to negotiate with the municipality’s leaders and ultimately with UBISORT.

Second, the murder of the Finnish observer has attracted outside attention. Juanita Cruz, a congresswoman, says her fellow lawmakers have become far more interested in the case since April. The often lethargic federal prosecutor’s office took it up within three days.

The case is being handled in Mexico City, free from pressure and intimidation. The families’ lawyer says he expects arrests soon—of funders and weapons-suppliers, as well as shooters. That would be a start. Brokering peace with Oaxaca’s indigenous groups may take longer.