Thursday, September 30, 2010

Measuring Mexico's economy

Getting bigger

National accounts in the Wal-Mart era

WHEN Italy rejigged its method of counting GDP in 1987, the updated figures saw it edge ahead of Britain. Il sorpasso, as the overtaking was called, was trumpeted in Rome. Mexico has kept quieter about its recent accounting revision, but it also involves a big jump. After a new methodology was introduced in 2008, official GDP figures were boosted by nearly 15%. In 2007, the latest year for which both old and new indices are available, income per head was equivalent to $9,694 per year, not $8,445 as the old method suggested.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

From the Johnson blog

Get Barbie

Sep 20th 2010, 8:38 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

IMAGINE you are an up-and-coming drug-trafficker. What do you need? Guns, certainly. Contacts with the police, ideally. An enormous moustache, or you’re going nowhere. But most importantly you need a badass nickname: something designed to inspire fear in your enemies and lust in the local chicas. So why on earth would you call yourself “Barbie”?

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Friday, September 17, 2010

From the "Americas view" blog

The morning after

Sep 17th 2010, 8:18 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

BECAUSE of our Thursday-morning print run and the six-hour time difference with London, my story this week on Mexico’s bicentennial bash couldn’t include many details about the night itself. It was spectacular. Find a video if you can, but to whet your appetite, picture 20ft-high mechanical skeletons ambling down the central avenue of Reforma; an Aztec pyramid on wheels rumbling along behind them; and a 20-minute firework bombardment that made me wonder for a moment if the organisers had accidentally set fire to the Metropolitan Cathedral.

The bash was a bonanza for street-vendors. Wheeling a trolley of bicentennial merchandise around the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square, Israel Hernández was selling almost anything in green, white and red. Tricolour wigs, at 35 pesos ($2.74), were his top seller, followed by trumpets and false eyelashes. It would be a shame when the party was over, he said, “but then it will almost be time for Christmas”—which fortunately has more or less the same colour scheme.

The following day a military parade wound its way in the opposite direction down Reforma. The crowds for this seemed just as big, despite hangovers from the previous night. Helicopters shot overhead, dangling a rope-ladder of marines who clung on for dear life as they swung around the skyscrapers. The parade was the usual array of jeeps and tanks, plus a few bonus appearances: my favourites were the SCUBA divers, sweating away in black wetsuits in the sunshine, and a corps of soldiers carrying very well-behaved eagles. (If anyone can tell me the role of the eagle in the Mexican army I would be very interested: presumably they are just ceremonial—or have they been trained to do something else? Can they drop grenades? Report on enemy positions?)

Despite the air of gloom that hangs in Mexico at the moment, the parades seemed to be a success, especially for the military. Something always makes me feel uneasy about the sight of people cheering rows of tanks. But Mexico’s army, roped into a difficult policing operation against organised crime, could do with a morale boost at the moment. The crowds of tricolour-waving people cheering “Viva Mexico” probably helped.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mexico's bicentennial fiesta

A night to remember, and to forget

A double anniversary amid a national funk

“THERE is nothing so joyous as a Mexican fiesta,” observed Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest poet, “but there is also nothing so sorrowful.” The night of the fiesta “is the brilliant reverse to our silence and apathy, our reticence and gloom,” he wrote. On September 15th Mexico lit itself up in green, white and red for a double anniversary, and to try to shrug off its gloom. The night marked 200 years since the start of the war of independence against Spain; November marks a century since the rising against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz that unleashed a decade-long revolution. It was a chance to forget the violence visited on Mexico by drug-trafficking gangs (see article). This lacks the political motives of these previous events but is starting to rival them in intensity.

Ciudad Juárez, on the United States border, was forced to cancel some of its celebrations owing to security concerns. In the run-up to the festivities Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, warned that Mexico’s criminal organisations were “morphing into…what we would consider an insurgency,” evoking Colombia 20 years ago. Barack Obama diplomatically swatted this analysis down. On September 12th Mexico’s government arrested Sergio Villareal Barragán, aka El Comeniños (“the child-eater”), the latest in a string of suspected drug barons to be captured or killed.

Not so long ago, such a movie would not even have been made, let alone been backed by the government. Had they fallen a decade ago, the anniversaries would have coincided with Mexico’s first fully democratic presidential election; five years before they would have chimed with a free-trade agreement with the world’s biggest economy. In the bloody days of 2010 it is easy to forget the strides that Mexico has made towards prosperity and freedom.For a few days El Comeniños and co were almost forgotten, as town halls draped themselves in tinsel and tricolour flags were jammed into car windows. Even McDonald’s is advertising its hamburgers with a cardboard cut-out of Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the revolution who would surely have shot up every branch. As well as laying on fireworks, parades and commemorative banknotes, the government has sent every household a glossy 68-page booklet about Mexico’s history, and part-funded several bicentennial-themed films. “True Heroes”, a cartoon adventure, tells an idealised history of independence; “Hell: Nothing to celebrate” is a grittier affair.

Monday, September 13, 2010

From the Americas blog

A Grande catch

Sep 13th 2010, 17:43 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

MEXICO is on a roll in its pursuit of its powerful drug lords. Late on Sunday, the government announced that another one of the country’s most wanted bandits had beencaptured at lunchtime in the city of Puebla, not far from Mexico City. Sergio Villareal Barragán, a hulking figure who was variously known as “King Kong” and “El Grande”, is thought to have been a senior lieutenant in the Beltrán Leyva organization, one of Mexico’s seven main drug-trafficking groups.

His arrest came less than a fortnight after the capture of Édgar Valdez Villareal, known as “La Barbie” for his blond hair and blue eyes, who is believed to have led a rival faction of the same organisation. Members of the Beltrán Leyva gang have been fighting a gruesome battle for control of the organisation since December, when Arturo Beltrán Leyva (“El Barbas”, or the Beard), the leader of the mob, was killed in a gunfight with security forces. The latest capture is “a new and powerful blow by the federal government against organised crime,” said Alejandro Poiré, the co-ordinator of the national security council, who described the Beltrán Leyva outfit as “profoundly weakened”.

Other mobs have taken hits in recent months as well. In July, Ignacio Coronel Villareal was shot dead by troops in a wealthy suburb of the city of Guadalajara. He was said to have been the third-in-command in the powerful Sinaloa “cartel”, which controls much of western Mexico and has proved elusive. In January, another collaborator of Sinaloa’s, Teodoro García, was captured in the coastal city of La Paz. He was accused of ordering his victims to be dissolved in barrels of acid by his henchman, known as “the soup-maker”.

The string of arrests is welcome relief for the federal government from the run of mainly bad news that the war against the drug traffickers generates. It has been fortunate for Mr Poiré, who began his security role less than a month ago and already has two major scalps to show. A former politics chair at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, Mr Poiré is mentioned by some as a possible presidential candidate for the ruling National Action Party (PAN), which finds itself thin on potential nominees ahead of the 2012 election.

But the latest captures come with two caveats. Firstly, arresting suspects is not much good when Mexican prisons are so hopelessly insecure. Last week at least 85 prisonersescaped from a jail in the northern state of Tamaulipas, where the previous month 40 lags had escaped from a different prison. The prison’s director and guards are being questioned about their alleged involvement in the more recent case. Extradition to jails in the United States, where many Mexican criminals are wanted on charges of drug-running, is one answer, until Mexico can run more secure prisons of its own.

The other question mark is over the long-term effectiveness of the government’s strategy of taking out the heads of drug-trafficking organisations. The Beltrán Leyva case is an example: after the boss was killed last year, all hell broke loose in the gang’s home territory of Morelos, as Barbie battled King Kong and co. for control of the empire. Following the latest arrests, residents of the state can hope for things to calm down. But it seems likely that the business will soon pass into the hands of a new boss, or be subsumed into another mob. Removing even the most brilliant entrepreneurs of the drugs business does little to dent the forces of supply and demand.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


No safe passage

Add drugs gangs to the long list of dangers facing migrants

ON AUGUST 24th an 18-year-old Ecuadorean approached a military checkpoint in Tamaulipas, a northern state in Mexico. He had been shot in the neck and explained that he had just escaped a massacre. Mexican marines followed his directions to a barn a few miles away. There they found 72 men and women shot dead. The teenager told how the group, migrants from Central and South America, had been kidnapped on their way to the United States by bandits claiming to belong to the Zetas, a Mexican drug-trafficking gang. When they refused to work for the gangsters, they were executed. There were only two confirmed survivors.

It is the worst known atrocity committed by Mexico’s drug-trafficking organisations to date, and a grim illustration of the dangers migrants face as they travel north. Last year, according to the National Foundation for American Policy, 417 would-be migrants died while coming to the United States, felled by exposure, dehydration, heatstroke and drowning. The record was set in 2005, with 492 migrant deaths. Murders—by kidnappers, bandits, coyotes (people-smugglers)—add perhaps several hundred more to the official toll each year.

But the pace of unauthorised migration to the United States slowed dramatically during those years. According to a September estimate from the Pew Hispanic Centre, some 300,000 unauthorised immigrants arrived in 2009, down from 850,000 in 2005. One conclusion is that as the United States has increased its enforcement effort along heavily populated stretches of the 2,000-mile border, it has nudged more people to try their luck in the harsh south-western desert. Another is that despite the dangers, and America’s downturn, there are still hundreds of thousands of people frustrated enough to risk everything. Even reaching the border is hard. Each year some 20,000 migrants are kidnapped for ransom in Mexico, according to the country’s National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH). Victims are made to give the phone numbers of relatives, who must pay upwards of $3,000 or more to get them released. In Reynosa, a Tamaulipas border city, local human-rights workers know of five kidnap houses, and one reckons the kidnap problem is now twice as bad as it was last year.

Crooked police and migration officers are frequently complicit. Last year the CNDH interviewed 238 victims and witnesses of migrant-kidnappings. Of these, 91 said that public officials had been directly responsible; 99 saw police colluding with the gangsters.

Migrants from Central and South America are particularly easy targets. Illegal in Mexico, they must evade checkpoints throughout the country and risk deportation if they report a crime. Women and girls—about a fifth of the migrants making their way through Mexico—face additional dangers. Six out of ten are reckoned to suffer sexual abuse during their migration, according to Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog.

Because the crossing is difficult, most migrants seek help. A 2010 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that human smuggling is a $6.6-billion industry in Mexico, and that 90% of unauthorised immigrants crossing into the United States through Mexico hired a smuggler at some point along the journey—for food, for shelter, for a hiding spot in the back of a tractor-trailer, for guidance about where to find water on the trail. “For many migrants, it pays off,” says Néstor Rodríguez, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin. He notes that some coyotes are members of their communities in good standing, esteemed for having helped friends and neighbours.

The problem is that other smugglers are predators, who abandon, kidnap or kill their charges. And experts fear that the massacre in Tamaulipas is a sign that Mexico’s drug gangs are taking an interest in people-smuggling. As border security has become tighter, the price of being smuggled has risen from perhaps $2,000 per person (the UNODC’s estimate) to as much as $10,000, according to STRATFOR, a global intelligence company based in Texas.

Mexico, a vocal advocate of migrants’ rights in the United States, has taken steps to reduce risks for migrants within its own borders. Ordinary citizens can help migrants without risking prosecution. In 2008 the maximum penalty for illegal entry to Mexico was reduced from ten years in prison to a fine. Last year Mexico’s migration authority had a purge of corrupt officers, and now runs a humanitarian wing which offers help to migrants, whether legal or not. Since 2007 illegal migrants have been able to apply for a humanitarian visa to enable them to report crimes committed against them, and see the prosecution through.

Yet most crimes against migrants go unreported. Migrants are still unwilling to jeopardise their journey by reporting them. In the first half of last year, just eight humanitarian visas were issued. The Ecuadorean survivor of the Tamaulipas massacre, for instance, has returned home—unsurprisingly, given that a senior detective in the investigation is himself believed to have been murdered.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mexico's ruling party

The new old guard

How ten years in power have changed the former opposition leaders

SKULKING around Morelia after dark, a 17-year-old Agustín Torres would wait until midnight before sticking up posters for the National Action Party (PAN). Any earlier, and he risked being photographed by authorities monitoring subversives in the western city. “I wanted to be against the system, so I joined the PAN,” says Mr Torres, now 33 and a congressman.

These days, the PAN is part of the system. After 61 years in opposition, it wrested the presidency from the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000 and held it in 2006. Its strengths reflect its legacy as the protagonist of Mexico’s transition to multi-party democracy. Unlike the big-tent PRI, the conservative PAN knows what it stands for. “Whereas the PRI is driven by power, the PAN tends to be driven by ideology,” says Luis Rubio, the head of CIDAC, a think-tank. And unlike the fractious Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), its leftist counterpart, the PAN runs a slick operation. It even boasts an international reach, winning 57% of the expatriate vote in 2006.

Yet its two presidents, Vicente Fox and then Felipe Calderón, are often seen as disappointments. Much of the fault for their failure to pass big reforms lies with Mexico’s gridlocked political system: with three big parties in Congress, forming majorities is hard, and the super-majorities needed to amend the constitution even harder. Moreover, the PRI has always retained the majority of state governorships. But the PAN cannot escape blame for a decade of limp economic growth and rising concern over crime. It lost the midterm votes of 2003 and 2009 badly. “It’s much simpler to be an opposition party than a governing party,” says César Nava, the PAN’s president.

The biggest difficulty has been managing relations between party and government, which, Mr Nava says, each have “their own temperament and their own ends”. Mr Calderón has often been criticised for appointing mere PAN loyalists to his cabinet. His inability to find experts within the party’s ranks shows that it has not developed a governing class to match the old regime. “The PRI had a lot of dinosaurs,” as traditional machine politicians are called, “but a very sophisticated elite,” says Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the Colegio de México, a graduate school.

The party’s ideological consistency also risks calcifying. Mr Rubio speculates that the PAN’s abundance of true believers may be hindering its intellectual development. Its social conservatism has limited its appeal in cosmopolitan Mexico City, where the mayor, the PRD’s Marcelo Ebrard, has legalised gay adoption. Thanks in part to the influence of a secretive Catholic society called ElYunque (The Anvil), the party has taken a hard line on abortion, which even rape victims find hard to obtain in some PAN-run states.

The party leadership is becoming more flexible. In July’s elections for state governors, it formed an alliance with the PRD that Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the PRI’s leader in the Senate, deemed “against nature”. Fernando Gómez Mont, Mr Calderón’s then-interior minister, left the PAN in protest. Yet the alliance beat expectations and took three large states from the PRI. However, the PAN has also begun to compromise its principles in less savoury ways: Mr Calderón was censured by the electoral authorities for giving a televised address 19 days before the vote.

The real test for the PAN will come in 2012. In the most recent presidential election, the PRI’s entrant was crippled by a bitter nomination fight. The party is bent on uniting around a candidate this time. The telegenic governor of the state of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is now the front-runner. If he falters, Mr Beltrones awaits.

Mr Calderón cannot run again, and the PAN’s bench looks weak. The best hope for the party to keep the PRI out of power might well be to back Mr Ebrard. His social liberalism would test PAN voters’ loyalty, causing party leaders to say such a deal is unlikely, though not impossible. Even if their opposition could be overcome, an alliance would sink Mr Calderón’s legislative agenda—the PRI, which controls the lower house of Congress, is already vowing to block it in protest at the state-level PAN-PRD pact. Yet after 61 years in opposition, the PAN will now contemplate anything to keep its old rivals at bay.