Brazil apart, publishers are struggling to persuade the growing middle class to read more books
Dec 10th 2011 | GUADALAJARA
TINY fingers wiggle through the holes in the pages of “A Moverse” (“Let’s Get Moving”), a children’s picture-book that lets readers pretend their digit is a cat’s tail or penguin’s beak. While managers in suits talk print-runs and profits in one hall of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the world’s biggest Spanish-language literary get-together, shrieks of excitement can be heard from young customers in the children’s area next door.
Illiteracy and poverty once denied the pleasure of reading to many Latin Americans. That should no longer be the case: a quarter of Mexicans born before 1950 are officially classed illiterate but only 2% of those under 30. And less than a third of Latin Americans now live below the poverty line, compared with half in 1990.
DOLLARS and pesos cross the border between America and Mexico in greater numbers than ever. The $400 billion-worth of trade in 2010 made Mexico America’s biggest trading partner after China and Canada. Greenbacks are so common south of the frontier that in some neighbourhoods peso coins are known as cuoras, a mispronunciation of “quarters”.
Lately the relationship between the currencies has been rocky. Between July and November the peso fell by 19% against the dollar, hitting its lowest level since the 2009 financial crisis. It has since bobbed back a little as prospects across the border have improved a tad. Nonetheless, its performance so far in the second half of this year has been the weakest of any Latin American currency.
Desperate measures to keep businesses alive in the world’s most dangerous city
Nov 26th 2011 | CIUDAD JUÁREZ
For some reason, shoppers shun Juárez
A STEEL fence is all that separates El Paso, in west Texas, from Ciudad Juárez, in northern Mexico, and it has never stopped business flowing across the border. Drinks, dentistry and divorces have been served up to bargain-seeking gringos for decades. But since fighting erupted among local drug-traffickers in 2007, Juárez has seen more violence than anywhere on Earth, battlefields aside. The murder rate last year was over 200 per 100,000 people, more than ten times the national average and 200 times the rate in El Paso. In a once-busy tourist area close to the border, well over half the shops are boarded up.
Visitors “think Mexico is a country at war,” says one dentist with a practice close to the frontier. Since the violence ratcheted up, three-quarters of his mainly American patients have decided that crossing the border for half-price drilling is not worth the risk. It does not help that since September 11th 2001 crossing the border can take up to two hours, rather than a few minutes. Most gringo-oriented businesses have struggled: a few blocks away Club 21, a betting shop, has closed, as has the Montana restaurant, which once served toothsome steaks. A hotel lies half-built; the rumour is that its backer was a drug lord who was killed earlier this year.
The drug war’s fifth year throws up new trends, for better and worse
Nov 26th 2011 | CIUDAD JUÁREZ
FIVE years ago next week, Felipe Calderón took office as Mexico’s president and launched a crackdown against organised crime. Since then there has been a horrible predictability about the country’s drug war: each year the number of deaths has risen, most of them concentrated in a handful of cities. But this year both those tendencies look as if they have started to change. The annual death toll seems to have plateaued at around 12,000. Hotspots have cooled, only for violence to invade places previously considered safe.
Ciudad Juárez, in Chihuahua state and on the border with Texas, is the most striking example of this. For several years it has been the most dangerous place in Mexico and, by most counts, the world. A city of 1.3m, it saw more than 3,000 murders last year. Yet this year the number of mafia-related killings in Chihuahua has fallen by about a third, according to a tally by Reforma, a newspaper, as have kidnappings and car thefts. (The government has not released murder statistics in almost a year.) So far this year, Chihuahua state accounts for only around 15% of such murders in Mexico, down from a peak of 32%.
Mexico’s divided leftist party has chosen a veteran radical as its presidential candidate. Will he pull it out of its hole, or dig it in deeper?
Nov 19th 2011 | MEXICO CITY
ON A quiet street in central Mexico City is a bright-yellow building claiming to be the headquarters of the “Legitimate Government of Mexico”. This curious outfit is run by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a charismatic leftist who narrowly lost the presidential election of 2006, which he believes was fraudulent. In the weeks after the election his followers brought the capital to a standstill with a protest that inspired millions of Mexicans and infuriated millions more. Mr López Obrador, known to friends and foes alike as AMLO, is still a polarising figure. His party’s decision on November 15th to select him again as its candidate in next year’s presidential race added uncertainty to the contest and to the party’s own future.
Mr López Obrador began the 2006 campaign as the favourite. This time, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), under whose banner he will run again, languishes a distant third. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, leads the pack and looks set to return under the slick candidacy of Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of Mexico’s most populous state. The ruling centre-right National Action Party (PAN) of Felipe Calderón is clinging on to second place, buffeted by soaring crime and a subdued economy.
Sending soldiers to do the job of police has led to widespread abuses
Nov 12th 2011 | MEXICO CITY
A cure worse than the disease?
ISRAEL ARZATE was walking to his home in Ciudad Juárez in February 2010 when a truck pulled up. Two men forced him into the back seat. When they got out, he says, they blindfolded him, made him strip, and applied electric shocks before suffocating him with a plastic bag. He finally broke when they told him that without his co-operation, his wife would be found “dumped and raped in an empty lot”.
Gangsters rich on drug profits have brought hell to Juárez, a dusty border city full of such grim tales. Yet Mr Arzate’s alleged torturers were not criminals but soldiers. As part of a crackdown on organised crime, Felipe Calderón, the president, has sent 50,000 troops to police the streets of Mexico. They have helped to kill or capture some of the country’s most wanted kingpins. But poorly trained and under pressure to get results, some have resorted to the same tactics as the criminals.
Buoyed by a growing economy and Venezuelan cash, the Sandinista leader who toppled a dictator is set to win an unconstitutional third term
Nov 5th 2011 | MANAGUA
SPORTING sunglasses and military fatigues, Daniel Ortega’s portrait graced thousands of student-bedroom walls in the 1980s. His Sandinista guerrillas overthrew Anastasio Somoza, whose family had run Nicaragua as a private fief for four decades until 1979, and inspired even more support when the United States began an unsuccessful covert war to remove them. Mr Ortega lost power in the country’s first-ever free election in 1990, but was voted back into office in 2006. On November 6th he is likely to win another five-year term.
The world’s romance with his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has soured. Whereas Mr Ortega was once a symbol of victory over tyranny, he is now a cheat. Local elections in 2008 saw vast fraud, with the FSLN wrongly awarded some 40 mayoralties. Foreign donors suspended over $100m in protest. This year the signs are ominous. Voting cards have not been delivered in some areas, and accreditation of opposition parties’ agents has been slow. The government has admitted a few EU election monitors, but no independent domestic observers.
Two failing states in Latin America have turned to outsiders for help. We report first from Guatemala, on a UN effort to fight organised crime
Oct 15th 2011 | GUATEMALA CITY
AFTER years of frustration over its rotten security forces and judiciary, Guatemala’s government decided in 2006 to call for outside help. “Asking the justice system to reform itself was like tying up a dog with a string of sausages,” says Eduardo Stein, the then vice-president. The government invited the United Nations to establish a unit of foreign prosecutors to fight the infiltration of Guatemala’s institutions by corruption and organised crime. The experiment, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), completed four turbulent years last month.
The commission’s main targets are clandestine networks of soldiers and policemen created during a 36-year civil war between military dictators and left-wing guerrillas. These outfits went freelance after a 1996 peace deal, selling their services to drug traffickers from Mexico and Colombia. Largely because of the drug mobs and their allies, Central America’s “northern triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador “has become probably the deadliest zone in the world” outside active theatres of war, General Douglas Fraser, head of the United States’ Southern Command, said in March.
SIX out of ten road deaths worldwide take place in just 12 countries, one of which is Mexico. Dented doors and battered bumpers are backed up by official figures: every year some 24,000 people lose their lives on Mexico’s potholed roads, almost double the number that die at the hands of its drug mafias. A further 600,000 are injured. The World Health Organisation reckons that, along with mountainous Peru and misgoverned Venezuela, Mexico has the most dangerous roads in Latin America.
In Mexico’s case the main problem is the drivers. Fourteen of Mexico’s 32 states, home to just over half the population, grant licences without setting a practical driving test. Three of those 14 run compulsory courses which students pass merely by attending. Five others have multiple-choice written exams, but they are not very hard. For example: “If on entering the vehicle we find the windscreen dirty”, one (incorrect) option is “to drive fast to clean it”. In six areas, including Mexico City, there is no compulsory training or test of any sort. Applicants in the capital need only pay 604 pesos ($45).
MEXICO’S national media have followed every gruesome twist of the government’s battle with organised crime. But in some of the most dangerous areas, local papers are curiously short on details. Last year five newspapers admitted in print that they would stop covering sensitive drug-war stories, such was the risk to their reporters. The year also saw 15 attacks on media offices, up from two in 2009, according to Article 19, a free-speech lobby group. The gangs are even dictating copy. Imagen, a daily in the state of Zacatecas, ran an article last year attacking the army on the orders of a mafia that had kidnapped one of its reporters. Milenio, a TV station, ran part of a mob-scripted report after some of its staff were abducted.
With the traditional media silenced, Mexicans have gone online in search of news. But that now looks risky too. On September 13th two bodies were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, on Mexico’s northern border, with a sign promising the same treatment to all “gossips on the internet”. The notice named two drug-war-focused sites to which the murdered pair had supposedly contributed.
IT IS the season of informes in Mexico, when the president and state governors deliver state-of-the-union-type reports on what they have been up to. This year Enrique Peña Nieto, the outgoing governor of Mexico state and the early front-runner in next year’s presidential election, used his September 5th informe to mark the unofficial launch of his presidential bid.
Prominent in his address was the stunning claim that the murder rate in Mexico state had fallen by more than half during his six-year term. “One of the most illustrative achievements that we have is the reduction in murders per 100,000 people, from 16.5 in 2005 to 7.6 in 2010,” he said (you can watch it here at about 1:05). This was particularly amazing given that the national murder rate more than doubled during the same period. Anyone doubting Mr Peña’s word could see the numbers for themselves in the print version of his informe (here, on page 222, under “homicidios dolosos”).