How Central America’s poorest country became one of its safest
Jan 28th 2012 | MANAGUA
LYING between Colombia’s coca bushes and Mexico’s cocaine traffickers, Central America is a choke point on the drugs trail. In 2010 the smugglers ensured that Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala were among the world’s seven most violent countries. Costa Rica and Panama are richer and safer. But since 2007 their murder rates have respectively risen by a third and nearly doubled.
Amid this inferno Nicaragua, the poorest country in mainland Latin America, is remarkably safe. Whereas Honduras’s murder rate in 2010 was 82 per 100,000 people, the world’s highest in over a decade, Nicaragua’s was just 13, unchanged in five years. That means it is now less violent than booming Panama, and may soon be safer than Costa Rica, a tourist haven. What explains the relative peace?
Reforms languish while overpaid, underworked lawmakers bicker
Jan 21st 2012 | MEXICO CITY
AFTER a fortnight of Christmas fiestas, Mexicans groggily returned to work two weeks ago. Or rather, most of them did. For the 500 deputies and 128 senators of the national Congress, the holidays roll on until February. Mexico’s lawmakers sit for only 195 days a year, the second-fewest among Latin America’s bigger countries. (Their $11,200-a-month pay, however, is the highest after Brazil’s.) When they do stir themselves to vote, it is more often to block rivals’ bills than to pass reforms.
Gridlock in the palace of San Lázaro partly explains why Felipe Calderón’s presidency, which ends in December, now looks like a six-year damp squib. Mr Calderón has identified many of Mexico’s bottlenecks. But most of his big proposals have floundered in Congress. A modest fiscal reform passed in 2007 was eased along only by an electoral law to help the opposition. Last year a competition law tentatively prodded the country’s mighty monopolies. But changes to the backward energy sector in 2008 were diluted beyond recognition. A reform of the political system has been similarly gutted and is yet to pass. And there is still no sign of a promised law to improve competition in telecoms.
LIKE champagne, tequila may be called tequila only if it comes from a specific region. Distillers in five of Mexico’s 31 states have the exclusive right to produce the famous firewater. Bottlers elsewhere must use alternative names, though their product is distilled in the same way from the sap of the agave, a spiky desert succulent often wrongly referred to as a cactus.
Demand for tequila is growing fast. Americans now drink more of the stuff than Mexicans—a head-throbbing 120m litres a year. Producers outside the official tequila region are cashing in. The “agave liquor” they sell is cheaper than real tequila and tastes identical, at least to the barbarian gringo palate.
A former general must move fast to meet expectations
Jan 21st 2012 | GUATEMALA CITY
“THE change has begun. The change has arrived,” declared Otto Pérez Molina as he donned Guatemala’s presidential sash on January 14th. Quoting Mayan astronomers who set the start of a new 5,125-year epoch in 2012, Mr Pérez, a former general, vowed to save the country from its “crisis” of crime and poverty.
Guatemala has grave problems and feeble means to combat them. Its murder rate of 39 per 100,000 people, partly spurred by drug gangs, is among the world’s highest. Slow violence is done on a bigger scale by malnutrition, which stalks half the country’s children, the worst rate in the Americas. Government revenues are just over a tenth of GDP, the region’s lowest share.
RETIRED policemen, judges and presidents who support radical drug-law reform still greatly outnumber those who pipe up while still in the job. But calls for a rethink are increasingly coming from incumbents too. Last year Bolivia’s left-wing government briefly withdrew from the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1961 treaty underpinning prohibition. It returned after negotiating an opt-out for coca, a traditional mild stimulant (unlike cocaine, no more harmful than caffeine) protected by the country’s constitution.
More hawkish leaders are also thinking twice. Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s conservative president, said in August: “if you [America] are determined and resigned to consume drugs, then seek market alternatives…or establish clear points of access other than the border with Mexico. This position can no longer go on.” Soon after, Juan Manuel Santos, the centre-right president of Colombia, said he would welcome legalisation if it cut criminals’ profits.