It was 5:30 am on Tuesday, May 7, when a “full trailer” truck (which can carry loads up to 75.5 tons) transporting LP gas skidded off the Mexico City-Pachuca highway, exploded and caused a horrific tragedy, resulting in over 20 deaths and structural damage in the settlement of San Pedro Xalostoc, Ecatepec.
Initial investigations from authorities have determined that the cause of the accident was human error on the driver’s part. They’ve also stated that both the company and the transport unit involved were registered and verified and met maintenance and security standards. The gas company involved has already declared it will fully cooperate with the government’s investigation and, if deemed responsible for the tragedy, will pay damages.
Unfortunately, for a federal government concerned more with appearances than substance, this is not enough. Vast coverage on national media has urged President Enrique Peña Nieto’s team—through the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Ministry of Communications and Transport—SCT)—to seem like it is on top of things by pledging to prioritize reforms that will prevent accidents like this one in the future, no matter the collateral damage of those reforms.
Anyone who has driven down U.S. and Mexican highways can attest that Mexican highways are inferior and more dangerous. The materials used in Mexico are substandard and make roads slippery. Road development and maintenance are also terrible: highways have too few guardrails, too many potholes, poorly planned intersections, terrible signaling, and sharp inclines on dangerous curves. Many of our highways have tolls, but you wouldn’t know it from their disrepair. Moreover, there is no effective urban planning. In many cases, highway speed limits are set without consideration for residential areas near the road. Houses built within 165 feet (50 meters) of a non-protected high speed highway are normal in Mexico.
In a recent online article, Vanity Fair mentioned Angélica Rivera –wife of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto–among the top-10 best dressed first ladies in the world. The piece was innocent enough and not unlike the lighthearted articles usually included in this publication. And yet, the article caught wildfire and was highlighted in Mexico’s mainstream media and newspapers, as if making the list was an incredible achievement and a coveted award.
Why is this? My best guess is that since Ms. Rivera has been out of the spotlight since she married and campaigned with Peña Nieto, the President’s PR team grabbed ahold of what they could to give her some sort of national print exposure. If this is the case, staying true to her past as a telenovela star, it seems the most we should expect from her in the coming years will be a pretty face in a pretty dress and a lovely TV smile.
The first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s presidency have come and gone and any political analyst would likely conclude that, whether you agree with his politics or not, the President’s team is doing a good job of portraying him as a hands-on leader who gets the job done. In recent weeks he’s made headlines by pushing forward a much-needed Education Reform, a Victims Protection Law and new Telecom policies. Getting rid of Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Teachers Union—SNTE), certainly boosted Peña Nieto’s numbers as well. And while I would not argue that the first lady’s role should be as relevant as the elected official’s, a look back at Rivera’s track record after the first 100 days in the Presidential residence of Los Pinos, reveals a blank slate and missed opportunities.
Traditionally, Mexico’s first lady is awarded the honorary position of president of the Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia México (Integral Family Development National System Advisory Board—DIF). Rivera accepted the role just a couple of weeks ago, having remained in the shadows up until then.
Mexicans are used to hearing this: “in spite of the violence and insecurity, the Mexican economy is booming and attracting foreign direct investment.” After a recent visit to Monterrey, even Thomas L. Friedman wrote for The New York Times about this in “How Mexico Got Back in the Game,” providing a positive outlook on Mexico’s ability to compete in the global market. Then again, macroeconomics is just part of the story.
Yes, Mexico is becoming an attractive place for U.S. and Europe to invest. The commercial and technical factors to take advantage of are there. However, our current competitive position vs. China and other manufacturing countries should not downplay the fact that drug-related violence is directly affecting certain hotspots in the country. While the flow of foreign direct investment may continue and even flourish, both the reality and perceptions of violence in Mexico are damaging tourism. Brand Mexico is tail-spinning and losing value when it comes to vacation destinations. This should matter to a country that the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) called the eighth most visited nation in the world in 2007.
If there is one thing Mexico’s men are famous for, it is the celebration of being macho. We see this everywhere: In telenovelas, the butch and handsome male protagonist becomes the hero only after he conquers the lovely señorita by wooing her with his macho chivalry. It is common to hear traditional male fathers telling their sons “real men don’t cry.”
A number of consumer products also cater to this very innate part of the Mexican heterosexual male’s existence through marketing, which might be considered as sexist in other cultures. The macho element also permeates humor; viewed through the optics of U.S. culture it no doubt be deemed much more than politically incorrect. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a plain and simple recognition of who we are as a culture today.
On March 6, however, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) took a decision that could lead to a shift in the way Mexican machos coexist with homosexuality, which today is regularly mocked. Mexican insults such as “maricón” or “puñal” (derogatory terms for “gay male”) are thrown around in colloquial talk with as much disdain as the word “pansy” in the English language. But the Supreme Court decided that such expressions are not protected by freedom of speech and can be subject to lawsuit on the basis of moral harm.
The split 3-2 judicial decision is probably an accurate proportion of how Mexican society would view the subject. Some view this as a step toward inclusion and tolerance. Others see this as unnecessary ruling and censorship of what has traditionally been acceptable humor.
On Monday February 25, having achieved the needed support in Congress, President Enrique Peña Nieto put into effect an education reform that will transform the public education system at its core. If enacted correctly, the reform will allow the country to take important steps forward and proactively tackle one of its most relevant social issues.
The reform calls for a new autonomous government institute to be created, with the sole purpose of strengthening and professionalizing the teaching profession by establishing a talent performance system that will ensure that teaching positions are awarded based on merit and not discretional criteria. The system includes periodical evaluations for the public system teachers, a change that undoubtedly will generate resistance from teachers who have become quite comfortable in mediocrity under the protection of a backwards thinking union that is too strong and powerful for its own good.
The new institute will also be responsible for ensuring that a trustworthy database comprising numbers of schools, teachers and students is created and kept up to date. This administrative responsibility also used to be in the hands of the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación), who kept whatever data they had away from public scrutiny.
In what can only be interpreted as a strategy to hit them while their down, one day after Peña Nieto published the reform, the country was surprised with the arrest of SNTE’s controversial and powerful leader, Elba Esther Gordillo who is facing charges for fraud, money laundering and links to organized crime.
For the past couple of years, people from all over the world have been asking me the same question: how bad are things in Monterrey, really? Obviously, they are referring to the drug-related violence and overall instability that have recently given the city unwanted international attention.
There’s a saying in Mexico: “cada quién cuenta como le fue en la feria,” which roughly translates to “how the tale is told depends on what the narrator has been through.” Therefore, my experience will not resonate equally among some others who live in Monterrey, but I do hope it will provide a relatively objective conclusion and answer to the above question.
Since the underlying interest behind the question is learning more about the situation of violence, I will not get into details about how Monterrey has a buoyant economy, entrepreneurial society, growing industrial sector, or is the birthplace of the most important higher education systems in Latin America and the home of hard-working, committed individuals. What I will focus on is how daily life has changed for middle-class citizens as a result of the violence and how societal interaction today is less regulated by a rule of law and more so by a rule of fear.
Most people outside of Mexico may have never heard of Ruy Salgado. But during the most recent electoral contest here, that name not only became known throughout Internet circles in Mexico, but was arguably one of the most influential voices of opposition in the country.
Ruy Salgado, a pseudonym, has an online alias known as el 5anto. Salgado is a nonprofit video blogger whose notoriety increased during these past elections for his very critical view of both the transparency of the process and the role of the mainstream media in “manipulating the truth.” He was also one of the most vocal in denouncing what he referred to as institutionalized fraud in the results that will bring the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) back to power on December 1.
El 5anto’s modus operandi was to webcast himself live, wearing a blue luchador mask, providing news and opinion rarely present in mainstream media. This approach was part commercial flair, part self-protection. During the time his project was online, he attracted a growing audience whose members may not have all supported his beliefs, but who did attest to the professional way in which they are always presented: stating sources, structuring analyses and providing informed and argumentative opinion.
For his views and his attempts to “provide information”—always his prime objective—el 5anto became a target of multiple death threats. At one point he even fled the country and started streaming from an undisclosed location for fear of becoming yet another communicator permanently silenced by those who have made journalism an extremely dangerous profession in Mexico.
On July 22, the Mexican Education Ministry (Secretaría de Educación Pública, or SEP) published the results for the Knowledge, Ability and Teaching Skills National Exam, the annual test the Mexican government uses to award teaching positions in the country. The outcome paints a grim picture for children seeking quality education in Mexico.
A year ago, I wrote about the fact that the test in itself is not exigent enough and that the passing grade is a meager 30 percent. Back then I took a deep dive into the way the test is structured and concluded that it was practically impossible to fail. Well the results are in, and unfortunately, I underestimated the level of ignorance in the people responsible for preparing Mexico’s youth for the challenges of tomorrow. There’s something categorically wrong in Mexico’s education system when out of 134,704 people that took this simple test, over 70 percent don’t get half of it right and only 309 (0.2 percent) get a perfect score.
Of the over 18,000 teaching-position vacancies that will be filled this year, 309 applicants are up to par based on the already low standards SEP was able to negotiate with the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE). The rest of our new teachers present huge deficiencies in curricular content (actual subject matter), scholastic competencies, logic, and/or ethics.
With an estimate of around 37 percent of the votes, Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in Mexico’s presidential race will be analyzed from multiple angles, including what this will mean with regard to the war on drugs, the economic model in place, relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world, and many other topics.
For the most part, Peña Nieto’s tenure will not imply radical changes in Mexico, for better or worse but the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) to power does say a lot about the way Mexico’s society thinks and operates. This electoral process has opened up an interesting window into the Mexican collective psyche. These are some of the lessons from the 2012 election.
Debates are not yet a vehicle for voter decision in Mexico. There were three presidential debates (two official ones and one organized by #YoSoy132 to which Peña Nieto did not attend) during the presidential race. Peña Nieto’s participation in these dialogues was considered lukewarm at best. His rhetoric was empty but his poor performance was not enough to shift voter preference away from him and toward a second viable option.
We still have a long way to go to build political awareness and education. Peña Nieto’s success cannot be attributed to a strong and enriched political platform or to his superiority as a candidate over his competitors. One could not say that he is smarter, better prepared or better equipped to be president than his competitors. Peña Nieto’s success shows that Mexican voters can easily be manipulated (or convinced) through robust campaigning, a large TV presence and looks. As different media showed when they interviewed people at political rallies (for the three major candidates), a large quantity of voters had no idea of where candidates stood on relevant issues. “I trust him,” “He’s cute” and “I’ll vote for him because the other one is crazy” were some of the compelling arguments that gave Peña Nieto a victory on July 1. Sadly, we still have a long way to go to create an informed voter base. The candidate you saw more billboards and TV ads from, is the one that came out on top in voter preference.
Ballots have closed in what could be the election with largest voter turnout in Mexico's democratic history. In the state of Nuevo León, the Comisión Estatal Electoral (State Electoral Commission) reported that they registered 65 percent of the voter list.
Milenio TV, BCG-Excelsior, GEA-ISA and TV Azteca exit polls report that Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto winning by a wide margin. The preliminary results counting mechanism has already began registering results and should have a significant percentage confirmed by 11:45pm tonight when the president of the Instituto Federal Electoral (Federal Electoral Institute—IFE) will go live on national television to provide a report.
Special voting booth locations, where people attend to if they are from a different state to where they are on the date of elections, had long lines of people who waited up to 6 hours to cast their vote. In many of them, the 750 ballots used where not enough and people had to try to go to different locations after the representatives told them they had ran out of ballots.
Social networks played an important role in both voter turnout and in observing the elections. From very early on, voters used Twitter to report on questionable and unlawful practices in the different localities. Pictures of armed people in or around voting areas, reports of stolen ballots and of people trying to buy votes circulated the Internet, a reflection of an observant citizenry catalyzed by technology. The FEPADE (Fiscalía Especializada para la Atención de Delitos Electorales), the contact person for electoral offenses, has declared that while there have been unlawful events reported these are significantly less than in previous years.
This historic election is also tarnished by the reported murder of a Nuevo León “Morena” (Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional, or Movement of National Regeneration) coordinator Tomás Betancourt, found dead with multiple gunshots.
Society's engagement in this election, and the negative events herein reported, remind us that while we are making progress in our democratic journey Mexico still has a long way to go.
Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.
#YoSoy132 has been called many things: “the voice of a new generation;” “the Mexican Spring;” and “young people manipulated by the PRD [Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or Party of the Democratic Revolution]” are just a few. Whatever its true nature, this youth movement has left a new mark on electoral processes in Mexico—one which could shape not only the outcome but the aftermath of the 2012 Mexican elections next Sunday.
It all began on May 11 when Enrique Peña Nieto, presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), belittled a group of student protesters that had gathered at the Universidad Iberoamericana to repudiate his presence there. Peña Nieto called them a small group of rabble-rousers, accused them of not being actual students and minimized their protest to opposition made up of only 131 people.
This led to the students uploading a YouTube video showing their university IDs and claiming that their cause was shared by many more young people. The video went viral and the story spiraled into Twitter via the hashtag #YoSoy132 (“I Am 132”). Without a cohesive agenda or clarity with regards to what “being 132” really meant, people sympathized with the students and began retweeting that they too were 132.
In the midst of Mexico’s presidential election and the heated debate on who is the best candidate, we are reminded of the myopic and paternalistic view citizens still have of this emerging democracy. It is not uncommon to hear people saying they will vote for a candidate because he/she “is the one that will put an end to poverty” (or some other priority development issue) as if the responsibility and power to do so lies solely in an ever-powerful and almighty political leader.
My intention is not to undermine the role government plays in paving the way for development and growth through policies that promote and attract investment and catalyze job creation and opportunities for economic transformation. But the fact is that our political leaders cannot and will not do it alone. For this reason, it is comforting to learn that MIT’s Technology Review recently awarded and recognized 10 innovative young (under age 35) Mexican individuals whose ideas and creations provide a beacon of hope for the country’s future value development.
Mexico needs more people like José Manuel Aguilar from Monterrey, whose participation in developing procedures and a biotechnological platform to make H1N1 vaccines more readily available throughout the country helped stop an immeasurable amounts of deaths during the 2009 crisis. Or 31-year-old Ana Laborde, whose company has developed a patented bioplastic with 70 percent made from Agave waste (the plant used for Tequila manufacturing) and is 100 percent recyclable. Inventions like these are a challenge the country’s mentality of being a provider of raw materials with little added-value to industrialized nations.
The 2012 electoral process is the most uninspiring we’ve seen in recent history. Therefore it’s no surprise that Mexican society is increasingly disenfranchised with the political system. In fact, trust in the political elite is at an all-time low. Where interest groups saw possibilities of working hand in hand with the government in 2000 and 2006, the division between those governing and those being governed grows day by day.
The age group most alien to the electoral process this year will be young adults. A recent UNDP-sponsored study carried out by the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) posits that 7 out of every 10 voters ages 18-29 will not turn out to vote due to “disenchantment with Mexican democracy.” Enrique Cuna Pérez, the head of the sociology department at the UAM, points out that Mexican adolescents do believe in democracy but not in the way it is implemented in the country. “Young people are not shying away from democracy as a system, they are shying away from Mexican democracy. They consider themselves as democratic people. They understand the importance of voting but they are not willing to participate in Mexican democracy as it stands today,” says Cuna.
There are many reasons for this. For one, people are finding it harder to believe in and rally for the different candidates. The turn that political campaigns have taken—toward destructive criticism, finger-pointing and whining—is far from inspiring. Since the actual political platforms and proposals show nothing new, candidates are focusing on projecting their persona, trying to get people to believe in them, but they are doing it by saying “you can’t believe in the other candidates” as opposed to showing the country why they are fit to lead.
Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to Mexico will begin on March 23 but unlike his predecessor, Benedict will not feel as comfortable calling Mexico siempre fiel—and so hopefully some of his agenda will include discussion on religious diversity.
Pope John Paul II called Mexico “forever faithful” in 1990 due to Catholicism being the dominant faith in the country. However, rising popularity of other religions and the emergence of atheist and agnostic thought in the country could very well be pushing Mexico to a tipping point, leading to question the favored role Catholicism plays in sociopolitical life.
To this day, many large companies in Mexico (national and international) hold posadas, celebrate Christmas and observe other Catholic holidays such as Easter. Some even hold mass within their facilities to kick off special events. On the flip side, there are very few companies in Mexico that observe Yom Kippur or Ramadan. It is still a commonplace human resource practice to ask potential employees what their religion is during recruitment and—though none will publicly accept it—religion still plays a criteria in actual talent selection (otherwise, why would they ask about it?). This, by the way, is illegal under Article 3 of the Federal Labor Law.
Catholicism is not just favored in the private sector. During the first weeks of December and leading up to the 12th (Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe) Catholics are not only allowed to march on some of the busiest streets in the cities as part of their pilgrimage while causing transit chaos, they are even escorted by public officials to guarantee their safety. This is a nicety not usually awarded to other faiths and it is funded by taxes paid for by people of all faiths.
The stage is finally set for the presidential race between Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD/PT) and Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI/PVEM). What is about to unfold in the coming months is a barrage of party propaganda and news media stories designed to pull the undecided electorate toward one or the other candidates, but the actual content of the messages will surely show the lack of political consciousness in Mexico.
The product of a school system in crisis, a large portion of Mexico’s constituency is comprised of uneducated voters. Moreover, for those lucky enough to have gone through formal schooling, two essential things are missing: development of a widespread civic/political culture and embedding the capacity for critical thinking. With regard to elections, Mexicans’ decisions have traditionally been based on a simplistic understanding of what candidates represent, if we like the way they talk and even their looks.
A very young and sensationalist media also works against the creation of a politically informed voter base. Mainstream newspapers and TV networks are more interested in covering and making fun of the latest verbal gaffe by one of the candidates than really doing an in-depth analysis of the actual platforms they are running on. And the worst part is some of the current candidates have caught wind of this so their campaign focus will be less on substance and more on giving the media what they want in order to get more exposure. A secondary concern is the actual proposals and solutions to the country’s biggest challenges.
Of the three candidates, the only one who has provided public discourse with a somewhat clear and consistent direction is López Obrador. To be fair, his campaign is six years ahead of the other two but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Vázquez and Peña have been unable to effectively communicate what they stand for and what their governments would seek. They might not even be trying to do this, as they’ve found they can try to win the election through other strategies.
On July 1, Mexicans will choose their president for the next six years. This will be the fourth time the electoral process is not organized by the government but by a supposedly non-biased institution, the Instituto Federal Electoral or IFE.
Mexico likes to boast (especially since 2000) that we hold free, fair and transparent elections. And while that may be the case to some extent, the country could learn a lot from its Latin American neighbors with regard to the process in itself. More than ever, Mexico would benefit from the implementation of a two-round runoff election as opposed to its current majority rule system.
Prior to 1994, general elections were but a façade to legitimize the perpetuation in power of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Without an independent regulatory body to observe the process, elections results were heavily and systematically manipulated, voting booths with opposition preference were ransacked and official tallies always placed the PRI as an absolute majority winner. Under these circumstances, the official rules of the process were irrelevant and a second round of elections would have never made sense as the PRI would always get over 50 percent of the supposed electorate preference.
No matter the outcome, Mexico’s next president will not have the needed credentials to effectively run this country and neither will the majority parties that compose Congress. Mexico’s political system has entered a credibility vacuum.
These first lines sound fatalist but the real intention here is to prepare and alert the Mexican citizenry of the ever-present need of their active involvement in placing the country on the right track. It has always been simplistic to leave this up to the government and now more than ever, it will be futile to think they would be able to at a federal level.
The 2012 presidential race in Mexico will have three relevant frontrunners: Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD) and if the most recent polls stay the same until February, Josefina Vázquez Mota for PAN.
Vázquez Mota is facing an upstream battle. Of the three, she is the candidate with the least experience, the least media exposure and she has never occupied a publicly-elected government position. Moreover, she carries with her allegiance to a party which in the eyes of many, has failed to capitalize on the democratic transition. The political cost of Vicente Fox’ dormant presidency and Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs-related fatalities puts her in the worst position to win the race. Recent state elections in Estado de México, Coahuila, Nayarit, and Michoacán where the PRI came out victorious, foreshadow PAN’s likely inability to maintain the presidency after 2012. On the off-chance that she could pull it off, Vázquez Mota would govern with a PRI-majority Congress, which most likely would hinder her ability to put forth any relevant changes (same as what happened to Vicente Fox). Vázquez Mota may be the right woman for the job, but she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Though López Obrador’s abandoning of his divisive rhetoric from 2006 gained him a second attempt at the presidency from leftist parties (against my forecasting, I might add), today his flip-flopping positions make him the least credible candidate. His impeachment when he headed the Mexico City government, his irresponsible indebting of the city for his populist gains and his sketchy financing for the past five years make his track record and his current platform incompatible. Moreover, those with a bit of memory will not forgive his utter disregard for the rule of law during the last post-electoral period.
On November 5, if the threats posted are real, Mexico could be witness to a new kind of civil resistance to the status quo and political system. Mexican and international members of the hacker group known as Anonymous, have published through different media (interviews to news papers, YouTube videos and twitter accounts) that although #OpCartel has been cancelled, a former member of the network and independent journalist will divulge information of ties between specific high-level government officials and the criminal organization Los Zetas, initially in the state of Veracruz but potentially in all of the country.
Anonymous officially backed down from unleashing #OpCartel allegedly due to the fact that their kidnapped member was released by the Zetas, but also due to threats from this group of a tenfold retaliation against the families of members in the hacker organization. Barrett Brown’s (@BarrettBrownLOL) decision to reveal information on the drug cartel on his own volition might just be a way to protect the Mexican Anonymous members while continuing to carry out the hackers' intended agenda. If the campaign is successful, the actions initiated by Anonymous and supposedly continued solely by Brown, could lead to a nationwide political scandal at incisively interesting pre-election times for the country.
In recent articles published here, I’ve posited that regardless of the people in power, Mexico’s core problems are systemic. The political structure in place not only allows, but even invites corrupt practices to take place. Collusion between politicians and criminals is widely suspected. Mexicans know the story all too well and the constant element present in each of the challenges we face as a country is lack of accountability and immense impunity, which is now being challenged by the actions of a rogue hacker group who could open up Pandora’s box and shed some light on the subject.
In an unlikely stop in his pre-campaign trail, Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a quick visit to the industrial, private sector-intensive city of Monterrey last week. This is hostile territory for López, since the state of Nuevo León has not traditionally sympathized with the leftists parties with which he has associated (PRD, PT, Convergencia). His visit gathered around 1,200 middle- and upper-class listeners. Some were supporters, but most were just curious as I gathered from the low intensity of response to applause moments during the event.
His message was somewhat different from his usual populist rhetoric. The radio and TV spots, as well as his speech in Monterrey have all toned down. Wearing a slick suit and tie (as opposed to his usual more down to earth Guayaberas) and talking to the business community, López portrayed himself as a modern leftist, blaming the media for showcasing him as an “enemy of the wealthy.” One of his new soundbites states “I am not against businessmen. I am against wrongfully accumulated wealth.” López is not clear about what he means when he says that wealth is wrongfully accumulated, but he did mention a couple of specific targets as culprits: large media corporations Televisa, Telmex and TV Azteca and the PRI and PAN bureaucrats.
López accused Televisa and TV Azteca of controlling the news, limiting his exposure and pushing PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto as their candidate in order to maintain control of Mexico. In his words, Peña Nieto is “the candidate of the power monopoly.”
Mexico received some excellent news recently when the World Economic Forum (WEF) published its Global Competitiveness Report, calling attention to the fact that the country has made significant progress in improving its relative position in the world competitiveness rankings.
From last year to the 2011-2012 ranking, Mexico moved from 66to 58 place, an eight-spot improvement. Only seven other countries had a larger jump in the list. As competitiveness expert Beñat Bilbao explains, “(this variation) is very relevant. Fluctuations from year to year tend to be very low.”
Besides drops suffered by other countries closely competing with Mexico, such as the Russian Federation, Jordan and the Slovak Republic, Mexico’s improvement in the ranking results from progress made in efforts to boost competition and facilitate entrepreneurship by reducing the number of procedures and the time it takes to start a business. The report also mentions Mexico’s large internal market size, sound macroeconomic policies, technological adoption, and a decent transport infrastructure as helping it to move up in the WEF Report.
This is no doubt a great triumph for President Calderón. He has continuously boasted over TV messages and radio spots that his administration has invested more resources than previous governments into improving federal bridges and highways in Mexico. Calderón has also been vocal about an open market economy and sound financial policies as key ways to face the global economic crisis. According to WEF, he’s on the right track.
Mexico suffered the criminal attack with the highest number of civilian casualties in its near history recently as a group of 10 to 12 armed men entered the two-story Casino Royale in the city of Monterrey, doused it with a flammable liquid and threw Molotov cocktails in the first floor. The exact details are still sketchy and the real death toll might never be established (there are inconsistencies in numbers reported by authorities, witness accounts and morgue registries) but unofficially the number is above 50, most of them women. The full motive behind the attack will probably never be determined, but the local media’s investigative reports point toward non-compliance with a criminal gang that had demanded a cut of the business’ profits in exchange for “protection.”
Gruesome as the attack was, the reason for the elevated number of victims sadly has more to do with institutionalized corruption than with the criminal act itself. Survivors to this tragedy have testified that other than the main entrance to the establishment (which was blocked by the attackers), four non-labelled service doors were locked and the only supposed emergency exit to the place was fake and had a concrete wall behind it. The amount of suffering and emotions the victims must have felt when they thought they would be able to escape the fire and faced a wall in front of them, is horribly unimaginable.
Casino Royale received its license to operate as a restaurant and betting house in 2007, during the administration of Mayor Adalberto Madero, who in 2011 was officially kicked out of the PAN party for corruption charges and tainting the party’s image (he was later reinstated due to a technicality). Ironically enough, Rodrigo, José Francisco and Ramón Agustín Madero (Adalberto’s cousins) are members of the administrative board of the company that owns Casino Royale.
The matter becomes worse when we learn that during 2011 the establishment had already been subject to two other criminal attacks; the venue was not shut down permanently after the follow-up investigations even though it was not up to code. As if that wasn’t enough, videos showing Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal’s brother going into the Casino and suspiciously receiving wads of cash in cell phone boxes were leaked by the local and national media, furthering social outrage.
Today, a city and a whole country continues to mourn. Frustration is at an all-time high and is manifesting itself in different ways. On Twitter users heightened their continued demands for both Larrazabal and Governor Rodrigo Medina to resign. The local soccer teams held minutes of silence before their recent games. Masses honoring the victims have been held and peace rallies are the current talk of the town, though actual turnout has been surprisingly low.
The anarchist group known as ITS (Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje or “Individual actions bordering on being savage” as it would roughly translate in English) gained notoriety in Mexico on Monday (August 8) when they claimed responsibility for a home-made explosive device that detonated in the hands of Tec de Monterrey Estado de México professor Armando Herrera Corral on the first day of school of this semester. A second device was found in another university (Instituto Politécnico Nacional) the next day; luckily authorities were able to remove and defuse it.
Through its blog “Liberación Total” ITS claims that it is an organization against all forms of domination. Radical language against the neoliberal model is of course included, with the usual blurb about the United States dominating the world, cultural and economic imperialism, etc. ITS states that nanotechnology will lead to the downfall of mankind and paints a fatalist picture of the future where artificial intelligence will take over and control mankind. Tempting as it may seem, we really shouldn’t blame Arnold Schwarzenegger and those Terminator movies for the existence of this group.
In the communiqué where they claim responsibility for the attack at Tec de Monterrey, ITS denounces universities in Mexico, claiming they “aim to prepare minds that don’t only want a piece of paper that credits their studies, but to graduate people who truly contribute to scientific knowledge and development of nanobiotechnology, in order to obtain what the system ultimately wants: total domination of everything which is potentially free.” They go on to say that scientists who claim to be investigating benefits for all of mankind are lying to us and that their true intentions are purely based on self-indulgence. The cherry on top is an isolated line in between paragraphs : “No matter what they say, Ted Kaczynski was right.”
Last week, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) ruled that military personnel accused of human rights abuses will no longer be court-martialed and will now face a civil trial. Though the decision might seem like a triumph for human rights activists, a much larger problem looms behind this smoke screen.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war against drug cartels has increasingly involved the use of Mexico’s military. In hot spots like Nuevo Laredo, the military police has virtually assumed all of the law enforcement responsibilities, after 900 local transit and police officers were suspended pending toxicology exams and criminal investigations. And it doesn’t end there. Soldiers are posted in virtually all conflict-ridden areas in the country, cracking down on drug cartels in order to pursue a safer country where local law enforcement has proven ineffective.
This is all the more intriguing because in Mexico, ensuring domestic civil security is not part of the military’s responsibility. They have filled this gap due to their sworn allegiance to the President—one that they have not threatened to overrun since they committed to Mexico’s first post-revolution civilian government under Miguel Alemán in 1946.
The legislature and the SCJ have argued that since the military has essentially taken over control of policing local conflict areas in Mexico, military personnel should not be exempt from civil law and “protected” by military proceedings. It is unfortunate, however, that those in the lawmaking and justice system apparently have no knowledge of regional history or applied comparative politics.
It’s a common challenge in all of Latin America: run-down public school systems are insufficient, inadequate and outdated. Specifically in Mexico, negligence regarding education has widened the divide between the nation’s poorest and richest, leaving little hope for children graduating from public schools actually making a name for themselves and growing out of poverty. Mexico spends a larger portion of its GDP (about 5 percent) than countries like Uruguay, Chile and China, but it’s not about the amount of money spent. It’s the quality of education provided.
Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education (SEP) continues taking one step forward and two steps back in this regard, mainly hindered by its inability to negotiate with the ever-combatant teacher’s union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or SNTE) which has become a mob of ramblers who’ve taken education hostage.
The most recent news regarding the eroding quality of our school system is an agreement reached by the SEP and SNTE on filling new teaching positions. This year the Ministry of Education and the SNTE (led by Elba Esther Gordillo) declared that candidates will be eligible to become teachers if they pass a meager 30 percent of questions on the Examen Nacional de Habilidades y Conocimientos Docentes (National Test on Teaching Skills and Knowledge).
Ironically students in Mexico need to get 70 percent or higher to pass each subject. This, however, does not seem to bother José García, a member of the Comisión Rectora de la Alianza por la Calidad de la Educación (Guiding Commission of the Alliance for the Quality of Education) of the SNTE, who blatantly defends the policies. “It’s the students who need to show they know to subject matter, not the teachers,” he says. Crazy as this may sound.
The situation of widespread violence in our border states stemming from drug cartel wars and the federal government’s attempt to combat them is well known. But I would like to share a story of success that truly symbolizes the strength we can find in social unity when coping with the present state of instability.
The people of Monterrey (located in the northeastern part of Mexico) used to consider the southern part of Texas both their playground and their place for shopping. Even after NAFTA made most consumer products readily available within Mexico, the custom of taking a weekend trip to the Rio Grande Valley or destinations such as San Antonio, Austin or Corpus Christi remained.
That is, until people became too afraid to travel on the Mexican highways near the border. The past couple of years have seen a sharp decline in tourists willing to risk their lives to pass through towns like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Río Bravo, and Matamoros—all overrun by the cartels. In Monterrey, too, people are less willing to be out on the town after hours. They are afraid of being caught in the middle of a fight between rivaling cartels or criminals and authorities.
However, due to the proliferation of new social media (specifically Twitter) people are now better equipped to cope with their fears. Local anonymous heroes have emerged and created accounts such as @TrackMty, @SPSeguro and @MAGS_SP that are used to warn people about risk zones and specific attacks in real time. Each citizen who follows these users becomes a non-official reporter. And with the widespread popular response to these new accounts, the result is eyes and ears everywhere of people willing to invest a couple of minutes to warn others of danger and lessen the possibilities of innocent people being caught in the crossfire.
Despite efforts from various U.S. congressmen to convince their peers that Mexican drug cartels should be classified as terrorist organizations operating within the United States, the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) recently decided against it. In doing so, the U.S. administration missed out on yet another opportunity to show resolve in the fight against binational drug-related crime and violence.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón continues a full frontal assault against the cartels, recently deploying a larger contingent of soldiers to border towns, but the U.S. government apparently has other priorities and/or larger problems to deal with.
The Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego writes in its most recent Justice in Mexico report that according to DHS Office of Anti-terrorism Director Grayling Williams, “the mechanisms and laws already in place in the U.S. to deal with drug trafficking are sufficient and the proposed terrorist classification would be unnecessary.”
Although there is no universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism, the key message behind this decision has less to do with defining the term and more to do with how the government agencies are willing to deal with this growing problem. Classifying Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations would set a clear agenda on fighting the drug trade. It would also open up a series of procurement processes for projects combating the issue both within Mexico and the United States.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) refused to accept defeat in the 2006 Mexican presidential race, causing chaos, dividing our citizenry with messages of hate and tolerating violence from his supporters. But it seems Mexico is ready to give him another try at the top seat of government.
When he ran in 2006, López Obrador was able to rally together practically all leftist factions and political parties. However, the election aftermath and López Obrador’s shift toward extremism caused many of his supporters to abandon him and to look for a more rational social discourse. López Obrador’s current inability to maintain consensus even within his own political party is one of the main reasons why today the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) is a weakened organization and keeps juggling with on-and-off alliances with its offspring (Partido del Trabajo, Convergencia, Partido Social Demócrata, and other small political parties).
Since the PRD would not institutionally carry him, López Obrador recently created a new platform, called the Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement), or Morena for short, which coincidentally translates to “dark-skinned woman” and is a reference to the Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgen Morena). Through Morena, López Obrador is once again appealing to the disheartened lower classes and sowing seeds of division with over-simplified, anti-business messages.
The recent news published by The New York Times on unmanned drone planes doing reconnaissance flights over Mexican territory has already spurred aggressive reactions by the legislative opposition to Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, or PAN). Practically in unison, civil society is responding to these reactions and sending a message to Congress: get your head out of the gutter and do something for our country.
The Times article stated that Calderón and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed earlier this month to continue allowing surveillance flights over Mexico, collecting information and turning it over to Mexican law enforcement authorities. The report also discusses a “counternarcotics fusion center” already operational in Mexico City and the possibility of a second one being established in the near future.
Gearing up for federal elections, political parties like Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD), Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) and Partido del Trabajo (Labor Party, or PT) jumped at the opportunity to accuse Calderón of violating Mexican law by allowing drone flights.
Felipe Calderón is changing the rules of the game for fighting corruption. Earlier this month, Calderón announced a series of initiatives targeting corrupt practices in public service and for the first time, providing rewards to whistleblowers and citizens who provide information leading to identification of these practices.
Mexico’s President recognized that “the depth at which corruption has penetrated our society is a problem we can no longer permit.” These types of declarations, which candidly and honestly recognize our fragile state, are unbecoming of what we are accustomed to hear from him.
Possibly wanting to shift public discourse away from the violence and crime dialogue (which is obviously linked to corruption), Calderón talked about this new legal framework and what it looks to achieve in more economic terms: “we must not allow corruption to continue hurting Mexicans, reducing our competitiveness or blocking our country’s ability to grow.”
Amidst growing national concern and international coverage of the violence in Mexico, a bit of news on the macroeconomic scale talks wonders of our country’s capabilities to overcome even the biggest obstacles.
Last week, Bloomberg ran a story on Mexico being the second economy in Latin America to bounce back from the 2009 recession with the highest pace of growth in the last decade. Our economy expanded by 5.5 percent in 2010.
Granted, it is not China’s double digit performance. But for a country that is largely dependent on an economic relationship with the our neighbor to the north—80.5 percent of our trade is with the United States—and is still facing important trade challenges, the GDP expansion at a 0.2 percent rate larger than expected for the fourth quarter of 2010 is excellent news. In a way, it is also good news for the United States. It shows that consumer spending is recovering in spite of the housing situation and the still present issue of unemployment (9 percent in January).
This week, while participating in a university event in the Dominican Republic, former President Vicente Fox went out on a limb and pointed his finger toward Colombia and Venezuela for presumably being culprits in Mexico’s drug-cartel violence problem.
Ignoring the basic economic principle that demand drives production, Fox ridiculed himself by saying that Mexico’s challenges in combating drug-related violence are mainly due to the fact that “Colombia continues to produce way too many drugs. And Venezuela continues to make it easy to smuggle drugs.”
Reminding us of the fact that during his presidential term, diplomatic ties between Mexico and Venezuela were severed, Fox went on to say that “it seems that there is an association between Hugo Chávez and the drug cartels. This is what happens when someone loses the compass of democracy. Such is the case of Hugo Chávez, who has lost his head.”
The auditing firm Ernst & Young recently surprised all of Mexico (and possibly the world) with the results published in their “Winning in a polycentric world” report, which ranks economies based on their level of globalization.
In this ranking, which EY coordinates with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) think tank, Mexico is placed in a very respectable #36, surpassing China (39) Japan (42) and Brazil (46) among others as “most globalized.” Hong Kong, Ireland and Singapore rank at the top of the index. The United States does not fare are well as one would expect, placed as #28, only 8 slots from its neighbor to the south.
Why does the Ernst & Young report throw out these unexpected figures and why is it so important? Granted, there are many types of studies and rankings that provide different lists. However, what makes “Winning in a polycentric world” a very relevant report and an important piece to further study, is the fact that this is one of the few reports that measures globalization in relative terms, linked to the size of the economy measured by GDP. This is done to some extent, in order to level the playing field.
The report has 20 indicators grouped under five broad categories: movement of goods and services, movement of capital and finance, exchange of technology and ideas, movement of labor and cultural integration. Thanks mostly to strengthened economic ties (mostly fueled by NAFTA) and improvements in our financial and banking systems, Mexico gets high points for trade and movement of capital. If these were the only variables to analyze, the report would paint a profitable future for Mexico. However, the category in which the country gets its lowest grades is technology and innovation and that is very bad news.
In the book As the Future Catches You, Juan Enriquez Cabot makes a strong case for the importance of innovation and harvesting ideas as opposed to relying on commodities and primary resources to boost an economy. He looks at where most of the added value in the supply chain lies in answering the question “how can countries rich in natural resources get so poor during this century?”. Enriquez wrote the book more than 10 years ago but we can prove he was right when we see Hong Kong, Ireland and Singapore at the top of Ernst & Young’s rankings mostly due to their ability to turn a profit without large natural resources.
In Mexico, most medium-size and large companies provide their employees vales de despensa, or grocery coupons, as part of their monthly benefits to workers. These were originally instituted to provide tax breaks to both businesses and individuals. The value of grocery coupons is not declared as part of one’s personal income (so it is not taxed) but in most cases, it does account for a significant amount of money. Vales de despensa are an accepted form of currency in supermarkets, gas stations and even restaurants.
Now, this week, the Diario de la Federación (Official government gazette) announced that our Federal Congress published yet more proof of their nearsightedness by issuing a new law regulating the use of vales de despensa, the Ley de Ayuda Alimentaria para los Trabajadores. As part of its undeclared war on big business (proof of which is in every recent tax reform), Congress decided to restrict the use of vales de despensa and prohibit the purchase of alcohol and tobacco with this currency (Article 12, section II).
For people with a small cash flow, this inherently means that government is making it even harder for them to exercise their free will and purchase what they please in a grocery store. Government already has a special tax for alcohol and tobacco, which came into effect on January 1, 2011, and forced price increases in these products (transfering the tax imposition directly to customers). In cigarettes for example, this new tax implied a 25 percent price increase from one day to the next. It is self-explanatory that the intention is for government to try to squeeze the most it can from its captive tax contributors (as opposed to actually doing something about the other 90 percent of the people who evade taxes and/or are part of the informal economy).
The “healthy diet” excuse does not hold ground, at least in the case of alcohol. Countless studies (here’s one) from international scientists have proven time and time again that in moderation, alcohol can actually make your heart stronger and improve your memory. Obesity, caused by lack of exercise and the ingestion of junk food, and not alcohol, is Mexico’s top health concern today. If Congress wanted to be logical about it, they would have taxed certain food products including maize and corn tortillas (which by the way are part of our subsidized foods). A better physical education program in public schools would also do a lot more in favor of combating obesity than further restricting the purchase of a bottle of red wine.
The Secretaría de Educación Pública or SEP (Ministry of Education) in Mexico has traditionally been known for being slow, over-bureaucratized and square-minded. Low quality levels are reflected year after year through a series of international comparative studies. One need only consult the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to see in disgust how Mexico’s constant is to come up last in the OCDE countries year after year.
Vidal Garza, a friend and editorialist for a major newspaper in Mexico, writes that the problem is even more apparent when you look at the amount of money we spend on our public schools: “Mexico invests 5 percent of its GDP on public education. The average annual expense per student in elementary school is $1,604, yet we fare deficiently in PISA. We do worse than Uruguay, Chile and China, which actually spend a lot less per student.”
To make things worse, The SEP (and Mexico as a whole) is in a constant battle with the SNTE, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, a corrupt teacher’s union that promotes strikes and teacher absenteeism as a the means to advance a political agenda. SNTE has filled our public schools with undedicated, unqualified and mediocre people who should not even have the honor of being called “teacher.” Granted, this is a generalization but a real one. I have met a couple of very good teachers in the public system; unfortunately today they are a rare breed.
It is no secret that we need to improve productivity in terms of education in Mexico. That’s why I was pleased to see a spark of progressive thinking on the part of SEP when I learned that they will be instituting a program to identify overachievers and children with higher intellectual proficiency in elementary schools with the intent to “credit, promote and advance them” in an accelerated manner. For example, if a child in 3rd grade shows the intellectual capacity of a 6th grader, the program will identify, prepare and eventually advance him/her to a 6th grade classroom. SEP estimates that around 10 percent to 15 percent of kids could benefit from this program.
Mexico is the second most corrupt country in Latin America. That’s not an award countries usually strive for but it is, according to UNAM’s Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales (the National University’s Social Research Institute, or IIS), the disgraceful situation Mexico finds itself in at the start of 2011.
On January 3, UNAM released a press package in which they declared that according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and the Latinbarómetro indicators, Mexico is only led by Haiti as the most corrupt nation in the region. IIS’s Corruption and Transparency Research Coordinator Irma Eréndira Sandoval Ballesteros explained that throughout Latin America “Mexicans are considered extremely corrupt in terms of public and private practices.”
TI’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index report explains that 75 percent of people believe that Mexico’s corruption has increased in the last three years. Political parties, police, Congress, and the judiciary top the list of corrupt institutions in our country (considered extremely corrupt), followed by media, businesses, organized religion and NGOs.
Sandoval Ballesteros reported that while the 2003 creation and further strengthening of IFAI (Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos, Federal Institute for Information Access and Data Protection) has been a significant progress in terms to access to information, transparency has done little in battling corruption and has been marginally useful in creating a public conscience. In her own words, “if Mexico is not a leading nation in political and economic terms, it is because corruption has not allowed it and has become an obstacle to possible progress.”