The penal system does not work; criminals that do jail time do not reform. We’ve heard these arguments in Mexico before—and for the most part, they seem to be true.
Stories abound of drug lords continuing to run their operations from within their cells by using unauthorized mobile phones, and of youth that are imprisoned for minor crimes, only to turn into full-blown criminals once they enter the penal system.
However, one case in Baja California sheds a beacon of light that could be a sign of better things to come in the Mexican penitentiary system.
Pedro Antonio Gerardo Acosta is a 29-year-old inmate in the El Hongo jail near the city of Tecate in Baja California, serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping. This convicted criminal also recently obtained the highest score in the country on the national academic test for higher education (public and private), administered by the Centro Nacional de Evaluación para la Educación Superior A.C. (National Evaluation Center for Higher Education—CENEVAL).
Gerardo Acosta is one of the first inmates to graduate from a pilot program run by the Baja California State Penitentiary and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), which allows people serving a sentence in El Hongo to receive higher education while incarcerated. Along with Gerardo Acosta’s amazing achievement, two of his inmate classmates also received special recognition for outstanding academic performance in 2013.
Monterrey, one of the largest cities in Mexico, has recently become a hotspot for criminal activity and host to a number of violent incidents. An ambitious urban development initiative, however, is set to change the city’s deteriorating reputation.
Seventy years ago, an institution that transformed the educational system in Mexico was born, Tec de Monterrey, an icon of entrepreneurial spirit and industrial development success based in the city of Monterrey. Dubbed by many of its alumni as the “MIT of Latin America”, Tec was founded in 1943 by Don Eugenio Garza Sada, an MIT graduate himself.
Tec de Monterrey is much more than a university, it is a nation-wide system of high school, university and post-graduate campuses with a common mission: to develop human and professional potential in its students. Its headquarters and most important campus is the Campus Monterrey, located in the valley of the famous Cerro de la Silla of southern Monterrey, an area that has hosted violence, including the tragic deaths of two students in a 2010 shooting.
However, Tec de Monterrey recently presented a 500 million dollar urban development project which will, among other things, reclaim public spaces of 17 neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Monterrey Campus. The money funding the project will come predominately from donations and proceeds from the annual Sorteo Tec, a lottery system similar to state-run lotteries, that is privately organized by Tec de Monterrey.
Narcocorridos—songs that celebrate drug dealers as folk heroes—have been a part of Mexican culture for as long as the illicit activity has existed in the country. Attempts to censor them from reaching radio airwaves have triggered debates over freedom of speech, as well as outcries from the more liberal media.
But as a recent concert in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán, shows, there is a fine line between painting a pretty picture of criminality and actually engaging in direct support for organized crime groups that have brought parts of Mexico to unmanageable levels of violence.
The state of Michoacán has been in the spotlight for almost a year now, due to a complete degradation of the rule of law. A clashing arena for a number of criminal organizations including the Familia Michoacana, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Zetas and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), Michoacán is a case study where criminality has grown larger than the state itself.
They might be taking their cues from legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was famous for helping out numerous communities in Colombia and donating parks and recreation centers to unprivileged communities. Or maybe they’re inspired by the legend of Jesús Malverde, the so-called narco-saint folk hero from Sinaloa, sometimes seen as a Mexican version of Robin Hood. On the other hand, they may feel threatened by the “self-defense” groups spawning in Michoacán and Colima—civil vigilante groups that have taken up arms against the cartels after declaring that local authorities are unable or unwilling to tackle organized crime battles head-on.
For whatever reason, drug cartels in different parts of Mexico took to the streets this holiday season in order to “give back,” and—ironic as it may sound— spread holiday cheer.
In the southern state of Oaxaca the impoverished communities of Viguera, Bugambilia and Calicanto were surprised on Three Kings Day (January 6) with bundles of toys, which mysteriously appeared in different points of the city, some with signs explaining that they were left there “so that people can see that the Zetas support humble people. ” Not surprisingly, these images did not make it into mainstream national media but were shared via Twitter.
The eerie irony behind these charitable acts is that the Zetas are known for being one of the most cold-blooded criminal groups of the country, often resorting to torture and public displays of their victims.
In the midst of a heated national debate on political reform, December 4 marked a milestone in Mexico’s electoral politics, as the upper house of Congress voted on legislation modifying 29 articles in the country’s constitution to allow consecutive re-election for mayoral and legislative positions.
Re-election will go into effect in 2018, and will allow mayors to run for two consecutive terms, while legislators can run for the same position for up to 12 years—though they’re required to run under the same political party they originally ran under. (This raises a number of questions regarding officials running under flimsy party alliances, which come and go faster than the seasons.) The president of Mexico and the mayor of Mexico City will be limited to serving one six-year term, however.
One of Mexico’s most ingrained mottos, born during the Revolution, has been “Effective Suffrage; No Re-election.” Back then, it was understandable that the country would unite under such a slogan, as the revolutionary objective was to overthrow Porfírio Diaz’ 31- year presidential tenure (with only one four-year break from 1880 to 1884).
Since then, however, political life in Mexico has evolved in ways in which allowing re-election could be positive.
“Women are not doing well because they want to do it all. They want to study, go out and get a job and be housewives as well. Well, that is really difficult to achieve.”
These were recent and controversial words spoken by Ricardo Salinas Pliego, president of Grupo Salinas and owner of TV Azteca, one of the two television media conglomerates in the country. Salinas made the remarks during the Mexico Cumbre de Negocios (Mexico Business Summit) on October 20-22.
Salinas went on to say that women should receive a salary from their husbands “so that their work at home as caretakers […] is monetized and better valued.”
Unfortunately, his ignorant point of view on gender equality is not as unusual in Mexico as some may think. Even in this day and age, many talented Mexican women face such myopic views as an obstacle to their professional development.
Given the growing number of women with advanced graduate degrees in Mexico—currently 50.4 percent, according to a recent study by the Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior (National Association of Universities and Higher Educational Institutions—ANUIES)—forward-thinking companies have begun to understand the need to tap into a talent pool they didn’t used to, given prejudices in hiring and professional development processes.
The first nine months of Peña’s administration have kept the press busy and all of the country’s eyes and ears focused on what will happen next. He’s been characterized as bold, action-oriented and dynamic but clearly, not a team player.
He was celebrated by many (yours truly included) in February when he presented an ambitious and much needed education reform but disappointed just as many after having this effort easily thwarted by militant and disgruntled unionized teachers from the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which has taken Mexico City hostage in the last week to avoid needed secondary laws to enact the reform passing through Congress.
The inability to prevent and the lack of resolve to disperse a non-justified blockage of Congress as well as a blockade of the city’s main arteries—including those giving access to the airport and the Zócalo—has proven once again that political leaders are making decisions not based on the greater good, the rule of law or the citizenry’s interests, but on a political agenda serviced by interest groups holding more power than they should and unable to cooperate with each other.
Mismanagement of this situation could soon spark violence and create a larger-than-ideological divide. The affected citizenry in Mexico City will only stand so much. In a recent poll by BCG-Excelsior, 52 percent of Mexicans stated that they are so fed up with the CNTE’s irrational resistance to the education reform and their militant actions that they would justify use of public force to disperse the picketers.
And while the teachers take to the streets, both Peña Nieto and the city’s government cower from taking necessary action because of the political cost it would imply. Mexico City is not the only thing that’s paralyzed because of this—a broken education system puts the nation’s future talent pool at risk.
The other current hot topic in the president’s agenda is energy reform. As recently described by Christian Gomez on AS/COA, “the proposal includes constitutional changes that would open up Pemex, the 75-year-old state oil monopoly, to profit-sharing contracts and foreign investment.”
This new notion of natural resources no longer belonging exclusively to the nation poses a huge shift in paradigm. Reactions from the nation’s Left include accusations related to autonomy, national patrimony and the role of government vs. private investors in extraction and having access to revenues from one of the nation’s most important sources of income. The opposition understands that PEMEX’s inefficiencies and the plague of corruption need to be addressed, but they propose that a problem should not be fixed by creating another one.
One of the most respected voices from the Left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, has recently stated that both PEMEX and CFE (federal electricity company) can become highly productive without having to edit the Constitution and without allow foreign and/or private hands in the nation’s riches. If national patrimony is challenged due to reforms to articles 27 and 28 of the Mexican Constitution, Cárdenas has warned he would call for nationwide protests and he would even take to the streets along with López Obrador’s Morena (National Regeneration) movement.
Given its current party composition, Peña can easily get approval for the energy reform in Congress but he would be naïve to think that this is the only hurdle he needs to jump and he is doing a terrible job at trying to get public buy-in to this proposal through vague infographics on TV.
If there is a possibility for effective energy reform, an open and inclusive debate needs to take place. This topic is not one that his team should be discussing behind closed doors and the hard questions will require real answers, not 20-second TV spots.
Peña’s government has been characterized by a “my way or the highway” attitude, which is an easier temptation to fall into than trying to build consensus in a country as complex and fragmented as Mexico. This dictatorial style is only possible because of the fact that PRI has a stellar position both in Congress and in the State governments to push its agenda forward, something neither former Presidents Fox nor Calderón had. However, Peña would do well in understanding that his constituency is not limited to the political parties or even the power elites.
Organized teachers have already proven what they can do in Mexico City given enough motivation. Sparked by national patrimony rhetoric, larger, non-organized social mobilizations could easily flare up in different key cities in Mexico and cause larger havoc. As former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza recently wrote, “these red flags, so to speak, are especially relevant given the influence and disruptive potential of many of today's social movements. The eruption of mass street protests in Brazil is just one recent example of a government being forced to change direction on a policy initiative and find a way to rapidly and constructively respond to the desires, often inchoate, of a newly emboldened and empowered population. It's a cautionary tale that begins with frustration and finds expression in mass action.”
Even when theoretically, Peña could powerball his reforms forward, both him and the PRI need to wake up and understand that they cannot be the only voice to determine the nation’s destiny. Vargas Llosa sarcastically called the previous PRI era “the perfect dictatorship” but today’s Mexico will not stand for a return of that so-called “perfect” model. Peña needs to learn to play well with others.
Yes, you read that title correctly. The small municipality of San Agustín Amatengo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca has recently attracted national attention due to what is likely the strangest story in electoral politics in the country.
On July 7, Lenin Carballido, the candidate from a Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN)-Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD)-Partido del Trabajo (Labor Party—PT) coalition, raised his arms in victory after winning the race for municipal president (mayor).
But this should have been impossible: an official death certificate announced Carballido’s demise in 2010 from a diabetic coma.
As national newspaper REFORMA reports, the story is even more complex because investigations suggest that Carballido faked his own death to avoid facing charges of gang-raping a 30-year-old woman in the capital city of Oaxaca in March 2004.
On October 12, 2010, a judge issued a warrant for Carballido’s arrest based on “unequivocal proof that the subject at hand [Carballido], using physical violence, assisted by others and against her will, raped [the woman, whose name was withdrawn].” However, the charges were dropped when a public defender informed the judge that Carballido had died that September and thus, could not be apprehended.
Less than three years later, Carballido was healthy enough to run an effective political campaign and narrowly beat his opponent, Alfredo Jiménez Ordaz, a candidate supported by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) and Partido Verde Ecologista de México (Green Ecologist Party of Mexico—PVEM). Granted, Carballido only beat Jiménez by 11 votes—but it was an impressive result for a guy who had supposedly died three years earlier.
On June 4, the Mexican Army raided a house in the border town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas and rescued 165 people being held against their will by a 20-year-old identified as Juan Cortez Arrez. Testimonies from some of the victims show that they had been kidnapped for nearly three weeks.
News of their rescue has drawn praise for Mexico’s armed forces, which responded to an anonymous call and implemented an operation that resulted in zero casualties and one arrest. However, this event should also serve to bring attention to a problem which has become graver in recent years: trafficking in persons (TIP).
The group rescued comprised 77 Salvadorans, 50 Guatemalans, 23 Hondurans, one Indian, and 14 Mexicans, all of whom had contacted a supposed “pollero” (a person who assists unauthorized immigrants in crossing the border) in the hopes of reaching the United States. The pollero was really a member of a criminal gang who had other plans for the group.
After the rescue, the Mexican government’s spokesperson for national security, Eduardo Sánchez Hernández, stated that many aspiring migrants end up “being delivered to the hands of criminal organizations,” rather than taken safely across the border. These criminal groups then use their captives for sexual trafficking and prostitution, forced labor, as drug mules, and—as the narcofosas (clandestine mass graves) tragically show—execute kidnapping victims in initiation rituals of new gang members. In 2011, 236 bodies were discovered in narcofosas in the border town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Granted, there is no proof that all of the victims were intended migrants and some might have been killed in other gang-related activities, including inter-cartel wars, but the problem remains.
Human trafficking is not new to Mexico, but it was not until 2004 that the first anti-trafficking in persons law was passed, making this activity a crime punishable by up to 18 years of incarceration. In 2008, the Attorney General’s office created the Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia Contra Las Mujeres y Trata de Personas (FEVIMTRA), a special prosecutor’s team designated to work on crimes against women and human trafficking and whose members have received training from international outfits specializing in these matters. And last year, then-President Felipe Calderón passed a new law making femicide a crime punishable by up to 60 years in jail. Some radio ad campaigns have been launched at a national level to focus on prevention.
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.