Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Looking Back on 2010 and Mexico's 'Year That Was'

The year 2010 is now behind us.  The arrival of a new calendar year often brings with it reflection upon the year which has just passed.

In the case of Mexico, what happened in 2010?

The ongoing drug cartel war raged on, with more casualties than ever before.  The official narco war death count for 2010 was 12,456, though another source put it at 15,000 plus. Either way, it’s horrendous.

The drug war was one of the topics commented upon in the U.S. diplomatic dispatches released by WikiLeaks. 

In the quoted cables, not originally intended for public consumption, U.S. and Mexican diplomats and officials asserted that the Mexican government’s campaign against the drug cartels was lacking a clear strategy, and that there is a turf war between Mexican security agencies.  U.S.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was concerned with how the stress of it all affects Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s “personality and management style.”  Mexico’s corruption and low prosecution rate were discussed, and the Merida Initiative was said to be cobbled together too quickly to be effective.

The Mexican Army was reported to be too slow, risk-averse and not taking advantage of intel received from the U.S.  On the other hand, the Mexican Navy received high marks in its performance.  Overall, though, the assessment of the Mexican cartel war in the WikiLeaks was not positive.

Nevertheless, there was good news in Mexico on the job creation front. In calendar year 2010 there were 850,000 jobs created in the formal economy. This is significant and hopefully can be sustained. It’s been estimated that about a million Mexicans enter the work force annually. As of 2007, the report was that a third of the new job seekers entered the formal economy, a third entered the informal economy (which isn’t taxed) and a third emigrated. The 850,000 figure thus goes a long way towards closing the employment gap in Mexico. That’s good news indeed.

Illegal aliens from Central American countries that are poorer than Mexico continue to cross Mexican territory with the goal of reaching the U.S.A.  In 2010 the government of Mexico deported 70,000 illegal aliens, 93% of them from Central America.  Many illegal aliens were robbed, raped, kidnapped or killed by criminals, sometimes with the collusion of Mexican officials.  Amnesty International released a scathing report on the situation entitled “Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico,” which describes a major humanitarian disaster.  In the month of August, 72 illegal aliens were massacred at one site, apparently by the Zetas, in northeastern Tamaulipas state.

During the year 2010, the world’s attention was drawn to the spectacular rescue of 33 trapped miners in Chile.  In Mexico, this brought back bitter memories and an unfavorable contrast with the disaster at the Pasta de Conchos mine in northern Mexico, in 2006.  The contrast, however, wasn’t entirely fair, as they were two different kinds of mines and two different types of mine disasters.  The Pasta de Conchos situation, however, had been very poorly handled.  Be that as it may, mining is still, in the 21st century, a dangerous occupation.

Same-sex marriage, legalized by the government of the Federal District (Mexico City) in December of 2009, came into effect in March of 2010.  The law was opposed by the Mexican federal government.  The dispute went all the way to the 11-member Mexican Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court upheld the Mexico City same-sex marriage law as being constitutional.  It also decreed that same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City are valid marriages throughout all of Mexico, though the court did not require Mexican states to perform their own same-sex marriages.

In the world of sports, Mexico’s soccer team competed in the World Cup in South Africa, heavily covered by the Mexican media.  The Mexican team was eliminated in the second round.  Spain's team ultimately won the Cup, defeating the Netherlands 1-0 in extra time (overtime).

The past year also saw the retirement of Mexican Lorena Ochoa, the world’s #1 woman golfer.

And, in the year 2010, Mexico celebrated its dual Independence Bicentennial and Revolution Centennial.  The Bicentennial celebrated the beginning, in 1810, of the movement which became the Independence movement.  The Centennial celebrated the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

Gang's terror felt far from drug war on US border

A priest who shelters stranded migrants needs police protection. A chopped-up body turns up with a threatening message. Beheadings are on the rise. The local press is too frightened to write about any of it.

This is not northern Mexico, where drug gangs fight for turf along the U.S. border and the Mexican government wages an open battle against them. This is the south, where the brutal Zetas cartel is quietly spreading a reign of terror virtually unchallenged, all the way to the border with Guatemala — and across it.

Just as they have done in the north, groups claiming to be Zetas have set up criminal networks to control transit routes for drugs, migrants and contraband such as pirated DVDS, intimidating the populace and committing gruesome murders as an example to the uncooperative.

Four years ago they started preying on the south, Mexico's poorest region. They moved into Oaxaca, Chiapas and other southern states and then northern Guatemala, where attacks on townspeople became so commonplace that the government last month sent in 300 troops to regain control of the border province of Alta Verapaz.

In towns on the Oaxacan isthmus and the center of Oaxaca city, the capital, the wealthy as well as street vendors and migrants have been kidnapped and subjected to extortion.

Then last month, the gang blamed for massacring 72 migrants in the summer in the northern state of Tamaulipas became suspects in the disappearance of more than 40 Central American migrants in Oaxaca. The abduction drew international attention when the El Salvadoran foreign ministry reported the crime, but the Mexican government initially denied it happened.

The travelers were last seen Dec. 16 near the city of Ixtepec, along the sun-scorched transit route for thousands riding northbound freight trains. Twenty escaped and took refuge at a migrant shelter run by the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, who says he has learned the kidnappers have ties to the Zetas.

The Mexican Attorney General's Office announced the arrest this month of a Nicaraguan and a Mexican on suspicion of being involved, but said nothing about Zetas or the missing migrants.

The Mexicans say the Zetas have hired Guatemalan former counterinsurgency soldiers to train new recruits, and a Zetas training camp for hit men was uncovered on the Guatemalan border last year.

Alejandro Poire, Mexico's government spokesman for security issues, said the reported scope of Zetas activity in southern Mexico is hardly comparable to the turf battle raging between the Zetas and their competitors in the north, where a split from their former employers, the Gulf Cartel, has sparked regular grenade attacks and daylight shootouts.

But to Solalinde, the Zetas "are a terrible de facto power."

"Unfortunately, we have a very corrupt country, with law enforcement agencies infiltrated" by organized crime, the priest said.

Four days after Solalinde reported the kidnapping and named the Zetas, he was visited by a burly, shaven-headed man whom police identified as a known hit man.

Police now patrol outside the shelter of unfinished cinderblock rooms, where migrants sleep on cardboard or blankets and stray dogs and cats wander about.

"There is danger," Solalinde said. "But imagine if every single person in Mexico kept silent, if all looked the other way, if no one did anything? That would be terrible for Mexico."

The Zetas rule by fear, threatening police, city officials, journalists and anyone else who gets in their way.

In November, on a much-visited cliff overlooking the picturesque center of Oaxaca City, police found a severed head in a gift-wrapped box. A threatening message left with the head was signed "Z," apparently for Zetas.

In the Oaxacan city of Juchitan, a decapitated man was dumped by a road in November and another was found chopped up in May with a note saying he was killed for posing as a Zeta.

"There are places, cantinas, where we all know they sell drugs, where the Zetas get together. Everybody knows, but nobody does anything," said a local journalist who requested anonymity fearing reprisals.

Authorities, however, contest the notion they are doing nothing. In Chiapas state, on the Guatemala border, more than 240 local and state police officers have been fired or arrested since 2008 for having links to the Zetas, according to the state Public Safety Department.

The Zetas formed in the late 1990s from a small group of elite soldiers based in Tamaulipas who deserted to work for the Gulf drug cartel.

They earned their notoriety by becoming the first to publicly display their beheaded rivals, most infamously two police officers in April 2006 in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco. The severed heads were found on spikes outside a government building with a message signed "Z'' that said: "So that you learn to respect."

That year, the Gulf cartel, emboldened after retaining control of the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, sent the Zetas to take over the south, which they kept after their boss, Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was extradited to the U.S.

By 2008, the Zetas had operations in 28 major Mexican cities, according to an analysis by Grupo Savant, a Washington-based security think tank.

They operate unchallenged in the south, the think tank says. While other cartels are preoccupied with maintaining their Pacific coast ports and northern border transit routes, the Zetas make hundreds of millions of dollars from extortion and trafficked goods coming overland via Guatemala.

Mexico's federal government acknowledges that Zetas have no geographic concentration like other cartels and therefore have shown up in disparate parts of the country. They operate almost like franchises, sending one member to an area they want to control to recruit local criminals.

For Central Americans migrating north, there are few options but to risk their lives crossing Zetas-controlled territory.

At the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Denis Torres, a 24-year-old bricklayer from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said he set out on his journey despite his family's pleas to stay. He said he was determined to join his uncle in Miami, where he had been promised a construction job.

"You do travel in fear, thinking they can kidnap you and torture you or kill you just because you came pursuing the American dream," he said.

Migrants Link Detainees to Mexico Kidnappings, Murders

Four undocumented Central American migrants identified 10 gang members detained in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas as their kidnappers and linked them with two murders, officials said Saturday.

The Chiapas government’s prosecutor’s office for crimes against migrants reported Friday that the undocumented aliens, after being taken into custody, spotted one of their abductors at an immigration post, which led to the capture of the gang, made up of Hondurans and Salvadorans, in different parts of that southern state.

The crimes in question occurred in late 2010 in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, a place that illegal aliens typically pass through on their journey to the U.S. border, often on freight trains.

According to the victims’ story, the armed criminals boarded the freight car they were traveling in and shouted “Get down on the floor, you’re kidnapped!” and abducted 13 Central Americans on the night of Nov. 25.

They tied their hands and forced them to walk for an hour through the scrub, threatening them and hitting them with sticks. They also demanded their names and the telephone numbers of family members who would pay their ransom.

“After two attempted phone calls, they managed to speak to someone in my family, and demanded a deposit of $1,000 in a Western Union account of Elektra, because I was kidnapped in Medias Aguas, Veracruz,” one of the Hondurans said in his testimony.

The witness said that after collecting the ransom money, they took him with other migrants back to the train tracks, where the gang was holding nine hostages and where he witnessed one of the two murders.

An individual known by the alias of “El Guero,” the suspected gang leader, “ordered them to get in line, but one of them refused to obey and tried to escape,” the witness said.

“When they caught up with him, they took him to the train tracks, and El Guero ordered him killed with machetes. When he didn’t die, he went up to him, took out his gun and shot him in the head and apparently again in the side.”

The suspected criminals along with the four witnesses were handed over – under army escort – to the Vera Cruz authorities. The Chiapas government said it has dismantled gangs in its territory that were attacking migrants.

The attacks, kidnappings and murders of undocumented migrants crossing Mexico have become business as usual for criminal gangs, including Mexican drug-trafficking cartels. The collusion of corrupt public officials is suspected.

Close to 300,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to cross Mexico every year, of whom less than a third are caught. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in 2009 some 18,000 migrants were kidnapped in this country.

The abduction of at least 40 undocumented aliens in December in the southern part of the country, reported by activists, moved the United Nations to ask Mexico this week to do something about the situation.

The slaughter of 72 migrants from Central and South America two months ago by suspected drug cartel hit men also led several governments of the region to begin a dialogue with Mexico to guarantee the safety of their citizens traveling without papers to the United States.

Despite high-level meetings and the launching of a security strategy, few tangible results in migrant protection have been achieved in recent months, and activists’ protests are increasing.