Mexico: Shaken But Not Stirred to Action

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October 2, 2017: Another series of major earthquakes hit Mexico City and killed at least 400 people, most of them in the city. Like the last one in 1985 (also in September but more destructive and killing over 6,000) exposed the extent of government corruption as government financed structures (especially schools) proved far more vulnerable (because building codes were ignored) and the large government bureaucracy showed itself to be unable to cope as promised. The only exception was the military and everyone noticed that. The 1985 quake and its aftermath gave a boost to reform efforts and played a large role in eliminating 71 years of one-party (PRI) rule in Mexico in 2000.

In 2017 politicians seem to be very aware of the possibility of a repeat and are scrambling to defend themselves or, literally, run away from angry voters. Mexicans are also angry that the drug cartels seem as strong, and violent, as ever and despite a lot more politicians being prosecuted, or voted out since 1985 the corruption levels have been getting worse again.

The underlying cause of most of the problems in Mexico is corruption. Most Mexicans recognize that and back doing something about it. That has proved very difficult despite new laws and increased prosecutions and convictions of guilty officials. These epic levels of corruption can be measured. Mexico was recently rated one of the more corrupt (123 out of 176 countries) nations in the world for 2016 while neighbor United States was 18 out of 176 and Canada was nine. In 2013 Mexico was 103 out of 175 showing that the corruption has been getting worse, or at last easier to measure. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current Mexican score is 30 compared to 74 for the United States, 82 for Canada, 28 for Guatemala, 36 for El Salvador, 37 for Colombia, 40 for Brazil, 35 for Peru, 31 for Ecuador, for 17 Venezuela, 36 for Argentina, 66 for Chile, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, 40 for China, 29 for Russia, and 72 for Japan. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones.

There are other measures for comparison. Both the United States and Mexico have federal forms of government with the states having a lot of independence and power, especially financial. Mexico has 31 states and 120 million people while the U.S. has 50 states and 323 million people. Both countries have problems with state governors being so corrupt that the popular calls for investigations leads to prosecution. Thus from 2000 to 2013 nine American governors were accused of corruption and all nine were prosecuted, convicted and punished. In Mexico nearly all Mexican governors were accused of corruption but only 16 were investigated and only four were convicted and punished. Another measure of corruption is how much more difficult it is to start a business and improve your economic situation in Mexico than in the United States. This can be seen from any number of studies as well as frequent comments by legal and illegal Mexican migrants to the United States.

Another nasty side effect of corruption is intimidation or outright seizure of the media by politicians or gangsters who find their illegal activities made public. Using this intimidation approach has become a common characteristic of cartel operations in Mexico. That makes it necessary for traditional media, especially newspapers, radio and TV to comply with cartel threats because these journalists, and the places where they work are known and can be attacked. The cartels often own most of the local police and politicians, so there is no help there. Many journalists who are forced to comply with the threats go underground via the Internet. But even there they must be careful because the cartels are tech savvy and can hire hackers to discover who is reporting on what and where they are living. So even taking these extreme precautions is not enough in Mexico and about two journalists a month are still being murdered by gangsters or corrupt politicians. Recently the government had to insist that no government agency was conducting surveillance activities on journalists who complained that their phones are tapped and their emails monitored and it seemed to be done by professionals. The government agree to investigate the allegations but the basis of the complaints was the belief that corruption was so bad that just about anyone in the government could be bribed or coerced into doing just about anything.

Another alarming, and measurable result of all the corruption is the murder rate. It is also on the rise again. West coast areas like Guerrero state have been the most violent for the last few years with a murder rate of over 50 per 100,000. Manzanillo (Colima state) is Mexico’s major Pacific seaport and it and nearby Guerrero state have become the new center for cartel violence because a lot of the drug smuggling is shifting to Australia and East Asia. For decades most of the mayhem was on the U.S. border but the United States is no longer a growth market for illegal drugs and has been supplanted by China and other East Asian nations.

There is still a lot of violence along the American border as cartels break up and the new factions fight over territory and key smuggling routes. Cartels also control a lot of people smuggling, although that is less lucrative now as the U.S. has been cracking down on illegal migrants. As a result of all this the national murder rate is moving up again towards 20 per 100,000 people. That change has been very unpopular with Mexican voters. In 2015 the murder rate was 16 per 100,000. The high point was in 2011 (22 per 100,000.) It came down after that, to about 15 per 100,000 but now is on the rise again. Mexico has always been very violent and the murder rate was 17 per 100,000 in the mid-1990s. Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have murder rates of about 20 per year per 100,000. North Africa is 5.9, the U.S. is 5, Europe is 3.5 and Asia is 3.1. While Americans always fear that the Mexican cartels will bring violence, as well as addictive drugs into the country, the actual distribution of the drugs is handled by local gangs. Some of these are composed of Spanish-speakers and many of them are illegal migrants. But the local distributors know that violence is bad for business, especially in areas that are well policed. In Mexico the dynamics are different and the number of drug related deaths much higher.

September 27, 2017: The U.S. has put another Mexican drug cartel leader (Fausto Isidro Meza-Flores, or El Chapo Isidro for short) on the most wanted list. A reward of $5 million is offered for information leading to his capture. El Chapo Isidro heads the Meza-Flores cartel which is based on the west coast (Sinaloa state) and the port city of Mazatlan.

September 26, 2017: In the north (Chihuahua State) gunmen entered a drug rehabilitation center and killed 14 people and wounded eight.

September 19, 2017: Another major (7.1 magnitude) hit Mexico. While the quake was centered off the west coast it did most of the damage in Mexico City (vulnerable because it is built on a dried up lake bed in an earthquake prone area). An even larger one hit (8.1, a modern record) on the same date 32 years ago. There were aftershocks and additional quakes in central Mexico over the next week.

September 16, 2017: In the southwest (Guerrero state) soldiers on patrol encountered cartel gunmen dressed as soldiers and a gun battle broke out. Eight cartel gunmen died as did one soldier. This occurred near the port (and resort) city of Acapulco and about 250 kilometers south of the capital. Cartel violence has been particularly frequent in and around Acapulco which is now a very dangerous place. So far this year there have been about ten percent fewer homicides in Acapulco than 2016 but that’s still a murder rate of 75 per 100,000 people, more than three times the national rate. Clashes like this are a common occurrence and often get little publicity.

September 11, 2017: A location scout for an American TV series (Narcos) was found dead in a remote area of Mexico State, about 70 kilometers north of the capital (Mexico City). While cartels often threaten local journalists and all forms of media, this particular show had not received any threats in Mexico or Colombia, where the last three seasons were filmed. Up until now Narcos covered the battle with (and destruction of) the two major drug cartels in Colombia. That feat had by the late 1990s, set the stage for a dramatic national offensive against drug based organizations that had made Colombia one of the most violent nations in the Americans. Now Colombia has destroyed, driven out or otherwise disbanded most of the organized crime groups (political, drug related and so on) and become the fastest growing economy in South America. Colombia also reduced its murder rate from 70 in the mid-1990s to less than a third of that by 2016. Next door in Venezuela it is a different story because murder rate (currently 90 murders per 100,000 population) has become a major cause of popular discontent and for the same reasons as in Mexico (corruption, soaring crime rate and inefficient government.)

 

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