Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 14, 2015

Origins of the drug cartels and free trade in Mexico

The origins of Mexico's drug cartels and the violence they have instigated in the country have been a subject of debate on InSight Crime. The causes go back a hundred years, according to "A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War," by Mike Wallace and Carmen Boullosa. Reviewed last week on InSight Crime, the book argues that prohibition of opium and other narcotics in the U.S. played an important role in setting the stage for criminals to meet the demand for these substances. 

The first modern drug trafficking organization, the Guadalajara Cartel, also has its origins in the U.S., according to the book. In exchange for smuggling high-caliber weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the huge quantities of crack cocaine arriving into the country through Mexico. 

And they, polemically, argue that NAFTA's implementation in 1994 inadvertently created favorable conditions for drug groups to expand, as farmers unable to compete with subsidized agricultural products coming in from the U.S. turned to marijuana and poppy crops in order to survive.
But Manuel Suarez, professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington DC, takes issue with their argument. In a separate piece on InSight, he denies that NAFTA had negative impacts that fed into the drug trade. Mexico's economy -- previously in tatters -- was hugely benefited by the agreement. And even sectors like agriculture are better now than they were before, according to Suarez. "The true causes of drug violence in Mexico have nothing to do with economic and trade policies that significantly raised the economy's competitiveness. The violence is a direct result of drug prohibition, and the political regimes between 2000 to 2012, which dismantled a very effective national security apparatus which kept the situation under control," he writes.

In a third piece, Wallace and Boullosa respond to Suarez. He misunderstood their argument, they say. While they agree that prohibition is at the root of the problem, they maintain that an unintended effect of the free trade agreement was "a pouring of impoverished peasants and unemployed urban slum dwellers into the pre-existing narco-economy, as growers, packagers, transporters, guards, peddlers, and assassins," no matter what the long-term economic benefits may have been.

They also counter his view that there was an effective national security apparatus preventing violence before the Fox and Calderon governments. The authors claim the situation was already out of control, and that the security forces were notoriously corrupt.

News Briefs

  • The Mexican government raided several farm labor camps in recent weeks, rescuing about 250 adults and children. They posted videos of the operations, "rare enforcement actions that suggest a more aggressive tack by federal labor authorities," according to the Los Angeles Times. Videos show workers living in squalid conditions, a common situation according to the Times, which ran an in-depth investigation on agricultural workers in December. But an expert quoted in the piece is skeptical of the crackdown, noting that no significant fines were issues and that inspectors haven't taken a tougher stance against larger growers.
  • Colombia's attorney general says he will accelerate the investigation of 22 army generals involved in the "false-positives" affair: where dozens of civilians were killed and passed off guerrillas killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government's war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The scandal erupted in 2008, when it came to light that young men recruited in Bogota slums were killed and presented in rebel uniforms as combat deaths. Following that revelation similar cases came to light across the country, according to the BBC. State prosecutors are investigating 5,000 members of Colombia's armed forces for extrajudicial executions involving 4,382 civilians, reports Reuters. The attorney general promised results by the end of the year, and said some of the generals under investigation are still on active service.
  • Florida Senator Marc Rubio would not only maintain Guantánamo, he would reopen it if it were closed, he said in an interview on ABC. A total of 122 captives remain at Guantánamo, 55 of them cleared for transfer with security assurances. While the Obama administration has not succeeded in closing the prison, it has stopped adding to the population. But the Miami Herald reports that Rubio said America needs an intelligence and detention center for interrogating suspected terrorists.
  • The Washington Post has a feature on Cuban technology companies and other entrepreneurial enterprises that are being held-back because of the country's archaic internet system. Businesses like web design and translation have huge potential to take off now that many U.S. prohibitions have been lifted, but highly qualified professionals are tripping up on their literal disconnect from potential customers off the island.
  • Iconic Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano died yesterday. The author of "The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," a leftist-lodestar was 74. The Washington Post obituary notes that he famously said: "Power is like a violin. It is held by the left hand and played by the right." 
  • The New York Times has a feature piece on mining in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake the industry was considered a potential source of revenue and jobs. Though companies spent $30 million on prospecting, with the encouragement of an eager government, lawmakers have failed to pass a mining law that would permit the activity, establishing critical parameters such as environmental regulations and royalty revenues.
  • A vast open iron mine in the Brazilian state of Para embodies the country's dilemma regarding economic development and environmental protection, according to a piece in the Washington Post. The $17 billion project in the Amazon will bring necessary revenue to the country, but endangers rare ecosystems and has potentially destroyed archeological records of the area's ancient inhabitants.
  • A specter haunted the Panamanian Summit of the Americas, according to an alarmist piece in Semana. The specter of corruption, argues the author, who lists allegations of government corruption in Brazil (menselão and Petrobras), Mexico (Ayotzinapa and the president's wife's alleged real-estate speculation) and Argentina (accusations that the Kirchners have grown rich through shady dealings and the Nisman death). The piece blames the issue on the influx of funds into public coffers over the past twenty years, resulting in more to steal. In democratic countries, the piece argues, social mobilizations will check the errant ways of politicians, but countries with "authoritarian tendencies" will be less fortunate and violent repression of demands for change cannot be discarded. 
  • Colombian native languages and customs are being protected and revalued thanks to a 2010 law preserving them and recognition from the U.N. of certain traditions, according to a feature in the Los Angeles Times. As a result, the government has catalogued the countries native idioms and has been promoting bilingual education in native communities. 
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had a four hour meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana on the way back from the Panama Summit of the Americas, he announced yesterday. They discussed the details of the meeting, he said. 
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's son testified for four hours yesterday in the investigation of a millionaire real-estate speculation case that is affecting his mother's popularity. His wife testified for nine hours last week.They are accused of insider-information and traffic of influences.
  • Bachelet signed a law recognizing same-sex civil unions, a major step in a country considered one of the most socially conservative in the region, reports the AP.
  • About 300 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who intended to march to México DF as part of the Via Crucis Migrante 2015 are instead hiding out in a shelter for undocumented people in Oaxaca after authorities threatened to detain them, reports AFP. The march was scheduled for last Thursday, with a large number of undocumented Central Americans planning to demand "respect for their human rights," said the director of the shelter. However the National Institute of Migration launched an operative in the region on that date and participants canceled the event in fear of being detained, he said.
  • The general manager of Mina de Plata San Rafael in Guatemala, owned by Canadian Tahoe Resources Inc, was jailed on evidence of contaminating a river and affecting thousands of people in at least three communities. A lawyer for the Centro de Acción Ambiental-Legal y Social de Guatemala, which brought the suit, says it's the first time in Guatemala that a mining manager is being held responsible for contamination.
  • What is thought to be Latin America's first crop of legal medical marijuana is being harvested in Chile according to the Global Post
  • The New York Times has a piece on a new Havana fashion: American flags. "Trend watchers here contend that American flag clothing has been proliferating, to the consternation of some in the government."
  • Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested that Argentines as whole had been brainwashed by rich and powerful Armenians in their midst, reports the New York Times. Turkish government officials are on the warpath after Pope Francis referred to the mass killing of Armenians a century ago as “the first genocide of the 20th century” in a commemorative mass on Sunday.

  • Over 71 circuses in Mexico have been forced to close due to legislation forbidding them to work with animals. However, a circus union is petitioning lawmakers to permit them to continue operating, arguing that the 4 thousand animals that would be out of work have nowhere to go and are in danger of death if their owners cannot support them anymore. So far 30 animals, including zebras, tigers and llamas have died, they say in a story in El Universal.

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