29 April 2009

Maximum salary law passes Senate

The News

The Senate approved a bill on Tuesday that forbids any public servant from earning more than the president, who is paid a net salary of 148,015 pesos per month. The Maximum Salary Law was unanimously approved by the upper house of Congress and now goes to President Felipe Calderón for his approval.

Lawmakers said the law would curb salary abuses that result in some municipal and state politicians earning salaries that exceed those of cabinet members and the president. The law, according to Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, Sen. Pablo Gómez, “Restores the practice of public service that is so discredited in our country.”

Other lawmakers also lauded the measure as a step toward improved transparency and good governance.

“It makes transparent the salaries of public servants, establishes the principle of a labor hierarchy because no low-level [functionary] can earn more than a high-level functionary and, additionally, it establishes the better use of public resources,” said National Action Party, or PAN, Sen. Santiago Creel.

A law for limiting salaries was originally approved by the Senate in 2006, but died in committee after arriving in the Chamber of Deputies. The PRD revived the proposal earlier this year as an austerity measure during tough economic times and firebrand populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador has railed against highly paid public figures during his rallies. But momentum for the law came after the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, approved pay rises of nearly 100 percent for its nine-member board. The IFE argued that the pay rise was constitutional, but it was quickly reversed the decision and lawmakers seized on the public-relations misstep as an opportunity to rein in high public salaries.

Still, some public salaries will go untouched by the new law. The law fails to touch the salaries of Supreme Court judges along with members of the electoral tribunal and IFE as the Constitution says that such figures cannot have their salaries reduced while occupying their current positions.

Some PAN members have questioned if reducing salaries will drive talented individuals away from the public sector.

Empty seats, shutdown don't trip up drug bill


The News

The Senate met behind closed doors on Tuesday to approve a bill that would permit the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use but would not force rehabilitation for offending drug users, a key element of the proposal originally presented to the Senate by President Felipe Calderón.

Proponents said the bill would help crack down on small-time drug dealers but avoid treating drug users as criminals. "Fighting organized crime at its lowest level . where drugs are sold retail ... is one thing," said Democratic Revolution Party Senate leader Carlos Navarrete. "Young people, our young people or people of any age in this country, that regrettably have fallen into drug addiction, are another thing."

The "Ley Narcomenudeo," as the bill is known, is similar to a past failed attempt to decriminalize drug possession and its Senate approval comes amid a bloody crackdown on drug cartels. Its passage also comes amid a nationwide debate over the merits of drug legalization.

The new bill would allow possession of up to 5 grams of marijuana, 5 grams of opium, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and 500 milligrams of cocaine. It would also make police forces at all levels responsible for combating drug dealing and impose sanctions of five to 15 years in prison for those found in possession of drugs with the intention of selling.

The original proposal sent to the Senate by Calderón called for mandatory participation in rehabilitation programs for those found to be in possession of small amounts of drugs. But the PRD on Tuesday claimed credit for successfully lobbying against that proposal. Under the new bill, rehabilitation would be voluntary, except for those caught in possession of drugs at least three times. The bill now heads to the Chamber of Deputies for a vote.

26 April 2009

At church conference, parties find religion

Church in Atotonilco/Iglesia en Atotonilco

At church conference, parties find religion

The News

CUAUTITLÁN IZCALLI, State of Mexico - National Action Party president Germán Martínez reminisced about a religious upbringing in Quiroga, Michoacán, while addressing an auditorium of Catholic prelates on Wednesday in this municipality on the northwestern fringes of the Mexico City metropolitan area.

Beatriz Paredes of the Institutional Revolutionary Party followed, speaking similarly about her childhood in the state of Tlaxcala, and of fond memories of the annual patron saint festival in the municipality of Huamantla that fetes La Virgen de la Caridad with predawn pilgrimages and streets carpeted with flowers. Democratic Revolution Party president Jesús Ortega, however, skipped the religious pleasantries and nostalgia and cut straight to politics.

The appearance by the trio of senior political leaders at the annual planning session of the Mexican Bishops' Conference - during which they outlined their platforms and fielded questions on the thorny issues of abortion and religious freedom - was not with without precedent; party officials from the PAN, PRI and PRD had met with senior Catholic prelates prior to the 2006 elections.

But the latest encounter - which also included the presidents of three smaller parties - came as the church has been criticized for wading into the public policy debate with pronouncements, running sharp editorials in church-run publications and lobbying political officials.

Some of the church's hierarchy have even urged Catholics to vote against parties that back policies such as liberalized abortion laws and civil union benefits to same-sex partners.

The encounter - and the recent criticism of the church's so-called meddling - come in spite of strict laws in Mexico that forbid preaching politics from the pulpit, a measure that some church officials want scrapped and say violates their freedom of religion.

"There's a church leadership that is convinced that the church should openly intervene in politics," said Ilán Semo, a political historian at the Universidad Iberoamericana. "[They] have a mentality from the 19th century."

In the mid-19th century, the Reform Laws of Benito Juárez removed the church from the political arena. The Constitution of 1917 reinforced the separation of church and state, along with measures such as prohibitions on the church owning property and priests not being able to wear clerical robes in public.

But reforms approved in 1992 softened many of the anti-clerical restrictions. The softening of the restrictions and the advent of the Catholic-friendly PAN, said Semo, emboldened church officials to opine on public policy and advance a political agenda.

That agenda includes discarding a ban on religious organizations owning radio and television stations and the implementation of religious education in public schools - which are constitutionally mandated to provide schooling that is both secular and free of cost.

The church also wants "freedom of religion" enshrined in the Constitution, which currently only guarantees "Freedom of worship."

Church officials deny allegations that they are attempting to steer parishioners toward preferred candidates or have prelates run for political office, the latter being a violation of cannon law.

They also deny any attempt at blurring the separation of church and state.

"The Catholic Church does not want a confessional state," Archbishop Carlos Aguiar of Tlalnepantla, president of the bishops' conference, said after the meeting with the party presidents on Wednesday.

"The church," he said, "will not be for or against any political party . [and] will promote the importance of the electoral process."

The PAN's Martínez on Wednesday enthusiastically backed church participation in promoting democratic values and "fighting absenteeism"

"We're a party that for 70 years has said that there should be freedom, not only of worship, not only of the profession of faith, but rather . a broad and full religious liberty," he told reporters.

Martínez's party has long been accused of being too cozy with the church hierarchy. But church observers say that other parties and political leaders also pursue close church relations.

In Jalisco, for example, the PRI threw its support behind a constitutional ban on abortion after a meeting earlier this year between Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara and state party president Javier Guízar.

"Cardinal Sandoval himself often says that PRIístas are the ones that visit him the most," said Víctor Ramos Cortés, a religious studies professor at the University of Guadalajara.

Unsurprisingly, the abortion issue surfaced at the bishops' conference meeting this week.

Only the PAN's Martínez declared his party, "Pro-life;" his PRI and PRD counterparts said that they personally favored the decriminalization of abortion - especially in certain circumstances - but added that blanket positions on the issue would fail to work in their parties due to diverse views on the subject and differing regional sensibilities.

Social Democratic Party, or PSD, president Jorge Díaz Cuervo, whose party is running on a platform that includes the decriminalizing abortion in the states, was less diplomatic.

Díaz Cuervo demanded that the church stay on the sidelines and butt out of people's personal lives. (The PSD platform also calls for legalizing drugs and providing expanded rights for gays and other minority groups.) He cited scripture to make his point.

"As a Catholic, It suits me to pay unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's," he said. "As a Mexican, I back the Constitution of 1917 that separates church and state."

His comments were received with a polite, tepid response from the audience. Cardinal Sandoval, for one, did not applaud.

It remains to been seen what the consequences of the church's interventions into politics will be.

The Interior Secretariat has dismissed several recent complaints over church actions, including one from the PSD regarding a list of "electoral sins" issued by the bishop of Cuernavaca that urged the faithful to vote against any party promoting abortion and gay marriage.

But while government enthusiasm for enforcing laws against church interventions into politics has been minimal, the public has been more enthusiastic in denouncing the blurring of church and state lines.

In Jalisco, a state government donation last year for the construction of a Catholic temple generated such public outrage that the money was returned.

Religious observers say that even though most of the Mexican population is Catholic - and the church ranks as one of the country's most trustworthy institutions - the public draws a line at a certain point when it comes to power.

"People are Catholic ... [but] they don't want priests running the country," Ramos Cortés said.

24 April 2009

New 'Federal Police' approved

The News

The Chamber of Deputies on Thursday approved the creation of a new federal police force that lawmakers say will eventually take the place of the military in the war on organized crime.

The Bill converts the Federal Preventive Police, or PFP, into a new force known as the Federal Police, which will remain under the management of the Public Security Secretariat, or SSP. It will have expanded investigative and intelligence gathers powers.

Proponents say that the new force resolves a major challenge facing the PFP, which lacks the ability to carry out investigations and gather intelligence and is unable to employ surveillance techniques such as placing wire taps and having undercover agents infiltrate organized crime groups.

“In Mexico, police don’t have the powers of investigation to anticipate crimes,” Deputy David Mendoza of the Democratic Revolution Party, told The News.

“We’re now giving them the ability to investigate, under judicial controls.”

President Felipe Calderón proposed creating a new Federal Police as part of a series law and order reforms that also include an overhaul of the Attorney General’s Office, or PGR, and anti-kidnapping laws.

The Federal Police Law gives the new federal force permission to use plain clothed and undercover officers and creates a database for information gleaned in intelligence operations. Police may also employ wiretaps and cellular phone companies are obligated to turn over geographic information on where calls are originating.

Previously, only the investigators under the PGR’s umbrella could employ wiretaps.

Even with the creation of the new Federal Police, the Federal Investigation Agency, or AFI, and a force of investigators known as the Ministerio Público will remain intact and under the management of the PGR. The original proposal called for the merger of the AFI and PFP, but opposition lawmakers objected to placing too much power in the SSP.

The bill passed with approval from the three main parties, but a small group of left-wing lawmakers voted against the measure due to concerns that the wiretap provision could be abused – even though it can only be done with a judge’s order.

“Only in Mexico do they want the police to have this amount of power, which means giving them the ability to extort businessmen, politicians and journalists, among others,” PRD deputy Claudia Cruz Santiago said from the podium.
The bill now goes to the Senate for approval.

03 April 2009

Disgraced priest's legacy lives on in Michoacán

Iglesia de Cotija

The News

COTIJA DE LA PAZ, Mich. - Rev. Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of a Catholic order known as the Legionaries of Christ, was born in 1920 in this deeply religious community, billed as the cradle of illustrious men. Cotija has produced seven bishops, an estimated 300 priests and even a saint, San Rafael Guízar y Valenica, since its founding by Spanish settlers in the late 1500s.

But of all the prominent native sons, not one has reached the stature of Maciel, says local historian Javier Valencia - in spite of recent acknowledgement by Legion officials that their founder had led a double life in violation of Catholic teachings.

"[Maciel] is the greatest man Cotija has produced - and Cotija has produced many important people," said Valencia, who had known the priest since childhood, prior to Maciel's death last year.

That perception of Maciel is common in Cotija. Maciel is widely viewed as a local benefactor who plowed money into charity projects and public works that helped boost the stature of a municipality that had failed to keep up with other nearby communities economically.

He is also regarded as the product of a conservative Catholic town whose residents stayed loyal to the "madre patria," or homeland. Valencia said that Cotija never embraced independence or revolution and produced many of the generals who took up arms against the government in a Catholic uprising - known as the Cristero Rebellion - that opposed anti-clerical measures of the 1920s.


To this day, fading portraits of San Rafael Guízar y Valencia - Maciel's great-uncle - adorn many doorways lining the road into town. "This home is Catholic!" proclaim signs on windowsills, a warning advising missionaries that they shouldn't bother knocking.

Few in Cotija speak ill of Maciel or care to pass judgment on the misdeeds that have made headlines for more than a decade - fathering a child and allegedly sexually abusing young men, among other things.

"They're lies," said Elena Mejía, 87, who once worked as a domestic helper in the Maciel home.

Others were even more curt.

"You won't get me to say a bad word," said one man in the town center before storming off.

In 2006, the Vatican - which had previously been accused of turning a blind eye to allegations against Maciel and the Legion - stripped Maciel of the right to practice his ministry in public. The Legion itself admitted on Feb. 4 that its founder had fathered a child. Maciel and others in the Legion categorically denied any wrongdoing, but he had long been accused of sexually abusing young men in his religious order and was alleged to have absolved his accomplices in confession - a violation of canon law punishable by excommunication. He died in January 2008 and is buried in Cotija.

Even those who have heard the stories about Maciel - and don't entirely dismiss the allegations against him - refuse to change their perceptions.

"It really doesn't matter to me," said local historian Elena Silva Trejo, whose father used to make Maciel's suits. "There are two sides to every coin. You have to look at them both."

The other side of the coin, she said, is the legacy of charity and public works projects brought about by Maciel and the Legion in Cotija and towns well beyond.

The projects started out small in Cotija. Maciel - who would never permanently live in Cotija again after finishing his seminary studies but would visit frequently - gave away serapes and small figurines of Christ, according to Silva Trejo. Some residents recall him giving away cash.

As the Legion grew in stature and wealth, the projects grew too.

The Legion, according to religious observers, was founded with practically nothing in 1941, but flourished as Maciel courted the wealthy - a group that was largely not being ministered to by existing orders.

The Legion founded elite and expensive private schools - the Instituto Cumbres and Universidad Anáhuac, to name two - and expanded abroad.

It supported charity projects such as the Mano Amiga schools for children in poor barrios, but was still primarily associated with wealth, status and exclusivity.

A feature in the Feb. 9 edition of the magazine Milenio Semanal even alleged that those who would not join the Legion out of conviction would do so out of fear. "Confronting the Legion implied, until recently, ostracism in a country where financial security passes more through contacts than through talent."

Legion priest Rev. Michael Barry, a Maryland native who has worked in Cotija for the past five years, said that Maciel promoted the view of working with leaders who would use their resources to do good works.


Still, critics would quickly begin to deride the Legion as "The Millionaires of Christ." And some of the Legion's money flowed back into Cotija.

Maciel helped pay for the restoration of an old sanctuary in a hamlet known as El Barrio, which had been home to the final Mass in 1929 before soldiers in the Cristero Rebellion laid down their arms. The Legion later built a large retreat center on a hill overlooking Cotija.

Today, a steady stream of visitors affiliated with the Legionaries of Christ helps boost the local economy, according to Alberto Contreras, a municipal government official.

In recent years, a Legion foundation worked with the Michoacán governor to build a museum, cultural center and a health clinic that offers doctors appointments for just 10 pesos. A private university that charges low tuition fees was also built with Legion money.

These projects haven't been forgotten. "He did a lot for this place," said campesino Juan Espinosa, who was selling green beans in the town plaza when interviewed. "There have been so many works."