28 April 2010

Mexico shows its Brazil envy

From World Politics Review.


MEXICO CITY – President Felipe Calderon raised eyebrows earlier this year, when he admonished those gathered at a meeting of the nation’s top diplomats to speak better of Mexico – in spite of the negative perceptions abroad generated by violence from the ongoing war on narcotics trafficking cartels and the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

To emphasize his point, he mentioned Brazil, saying the emerging South American power is perceived abroad in far more favorable terms than Mexico and is spoken of well by its own citizens.

“I have never as a politician nor as president of the Republic … heard a Brazilian speak badly of Brazil. And, yet, I’ve heard many Mexicans speak badly of Mexico to the world,” he said.

“The international perception is that Mexico is in chaos … and Brazil is some sort of paradise.”

The comments were perhaps a reflection of Calderón’s frustrations in Mexico, where a three-year crackdown on narcotics trafficking cartels has claimed more than 18,000 lives, the Mexican economy has lagged – dropping 6.8 percent in 2009 – foreign direct investment has been halved over the past year and his agenda for state, labor and economic reforms were dealt a blow in the midterm elections.

But the comments reflected an envy of Brazil often repeated in Mexico.

While Mexico suffered through a miserable 2009, Brazil emerged from the global economic downturn more quickly. It also continued wielding increased regional influence – at time Mexico was mending fences other countries in Latin America such as Venezuela and Cuba – with its peacekeeping presence and Haiti and involvement in the Honduras political crisis.

Even Brazil being awarded the 2016 Olympics was another point of envy for some in Mexico.

First Lady Margarita Zavala remarked in February.

“In Brazil, there are 25 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. We have less than half (the homicide rate) of Río de Janeiro … and they won the Olympics and (2014) World Cup.”

Ironically, the Mexico Football Federation withdrew its early bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups due to funding issues.

“The average Mexican is happy for Brazil’s success, but for the elites, there’s some jealousy,” said Mexico City pollster Dan Lund, president of the Mund Group.

Along with that jealousy comes fear.

Mexico and Brazil have started exploring a free-trade agreement that some in Mexico have promoted as way of lessening the country’s dependence on United States – the destination for some 80 percent of Mexican exports.

But a 2009 poll released by a major business group found 95 percent of its members uneasy of such a deal. The fear comes even though some Mexican companies such as telecommunication giants Telmex Internacional and América Móvil – both controlled by the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helú – have performed strongly in the Brazilian market.

Much of Mexico’s dependence on the U.S. market is attributed to geography, but also the 1994 NAFTA agreement. The timing of NAFTA’s arrival was unavoidable for some political observers, given the current Brazil-envy on display.

“While Brazil was consumed by a deep crisis (in the early 1990s) Mexico sold itself as the best emerging market on the planet,” political analyst Juan E. Pardinas wrote last fall in the Mexico City newspaper, Reforma.

“For us, the forecast was a sweet promise; for them, a black cloud. Today, our respective national futures are no longer what they were before.”

Pardinas and other observers attribute the turnaround to economic reforms in Brazil and pragmatic governance.

Over that same time period, Mexico has been mired in political gridlock – especially since 1997, when the lower house of Congress slipped into opposition control. It has remained split between the three main parties ever since. Additionally, few significant reforms were approved during the 2000-2006 administration of President Vicente Fox.

Calderon, meanwhile, has won reforms for the criminal justice system, taxation and the energy sector, but many political observers say those overhauls were inadequate.

“As a country, we’ve taken half steps,” said Eduardo García, publisher of the online business publication, Sentido Común.

“We have a democratic system, but it’s very divided.”

Those divisions were on display during the 2008 debates to reform the energy sector – one key area in which Brazil and Mexico have taken disparate development approaches.

The Mexican reforms allowed for increased private sector participation in the state-run oil concern, Pemex, but failed to address deep-seated problems such as the dominance of the oil workers’ union or provide sufficient incentives for outside players to help discover and exploit new petroleum fields – at a time when Mexican production was in decline.

Pemex lacks the technology to exploit deep-water fields in the Gulf of Mexico, which are though to hold enormous reserves. Meanwhile, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, has been hailed as a world-class company and successfully exploited deep-water reserves.

Pardinas sees lessons for Mexico – where keeping the oil industry in government hands is a pillar of national sovereignty – in Brazil’s management of its petroleum sector, but also hope the country can turn itself around like Brazil has over the past two decades.

“Brazil’s success is a motive for envy. However, its successes give us hope that history is not destiny and the future is not a mechanical repetition of the present,” he said.

25 April 2010

Lorena Ochoa calls it quits

Guadalajara golf star Lorena Ochoa officially announced her retirement on Friday, saying she wanted to focus on other priorities such as family and her charitable work in Mexico.

She plans to play her final competitive tournament early next month at an LPGA tour stop in Morelia.

Ochoa departs as the No. 1 player in the world and perhaps the most dominant female gofer of the past decade – at least the latter half of it. She won 27 times and claimed two majors, although her early career was marked by near misses and a sense of being snake bitten in the big events

But she accomplished the rare feat of becoming one of the country’s best-known athletes even though she competed in a sport with a limited profile and one that offered few opportunities for the masses to easily discover – Mexico has no public golf courses, something Ochoa and her foundation have long wanted to change.

Ochoa was perhaps Mexico’s top female athlete over the past decade, along with former world champion sprinter and 2004 silver medal winner Ana Guevara. She might have been Mexico’s top overall athlete. (Who else? Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez?)

In Guadalajara, where sports coverage begins and ends with the soccer club, Chivas, Ochoa is a living legend. My former editor at the Guadalajara Colony Reporter often recalled covering Ochoa and a young Tiger Woods winning world junior golf championships in the early 1990s.

How much golf has grown in Mexico because of Ochoa’s exploits is uncertain – she was certainly no rags-to-riches story, having learned to play at the pricey Guadalajara Golf and Country Club. But she became an icon and true sporting heroine in a country that often lacks much in the way championships or international exploits.

21 April 2010

Court opts against investigating cardinal's 1993 death

The Mexican Supreme Court decided April 20 against launching an investigation into the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, who was shot dead outside the Guadalajara airport while wearing his clerical robes and heading to greet Archbishop Giralamo Prigione, papal nuncio to Mexico.

Gov. Emilio González Marquez of Jalisco state -- which is served by the Archdiocese of Guadalajara -- had asked for an investigation, but the 11-member court unanimously voted "no."

Gonzalez argued the court should have launched its own investigation due to irregularities in the original criminal investigation, which said Cardinal Posadas Ocampo was a victim of circumstances and caught in the crossfire of a shootout between rival narcotics-trafficking cartels.

The court decided after 40 minutes of deliberations it would not launch an investigation. The court has the authority to investigate matters involving alleged human rights abuses and it generally refrains from delving into criminal matters -- although it has in a few recent cases such as the June 2009 daycare fire in Hermosillo that claimed 49 young lives. That investigation determined that prominent figures in the IMSS, Hermosillo municipal government and Sonora state government - including then Gov. Eduardo Bours of the PRI - had some responsibility in the matter.

Church officials have long rejected the findings of the official investigation into Cardinal Posadas Ocampo's death and consider his slaying on May 24, 1993, to be a state crime. The then-President Carlos Salinas has denied any involvement and, according to a 2007 church report leaked to the media, sought the Vatican’s intervention to have the slaying not considered a state crime.

None of the authors of the crime have been convicted. A cartel hitman, Alfredo Araujo Avila, “El Popeye,” was found to be in possession of weapons used in the Cardinal Posadas Ocampo slaying, but was convicted last year of unrelated firearms charges. Church officials said the conviction meant "nothing."

Not everyone in the church has bought into the state crime theory. The late Luis Reynoso, a lawyer and the former bishop of Cuernavaca, rejected talk of speculation with his investigations in the late 1990s, which came to the conclusion that the cardinal was in the wrong place at the wrong time and no proof of premeditated murder exists.

Veteran church observer and religious studies professor Victor Ramos Cortés of the University of Guadalajara says the Catholic Church, with its history of bickering with the federal government and coming out on the losing end of many anti-clerical measures, has been wedded to the state crime theory because it allows for the creation of a martyr. The church already has beatified martyrs from the Cristero Rebellion, a 1920s uprising in Western Mexico against anti-clerical measures imposed by the federal government. The Archdiocese of Guadalajara also is building a massive new house of worship known as the Sanctuary of the Mexican Martyrs, although the project became polemic in 2008 when Gov. Gonzalez donated 90 million pesos of taxpayer money to the project. (The money was returned by the group responsible for the construction and came after widespread outrage flared in Jalisco and the governor let loose with a profanity laced tirade against critics and the media.)

Columnist Raymundo Rivera Palacio speculated in his most recent La Razón article that the shootout targeted the cardinal - and that the slaying was not a state crime.

"Posadas Ocampo had been bishop of Tijuana, where the dividing line between the cartels and the local church hierarchy always has been very tenuous," he wrote.

The furniture factory the nuncio had come bless, Rivera added, belonged to a lieutenant of a main rival of the Tijuana Cartel.

Church officials deny the late cardinal had any untoward relations with narcotics traffickers.

Whatever the truth, the slaying of a popular prelate ushered in vast political changes in Jalisco, one of the country's most populous and conservative states. Dissatisfaction over the cardinal's slaying compounded the already immense dissatisfaction in Jalisco in regards to the government response to the April 1992 sewer line explosions that flattened a long stretch of working-class neighbourhoods in Guadalajara.

The conservative PAN won the 1994 gubernatorial election and has held power ever since.

In May 2008 comments to The News, Jorge Zepeda Patterson, now the editor of El Universal and the former editor of the independent Guadalajara daily Siglo 21, compared the sewer explosions and cardinal's murder to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake as events that changed different parts of Mexico - but in vastly different ways.

"The 1985 earthquake generated the formation of a civil society with distinct [left-wing] ideologies, while in Guadalajara, it was essentially a turn to the right."

18 April 2010

Hockey Night in Mexico

Selección mexicana de hockey sobre hielo
A Mexican player leaves the ice after team Mexico dropped a 5-2 decision to Australia on April 14 at the Division II World Hockey Championship played earlier this month in Naucalpán, Mexico.

Hard to believe, but Mexico hosted a world hockey championship tournament April 10 - 17 at a nondescript rink in Nuacalpán, an industrial suburb to the west of Mexico City.

(I attended one day of the tournament so I could file a dispatch on the quixotic quest for glory in the lower echelons of international hockey; click here to read the dispatch in the Ottawa Citizen.)

The Mexican team finished fifth in the six-tournament, besting only Turkey. But players on the Mexican squad say they made progress at the event by putting in credible performances against the "elites" of Division II such as Spain, Australia and Belgium. Indeed, Mexico lost 4-2 to Spain - the eventual tournament winner - and 5-2 to Australia and Belgium. The scores were more lopsided at past events.

In the game against Australia, the "Hockeyroos" played a physical game that wore down the smaller Mexicans. One Australian player commented that many on the team got their sporting starts in rugby union and rugby league - an advantage for a contact sport like hockey. The Mexicans, he said, play an aggressive game and show lots of heart, but needed to work more on establishing a system.

Hockey is a boutique sport in Mexico, which has barely a dozen rinks. Mexican players gain experience by heading to tournaments and summer hockey camps in Canada. The Mexican Ice Hockey Federation plans on organizing a senior league that would begin play this fall. Such a development would be a long way from the origins of hockey in Mexico, which federation president Joaquín de la Garma said began in the late 1950s when an Ice Capades-style show performed in the Arena Mexico and left a sheet of ice that a few determined hockey players were able to use.

Mexican bishops acknowledge threats against prelates

Bishop of Apatzingán
Bishop Miguel Patiño Velazquez of Apatzingán, Michoacán, enters Mass on April 1.

The Mexican bishops' conference acknowledged last week that Catholic priests have suffered threats of violence and extortion at the hands of narcotics trafficking cartels and organized crime. The acknowledgment ended a stream of conflicting messages from various church officials on a delicate subject that many in the church seem uncertain of how to handle.

The bishops said in an April 15 message at the end of their spring planning session that an increasing number of prelates in areas rife with drug activities had been moved to other parishes and other parts of the country or assigned other pastoral duties.

Their acknowledgment comes as the Mexican government revised its death toll figures upward in the ongoing crackdown on the cartels to at least 22,700 since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón took office.

Their acknowledgment also comes as Mexico's evangelicals have gone public with their own travails with extortion and threats. Evangelical leaders told the newspaper Reforma early this month that at least one pastor had been kidnapped and that extortion has taken place at many places of worship and even at their charity projects.

Catholic officials had been reticent to acknowledge the threats against prelates and had been somewhat late in developing a comprehensive response to the issue of violence in Mexico. Church observers say Catholic officials prefer to follow the government's lead on such issues and desperately wanted to avoid running afoul of the cartels, who have become the de facto authorities in some parts of Mexico.

In early April, a spokesmen for the bishops' conference, in comments published by Reforma, denied that there had been any threats against Catholic prelates. Catholic leaders in troubled dioceses and archdiocese such as Durango, Acapulco, Morelia, Tacambaro and Apatzingan all told me last year there had been no threats against priests.

Last summer, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City told reporters that priests had been threatened in the state of Michoacán - drawing a swift denial from the Catholic hierarchy in that region. A few priests would occasionally break with the official line in their dioceses, however. Father Alfredo Gallegos Lara - a gun-totting, rachero ballad-singing priest in Michoacán, better known as "Padre Pistolas" - told the news agency Quadratin that a fellow priest had been threatened and that he himself had been robbed. He also encoured his parishioners to keep arms in the homes - something permitted by the Mexican constitution.

The church's relations with the cartels is another touchy issue: Catholic officials deny that they accept donations from cartel leaders, although the bishops' conference president, Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepantla, acknowledged: The cartels have been generous in various parts of Mexico by donating funds for infrastructure projects. Others in the church said the cartels' money was not welcome. One bishop in southern Chihuahua declared in late 2008 that no priest in his diocese would perform funerals for "narcos," but a church spokesman in the state later said the move proved unpopular.

Past comments and actions on the issue have been contradictory, however. The late bishop of Aguascalientes caused a scandal in 2005, when he said the church receives money from the cartels and could put the illicit funds to good use. His comments were quickly disavowed.

12 April 2010

Bishop: church treated abuse cases as a "minor cold"


Once again, Bishop Raúl Vera López of Saltillo - fresh off of an Easter homily in which he accused the federal government of waging a phony crackdown on narcotic trafficking cartels - veered from the standard line by speaking candidly on a topic many of his colleagues would seemingly prefer to put behind them.

The bishop - one of Mexico's most outspoken religious leaders - spoke candidly April 12 on the church response to the controversy swirling over the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, saying that in past years the matter was treated as a "minor cold" and not taken seriously enough.

"It was a very superficial way of seeing things. At one time it was believed a priest that had that problem had a cold; it was thought it would go away," Bishop Vera told reporters on the eve of the annual spring planning session of the Mexican bishops' conference.

The comments come as the Vatican defends itself against allegations from a number of countries that it failed to take allegations of sexual abuse committed by clergy seriously. But it also comes as Mexico's most notorious case - that of Legionaries of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel - receives enormous scrutiny and the order confirms the sordid details of its founder's double life, which was marked by him fathering at least three children and the sexual abuse of seminarians.

Bishop Vera's comments appeared to differ from the recent tone taken by the country's most senior Catholic official, Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City. The Cardinal, on the Thursday before Easter, read his priests the riot act, saying the Archdiocese of Mexico City would not defend any prelate against allegations of sexual abuse. Barely a week later, however, Cardinal Rivera said the church was under attack, but not in crisis. The archdiocese issued an editorial April 11, saying the church was not being damaged by a supposed crisis that had been provoked by the actions of a few "terrible priests" along with "undeniable outside enemies."

The enemies reference is a nod to the history of sour church-state relations in Mexico, although the church appears to have taken a more active role over the past decade by denouncing the changes to the Mexico City laws concerning abortion and same-sex marriages. The Archdiocese of Mexico City also has an especially sour relationship with the Mexico City government - in part because of measures such as the new same-sex marriage laws and the decriminalization of abortion, but also because the church refused to endorse allegations of electoral fraud made by 2006 presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (López Obrador's PRD party dominates Mexico City politics.)

The posture of the Archdiocese of Mexico on the issue of abuse has been fodder for church critics, however, and his recent admonishment was greeted with skepticism. The day after Cardinal Rivera admonished the assembly of 500 priests about abuse, the newspaper Reforma ran the headline, "Cardinal (finally) condemns pedophilia." One comment on the newspaper's website asked if the April 1 admonishment was an April Fool's prank. Cardinal Rivera had preavious defended the Legion of Christ and its founder in the strongest of terms - even after the Vatican in 2006 asked Father Maciel to renounce his public ministry and lead a life of prayer and penitence. In 2006, the cardinal called allegations the Vatican had punished Father Maciel, "Pure fiction."

The Legionaries of Christ have been a controversial order, but one that successfully courted the wealthy and powerful. (Father Maciel presided at the wedding of Carlos Slim, who would become the world's richest man.) It's fate is uncertain, however: A five-bishop investigative committee recently submitted a report to Vatican that could result in the order being disbanded - or forced to be refounded.

09 April 2010

Roberto Madrazo surfaces

He's back! Former PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo surfaced last week in Monterrey, where he blasted the PAN-PRD alliances, formed to challenge the PRI in the July 4 gubernatorial races, for lacking "scruples."

His outburst marked the latest outburst by a prominent Priísta against the alliances between the right-leaning PAN and left-leaning PRD that aim to defeat the PRI in some the party's most solid strongholds such as Oaxaca, Puebla and Hidalgo - all places, like Madrazo's home state of Tabasco, with notorious reputations for retrograde politics, authoritarian governance and elections that are anything but squeaky clean.

"What they're uniting for is only an interest in power for the sake of power itself. You can't unite ideologies so different as those that exist between the the PAN and PRD with the lone proposal of defeating the PRI," Madrazo said.

Of course, the PRI - like many political parties - could be accused of seeking power the sake of power itself and being unscrupulous for trying to unite disparate viewpoints on contentious social and economic issues. After all, PRI party president Beatriz Paredes - a woman often accused of lacking the courage of her convictions - has been taken to task for playing up her "social democratic" and feminist tendencies, but staying silent as 18 state governments, the majority of them run by the PRI, outlawed abortion under all circumstances.

And Madrazo would know a thing or two about seeking power for the sake of power, too. Many of his actions as PRI president last decade were made with an eye toward capturing the 2006 presidential nomination. He developed a sordid reputation for hardball politics. The PRI was an obstructionist force in Congress under his watch and he clashed with SNTE teachers' union boss Elba Esther Gordillo and many state governors - who not only stayed on the sidelines during his presidential campaign, but made sure he didn't win.

Madrazo's motives for blasting the coalition are unknown, but the move reflects a general unease among Priístas over the issue of the electoral coalitions formed to confront them. (Recall the supposed PAN-PRI deal to have the PRI back a tax increase if the PAN wouldn't form an electoral alliance for the 2011 State of Mexico gubernatorial election.) Madrazo, for all of his enemies in the PRI, gained his much of his support in Southern Mexico and in orphan states - states such as Jalisco, Guanajuato and Baja California, places that have solid bases of PRI support, but no powerful PRI governors to marshal votes for preferred candidates. Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz - whose regime is so despised by the PAN and PRD that they would unite against it - was a solid Madrazo backer, which perhaps helps to explain the outburst.

Madrazo would know about coalitions, too.

The infamous TUCOM (Everyone United Against Madrazo) formed during the PRI primary to select a single candidate that would face Madrazo for the nomination. TUCOM chose State of Mexico Gov. Arturo Montiel, who was subsequently sandbagged - allegedly by Madrazo's campaign - for ethical problems that included his owning properties in Europe and such luxury spots as Careyes, an exclusive enclave on Jalisco's Costa Alegre.

Madrazo's 2006 PRI presidential campaign also struck a deal with the Green Party - even though the PVEM had a promising candidate in Bernardo de la Garza. In the waning days of the campaign, he welcomed back the campesino wing of the now defunct Alternativa party - the same gang that advanced the nomination of discount drug baron Víctor González Torres (aka: Dr. Simi) and clashed with the party's 2006 nominee, Patricia Mercado.

His coalition building all amounted to a hill a beans, however. Madrazo led a badly divided PRI to its worst finish ever as he gained barely 22 percent of the popular vote and failed to win a plurality in any of the Republic's 31 states or the Federal District.

Election failure did little to remedy is bad reputation. He entered a German marathon in 2007 and won his age group, but, mysteriously, he didn't pass through all of the checkpoints along the course and was disqualified.

Now he's back - clean-shaven - perhaps proving that no reputation is ever too unsavoury for Mexico's political system, which has an enormous capacity for recycling disgraced figures.

08 April 2010

Cash, status lure youths to drug trade in troubled parts of Mexico


By David Agren, Catholic News Service

APATZINGÁN, Mexico (CNS) -- Father Javier Cortés vividly recalls being approached recently with an unusual request by a group of teenagers in this agricultural town 300 miles west of Mexico City. There, La Familia Michoacana, a quasi-religious drug cartel, dumped four human heads at a prominent public monument during Holy Week as a warning to its rivals.

"Some young people said, 'Father, I've come so that you will bless me because I'm going to kill Zetas,'" he said, referring to the gang of rogue former soldiers and police officers that La Familia members consider their mortal enemies.

Father Cortés, who is rector of the local seminary, rebuked the plan and refused to bless the killing spree.

Such violence has become common, however, and has contributed to more than 19,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and promised to crack down on violent drug cartels. The violence increasingly is claiming young lives as well. Authorities blame the cartels and gangs affiliated with them for massacres such as the January murder of 15 youths at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez and the Palm Sunday murders in Durango state of 10 young people who were returning to their communal farm.

But the request made of Father Cortés highlighted an even more disturbing trend in drug-related violence, as young people are increasingly recruited by the cartels and lured into the seemingly easy money of the drug trade.

"We're talking about a lost generation of young people that is falling into the networks of narcotics trafficking," said security expert Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz, who teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

He attributed the recruitment of young people to a combination of factors that include Mexico's long-underperforming economy, family breakdowns and the seduction of the cartels.

Church leaders and young people concurred and said such factors are at play in Apatzingán, the hub of an economically neglected region of downtrodden communal farms and lemon groves known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Earth.

Read more here.