16 November 2010

Bulletproofing goes big time

A shot-up windshield from a Honda Accord sits under a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the garage of Protecto Glass International in Mexico City. The firm is one of the oldest armouring companies in Mexico and has experienced a boom in demand for bulletproof vehicles as perceptions of insecurity increase in Mexico.

The Mexican bulletproofing business has exploded with the crackdown on organized crime, moving from an industry protecting politicians, executives and the über wealthy to one armoring increasingly more modest vehicles for ever less important government functionaries, small business owners and professionals wanting to ward off carjackings and kidnapping attempts.

One industry group values the Mexican bulletproofing business at US $80 million, but that figure might be low since many armoring companies are not registered with the Public Security Secretariat, U.S. firms are capitalizing on the demand from Mexico and the bad guys - according to some - have their own people protecting vehicles.

Brazil still leads the hemisphere in armoring, says Esteban Hernández of Auto Safe in Mexico City. Mexico leads in the demand for Level 5 armoring, however - a level protecting against attacks with assault weapons and grenades. Hernández, ironically, came from Colombia in the mid 1990s to promote bulletproofing. Nowadays, he says of the armoring companies in his home country, "They're on the brink of collapse."

Read the full story in the Nov. 15 edition of USA Today.

14 September 2010


A billboard in Guadalajara features local soccer star Javier "Chicharito" Hernández and the warning, "The future of a whole country, today is at your feet." The admonishment reflects the pressure on Hernández, who now plays for Manchester United.

Mexican soccer phenom Javier Hernández - better known by the handle, "Chicharito," or Little Pea - made his debut Sept. 14 in the Champions League as his club Manchester United took on Rangers. The debut, like everything he does with Manchester United, received major press attention back in Mexico, where the 22-year-old striker is fast becoming a living legend - especially in his native Guadalajara.

Chicharito faces enormous expections in Mexico, where international soccer success has been elusive and players have generally preferred to earn solid livings in a domistic league flush with cash from the nation's broadcasting duopoly instead of challenging themselves in tougher European leagues.

The lad appears ready. He comes from a solid, middle-class family, never indulges in vices such as smoking and drinking, according to his granddad, and never gets caught up in any scandals - unlike, say, aging striker and current Mexican soccer demigod Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who showed up for World Cup camp overweight and out of shape. He also speaks excellent English and was pursuing a university degree at UNIVA in suburban Guadalajara as he rocketed to soccer stardom last year with Chivas, the legendary Mexican franchise that doesn't field foreign-born players. His family has even moved to England with him.

I tracked down Chicharito's graddad - a former Mexican international and Chivas player - in late July, when Manchester United passed through Guadalajara, for story that ran in The Sun. Read it here, or click on the title.

13 September 2010

Yet another Jefe Diego letter surfaces

Yet another letter purportedly authored by the kidnappers of former presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos surfaced Sept. 13, more than three months after the political insider and legal bigwig better known as "Jefe Diego" disappeared from his ranch in the state of Querétaro.

A photo, showing a blindfolded Fernández de Cevallos holding a copy of the magazine Proceso with him and former president Carlos Salinas posing in a photo, also surfaced with the letter, which, in a mocking tone, alleges that Jefe Diego has been abandoned by his friends and family and leaves uncertain who exactly is responsible for his apprehension.

"Thanks to the personal and public trajectory of 'Jefe Diego' many things continue to be said and perhaps all the lines of investigation fit since his family has abandoned him and his own friends don't care about his fate," the letter read.

The letter was signed by the, “Misteriosos Desaparecedores,” made mention of various theories that Jefe Diego might have been grabbed by everyone ranging from narcos to rebels to "defrauded individuals." And its surfacing promised to deepen the mystery of his disappearance and foment even more conspiracies on how a figure closely linked to the most senior officials in the country's internal security apparatus could suddenly vanish without a trace and how investigators would so willingly remove themselves almost immediately from the case at the behest of his family.

It was no secret that the cigar chomping Fernández de Cevallos cut a controversial path through Mexican political and legal circles. He became notorious for his moonlighting as an attorney for some of the country's most powerful companies suing the federal government to win injunction in tax cases while he served as a National Action Party (PAN) senator.

He also clashed with President Felipe Calderón, who, in 2008, buried the hatchet with the Diego faction of the PAN by appointing a Fernández de Cevallos protegé, Fernando Gómez-Mont, as interior minister and later a former legal associate, Arturo Chávez Chávez, as attorney general. (Gómez-Mont left cabinet after objecting to the PAN-Democratic Revolution Party alliances formed in five states for the July 4 elections.)

29 August 2010

The perils of investing in paradise

A road sign points the way to Tenacatita Bay in Jalisco state, where a titling dispute jeopardizes the investments of at least 40 foreign property owners. The owners bought deeds over the past five years that had been issued by the federal government and validated by the president of Mexico. But a Guadalajara-area businessman recently won a court injunction saying his company holds a valid deed to the same area - which was purchased in 1991 from the widow of a former Jalisco state governor and upheld in 1977 by the Mexican Supreme Court. 

State police now block access to the land the foreigners purchased along with the beach at Tenacatita, which had been popular with working-class Mexican sunseekers. The businessman, Andrés Villalobos, told reporters last week he would not offer the foreigners any compensation since, he said, they were most likely deceived in making their purchases. He promised, however, to help prosecute anyone tricking them into purchasing land that he said was always private property and not for the federal government to title and sell.

The foreign buyers insist they did their due diligence and hold titles validated by one of either President Felipe Calderón or former president Vicente Fox. At least one buyer put her title into a bank trust, suggesting her purchase was considered proper by some institutions.

I recently travelled to the Jalisco coast to write on the issue for Postmedia News. Click here to read it.

03 August 2010

Mexicana suspends ticket sales

SECOND UPDATE: Mexicana suspended all flights Aug. 28, including domestic runs flown by its subsidiaries, Mexicana Click and Mexicana Link. The new owners, Tenedora K, failed to adequately slash costs, which it reportedly tried to do by firing the unionized flight attendants and pilots and then rehiring some of the staff at reduced salaries. The federal government rejected the plan and refused to bail out Mexicana, which was privatized in 2005 and run up more than $1 billion in debt.

What becomes of Mexicana remains uncertain. I always preferred Mexicana to its domestic competitor AeroMéxico, which, in my experience, hired less-friendly and less-resourceful staff who were always anxious to pass the buck and neglect customer service problems. Other airlines such as Interjet, Volaris and Vivaaerobus - all of which are less than five years old and have lower cost structures than Mexicana - will fill some of the void on domestic runs and AeroMéxico and other competitors will no doubt add international flights. I'll definitely miss the direct runs back to Canada, though. It's possible some airlines such as Air Canada or Westjet will expand service, but the Canadian government's visa requirement for Mexican travelers dampened enthusiasm for flights to Canada and AeroMéxico abandoned its Canadian runs earlier this year due to a lack of demand.


Mexicana has stopped selling tickets effective 6 p.m. Aug. 4 for travel on its mainline carrier, which flys international runs and many of the high-volume domestic routes such as Mexico City-Monterrey, Mexico City-Cancún and Mexico City-Tijuana. The company said in a statement that it will continue selling tickets for domestic travel on its subsidiaries Mexicana Click and Mexicana Link as the operations of those airlines is unaffected by the financial and labour woes of Compañía Mexicana de Aviación.

Mexicana employees about to get a haircut

Compañia Mexicana de Aviación has filed for bankruptcy protection in both Mexico and the United States, in a move the Wall Street Journey said in a cheeky headline, "Wards off the repo man."

Mexicana de Aviación wants its pilots and flight attendants to take pay cuts of roughly 40 percent in order to keep the company from going broke. The Mexicana employees rejected the proposed paycuts on Aug. 2 - along with an offer to buy the mainline part of the airline for just 1 peso.

Financial problems and subsequent labour unrest are just the latest patches of turbulence for Mexicana, an 87-year-old airline that company officials say has lost more than four billion pesos since being re-privatized in 2005.

The airline on Aug. 2 canceled service on three runs, reduced frequencies on others and altered routing on many flights, which will now make a stop in Mexico City. Creditors had its planes held in Calgary, Montreal and Chicago. Mexicana says its operations will carry on as scheduled and its employees' unions say their members won't stop working.

Mexicana management says cuts need to made immediately for the carrier to survive. It's subsidiaries Mexicana Click, which operates many domestic runs, and Mexicana Link - a commuter-jet airline - are unaffected by the turbulence.

Pilots at Mexicana earn US $216,000 per year, while flight attendants earn US $52,000 per year. Under the management plan, pilots would earn US $127,000 per year. Flight attendants would earn $32,000 per year.

The company outlined plans to slash its labour force by 40 percent, too. The pilots' union said the company was distributing "inexact" statistics. It also said, "It's a shame they value it for one peso."

The federal government has declined to become involved in Mexicana's problems.

02 August 2010

Is Mexicana de Aviación about to go broke?

Avolar jet in Oaxaca
A jet from the defunct carrier Avolar sits by the terminal at the Oaxaca airport

Airline pilots and staff marched through Terminal 1 of the Mexico City airport on Sunday, demanding that money-losing carrier Mexicana de Aviación leave its employees' generous salary and benefit packages intact and stating emphatically that they're not to blame for the company's problems.

In short, Mexicana is going broke and is asking pilots and flight attendants to take cuts to their salaries and benefits. The airline also proposed job cuts and asked that its pilots buy the airline for one peso (less than 10 cents.) The pilots rejected those offers.

The pilots and flight attendants at Mexicana are very well paid - and their salaries are among the most lavish in the industry. The Mural newspaper reported Mexicana pilots earn more than $220,000 per year - far more than their counterparts in the U.S., who earn an average of $150,000 per year. Mexicana is asking its pilots to take a 41 percent pay cut. Flight attendants were asked to take a similar pay cut from their wages of $52,000 per year.

Mexicana is deeply in debt and a Canadian creditor recently had two Mexican carriers planes ordered held while at airports in Calgary and Montreal, forcing the cancellation of flights. Any problems at Mexican only impact the mainline operations, which is responsible foreign flights and many of the runs between Mexico City and the destinations of Tijuana, Monterrey and Cancún. Domestic operations on Mexicana subsidiaries Mexicana Click and Mexicana Link are unaffected and employee costs on those fleets are substantially less than on the mainline carrier.

All of the Mexicana action comes as the FAA downgrades Mexico's air safety rating. It launched the review following the November 2008 crash of a private jet in the swank Lomas de Chaputepec neighbourhood that claimed the life of the then interior minister Juan Camilo Mouriño.

The Mexican aviation has long been financially troubled as Mexicana and rival AeroMéxico were government-owned, but operated as separate units, from the mid 1990s - following the peso crisis - until Mexicana was sold in 2005. AeroMéxico was sold in 2007. Other airlines to go bust in recent years include AeroCalifornia - famed for flying old planes and providing tardy service - Aerolineas Azteca, Aviacsa, Alma de México and Avolar.

Two lower-cost airlines have flourished, however: Interjet and Volaris - both of whose costs are much lower than those at Mexicana or AeroMéxico. Carlos Slim recently sold his share of Volaris, prompting questions about the state of the industry. (Slim's not known to abandon a good investment.)

Or perhaps aviation is just too competitive. Slim, of course, has become fabulously wealthy operating in the competition free - at least it was for decades - domestic telecommunications market. (Slim likes to boast how his companies face stiff competition in other markets and is facing growing competition in Mexico.) But while the government abides businessmen like Slim and monopolistic companies in sectors such as broadcasting, brewing and cement, it steadfastly refuses to allow consolidation in the aviation sector and permit the creation of a flag carrier.

With Interjet and Volaris on the scene, the new flag carrier would face at least some competition from companies being operated much more efficiently than either AeroMéxico or Mexicana. But for mysterious reasons, aviation remains the one industry in which the government refuses to allow consolidation.

26 July 2010

Supposed "Jefe Diego" letter and photo surface

A supposed photo of missing former presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos surfaced online, suggesting the National Action Party (PAN) politician and Mexican legal bigwig is alive - if not well.

The photo, made public by journalist José Cárdenas of Raido Formula, shows a blindfolded, shirtless and disheveled Fernández de Cevallos, 69, holding a copy of the muckraking news weekly, Proceso, which features his image on the cover. That image ran with the headline, "Diego's dark history," and contained an unflattering account of the political, business and legal dealings of a figure deeply despised by the Mexican left and unpopular in some circles of the governing PAN.

Cárdenas also produced a letter supposedly written by Fernández de Cevallos to his family. The letter - which lacks any sort of polish or the prose for which Fernández de Cevallos, a gifted orator, is known - begins with an admonishment to quit penny pinching and to pay any ransom as quickly as possible. It reads:

"I can't describe the hell that your father is living and I don't know much longer I'll hold on. Therefore, I ask that you make your best effort as quickly as possible. They have all the time in the world.

"... They tell me that they made you a concrete proposal and that you haven't answered them with a reasonable counter offer. You have to do it now, immediately.

" ... Any advice that you're poor is absurd and will be fatal."

Diego then supposedly writes of his poor health, saying:

"I've fainted various times and have chest pains despite [taking] a lot of 'Tenormin' and Aspirin. You know that I've not hot had good heart health since the operation.

"I have lost weight and my fatigue is each day worse. Therefore, time if of the essence."

He ends the letter with an urgent plea:

"Don't try to diminish the amount that is attributed to my net worth. That's irrelevant. What's urgently needed is that you make a counter proposal that's as high as you are able [to make] and I'm sure that they will negotiate. What is urgently needed are serious negotiations to manage the delivery of money and my freedom."

The admonishment to pay follows reports of the supposed kidnappers demanding a ransom of $50 million and the family offering $30 million in exchange. Negotiations reportedly went cold afterward.

Fernández de Cevallos - known as "El Jefe Diego," or "Diego the Boss" - disappeared more than two months ago from his ranch in the state of Querétaro, several hours to the northwest of Mexico City. His family has kept quiet, except to ask that federal and state officials withdraw from any investigations - this, in spite of the fact that close legal and political associates of Fernández de Cevallos - Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez and the recently replaced interior minister, Fernando Gómez-Mont - occupied top positions in the federal cabinet at the time of his disappearance.

Speculation has been rife about who might have abducted Fernández de Cevallos and for what motives. The EPR rebels denied any involvement, although security analyst have mentioned a supposed EPR splinter group as the kidnappers. A supposed email from the kidnappers - read by Cárdenas on his radio show - says much of what has been reported is false and that they have not lowered their demands.

If the photo is real, it should come as no surprise that it shows "El Jefe Diego - or, "Diego the Boss" - holding a Proceso issue suggesting he has amassed a fortune and wields influence over Mexican political and legal affairs.

The Proceso editorial line tilts left and Fernández de Cevallos is loathed by many on the Mexican left for his history of brokering deals with former president Carlos Salinas and later, while serving as a PAN senator from 2000 - 2006, winning big claims for corporate clients taking legal action against the federal government - often in a bid to win "amparos" (injunctions) against taxation measures.

Many reports falsely refer to Fernández de Cevallos as friends with Calderón, whose sister, then a Senator, promoted a bill known as the "Ley Anti-Diego" to curb Jefe Diego's moonlighting as a lawyer while he served in the Senate.

22 July 2010

Xóchitl Gálvez gives it the "old college try"

Xóchitl Gálvez, the PAN-PRD gubernatorial candidate in Hidalgo, awarded 10,000 pesos yesterday to the video best purporting to show irregularities in the July 4 state election, which the PRI won by a five-point margin - much closer than expected and especially close given the state government's backing of the PRI campaign. The Gálvez campaign has raised allegations of irregularities that range from vote buying to the police raiding one of her campaign buildings on election day to the PRI governor of the neighbouring State of Mexico sending in trailer-loads of giveaways for plying voters.

The award stunt was the latest action in her attempt to have the election overturned - something that hasn't happened on the state level since the electoral tribunal (Trife) overturned the 2003 election in Colima state. (Ironically, a 2008 municipal election was overturned in Zimapán, Hidalgo, site of a proposed toxic waste dump after the pro-dump PRI complained that the local priest had preached politics by the pulpit by voicing opposition to the project in his election day homily.)

Her odds of success in overturning the election are uncertain, but Gálvez has emerged from the July 4 elections as one of the nation's rising political stars.

The Gálvez campaign confronted an electoral machine operated by one of the most retrograde PRI state governments in the country - a place where the governor went so far as to change the state anthem to something glorifying the PRI and state media outlets, which are considered friendly to the PRI and, no doubt, dependent on state government advertising, gave the PRI campaign five times the coverage it gave her. She received less support and publicity from her own party backers than was given to similar coalitions running in Oaxaca and Puebla. Gálvez went so far as to remove her family from the state on the eve of the elections and mentioned having some campaign members threatened by Los Zetas.

She even had to deal with a scorned Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who demand the Labour Party (PT) pull out of any coalitions in Hidalgo because of her presumed closeness with former president Vicente Fox (in whose administration she served as commissioner of the Indigenous Communities Development Commission).

"She gave it the old college try," said ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez.

Whether or not she wins in the tribunals, Gálvez - who is not a member of any political party - has emerged as one of the political stars of the July 4 elections and should be factor in Mexican politics over the coming years.

20 July 2010

The job nobody wants

Former PAN president Germán Martínez and Dep. Josefina Vázquez Mota speak at a spring 2009 press conference.

Proponents of the suddenly popular and surprisingly cohesive PAN-PRD alliances have set their sights on taking the State of Mexico next year - and subsequently derailing the presidential aspirations of the outgoing PRI governor, Enrique Peña Nieto. But the proponents continue encountering a decided lacked of enthusiasm from any of the potential candidates, some of whom would prefer running for the presidency in 2012 instead of being relegated to a provincial backwater in Toluca.

Writing in the newspaper El Universal, columnist Salvador García Soto mentioned former UNAM rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente as the latest big name to demur on the possibility of running next year in the State of Mexico. The former rector, García Soto writes, is being courted by the coalition, but would prefer to run on the federal level as a "citizen candidate." (Mexico doesn't allow independent candidacies so "citizen candidates" are considered party candidates who lack party membership cards.)

García mentioned sporting goods retail mogul-turned-anti-crime fighter Alejandro Martí as another potential "citizen candidate" in the State of Mexico. Martí became prominent in the summer of 2008, when public outrage surged after it was revealed his teenage son Fernando Martí was kidnapped and murdered, even though a ransom had been paid.

PAN leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Josefina Vázquez Mota, has frequently been mentioned as a possible candidate, too. She recently let it be known she has no interest in running for governor of the State of Mexico, however - even though she is perhaps the best-known panísta in the state, which is the most populous in the country and surrounds Mexico City on three sides.

De la Fuente presided over the UNAM for much of the last decade. He took office in the wake of a student strike over a proposed tuition increase - which was unreasonably lengthened by the obstructionism of a small band of resident radicals, who tarnished the school's reputation - and led it back to reasonable levels of respect in national and international circles. (UNAM still charges no tuition.)

A psychiatrist by training, de la Fuente has been promoted as a possible unity candidate for Mexico City mayor in 2012 or president in the same year by some in the oft-disparate and oft-dysfunctional Mexican left.

Vázquez Mota has showed an equal lack of enthusiasm for running in the State of Mexico, even though the PAN's central leadership and operatives in the presidency - who are known to dislike her and have aspirations for other potential 2012 presidential candidates - have encouraged her to move to the state level.

The former education and social development secretary could buck that pressure, however. Vazquez Mota draws relatively favourable poll numbers and is running just behind Sen. Santiago Creel - another Los Pinos enemy - for the PAN presidential nomination. PRD leader in the Chamber and for Mexico City mayor Alejandro Encinas has also been mentioned as another possible State of Mexico candidate.

All of the potential opposition candidates poll far below Peña Nieto the 2012 race - and none seems to want his current job.

Peña Nieto, meanwhile, continued with the public works narrative of his administration by inaugurating a hospital Monday in Chalco, a sprawling metropolis founded by squatters on the southeastern outskirts of Mexico City. The hospital was the 500th project his government has taken credit for completing - and many of the media outlets that have tirelessly gushed over his administration were there to cover the event. (It must be asked how many of these outlets have pages sponsored by the State of Mexico government.)

He emerged from the July 4 gubernatorial elections in worse shaped than he entered, however. Peña Nieto campaigned hard in places such as Oaxaca, Puebla and Hidalgo with the idea that PRI governments in those states would back his 2012 presidential run - no doubt, using public funds. (The PRI lost in Oaxaca and Puebla, while the Hidalgo election is being contested to the electoral tribunal.)

But some in the PRI think the losses in other places might help to keep the State of Mexico in party hands as Peña Nieto will be less able to impose a preferred candidate through the "dedazo" - a practice that backed fired horribly on the PRI in Oaxaca and Puebla - and potential infighting in the state will thus be kept to a minimum.

16 July 2010

More electoral twists for 2011?

López Zavala con Peña Nieto, 05-06-10.

How much does State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto fear the formation of anti-PRI electoral alliance for the July 2011 gubernatorial race in his home state? Apparently enough to postpone the election date to July 2012, when the country chooses a new president - and he expects to romp to victory as the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate.

Writing in the Mexico City newspaper La Razón, political columnist Adrián Trejo floated the idea of Peña Nieto promoting a constitutional amendment so that the State of Mexico would hold future gubernatorial elections at the same time as federal elections. The state already holds legislative and municipal elections at the same time as the presidential contest and other states such as Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Morelos and the Federal District already hold gubernatorial elections the same day.

The scenario, according to Trejo, would unfold as follows:

The heavily PRI state legislature approves changing the election date to July 2012. Peña Nieto then resigns Sept. 15, one year ahead of his previously scheduled departure from office. A successor appointed by the legislature would serve out the remainder of the extended term.

Trejo says the idea is being studied, although it would bring a high political cost. He cited no specific sources for his July 16 column and insisted such a change to the gubernatorial election date would be legal.

The possible maneuvering reflects the enormous importance of the State of Mexico in national politics and how its next gubernatorial election is expected to have national implications.

Emboldened by the recent electoral successes of PAN-PRD alliances in Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, the PAN and PRD now are gunning for the State of Mexico as winning the country's most populous state would derail Peña Nieto's presidential aspirations.

The PRI recognizes the importance of retaining the State of Mexico, too. PRI president Beatriz Paredes brokered a deal last fall with PAN president César Nava to avoid any such coalitions in the State of Mexico in exchange for the PRI in the Chamber of Deputies supporting passage of the 2010 federal budget. (The PAN reneging on the deal prompted the resignation of the then-interior minister Fernando Gómez-Mont from the PAN and hastened his departure from cabinet.)

It remains to be seen what happens in the State of Mexico, but the maneuvering for the top political prize of 2011 is only just beginning.

14 July 2010

Gómez-Mont resigns - to no one's surprise

PAN big shots
Fernando Gómez-Mont (left) appears at a 2008 press conference with then-PAN president Germán Martínez. Gómez-Mont subsequently became interior minister, but resigned his position July 14.

Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont resigned Wednesday evening, barely a week after three of the PAN-PRD electoral alliances he had harshly criticized - and ultimately cited as motives for resigning from the PAN - unseated retrograde PRI state governments in Oaxaca and Puebla and scored an unlikely victory in Sinaloa.

President Felipe Calderón promptly unveiled a new interior minister, former Baja California government secretary José Francisco Blake Mora - who was barely a week removed from presiding over a PAN electoral debacle in his home state, where the PRI won all five municipalities, including Tijuana, and claimed a majority in the state legislature.

Blake Mora arrives in the Interior Ministry - arguably the most powerful of the federal ministries - with only modest experience in federal politics, having served in the Chamber of Deputies, Baja California legislature and Tijuana city council. The PAN has governed Baja California since 1989.

The new interior minister worked as a Calderón's political operator in the Chamber of Deputies early in the last decade and gained notoriety for spearheading an unsuccessful move to strip lawmakers belonging to the oil workers' union - which was engulfed in the Pemexgate scandal - of their immunity from prosecution. He reportedly spurned previous invites to serve in the federal cabinet.

The departure of Gómez-Mont came as part of a larger cabinet shuffle in which the president replaced one of his closest advisers, Patricia Flores, from Los Pinos and tapped Economy Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Mateos to replace her as director of the president's office.

Flores was expected to be named ambassador to Portugal. Ruiz raised hackles in 2008 for suggesting that if Calderón hadn't won in 2006, narcos would be running the country.

It marked the fourth time in less than four years that Calderón named a new interior minister. Gómez-Mont replaced Juan Camilo Mouriño - Calderón's closest ally during the early years of his administration - in November 2008 after Mouriño perished in a plane crash. Mouriño had replaced current Chamber speaker Francisco Ramirez Acuña, who was deemed a poor political negotiator.

No one ever questioned Gómez-Mont's negotiating talents. He formed a formidable PAN negotiating tag-team with his legal and political mentor, the currently missing former presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos - who is eroneously mentioned in many press reports as being a close friend of Calderón. They negotiated many of the early electoral reforms that led to an independent IFE and brokered many deals with the administration of then-president Carlos Salinas.

Gómez-Mont's appointment to the Interior Ministry was interpreted at the time as an attempt by Calderón to build party unity by reaching out to PAN factions that never embraced his 2006 candidacy.

But the Gómez-Mont later resigned from the PAN over the party's willingness to broker alliances with the PRD - a party which has never accepted the 2006 election results. Both Gómez-Mont and Fernández de Cevallos strongly disliked the Mexican left, according to political observers. He also infamously served as "witness" to a deal between the PAN president César Nava and PRI president Beatriz Paredes to have no coalitions next year in the State of Mexico - all in exchange for the PRI backing a 2010 budget with a sales tax increase. It was believed many in the PRI - including Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz - had tried broking deals with Gómez-Mont to avoid the formation of PAN-PRD alliances.

Gómez-Mont, says analyst Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz of the UNAM political science department, presented problems in his role of a negotiator between the presidency and the other political parties. The PRD distrusted him - and blamed him, without offering proof, of having its gubernatorial candidate in Quintana Roo arrested on organized crime charges - while parts of the PRI viewed him as biased toward the faction loyal to State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto.

Gómez-Mont is expected to return to private practice as one of the country's most esteemed criminal defence lawyers.

Where the heck is "El Jefe Diego"?

Former PAN presidential candidate and legal bigwig Diego Fernández de Cevallos - better known as "El Jefe Diego," or Diego the Boss - disappeared from his ranch in the state of Querétaro 60 days ago. His fate remains uncertain and the domain of much speculation - the most colourful of which involved the FARC supposedly having a hand in his disappearance.

El Universal columnist Katia D'Artigues sums up the current thinking on the case in a July 14 column. Among her points:

1. Diego was kidnapped by professions, who extracted a tracking chip from his body.

2. The kidnappers demanded $50 million, but negotiations are now in the $30 million range.

3. Foreigners are carrying out the negotiations as the Attorney General's Office (PGR) and state authorities withdrew from the case early on at the behest of Diego's family. The captors communicate with the family through messages left at churches and emails.

4. The EPR rebels - blamed for the 2007 bomb attacks on Pemex pipelines - has denied any involvement. "Security experts" say an EPR splinter group known as the Revolutionary Democratic Tendency (TDR) has emerged and might be involved.

In an El Universal column published July 13, Salvador García Soto raised the possibility of the kidnapping being motivated by revenge and linked to the drug trade.

"Revenge for a failed, multi-million (dollar) litigation by (Diego's) powerful law firm, Férnandez de Cevallos y Alba, S.A., that involves a group of businessmen linked to narcotics trafficking in Quintana Roo, is the version that is being given in Mexican and U.S. military intelligence circles to explain the kidnapping," García wrote.

Whatever the truth, what is known - and what is provoking the most disquiet in some cirlces - is the silence from the federal government and the willingness of law enforcement and judicial officials to withdraw from perhaps the most prominent kidnapping case of the past five years. Some legal experts also have questioned the constitutionality of such a move by the PGR.

Ironically, Diego - as I mentioned in a previous post - presides over a faction in the PAN that has placed two of his acolytes: Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont and Attorney General Arturo Chávez, in two of the country's top cabinet positions and in positions responsible for security matters. Now the pair are on the sidelines as their political mentor is held captive by professionals demanding an enormous sum of money - or so we're told.

Expect the case to grow ever the more curious over the coming 60 days.

13 July 2010

Slim buys (another) gold mine

The slogan outside this seafood restaurant in the Col. Roma goes by the slogan, "The only one that doesn't belong to Carlos Slim."

Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, bought a gold mine yesterday - literally.

Slim purchased an actual gold mine in the state of Aguascalientes for $25 million from the Canadian company, Goldgroup Mining, Inc. With gold prices hovering above $1,200 per ounce, the mine should handsomely pad his fortune, which Forbes magazine estimated at $53.5 billion in its most recent survey of the world's wealthiest individuals.

Although not a miner, Slim knows plenty about gold mines.

The purchase comes 20 years after Slim purchased the gold mine responsible for generating much of his fortune: Teléfonos de México - better known as Telemex, the national telephone monopoly.

Through Telmex and the Telmex wireless spinoff, América Movil (Telcel), Slim came to dominate the Mexican economy. At one point it was estimated his companies accounted for one-third of the value of the Mexican stock exchange, while his net worth is equal to roughly seven percent of the country's GDP.

His reach has extended into other countries, too. Telmex and América Movil now compete - actually compete - successfully in other parts of Latin America. And Slim made a $250 million investment in The New York Times, which will pay him a 14 percent return - a situation the jailed former newspaper baron Conrad Black described as "a loan-shark's lifeline." (I disagree with Lord Black's other assessments of the Times, however.)

Slim won control of Telmex through an auction in 1990 as the then-administration of former president Carlos Salinas privatized a raft of government companies. The aptly-named Slim - who name fails to describe his wallet - claimed the crown jewel of the assets being privatized, along with permission to operate Telmex as a monopoly for at least seven years.

The rest, as they say, is history.

11 July 2010

Handicapping 2011


The success of the five PAN-PRD alliances in the July 4 gubernatorial elections has fomented talk of similar arrangements being made for the 2011 gubernatorial and local elections scheduled in at least five states - and most notably in the State of Mexico, where deposing the PRI in the country's most populous jurisdiction would severely diminish the presidential aspirations of Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto.

Already, PAN president César Nava and his PRD counterpart Jesús Ortega - both men having been spared certain destitution because of the electoral successes of their previously maligned alliances - have called for a mega-alliance in the State of Mexico. Potential candidates for the State of Mexico include PAN leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Josefina Vazquez Mota - who isn't anxious to be dispatched to Toluca and thus removed from the presidential race (a move long-promoted by her enemies in Los Pinos) - and former Mexico City mayor and current PRD leader in the Chamber, Alejandro Encinas.

Peña Nieto says he isn't scared of any alliances - a disengenuous position made all the more believable by his striking a secret deal last fall with Nava, PRI president Beatriz Paredes and Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont that called for his block of lawmakers in the Chamber to support the 2010 federal budget in exchange for no alliances being formed in the State of Mexico.

But some commentators have cast doubt on the potential success of an alliance in the State of Mexico and say that the elections of 2011 could prove especially disastrous for the PRD - which might need to form alliances in its own states to stave off a resurgent PRI.

Writing in the newspaper Milenio, Federico Berrueto points to polling data suggesting that the success of the winning alliances in Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa depended more on the unpopularity of the incumbent PRI governors than any other factors.

Citing survey data from GCE - which polls for Milenio - Berrueto listed some of the states with the least-popular governors prior to the elections (with 32 signifying last place):

32. Oaxaca (PRI)
31. Aguascalientes (PAN)
28. Zacatecas (PRD)
27. Puebla (PRI)
26. Tlaxcala (PAN)

In all five states, the incumbent party lost. On the other end of the survey, the states with popular governors holding elections included:

2. Tamaulipas (PRI)
5. Veracruz (PRI)
6. Quintana Roo (PRI)
10. Durango (PRI)
11. Hidalgo (PRI)

The PRI won all five races on July, although its victories in Durango and Hidalgo have been questioned. (In Durango, teachers loyal to the PRI governor of neighbouring Coahuila - who ranked most popular in the CGE survey - poured into the state and helped deliver a narrow victory of less than two percentage points. In Hidalgo, the PAN-PRD coalition somehow managed to claim 45 percent of the vote despite running against a shadowy PRI machine that went so far as to have an opposition campaign office raided by state police on election day morning.)

In the GCE survey, Peña Nieto ranked 12, suggesting the PRI is in for a tight race next year in the State of Mexico.

Ironically, PRD is shaping up as the party with the worst prospects for the coming year. The PRD faces elections in its strongholds of Baja California Sur and Guerrero, which it won in 2005 in an outcome the Reforma newspaper declared, "The end of the Outlaw Mexico."

In the GCE survey, the PRD governors of Baja California Sur and Guerrero ranked 22 and 23 respectively. The PRD is divided in both states and, in 2009, it lost ground to the PRI in Guerrero, which had been divided previously, but made an impressive comeback and even claimed the mayor's office in Acapulco. (Nayarit, governed by the PRI, holds elections in 2011, too.)

Even worse for the PRD, legislative and municipal elections are slated for next fall in Michoacán, where PRD Gov. Leonel Godoy ranks 30 - third worst - on the survey.

Godoy already has discarded the possibility of a coalition in Michoacán - home state of President Felipe Calderón, but a place where the paniísta has failed to establish a significant political base.

The prospect of a resurgent PRI might change Godoy's mind, but chances are that many in the PRD would be loath to broker a deal that so blatently favoured the president.

07 July 2010

Tense elections yield unexpected political change in Mexico

Don't drop the second "e" from Eviel


CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico – Cristian Licona, an unemployed high school graduate, voted for the first time ever in the northern and oft-violent state of Tamaulipas, where, barely a week earlier, the gubernatorial front-runner, Rodolfo Torre Cantu of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was gunned down in an attack blamed on warring drug cartels. He seemed uncertain if he was doing the right thing, however.

“I’m voting with the faith that somehow the country changes ... that the violence ends,” he said after casting a ballot in the state capital Ciudad Victoria.

Licona was among the minority as a nearly 75 percent of eligible voters in Tamaulipas residents stayed away from the polls on July 4, a reflection of the tense atmosphere in a state with more than 300 murders attributed to the cartels so far this year.

Residents in most of the 11 other states holding gubernatorial races the same day showed more enthusiasm, however, even though the campaigns were often overshadowed by violence, perceptions of politically motivated police action and allegations of vote buying and other electoral vices being used.

The races delivered mixed results with both the resurgent PRI and five alliances -- comprised of left-wing parties joining forces with President Felipe Calderon’s centre-right National Action Party (PAN) -- claiming significant victories. But the races also delivered democratic changes not witnessed in Mexico since 2000, when Vicente Fox and the PAN ended 71-years of uninterrupted PRI rule on the national level.

The alliances scored major victories in the southeastern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, two bastions of retrograde PRI politics notorious for the political persecution of opposition parties and social movements, the use of social programs for partisan ends and the continued rule by caciques (local strongmen).

“Democracy won” on Sunday, said political science professor Aldo Munoz Armenta of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

“It’s a surprise (the coalitions won) because state governments used so much public money against them.”

The PRI had ruled for more than 80 consecutive years in Oaxaca, where Gov. Ulises Ruiz was declared responsible by the Supreme Court for human rights violations in cracking down on a 2006 uprising against his government, while in Puebla, outgoing Gov. Mario Marin was caught four years ago in leaked telephone conversations scheming to railroad a prominent journalist, Lydia Cacho, for writing supposedly defaming a powerful businessman – all in exchange for a bottle of cognac.

“The two most questioned governors in Mexico lost. No one is going to cry over them,” wrote columnist Ciro Gomez Leyva in the newspaper Milenio of the PRI losses in Oaxaca and Puebla and the two outgoing governors.

Still, the PRI won and was leading in nine of the gubernatorial races on Sunday, but pre-election polls had suggested the possibility of the party running the table. Late interventions by Calderon and PRI missteps in reacting to the Tamaulipas assassination possibly swayed some of the races, however.

The president recently introduced measures such as simplifying tax compliance and eliminating a hated vehicle tax and took high-profile trips during the campaign to the United States and Canada to denounce anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and the still-resented Canadian decision to impose visas on Mexican travellers.

After the assassination of Torre Cantu, Calderon called for a national dialogue over security, but some in the PRI spurned the invitations and disparaged the president.

The president still faces a complicated political landscape over the final two and a half years of his administration. And the PRI still leads early polls for the 2012 presidential contest and controls a majority of Mexico’s 31 state governments and the lower house of Congress, which has been slow to address Calderon’s proposed reforms to labour laws and the political system and has showed only tepid enthusiasm for his ongoing crackdown on the drug cartels.

But political observers say the country changed with Sunday's vote. "Alternation in governance is now a fact in Mexico," Munoz said.

04 July 2010

Coalitions claim early victories


The alliances appear to have toppled the PRI in Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, although the votes are still being tabulated. The PRI is leading in the other nine states and should take Tlaxcala and Aguascalientes from the PAN and Zacatecas from the PRD. It also is leading in municipal races being held in the PAN stronghold of Baja California - most notably in Tijuana.

Former PRD national executive committee member Fernando Belnauzarán succinctly summed up the early results with the Twitter posting: Without the alliances, the PRI has a clean sweep.

Volkswagen covered in political ads

The multi-party coalitions formed to slay the Institutional Revolutionary Party in six states have declared victory in Oaxaca and Puebla, potentially ending 80 years of PRI rule in two of the country's most notorious political backwaters.

Exit polls give the PAN-PRD-PT-Convergence coalition the lead in Oaxaca. It remains to be seen if the exit polls prove accurate as Oaxaca - where the geography resembles a crumpled-up piece of paper and rural villages are difficult to access - is considered difficult to poll. The state electoral institute also isn't considered especially trustworthy by opposition parties and the PRI is legendary for marshaling its vote.

For its part PRI officials in Oaxaca have already rejected any talk that the party had lost. But political observers and some in the opposition say the PRI was forced to campaign especially hard this time around, suggesting its leadership knew the race would be tight.

Coalition candidate Gabino Cué ran a strong campaign in Oaxaca and seemed able to tap an enormous discontent with Gov. Ulises Ruiz, who developed a sordid reputation for repression and presiding over a crackdown on striking teachers that led to months of violent protests in the state capital. The PRI candidate Eviel Pérez Magaña also came across as being a subordinate of Ruiz - and someone who would be easily manipulated by Ruiz while holding office.

The coalition also claimed victories in Durango and Tlaxcala, but exit polls couldn't confirm those claims - and one poll published by Excélsior gave the PRI the advantage in Tlaxcala.

In the states holding gubernatorial elections July 4, the PRI appeared set to roll. It led in Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Veracruz and Quintana Roo. If the polls prove accurate, it would take Aguascalientes from the PAN and Zacatecas from the PRD.

But losing Oaxaca especially hurts the PRI, mainly in terms of prestige as it had been a state the party had invested heavily in holding. It was deemed so important that the party's main attraction, State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto campaigned on several occasions in Oaxaca. Some local paníistas suggested a deal was afoot in which Peña Nieto would campaign heavily in Oaxaca and back Ruiz for the PRI presidency. Peña Nieto would, in turn, gain the backing of a major PRI state in his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination - and access to the state budget in a jurisdiction with little transparency to promote his candidacy.

The coalition winning Oaxaca sends a message that the PRI - which had rolled on the local level in recent years - is not invincible, which is why the coalition parties will take great pleasure in this potential victory, even though they lost two state governorships. It also sets the stage for a mega-coalition next year in the State of Mexico, where a defeat of the PRI might damage Enrique Peña Nieto's presidential aspirations.

It must also be said that any coalition success saves the jobs of PAN president César Nava and PRD president Jesús Ortega - and makes Andrés Manuel López Obrador look like a hypocrite as he has blasted the PRI as a great looming danger, but did his best to scuttle any anti-PRI alliances. (It's suspected, though, AMLO's tours through the "Usos y Costumbres" communities of Oaxaca might have paid dividends for the coalitions and the same network that got out the vote for him in Oaxaca in 2006 might have been revived. Many of AMLO's people were also less intransigent than him and participated in the coalitions.)

Now comes the hard part for any coalition: Governing. Flavio Sosa, the APPO protest leader from 2006, now goes into the state legislature, sitting in a caucus with the PAN, a party many in the Oaxaca social movements loath - although just perhaps slightly less than the PRI, which is why the coalition appears to have won.

03 July 2010

Electoral vices hard to break

This is an expanded explanation of electoral vices such as vote buying and coercion that I wrote about in a recent Canwest News Service story. (Story link in title.)

The 10th anniversary of the Vicente Fox's historic toppling of the Institutional Revolutionary Party passed on July 2. Two days after that, 12 states hold gubernatorial elections widely expected to result in a PRI landslide.

Much of Fox's and the National Action Party's original agenda of change has gone unfulfilled - and toppling the PRI remains the most remarkable accomplishment. Even less of their agenda of change happened on the state level, where governors now preside over fiefdoms lacking much in the way of transparency - or even impartial electoral institutions.

The lead-up to the July 4 elections have highlighted the lack of change - and also exposed many of the lingering electoral vices that have been hard to break such as vote buying and coercion. These vices have been rife of late, not just been confined to the PRI campaign, and, according to some observers, become more rampant.

Jeffrey Weldon, director of the political science department at ITAM, attributes a large part of the problem to the electoral reforms of 2007, which gave the parties free radio and television advertising and barred political messages from non-political players from the airwaves.

Parties used to spend hundreds of millions of pesos on electronic advertising, but now have extra cash since such ads are now distributed to the parties for free based on a formula that takes into account their previous electoral performances. The extra money now is spent on the "ground game," Weldon says.

"The advantage of the previous system is that everyone had to spend their money on TV, which is all open. Everyone sees what your doing and they didn’t have much money left over to spend on the ground game. It’s the ground game where there’s a lot of fraud,” he explains.

“These things are a lot worse than they used to be and they’ve learned new tricks that they didn’t have to use before.”

Much of the criticism for the vices focuses on state governors, who became powerful over the the past decade and, in many places, effectively run the campaigns of their preferred successors.

Tapes also surfaces in places such as Veracruz and Oaxaca purporting to show two PRI governors, Fidel Herrera and Ulises Ruiz, scheming to win votes for the PRI gubernatorial campaigns and, in the case of the two-time lottery winner Herrera, using government social programs for political ends.

The PRI has countered that the federal government operates social programs such as Oportunidades (a conditional cash transfer program for the poorest Mexican families) with electoral aims and has branded the Social Development Secretariat (Sedesol), "The electoral arm of the PAN." PRI Senate leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones long has pushed for Sedesol to be dissolved and its duties - such as giving cash to Oportunidades recipients - be sent to the state level, where the PRI controls more than half of the governments.

Weldon points out, however, "The federal government doesn’t have money to do vote buying," and that the governors "have taken control of the giving away process."

Many political observers point out that governors from other parties regularly engage in such vices as vote buying and coercion, too.

"What the PAN denounces in Oaxaca the PAN does in Tlaxcala ... and the PRD does in Mexico City," says Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

In Tlaxcala, the PAN leadership has given governor Hector Ruiz free rein to run the party's gubernatorial campaign - which the PAN could win, a possible lesson for a party rife with dissension over the Felipe Calderon-loyal central leadership's eagerness to meddle in local matters. Ruiz has been accused of putting government resources toward the PAN campaign. (Look to Aguascalientes, where the PAN is poised to lose, along with San Luis Potosí, Mazatlán and Mérida for examples of national party meddling leading to electoral disasters.)

In Zacatecas, where the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) is unravelling and expected to lose the governorship to the PRI, the magazine Proceso reported on a video showing state employees plying farmers with cheques and pre-election giveaways.

Other factors may also be at work, including structural differences between federal and state politics and governors now having more money to give away - presumably for legitimate public works.

"There’s an enormous amount of pork being delivered, (more than) in the past," says Federico Estévez, political science professor at ITAM. "There’s a lot of vote-buying out there, but there’s also a lot of public works."

And on the state level, he points out that many governors have the luxury of depending on legislatures split between just two parties as very few states - with the possible exceptions of Michoacan, Tlaxcala, Morelos and Chiapas - feature anything other than two-party political systems. (Mexico City might be the oddest since it's perhaps the only place in the country with PRD-PAN battles as opposed to the usually PRI-PRD or PRI-PAN showdowns. The 2006 federal race between a strong PAN and a strong PRD could be a historical aberration.)

"Governors are taking advantage of their electoral arithmetic," he says. "You don't have much blocking in the states."

Ultimately, Estévez says the problems have been in the democratic reforms, which operated on many false assumptions.

"The flaw isn’t with the governors. The flaw is with the political transition, the democratic reforms," he says.

"They always assumed that what happened at the national level would be replicated inevitably in local politics."

01 July 2010

Sympathy for the PRI?

Priístas head for the exits
Priístas head for the exits after a June 26 campaign rally in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, featuring State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto.

Federico Arreola, whose incessant tweets - almost all of the anti-Calderón, pro-López Obrador variety -  can be insufferable, often pens excellent columns for Sendero del Peje, a news organization with obvious López Obrador sympathies.

In his July 1 column, he calls the June 28 assassination of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantú in Tamaulipas the party's only significant "campaign act" in any of the 12 state and local elections scheduled for July 4.

A series of leaked phone conversations, suggesting improper campaign meddling and use of social programs for electoral purposes by PRI governors, had cast an unfavourable light on the PRI in some of its most notorious bastions of retrograde politics such as Veracruz and Oaxaca. Now, instead of being viewed as presiding over evil empires and stopping at nothing to retain power, the PRI has some sympathy on its side.

Additionally, the assassination is expected to diminish voter turnout - a factor that always benefits the PRI.

"Fear," Arreloa wrote, "Works in favor of the PRI." 

The party depends heavily in many states on its "voto duro" (firm vote) of loyalists, campesinos, unionized workers and government employees - whose jobs depend on the PRI retaining power. The voto duro, along with those lured by its vote-buying schemes and motivated by coercion, is usually enough to win (at the ballot box) unless voter turnout is hight.

The PRI, it must be said, knows how to turn out its vote and is famed in places such as Oaxaca for its year-round organizing and ability to ingratiate itself into the life of every small town and ejido in the state. As one priísta in Oaxaca told me recently, "The PRI organizes all the time. The other parties start organizing three months before an election."

Another factor to watch is the dependability of the PRI vote. As political science professor Federico Estévez of ITAM is fond of pointing out: The PRI vote has stayed roughly the same over the years, while the PAN and PRD votes have varied. The only exception to that might have been the 2006 presidential election, when the party had an unpopular candidate and many priístas drifted over to the campaigns of PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the PAN.

Expect the  PRI's voto duro to deliver on July 4 and the PAN and PRD votes to remain low.

28 June 2010

PRI gubernatorial candidate assassinated

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas, Rodolfo Torre Cantú, was assassinated June 28 while heading for the airport in the state capital, Ciudad Victoria.

Torre was leading all the polls by a wide margin in what had become one of Mexico's most violent states over the past six months. Over that time, narcotics-trafficking cartels - supposedly an alliance of the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana - had flooded the state with armed toughs to exterminate Los Zetas, the gang of rogue former soldiers that previously was the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel.

The death of a gubernatorial candidate just seven days prior to statewide elections marks the most notable political assassination in Mexico since the 1994 murder of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana. The details and motives for Colosio's death still remain firmly in the domain of conspiracies more than 16 years later.

Torre's death also marks perhaps the most significant political murder since President Felipe Calderón launched his crackdown on the drug cartels in December 2006 - or, according to Patrick Corcorcan of the Gancho Blog, at least the most significant murder since Edgar Millán, acting director of the Federal Preventive Police, was gunned down in May 2008 by the Sinaloa Cartel.

Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and anti-drug prosecutor José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos died in a November 2008 plane crash mere miles from Los Pinos (the president's residence) but the incident was ruled an accident and foul play ruled out.

Violence attributed to narcotics trafficking has been rife in Tamaulipas, which borders southern Texas and covers the most northeastern parts of Mexico. Some 20 bodies were discovered in the oil town of Ciudad Madero on June 11, while neighbouring Tampico had been gripped earlier in the spring by rumors of pending massacres and violent acts. The border region has been equally bad with shootouts and cartel-sponsored blockades of major thoroughfares. Journalists in many area now avoid any coverage organized crime activities and violent acts - deaths of journalist have occurred and two reporters from the news organization Milenio were kidnapped.

The cartel influence in the region is so rampant the Economist reported that bars in Reynosa serve Zeta-brand whisky.

The violence had negatively impacted campaigns for the July 4 elections. Opposition parties reported problems finding enough candidates willing run for public office. Those holding public office encountered problems, too: Many mayors in the border region reportedly live in the Río Grande Valley of Texas with their families and only cross into Tamaulipas for work purposes.

13 June 2010

Q.R. gubernatorial race goes from farcical to tragic

The federal electoral tribunal (Trife) has rejected a petition from jailed Quintana Roo gubernatorial candidate Gregorio "Greg" Sánchez to overturn a state electoral tribunal decision disqualifying him from the July 4 election. Sánchez, the mayor Benito Juárez - the municipality containing Cancún - faces drug, organized crime and money laundering charges. (Sánchez took a leave of absence from his mayoral post to pursue the gubernatorial election.)

Meanwhile, on June 13, a plane carrying staff members from the poll-leading, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Borge's campaign crashed in the jungle near Carrillo Puerto. Borges confirmed the crash in an interview with the newspaper Reforma, although the number of casualties - if any - was unknown.

The race in the fast-growing southeastern state has been beset by allegations of dirty politicking as the coalition of left-wing parties previously headed by Sánchez alleges he has been the victim of political persecution on the part of the state's PRI government and federal officials making politically motivated arrests under the pretenses of links to organized crime.

Sánchez was arrested in late May for having supposed links to the Beltrán Leyva cartel and Los Zetas, along with having unexplained riches in his accounts. Polls published since his arrest show the PRI holding more than a 30-point advantage and the PRD running even with the National Action Party (PAN).

The PRD-Labor Party-Convergence party coalition he heads has yet to name a successor, but it confirmed late on June 13 it would do so the following day and that the candidate would carry out no campaign activities. The coalition says it will vie for the entire gubernatorial race to be annulled.

Various officials in the coalition have said Sánchez would campaign from prison if necessary. His wife, Niurka Alba Sáliva Benítez, has been mentioned as a possible replacement, although her name has been linked by various media reports to rings smuggling Cuban migrants through Mexico.

The Attorney General's Office (PGR) has denied any suggestions his arrest was politically motivated and revealed that Greg and the PRD were warned in January that he was under investigation. Actions by the Sánchez campaign - such as recording videos prior to his arrest in which the gospel singer-turned-big city mayor proclaims his innocence - suggest they knew an investigation was ongoing. The Convergence party president in Quintana Roo revealed June 13 that it was recommended Sánchez go into hiding and run a virtual campaign.

The PRD has compared the arrest of Sánchez, currently jailed in the western state of Nayarit, to the arrests of some 28 public officials, including 10 mayors, in Michoacán a little more than a year ago - in a case commonly referred to as the "Michoacanzo." None of the officials has been convicted.

10 June 2010

Faith and football on the eve of the World Cup


"Now I see hunger," Mexican coach Javier Aguirre said of his squad, in comments published by the AP. "They want to write a chapter in history, right from the first day.

Let's hope so.

Mexico opens the World Cup June 11 in the tournament's inaugural match against host country South Africa. El Tri - as the team is known for its three-colour kit, the black version of which is sold out in Mexico - enters the tournament with high hopes, but a history of flaming out in the round of 16 and exiting the tournament in rather calamitous style. (The 2002 elimination by the United States would surely rank as the most notorious of those calamities.)

Some Mexicans are turning to faith - as they often do - on the eve of the tournament. Many of the faithful are flocking to the San Gabriel Arcangel parish near the Tacuba metro station in Mexico City, where they pray in front of a statue known as the Santo Niño de los Milagros for intervention. The statue is dressed in a Mexican team jersey, sewed by women who credit the santo niño with past miracles.

Past petitions for intervention appear to have gone unheeded; perhaps this year will be different. I wrote on faith and football for Canwest News Service; click on the post title to read the story.

09 June 2010

PRD still backs "Greg" even if voters don't

The PRD leadership and a coalition of left-wing parties known as the DIA continued backing their recently-arrested gubernatorial candidate in Quintana Roo, Gregorio "Greg" Sánchez, the mayor of Cancún, and has continued insisting his arrest late last month on drug, organized crime and money laundering charges is politically motivated.

Meanwhile, a new poll from GCE, published in the newspaper Milenio, shows the incumbent PRI with a commanding 30-point lead over the second place PAN candidate and the PRD-PT-Convergence coalition headed by Sánchez. The poll showed PRI candidate Roberto Borge having 51.5 per cent support, PAN candidate Alicia Ricalde, the mayor of Ilsa Mujeres, with 18.1 per cent and Sánchez's coalition drawing just 17.2 per cent

The Quintana Roo electoral institute (Ieqroo) disqualified Sánchez from the July 4 election and gave the coalition until June 8 to find a new candidate. The Dialogue for the Reconstruction of Mexico - the latest incarnation of a legislative coalition between the PRD-PT-Convergence party previously known as the Broad Progressive Front - said June 9 it would disregard the Iqeroo deadline and risk the possibility of having no candidate in the upcoming election.

"We'd rather lose votes than our principles," DIA coordinator Manuel Camacho Solis told reporters.

The arrest and disqualification of Sánchez has revived suspicions of the federal government using allegations of organized crime links to unduly influence the outcome of key elections. The Interior Ministry denies the allegations and the Attorney General's Office says the PRD and Sánchez were warned in January of its investigation.

07 June 2010

Federal Police bust heads in Cananea

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia rally

Members of Mexico's mining and metalworkers' union show support for their fugitive leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, during a rally at union headquarters in Mexico City. Gómez is living in Vancouver to avoid apprehension on charges pertaining to the alleged mismanagement of a $55 million trust fund.

The Federal Police evicted the remaining striking workers at the giant copper pit in Cananea, Sonora, where miners loyal to fugitive mining union boss Napoleón Gómez Urrutia had shut down the lucrative Grupo México property for nearly three years. The miners originally went on strike over health and wage issues, but the labour stoppage became a show of support for Gómez, who is accused of misappropriating a $55 million workers' trust fund and has lived in Vancouver to avoid apprehension on fraud and embezzlement charges.

Mine owner Grupo México - a bitter enemy of Gómez Urrutia - charged that the strike at Cananea was nothing more than an attempt to pressure the Mexican government to drop charges against the union boss as the health and wage issues were resolved long ago. Other rivals of Gómez agreed.

"We regret that things were resolved in this way, (but) the only person to blame is Napoleón Gómez Urrutia," Carlos Pavón, the union's former director of political matters, told W Radio. "He never wanted to resolve the problem through dialogue. Napoleón always wanted to insert (the issue) of the apprehension orders against him."

Pavón was arrested in late 2008 for fraud and extortion and left the union a short time later.

The most recent raid on Cananea once again put the spotlight on Gómez Urrutia, perhaps the most colourful, controversial and maverick union leader of the past ten years.

Gómez is reviled by a group of dissidents for allegedly making off with their trust fund and was reputedly responsible for derailing the labour reforms proposed during the administration of former president Vicente Fox.

Chihuahua-based Veta de Plata, a cooperative of former mining union members and trust fund holders say Gomez has failed to provide an adequate explanation for what happened to their money and improperly dissolved the trust fund by acting as a signatory for both the union and the trust fund holders.

Court documents provided by the cooperative in 2008 show trust fund money being moved out of the country and being used to pay for shopping excursions in Dallas and personal credit card debts of Gómez's relatives.

Gómez's backers say the union's accounts have been audited and no mismanagement occurred.

The trust fund was established after the Cananea mine was privatized in 1989, when then-president Carlos Salina launched the widespread sale of many government-run enterprises. Workers' in a number of privatized mines received five percent of the shares, which were held in a trust fund.

Although controversial, Gómez draws fierce support from some quarters for his tough negotiating tactics, which produce contracts better than other unions - a rarity in a country notorious for wealthy union bosses and poorly paid workers, and a history of unions being little more than turn-out-the vote machines for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Supporters say Mexican mining and smelting executives still travel to Vancouver to negotiate collective agreements with him - even though he's not recognized by the Mexican government as a union leader.

"He's a different kind of union man," said Aldo Muñoz Armenta, a labour expert at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico in Toluca. Muñoz says many Mexican union contracts are based on the national minimum wage and the inflation rate, but Gómez - who previously ran the national mint and a government mining company in Autlán, Jalisco - would tie wages to the price of minerals.

The Interior Ministry said in a June 7 statement the operation began the previous day and was carried out by some 2,000 federal police officers; seven arrests were made for an arson at the mine. The Labour Secretariat had declared the strike illegal back in January 2008.

The mining union blasted the expulsion as illegal. A coalition of so-called "independent unions" - the telephone workers, electrical workers, UNAM workers and other unions generally not affiliated with either the PRI or governing National Action Party (PAN) - broke dialogue with the federal government in response to the raid. Foreign unions such as the USW, blasted the expulsion, too. The left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) promised demonstrations at the Supreme Court and outside the Grupo México offices in the upscale Polanco district to protest both the action at Cananea and the ongoing struggle of the SME, the union whose members were tossed out of work when the federal government closed down the money-losing and notoriously inefficient Mexico City utility, Luz y Fuerza, last fall.

The SME and its allies branded the decision to dissolve Luz y Fuerza, "Political," as the union's leadership - which would threaten disruptive strikes every spring that would have left Mexico City and the surrounding states in the dark - is considered close with scorned 2006 presidential runner up Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the nation's self-proclaimed "legitimate president." (It's suspected SME money helped finance López Obrador's "legitimate government.")

Independents unions such as the SME have backed the mine and metalworkers for various for reasons, including a mutual dislike of the conservative and pro-business PAN and an unwillingness to join PRI-affiliated labour groups such as the CROC, CROM and CTM, which have long been pillars in the PRI's corporatist system and headed by leaders accused of not acting in the best interest of the rank-and-file.

Muñoz says the recognition of union leaders is a "judicial process" in most countries, while in Mexico, "It's a political process."

The Labour Secretariat refused to recognize Gómez's 2008 re-election as leader of the mining union, saying he was not a member in good standing and he never worked as a miner - a prerequisite for assuming the position.

Gómez took over the union after the death of his father, Napoleón Gómez Sada nearly 10 years ago. The elder Gómez was extremely popular among the membership, including those now expressing a dislike for his son.

He assumed control after submitting a document to the Labour Secretariat saying that Gómez - who went to Oxford, was a pre-candidate for the 1992 PRI gubernatorial race in Nuevo León and would appear in the society pages of Monterrey-area society publications - worked in the accounting department of a gold mine in the state of Durango for the salary of 28 pesos per day.

Some union dissidents found that a little hard to believe, including one Veta de Plata member who called the story, "A lie as big as all of Texas."

Others fighting for labour rights in Mexico take an equally unfavourable view of Gómez, who has frequently accused Grupo México of "industrial homicide" for the February 2006 mine disaster at Pasta de Conchos in the northern state of Coahuila. The blast killed 65 miners; the bodies of 63 workers remain trapped in the coal mine.

"If Napoleón Gómez Urrutia were such a good union leader, Pasta de Conchos wouldn't have happened," said one widow, who lost her husband in the mine, told me in 2009. Another widows, Elvira Martínez, one of the most persistent advocates of having the bodies pulled from the mine, told me that many of the dead miners were not union members, but paid union dues and received little in return.

Christina Auerbach Benavides, a lawyer with the labour ministry of the Diocese of Saltillo, has worked with the widows since the mine disaster occurred. She says the mining union signed a joint health and safety report with the company and government just 12 days before the mine disaster.

She alleged in early 2010, "The union utilizes the subject of Pasta de Conchos when it wants to raise the issue of Napoleon Gomez."

The union and its Canadian backers - who include NDP leader Jack Layton - have lauded Gómez for trying to improve mine safety in Mexico and allege it has led to him being persecuted by the federal government.

05 June 2010

Justice demanded for daycare fire victims

Photo upload by Luis Alberto Medina in Hermosillo

The victims of the daycare fire that claimed 49 young lives one year ago in Hermosillo were remembered over the weekend during a series of memorials and marches that carried an undercurrent of anger and outrage - for both the high death toll and perceptions the officials responsible for operating, regulating and inspecting the burned-out facility might never be brought to justice.

President Felipe Calderón declared June 5 a national day of mourning, but some parents of children killed and left scarred by the fire - who met with the president - want something more: justice.

One parent, Abraham Fraijo, who was among those holding a vigils for their children at the Angel monument in Mexico City, summed up the families' struggles, telling the newspaper La Razón, "If there were justice and the government did what it should do, I would be keeping vigil over my daughter at home, but there is no justice so we have to come and speak out."

The tragedy at the ABC Daycare has been polemic and political from the moment the facility in a working-class neighborhood of Hermosillo caught fire.

It revealed extreme shortcomings in the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) system of daycare centres, which a Supreme Court investigation found were rife with "generalized disorder." It revived outrage over the perceptions of rampant impunity in Mexico as justice has yet to be handed down in the case. It derailed the political career and presidential aspirations of the then-outgoing governor of Sonora, Eduardo Bours, as the the opposition National Action Party won the gubernatorial election one month after the fire - a lone victory for the PAN in what was otherwise a forgettable year at the polls. It could prompt more political repercussions as the current and former presidents of the IMSS - Daniel Karam and Juan Molinar, respectively - could be forced to resign their political posts, pending the final findings of a Supreme Court investigation.

The initial findings of the investigation headed by Justice Arturo Zaldívar and delivered June 3 offered a damning assessment of the ABC Daycare and the daycare centres run under contract for the IMSS, an institution notorious for problems in its outsourcing in and procurement processes.

"This high tribunal finds the existence of a link between the generalized disorder [in the IMSS daycare system] and the ABC daycare because the irregularities found in the granting of the contract, as in its operation and supervision are analogous to those that are evidenced in the great majority of the daycare centres that operate under this scheme," the initial court investigation said.

The investigation found fire extinguishers were missing from 57 percent of the more than 1,400 IMSS daycare centres operated under contract. Another 47 percent lacked emergency exits.

The ABC Daycare lacked an adequate number of emergency exits and smoke detectors, the investigation said.

The investigation also declared Bours, Karam and Molinar responsible for not protecting the individual guarantees of the children in the ABC Daycare.

Bours, the court investigation said, oversaw a state civil protection agency, which failed to "detect the accumulation of risks that surrounded the ABC Daycare and the time bomb that the adjacent storage room represented." The June 5, 2009 fire broke out in a nearby storage room located in the same building as the daycare and quickly spread.

The court said Molinar - IMSS president from December 2006 until March 2009 - oversaw the "generalized disorder" in the way the daycare centres were operated and licenses granted, "which led to the conditions for the tragedy."

Karam was mentioned for similar IMSS shortcomings and complaints over the medical treatment provided to the victims. He was not mentioned in a preliminary report on the court's investigation released March 1.

Bours has denied responsibility for any wrongdoing - as has Molinar, the current secretary of transportation and communications (SCT) and a close collaborator of Calderón. (Molinar moved from the IMSS to the SCT after former SCT secretary Luis Tellez was caught in a scandal, featuring a recording of him implicating former president Carlos Salinas in improper activities, but not offering any proof to sustain his allegations.)

Molinar defended himself in a June 3 statement, which read, "It's necessary to emphasize that the factors that contributed to the creation of that risk and the tragic consequence were all, without exception, out of human reach and the normative of any IMSS functionary," a reference to the flammable materials being kept in the adjacent store room.

Molinar expressed dismay in his statement that he was never interviewed by the court nor approached for information. He also differed with the court over its assessment of the state of the IMSS daycare centres.

"For the IMSS, an attended-to observation is not mentioned in the subsequent report. The commission, in turn, assumes that an observation not mentioned in the subsequent report was not attended-to," he said.

Karam said he would abide by the outcomes of any court investigations, although some analysts suggested he was receiving a raw deal since he only assumed his position three months prior to the daycare fire and spent the early months of his job focusing on the IMSS response to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

"Karam is paying for the tendency of the Justice Arturo Salívar to satisfy public opinion," Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote in his June 5 column in La Razón.

The court's involvement has been controversial as the 11 justices have the authority to investigate gross human rights violations, not criminal matters - something the court made clear earlier this spring, when it declined to investigate the 1993 slaying of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara. Previous court investigations have been controversial, too - most notably a late 2007 finding the rights of Cancún journalist Lydia Cacho were not violated, despite her being detained and transported to Puebla, where she was jailed for supposedly defaming a businessman with close ties to Puebla Gov. Mario Marín.

The current investigation is courting the same sort of controversy as some analysts have argued the court has no business investigating criminal matters. Regardless of the outcome, the case will not result in criminal charges.

It could prompt the resignations of Molinar, Karam and others affiliated with the IMSS, but that seems to be insufficient for many of the parents.

"No one has gone to jail for the death of the little ones," Lorenzo Ramos Félix, a lawyer for the victims, members of the "Movimiento por la justicia 5 de junio," told El Universal. "That's what inflames the families."

03 June 2010

Gregorio "Greg" Sánchez disqualified from Quintana Roo gubernatorial race

Gregorio "Greg" Sánchez - the gospel-singer-turned-Cancún mayor-turned-PRD-gubernatorial-candidate-turned-accused-drug-cartel-associate - was disqualified Thursday from the July 4 election in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo. The state electoral institute (Ieqroo) decision to disqualify Sánchez followed a previous Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) decision to remove Sánchez's name from the voters' list, a result of him being charged with drug, money laundering and organized crime offences and subsequently being jailed in Nayarit state.

Candidates charged with crimes lose their political rights, which include the right to vote and to run for public office. The Sánchez campaign said it will appeal the decision, while the Ieqroo gave the members of the coalition he headed - the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), Labour Party (PT) and Convergence party - five days to choose a new candidate.

The PRD had insisted Sánchez would continue campaigning - even from prison - although party president Jesús Ortega conceded prior to the Ieqroo decision being handed down that other unnamed candidates were being considered.

The decision threatens to further politicize an already tense situation in Quintana Roo, where Sánchez's supporters and the PRD have alleged bias and branded the case another "Michoacanazo," a reference to the detentions of state and municipal officials with alleged cartel ties in PRD-dominated Michoacán one year ago, during the early stages of the midterm elections. Many of those officials were subsequently released from prison without being convicted of any crimes.

Sánchez's lawyers revealed June 2 the PGR file on their client alleges he attendented a "historic summit" in Acapulco last year with none other than Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, and the leaders of other cartels.

The incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Quintana Roo, President Felipe Calderón and Interior Secretary Fernando Gómez-Mont all have rejected allegations of bias. The Attorney General's Office (PGR), meanwhile, has stated that Sánchez and the PRD leadership knew of an ongoing investigation into the mayor of Benito Juárez - the municipality containing Cancún - since January.

The Sánchez campaign acknowledged its prior understanding of the situation as it released videos - filmed before the candidate's arrest - in which Sánchez proclaims his innocence.

No potential candidate had faced the prospect of being declared ineligible since the 2005 attempt to impeach then-Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD, who fomented mass protests in the capital that ultimately forced the federal government to back down from what had largely been viewed - rightly or wrongly - as an underhanded effort to thwart the aspirations of a populist presidential frontrunner.

The judicial actions against Sánchez have been interpreted in a similar way by many in the PRD, although López Obrador himself and some of his followers have showed little support - a reflection of the former presidential candidate's cool relations with the current PRD leadership, which is headed an archenemy, Jesús Ortega, and the New Left faction. The case differs in that López Obrador was accused of failing to respect a judicial injunction pertaining to a piece of property in the Santa Fe district of Mexico City, while Sánchez is accused to being linked to the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and Los Zetas - along with various financial irregularities.