Mexico’s Situation after Peña Nieto’s First Year at the Helm

By Manuel Suárez-Mier

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

After Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the situation and prospects for his country are mixed. On the positive side, his structural reforms encompassing labor, education, taxation, finance, telecommunications, anti-monopoly and energy – the crown jewel – are unexpected and sweeping successes. Three previous administrations had failed to get such reforms through Congress in the preceding 18 years. The reforms, the success of which will depend on the implementing legislation, have attracted worldwide attention, generating a “Mexican moment,” and increasing substantially the flows of foreign direct investment.

On the dark side, however, Peña Nieto’s performance has been less than stellar regarding the pacification of the country from the violent onslaught over the last decade at the hands of bands of narcotraffickers. He changed the emphasis of the war on drugs from the stubborn fixation that it had in the Calderón administration (2006-2012), and he altered the terms of cooperation with the United States on this issue.  But he has been unable to stem the violence, which in some cases has worsened.  In the southwestern state of Michoacán, a new actor has emerged besides the narco and government forces: self-appointed groups of armed citizens that are battling the criminals while denouncing the government’s ineffectiveness.  Simply declaring victory in the war on drugs and moving on to other issues has not stemmed the violence.  Many observers believe that Peña Nieto’s security team is not up to par and that tolerating, and more recently collaborating, with the paramilitary groups is not the solution to the problem – and indeed will only worsen it down the road.  Also the terms of cooperation with the United States on the war on drug trafficking organizations are not clear yet.

It is too soon, of course, to declare victory on the reform front since the way these changes are implemented will determine their success or failure. We have had “Mexican moments” in the past, especially after NAFTA was approved in 1994, just to see them wiped out by government mismanagement and crises. But it is also too early to declare the final failure of the campaign to pacify the country since there have been some bright spots – notably in Ciudad Juárez. Coordination among security agencies has improved and the gendarmerie, a special rural federal police force that would replace the army in restoring the peace where violence rages, is being trained and will begin operations with 5,000 men in July.  But the appearance of paramilitary “self-defense” groups and the apparent alliance that they are forging with the federal government are deeply troubling considering what we have seen in other latitudes – especially Colombia – when such groups thrived. These contradictory trends explain why many people are enthusiastic about Mexico’s economic future while Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain soft after a year of slow growth, tax increases, and unabated violence.

*  Manuel Suárez-Mier is Economist-in-Residence and Director of the Center for North American Studies in American University’s School of International Service.

What does the New Year hold for Latin America?

We’ve invited AULABLOG’s contributors to share with us a prediction or two for the new year in their areas of expertise.  Here are their predictions.

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S.-Latin America relations will deteriorate further as there will be little movement in Washington on immigration reform, the pace of deportations, narcotics policy, weapons flows, or relations with Cuba.  Steady progress toward consolidating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, will catalyze a shared economic agenda with market-oriented governments in Chile, Mexico, Peru and possibly Colombia, depending on how election-year politics affects that country’s trade stance.

– Eric Hershberg

The energy sector will be at the core of the economic and political crises many countries in the Americas will confront in 2014.  Argentina kicked off the New Year with massive blackouts and riots.  Bolivia, the PetroCaribe nations, and potentially even poster child Chile are next.

– Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

Unprecedented success of Mexico’s Peña Nieto passing structural reforms requiring constitutional amendments that eluded three previous administrations spanning 18 years, are encouraging for the country’s prospects of faster growth.  Key for 2014: quality and expediency of secondary implementing legislation and effectiveness in execution of the reforms.

– Manuel Suarez-Mier

Mexico may be leading the way, at least in the short term, with exciting energy sector reforms, which if fully executed, could help bring Mexico’s oil industry into the 21st Century, even if this means discarding, at least partly, some of the rhetorical nationalism which made Mexico’s inefficient and romanticized parastatal oil company – Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) – a symbol of Mexican national pride.  Let’s see if some of the proceeds from the reforms and resulting production boosts can fortify ideals of the Mexican Revolution by generating more social programs to diminish inequality, and getting rid of the bloat and corruption at PEMEX.

– Todd Eisenstadt

Brazil is without a doubt “the country of soccer,” as Brazilians like to say.  If Brazil wins the world cup in June, Dilma will also have an easy win in the presidential elections.  But if it loses, Dilma will have to deal with new protests and accusations of big spending to build soccer fields rather than improving education and health.

– Luciano Melo

Brazilian foreign policy is unlikely to undergo deep changes, although emphasis could shift in some areas.  Brazil will insist on multilateral solutions – accepting, for example, the invitation to participate at a “five-plus-one” meeting on Syria.  The WTO Doha Round will remain a priority.  Foreign policy does not appear likely to be a core issue in the October general elections.  If economic difficulties do not grow, Brazil will continue to upgrade its international role.

– Tullo Vigevani

In U.S.-Cuba relations, expect agreements on Coast Guard search and rescue, direct postal service, oil spill prevention, and – maybe – counternarcotics.  Warming relations could set the stage for releasing Alan Gross (and others?) in exchange for the remaining Cuban Five (soon to be three).  But normalizing relations is not in the cards until Washington exchanges its regime change policy for one of real coexistence.  A handshake does not make for a détente.

– William M. LeoGrande

A decline in the flow of Venezuelan resources to Cuba will impact the island’s economy, but the blow will be cushioned by continued expansion of Brazilian investment and trade and deepened economic ties with countries outside the Americas.

– Eric Hershberg

In a non-election year in Venezuela, President Maduro will begin to incrementally increase the cost of gasoline at the pump, currently the world’s lowest, and devalue the currency – but neither will solve deep economic troubles.  Dialogue with the opposition, a new trend, will endure but experience fits and starts.  The country will not experience a social explosion, and new faces will join Capriles to round out a more diverse opposition leadership.  Barring a crisis requiring cooperation, tensions with the United States will remain high but commerce will be unaffected.

– Michael McCarthy

Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC won’t be resolved by the May 2014 elections, which President Santos will win easily – most likely in the first round.  There will be more interesting things going on in the legislative races.  Former President Uribe will win a seat in the Senate.  Other candidates in his party will win as well – probably not as many as he would like but enough for him to continue being a big headache for the Santos administration.  Colombia’s economy will continue to improve, and the national football team will put up a good fight in the World Cup.

– Elyssa Pachico

Awareness of violence against women will keep increasing.  Unfortunately, the criminalization of abortion or, in other words, forcing pregnancy on women, will still be treated by many policy makers and judges as an issue unrelated to gender violence.

– Macarena Saez

In the North American partnership, NAFTA’s anniversary offers a chance to reflect on the trilateral relationship – leaving behind the campaign rhetoric and looking forward. The leaders will hold a long-delayed summit and offer some small, but positive, measures on education and infrastructure. North America will be at the center of global trade negotiations.

– Tom Long

The debate over immigration reform in Washington will take on the component parts of the Senate’s comprehensive bill. Both parties could pat themselves on the back heading into the mid-term elections by working out a deal, most likely trading enhanced security measures for a more reasonable but still-imposing pathway to citizenship.

– Aaron Bell

The new government in Honduras will try to deepen neoliberal policies, but new political parties, such as LIBRE and PAC, will make the new Congress more deliberative. Low economic growth and deterioration in social conditions will present challenges to governability.

– Hugo Noé Pino

In the northern tier of Central America, despite new incoming presidents in El Salvador and Honduras, impunity and corruption will remain unaddressed.  Guatemala’s timid reform will be the tiny window of hope in the region.  The United States will still appear clueless about the region’s growing governance crisis.

– Héctor Silva

Increased tension will continue in the Dominican Republic in the aftermath of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship.  The implementation of the ruling in 2014 through repatriation will be met with international pressure for the Dominican government to reverse the ruling.

— Maribel Vásquez

In counternarcotics policy, eyes will turn to Uruguay to see how the experiment with marijuana plays out. Unfortunately, it is too small an experiment to tell us anything. Instead, the focus will become the growing problem of drug consumption in the region.

– Steven Dudley

Eyeing a late-year general election and possible third term, Bolivian President Evo Morales will be in campaign mode throughout 2014.  With no real challengers, Morales will win, but not in a landslide, as he fights with dissenting indigenous groups and trade unionists, a more divisive congress, the U.S., and Brazil.

– Robert Albro

In Ecuador, with stable economic numbers throughout 2014, President Rafael Correa will be on the offensive with his “citizen revolution,” looking to solidify his political movement in local elections, continuing his war on the press, while promoting big new investments in hydroelectric power.

– Robert Albro

Determined to expand Peru’s investment in extractive industries and maintain strong economic growth, President Ollanta Humalla will apply new pressure on opponents of proposed concessions, leading to fits and starts of violent conflict throughout 2014, with the president mostly getting his way.

– Robert Albro

Honduran Election Crisis Marks New Phase in Country’s Agony

By CLALS Staff

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Yesterday’s election in Honduras was peaceful and orderly – the 61 percent voter turnout forced polls to remain open an extra hour – but anomalies in the vote count have cast a dark shadow over the legitimacy of the results. Although most polls for months indicated that Libre candidate Xiomara Castro had a several-point lead over National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández (and a few polls showed they were in a dead heat), the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) said the Nationalist beat Castro by more than a five percentage point  margin – 34.2 percent to 28.6 percent. Castro and other candidates had repeatedly claimed the National Party activist who heads the TSE (which has no representative from the nontraditional parties or Libre) would skew the results and, citing exit polls, she has alleged that fraud tainted up to 20 percent of yesterday’s votes. The TSE’s claim that, of more than 1.6 million ballots cast, there were no null or blank votes – when party poll watchers reported many – has also drawn attacks on its credibility. Nonetheless, the U.S. Ambassador and the European Union observer team hastily declared the process transparent and clean.

Hernández and Castro have both declared victory – promising high tensions in at least the short term. Castro is the wife of former President Mel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup in 2009, and has assembled a broad and deep popular base in Libre outside of Honduras’s two traditional parties. The government, military, economy and, importantly, news media are all dominated by elites that have long resisted the sort of popular movement she has built.  Few observers believe that, particularly with U.S. endorsement of the election results, Castro’s demands for a recount or other review of the results will be heeded.

If the results had been seen as accurate and fair, the election could have helped Honduras close the dark chapter of tensions and violence that started when the military forced President Zelaya into exile three and a half years ago. If Hernández is allowed to take office, his low vote – barely a third of all votes cast – alone promises a prolonged crisis like that which has plagued current President Lobo since his inauguration, a period during which both criminal and political violence has skyrocketed, public finances have deteriorated alarmingly, and political polarization has reached unprecedented heights. Under a Hernández presidency, the crisis may become even worse. Castro ran a campaign explicitly committed to peace and reconciliation and consistently urged her supporters to give democratic process a chance. She has never shown even the slightest inclination to call her supporters to violence, but popular anger has festered since the 2009 coup and there’s no guarantee that some frustration will not spill into the streets.  The surge in right-wing violence in Honduras since the coup – reminiscent of death squad activities in other Central American countries in the 1980s – has persuaded many protesters to keep their heads down, but this election may lead to desperate acts which the death squads will be eager to respond to, threatening a spiral of violence the hemisphere’s second-poorest country can ill-afford.

Nicaragua: Model for Citizen Security?

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Nicaragua – often accused of keeping bad company on political and economic matters – finds itself in a special group of countries that are doing quite well combatting crime.  Along with Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, it has one of the lowest crime and violence rates in Latin America.  At a discussion* at the Wilson Center in Washington this week (click here for video), experts identified factors explaining why these countries stand out, including the democratic traditions, relatively strong institutional frameworks, and economic stability in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has witnessed dictatorships, coups, chronically weak institutions, and the sort of grinding poverty that fuels chronic security challenges.  Gross generalizations are risky, but analysts probed why Nicaraguans generally trust their police force and commit fewer violent crimes.

Among the key factors is that Nicaragua, like the other three top performers, separated the police from the armed forces and increased civilian control over it.  Unlike in the rest of Central America, where revolutionary movements did not triumph, the Sandinistas abolished the hated National Guard in 1979 and created a force under the Interior Ministry.  Over the course of the Esquipulas peace accords, the elections in 1990, and the passage of a Ley Orgánica de la Policía Nacional in 1996, civilian oversight was institutionalized and respect for human rights and judicial process grew.  The Sandinistas’ promotion of mechanisms for community vigilance – a negative when used to root out suspected “counterrevolutionaries” in the 1980s – later helped communities develop cohesive approaches to citizen security and contributed to respect of institutions.  Another factor is that, like the other three countries under discussion, Nicaragua has a relatively low gun ownership rate.

Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have another thing in common:  none has resorted to the sort of militarized strategies toward transnational or homegrown crime that Colombia, Mexico and the United States have espoused.  The Nicaraguan National Police have generally maintained closer ties with their Scandinavian counterparts, who emphasize addressing the root causes of crime and violence – a philosophy that Nicaraguans of most political stripes embrace more readily than the emphasis on military-style operations.  The steadily worsening situation in Honduras, where Washington has pursued collaboration with the military, has convinced many in Central America that the militarized approach doesn’t work.  The mix of limited training and operational cooperation that the United States provides Costa Rica would probably work well in Nicaragua, but Washington – prodded by legislators who still see Nicaragua through a 1980s optic and condition cooperation on electoral performance – appears cool to fashioning a flexible package of joint initiatives.  Rather than applying the Colombian-Mexican security model to Central America, perhaps the successful elements of the Nicaraguan model can be expanded in the troubled region.

*CLALS Research Fellow and InSight Crime Senior Fellow Javier Meléndez delivered the lead presentation on Nicaragua.

Brazil Protests: Amorphous Causes, Unpredictable Consequences

By Matthew M. Taylor

Protestors in Brazil / Photo credit: Izaias Buson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Protestors in Brazil / Photo credit: Izaias Buson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians hit the streets of a dozen state capitals this past week.  The initial trigger was a proposed hike in São Paulo bus fares, already among the world’s most expensive, but news media soon reported that the protests reflected anger with the rising cost of living, crime, corruption, impunity, and the high costs of hosting the World Cup. Lackluster public services haven’t helped, and widely televised police violence last week provided another rallying cry.  Polling by Datafolha shows that the protest is a middle class phenomenon, with 77 percent of the marchers in São Paulo claiming a university degree.  This growing demographic group is turning against President Dilma Roussef’s Worker’s Party (PT) but it is also weary of the opposition PSDB, especially in São Paulo state.

So far, the protests have been difficult for political parties to harness for their own ends.  Partisans who showed up at the marches on Monday waving party flags were reportedly forced to pull them down by indignant protestors.  Dilma’s popularity has been falling – she was recently booed at the opening match of the Confederations Cup – but the marchers don’t seem collectively exercised about her policies or those of any single party or politician.  Aecio Neves, Marina Silva and Eduardo Paes, her potential opponents in elections scheduled for late 2014, have yet to capitalize on her vulnerabilities, as the protestors seem to be casting “a pox on all their houses.”  An outside candidacy is a rising possibility, but Brazilians have been wary of supposed political saviors after the rapid rise and fall of Fernando Collor in 1990‑92.  Anger is directed at the political class as a whole because it is incapable of responding to public disgust with Brazil’s unsatisfactory public services.

It is quite possible that the protests may peter out on their own, especially if the renewed violence seen in São Paulo on Tuesday night alienates supporters.  If the protests continue and remain peaceful, they may result in increased social solidarity and a shared sense of patriotism in the face of an unsatisfactory political system.  Something similar happened during other mass protests in the past, especially the Diretas Já marches of 1985.  A renewed consensus in favor of a more robust and effective democracy would be salutary, but the concrete results arising from the protestors’ demands are difficult to predict.  One thing to be sure of: withdrawing the proposed bus fare increase proposal is too little, too late.

Violence in Mexico: Forging a Civic Compact for Urban Resilience

By Daniel Esser

Ciudad Juarez | Photo by Daniel Esser

Ciudad Juarez | Photo by Daniel Esser

The media’s regular chronicling of human resilience in the aftermath of natural disasters and large-scale violent conflicts cover only part of story.  As inspiring as tales of individual heroism, resistance and resilience can be, they provide little guidance for public policy aiming to strengthen social ties within damaged communities, in which safety nets need to be created to work both preventatively and post-victimization.  Supported by a field research grant from the Social Science Research Council’s Drugs, Security and Democracy Program (DSD) and working jointly with a team of researchers based at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, this writer recently spent four months on the U.S.-Mexico border to answer this question.  Members of 320 randomly sampled households in Ciudad Juárez were interviewed about their knowledge of non-violent collective action during the past five years.  Overall, the findings provide hope that Juárez’s social fabric has not suffered as badly as is widely claimed, but both Mexican and international policy-makers need to understand the nature of collective resilience before they can effectively support it.  Juárez no longer tops the world’s ranking of most violent cities per capita, as it did in 2010 and 2011, although organized violence continues to wreak havoc, exemplified by 30-60 murders per month.  Analysts agree that the downward trend is less the result of concerted government action and more a reflection of a reshuffling – likely temporary – of power structures within the transnational drug business.  Strikingly, most survey respondents argued that neighborly help had not decreased during the violent times.  Roughly a quarter even argued that residents’ willingness to help each other had in fact increased, mainly because people felt more united amid the terror.  Many people reported knowledge of collective street monitoring, peaceful marches, protests and public vigils, with between 5 and 8 percent saying they have actively participated in them.  For those residents, violence was not an abstract phenomenon; more than 30 percent reported personally knowing someone who had been murdered, and just under 20 percent had themselves been victims of violent crimes.  Surprisingly, almost two-thirds said they had not lost trust in local politicians and that they would vote for candidates promising to combat violence.

These findings serve as reminders of the political dimension of resilience in the context of chronic violence, implying that there are important local collective dynamics that can be leveraged through responsive and accountable political representation.  They also suggest that policymakers at all levels need to be mindful of the existence and potential of collective agency under extremely adverse conditions.  The violence in border cities created an opportunity for forging a civic compact between entities of the state on the one hand and neighborhood residents on the other, to mend frail ties between the electorate and its representatives.  This kind of deliberate state-building at the local level is precisely what Mexico needs in the aftermath of former President Calderón’s heavy-handed and, as many have claimed, detrimental strategy emphasizing federal-level and military-led programs and operations.  President Peña Nieto and his cabinet appear likely to embrace a local approach to increasing security as it complements his commitment to improving social services especially in secondary cities.  However, the most critical building block for effectively executing such a civic compact is a politically unbiased, data-driven selection of beneficiary communities and their needs.  Akin to approaches to civic reconstruction in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, communities should be in the driver’s seat in both project selection and monitoring.  After all, state-building is as much about procedural inclusion and justice as it is about tangible outcomes.

Dr. Esser teaches international development at American University’s School of International Service.  Click here for more information about this project.

OAS Drug Report: Let’s Get Serious

The OAS Preparing their Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas | Photo credit: OEA - OAS | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-ND

The OAS Preparing their Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas | Photo credit: OEA – OAS | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-ND

The Organization of American States’ most recent report on the drug problem in the Americas – released last week in Bogotá – takes a fresh, analytical look at the issue and, by advocating discussion of new approaches, subtly signals the “war on drugs” so far has failed.  The report was mandated by hemispheric leaders last year at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, who “agreed on the need to analyze the results of the current policy in the Americas and to explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective.”  It takes an analytical approach toward drug-related problems in the hemisphere and includes a discussion of both the supply and demand factors of the drug trade.  (Click here to view the OAS documents.)

The report does not make bold policy recommendations.  It calls for greater attention to the public-health implications of the drug problem, but generally avoids advocating particular strategic solutions to the production, transportation and consumption of illegal narcotics, instead providing different scenarios for the evolution of the drug problem in the Americas.  It envisions the legalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, in various countries, but makes clear that the OAS is not advocating legalization or decriminalization.  Instead, the report emphasizes the need for countries in the Western Hemisphere to work together to combat the drug problem and discuss new approaches.

The OAS’s unique status in the hemisphere – demands on its performance are high but support for its efforts  from key governments in the region is inconsistent – may not make it the best organization to take the lead on an issue as thorny as the “war on drugs.”  The increasingly clear consensus south of the Rio Grande is that the past couple decades of effort have been not been worth the cost in dollars and lost lives, and many Central Americans, in particular, believe the militarized approach has been disastrous.  Often criticized by U.S. politicians and bureaucrats, Secretary General Insulza was probably wise not to use the report to formalize the hemisphere’s rejection of Washington’s policies.  But moving the discussion to the analytical level – rather than parroting support for another Plan Colombia or Mérida Initiative – is a significant accomplishment in itself.  Rolling out the report in Bogotá, where talk of “new approaches” is also growing, probably helped strike the right balance between old and new.  In addition to platitudinous calls for regional cooperation, the OAS can demonstrate its leadership and relevance by channeling the criticism, the lessons learned, frustration with U.S. consumption, and regional governments’ prescriptions on the way ahead into a serious, constructive strategy for the hemisphere.  With this report, the OAS has indicated that it’s time to get serious about viable alternative solutions to this multi-faceted issue – and that clinging to old models and rejecting new ideas is no longer an acceptable response to calls for rethinking the “war on drugs.”

Narcoliteratura: Another Way to Look at the Problem

By Héctor Silva

Élmer Mendoza

Élmer Mendoza

Latin America has suffered through almost three decades of the so-called war on drugs.  U.S. President George H.W. Bush formally declared the war in the late 1980s, but from the Andes to the Rio Grande it started when the Colombian cartels and their Mexican partners (then exclusively involved in distribution) created a multi-billion-dollar business to satisfy the growing U.S. market.  The druglords’ strategy of “plata o plomo” brought Mesoamerica and Mexico to their knees through violence and institutional corruption.  Hundreds of thousands have died, but the “war” has failed to tackle the economic basis of the industry: markets shift and supplies remain steady.  The cartels are smaller and more ruthless, and nation states are weakened by corruption.  Reams of reports have been written by official agencies, international organizations and think tanks – the latest a creative study by the OAS – but solutions remain elusive.

The drug trade has left an indelible mark on the very fabric of Latin American culture and society.  “Narcoliteratura,” one of whose main creators is Mexican writer Élmer Mendoza, is one of the most curious manifestations of this.  (Mendoza spoke at American University and was interviewed by this writer in February.)  His main character is Edgar “El Zurdo” Mendieta, a troubled police officer in Culiacán, Sinaloa, a city emblematic of the Mexican drug cartels.  El Zurdo’s stories capture the dual representation that Latin American culture has given to both the trade and its capos – romantic and profitable, yet evil.  Mendoza’s books give a naked and honest portrait of a society that has adapted, for its own survival, to most of the values associated with the narco business.  As Mendoza says, “El Zurdo” tries to keep a distance from the narco, but he can’t avoid him because the narco is there and is very strong and, almost without wanting to be, is always in contact.”

Compared to the many reports that fail to lead to policies that would help attack the core problems that give rise to the narco industry, Mendoza’s work provides a fresh and sincere portrait of the devastating impact the drug trade and the “drug war” have had on Latin America.  In books like El Amante de Janis Joplin and Nombre de Perro, his message is powerful, coming from a writer that has been there, in Culiacán, since it all started.  He writes with no restraints, through the voice of his characters, to tell some simple truths.  In an interview with this writer, he offered a sampling of his wisdom.  “If the US came up all of a sudden with a program to deal with its addicts, it would mean the end for the narco business,” later adding that “the war on drugs is useless and has only caused death.”  He poignantly stated:  “The war on drugs also allowed us to relax our emotions and lose the last chance for justice.”

 

Colombia’s Uribe Out of Office, But Not Out of Mind

By Tom Long

Alvaro Uribe receiving the Medal of Freedom | Photo credit: White House photo by Chris Greenberg / Foter.com / Public domain

Alvaro Uribe receiving the Medal of Freedom | Photo credit: White House photo by Chris Greenberg / Foter.com / Public domain

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Álvaro Uribe of Colombia were close allies in the “war on terror,” but they are taking very different approaches to their post-presidency.  While the former has taken up painting and appears at few public events, since leaving office in 2010 Uribe has consistently tried to upstage his hand-picked successor, Juan Manuel Santos.  He has frequently taken to Twitter with biting criticisms, and in recent months – as provincial and municipal elections near – Uribe’s public condemnations have grown both more vociferous and more damaging.  Even ardent supporters of Uribe’s presidency are questioning his post-presidential politicking, according to press reports.

In particular, the former president’s attacks on the ongoing peace talks with the FARC and Colombia’s more conciliatory approach to Venezuela have contributed to a drop in Santos’ support, according to polls, and made the two endeavors more difficult and politically costly.  On the former, Uribe has repeatedly accused Santos of offering “impunity” to FARC fighters.  He’s also accused Santos of “turning his back on democracy” for joining (albeit reluctantly) the UNASUR consensus to recognize Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory in the Venezuelan presidential elections.  And Uribe has slammed Santos’s efforts to hold Uribe-era officials responsible for violence and corruption.  Though Uribe’s attacks have complicated Santos’ position with his own party on these issues, the reaction has been quite different in the United States.  Though Uribe’s criticism has found an audience with the far right in the United States, Santos retains considerable U.S. backing.  Uribe’s role as the main U.S. ally in South America in the past was warmly rewarded and he was held up as Colombia’s savior – President Bush gave him the Medal of Freedom – but his hectoring of Santos and his failure to atone for violations during his government appear to have undermined his credibility.

Uribe’s post-presidential antics should spark a re-evaluation of his presidency, even among those who downplayed human rights problems and suspected links to paramilitaries among Uribe’s party and family.  His accomplishments in rebuilding the Colombian military and imposing tactical defeats on the FARC cannot be denied, but in doing so, he ran roughshod over civilian institutions, used a secret intelligence unit to harass opponents in and out of government, and, with the deaths of potentially thousands of “false positives,” appears to have been complicit in serious violations of human rights. Out of office, he continues to show a similar lack of respect for democratic processes and decorum – even as he levels that same accusation against Venezuelan leaders – and he still seems profoundly resentful that he failed to amend the Constitution to allow himself a third term.  In a democracy, there can only be one president at a time.  Former presidents have the right to speak out, but it’s fair to ask if their goal is constructive and contributes to the integrity of democratic institutions.

 

Belize: An Outlier in the Middle of the Mess

Belize - Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Belize – Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Though off the radar of most analysts, Belize appears to be the latest casualty of the drug trade and criminal violence.  It debuted on the Obama Administration’s annual blacklist of major drug-transit and -producing countries back in September 2011, alongside El Salvador, filling out the roster of Central American countries.  That U.S. government spotlight, however, has done little to halt the Mexican drug cartels’ expansion into Belize.  The U.S. State Department now estimates that about 10 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled each year along Belize’s Caribbean coast – partly the work of local contacts established by the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel.

Like its neighbors’ security challenges, Belize’s problems are not limited to drug trafficking.  Urban gangs and the rivalries among them are the main driver of the escalating violence, which is rooted in the same causes as in neighboring countries – institutional weakness, rampant corruption, impunity, and unemployment.  The government-sponsored gang truce negotiated in 2011, which featured “salary” payments to members who ceased violent activities, collapsed last December when funds dried up.  (Click here for details documented by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Belizean authorities tallied a record number of homicides last year, edging out neighboring Guatemala for the sixth place slot in global per capita homicide rankings.  Porous borders make Belize attractive to transnational gangs, particularly El Salvador’s MS-13 and Barrio 18, both of which have established a significant presence in the capital city, Belmopan, and elsewhere.  About one-fifth of the country’s 325,000 people are Salvadoran citizens, making it difficult to track criminal elements.

The deteriorating conditions in Belize raise questions about the effectiveness of U.S. counternarcotics and “citizen security” programs in the region.  The patchwork of U.S. initiatives under the umbrella of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has not reversed regional trends even in tiny Belize.  While the country’s law enforcement agencies welcomed the heavy equipment, training, and technical assistance that make up the bulk of CARSI funding, the tactical gains have been obscured by a worsening strategic outlook.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office has voiced its concern that the State Department is confusing efforts with results.  Moreover, neither the Belizean nor U.S. government has mapped out a preventative strategy.  The most recent data show that less than half of the funds allocated to Belize from CARSI’s Economic Support Fund, used for programs to help at-risk youth, has been spent, and after handing out 1 million Belizean taxpayer dollars to gang members during the truce, for example, there is little to show for it.  In the run-up to President Obama’s summit with Central American presidents next week, Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s statement that “Obama hasn’t done anything for Belize” was subsequently qualified, but the fact remains that U.S. partnership with Belize, like with its neighbors, has not begun to work yet.

**An earlier version of this post inadvertently omitted the word “Belizean” before “taxpayer dollars” in the concluding paragraph, giving the false impression that State Department funds had been used to subsidize Belize’s gang truce.