Monday, March 2, 2015

Today's Headlines: Some like it hot

El Universal leads this morning with its usual Monday non-breaking news analysis. It's a good one  for getting a grip on the regional nature of Mexico’s crisis and for the prevailing nervousness about the June 7 elections. 
    Under the headline “Tierra Caliente, red flag for elections,” we get  some discouraging numbers. They’re based on what the paper calls a hemerographic review — what the rest of us would call having staffers go through back issues and count the stories about political assassinations. Here’s what they came up with:
    Of the 90 murders of Mexican political office holders or office seekers in the last decade, just one shy of a third of them took place in but two of the 32 federal entities (31 states plus the Federal District, or Mexico City).
    Those two states, you may have guessed, are Guerrero and Michoacán. It's alarming in itself that, nationwide, political murders of mayors, state and federal congress members and candidates for those offices average nine a year. That 29 of them happened in these two states speaks volumes.
    You can add to that number six union reps, seven city council members and one city council candidate. That’s 43 all told, an interesting number. It comes to two killings a year for Michoacán, slightly more on average for Guerrero. The last time those two states made it through a calendar year without a political assassination was 2004.
    The targeted killings reflect the grip that organized crime has on much of the local government in Guerrero and Michoacán. They call into question not just the feasibility of holding state and local elections on June 7, but the justification for it as well. You can’t vote the narcos out of power.
    As one of the political scientists quoted by El Universal in the story puts it, “Handing out caps and T-shirts at a rally is one thing; it’s another to offer a Hummer and a job, or to go as far as coercion or even violence to manipulate an election result.” A politician who hints at changing the balance of power is a target.
    A number of voices cite the narco stranglehold on local government as a reason for canceling or postponing local elections in these two states, or at least in Guerrero. Hence the “red flag” (more literally red light, foco rojo) in the El U head.
    There are other flash points. One, related to the first, is the safety of the voters themselves. Another is the integrity of the polling sites, scattered and isolated in a rugged region. Could there possibly be enough law enforcement and volunteers to repel armed gangs who control the territory?
    And then there are the protesting teachers and their supporters who threaten to disrupt the voting unless the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students are somehow resurrected.
    That’s a lot to deal with for the election authorities, who haven’t always turned in shining performances in calmer circumstances. As of now, though, they’re moving ahead.
    Cancellation of the election, even in just one state, could be seen as a capitulation to organize crime and to violent protesters. It would be a disaster for the administration’s economic development program (remember that?) and for Mexico’s image, not to mention for democracy.
    But holding the vote under compromised conditions could bring its own problems. In 1994, for example, Chiapas went ahead with its gubernatorial election eight months after the Zapatista uprising, with the PRI candidate winning on orders of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Eduardo Robledo was inaugurated as Chiapas governor a week after Ernesto Zedillo assumed the presidency, but, as the commentator Jesús Cantú points out, assuming office and being able to govern are not the same thing. Robledo was gone in three months, and his successor also had to reign well before the term was up.
    Both Michoacán and Guerrero would be replacing appointed interim governors on June 7. The elected state leaders were both sullied by narco-related scandals before they left prematurely.
    Most of the political murders took place in the troubled Tierra Caliente region referred to in the El U head. This is a huge swath of territory that takes up most of the southern half of Michoacán, much of the west of Guerrero and the southwest of the State of Mexico. It does not included the coasts. The three state capitals (Morelia, Chilpancingo and Toluca, respectively) lie comfortably outside of it.
    The name means Hot Land, and it's indeed wracked with high temperatures, low precipitation and strangling poverty. But there’s also a pejorative connotation to the label that goes back centuries.
    “Even the conquistadors were calling it a true hell, where people walked around naked,” says one of the political researchers quoted by El Universal. “It was seen as another planet for burros, a land of bugs, disease, danger and heat.”
    Five hundred years later, the Tierra Caliente is still virtually ignored by the national economy, save for its cheap labor. It’s always been a region to be exploited instead of developed, and it still is.
    Into the vacuum, naturally, stepped organized crime. There are not enough votes or weapons to remove it. Time to try something else.

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