Monthly Archives: November 2009

Washington Post

In Mexico, fears of a ‘lost generation’

Violence among young soars as drug cartels recruit more minors

By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO — The number of minors swept up in Mexico’s drug wars — as killers and victims — is soaring, with U.S. and Mexican officials warning that a toxic culture of fast money, drug abuse and murder is creating a “lost generation.”

Although the exploitation of children by criminals is timeless, authorities say the cartels are responding to new realities here. They have stepped up recruiting to replace tens of thousands of members who have been killed or arrested during President Felipe Calderón’s U.S.-backed war against the traffickers.

The crackdown has led the cartels to diversify their operations, moving from the transshipment of narcotics to extortion, immigrant smuggling and kidnapping. It also has sparked intense rivalries, with youngsters serving as expendable foot soldiers in battles over trafficking routes to the United States and local markets that serve a growing number of Mexican drug users.

“The cartels recruit by first involving them in some drug trafficking, then in selling drugs and finally, in some cases for as little as $160 a week, they are given the job of tracking down people the cartel wants to assassinate,” said Victor Valencia, public security secretary in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez — Mexico’s most violent city — is located.

In the past year, 134 minors have been killed in drug-related violence in Juarez, according to El Diario, a local newspaper.

Young drug dealers often operate out of unlicensed addiction treatment facilities, which the cartels use as recruitment centers, frequently unleashing terror in those places.

In September, four masked men armed with AK-47 assault rifles stormed into the Casa Aliviane drug rehabilitation center as residents gathered for an evening prayer. The assailants found Eduardo Villalobos, 16, hiding in a cubbyhole. They pushed the youth against a wall and executed him alongside 17 others, before detonating grenades.

“It was bullets that killed him, because he was shot in the face and the head,” said his mother, Dionisia Villalobos. “But he had little pieces from the grenades all over his body.”

More than the violence, U.S. and Mexican officials and youth advocates said they fear that the rampant criminality is producing a generation that venerates cartel barons and views trafficking as a form of rebellion — as well as an escape from poverty.

“What struck me most in the short time that I was in Juarez was not the threat of violence,” said Carlos Pascual, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. “It was the threat of what occurs if you lose a whole generation.”

To counter the lure of the cartels, the U.S. State Department last month organized a meeting of international youth groups in Mexico City to encourage the use of social networks to oppose violence. The co-founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, was mobbed by students asking for advice on how to build online communities to distribute positive messages and counter the cartels’ propaganda.

In Culiacan, a city in the western state of Sinaloa where many of Mexico’s most notorious traffickers grew up, teenagers view the drug bosses as “heroes,” said an 18-year-old woman who asked not to be identified. She said teenagers talk openly about the thrill of smuggling, work that can earn them about $500 a trip.

“Everyone around here talks about it, especially the kids,” she said in an interview. “It’s like — I’m not sure how to describe it — but they look at it like the ultimate wow.”

Two years ago, traffickers met her in a dingy motel room along the U.S.-Mexico border. They taped two kilos of cocaine to her thighs, then concealed them beneath a billowing skirt. She walked through the Port of Entry at Nogales, Ariz., but was captured at a Border Patrol checkpoint south of Tucson. After serving six months in detention, she was deported.

Hundreds of minors, including U.S. citizens, some as young as 12, have been arrested this year for drug smuggling. In San Diego County, 26 minors were caught last year trying to bring drugs across the border; this year authorities have arrested 124.

“They’ll risk their futures for an iPod,” said Joe Garcia, a supervisory agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. “And there is almost an endless supply of teenagers.”

According to Mexican authorities, La Familia, a cartel based in the southwestern state of Michoacan, recruits members as young as 14. The organization inculcates the youngsters with a radical religious doctrine that demands loyalty, a promise to respect women and children — and a commitment to kill rivals.

The young gangsters emerge from a grim panorama marked by an absence of government authority. Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, said in October that 60 percent of Mexico’s children live in poverty.

“In some parts of this country, it would appear that the only options for children are to immigrate to the United States or become traffickers,” said Teresa Almada, director of the Center for the Assistance and Promotion of Children in Juarez.

In Juarez, where low-wage assembly plants called “maquiladoras” have been mothballed because of the recession, a third of all teenagers neither work nor attend school, according to census figures.

“These days, youths are joining the drug cartels at an ever-younger age because they’re cheap,” said Martin Barron Cruz, a researcher at the National Institute of Criminal Science in Mexico. “It is a question of the market. A kid of 15 ends up doing the same job as a 20-year-old, but for half the money.”

“It is easier for the cartels to dispose of them when they are no longer needed,” Barron said. “I say ‘dispose’ because, sadly, there’s no other word for it. They eliminate them, often using another kid of the same age.”

Prisoners are also getting younger, Barron said. The largest cohort of inmates is now 19 to 25 years old.

Chronic drug use has doubled since 2002 in Mexico. The fastest-growing addiction rates are among 12-to-17-year-olds.

At a detention facility for young murderers, rapists and drug runners on the outskirts of Juarez, a 17-year-old youth serving six months for selling guns said: “Young people sell drugs and weapons because they want to make the easy money.” He complained that a person can barely live on wages paid at maquiladoras, where his mother makes $70 a week.

He described crime as “almost irresistible” for himself and his friends.

On a school night in Barrio Azul, a Juarez neighborhood of one-room cinder-block homes lighted by pirated electricity, a dozen children and teens stood in the shadows of an abandoned adobe house. Some were high from sniffing “agua celeste,” or heavenly water, a sky-blue industrial solvent used as an inhalant and sold openly for a few dollars a jar. Nearly all said they were no longer in school.

Judith Olivas, 15, matter-of-factly said she has seen 10 murders in the past two years.

A convoy of masked Mexican troops passed by in open-air trucks, bristling with weapons. The children stared blankly. Asked how she felt about the soldiers, Judith said: “We don’t like them.”

Researcher Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.


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Seizure of Mexican Utility Spurs Protests

Calderón Denies Move Is First Salvo in Campaign to Dismantle Trade Unions


Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 16, 2009

MEXICO CITY, Oct. 15 — Union members and their political allies filled the streets of the Mexican capital Thursday night to condemn President Felipe Calderón’s recent liquidation of a state-run power utility, a surprise move seen by many as an assault on organized labor.

Declaring the state-owned company so poorly managed as to be “unsustainable,” Calderón on Saturday night authorized the seizure of Central Light and Power. He also deployed about 1,000 federal police officers in riot gear to enforce his decree; workers from another state-run power company swept in to take over the electric grid and keep the lights on.

For Mexico, the takeover marked a pivotal moment. The government has long allowed state enterprises and their powerful unions to operate at a loss, in order to boost employment and keep the peace between haves and have-nots. But, at Central Light and Power, Calderón said the government could not continue to support staffing levels and salaries demanded by the powerful Mexican Electricians Union in the midst of a deep economic crisis. It did not help that the company has lost a third of its electricity to waste and theft.

Union members have reacted with outrage, sparking a widening political brawl over the new realities of the social contract in Mexico.

On Wednesday, Calderón, a member of the conservative, pro-business National Action Party, denied charges by the electricians and their political supporters that the liquidation of Light and Power was the first step in a coming campaign to dismantle other trade unions, such as guilds for teachers and oil workers, which play an outsize role in the economic and political life of Mexico.

But the president’s promises did little to calm the roiling political fight, as both right and left, business leaders and union chiefs, quickly took up opposing sides.

The leftist populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost to Calderón by a tight margin in a contested election in 2006, charged that Calderón was seeking to destroy Mexico’s strong unions. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard offered his support by ordering that an international book fair in the city’s main plaza be dismantled to allow the thousands of protesters to occupy the space. Ebrard expressed sympathy for the electricians and questioned why they were fired in the midst of recession.

The union threatened to seek a court order stopping the liquidation of the company, which, legally, may also spell the end of the electricians union.

Analysts were divided on Calderón’s motives. The business community generally supported the shutdown of Mexico’s second-largest utility, citing its poor service and weak management. Reacting favorably to the president’s move, Mexico’s Bolsa index this week reached its highest level this year.

Others saw politics at play.

“There’s not doubt that Light and Power is an inefficient company,” said John Ackerman, professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “But the fact that he has decided to go against the union that historically most clearly represents the achievements of union rights and the left in Mexico is very much a political decision.”

In explaining the company’s losses, Ackerman pointed out that Mexico City and its surrounding areas are the most industrial in the country but harbor a huge informal economy, in which pirating electricity is common.

Daniel Lund, a political pollster in Mexico City, said Calderón “wants to do something big and media-grabbing to dominate attention,” while avoiding going after the bigger challenges in the economy, such as the inefficient state-run oil company, Pemex, and quasi-monopolies such as Telmex, the telephone company.

“I think the policy is very contradictory, because on the one hand, you have a different government attitude towards unions very similar to the one at Light and Power,” said Carlos Alba, professor of political science at the College of Mexico. “The teachers union or the petroleum workers union are very similar in many ways, so you wonder why shut down one and not the others?”

Calderón offered severance packages to the 44,000 employees at Light and Power and promised to continue pensions for retired workers. His government pledged not to privatize Light and Power and announced Wednesday that the utility would be run by another state company, the Federal Electricity Commission, which critics say is poorly run.

Researcher Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.

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Calderon Tries to Turn Out the Lights on Mexico’s Unions

Thursday 15 October 2009

by: Michael E. Miller, t r u t h o u t | Report

(Photo Illustration: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t, Adapted From: erjkprunczykOswaldo Ordóñez (Orcoo)Ian Koh / flickr)

Mexico City – Every Monday morning for the last 23 years, Ernesto arrived at Luz y Fuerza del Centro, Mexico City’s power and light company, ready to work. This Monday, however, he arrived ready to protest.

Late Saturday night, as Mexicans celebrated their national soccer team’s qualification for the World Cup, President Felipe Calderòn sent hundreds of federal police to surround Luz y Fuerza. Hours later, he ordered the liquidation of the state-run company, claiming it was financially “unsustainable” due to corruption and waste.

Now Ernesto and 43,000 other Luz y Fuerza employees are out of work. Another 22,000 retirees are wondering what will happen to their pensions.

Controversial and possibly unconstitutional, Calderòn’s decree was the first step towards what many Mexicans fear is the privatization of yet another of their country’s key industries. But some wonder if the shutdown isn’t something larger: a warning to unions across the country to cooperate, or else face elimination.

“This is a war against the unions,” Ernesto yelled over the chants of several thousand other protesters in downtown Mexico City. “If you break the Electricians Union, which is the nation’s strongest, then all the other unions will eventually fall too. That’s neoliberalism.”

Calderòn, who belongs to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), has denied that closing Luz y Fuerza represents an attack on Mexico’s unions.

“This measure is not, as has been said, a political attack by the government against union life,” Calderòn said Wednesday. “I reiterate and will always reiterate my respect for union autonomy and for the lives and working rights of Mexican workers.”

Yet, the shutdown came with little warning, following a public spat between the federal government and the union representing Luz y Fuerza workers.

On October 5, Calderòn’s administration refused to recognize Martín Esparza as leader of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), which represents Luz y Fuerza del Centro. The federal government cited “irregularities” in SME’s recent internal election, which Esparza won for the third consecutive time.

Esparza is an ally of Andrés Manuel Lòpez Obrador, the liberal Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) candidate who narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election to Calderòn amidst charges of voter fraud.

Five days after refusing to recognize Esparza, Calderòn shocked the country by shutting down Luz y Fuerza, handing over the responsibility of providing electricity for nearly a third of the country to another state-owned company, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).

Calderòn’s administration has called the move a cost-cutting measure, alleging that years of waste and poor service by Luz y Fuerza have hurt the country by driving companies out of the capital.

“Luz y Fuerza del Centro’s results are notably inferior compared to organizations that provide the same services internationally and compared to the Federal Electricity Commission,” the government said in a statement explaining the shutdown. The government says Luz y Fuerza lost 30 percent of its electricity due to theft and inefficiency.

The controversy comes at a difficult time for Mexico, as debate rages over proposed government austerity programs aimed at alleviating the economic crisis.

Despite predictions that the Mexican economy will contract 7.5 percent in 2009 – the worst contraction since the 1930s – Calderòn has rejected PRD calls for a more aggressive stimulus plan. Instead, he has proposed closing several government ministries as well as a two percent hike in sales tax on nonfood items – a tax hike liberals say will hit the poor the hardest.

Yet, Calderòn has tried to link the decision to shutter Luz y Fuerza with his economic plan, which he says will help Mexico’s poor. The president has said repeatedly that the roughly $3 billion in annual subsidies received by Luz y Fuerza is more than the cost of Mexico’s Oportunidades anti-poverty program, implying that the savings will be redirected to the poor.

Meanwhile, reports of blackouts are up across the country since Sunday. The newspaper El Universal reports power outages in 32 neighborhoods in Mexico City, as well as in ten nearby cities.

The Electricians Union and the federal government have traded accusations all week long, ranging from charges of SME sabotaging power lines (a claim since retracted by the government) to federal police kidnapping SME members and forcing them to work without pay (a charge denied by the government).

Calderòn’s PAN party has largely followed in lockstep with the president’s decision, while the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – returned to power in the July 5 elections – has also supported him. The PRD, however, has filed a petition with the Mexican Supreme Court alleging that since the National Assembly established Luz y Fuerza, not the president, the he never had the power to dissolve it in the first place.

In his televised speech Sunday, Calderòn swore he wasn’t privatizing the nation’s electricity. But so far, the Department of Energy has said it may only rehire 8,500 Luz y Fuerza employees to help the CFE. Considering that the government originally said that half of Luz y Fuerza’s employees were unnecessary, that leaves 13,000 required positions still empty. Where will those jobs come from if not from private companies?

“Calderòn says he’s not privatizing us, just turning our jobs over to the CFE,” said Ernesto, who declined to give his last name for fear of government persecution. “But the CFE already has lots of private contracts. They’re buying their electricity. Just go and ask in the north of Mexico how many private companies are generating electricity.”

“It’s a backdoor to privatization,” he said.

With its petitions for a public debate between Esparza and Calderòn ignored, SME has enlisted dozens of other labor unions and planned a large demonstration for Thursday in downtown Mexico City. If the Luz y Fuerza debacle wasn’t already a battle between Calderòn and Mexico’s unions, it soon will be.

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