Wednesday 6 June 2018

“It’s the violence, stupid.” Baja California Sur’s booming economy won’t stop surging MORENA

La politica es la politica has posted 32 articles - one for each state in Mexico, including Mexico City - in advance of the July 1, 2018, presidential election. For links to all 32 articles, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Baja California Sur occupies the lower half of the Baja Peninsula, on the northwest coast of Mexico. The state has historically had strong support for the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN). At present, the governor belongs to the PAN, as does one of Baja California Sur’s three senators, with the other two belonging to the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

This isn’t a heavily populated state – in fact, it’s the second least populated in all of Mexico, with just over 700,000 inhabitants. The state is divided into five municipalities, with the capital La Paz being the largest city at about 250,000 people. This is a popular tourist destination, with high-end resorts situated at the southern tip around Cabo San Lucas, known to many simply as “Cabo”
Like Aguascalientes, it could be argued that Baja California Sur, with its small population and history of economic and political stability, wouldn’t be eager for a change. The state led the country in economic growth in 2017, at over 12% – six times the national average of 2% – with big gains in manufacturing.

But Baja California Sur has a big problem: crime. In recent years, violence has surged across the previously peaceful state. At 78.6 per 100,000 residents, the 2017 murder rate was the second-highest in Mexico, and more than triple the national average of 22.5 per 100,000.

To put this in historical context, for most of this century Baja California Sur’s murder rate was between 25 and 50 murders per year. Then in 2014 a record was set with 70 murders. That more than doubled in 2015 to 151, and rose to 192 in 2016. It looked like things couldn’t get any worse when last year, in 2017, there was an explosion of violence, with 560 murders, nearly triple the rate in 2016.

One of those was the brazen killing of the state’s human rights ombudsman, Silvestre de la Toba Camacho, 47. On November 20th, 2017, de la Toba Camacho was murdered when several armed men opened fire on his vehicle.  During the attack, the ombudsman’s 20-year-old son was also killed, and his wife and daughter were seriously injured.

There was also the murder of journalist Maximino Rodríguez Palacios on 14 April, 2017, in La Paz. This was a highly unusual event in a country that is notoriously dangerous for journalists: Rodríguez Palacios, who reported for Colectivo Pericú, was the first journalist known to have been killed in the history of the state.

What gives? The official start to Mexico’s ill-fated and continuing drug war was December, 2006, when newly elected PAN president Felipe Calderón deployed troops in his home state of Michoacán. The militarization of the drug war expanded during his six year term, with the policy continuing after the election of the PRI’s president Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012. The results over the past decade in other parts of Mexico have been disastrous, but until the last few years Baja California Sur has emerged relatively unscathed.

Now, the state is not only experiencing open gun battles in the streets, but also a radical increase in extortion and other crimes. The reason is the fracturing of cartel control over various “plazas” (territories), and the inability of the previously docile – and sufficiently corrupt – local institutions to deal with the problem.

In the old days the Sinaloa cartel ran Baja California Sur. Now the head honcho Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is in jail in the United States, and there is open war between two factions. One is led by El Chapo’s two sons, and the other by followers of Guzmán’s former lieutenant, Dámaso López, known as “Licenciado,” who surrendered to authorities last summer.

Despite Licenciado’s incarceration, his followers have continued the battle, making an alliance with the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). The CJNG has morphed from being a Sinaloa cartel surrogate in Jalisco to a full-fledged threat on a national level, with a reputation for violence that rivals the infamous Los Zetas.

This is occurring while in Baja California Sur, as elsewhere in Mexico, institutions are in disarray. The police, inevitably it seems, are part of the problem. In October 2017, hundreds of officers in the capital city, La Paz, threatened to walk off the job. Why? To protest firing of 65 officers who failed anti-corruption tests.

Among the populace, the general disgust has resulted in local civic organizations demanding the resignation of top security officials, with some result: last December, the state’s attorney general succumbed to the pressure and resigned.

The federal response has been the same as it has been over the past 12 years: to militarize day-to-day policing with an overwhelming show of force on the part of soldiers and marines. In April 2017 the federal government sent 1,000 troops to Baja California Sur, intending to keep a permanent deployment of 600 combat troops.

In this never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole, Baja California Sur can claim some recent success. In April of this year homicides in Los Cabos dropped a staggering 94% from the beginning of the year. But the numbers, and the way the information was presented, outline the real issues in this election: crime, and the corruption that enables it. The drop in homicides in Los Cabos wasn’t announced by a local official, but by the National Security Commissioner. This was because Baja California Sur participated in “Titan Shield” – a federal anti-crime initiative – effectively acknowledging that the situation had got out of control, with local authorities in over their heads.

The ongoing instability is terrible news for the tourism industry and local businesses. The murder rate functions as an umbrella statistic, because it is hard to fudge, and is usually indicative of higher overall crime rates, with many incidents going unreported. The news of interest to foreigners – such as the murder of a Canadian man in 2015, or the robbery of 25 tourists enjoying a visit to Isla Espíritu Santo – occludes the type of delinquency that local Mexicans have to live with on a daily basis, most specifically those crimes that are backed up by the threat of violence, such as extortion.

Election 2018

After James Carville coined “The economy, stupid” as the driving theme of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, it has become a mantra for many political strategists that people vote with their pocket books. If that were solely the case, then the voters in Baja California Sur would veer towards one of two options.

One could be the centrist PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, who is running under the umbrella “Todos por México” (the “All for Mexico” coalition with the New Alliance (PANAL) party and Mexico’s Green Party (PVEM)). Or it could be the right-of-center National Action Party’s (PAN’s) Ricardo Anaya, who has teamed up with the former left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to create a single entity called “Por México al Frente” (which roughly translates as “Mexico First”).

But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, there is a shift toward former PRD presidential candidate (2006, 20012) Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which is part of a larger coalition called Juntos Haremos Historia (Together We Make History).

A recent survey makes this clear, indicating that the PAN is about to lose the mayoralty of La Paz to MORENA, with senators and also local and federal deputies shifting to the left-leaning coalition. At present, the PAN governs the State of Baja California Sur, dominating the 5 municipalities and 15 of the 21 local councils. In Baja California Sur MORENA has also had a break with the local Workers Party (PT), which may provide an additional boost for those concerned that AMLO might be too left wing.

Given the instability, the new slogan for this election could be “The violence, stupid.” The electorate in Baja California Sur is fed up and disgusted with the corruption that has enabled the surge in instability. While much of this is due to dysfunction at the local and state level, the electorate appears willing to vote for a new approach at the federal level, too.

What is that new approach? AMLO’s promises are vague, but he clearly approves of a less heavy-handed approach, saying that meeting violence with violence, or “fighting fire with fire”, is not the answer.  He has said that his approach won’t be hard line, and that he doesn’t support more severe laws and prison sentences. Instead, he wants to address “root causes”, much of which center on social issues such as poverty and access to education. Corruption, too, fits into this narrative.

And in a relatively affluent state like Baja California Sur, corruption is a critical part of the story. It is not the economic issues that are driving the violence, it is the toxic combination of the militarized drug war and local corruption, with federal forces swooping down to secure areas that have fallen apart due to genteel systems of cronyism, nepotism, and incompetence, that are completely ill-equipped on all levels – administrative, police, judicial, penal – to deal with the violent fallout from the drug war.

Can AMLO and MORENA make a difference? We’ll find out after July 1.

Below are the links to the posts for each state: 

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