Author Archives: madeleinepenman

Dark days in Mexico

The situation of impunity for human rights violations in Mexico continues to be concerning, and the last few weeks have been particularly alarming.

Not only has there been an outcry over a recent massacre of 22 people by the Mexican army, in events that were seemingly covered up by the federal government as a shoot-out between criminals and soldiers and later revealed to be an extrajudicial execution with excessive use of forcé.

In addition, the events of the last week in the state of Guerrero have shocked everyone and appear to be one of the gravest and most chilling attacks on citizens in recent decades. 43 students of a rural teacher training school disappeared on the 27th September after being taken away in a police van, on the same afternoon that police opened fire on the bus that the students were travelling in to take part in a protest. There are suggestions that criminal groups may have been involved with policemen.

This weekend the news emerged that a mass grave with burnt bodies had been found close to the site of the disappearance of the students.  It remains to be seen if these are the bodies of the students, as DNA tests need to be carried out in coming days.

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Looking back on 20 years of NAFTA: critical perspectives from Mexico


On February 19th, the presidents of Canada, the United States and Mexico will meet in Toluca, Mexico (Peña Nieto’s heartland) to look back on the twenty years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, or TLCAN in its Spanish acronym). At the time, Mexican President Salinas had promised his citizens that with this agreement Mexico would finally take its place in the “First World.”

The Mexican Treasury (Secretaria de Hacienda) has published an overview of NAFTA, highlighting its positive aspects. According to its information, every minute, $2 million USD is traded between the three member countries of the agreement. But how much of this comprises Mexican products made in Mexico? Enrique Galvan Ochoa, a prominent Mexican commentarist, recently provided an overview on this issue on morning news radio MVS in Mexico. To start with, Galvan Ochoa highlights that Mexico still continues to export petroleum without processing it, and points out that in 20 years of NAFTA, Mexico has not built one refinery on its soil. Any refinery that is built in coming years will likely be done so with ownership by a foreign company, given the recent constitutional reform regarding PEMEX. Petroleum aside, the figures show that Mexico exports $328 billion USD worth of products each year. However it is important to note that of this total, only a third of these products are produced in Mexico, wheareas the rest of the earnings come from products that have been re-assembled using mostly foreign parts, and with some Mexican value-added. This sector, which is mostly made up of the ‘maquiladora’ style factories that populate the Mexico-US border, is the one that has grown the most from the NAFTA agreement.  According to the argument of Galvan-Ochoa, in order to remain as a developing country exporting crude oil and assembled factory products it was not necessary for Mexico to enter into NAFTA.  

When Mexico signed the NAFTA agreement, it meant opening its borders to imports from Canada and the US.  Mexico stands in 3rd place worldwide as an export destination for the US, and 5th for Canada. One of the interesting aspects regards food. Mexico now imports most of its food and sends its best quality corn to the United States, receiving sub-quality corn in return. 20 years ago you would have noticed that all the tacos in Mexico were made with white corn which is high in nutrients. These days you will find Mexicans often eating yellow corn tacos which are much less nutritious. The diets of Mexicans have changed radically with the advent of NAFTA, with processed products, red meat and soft drinks becoming a daily part of the Mexican diet, to the point where Mexico has now overtaken the US as the most obese country in the world. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, on a recent visit to Mexico in 2012, described Mexico as having been subjected to a “Coca-cola-nization” in the last 20 years.  

For other interesting commentaries on NAFTA, Jeff Faux from the Economic Policy Institute has published this critical article in the Huffington Post relating NAFTA to the escalation of Mexico’s drug war.  

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Thought-provoking comparison of events in Egypt and Latin America’s dirty war


The New York times has published an interesting article that reflects on the history of military dictatorships in Latin America and finds some parallels with contemporary events in Egypt. Whether you agree or not, it’s certainly an interesting read that gives some worthwhile comparative insights. The article provides analysis on the coups in Chile and Argentina, the current anti-US sentiment in Latin America, and the role of the military in Egypt, all of this against a backdrop of some degree of US complicity.

An interesting read. Find the article here.

Here is a quote:

“The no-holds-barred military terror in Egypt, and the language the military is employing to justify it, is reminiscent of the worst of human legacies. These are the sort of statements made not by ordinary armies but by armies that have embraced ideological convictions that make it easy to shoot down people in the streets, even civilians, if you believe that they are with the terrorists—or whatever it is you decide to call them.”


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Is a new ‘Superbloc’ emerging in Latin America?


By Carmen Robledo-Lopez

The Pacific Alliance was established in April 2011 by four like-minded Latin-American economies: Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. The grouping aims to promote economic integration in Latin America and to establish a platform to enhance links with Asian partners.

The bloc is relatively new but the members have already taken steps to integrate their economies. The four countries have started strategies to facilitate free circulation of goods, services and people, such as, abolition of visa requirements and tariffs in 90% of merchandises. Furthermore, Chile, Colombia and Peru have integrated their stock exchange markets and created MILA (Mercado Integrado Lationamericano); it is expected that Mexico will eventually join MILA too.

Several other countries have already expressed their interest in the Alliance and requested to be accepted either as full members or as observers. Costa Rica, Guatemala Panamá and Uruguay, as well, as non-Latin American countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Spain are observers of the Alliance.

Why has a small four-country alliance created such expectations? In 2012, the trade between the four members was equivalent to 48% of total Latin-American trade, while their combined GDP (gross domestic product) represented 39% of total of the region; both larger than Brazil’s. Additionally, the four countries have sound macroeconomic performances, healthy public finances and large young skilled populations. The Alliance seems to differentiate itself from other integration mechanisms, by the fact that the four members strongly oppose protectionism; as a result, they all have established many free trade agreements not only with Latin American neighbours, but also with other countries around the World.

The Pacific Alliance has real chances to rival the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and create solid links in the Pacific Rim; the lack of a dominant self-driven economy might be one of the bigger virtues of the group. The Alliance is not wasting any time; the first contacts with members of ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations) have already been started.

The VII Summit of the Pacific Alliance will take place in Cali, Colombia, this coming May.

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Peru and Colombia ranked as top investment destinations in Latin America

Peru and Colombia have been ranked by the consulting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers as the two best destinations for investment in the region, outranking Brazil and Chile. PWC’s survey takes into account the views of business leaders and charts the economic takeoff in both countries.



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The PRI returns to Mexico: first week in power

On watching Enrique Peña Nieto’s swearing in ceremony last December 1st, one could have been mistaken for thinking that Mexico’s presidential transition was going off without a hitch. Peña Nieto certainly enjoyed a much more civil reception from Mexico’s Congress compared with the cacophony of dissent that characterised his predecessor Felipe Calderon’s inauguration ceremony.

Indeed, the PRI  party managed to sail into the presidency and within a day of taking power had already announced the signing of a major agreement (“Pacto por Mexico”) among the three major political parties (PRI, PAN, PRD). The agreement sets out 95 commitments on a wide ranging set of issues including universal health cover, educational reform, human rights and victims’ reparation, community participation and public security reforms to combat violence, reform of PEMEX to raise productivity, among other issues. So, broadly speaking, it seems that the PRI had come up with a deal that no other party could refuse. This is the PRI, after all – they know how to negotiate and make everyone happy – they did that for 71 years up until 2000, to the point where this period of Mexico’s history was dubbed the “perfect dictatorship” by Nobel author Mario Vargas Llosa.  In 2012, with a harrowing toll of violence that has seen almost 80,000 deaths and 30,000 disappeared in six short years, some analysts have commented that perhaps the public was fed up with what they saw as an inept government and would much prefer to return to the well-oiled machine of the PRI, even if that meant democracy losing out. And that is what happened – after 12 years in power, the PAN party was booted out and the PRI came back in.

Enrique Peña Nieto waltzed into power after a seemingly effortless defeat of a legal challenge to his presidency – in September the electoral tribunal struck down significant evidence by opposition parties that the PRI had used extensive vote-buying tactics, media manipulation and voter coercion. Luckily for Mr. Peña Nieto this evidence did not seem enough for the judges or electoral commissioners to be convinced, who nevertheless later quickly ordered the election ballots to be destroyed in order to avoid any confusion.

So, with dissent having been dealt with, the return to power secured, there was only one thing missing to make this a real PRI entrance – and that was a showdown between police and the public.


Photo: M. Mora                                                           Photo: D. Jaramillo

The new president’s swearing-in-ceremony was greeted by  initially peaceful demonstrations against what protestors were calling the “imposition” of the PRI. Eyewitness accounts tell how the protest soon became ugly, however, as a number of masked demonstrators in khaki pants, black shirts and gloves started to filter into streets, ready for a fight, fitted with gas masks, burning property and throwing molotov cocktails. It didn’t take long for the violence to escalate and for the riot police to react heavy handedly, at times using excessive force against those caught in the melee and launching tear gas at close range. While some were quick to blame the student movement “Yosoy132” (I am the 132nd) for the violence, this student movement (which had been responsible for questioning the legitimacy of the elections and the manipulation of the media) firmly distanced itself from the violence and was able to link the combative actions to non-associated groups. It is unclear how the violence got so out of hand, however a number of commentators were not ruling out the possibility that violent elements had been deliberately planted in the streets to provoke chaos and thus enable and legitimate a heavy police crackdown. The Reforma newspaper published interviews on the following Monday reporting that some participants had been paid 300 pesos each to deliberately stir up violence on the streets.

It is difficult to assess these confusing narratives, however this sort of tactic is seen as an eery throwback to some of the PRI clashes with students in the 1960s and 70s and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a PRI government has been associated with repressive responses to civil unrest (take the 2006 Atenco operation under Enrique Pena Nieto’s own government in the State of Mexico as an example, or Ulises Ruiz’s government in the state of Oaxaca in the same year). Certainly the PRI has shown itself skilfull at breaking the will of social movements that dissent against it. Whatever the assessment of the PRI’s return to power, one cannot help notice that in comparison to the 2006 elections which were much more polemical, with only 0.56% separating the two candidates and half a million people camping out in the streets in protest, this last week in Mexico City has seen more violent confrontations. Outgoing Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard spoke furiously to the media about the violence on Mexico City’s streets – he mentioned that Mexico City was usually a sphere of peace within the country, and how could these violent clashes take place? Some will argue that these responses are linked with the PRI and its ways. Six years ago there were 400,00 people camping out in the streets in protest against Calderon’s presidency, but not one window was broken or property was burned.


Photos: M. Mora

On Dec 1 and 2 initially over 100 people were detained by police during the protests .  A number of these detainees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and picked up off the street. The final number then went down to 70 detainees, and 56 were just released yesterday. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have expressed their concern about the actions of law enforcement authorities surrounding these street protests, and have called for full investigations.

Week 2 of the PRI’s return to power and new educational reforms are on the agenda. There are a number of issues hanging in the balance and Mexico has a lot of challenges ahead in order to realise its full potential. Time to watch and see.

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