La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: trade

White House: Cocaine market in U.S. under 'stress'

Cocaine dealer arrested sydney herald sun

The cocaine market in the United States is under "significant stress," reports the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Cocaine production has dropped in Colombia due to recent eradication efforts, putting stress on the U.S. market in 2009, the office announced this month. And although a direct connection between data is not sufficiently made clear, use of the drug also dropped last year in the United States, where most Colombian cocaine is destined after being moved by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

"Although a wide array of data now confirm the decline in use and availability of cocaine in the United States, there are still far too many Americans using drugs that drive violence and instability in other nations," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House office. "That is why the Obama administration is working to restore balance to our drug control efforts by emphasizing demand reduction at the same time we are supporting our international allies in their efforts to curb the supply of these drugs."

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'Mexico supplies the drugs. We supply the users'

Puebla mexico checkpoint epa

"Over the border and through the cartels to Abuelita's casa we go," begins a recent commentary on the Mexican drug war, published Monday in the Kansas City Star (and also syndicated by Tribune Media Services).

The line by columnist Mary Sanchez refers to the brutal drug-trafficking organizations currently spreading fear and violence across the country, and -- of course -- to the stereotypical sweet grandmother figure that draws so many Mexican Americans back to the country of their ancestors during the Christmas season.

This season, Mexico warned, visitors from the United States should travel in convoys to help avoid the kidnappings and shoot-outs. Feliz Navidad?

Sanchez writes that looking at the drug war in Mexico as merely a south-of-the-border problem ignores half of the equation. The violence, she says, is rooted in competition over which groups get to supply the lucrative demand for narcotics in the United States, the largest drug market in the world, and which groups the Mexican government is attempting to dismantle. The writer argues:

It's easy to cluck our tongues about the gruesome violence "over there," but to do so is to absolve ourselves of the role our country plays in this bloody import/export business. Let's be honest: This is a trade relationship. Mexico supplies the drugs. We supply the users.

Read the entire column here.

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Landlocked Bolivia to get gateway to sea in Peru

Evo morales and alan garcia

Peru has decided to give Bolivia access to a Pacific port, allowing its landlocked Andean neighbor a stretch of coastline for the first time in more than 120 years.

Peruvian President Alan García and his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, signed an accord last week in the Peruvian port of Ilo that will allow Bolivia eventually to build its own small dock on a parcel of coastline that's 1.38 square miles. Bolivia, landlocked but still operating a navy, lost its Pacific coastline to Chile during the War of the Pacific, in which Chile fought both Peru and Bolivia from 1879 to 1884.

The war is still considered a sore spot in Bolivia, the result often blamed for some of the country's economic troubles. With a strip of sea, Bolivia could open itself more to global trade and markets, as it currently requires an OK from either Peru or Chile to move its exports across land.

Trade between Bolivia and Asian markets is expected to see a boost, a trade news agency said, but the governments did not provide details on when a Bolivian port at Ilo might be completed. García welcomed Morales to Ilo on Oct. 19 for the signing of the pact, which was first agreed upon in 1992 but never implemented.

"It is unjust that Bolivia has no sovereign outlet to the ocean," García said, according to reports. "This is also a Bolivian sea."

The Ilo agreement signals a warming of relations between García and Morales, who often have traded barbs, and a diplomatic jab at Chile, a country still distrusted in Bolivia. The news was not met with cheers in Chile, reports Los Tiempos (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Bolivian President Evo Morales and Peruvian President Alan García in Ilo, Peru, October 19, 2010. Credit: Los Tiempos

Mexican Coca-Cola makes inroads north of the border

Mexican coke facebook More consumers in the United States are cluing in to a secret that immigrants, Mexican Americans and ardent foodies have known for years: Mexican-made Coca-Cola is said to taste better than U.S.-made Coke. The cited reason? Mexican Coca-Cola still uses cane sugar as its main sweetener, while U.S. Coca-Cola is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

The drink is popular among Mexican Americans and migrants yearning for a fizzy and familiar taste from south of the border, and among foodies who insist  that the taste difference is evident, despite a stated position by Coca-Cola's international headquarters that no difference can be discerned. Additionally, Mexican Coke is still usually bottled in glass, contributing to what some consider an authenticity factor that U.S. Coke loses when it comes in plastic or aluminum.

According to Daily Finance, in 2005, a Coca-Cola bottler in Texas started a pilot program to import  Mexican Coke into the state. In 2006, Mexican Coke muscled its way into California, and in 2009, into Florida, Georgia, and several other states.

The result? Blogs and food websites raving about the crisp, more "natural" taste of Mexican Coke compared with U.S. Coke, and plenty of Facebook chatter.

One fan of Mexican Coca-Cola on Facebook recently wrote: "We sell Coke with real sugar at my cigar shop by the bottle and I can't keep it in stock it's so popular! I don't like calling it Mexican Coke because it's just real old school Coke -- like when I was a kid."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A bottle of Mexican-made Coca-Cola.

Another step toward capitalism in Cuba

Prepping sandwiches cuba ap

Cuba's plan to lay off half a million state workers is another bid to save its economy through gradual but strictly controlled reforms that lean toward, if not fully embrace, capitalism, Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times.

Since it lost its chief patron when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the tiny Communist nation has struggled to sustain itself in a globalizing market economy. Recent help from Venezuela, the Cuban revolution's foremost cheerleader in Latin America, "can't last forever," Wilkinson writes.

Under the new plan, unproductive or overpaid state workers will be let go and allowed to enter into small mom-and-pop-style businesses. Lack of expertise and resources stirs doubt about how successful the plan might be, but a similar program for taxi drivers suggests that there's money to be had for the average Cuban.

Private taxi drivers make 33 times more than state-employed taxi drivers.

Wilkinson writes: "The list of approved businesses includes upholstery; repair of dolls, toys and umbrellas; animal shodding; music teaching; sales of flowers, herbal medicines and brushes; and manicures and eyebrow waxing."

And then there's the Castro quotient. In recent interviews with foreign journalists, Fidel Castro, the regime's looming former leader, has praised Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, and said Cuba's socialist economic model "doesn't even work for us anymore." He later backtracked on the comments.

Castro and his brother, Raul, who is now Cuba's president, have attempted to make it clear that they are not abandoning the revolution, or at least their grip on power. Since July, the government has released 36 political prisoners -- but booted most of them to Spain. The intelligence firm Stratfor reports that when Fidel Castro delivered a speech to students at the University of Havana earlier this month, which he used to backtrack on the economic-model statement, the aging former leader wore green military fatigues for the first time in four years. 

So far, Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, has offered to help Cuba with its layoffs and small-business development plans. On Monday, a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives said he is not giving up on seeking legislation that would relax travel and trade bans between Cuba and the United States.

The Times editorial board backs relaxing the bans, and so does the White House. In a 2009 story from the island, Wilkinson reported that "Havana is crawling with Americans these days."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Workers prepare Cuban sandwiches at a snack bar in Havana. Credit: Associated Press

Controversial Georgetown gig for Colombia's Alvaro Uribe

Alvaro uribe georgetown ap

The arrival of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at Georgetown University is sparking campus debate on the two-term leader's legacy in security and human rights. Uribe starts work this semester as a "Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership" at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, where he will conduct seminars and other programs, the university said.

"We are thrilled that [Uribe] has identified Georgetown as a place where he will share his knowledge and interface with Washington, and I know that our students at the School of Foreign Service will benefit greatly from his presence," said the Georgetown school's dean, Carol Lancaster, in a university statement.

But not everyone in the Georgetown community is reacting with such enthusiasm. In comments on the personal site of university professor Anthony Clark Arend, one commenter identified as Charity Ryerson, a Georgetown law student, wrote:

I am a student at the law center and have worked extensively with the Colombian human rights community. While he was Governor of Antioquia, Alvaro Uribe was instrumental in the creation of the Convivirs, private self defense organizations that later morphed into the Colombian United Self Defense Forces, a paramilitary organization that has killed tens of thousands of Colombian civilians with the support of the Colombian state. As recently as 2006, the paramilitaries and the Colombian military ate together at the same military bases and carried out joint operations.

He routinely publicly denounced human rights defenders in his country, falsely claiming that they had ties to the guerrilla organizations in order to undermine their work. His party continues to work with illegal armed groups in the country, a situation which he, at a minimum, tolerated. He spied on opposition leaders and human rights defenders. His own DAS (similar to the FBI) passed hit lists to the paramilitaries containing names of trade unionists and human rights defenders, many of which were later killed.

And now Georgetown has legitimated him and his legacy by making him a “Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership.” This is an offense to the thousands of victims of his administration, to the human rights community in the US and Colombia, and is an embarrassment to Georgetown University. This decision should be reconsidered.

The commenter added a link to a tough-worded letter the group Human Rights Watch sent to U.S. President Barack Obama over Uribe's human rights record during his government's crackdown on the leftist FARC guerrillas.

Nevertheless, Uribe left Colombia's presidency with a high approval rating, and in June, Colombian voters elected Uribe's chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, by a margin of more than 40 percentage points.

"The legacy of Uribe, I think, is huge," said Myles Frechette, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, in The Washington Times. "He restored Colombians' confidence in their own country. He showed them that if the government put its mind to it, it could — with assistance from the United States — beat back the guerrillas."

Colombia is the United States' closest ally in Latin America, receiving more than $7 billion in military aid since the implementation of "Plan Colombia," the equally contested aid agreement that helped Uribe's government in its efforts against drug-trafficking and terrorism.

Santos now takes up pending negotiations to allow the U.S. to use Colombian military bases and for a free-trade agreement between the two countries, which is also being protested on the Georgetown campus.

In addition to his new university job, Uribe will be busy this fall in the U.S. as vice chair of a United Nations panel on Israel's deadly raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia. Credit: Associated Press

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to be reunited on Mexican bill

The Bank of Mexico said Monday it would place in circulation a new 500-peso bill featuring the well-known faces of two of the country's best-known artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the bank's official video to promote the bill's anti-counterfeiting features (embedded above in Spanish), two figures resembling the celebrity couple stroll in costume around traditional and modern sites in Mexico.

The previous face on the 500-peso bill was Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of Puebla. Milenio reports that in 2006, efforts to replace his face on the note were resisted in Congress. This time, the Bank of Mexico said it had the autonomy to change the look of Mexico's currency as it bolsters efforts to combat money laundering and counterfeiting.

Critics interviewed by Milenio disagreed with the use of the artists' images for differing reasons. Historian Alejandro Rosas Robles said the Nobel Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz is more worthy of appearing on the note because his work speaks more generally to Mexico, while the noted art critic Raquel Tibol argued that the use of the couple's image was an "error" because the artists were not directly involved in Mexico's revolution of 1910.

The faces of Rivera and Kahlo appear on opposite sides of the new bill, along with reproductions of works by them. The note has six anti-fraud features, including a watermark and relief text. In September, Mexico begins celebrating 100 years since the start of the revolution and 200 years since declaring independence from Spain.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: Banco de Mexico

Report: Mexico's drug war is not working

Mexico drug war tijuana memorial police

Is the U.S.-backed drug war in Mexico working? By almost any account or any measure, the answer is no. Though high-ranking authorities on both sides of the border continue to support Mexico's military-led enforcement strategy against the country's powerful drug trafficking cartels, the facts remain stark, L.A. Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood say in a special report published Sunday.

The cartels are stronger, more violent, and transnational. Here are the worrisome highlights from the story:

* More than 28,000 people have been killed since December 2006.

* Mexico's effort has failed to dismantle the networks or significantly slow the flow of drugs. More narcotics are flowing into the United States.

* The availability of methamphetamine in the U.S. has hit a five-year high, while cocaine exports have dropped, possibly due to increased flow to other markets.

* Traffickers may now pose a long-term danger to Mexico's stability. Swaths of the country are now in effect without authority.

* The groups have transformed themselves into broad criminal empires deeply involved in migrant smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and trafficking in contraband.

* Drug gangs are armed with military-class weapons smuggled from the U.S., or weapons left over from U.S.-backed wars in Central America.

* Mexican traffickers have muscled aside competitors to gain control over shipments of most types of illegal drugs in the hemisphere.

* Criminal groups have usurped the government's role as tax collector.

* Traffickers have succeeded in shutting down major operations of Pemex, the state oil company and top source of national income. Traffickers have been stealing oil for years.

* Mexican drug gangs now operate in more than 2,500 cities in the U.S.

In addition to all this, attacks on journalists and human rights workers have skyrocketed, and so have claims of human rights abuses committed by Mexico's military. Still, the administration of U.S. President Obama plans to supply Mexico with more than $1 billion in aid under the Merida Initiative. A recent congressional report warns of lack of oversight on how that aid is spent. Only 9% of Merida Initiative funds have been delivered so far.

Now, the question of whether Mexico should legalize drugs, as former President Vicente Fox now advocates, is in many ways a moot proposal. A legalization of drugs in Mexico would have no effect on the illicit drug trade and market without a concurrent plan in the United States, many experts say.

But don't count on that to happen anytime soon. As the idea floats over both countries this week, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Associated Press: "We don't believe legalization is the answer." 

Then ... what is?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos: Authorities salute the caskets of seven police officers slain in Tijuana in April 2009. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Bridge planned to link San Diego with Tijuana airport

Border Bridge San Diego Tijuana Airport

Development is underway for a border-crossing pedestrian bridge linking San Diego and the Tijuana airport, a plan that could potentially alter the landscape of travel options in the busy binational region.

Equity Group Investments, a major private company headed by billionaire investor Sam Zell (who took Tribune Company, the parent of the Los Angeles Times, private), recently acquired key federal approval to develop the plan. With a U.S. State Department's Presidential Permit, the company has the go-ahead to seek approvals for the project from  U.S. Customs and Border Protection and from the city of San Diego.

Cost for the bridge is estimated at $77.9 million. The for-profit venture would include private Tijuana investors with ties to the Pacific regional airport authority in Mexico, Equity executives said. "There's just been overwhelming support for the project," Terry Holt, a company official, told La Plaza. "Usually you'd expect some kind of concerns."

The Rodriguez International Airport sits on the Tijuana side of Otay Mesa, just across the street from the U.S.-Mexico border fence in a flat and sparsely developed area of southeast San Diego. The planned 525-foot pedestrian bridge would go over the border fence and into a U.S. customs building on the San Diego side of Otay Mesa, about 1 mile from the 905 highway.

There probably would be a toll to use the bridge, but the fee has not been set, Holt said. The facility could open as soon as 2012.

U.S. travelers have been using the Tijuana airport for years for flights into Mexico and connections to other Latin American destinations, seeking lower fares and the ease of access to Tijuana's terminal compared to the relatively congested San Diego airport, which is squeezed in by the city's dense harbor and downtown. San Diego's airport also has restrictions on overnight departures for noise control.

Tijuana's airport, however, has room to grow. The Mexican airline AeroMexico has inaugurated direct flights from Tijuana to Tokyo and Shanghai, building significant new links between Mexico and East Asia. U.S. travelers heading to or from Tijuana's airport currently cross the border with regular traffic at either the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa international crossings.

San Diego's Regional Airport Authority has no direct relationship with the current cross-border terminal plan, but has long identified a growing demand for access to the Tijuana airport among U.S. travelers, said spokesman Steve Schultz.

According a feasibility study on such a project, as many as 2 million U.S. travelers are expected to use the Tijuana airport annually by 2020, even without a pedestrian bridge into San Diego. Such travelers are not limited to San Diegans, the study found. U.S. passengers head to Tijuana's airport from as far away as Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, and Imperial counties.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: Rendering of the proposed pedestrian bridge and customs facility. Credit: Equity Group Investments.

Hurricane Alex catches Mexico off-guard

Flooding in Santa Catarina

Hurricane Alex peaked at a maximum strength of Category 2 when it made landfall in Mexico's northeast June 30. By the time it dissipated over central western Mexico as a tropical depression on July 2, the hurricane and the torrential rains that followed its path had left between 15 and 30 people dead, according to Mexican reports. The flooding crippled so many cities and towns that the Mexican government is still only getting a handle on the damage -- some two weeks later.

Alex seems to have caught Mexico off-guard.

Tens of thousands -- some reports say millions -- of people remain affected across several states, including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. The storm destroyed or seriously damaged bridges, roads, homes, hospitals and schools. The bustling city of Monterrey was left "beyond recognition," its industry belt severely hampered. Heavy rainfall swelled the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, as it is known south of the border) and forced the temporary closure of border-crossing bridges between Mexico and Texas. Thousands of big rigs -- the bolts of commerce between Mexico and the United States -- were stranded or swallowed by flooding. As recently as Monday, bodies were still being pulled from the floodwaters (link in Spanish).

Here's a photo gallery of some of the damage. And here are more pictures from AccuWeather.

Relief and aid are creeping into the affected areas, but rainfall keeps hammering the region, causing more flooding, more damage and more misery. On Wednesday, the daily Excelsior reported that food is being rationed in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. Worries are growing about possible outbreaks of infection or water-borne illnesses, the federal health secretariat said in a statement. The safety of drinking water has also become an issue.

In Nuevo Leon state, the small town of Ciudad Anahuac was evacuated because of fears a dam could burst. Residents were escaping on foot north toward Nuevo Laredo.

"They are out in the open. Men, women and children with nothing to eat," a man who had left the town told the Associated Press.

Ominously, Hurricane Alex was the first major storm of a season that is expected to be active from start to finish.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Vehicles caught in floodwaters from the swollen Santa Catarina River in Monterrey during Hurricane Alex. Credit: AFP / Getty Images


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson