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From issue: Latin America's Real Middle Class (Fall 2012)

Fresh Look Reviews

Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

In this issue:
Photographs by Lars Klove.

Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation by Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler

Central America is receiving more attention in the U.S. news media and from the U.S. government than at any time since the region’s civil wars and domestic insurgencies three decades ago. Unfortunately, the attention is negative. The focus has shifted from the 1980s Cold War battles of President Ronald Reagan’s administration to the violence associated with organized crime, drug cartels and street gangs (maras).

In Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation, Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler—professors of political science at the University of Louisville—provide those interested in Central America, the drug trade and U.S. foreign assistance in the region with an invaluable tool for understanding the causes and implications of drug trafficking through an analysis of what they term the “bridge countries” of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. The authors intentionally do not include Mexico, which they argue (correctly) involves a different dynamic both in terms of the strength or weakness of the state, and the nature of the drug trade.

Understanding the drug trade phenomenon through these “bridge” states required the authors to develop an innovative research approach that was both wide-ranging and deep. They used every imaginable source of data, ranging from primary and secondary articles and books to court records from the United States and the “bridge” nations and scores of personal interviews over many years to produce an impressive book on a subject that by its nature is opaque: transnational organized crime.

The subtitle, Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation, captures the ingenious means that drug traffickers have adopted to move their product from Central America to its principal markets in North America and Europe. In fact, one of the many useful features of the book is its inclusion of Europe as a major destination for drug trafficking. Many policymakers in Central America and Latin America say the expansion of the drug trade is a direct result of the failure of the U.S. and other consuming countries to deal effectively with their own drug markets. In this book the authors take as a given the demand for drugs in North America and Europe.

The book in many ways takes an encyclopedic approach to drug trafficking. There is substantive information on topics ranging from the drugs transported (including marijuana, heroin and cocaine) to the means of transportation (air, sea and ground) and capsule summaries of the main groups involved in the region—and their relationships with drug cartels elsewhere in the Americas. As the authors note, “The threat of interdiction has caused drug rings to turn to ever more inventive schemes to try to outwit authorities.” That, in turn, raises the question of whether interdiction can be successful. Rather than deterring many traffickers, the authors write, “Interdiction created a dynamic that encouraged additional production of cocaine, more ingenious smuggling methods and the use of numerous drug routes through different bridge states.”

But the most helpful element of the book for future researchers and policymakers is the detailed country-by-country approach. The authors developed an identical set of categories—factors that lead to countries being “bridge” states, the evolution of drug trafficking and drug trafficking routes and organizations—for all five “bridge” countries, even though each chapter can stand on its own for its description and analysis of the particular dynamics of drug transit.

After analyzing the five country case studies, the authors identify what they call “cardinal factors” driving drug trafficking: arms, poverty, over-matched militaries, weak legal regimes, dismal law enforcement, and ineffective cooperative efforts. These factors, combined with the area’s geographic and economic position as a “bridge” between the major drug producers of Colombia and Peru and the major consuming nation of the U.S., result in a situation where they conclude the most the “bridge” states can do is to minimize the “cardinal factors” favoring drug trafficking to encourage the traffickers to move their business to a neighboring state.

That may sound pessimistic, but it’s hard to disagree with. As the authors point out, the immense profits from drug sales, the geographic and political factors of Central America, the minimal assistance provided by other states and the continuing demand for drugs in the U.S. and Europe have produced a combined challenge that policymakers in these “bridge” countries find hard to address.

Walking away from this challenge, however, is not an option. U.S. assistance remains crucial. Since 2008, beginning with the Mérida Initiative for Mexico and Central America, the U.S. Congress had by mid-2012 appropriated $496.5 million for the seven nations of Central America through Mérida and, later, the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). While there are many problems with CARSI—including lack of coordination, U.S. bureaucratic inertia, and a lack of competent and non-corrupt counterpart organizations in Central America—the scale of the region’s crime challenges would probably overwhelm any single official government-to-government program, no matter how well-intentioned.

“The cardinal fact remains that, although with outside assistance the Central American bridge states have been able to disrupt numerous drug transactions and arrest key members of particular drug-trafficking groups, their actions and resources have not nearly sufficed to reverse the flow of drugs through the region,” the authors conclude.

“These bridge states lack the capacities, their deficiencies are too many, and the scope of the problem is too vast for all the countries in the region simply to ‘push the traffickers out,’ as U.S. officials have sometimes urged.”

It should be noted that the analysis does not include either El Salvador or Nicaragua. Nor does it include the phenomenon of Central American street gangs, known as pandillas, or, the most dangerous, maras—because, as the authors note, their role in drug trafficking is tangential at best. However, the maras are in fact a serious security issue in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. While this does not detract from the book’s value, it’s important to remember that drug trafficking is still only a part of the larger, tragic story of contemporary crime and violence in Central America.

La silenciosa conquista china by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo

José Luis León-Manríquez

A flurry of new books dedicated to understanding the implications of China’s expanding global influence across the developing world has appeared in recent years. La silenciosa conquista china (The Silent Chinese Conquest), written by two China-based journalists, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, stands out for the investigative journalistic approach the authors have brought to the phenomenon.

Cardenal, who has worked for the Spanish newspaper El Economista, and Araújo, then with the Mexican news agency Notimex, set out to uncover the effects of China’s global expansion and its pursuit of raw materials, energy sources and new export markets. Their work is the product of five years of on-the-ground research across 25 countries and interviews with 500 people. While scholarly work has tended to focus on China’s relations with separate regions, Cardenal and Araújo bring together empirical evidence of the Chinese presence throughout the “Third World” in a single volume.

Apart from its own merits, the book has aroused wider public attention after the Spanish Embassy in Beijing denied the authors the use of its diplomatic facilities in April to present the work, arguing that “to do so could anger the Chinese government.” The Mexican embassy offered its own premises, and the controversy has helped the book’s sales. La silenciosa conquista china has now been published in five Spanish-language editions, and is being translated into other languages.

The authors did not begin with an explicit hypothesis. Nor did they use a sophisticated methodology to integrate their empirical findings. Instead, they followed journalistic intuition and a passion for, as they wrote, “going where the footprint of the giant is most evident: the developing world.” The result is part road trip chronicle, part anthropological study and part journalistic reporting—with a dash of concepts from economics and political science.

Cardenal and Araújo identify two key actors that drive China’s global ambitions. At a micro level, Chinese merchants travel to developing countries, establish fluid channels of commercialization for low-priced merchandise, and then repatriate the profits. At a macro level, state capitalism, through powerful public companies, negotiates investments in exchange for a constant flow of energy, minerals and food. The work of these companies is complemented by state financial institutions such as the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Eximbank. As the authors note, these two “policy banks […] have already managed to displace the World Bank as the top lender in the developing world.” At critical times, all of these players can count on the support of China’s network of foreign diplomatic delegations.

Throughout the book’s eight chapters, the authors balance the positive and negative aspects of China’s expansion. Cardenal and Araújo point to investment in infrastructure (e.g., highways, dams, airports, and hospitals) as among the most praiseworthy byproducts of Chinese overseas economic activities. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Angola and Sudan have received immense Chinese resources to restructure—and even create—new public works. This is in addition to Chinese donations of highly symbolic construction projects, such as a soccer stadium in Costa Rica or national theaters in various African countries. An additional positive consequence is the supply of inexpensive Chinese consumer goods to the low-income sectors of developing countries.

Despite these benefits, the authors note that “often, China’s actions are certainly debatable, when not openly polemical,” and they identify seven questionable characteristics of the Chinese presence. The first is the exchange of raw materials for industrialized products, a process that contributes to the de-industrialization of many countries, especially in Latin America. Another concern is environmental degradation, as exemplified by the destruction of jade mountains in Myanmar (Burma), and open-pit mining in Peru. Third, Chinese firms that operate abroad rarely adhere to established labor standards of fair wages and working hours. Among the examples cited are textile companies in Egypt, Chinese supermarkets in Argentina and the state mining company Shougang in Peru. Fourth, the lack of transparency within Chinese companies makes it hard to know exactly what they are doing. The authors report that companies persistently avoided talking with them, which may make the book a bit biased but also reveals the attitude and openness of Chinese business.

The fifth and sixth points are a little harder to quantify. Corruption and the dependence on personal connections (guanxi) often distort the partnerships between local firms and Chinese entities, an issue that is exacerbated in unstable and high-risk political environments such as the DRC and Angola. The authors also point out that the expanding Chinese commercial presence can inspire fear about infringements of national sovereignty. Russians, for example, worry about a virtual Chinese “colonization” of Siberia. Finally, the international community has been unsettled by China’s pragmatic willingness to strike commercial deals with “rogue” regimes shunned by other countries because of human rights abuses, such as Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela.

Nevertheless, the book’s glib treatment masks some methodological imprecision and even factual errors. For example, the authors allude to a supposed “genetic code” thanks to which Chinese merchants take advantage of business opportunities that other businesspeople cannot detect. As a metaphor, the idea of the “genetic code” could work, but no one has yet demonstrated the existence of capitalist DNA.

The authors could also have widened their selection of countries where Chinese influence has been noteworthy. Most of the countries chosen (other than Russia, India, Taiwan, and South Africa) have in common a weak state and a primary-sector export economy. But it would have been interesting to explore countries with more sophisticated economic and political structures, such as Brazil or Mexico.

Despite these flaws, the book makes clear that China is—and acts as—a great power. That may not be a comfortable thought for everyone. At the same time, La silenciosa conquista china will displease unquestioning supporters of the theory of China’s “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi), under which Chinese actions in periphery countries represent a generous South–South cooperation in the best traditions of the Non-Aligned Movement and Chinese internationalism. This book, conversely, can lead to the conclusion that China’s global strategies don’t differ substantially from those employed by other great powers, both present and past.

La silenciosa conquista china complements notable scholarly analyses of the revitalized Sino–Latin American relationship that have been published since the middle of the past decade. To these academic studies, it adds the magnifying glass of the botanist—or to be more precise, of two sharp journalists.

Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of "Black" Mexico by Laura A. Lewis

Nnenna M. Ozobia

Mexico is not the first country that comes to mind when the issue of Afro-descendants in the Americas is discussed. Unlike the better-known cases of Brazil and Colombia—with 91 million and 15 million Afro-descendants, respectively—Mexico’s national statistics agency recognizes only an estimated 500,000 citizens as Afro-descendant, less than 0.5 percent of the total population. However, the accuracy of that number has long been questioned.

But the lack of attention to Afro-Mexicans, concentrated largely in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, and Chiapas states, is slowly being remedied. In September 2012, the National Forum on Afro-Descendant Populations in Mexico City explored the long-neglected heritage of the country’s Afro-descendants. The forum built on the Mexican government’s Nuestra Tercera Raíz program of the 1990s, though the results of both efforts have been mixed.

Laura A. Lewis, professor of anthropology at James Madison University, has made a significant effort to fill the void with Chocolate and Corn Flour: History, Race, and Place in the Making of “Black” Mexico. Based on over a decade of fieldwork in San Nicolás Tolentino, a predominantly Afro-descendant and Indigenous agricultural village in Guerrero state, the book attempts to unravel the complexities of race, ethnicity and identity in Mexico.

San Nicolás Tolentino is located in Mexico’s Costa Chica—an area recognized for its Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities—and considered part of the “cradle of Afro-mestizo culture” in Mexico. In Chocolate and Corn Flour, Lewis challenges this label as an oversimplification. She places “Black” in quotation marks to argue that people in San Nicolás see themselves as morenos or “Black Indians,” and not solely “Black.” This is why “corn flour” is used in the title of the book: as the author discovered in conversation with a local friend, residents joke they are “all mixed up” like a chocolate atole, a traditional Mexican corn-based drink.

Chocolate and Corn Flour is the latest contribution to a body of literature focused on Afro-Mexicans. Perhaps the best known work is La población negra de México, by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán in 1946, who later conducted the first ethnographic work in Cuajinicuilapa in the Costa Chica.

Lewis builds on Beltrán’s research. While the book is not an attempt to question the accuracy of his work, Lewis points out instances where he was guilty of “fallacies in logic” and of following U.S.-based racial and cultural paradigms shaped by his mentor, U.S. anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Some of Lewis’ concerns are valid, yet others come across as unsympathetic, particularly given that her field study benefited from advantages Beltrán did not have, such as new scholarship and better access to the communities due to infrastructure improvements.

Lewis maintains that san nicoladenses are the victims of inaccurate paradigms of racial and ethnic identity projected on them by outsiders through “cultural promotion.” The focus of “politicians, artists, photographers and media types, scholars and social activists” on identifying “African survivals” blinds them to the reality of how locals perceive themselves, she writes. Instead, san nicoladenses are a cohesive and insular community that follows patterns similar to other rural Mexicans who use transnational linkages to improve their living standards and family well-being.

At the same time, Lewis notes that the daily challenges faced by san nicoladenses are substantial: poor infrastructure, illiteracy, and a low overall quality of life. The book underlines the importance of leveraging academic scholarship to accelerate locally driven, tangible goals as well as promoting understanding and sensitivity with regard to identity.

Lewis also looks to the diaspora community, primarily located in North Carolina, whose remittances have changed the landscape of the village from adobe homes to “cinder-block houses.” But the community’s insularity recurs in the U.S.: emigrants from San Nicolás keep a distance from their English-speaking neighbors, including African-Americans. These dynamics would have been a fruitful area to explore further, but Lewis uses only a handful of interviews—not enough to substantiate her broad generalizations.

Nevertheless, Chocolate and Corn Flour should inspire future work on racial identity and inclusion in Mexico and elsewhere and expand the limited knowledge base of ethnological work in the field.

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