As the North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Mexico City this week, we can expect smiles and all the rhetoric about intensifying the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners. While the trade numbers justify applauding and celebrating the NAFTA agreement 20 years after its inauguration (January 1994), there remains a lot of “behind the scenes” tension, conflict and unresolved issues.
For Canada, NAFTA has been a positive development. In 2010, trilateral trade represented $878 billion, which is a threefold expansion of trade since 1993. Mexico now represents Canada’s first Latin American partner in trade, and we are Mexico’s second most important trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade has expanded at a rate of 12.5% yearly to attain $30 billion in 2010. Canadian investment in Mexico is now estimated at over $10 billion. In short, both countries have benefitted from the deal.
This being said, it is generally acknowledged that both Canada and Mexico invest more time, energy, and resources in pursuing bilateral relations with the world’s number one economy, the United States. As a result, some outstanding issues such as Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexican tourists continue to be a major irritant for the Mexican government. The continuing disputes on respective beef import bans also continue to create tension between the two countries.
Just this past weekend, Canada’s highly respected Globe and Mail had the following headlines: “Mexico has stern messages for Harper” and “Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles”. Clearly, the relationship is strained.
Narcocorridos—songs that celebrate drug dealers as folk heroes—have been a part of Mexican culture for as long as the illicit activity has existed in the country. Attempts to censor them from reaching radio airwaves have triggered debates over freedom of speech, as well as outcries from the more liberal media.
But as a recent concert in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán, shows, there is a fine line between painting a pretty picture of criminality and actually engaging in direct support for organized crime groups that have brought parts of Mexico to unmanageable levels of violence.
The state of Michoacán has been in the spotlight for almost a year now, due to a complete degradation of the rule of law. A clashing arena for a number of criminal organizations including the Familia Michoacana, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Zetas and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), Michoacán is a case study where criminality has grown larger than the state itself.
The Mexican government announced a temporary agreement on Monday that will incorporate vigilante groups in the state of Michoacán into national law enforcement.
Over the past year, civilian groups have taken arms to combat the violent Knights Templar drug cartel (Caballeros Templarios) based out of Apatzingan, Michoacán. The government moved to integrate the local groups into the Rural Defense Corps, a preexisting organization that is controlled by the military, after failing to disarm vigilantes in the region earlier this month.
The plan comes after the leader of the Knights Templar, Dionisio Loya Plancarte, was captured on Monday. Some see the move to combine state forces with the vigilantes as a major development in the fight against drug cartel related violence. “This is the start point of the new dynamic in which we are going to work together, the state and federal governments, with civil society,” said Alfredo Castillo, the federal government envoy to Michoacán.
They might be taking their cues from legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was famous for helping out numerous communities in Colombia and donating parks and recreation centers to unprivileged communities. Or maybe they’re inspired by the legend of Jesús Malverde, the so-called narco-saint folk hero from Sinaloa, sometimes seen as a Mexican version of Robin Hood. On the other hand, they may feel threatened by the “self-defense” groups spawning in Michoacán and Colima—civil vigilante groups that have taken up arms against the cartels after declaring that local authorities are unable or unwilling to tackle organized crime battles head-on.
For whatever reason, drug cartels in different parts of Mexico took to the streets this holiday season in order to “give back,” and—ironic as it may sound— spread holiday cheer.
In the southern state of Oaxaca the impoverished communities of Viguera, Bugambilia and Calicanto were surprised on Three Kings Day (January 6) with bundles of toys, which mysteriously appeared in different points of the city, some with signs explaining that they were left there “so that people can see that the Zetas support humble people. ” Not surprisingly, these images did not make it into mainstream national media but were shared via Twitter.
The eerie irony behind these charitable acts is that the Zetas are known for being one of the most cold-blooded criminal groups of the country, often resorting to torture and public displays of their victims.
The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee chose the fitting location of Tucson, Arizona, to convene a field hearing on trade facilitation in the border region on December 9. Dotted with cacti, this college town lies at the heart of the desert landscape that belonged to Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Today, Mexico is Arizona’s largest trading partner, yet perceptions of the border often identify it as a security threat rather than as an economic opportunity.
Last week’s hearing marked a refreshing effort to rebalance policymakers’ attention. In his opening statement, Chairman Matt Salmon (AZ-R) defined the objective: “to get at what we need to do in the public and private sectors to improve border infrastructure and better facilitate trade without letting down our guard on security efforts.” Recognizing that the two economies are deeply intertwined, he pointed to “the good news”—that the commercial relationship continues to grow—and “the bad news”—that ports of entry face significant challenges in keeping up with this growth.
Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Ranking Member Albio Sires (NJ-D) alluded to the solutions needed to resolve tensions between border security and trade facilitation, while Representative Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-D) criticized “long and unpredictable wait times” at the border. Representative Ron Barber (AZ-D) unequivocally stated that “we must expedite the legal flow of traffic,” and Representative David Schweikert (AZ-R) cited the “amazing opportunity” represented by the potential for lower energy costs bolstering a manufacturing renaissance on both sides of the border.
On both sides of the aisle, the consensus was that the security-versus-trade debate has been overly skewed towards the former.
Likely top stories this week: Former President Michelle Bachelet wins Chile’s presidential elections; Protesters rally in support of ousted Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro; USAID plans to pull out of Ecuador by September 2014; the FARC’s 30-day ceasefire goes into effect; a study finds that Mexico leads the world in kidnappings.
Michelle Bachelet Wins Chilean Elections: Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet won Sunday's runoff election to become president of Chile again, easily defeating conservative opponent Evelyn Matthei with 62 percent of the vote. Matthei, meanwhile, captured only 37 percent of the vote—the poorest showing by the Chilean Right in two decades. Bachelet served as president from 2006 to 2010 and left office with an 84 percent approval rating, and will be sworn in in March 2014.
Thousands of Colombians March For Mayor Petro: Supporters of Bogotá's recently-dismissed mayor, Gustavo Petro, rallied in the streets last Friday to protest Petro's removal from office. On December 9, Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez accused Petro of mismanagement of Bogotá's trash collection system and barred him from holding political office for 15 years. Protesters say that Ordóñez, who is not an elected official and is an ally of former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, has no authority to remove Petro from office.
USAID Makes Plans to Leave Ecuador: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is expected to pull its $32 million aid program out of Ecuador by September 2014, according to a letter written Thursday by USAID Mission Director Christopher Cushing. The move comes six months after Bolivian President Evo Morales ordered USAID to leave his country. USAID has not been successful at renegotiating its contract with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, and Correa has said he suspects the organization of meddling in his country's affairs.
FARC Ceasefire Begins: A 30-day ceasefire by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) began on Sunday as the rebels continue peace negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana. The ceasefire was declared on December 8 after a rebel bomb in the department of Cauca killed nine people. However, the rebels have said that the removal from office of Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, will have an impact on the peace process. The Colombian government, meanwhile, will continue its operations against the FARC.
Mexcio Leads the World in Kidnappings: The new RiskMap 2014 report from the security company Control Risks found that Mexico had more kidnappings-for-ransom than anywhere else in the world this year, followed by India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Venezuela. Twenty percent of all kidnappings that happened in the world this year occurred in Mexico, according to the report.
In the midst of a heated national debate on political reform, December 4 marked a milestone in Mexico’s electoral politics, as the upper house of Congress voted on legislation modifying 29 articles in the country’s constitution to allow consecutive re-election for mayoral and legislative positions.
Re-election will go into effect in 2018, and will allow mayors to run for two consecutive terms, while legislators can run for the same position for up to 12 years—though they’re required to run under the same political party they originally ran under. (This raises a number of questions regarding officials running under flimsy party alliances, which come and go faster than the seasons.) The president of Mexico and the mayor of Mexico City will be limited to serving one six-year term, however.
One of Mexico’s most ingrained mottos, born during the Revolution, has been “Effective Suffrage; No Re-election.” Back then, it was understandable that the country would unite under such a slogan, as the revolutionary objective was to overthrow Porfírio Diaz’ 31- year presidential tenure (with only one four-year break from 1880 to 1884).
Since then, however, political life in Mexico has evolved in ways in which allowing re-election could be positive.
The Mexican Senate voted 95 to 28 to pass President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signature energy reform bill Wednesday morning, just one week after the body approved the electoral reform bill that the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) set as a precondition to bringing the controversial measure to the Senate floor. If passed by the Chamber of Deputies, the bill would loosen the state’s control over the oil industry.
President Peña Nieto has advocated for various reforms since he took office in 2012, including telecommunications and education laws, but the energy reform bill has been seen as the centerpiece of his efforts to boost the Mexican economy. If passed, the bill would allow for private investment, exploration and profit sharing with the state-owned Pemex. Those actions were banned 75 years ago when President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the oil industry.
While the alliance between the PAN and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) has majorities in both chambers, there has been vocal opposition to the passage of the bill. Legislators from the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution Party—PRD) interrupted debate on the measure on Tuesday in an effort to keep it from passing before the end of the year. The PRI and PAN have been accused of “treason” by PRD members for championing the bill that would inject private capital into the industry that seen a downward trend in recent years.
Despite the opposition, the Chamber of Deputies is expected to pass the energy reform bill before the winter recess on December 15. It would then need to be approved by more than half of Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district.
This month, Mexico’s Congress is debating the long-anticipated reform of Pemex, the country’s state-owned oil company.
This reform comes at a critical moment for Mexico’s energy industry, as oil production has declined steadily since 2004, and Pemex will need to more than double its investment to reverse the trend. The latest energy reform legislation in Congress would ease the financial pressure facing Pemex (which currently supplies one-third of the government’s annual budget), and would allow for some form of foreign investment in Mexico’s energy development.
If the bill passes, however, the results will be neither immediate nor guaranteed.
Even if Mexico’s Congress scrapes together the necessary votes to pass the bill in the coming days, the energy legislation rollout is likely to take several years. Any constitutional reform must be approved by half of Mexico’s 31 state legislatures. This process will likely take several more months, and may not be complete until the middle of 2014. At this rate, a substantial increase in foreign investment cannot be expected before 2015 or even 2016.
Then, the all-important ley secundaria (secondary legislation) will be decided, with significant implications for the types and levels of investment that the reform will produce.
The Mexican Senate approved a bill on electoral reform early this morning with a vote of 106-15 and one abstention. The bill, which would strengthen the legislative branch and includes constitutional amendments to eliminate term limits for legislators and mayors while curbing the power of the executive branch, was championed by the conservative Partido Acción Nacional—National Action Party (PAN) as a precondition to moving forward with President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ambitious energy reform plan.
The electoral reform bill, which also allows the president to opt for a coalition government, passed its first hurdle in the Senate committees on Tuesday before the overwhelming vote on the floor in the early hours this morning. It allows for Senators and Deputies to serve for up to 12 years—Senators terms are six years while Deputies are three—and eliminates the barriers to direct reelection beginning in 2018; it is expected to pass in the lower chamber this week.
The passage of electoral reform was seen as a necessary step to shore up support amongst PAN legislators, allies on of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional—Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on energy reform, after the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática—Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) pulled out of the cross-party pact that led to the passage of President Peña Nieto’s economic reforms last year.
The proposed energy reform, which aims to reverse declining crude output and boost economic growth, would open up the Mexican oil sector to private investment, and would allow for investors to share profits of oil exploration and production with Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly. The reform bill would also affect the telecommunications and banking sectors.
The lower chamber is expected to vote on energy reform on December 15 before Congress breaks for recess.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.