IPS Blog

Foreign Policy Magazine Analyst Stokes Fears About Mexican-style Drug War in Venezuela

ForeignPolicy.com has done a remarkably poor job covering Latin American politics since the magazine overhauled its site, brought in a new crop of editors, and built up an otherwise impressive stable of regular columnists. Its chief weakness in this regard has been in neglecting the region more than anything else, so when garbage analysis like Francisco Toro’s recent piece on Venezuela’s “narco state” gets run, it really stands out.

Toro writes about the two federal magistrates— Eladio Aponte and Luis Velásquez Alvaray—who have captured headlines in the past couple of weeks by revealing (or threatening to reveal) information that exposes the corruption plaguing Venezuelan government. “To paraphrase Oscar Wilde,” he quips, “To lose one Supreme Tribunal magistrate may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.” I’m not sure what this means, to be frank, or what Toro intends to insinuate by it, but his breakdown of the situation only deteriorates from there.

He notes that the information beginning to trickle out “paint[s] a picture of a criminal justice system deep in bed with the Colombian Rebel Armed Forces (FARC) guerrillas, where political interference, crooked rulings, collusion with drug traffickers, and occasional contract killings, are entirely routine. The cocaine route out of Colombia, through Venezuela, and on to the U.S. and Western Europe is simply too profitable—and the tentacles of the trade’s millions have seeped into every corner of the system.”

What Toro fails to mention is that the tentacles have allegedly also put some of that money into the pockets of Aponte and Alvaray, who were each driven out of the country under clouds of suspicion questioning their own crooked ways. Both face corruption charges at home, giving each a very good reason to raise questions about Hugo Chavez’s leadership during an election year (also not mentioned in Toro’s article).

Instead of taking the time to offer a measured, properly contextualized analysis of what’s going in Venezuela, Toro is clearly more interested in fear mongering—a quality that either throws into question his journalistic integrity or his personal political preferences, or both. “The mounting revelations paint Venezuela as a budding narcostate,” he offers, “a country where big-time drug trafficking money has not just bought this and that judge, or this and that prosecutor, but has taken control of the state as a whole. Large-scale drug trafficking is a business that invariably leaves a trail of blood on its wake, and a spate of recent contract killings of army officers alleged to be deep in the business raises the possibility of a Mexican-style drug war to come.”

Actually, it doesn’t, but it hardly matters since Toro believes that the possibilities for bedlam are even worse in Chavez’s Venezuela! “Alas, the analogy [to Mexico] isn’t really accurate. In Mexico, the drug war pits the armed forces against the drug cartels. In Venezuela, if the former magistrates are to be believed, the drug cartels operate from within the Armed Forces. And what do you call it when one part of a country’s armed forces goes to war against another? That’s right: a civil war.”

To suggest that Mexico’s drug war pits the military against drug traffickers is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation there. Indeed, the military has been forced to take up arms because the country’s police have systemically failed to combat the country’s gangsters. So bad is the situation that on more than one occasion the military has battled police themselves. The military in shootouts with state police units? That sounds more like a civil war than anything going on in Venezuela (though it is assuredly not). And what evidence is there to suggest that Venezuela’s military (apparently split into corrupt and non-corrupt factions) would begin operations against itself? Not much, aside from the predictions of opposition candidates and chavista loyalists in the run-up to the national elections in October.

It’s true that the political climate in Venezuela is tense with uncertainty—and has been for some time—under Chavez’s erratic and largely unsuccessful tenure as president. And, as usual during election season, anxieties are being intentionally ratcheted-up by various operatives seeking political gain (especially given the uncertainty produced by Chavez’s declining health). This is precisely why journalists have a responsibility to offer level-headed explanations of what’s going on in Venezuela. Toro has done the opposite by recklessly forecasting doom. We deserve, and should demand, better.

Are Islamists Role Models to Christian Fundamentalists?

Crusade 2.0The Obama administration, writes Foreign Policy in Focus co-director John Feffer in his valuable new book Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam (City Lights Books), “continues to misunderstand the nature of political life in the Middle East. In his 1985 survey of the Arab world called The Arabs, journalist Peter Mansfield concluded in his final chapter that ‘no one can tell what social and political institutions the Arab people will have developed by the end of this momentous century. All that can be said with certainty is that, however much they derive from foreign movements and ideas, they will have a specifically Arab of Islamic character.’ Nearly thirty years later, policy makers and pundits have yet to learn that Islam is an essential part of Arab life, and that includes politics.” [Emphasis added.]

That would scarcely be feasible in a country as heterogeneous as the United States. Besides, despite conservative claims that the Founding Fathers were inspired by their Christian faith, it’s all too easily demonstrated that they were motivated by fear of the tyranny of not only secular, but sacred authorities. Still, one can’t help but wonder if conservatives are jealous of the widespread belief in Islam — among the rank and file as well as Islamists (political Islam) — that, as the faith of the majority of a state’s citizens, Islam should be nationalized (as it were). It’s ironic to think that Islamists serve as role models to Christian fundamentalists who seek a Christian state.

The District Has a Youth Unemployment Crisis

DC youth between the ages of 16 to 19 are in crisis. They are experiencing unemployment levels 2.3 times the national average, reports the Justice Policy Institute in their latest research brief Working for a Better Future.

The brief takes a look at the collateral effects on youth who do not have access to jobs, such as higher rates of juvenile justice involvement, negative self-image and disconnection from their community. It also provides compelling evidence for the District to invest substantially more into dynamic long-term job training and placement assistance programs that incorporate job skills development, mentoring, job placement, and innovative program completion incentives like a GED and adjudication expungement. There is a generation of young people who are growing up without the skills and experiences to prepare them to contribute in meaningful ways to their lives, families and communities once they reach adulthood.

Often, I find myself in conversations with people about local DC youth and the popular perception is that these kids don’t want to try and take advantage of what’s here. It’s true that, on the surface, the District has a wealth of programs set up to “engage, train, and employ young people. Too often, however, this work is fragmented, uncoordinated, and focuses on the quantity of youth served over the quality of intervention.” And once through these programs, young people have little to show for it and run the risk of having more encounters with the justice system, becoming a victim of crime, and limited and low-paid work opportunities. The District has a responsibility to make sure its youth in the juvenile are equipped to succeed by offering quality programming that promotes public safety and opportunities for self-development.

The following are examples of successful programs operating in DC offering comprehensive programming that results in positive changes in the lives of DC youth:

  • Youth Build U.S.A – serves low-income young people ages 16-24.
  • YearUp – focuses on IT skills training and has a mission focused on helping young people overcome barriers to success due to criminal convictions.
  • STRIVE – seeks to “transform the lives of at-risk populations by providing support and training that lead to livable wage employment and societal reintegration.”
  • JobCorps – a residential education and training program for youth ages 16-24

The report offers the following policy recommendations:

  1. Invest more in quality employment programs for youth that includes efforts to link youth with work that interests them, has potential for advancement and development, and connects them to their community.
  2. Dedicate more resources in the wards with the most need to access the job market.
  3. Use evidence-based models that have been shown to positively impact youth.
  4. Ensure that employer partners accept youth who have successfully completed job preparedness programs regardless of justice system contact.
  5. Consider innovative incentives for increasing youth participation in programs.

Honduras: Sovereignty for Sale

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo

It’s been nearly three years since Honduran president Manual Zelaya was forcefully removed from office by the military in the country’s first coup since 1972. Pushed from power with little more than the pajamas on his back, Zelaya was ferried to Costa Rica in an operation orchestrated by Roberto Micheletti before sneaking back into Honduras and holing up in the Brazilian embassy, sparking a standoff which lasted weeks. In the end, the United States—which had initially spoken forcefully against Zelaya’s ouster and demanded his return to power—lost interest in defending democracy when the going got tough, effectively ending the region’s efforts to send the golpistas packing.

While the rest of the world has since carried on as if nothing had ever happened, the Honduran economy still bears painful reminders of the coup and its consequences. The Economist sums things up succinctly. “It is the third-poorest country in mainland Latin America in terms of GDP per head, and is heavily reliant on foreign help. In the six months between the coup and the election of Porfirio Lobo…the aid tap was turned off. In 2009 the country lost out on $320m in grants and credit, says Humberto López of the World Bank. Its public debt rose from 19.8 percent of GDP in 2008 to 26.3 percent in 2010… Even after two voluntary bond conversions this year, extending maturities to between three and seven years, repaying the principal of the domestic debt alone will cost Honduras 1-2 percent of GDP each year until 2015.”

A suffocated economy, though, could be the least of the country’s concerns. Since taking office, the administration of Pepe Lobo has opened the door to expanded American military presence in Honduras and has quite literally auctioned off his country’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.

Last week, the New York Times reported that the United States has established three new military bases—“each in a crucial location to interdict smugglers moving cocaine”—as part of its increased efforts in a revamped “war on drugs” in Latin America. While the US mission has been ordered “to maintain a discreet footprint,” the six hundred American troops are now “responsible for the military’s efforts across all of Central America,” and offer Hondurans another reminder of Washington’s grim record of military involvement in the country. Even hard-right conservatives are spooked, though for reasons that have more to do with American security than they do Honduran interests. According to the Times, these efforts will “draw on hard lessons from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a plan that leads Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter to remark, “That anyone would regard the Iraq debacle as a template for future military operations is more than a little worrisome. The principal lesson of the Iraq war should be to avoid murky counterinsurgency/nation-building crusades, not to try to pursue such missions more effectively.”

As the US military sets up shop in remote jungle areas, the Lobo administration has been looking to radically refashion the country’s urban centers through a privatization scheme that would make Milton Friedman blush. Planet Money’s Adam Davidson reports that “in late 2010, [presidential aide Octavio Rubén] Sánchez met with [economist Paul] Romer, and the two hurriedly persuaded President Lobo to make Honduras the site of an economic experiment. The country quickly passed a constitutional amendment that allowed for the creation of a separately ruled Special Development Region.” The so-called “charter city” will reportedly “assure investors that they’ve created a secure place to do business…If a multinational company commits to building new factories, real estate developers will follow and build apartments, which then provide the capital for electricity, sewers, telecom, and a police force.” If this sounds like the colonial Mandate System on crack, that’s because in many respects it is, though potential nation-state partners are wary. “Romer hasn’t yet been able to persuade any nations to take on the role of custodian, so Honduras has named a board of overseers until there are enough people to form a democracy.” A democracy of whom, one might ask? It’s not clear, though in yet another twist of irony, the first of Romer’s Honduran charter cities is slated to be built around the harbor of Trujillo, site of Christopher Columbus’ first forays onto the American continent and the inspiration for O Henry’s “Cabbages and Kings”—from which famously comes the term “banana republic.”

Not surprisingly, supporters of each initiative highlight the potential positives. Davidson points out that “Even though he expects most initial opportunities will be fairly low-paying basic industrial jobs, the local government [of the charter city] will mandate policies that ensure retirement savings, health care and education. According to Romer’s plan, the immigrants who arrive will not get rich, but their children will eventually be ready to climb the economic-development ladder.” Meanwhile, containing the operations of drug traffickers is of direct important to US security because, according to Admiral Joseph Kernan, the number two man at US Southern Command, “There are ‘insidious’ parallels between regional criminal organization and terror networks.”

But when we consider that violence and foreign control have been at the heart of Honduras’ problems for the better part of a century, these latest developments are of great concern. And not only that, they’re also interconnected. Carpenter correctly notes that “Because of the black-market risk premium, profit margins are far wider than normal, filling the coffers of illicit traffickers and giving them ample financial resources to challenge competitors and either corrupt or neutralize government institutions…Unfortunately, the Obama administration stubbornly refuses to recognize that reality.” This has direct effects on the dismal levels of physical security countries like Honduras suffer, which in turn scares off potential investors from putting their money behind the country’s economic development. Jettisoning failed and flawed prohibition policies would likely reduce levels of violence as profits—and therefore market monopoly incentives—shrink, and return the economy to a semblance of stability. The result would leave both Romer and the United States military without reason to be in Honduras which, if they are both committed to the region’s future prosperity as they have led us to believe, should be not only a policy preference but a matter of highest priority.

Lip Service Is All the Bahraini Opposition Will Ever Get From Washington*

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.

The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.

None of these strategies has worked. The opposition rejects them as cosmetic changes. The Bahraini majority is angry. It wants authoritarian rule to end, and many Bahrainis would like to see the monarchy disappear. The regime’s answers to this public outrage are birdshot and tear gas. They haven’t produced the terrible death tolls of Libya or Syria, but at least 32 people have died since February 2011.

The United States, which anchors its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, is right in the middle of this simmering crisis. For the most part, Washington is content to look the other way.

*Apologies to Elvis Costello.

To read this piece in its entirety, visit Other Words.

Mexican President Calderon: Kingpin of the Kingpin Strategy

Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Cross-posted from the Dissent blog Arguing the World.

With Mexico’s presidential elections just around the corner, questions about the country’s future—and its bloody war on drugs—hang heavy in the air. The new issue of Foreign Affairs features a brief argument from Robert Bonner addressing this uncertainty, and offers a spirited defense of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against the country’s narcotraffickers. Bonner, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is hardly a stranger to the drug-fueled violence and corruption ravaging Mexico. The effects have been devastating: anywhere between 45,000 and 67,000 people have been murdered since Calderón’s efforts began; the country’s alphabet soup of local, state, and federal security and judicial organs have been largely crippled by graft; and the power of the so-called “Mexican cartels” seems to have metastasized within and beyond Mexico’s borders. Yet, “despite all the negative headlines,” Bonner argues, “the next president will find that the government has made huge gains in the last five years…By using force and launching large-scale reforms of Mexico’s law enforcement institutions, [Calderón] has already destroyed some of the cartels and weakened several others.”

Calderón has made security the central focus of his presidency. As Bonner writes, “Calderón set about reforming Mexico’s law enforcement institutions using a three-part strategy: creating a new, professional federal police force; rebuilding each of the thirty-two state forces and giving them the responsibilities of the discredited municipal police; and overhauling the judicial and penal systems.” These efforts have not been lost on the Mexican public. “As a result of Calderón’s determination and success against the cartels,” notes Bonner, “his approval rating now stands at 52 percent.”

Mexico under Calderón has pursued a far more heavy-handed approach to destroying the cartel networks than the anemic administration of Vincente Fox. Calderón’s government has relied on the military as the primary tool to fight the cartels. To a degree this makes sense: trafficking networks have penetrated Mexico’s various law enforcement bodies so thoroughly that the government can’t depend on the police to keep basic order, much less to go after organized crime. The military, by contrast, has been largely buffered from organized crime’s corrupting influence. But the results have been grim: violence has spiraled out of control as the military takes control of state and local law enforcement bodies, assuming responsibilities for which it is not properly trained or funded. According to government statistics, the first nine months of 2011 left over 12,000 dead, and the violence shows no sign of abating. The first quarter of 2012 witnessed steady fighting between traffickers and the military, as well as attacks on the civilian population. In a particularly chilling incident, four teens in the northern city of Cuernavaca were abducted, cut to pieces, and dumped in the street with a warning note from a local gang. Just this week, nine people were found hanging from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, while another fourteen heads without bodies were discovered near its town hall.

On top of the staggering body counts, many human rights protections have become casualties of Mexico’s militarization. As Alejandro Anaya Muñoz has shown, judicial reforms pursued by Calderón have reduced due-process guarantees in the name of fighting the war on drugs. The number of charges of human rights violations against the ministry of defense has risen precipitously during the Calderón era, especially in those areas of the country where military action has been focused. According to Human Rights Watch, “An important reason [military] abuses continue is that they go unpunished. And they go unpunished in significant part because most cases end up being investigated by the military itself.” International calls for reform on this front have been consistently rebuffed by the Calderón administration.

Worse still, there’s little evidence to suggest that Calderón’s “kingpin” strategy—modeled after the Colombian anti-cartel operations a decade earlier—will even succeed. Bonner, pointing to the alleged successes in Colombia, argues, “In the last three years alone, the Mexican government has captured or killed over forty major cartel members…dismantled the Tijuana cartel and severely weakened the Gulf, the Juarez and La Familia Michoacana cartels.” But there are several reasons to be wary of analogies to the Colombian case. There, the government’s victories over insurgent groups came at the cost of increasing authoritarianism, and through political pacts with conservative paramilitary groups—themselves responsible for a significant amount of Colombia’s drug trade—which have now consolidated considerable political power in northern Colombia. Moreover, it is hardly clear that killing kingpins leads to a reduction in violence, as Calderón has claimed. Indeed, it may be quite the reverse, as recent episodes in Tijuana and Cuernavaca suggest.

Bonner is certainly correct to point out that Mexico’s next president will meet with unrelenting, brutal opposition from the country’s drug traffickers. And whoever wins this summer’s electoral contest should continue to make security a priority, as Bonner argues. But to claim that Mexico faces a stark choice between acquiescence, on the one hand, and a continuation of Calderón’s mano dura (“tough hand”) militarism, on the other, is wrong.

The next president should make efforts to temper, if not outright reject, Calderón’s profligate use of the military, and should make protection of human rights a cornerstone of any policy aimed at rolling back the power of traffickers. Calderón’s successor ought, too, to push back harder against American pressure that privileges supply-side answers to the drug problem (which has the effect of flooding Mexico with weapons) while doing comparatively little to address demand for drugs in the United States. Doing so will demand tremendous creativity and the courage to weather possible public disapproval from citizens exhausted by fear and insecurity.

Still, there’s reason for hope, as the 2008 constitutional reform fight makes clear. Faced with a bill from the president, the Mexican congress—including members of the Calderón’s own party—forcefully argued that Calderón’s proposals violated human rights protections guaranteed by the constitution and forced the president to back off some of the more severe elements of his original proposal. Military brass would also certainly welcome relief from the rising casualties and overstretch that Calderón’s policies have engendered.

Any solution, finally, must revitalize and hold accountable Mexico’s institutions of criminal justice, however great the challenge. The alternative is more years of bloodshed and further backsliding into the legacy of authoritarianism the country has so desperately fought to escape.

The Lineup: Week of May 14-20, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Sam Pizzigati puts Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s discarded U.S. citizenship into context and Booth Gunter discusses the grim conditions young inmates endured at a for-profit prison in Mississippi. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. No Country for Rich Men / Sam Pizzigati
    From Manhattan to Monaco, the world’s wealthiest people are disconnecting into a class of stateless transients.
  2. Operation Lip Service / Chris Toensing
    A year after President Obama promised that Washington would stop buttressing autocratic regimes, Bahrain’s popular revolt is still being crushed.
  3. Bank of America’s Healthier Roots / Scott Klinger and Chuck Collins
    Founder Amadeo P. Giannini built a booming business while helping others improve their lot and their communities.
  4. Meting out Injustice in Mississippi / Booth Gunter
    Prisoners, some as young as 13, are being brutalized in facilities owned by private companies that exist solely to turn a profit.
  5. Our Ruinous Game / Donald Kaul
    Football fans have a high tolerance for pain — in others — and show little sympathy for the plight of the players who now are seeking redress for their injuries.
  6. Coddling the 10 Percent / Jim Hightower
    To reel in these mid-level richies, bankers are offering to pamper them lavishly.
  7. Abortion Politics / William A. Collins
    Although its opposition to abortion and family planning probably won’t foment a landslide away from the Catholic Church, the steady erosion of membership is increasing.
  8. USS Excess / Khalil Bendib
USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

U.S. Sides With Israel’s Nukes Over Iran’s Lack Thereof

In the Hindu on May 8, we catch Hillary Clinton putting too fine a distinction on the Israel-Iran rivalry.

Drawing a distinction between Iran, which has violated provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and Israel, which hasn’t signed it, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said here on Monday that the latter has “made numerous overtures to try to have a peaceful resolution” to the situation in the Middle-East.

Of course, logic dictates that an overriding distinction be drawn between a state with an unacknowledged nuclear-weapons program that never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and one with not only no nukes, but no development program and that has signed the NPT, with no evidence of substantive violations. Secretary of State Clinton, however, attempts to suggest that Israel’s other virtues more than compensate for an illegal nuclear arms program (not that we believe, according to international law, that any nuclear program is exactly legal). First, she claims that Israel “‘has made numerous overtures to try to have a peaceful resolution’ to the situation in the Middle-East.”

It’s unclear about what Ms. Clinton is speaking: Iran or the Palestinian people? Conflating the two is shoddy thinking, especially for a top official. In any event, are Israel’s overtures more numerous — or genuine — than Iran’s or Palestine’s? We’ll leave it to Middle-East experts to divvy them up. But that’s not Ms. Clinton’s only defense for favoring Israel over Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Responding to a question on the U.S. pressing for sanctions on Iran on account of its nuclear programme, while taking no action against Israel, which is in violation of several United Nations resolutions, apart from not being a signatory to the NPT, Ms. Clinton quipped: “Well, I don’t think we have convinced India to sign the NPT either.”

At the risk of being childish, we feel compelled to point out that two wrongs don’t make a right. Then, along with siding with more than one country in the nuclear wrong, she adds to her list of countries that, like Iran, she believe are deserving of blame.

“It isn’t the only country causing worry. We worry regarding nuclear weapons proliferating in some other countries,” Ms. Clinton said, adding that the biggest fear was that nuclear weapons may fall into the wrong hands.

Then Ms. Clinton pulls out the “state sponsor of terrorism” card.

At this moment in time, the “principal threat is a nuclear-armed Iran,” she said, alleging that the country was a “state sponsor of terrorism.” She cited the recent attack on Israeli diplomats in Delhi, and a plot to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. — both allegedly planned by the Iranian government — as examples.

In the end, Ms. Clinton seems to be resorting to the unspoken rationality index that Washington uses to rate states. By that calculation, Iran not only scores low because it is a “state sponsor of terrorism,” but because its motivations may be apocalyptic. But this is the height of disingenuousness on the part of Washington, which knows very well that Iran’s policies are as realist, or more so, than other states.

Meanwhile, it’s as if, by refraining from using its illegal nuclear weapons, Israel has demonstrated its rationality to Washington … thus providing yet another reason for a state that aspires to nuclear weapons to act on its aspiration.

Truce Between Salvador’s Maras for Real — for Now

MarasThe most significant story in Central America right now is also the most underreported. El Salvador, the tiniest country in the land belt connecting North and South America, has long suffered socioeconomic violence—first in its civil war during the 1980s, then in the period of organized crime’s rising power in the 1990s, and most recently under the mano dura years of conservative authoritarianism—largely in answer to the growing influence of transnational criminal gangs in the 2000s. But since the start of May, El Salvador’s murder rate—by some estimates, the highest in the world in 2011has dropped by nearly 66 percent, the result of a truce between the country’s two leading gangs (or maras, as they are popularly known) that was brokered in March by religious and government representatives and deepened by gang leaders on May 2.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival, MS-18, were formed on the streets of South Central Los Angeles by young refugees of the Central American wars of the 1980s and 90s. Largely comprising Honduran and Salvadoran youths, the gangs initially provided protection to Latinos excluded from Mexican gangs, and the largely African-American Bloods and Crips. The maras blossomed, growing in scope and capacity to carry out sophisticated operations. Before long, the maras appeared on the FBI’s radar and in 1996, changes in the immigration law allowed the FBI to deport tens of thousands of suspected mareros back to their native countries. Not surprisingly, back home and without ready access to formal market opportunity, they set up shop and continued their business as usual. Since then, the gangs have grown so strong that they are virtually uncontrollable in Central America, and have become worrisome threats to the security of the United States. The truce between the maras, then, comes as a welcome relief on all sides.

And the good news extends beyond declining rates of violence and symbolic “days without murder.” As the Economist reports, “The mobs have since made further concessions. On May 2nd they promised not to recruit in schools. Five days later inmates at La Esperanza, an overcrowded prison, vowed to stop extorting people using jail phones. ‘I want to ask forgiveness from society and those who gave us the chance to change,” said Dionisio Arístides, the Salvatrucha leader. “We’re human beings who aren’t just here to do evil.’”

This is not to say that the truce between rival gangs will hold up in the long term. Many, as the Economist coverage suggests, are suspicious that the maras will be peaceful long enough to allow El Salvador’s economy recover from the damage it has suffered as the gangs duke it out for monopoly control over territory, extortion rackets, and trafficking networks. But a bigger concern lies in the worry that the gangs have grown so big and unwieldy that even if the higher ups in MS-13 and MS-18, many of whom are directing traffic from prison, genuinely endorse the peace plan, they may not be able to effectively enforce it.

Nor is it to suggest that government security forces have given up their old ways. In some respects, the spirit of mano dura—the heavily militarized approach to combating maras under former president, Tony Saca—is alive and well. When leftist president Mauricio Funes announced earlier this year that his government intended to implement a nationwide curfew and beef up school security by calling in the military to stand guard, Insight Crime noted that these policies “appear to be part of Funes’ escalation of the war against street gangs…Funes is mimicking the…strategy of his predecessors, placing ex-military officials in top security posts, some of whom are intimating that they may begin mass incarcerations of suspected gang members. These policies have more than a few critics. El Salvador’s focus on incarcerating suspected gang members has placed more inmates in badly overcrowded prisons… These overcrowded prisons may have worsened crime and violence in the country.”

Nevertheless, things in El Salvador right now look markedly more hopeful than they have in decades. Any substantial reduction of violence is obviously to be embraced, as are efforts that the Funes administration has made to match iron-fist policies by extending an open hand to former criminals seeking social reintegration. Perhaps most encouragingly, gang members from opposing factions have begun to collaborate on music projects and other forms of cultural production which may have positive normative effects—both within the gangs and more broadly in Salvadoran society—and which seem like an awfully elaborate, and unlikely, PR ruse if the maras weren’t serious about giving peace a chance.

Still, any optimism on this count must be met with a heavy dose of caution.

Stateless and Fancy-Free

“As most people continue to batten down the financial hatches, an elite group of the world’s ‘stateless super-rich’ is blossoming, and transcending geographical boundaries to purchase properties in major cities across the globe,” reported Tanya Powley and Lucy Warwick-Ching in April at the Financial Times. They lead “nomadic, season-driven lives [with] no strong ties to specific countries.” [Emphasis added.]

At AlterNet, Sam Pizzigatti, who linked to the FT article, explains that this practice creates

… havoc in the hotspots where the stateless super rich most often gather. Their gathering, a veritable gentrification on steroids, tends to supersize prices for all sorts of local products and services — and price out local residents. The massive mansions and apartments of the stateless super rich also exacerbate local housing shortages — and constitute as assault on any healthy sense of urban community.

Equally troubling is their effect on their states of origin, such as the United States. Pizzigatti points out:

The number of Americans who’ve formally renounced their U.S. citizenship has jumped by over seven-fold, from 235 in 2008 to 1,780 last year. The spark for this surge in statelessness? Since 2008, U.S. tax officials have been endeavoring to clamp down more firmly on overseas tax evasion.

Between globe-trotting and globalization, U.S. super-rich and corporations see themselves as less and less grounded in the United States. Rank and file conservatives and Tea Partiers don’t get this. They believe that making a killing is not only our right as Americans — it’s in the Constitution somewhere, isn’t it? — but essential to what it means to be an American replete with the Protestant Ethic.

They don’t understand, nor did our founders anticipate, that the more flush individuals and corporations become, the less reliant they are on the United States for their continued wealth. Parking their funds offshore, their idea of patriotic duty is to leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep their money as tax-free as possible.

Much of whatever money the super-rich and corporations still spend in America is on lobbying toward that end. The well-being of a public with whom they have little interaction and the state of America’s infrastructure, services, and programs is of little concern to them. In the end, the super-rich and corporations are all too often the least patriotic of Americans.

Page 80 of 245« First...102030...7879808182...90100110...Last »