AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Alejandro Hope on Drug Policy and Mexico's Marijuana Laws

“This region has been at the forefront of the reform process.” That’s what Alejandro Hope had to say about shifts toward more progressive drug policies in the Americas in recent years. Hope, a drug policy analyst and security editor at the Mexico City-based news site El Daily Post, spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about what the region’s policy changes mean on a global scale as the UN prepares to host a special summit, known as UNGASS 2016, on the worldwide drug problem from April 19 to 21.

The General Assembly last held a special session in 2009 and another one wasn’t slated until 2019. But, in 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, tired of drug war violence, called to hold the summit sooner. But just because some countries are looking for a new path doesn’t mean UNGASS 2016 will produce major results: even if Latin American countries want more open policies, other parts of the world—such as Asia and Russia—take a more conservative stance.

Still, changes taking place on a national level have an impact on global policy. Hope notes that marijuana legalization by particular U.S. states weakens the ability to enforce drug control treaties, leaving “a gaping hole in the system.”

Shifting U.S. marijuana policy also has a direct effect on Mexico, where the illicit marijuana export market is showing signs it’s contracting as eradication and seizures decline. There’s a political effect as well: it’s harder for Mexico to maintain marijuana prohibition when the United States doesn’t, explains Hope. A Mexican Supreme Court decision in November, while limited in scope, opened the door to more progressive policies. “Marijuana legalization used to be a fringe concern,” he says. “It’s now part of the mainstream conversation.”

And Hope predicts court decisions will keep chipping away at prohibition as cases arise, saying: “I would argue that a large portion of the legislation that underpins marijuana prohibition in Mexico will be declared unconstitutional.”

What does this mean for Mexico’s next presidential election and security policy overall? Listen to find out.

AS/COA Online | The Pope's Mexico Agenda

The Popemobiles are getting blessed and the pilgrims are making their journeys in preparation for Pope Francis’ touchdown in Mexico City on Friday. But his first papal visit to the world’s second-largest Catholic population will take him well beyond the capital; in November, the pontiff said he wanted to make stops where his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI hadn’t. Indeed, his February 12–17 tour takes him to cities reeling from violence, poverty, or both.

The Pope, who will hit states on Mexico’s northern and southern borders, is expected to call for a humane attitude toward immigration at a time when the Obama administration is launchingdeportation raids and some U.S. presidential candidates are pitching what many consider draconian immigration policies. 

The Mexican government may want to steel itself, too. “The Mexico of violence, the Mexico of corruption, the Mexico of drug trafficking, the Mexico of cartels, is not the Mexico that [the Virgin Mary] wants,” said Pope Francis in a Notimex interview ahead of the trip. “Of course, I won’t do anything to cover that up.”

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Americas Quarterly | Why a Mexican Education Program for Syrian Refugees Only Has One Student

Essa Hassan landed in Mexico City in the middle of a media storm. Days after the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on the coast of Turkey, Hassan became the unwitting symbol of Mexico’s efforts — or lack of them — to assist Syrian refugees, although plans to get him to Mexico started long before the world zeroed in on the crisis.

Hassan arrived last September through the Proyecto Habesha, a humanitarian initiative with the goal of bringing 30 Syrians whose studies were interrupted by the conflict to complete their education in Mexico. The first to be accepted, he quickly found himself the subject of news coverage. “I’m still in the news,” the 26-year-old told AQ.

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AS/COA Online | Guatemala Update: Presidential Elections amid Political Turmoil

Guatemalans head to the polls to pick a new president on September 6, but someone else will already have taken the helm by then. Months of scandal and demonstrations culminated in President Otto Pérez Molina’s signing a resignation letter on September 2, a day after Guatemala’s Congress stripped him of immunity.

Protests calling for Pérez Molina to step down date back months, to when Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned for her role in the customs fraud scandal known as La Línea. The president’s approval rating sank to a dismal 12 percent but he managed to stay just out of the scandal’s reach.

That all changed starting August 21, when new revelations tying Pérez Molina to La Línea emerged and the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and attorney general took steps toward the president’s impeachment.

One by one the dominoes fell, as did the president.

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AS/COA Online | Five Points on Mexico's El Chapo and the Repercussions of His Prison Escape

For the second time, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, made a dramatic getaway, escaping on the night of July 11 through an elaborate tunnel system below the maximum-security prison just west of Mexico City where he was being held.

AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis, based in Mexico City, talks with a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and security expert about why Guzmán tops Mexico’s most wanted list, as well as the political repercussions of his escape.

1. Guzmán’s criminal syndicate has a transnational reach.

A farmer-turned-cartel leader, El Chapo (“Shorty”) famously acquired his nickname due to his height, or lack thereof. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still loom large as a cartel leader. Mexican magazine Nexos profiled him after his February 2014 capture in the Sinaloan resort town of Mazatlan, reporting that his cartel had the capacity to move 10,000 tons of marijuana—35 percent of the global supply—each month. His syndicate operates in 17 Mexican states and 54 countries. An in-depth 2012 article by The New York Times Magazine put conservative estimates of the Sinaloa Cartel’s share of the U.S. drug market at between 40 and 60 percent, giving it earnings that rivaled those of Netflix or Facebook.

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U.S. News & World Report | 'El Bronco' Bucks Mexico's System

MEXICO CITY – Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez survived two assassination attempts, but overcoming Mexico's party politics to become the country's first independent candidate elected governor is no doubt his greatest feat yet. In the June 7 election, Rodríguez exceeded poll expectations by a wide margin, snagging 49 percent of the vote – almost double that of his main rival, Ivonne Álvarez of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI – to win the most important of nine gubernatorial seats up for grabs, the governorship of the economic powerhouse of Nuevo Leon.

Voter discontent with the political status quo surely helped, but how he ran his campaign, in particular using social media as a means to connect with supporters, played no small part in his electoral victory.

A few years ago, El Bronco would not have been able to run at all without being tied to a party. A 2012 constitutional reform allowed for independent candidates, and June 7 marked the first time they could participate in a midterm election. That, in and of itself, is a historic step for a country where the PRI governed for seven consecutive decades until 2000 and recaptured the presidency in 2012. Three parties – the PRI, the National Action Party and the Democratic Revolutionary Party – have dominated Mexican politics up until now. On top of that, Mexico is only in the early stages of breaking up the long-held media monopoly of broadcast giant Televisa, considered by many to be amouthpiece for the PRI. And no party affiliation means no free television spots for campaign ads. The odds are not stacked in favor of independents....

Read the full article in U.S. News & World Report's online opinion section.

AS/COA Online | Infographic: What's at Stake in Mexico's Midterm Vote?

Click image to view full infographic.More than 21,000 offices are up for grabs in Mexico’s midterm elections on June 7, including all 500 seats in the lower house of Congress. That means the election could determine President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ability to usher through legislation in the second half of his term. The governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has seen support fall in recent months in the wake of a housing scandal and outcry over the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero. But polls show the other two main parties—the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN) and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD)—failing to gain ground against the PRI, with other new or minor parties playing a role.

This voting round also marks the election of nine governors, and Nuevo León is emerging as a battleground state with an important feature: an independent candidate stands as a leading contender. In fact, this is the first midterm election that allows for independent candidates to run following a 2012 constitutional amendment.

AS/COA Online shares polls, numbers, and data for the election, as well as how Mexicans view government and democracy.

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AS/COA Online | The Tequila-Caipirinha Axis: Rousseff Visits Mexico

When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff paid a visit to her Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto this week, the two signed agreements at a time when their countries’ economies could each use a leg up. Rousseff, president of Latin America’s biggest economy, headed to Mexico, the region’s second largest, for her first state visit with her homologue there, as well as the country’s Congress. In an interview with Mexican daily La Jornada ahead of her Monday departure, Rousseff said the trip “opens a new chapter in our relations” that could give rise to a “tequila-caipirinha axis.” Meanwhile, Brazilian outlet Folha de São Paulo interviewed Peña Nieto via email; the Mexican head of state, like Rousseff, forecast commercial and investment agreements during the meetings. Accords would build on March’s crucial automotive deal that, according to Peña Nieto, accounts for 46 percent of bilateral transactions. 

A visit in challenging times

The heads of state of the two Latin America giants came together at a moment that’s not without its economic challenges. International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections indicate that Brazil’s economy could shrink by 1 percent in 2015. Unemployment was up in the first quarter of the year and, through the first week of May, year-on-year daily trade rates were down 16 percent.

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U.S. News & World Report | Why the Americas Need More Women Leaders

Come Sunday, Brazilians will turn out for an election in which the top two candidates are women. That President Dilma Rousseff and former Environmental Minister Marina Silva are competing to lead Latin America’s largest economy now comes as little surprise in a region that accounts for a third of the world’s women presidents.

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U.S. News & World Report | Learning from a Troubled Gang Truce

A wave of Central American children crossing the U.S. border caused President Barack Obama to label the crisis an “urgent humanitarian situation” earlier this month. With more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors making the dangerous journey since October last year, the tide of migration also draws attention to the crisis these children leave behind. Most come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a crime-addled area considered one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

But despite bleak crime figures, one country — El Salvador — experienced a notable drop in homicides after a 2012 gang truce. Over time, the agreement between the gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 frayed and, last month, then-President Mauricio Funes declared the truce dead. His successor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has disavowed it as well. Still, the truce offers a chance to examine lessons learned in combating the violence leading young Central Americans to seek escape.

The agreement began in March 2012, when Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 leaders were transferred from maximum-security prisons to lowen security ones...

Read the full article in U.S. News & World Report's online opinion section.

AS/COA Online | El Salvador Update: Security Top Challenge as Sánchez Cerén Takes Office

Salvador Sánchez Cerén takes the helm as El Salvador’s new president on June 1, but his government will face the old problem of security as a major public concern. An uptick in violencemarked the period leading up to the former guerilla commander’s presidential inauguration. And although his soon-to-be-predecessor President Mauricio Funes leaves office with positive approval ratings, more than two-thirds of Salvadorans feel crime worsened under his watch.

Keeping a Gang Truce at Arm’s Length

For a period of Funes’ administration, El Salvador did see homicide rates drop. The national police reported that the murder rate decreased by 41 percent between 2012 and the prior year, and attributed the sharp decline to a truce between rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha (M-18) and Barrio 18. The agreement gained the support of the Organization of American States, while the Funes administration denied serving as an architect of the truce. But six months into the agreement, General and then-Justice Minister Munguía Payés admitted a direct role—though Funes continued to reject the idea that his government organized the deal, instead saying it served as a “facilitator.” Munguía Payés was removed from his post in May 2013 and, while total homicides remained lower in 2013 compared to 2012, the murder rate began to creep back up by the end of last year.
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U.S. News & World Report | Net Neutrality Lessons from Latin America

Will U.S. Internet users soon find themselves paying the price for the fast lane? The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to vote on regulations governing Net neutrality — or the lack thereof. Open-Internet advocates, along with over 100 internet firms, warn the new rules will stifle innovation by allowing large companies to pay internet providers for preferential treatment and faster Internet speeds, thereby creating roadblocks for start-ups and small enterprises. Opponents make the case that, had the same regulations been implemented a decade ago, we would have been stuck using Friendster and AltaVista.

Coincidentally, while the Net neutrality debate heats up in the United States, Latin America’s largest economy has tackled the issue of Net neutrality and Internet access. Brazil just passed a new law internationally hailed by advocates. And Chile passed a landmark Net neutrality law four years ago. What lessons does Latin America have for the United States when it comes to open Internet?....

Read the full article in U.S. News & World Report's online opinion section.

This article was co-authored with Rachel Glickhouse.

AS/COA Online | Panama Race Narrows ahead of May 4 Vote

As the candidates approach the May 4 finish line in Panama’s presidential race, the winner remains unclear. There are seven competitors, but three lead the pack: José Domingo Arias of the ruling party Democratic Change (CD), former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), and Vice President Juan Carlos Varela of the Panameñista Party (PP). Earlier polls gave Arias a wider lead, but some of the final surveys show that lead shrinking, as shown by poll numbers below by firms Ipsos/Panamá Opina, Dichter & Neira, and Quantix. (The three polls estimate a margin of error of roughly +/-2 percent.). 

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AS/COA Online | El Salvador Prepares for a Close Presidential Competition

El Salvador's presidential candidates wrapped up their campaigns this week in preparation for the country's February 2 election. While there are several candidates in the running, the race is coming down to three main contenders. Who are they and can any of them get the required 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election on March 9? AS/COA Online takes a look at the election.

The Candidates...

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AS/COA Online | Mexican President Unveils Long-awaited Energy Reform

On August 12, more than eight months after the Mexican government launched a far-reaching reform agreement, President Enrique Peña Nieto presented what is arguably the most highly anticipated and polemical areas of that package: energy reform. The president outlined 10 areas of change for state oil firm Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). But perhaps most notable is the president’s proposal to change language in Article 27 of the Constitution and allow private firms to gain access to profit-sharing (but not production-sharing) energy contracts. Given the contentious nature of private-sector involvement in the national energy sector, will Peña Nieto succeed in passing a reform where his predecessors failed? While the reform faces opposition from the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could have the congressional votes it needs with the aid of an alliance with the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN).

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AS/COA Online | Xi's Trip to Mexico: Sino-Mexican Relations Revisited

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Mexico this week as part of the leader’s four-country visit to the Americas. Official Chinese news outlet Xinhua reports bilateral relations “have enjoyed sound development since the two countries established diplomatic ties 41 years ago.” But a look back at Sino-Mexican relations shows a path not without its share of potholes, worsened by Mexico’s growing trade deficit with China, among other reasons. Now six months in office, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is taking steps to warm up the relationship. With new leaders in both countries—Peña Nieto’s December 2012 inauguration took place within a month of Xi’s ascension as head of the Communist Party—Beijing appears receptive to Mexico’s advances, especially given the possibility of a Mexican energy reform.

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AS/COA Online | Honduras Follows In El Salvador’s Footsteps, Declares Gang Truce

Leaders of Honduras’ two largest and most dangerous gangs announced a truce today during press conferences held in a San Pedro Sula prison. “We ask society and authorities to forgive us for the damage we have done,” said the head of the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, of the agreement forged with the 18th Street gang. Eight months in the making, the truce was mediated by Roman Catholic Bishop Romulo Emiliano, with the backing of the Organization of American States’ Secretary for Multidimensional Security Adam Blackwell. The Honduran president voiced his support on Monday. The deal gives a heavy nod to a gang truce negotiated last year in neighboring El Salvador. That truce led to a hefty reduction in homicides, an accomplishment that Honduras—with a murder rate 10 times the global average—hopes to emulate.

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AS/COA Online | Interview: El Salvador's Ambassador to the U.S. Rubén Zamora

“[W]e have started what we call the two-track policy—continuing with the fight against crime in the country by stage agencies, but at the same time, town by town, trying to develop conditions for preventing violence and reintegrating those people into society in a productive way.”

Appointed last month as the new Salvadoran ambassador in Washington, Rubén Zamora spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about the evolution of U.S.-Central American security policy in light of President Barack Obama’s recent trip to the region, saying: “Now the Obama administration is moving towards a more comprehensive approach, using the mantra, I would say, of partnership.” The ambassador also gave an overview of the Salvadoran government’s local strategies to drive down crime, as well as how to leverage initiatives such as the Partnership for Growth and CAFTA-DR. With a political career dating back to 1970, Zamora served twice as a legislative deputy in El Salvador’s National Assembly, was a member of the country’s Peace Commission, and ran, in 1994, as the first presidential candidate of the left’s coalition after the 1992 Peace Accords. More recently, he held the post of ambassador to India.

AS/COA Online: In light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent meeting with leaders in Costa Rica, including with President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes, what were some of the accomplishments? And what more do you think should have been done?

Ambassador Zamora: For us, the meeting between President Obama and the seven Central American and Caribbean head of states was important because we learned about U.S. foreign policy on Central America. The discussion was very frank among the presidents and it was clear for us—and this seems to me an important achievement—that President Obama clearly was for a more integrated approach to the question of security. That was one of the main issues in the talks among the heads of states. We had mostly been used to the United States insisting more and more on the question of controlling crime; that is necessary, but is very insufficient to achieve results. Now, it seems to me, Washington is having a more comprehensive, holistic approach to the problem that we are facing in Central America, both in terms of the crime and in terms of Central America being a region through which South American drugs travel to the United States.

AS/COA Online: In connection with that, I wanted to ask about CARSI [Central America Regional Security Initiative]. In March, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William R. Brownfield gave remarks at our organization, and he said: “What we are doing today is actually very different from what we thought we were going to be doing four years ago.” What do you think needs to happen to improve security cooperation on a regional level? And how would you suggest that CARSI could evolve further?

Zamora: The starting point now is that the best strategic view when it comes to security in Central America, especially in the northern part—that means Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—is that you have to attack the problem with a two or three-track policy. You cannot do it just with a single line of policy, or the tactic of controlling crime without addressing the question of the rehabilitation of gang members into mainstream society...

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AS/COA Online | Mexico Arrests Teachers' Union Boss Elba Esther Gordillo

The day after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto inked broad education reform legislation, his government took another major step in the sphere of Mexican education by arresting the head of the country’s teachers' union. On the evening of February 26, Elba Esther Gordillo was taken into custody for embezzling some $156 million in funds from the Mexican Educational Workers Union (SNTE). In a televised statement last night, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam gave an overview of illicit money transfers and misuse of funds, from transfers to bank accounts in Lichtenstein and Switzerland to big purchases at luxury department stores. “I want to remind everyone that this money came from the savings accounts of education workers, the union, and was used, among other things, to pay a Neiman Marcus credit card for an account that came close to $3 million.”

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AS/COA Online | Gun Laws in Mexico

Excerpt from Explainer: Gun Laws in Latin America’s Six Largest Economies, co-authored with David Gacs and Rachel Glickhouse. Republished in VOXXI. Led to interview with Fox News Latino.

Although Mexicans have a constitutional right to own guns, one obstacle limits gun purchases: there is only one gun store in the country, located in Mexico City. Still, Mexico ranks seventh worldwide in terms of the number of privately owned guns and violence stemming from a battle against organized crime in recent years has raised concerns about gun smuggling, particularly from the United States.

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