AS/COA Online | LatAm in Focus: Jorge Castañeda Portends Changing Times for Mexico

What's the next step for Mexico in its 10-year-old drug war? What would it take to end the country’s corruption epidemic? And who will be the winner of the much-anticipated 2018 presidential election? Jorge Castañeda, a Mexican academic and former foreign secretary, spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis in Mexico City, sharing his answers to these questions and how they relate to a turbulent turn in U.S.-Mexican ties under the Trump administration.

For one thing, he says that Mexico does not have to help Washington carry out deportations and can block such moves by requiring the United States to prove deportees’ Mexican citizenship before repatriation. “Why should we let in people who they say are Mexicans, but who they cannot prove are Mexicans?” asks Castañeda, who served as a negotiator on U.S.-Mexico immigration reform during the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox. “This is an unfriendly American government. It makes no sense for Mexico to cooperate with them.”

Castañeda also says that Mexico’s next president would ideally be familiar with the United States and international issues, and who isn’t bogged down “by complicity with corruption of the past.” But, forecasting the winner, he says the 2018 election won’t deliver that result. “I think it will largely be a disaster,” he says. “But it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Read a transcript of this interview.

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 | 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 | 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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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 | 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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AS/COA Online | Pérez Molina Takes the Helm in Guatemala

For the first time since Guatemala’s return to democracy, an ex-general took the presidential helm on January 14. “Change has arrived,” said new President Otto Pérez Molina during his inauguration. He also acknowledged that he enters office at a time when the country faces “many problems and enormous challenges.” Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party won a November runoff election with the promise of a mano dura—or iron fist—to fight criminality and rein in the country’s high murder rate. His inaugural speech urged Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and particularly the United States to step up cooperation in the fight against organized crime. Guatemala’s high poverty rate and economic concerns will be crucial issues for the administration as well. But, with over two-thirds of Guatemalans viewing violence as the country’s top problem, combating crime will be at the top of Pérez Molina’s agenda. How will he balance these challenges with his military past?

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AS/COA Online - Colombia Takes out Top FARC Leader Alfonso Cano

The Colombian military took out a series of top guerrilla leaders in the past few years, but yesterday’s assassination of Alfonso Cano marked the first time the government either caught or killed the top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Born Guillermo León Sáenz but known most commonly by his FARC battle name, Cano died in a bombing raid carried out in the Cauca province, according to official reports. Rumors of his death began to swirl in the afternoon of November 4, but it wasn’t until the early hours of the following morning—after official reports that Cano’s identity was confirmed through fingerprints—that President Juan Manuel Santos delivered remarks announcing the death. “I want to send a message to each and every member of this organization: demobilize,” said Santos in the televised address. “Because if you don't, as we've said so many times and as we've shown, you will end up in jail or in a tomb.” Still, the president warned against celebrating victory until peace breaks through the struggle against the guerrillas that’s now over four decades old. The FARC has seen its numbers dwindle, and much of its leadership crushed. So how much closer does Cano’s death bring the conflict to a close?
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AS/COA Online - New U.S. Measures Seek to Stem Arms Trafficking into Mexico

The Obama administration announced Monday new rules requiring increased reporting about semi-automatic weapons sales in Southwest border states. Firearms dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas will be required to report when making a sale, within five business days, of more than one semiautomatic rifle greater than .22 caliber and with detachable magazines. Such weapons include AK-47s U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General James Cole heralded the new rules as a tool for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) “to help confront the problem of illegal gun trafficking into Mexico and along the Southwest Border.” But the new rules could force the White House into a legal tussle with the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization dedicated to gun ownership rights. The move also comes amid a simmering scandal over the ATF’s botched gun-tracing operation dubbed “Fast and Furious” that allowed U.S. weapons to fall into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.

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AS/COA Online - U.S.-Mexican Summit Surveys Next Steps on Security

Co-authored with Roque Planas.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosts her Mexican counterpart Patricia Espinosa on April 29 in a summit focusing on bilateral cooperation to combat organized crime. It counts as the third by the Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group, but the first since a diplomatic hiccup set off by a leaked cable in which the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual questioned the efficacy of the Mexican government’s struggle against cartels. Close to the time that Pascual resigned in March, news came to light of a U.S. operation called “Fast and Furious” that aimed to take down cartels by tracking guns smuggled into Mexico. The only problem was that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives lost track of some of those weapons, raising questions about the hands the guns fell into at a time when Mexico faces a brutal drug war that has claimed over 37,000 lives. Now newly leaked cables indicate Mexico may have to look to its southern border as well to stem the illicit influx of weapons, with signs that guns may be flowing in from Central America.

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AS/COA Online - Exclusive Interview: Governor Bill Richardson on Washington's Latin American Ties

“It’s not going to be easy, but I believe we need that comprehensive immigration bill more than anything or the country is going to be torn apart.”


Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) spoke with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about Washington’s Latin American ties, saying, “It’s our own region and if I might say so, we’ve kind of neglected it in a bipartisan way.” The former U.S. ambassador to the UN discussed the need for a hemispheric accord on transnational crime as well as the shifting U.S.-Cuban relationship, which he called “the best that I’ve seen in a long time.” But he cautioned that movement on trade deals and immigration reform may have to wait until next year. “What you will see if there isn’t bipartisan, comprehensive [immigration] reform is more patchwork laws like Arizona’s, which are not just unconstitutional—they’re very discriminatory, they’re divisive,” he said. He added: “They hurt our foreign policy relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean.”

AS/COA Online: To start off, I’d like to talk about Mexico. The Obama administration has referred to a “shared responsibility” in the fight against organized crime in Mexico. As a border-state governor who also has a personal connection to Mexico, if you had to name one area for the U.S. to prioritize in its policy toward Mexico’s security situation, what would it be?

Gov. Richardson: It would be in the area of more shared intelligence with Mexico, and secondly, more cooperation in the area of restricting automatic weapons going into Mexico—a cooperative effort that I believe can be improved. On the issue of shared intelligence, it’s going to mean our joint security operations not just having more opportunities to do training and law enforcement activities. I support the Merida Initiative’s plan makes of additional helicopters. But we have to more effectively share intelligence, especially on the Mexican side.

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AS/COA Online - Measuring Mexico's Bicentennial Mood

Mexico celebrates its bicentennial this week amid a glut of pulse-taking media coverage reflecting on the country’s mood. As Mexicans prepare for the September 15 grito—the shout marking the climax of Independence Day festivities—the country celebrates its birthday but mourns the more than 28,000 lives claimed over the past four years by the drug war. A week before party time, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a stir when she commented on Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war against organized crime, saying Mexico is “looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago” and compared the cartels’ strength to an “insurgency.” Her remarks drew criticism from the Mexican government and some observers, forcing U.S. President Barack Obama to smooth over the controversy. In an interview with La Opinión, Obama described Mexico as a “progressive democracy and, as a result, you cannot compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago.”
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AS/COA Online | Security and Immigration Frame Calderón's DC Visit

President of Mexico Felipe Calderón pays a visit to Washington this week amid ongoing drug-war worries and rising U.S. tensions over immigration. In his first state visit to Washington since his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama took office, Calderón will also address a joint session of Congress. He is expected to stress bilateral responsibility in combating organized crime and cartel-related bloodshed in Mexico. But controversy over Arizona’s passage of immigration legislation SB1070 has pushed immigration higher up Calderón’s agenda as well. Moreover, with Mexico’s financial health tied to that of its northern neighbor, the visit will also focus on bilateral trade and economic cooperation, particularly a dispute over a cross-border trucking plan.

Read the full text.

AS/COA Online | U.S.-Brazil Military Pact on the Horizon

The United States and Brazil could ink their first defense pact in decades as early as April 12. Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim made note of the bilateral deal during April 7 remarks to his country’s foreign relations committee in the lower house of Congress. BBC Brasil reported Jobim will travel to Washington Monday to sign the deal alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Earlier in the week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, while on an official stop in Ecuador, referenced the cooperation pact, revealed few details, and noted it needed to be finalized. The negotiations come at a time of bumps in bilateral relations caused by Brazil’s reluctance to back new UN sanctions on Iran as well as the likelihood that it will purchase French fighter jets over American ones. 

Read the full text.

AS/COA Online - Exclusive Interview: General Fraser on Security in the Americas

“Our efforts are always focused on supporting the government, wherever the crisis happens.”


General Douglas M. Fraser, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about supporting relief efforts in Chile and Haiti, the fight against illicit trafficking, Iran’s growing ties with Latin America, and weapons modernization in the Andes.

AS/COA: The Americas obviously experienced two massive earthquakes since the beginning of the year, first in Haiti and now in Chile. In each case, what are the top challenges in terms of operational responses from a U.S. perspective?

Gen. Fraser: I think there are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that every situation is different and every situation is unique, so you have to understand the situation as it exists. And getting accurate information early—and comprehensive information—is always a challenge. Our efforts are always focused on supporting the government, wherever the crisis happens. So we look to support the government and work at what they need, when they say they need it. That’s very much what we see happening in Chile.

Read the full text of the interview.

CFR.org | Backgrounder: Terror Groups in India

India has long suffered violence from extremist attacks based on separatist and secessionist movements, as well as ideological disagreements. In particular, the territorial dispute over India-controlled Kashmir is believed to have fueled large-scale terrorist attacks, such as the bombings of a Mumbai commuter railway in July 2006 as well as a deadly explosion on an India-Pakistan train line in February 2007. Kashmir-related terrorist violence draws international concerns about its possible link in a chain of transnational Islamist militarism. The terrorist assault on Mumbai's hotel district on November 26, claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahadeen, appears to confirm a disturbing new turn of events domestically. Recently, a group calling itself the Indian mujahadeen joined the roster of terror forces, claiming responsibility for a series of blasts in November 2007 in the state of Uttar Pradesh and 2008 attacks in the Indian cities of New Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. Their relationship with the new Deccan Mujahadeen group remains unclear. India also faces another extremist threat: A Maoist insurgency by violent revolutionaries called "Naxalites" has emerged across a broad swathe of central India - nicknamed the "red corridor" - to claim a growing number of lives.

Read the full text.

CFR.org | Backgrounder: The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand

Over the past four years, an insurgency in Thailand's southern, predominantly Muslim provinces has claimed nearly three thousand lives. The separatist violence in these majority Malay Muslim provinces has a history traceable back for more than half a century. Some experts say brutal counterinsurgency tactics by successive governments in Bangkok have worsened the situation. Political turmoil in Bangkok and tussle between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the country's military have further contributed to the instability, working to stymie any serious initiatives for a long-term solution to the crisis.

Read the full text.

Co-authored by Jayshree Bajoria and Carin Zissis

CFR.org | Pakistan’s Broken Border

The frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan serves as the flash point for tensions between the two countries as Kabul grows increasingly critical of Islamabad's seeming inability to control cross-border raids by Islamic militants. The solution proposed by Pakistan last month to mine and fence the roughly 1,500-mile Durand line (VOA) did little to reassure Afghans, who have long disputed the boundary. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose criticism was echoed by Washington and the United Nations, said Islamabad should instead eliminate terrorist sanctuaries (BBC) within Pakistan rather than separate families who live in the border region. Pashtun tribal leaders on both sides of the boundary warn if Pakistan carries out the plan they will remove any barriers or mines (Pajhwok Afghan News).

Read the full text.