Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Postings Next Two Weeks

La Politica New Mexico will not be posting articles for the next two weeks while the blogger is on vacation. There are, however, some interesting things that are coming up soon after I return, so stay tuned.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Dead Women of Juarez: A New Mexican's Retrospective Upon the Appointment of Arturo Chavez Chavez

The Mexican Senate yesterday confirmed the appointment of Arturo Chavez Chavez, former attorney general of Chihuahua, to be Attorney General of Mexico. It was a controversial appointment, opposed by some human rights groups who claimed Mr. Chavez had been negligent in his duties in connection with the investigations of the femicides of Cd. Juarez when he was attorney general of Chihuahua in the late 1990s. I was familiar with the controversies surrounding Mr. Chavez, and I thought my recollections and perspective might be interesting to readers following the issue.

At the time Chavez was attorney general in Chihuahua, 1996-1998, Francisco Barrio was Governor, elected to a six-year term in 1992. Barrio, the first member of the PAN to be elected governor in Chihuahua, was an almost legendary figure in Mexico because of his brave struggle to open up electoral processes in Chihuahua in the face of powerful tactics against him from the PRI, Mexico's dominant political party until the year 2000. But once he became governor, he disappointed many with his autocratic governing style and, some say, his willingness to tolerate corrupt practices in state government. During his tenure in office the Juarez cartel headed by Amado Carrillo Fuentes became the most important cartel in Mexico. Barrio's attorney general from 1992 to 1996 was Francisco Molina, who was later on the shortest of lists to become Attorney General of Mexico in 2000 when Vicente Fox became president. But he was not in fact appointed, almost certainly because of rumors of his associations with the cartel while in Chihuahua. Arturo Chavez Chavez succeeded Molina as attorney general of Chihuahua in 1996.

Chavez's tenure was marked by controversy among other reasons because of pressure feminist groups placed on the attorney general's office to resolve a wave of killings of women in Cd. Juarez that began in the early 1990s. Some of the women were found mutilated, stabbed, or brutally beaten then dumped in random locations. Groups of women, often the mothers of disappeared or murdered women, banded together, moving from office to office between Juarez and Chihuahua City, seeking information about their loved ones, only to be greeted by a bureaucratic cold shoulder. In time the cold shoulder itself became as powerful an issue as the failure of authorities to fully investigate the disappearances and murders. Vickie Caraveo, a well-to-do housewife, began providing support and strategic advice, eventually forming a group called Mujeres Por Juarez. Esther Chavez Cano, a boutique store owner, would close her store every time a new dead body appeared, as a public reminder that the killings were still going on without resolution. In 1999 she opened up the first rape crisis center in Juarez, and remains to this day outspoken about the need for the state to take the killings seriously.

After he was named attorney General Chavez Chavez became virtually a poster child for the insensitivity, incompetence, and indifference of public authorities in dealing with the murders. Instead of sympathizing with the victims and their relatives, he seemed to blame them. For example, Chavez is credited with saying, "if they were raped and killed it wasn't because they were on their way to mass," and on another occasion, "sometimes they (the women) are a fault for dressing provocatively." These suggestions that the victims were often prostitutes simply outraged surviving relatives, some of whom went to great lengths to prove otherwise.

In May 1998, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission asked for an investigation of the attorney general's office in Chihuahua, given mounting evidence that office was severely deficient in its inquiries into the crimes. In response, state authorities belittled the commission's work, characterizing it as "partial," and "leading to false conclusions and statements, and lacking any foundation in objectivity." (Flash forward: last week Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson moved to El Paso from Juarez, he said, after multiple threats to his life for publicizing complaints about abuses by army personnel in Joint Operation Chihuahua)

New Mexican's Perspective

At about this time, mid-1998, the issue was escalating quickly to national proportions. As director of the Center for Latin American Studies, I sponsored a conference at New Mexico State University to deal openly with the issue, to be held in the Fall at NMSU. A member of my staff, Anne Marie Mackler did much of the work. We invited Chavez Chavez, Juarez Police Chief Javier Benavides, Vickie Caraveo, Esther Chavez Cano, some of the victims' families, Julia Monarrez, a scholar who had studied the statistics of the murders, and others. While preparations were under way, Chavez Chavez was fired and replaced by Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, who, as I recall, immediately appointed a woman to a newly-created position, the Special Prosecutor for the Murders of Women, Suly Ponce Prieto. This was an obvious attempt to signal that he was more sensitive than Chavez Chavez had been about the issue.

To my astonishment and delight, just about everyone, including the new attorney general and Suly Ponce, accepted our invitation. Chavez Chavez understandably bowed out, since he was no longer in the line of fire. For both the attorney general and Suly Ponce it was to be their first major public appearances since they had been named to their positions. For Chavez Cano, Caraveo, and the families of the victims, it was their first public shot at the new officials.

Until the conference virtually all of the politics around the issue was taking place inside Juarez, often behind closed doors, in an atmosphere laced with unspoken fears and very little civic practice in challenging law enforcement officials. On the neutral grounds of New Mexico State University, with uninvolved New Mexicans as witnesses, after years of pent-up frustration, the surviving victims of violence could let it all hang out. This occasion was perhaps the first time all of the parties, news media, families of the victims, law enforcement, and interested observers, were all sitting at the same table, with rules of the game that privileged only straight talk, not position or sympathy.

As you can imagine, the victims lashed out at the law enforcement officials, who appeared shocked at finding themselves under withering fire. Suly Ponce, who appeared to relish the role of villain, was defiant and disdainful, spouting statistics with great flourish, suggesting most of the cases had already been solved and hardly sympathetic toward the victims. The attorney general was more conciliatory, assuring the victims his office would do more than the previous regime to investigate the murders. Other law enforcement officials confessed their forces were poorly trained, with very little technical support for forensic investigation.

As a keynote speaker we had invited Deborah Nathan, a writer for The Nation. She gave an elegant talk, postmodern in tone, suggesting Juarez had become a metaphor for the downside of the newly globalizing world, the boundary line where the first and third worlds meet. Highly sympathetic towards the women, she suggested the maquila plants were also a metaphor for the new age, where corporate giants took advantage of low wages in poor countries, but refused to accept social responsibility. Extending the metaphor more, she suggested the dead women could be viewed as victims of this new age; poorly paid at maquila plants, some of them resort to outside jobs, including prostitution, to make ends meet, and where violence against women was endemic. Ironically, this latter point was precisely the point Chavez Chavez had tried unsuccessfully to make about the dead women: they were prostitutes, and therefore, to him, the deaths were perhaps not so intolerable.

When she was finished with her talk a woman came up to the stage with a framed photograph of a young woman. She showed it to the audience and glared at Nathan: "This was my sister," she cried. "She is one of the dead women. She was not a prostitute, and you have just insulted her memory." A young colleague of mine, a faculty member in the Spanish Department, dashed up to the stage, addressing Nathan, and said: "I worked for several years in a maquila plant before I got my PhD. I did so because it was the highest paid job I could find and I didn't feel like an exploited member of the underclass. The job was dignified, and I didn't know a single woman working in my plant who was a prostitute on the side."

If the victims of the crime were tolerating none of the excuses given by law enforcement for not investigating the crimes with seriousness, neither were they going to tolerate an outsider, no matter how sympathetic, relegating their loved ones to the status of mere metaphors for a newly emerging global order and disparaging their characters. It was important for them to remember their dead as real people, flesh and blood, and innocent.

In many ways the conference helped shape the battle lines for the next few months, since many of the issues debated at the conference would become the re-debated intensely in the weeks and months that followed. It broke the ice in Juarez and the debate about the dead women of Juarez was never quite the same again.

As you might imagine, some of the people involved in the femicide issue are still active. When told Arturo Chavez Chavez had been nominated to be attorney general Vickie Caraveo said, simply, "Jesus, I can't believe it." Esther Chavez Cano said, "This is bad news." The best book I know dealing with the dead women is Diana Washington Valdez, The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women, published by Peace at the Border, 2006.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Chat with Lawrence Rael

He is arguably the most overqualified candidate ever to run for public office in New Mexico: Chief Administrative Officer of Albuquerque for 12 years in a row under three mayors; (so he can manage a billion dollar budget and make himself so useful you don't want to fire him). Staffer for Sen. Jeff Bingaman for three years; (so he knows something about Washington). Planner and manager of the Rail Runner Express; (so he can deal with even the most outrageous egos and still get the job done within budgetary limits--more about this later). Called in to clean up part of the housing authority scandal; (so he is willing to take risks accepting a thankless job and a political hot potato to boot). With these kinds of credentials he ought to be running for Chairman of the 2016 Olympics or looking for a top job in the new Obama administration or (dare I say this?) running for governor himself. Why in the world would he want a part-time gavel to herd cats in the senate and answer the phone when angry constituents call up about another snafu?

With these thoughts in mind and fully prepared to form an instant dislike for him as punishment for having acquired such an accomplished resume in a short period of time, I joined Mr. Rael for breakfast this morning at the Encanto hotel.

Bottom line: Rael believes, passionately, that his managerial skills can be put to use in the Lt. Governor's office as a means of improving the management of state business. He has formulated the most ambitious role ever envisioned for a Lt. Governor, and it hinges on putting his proven managerial skills to work. Very few people in that position would even think about playing the role he has in mind.

As he puts it the executive branch normally acts like a set of competing fiefdoms where few executives communicate with counterparts even on closely related issues. They all stove-pipe carefully guarded information to the governor's office. The governor is too busy to insist of day-to-day accountability except for the highest priorities, and the legislature has no institutional capacity to monitor much of what goes on. Result? Poor management, poor accountability. A Lt. Governor with Rael's managerial experience, coupled with the support of a governor, could bring people together within state government to make common cause on high priority policy issues, and to vastly improve the efficiency of the executive branch. Where agencies are feuding, he could try for forge a peace. Where information is withheld, he could pry it loose. Where important projects need stronger management, he could help fill the gap. In addition to all of this, Rael suggests he might also be able to help communications between the legislature and the governor, which often break down by ego-driven turf battles, by acting as a liaison between the two branches, one supposes, as an honest broker of information and by focusing on project-driven, rather than politics-driven considerations.

Now here, I thought to myself, is a new idea for that office, made credible by Rael's unquestionable talent as a manager. But, I said to him, playing devil's advocate, there are two "ifs" here. First, you need the consistent support for this mission from the governor, without which you end up frustrated like Casey Luna under Bruce King when he actually believed King might delegate some policy issues to him. So let me concede that she will enable you to play this role. What about the second "if:" what if you try to get the fiefdom sheiks and sharks to work together and they tell you to butt out of their business? Why should they, with all their budgetary resources, defer to you, who has no budget, no staff?

At this point his passion came into play. "This is where my experience with people comes in," he said, looking me in the eye. "I've been in that position many times before, and I've always been able to get people to work better together." He cited his experience as COG director for the Mid-Region Council of Governments. "I have no authority there, either, but I've managed to get things done." He ended up doing most of the management for the Rail Runner, as he put it, not because he was the logical person to do so, but because he had the skills to get the job done. He could have added, but did not, that if the Governor truly delegated authority to him over recalcitrant cabinet officers, they would quickly defer to him as well. I was surprised by the passionate intensity of Rael as he effortlessly analyzes highly complex integovernmental relations, stressing what appears to be a highly developed sense of the common good being his north star. Very refreshing.

A couple of technical issues. I asked him about the cost over-runs for the Rail Runner. As he sees it, there were no cost over-runs. The legislature appropriated $125 million to plan either a middle lane for the Albuquerque to Santa Fe highway or a rail runner from Belen to Santa Fe. The language in the legislation was deliberately vague and when a decision was made to go with the rail runner, the legislature was asked to come up with $275 million more, for a total of $400 million, to enable the completion of Phase II, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, inasmuch as Phase I, from Belen to Albuquerque cost $125 million and was already complete. The project was funded $400 million and that's what it cost. I asked for a comment on Paul Gessing's study indicating taxpayers are subsidizing every ride to the tune of $16.89 today. Rael's answer is that the cost-per-drive for many rural highways is far higher than that, and in the case of the rail runner, a subsidy is justified for many reasons, including giving drivers along that corridor a reasonably priced alternative mode of transportation. Moreover, Rael said, Gessing has not factored into his account the revenues (calculated by tonnage and mileage) generated by the lease of the rail line to BNSF and Amtrack when they use the lines. The subsidy would not be as high if these revenues were counted in the calculations.

Ethics reform: Rael stressed the need for various reforms, including the development of a code of conduct for state government officials (including, I assume, legislators), the creation of a reasonably independent commission with subpoena and other powers, and the development of an ethics policy for the granting of contracts.

His Spanish is flawless, the outcome of a Mexican born-and-raised mother who took her children frequently to her former home. He can deal with linguistic nuances and would be at ease negotiating complex issues in either or both languages at the same time. I confess that, while I was prepared to dislike him, imagining the cold, numbers-driven arrogance that drove the likes of Robert McNamara and Don Rumsfeld (and other top managers) into promoting unwise policies that cost countless human lives long after common citizens understood the futility, I found Rael to be a highly likable, people-oriented, and commons sense kind of manager. He inspires you with a can-do optimism, tempered by a realistic assessment of the state of affairs as it is and a well developed sense of public service. In short, he is the kind of manager everyone wants as a boss.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Beat Goes On

Tonight, Thursday, September 24, a man was assassinated while driving an SUV in Col. Partido Diaz, after being chased by his killers. The chase went on until the assassins caught up to the vehicle and killed him at the intersection of Camino Viejo a San Lorenzo and Espiridion Prudencio.

This afternoon a man was killed in Col Anahuac at the intersection of Melchor Muzquis and Barbachano. He was wearing black denim trousers and a blue polo shirt. He was one of the persons at this intersection who made a living, apparently, by cleaning windshields while drivers waited for the light to turn green.

This morning a dead body was discovered in the Valle de Juarez (South Valley), the third victim found in the same spot in three weeks. There were signs of severe torture and the head was enveloped with gray duct tape.

On Wednesday 13 persons were murdered in Juarez.

On Wednesday afternoon a man, Eufemio Rubio Garcia, was shot to death in the patio of his home, in Col. Nuevo Hipodromo, where he was in the company of friends and family at the moment of death at 4 p.m. He was shot in the head, abdomen, and one of his arms. Eight casings were found near the body.

Later, at 7 p.m., a homicide occurred at Azucena and Nochebuena, outside the home of Hiram Rodolfo Quintero, 30, who was killed when assassins in a black Cherokee opened fire on him. At 8 p.m. a non identified man was assassinated when he received three bullets as he was walking toward a natural gas station with a container that he apparently wanted to refill. His neighbors identified him only as Gonzalo, 37 years old.

Extortion in Juarez: Paying the Vacuna

As it become clear that the presence of nearly 10,000 troops in Juarez could not contain the violence generated by the wars going on within organized crime and between organized crime and law enforcement, ordinary criminals took note and increased the scale of their activities. One important feature in this development has been a spike in kidnapping, frightening business owners, many of whom have crossed the border into El Paso, sometimes bringing their business with them. For the upper, say, 3 percent or so of the income earners in Juarez, kidnapping is by far the greatest potential danger.

But for the small businesses, mom-and-pop operations, sometimes on wheels, the greatest threat is extortion, which has affected a higher proportion of Juarenses than any other type of increase in crime in recent months.

From a report in Norte this morning, by Beatriz Corral Iglesias, click here

According to a report by Leopoldina Aguirre, president of the National Chamber of Small Business, at least 975 owners of grocery and other supply stores in Juarez claim they have tangled in one way or another with extortionists who have asked them for protection money. Up to now at least five small business owners have died defending themselves against extortionists. Out of the 1300 members from Juarez in this association, the hardest hit are the tire repair stores, the junk yards and other repair stores, and metal recyclers. But it is also true that virtually all grocery and other supply stores have been hit. "Some pay the "vacuna," (the "vaccination,") price, as the extortion is commonly called here, some simply leave town before something bad happens," she said.

Sixteen farmacies have closed, and 30 tortilla makers have closed. Of the 100 tire repair stores that we had two years ago, only 15 are currently operating, none of which operates after 8 p.m., even though many used to operate all night.

Ms. Aguirre spoke of a case she knew about (most people in Juarez have similar stories)in which a woman whose son was kidnapped, agreed to pay about $800 (U.S.) for his return. She was then threatened if she did not pay a monthly protection racket fee, and she subsequently left the city. She also mentioned the liquor store "Nonis," on Gomez Morin and Neptuno (a heavy-traffic intersection) which is now covered with protective metal bars after numerous thefts and extortions, and the "Servicio Angel," a tire repair store which has operated 12 years at Plutarco Elias Calles just before you get to Paseo Triunfo, a solid uptown address where the owner has installed all kinds of video devices and placed the business up for sale.

Confessions From Paid Assassins in Juarez

An unsigned article in Diario appeared this week containing information provided in confessions by some of the seven members of La Linea (the term most commonly used in referring to the Juárez cartel) arrested by the armed forces earlier this month. At the time of the arrest authorities accused the group of 36 homicides, but as of recently the formal accusations are for only three assassinations.

The confessions were rendered to officials of the Chihuahua state prosecutor working inside the military installation associated with Joint Operation Chihuahua. In the language of the Diario writer "the evidenciary value (of these confessions) was questioned during judicial hearings, because the persons rendering the confessions showed signs of violence, and because the confessions were not videotaped."

According to the confessions, the squads of assassins are organized in groups of five to eight members. One is in charge of weapons maintenance, another is in charge of locating the victim, while another is simply a chauffeur. One or more, known as "hawks," are lookouts at the targeted location for the attack. One or more pull the triggers. The most common practice is to shoot from a stolen automobile, if the target is on the street, or as the target leaves his home.

The five groups of assassins are (or were?) organized by city sector, apparently using the same designations as the city police stations: Aldama, Chihuahua, Cuauhtemoc, Babicora, and Delicias. Each group must restrict assassinations to its own district. A group will receive orders on a telephone. The chief of the squad may have a nickname or a number; no one knows his real name. "He receives orders from Number Two and Number Eleven, whose names I don't know," according to a statement signed by Juan Antonio Munoz Ceniceros, one of the accused, referring to his boss, known as Number Nine, or The Dog, or The Arquitect.

The confession of Jesus Antonio Romero Cigala, a.k.a. El Kalimba, states that he entered the organization through a neighbor who recruited him. On his first killing, he states, "I went to a Del Rio (one of many popular convenience stores by that name) with Estrella in a Blazer. It was on Riveras del Bravo stage 9. We already knew who he (the victim) was and where he would be. When we arrived (the victim) was standing there, with suspenders and black pants. He thought we were going to provide cocaine for him (presumably he was a drug retailer working for a rival organization). Estrella told me to get down from the Blazer. I had a 40 caliber. I hit him five times. Later we went to a safe-house and stayed there for the rest of the day. Later on I realized this was the way I was going to make a living."

The confession of Juan Francisco Costa Barron, alias "El Guero:" "The criminal organization I belong to pays me at different places, shopping centers, like Soriana (a popular group of stores something like Walmart) or a billiards hall. Someone called Number Two gives us weapons and vehicles for us to use." Costa Barron states he started out as a "hawk," in charge of making sure the streets are safe for the hit, without police or military units nearby. Later he was promoted to being a trigger man. According to the confessions the men were paid about $2000-$3000 pesos (about $150-$230 US) per week.

Jesus Romero Cigala (El Kalimba), Jose Luis Prieto Chacon (El Pelon), and Juan Antonio Munoz Ceniceros (El Guero, or El Cuatro), are accused of the homicide of Ramon Montoya Sanchez, 50 years old, murdered outside a grocery store.

Edgar Ivan Martinez Chavez, (El Diez) and Juan Antonio Chavira Vaquera (El Casper), are accused of killing Fabian Martinez Martinez, killed outside his home in Col. Juarez Nuevo on August 3.

Sergio Leonel Castro Rivera (El Goku), and Juand Francisco Costa Barron (El Guero) are accused of killing a municipal police officer.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

1400 Federal Agents Arrive

La Polaka, the most popular political blog in Juarez (for reasons of security it is now published in El Paso), announced this afternoon that 1400 Mexican federal agents have arrived in Juarez, replacing some of the outgoing troops. Out of these 410 are intelligence specialists.

1730 Homicides and Counting

From a Norte story this morning by Hérika Martínez Prado: Yesterday homicide number 1730 this year was recorded. The discovery of an unidentified dead body in an irrigation ditch in Zaragoza near the border crossing there yesterday morning made it 1730. He had suffered gunshot wounds to the mouth, cheek, right pectoral, and forehead. Number 1729 was a man, Edwin Carlos Calixto Paniagua, 22, discovered at 10 a.m. yesterday morning on the Camino Real highway with gunshot wounds to the jawbone, right eye, chest, and neck. Seven spent 45 caliber cartridges were found near the body. The bodies of the four persons executed in room No. 27 at the "La Cupula" motel on Monday were identified. Their names were: Jimmy Albehert Moreno Macías, 21, Daniel Iván Torres Gutiérrez, 22, Brenda Lisette Fernández Torres, 20, and Yolanda Vanessa Torres Fernández, 23. Ms. Vanessa Torres was from New Mexico. Twenty six spent 7.62x39 casings, used in AK-47s, were found nearby, plus three 9 mm casings.

From Diario: This morning (Wednesday) three bodies were found in Valle de Juárez (The South Valley of Juárez), one of them decapitated, head next to the body, wrapped in a sleeping bag. At 12:35 a.m. this morning four persons, including the wife of one of the men, were murdered as they were driving in a red car in Col. Arroyo Colorado. Dozens of spent casings were found near the vehicle. Then at 1 a.m. this morning (Wednesday) a man was shot and killed as he left a nightclub, "Eduardo's," on Vicente Guerrero and Honduras. The man was wearing a white sweatshirt, white and blue running shoes, blue denim trousers and a black belt. He was dark, medium-sized, with a mustache, and he was carrying a bracelet in his hands. By my count we are now at 1738 so far this year, so my headline is already out of date.

If we extrapolate the 1730 (yesterday's figure) and project the same rate for the rest of the year we would arrive at 2374 persons murdered for the year ending December 31, 2009. Using a reasonable estimate of 1.5 million population in Juarez, this would place the homicide rate at 158.

This would place Juárez easily as the murder capital of the world. In a Foreign Policy article for September 2008 (click here for the article) Caracas was at that time named the highest homicide city in the world, at 130 per 100,000 population, and Cape Town South Africa was listed as second, at 62. I looked up Baghdad and found a good article from the Brookings Institutions (click here for a copy) which estimates the homicide rate there at 95 (the article sorts out war-related deaths as well) in 2006. A Time magazine article this year (click here) puts the Baghdad rate at 48, slightly higher than St. Louis in 2008 which came in at 47. Global homicide rates per city are more difficult to get hold of than you might think at first. But there are places in the U.S. that aren't too far behind the worst cities in the world, such as New Orleans, which the FBI estimated in 2008 had a murder rate per 100,000 of 64. The U.S. average in 2008 was 5.6.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Army Troops Begin Leaving Juarez During Another Spike in Violence

Twelve hundred troops began leaving Juárez on September 15, in the midst of another spike in violence. At a ceremony under the mega-flag near the Free Bridge and the University of Juarez, the Governor of Chihuahua, the Mayor of Juarez, Military officials and other dignitaries thanked the troops for their service and congratulated them for their performance. Although an accord between municipal, state, and federal authorities has prolonged the departure of many of the troops until November 1, some of the nearly 10,000 troops are beginning to leave. Brigadier General Felipe de Jesús Espitia Hernández, commander of the Fifth Military Zone and coordinator of Joint Operation Chihuahua, indicated that the 1200 troops are being replaced by municipal police officers recently graduate from the police academy.

Tuesday night another ten persons were murdered at a rehabilitation center in Col. Barrio Azul. This is the third case of multiple murders in a rehabilitation center in the recent past. In May, five persons were executed at a rehab center, including the center director, and two weeks ago 17 persons at a drug rehabiliation center were murdered in a similar operation. Speculation was that those murdered were street pushers, killed by rival gangs over turf. In recent years Juarez has had an increasing problem with drug addiction.

The incident began last night at 10:15 p.m., just as inmates were preparing to go to bed after a prayer session. An group of armed men entered the establishment and executed ten persons, including Hiram Ortiz, the director, and a physician who was attending a patient. Two more persons were severely injured and taken to a hospital. Another four persons were killed on Tuesday, adding up to a total of 14. More than 1600 persons have been murdered in Juarez so far this year, surpassing last year's annual total more than a quarter of the year left.

On Monday eight persons were killed. In one incident five persons were murdered at a car wash on Alameda. The others fit the usual pattern: one man gunned down as he was leaving his home for work in the morning, another killed by a gunman who drove up next to the vehicle the victim was driving and pumped bullets into the cabin. Another shot on the street.

Last night, at about 12:30 a.m. five persons were killed at the Coco Bongo Bar on Hermanos Escobar and Costa Rica. According to a report by Diario 23 different bars and nightclubs have been the scene of executions this year.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sen. Lopez Defends Position on Ethics Reform at Forum in Mesquite

Widely criticized last Spring by the likes of Heath Haussamen (click here for story), Democracy for America (click here), and the New Mexico Independent (click here), for bottling up ethics reform last Spring in the Rules Committee she chairs in the NM Senate, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, defended her actions today at a forum in Mesquite. As she explained it, the bill creating an ethics commission was flawed inasmuch as it applied only to legislators (not to other public officials) and it allowed the governor to appoint most members of the commission, which made it anything but independent. She also explained she had offered a bill extending the scope of the proposed ethics committee to other elected officials, but could find no support for it. She voted for a bill requiring contractors for projects over $50,000 to reveal campaign contributions, and supported the move to open up conference committees to the news media. She indicated she had voted to delay implementation of the bill to limit campaign contributions for statewide officers "to level the playing field" among Democratic gubernatorial candidates inasmuch as it would have been implemented this year, making it difficult for anyone to compete against Diane Denish, who had already acquired a hefty war chest.

Sen. Lopez, a candidate for Lt. Governor, was in Mesquite speaking at the Mesquite Volunteer Fire Station to a town hall-style meeting for group of community leaders from the surrounding area, including two persons from Sunland Park. The meeting was facilitated by Arturo Uribe, of the Mesquite Community Action Committee.

The exchange was lively and, at times, intense. Martin Lopez, manager of the Mesquite Mutual Domestic Water system, complained he sees millions of dollars going to much smaller water districts in Northern New Mexico, and "maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars coming down our way." This sentiment was echoed by Robert Nieto, President of the Lower Rio Grande Mutual Water Users Association. Alfred Nevarez, the Mesquite Fire Chief, complained his department was unable to answer every call, since it was becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain volunteers, a problem that has become more serious in recent years.

At another point, Sen. Lopez defended her vote in favor of the SunCal tax incremental development district (TIDDS) this Spring, a $400 million bill to help SunCal in the South Valley. Asked whether she had received campaign contributions, Ms. Lopez replied without hesitation that she had received $7000 from SunCal for her campaign for Lt. Governor.

She also defended her support for Sen. Tim Jennings for President Pro Tem of the Senate, who was elected with Republican votes and eight Democratic votes, including Sen. Mary Kay Papen, Sen. Howie Morales, from Grant County, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, from Deming. This conservative faction, which preserves a good amount of power in the hands of Southern senators, has remained relatively independent of the governor's control, even when his popularity was high, and Sen. Lopez indicated she will remain independent in her politics in the future.

Uribe indicated this was the first of various visits he will sponsor to the South Mesilla Valley by candidates for statewide office.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Beat Continues

Six men were murdered in Juárez yesterday. Based on the current pace, September will tally up about the same number of homicides as August, about 300.

From a report this morning by Hérika Martínez Prado of Norte:

Death at a Taco Stand on a Warm Afternoon: Ramón Beltrán, 34, owned a taco stand, the "Taco Melón," on Zaragoza and Ejido Santa Clara in Col. Fortín. According to the testimony of Julio César Muriel Hernández, 30, arrested in connection with the shooting, he (Muriel) and his cousin tried to buy some tacos yesterday at noon, but Beltrán refused to serve him, presumably because of their uncomely appearance. He was angered and returned later, again with his cousin, bringing a gun which he pointed at Beltrán. At that point Beltrán pulled out a gun and shot Muriel Hernandez's cousin in the throat. But the gun fell to the ground and the wounded cousin picked it up and shot Beltrán in the head, causing his death. Police picked up Muriel Hernández and his cousin a few minutes later at a hospital where they were seeking medical attention.

Two men were shot early on Wednesday morning at Arroyo de las Víboras and Peral (Col. Francisco Villa). They both died at a hospital later.

José Lorenzo Ayala Gallegos, 22, died of gunshot wounds at 1:45 p.m. at Oro and Ramón Aranda in downtown Juarez, as he was driving a red Intrepid.

At 1:30 p.m. an unidentified man was found dead in the Valle de Juárez y Reforma, en el Valle de Juárez. An hour later on Monterrey on Col Melchor, two men were gunned down. One died and the other is in the hospital.

Finally, at 3:45 p.m. the presumed owner of a security alarm store on Insurgentes and Libertad in Col. Chaveña was shot to death in his shop.

The Army to Stay in Juarez Six More Weeks?

This afternoon the City Council of Juarez approved a measure requested by Mayor Reyes Ferriz, permitting him to sign an accord with the Mexican Department of Defense that would prolong the stay of the Army in Juarez until November 1. A condition of the measure is that Governor Jose Reyes Baeza and the state of Chihuahua must be a party to the agreement. Governor Baeza was in Juarez yesterday and indicated he would meet in Chihuahua, probably next week, with the Mexican Secretary of Defense and the Justice Department (Gobernacion)to determine just when and under what conditions the Army will cease its policing functions in the state.

The council approved an expenditure of about $1 million (US) to cover the salary costs for the six extra weeks the troops (which number about 7500) will remain in Juarez.

In recent days the armed forces have made a number of important arrests of assassins and there is a general feeling that the presence of the troops, combined with intelligence collection, is beginning to make a difference. On the other hand, the unprecedented crime wave this summer, which catapulted Cd. Juarez into the dubious honor of becoming the homicide capital of the world and intimidated the local population with high rates of kidnappings and extortion of businesses, caused many citizens to question the effectiveness of the presence of the army.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Education Next Opinion Poll is Revealing

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a conservative think tank, has just released a poll of public opinion about education in a journal called Education Next, which sorted out responses from Hispanics as well as other groups and national averages. The poll can be found here. I have summarized only a few of the findings of this extensive survey, so if interested, check it out.

Among the findings:

1. Hispanics give schools higher grades than everyone else, although the overall opinion is not high. Asked to grade the national school system as a whole, 29 percent of Hispanic respondents gave schools a grade of A or B, while only 18% of all respondents did so.

2. Hispanics support No Child Behind more than the rest of the county. Fifty eight percent of Hispanic respondents said they would renew No Child Left Behind legislation with little or no modification, compared to 49% of all respondents. Only 16% of Hispanics would not renew the legislation at all, compared to 22% of all respondents.

3. Hispanics are strongly in favor of federal intervention to promote high standards. The question was worded as follows: "As you may know, federal legislation requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew this federal legislation. What do you think Congress should do?" Fully 76% of Hispanic respondents were in favor of renewing the legislation as is or with minimal changes, compared to only 60% of all respondents.

4. Hispanics support vouchers, no other group does. Fully 52% of Hispanics support the use of tuition vouchers to permit low income families to send their children to private schools, compared to only 35% of all respondents.

5. When informed about expenditure per student in their school district, Hispanics are not inclined to increase school funding. Only 43% would favor an increase in spending while fully 56% would keep spending the same or decrease it. This compares with 47% and 63%, respectively.

6. When informed about average teacher salaries in the state, 50% of Hispanics would increase salaries, 50% would keep them the same or lower them, compared to 40 and 59%, respectively.

7. All groups favor a requirement that teachers demonstrate their students are making progress as a condition for granting tenure. 54% of Hispanics were in favor, compared to 51% of all respondents.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Teacher Training Programs in New Mexico Poor: One Reason Why New Mexico Ranks an "F" in Education?

The National Council for Teacher Quality released reports today on teacher training programs in Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, as part of an ongoing study of teacher training programs. The report on New Mexico looked at each of the eight institutions with teacher preparation programs and, without quite saying so, flunked all but the University of New Mexico. However, even UNM was criticized for inadequate training for mathematics instruction in grades 7 and 8.

Two Major Findings: 1. "New Mexico’s teacher preparation programs have admission standards that are so low as to be meaningless."

2. "No preparation program in the state ensures that aspiring elementary teachers know the science of reading instruction and understand elementary mathematics content at a depth that is sufficient for instruction."

The report has a brief section on each of the eight teacher training programs and concludes that only the University of New Mexico has adequate preparation for teachers in reading and math.

New Mexico State University, which is the second largest program in the state was evaluated as follows:

1. "No preparation is provided in the science of reading"
2. Coursework in math teaching preparation "does not cover essential topics and lacks depth."
3. "One course (in math teaching preparation) does not use a textbook and one course uses a methods textbook"
4. "preparation program does not verify that teacher candidates know content at a depth adequate for instruction."

The Albuquerque Journal had story ("Report Rips N.M Teacher Colleges")this morning by Andrea Schoellkopf summarizing the National Council for Teacher Quality report, plus an interview with several persons in New Mexico, including the interim dean of education at NMSU, who defended the university's program.

In a different report, on how state policies impact the retention of effective new teachers, by the same think tank, ( the authors rate New Mexico teacher training as follows:

Identifying effective teachers: C-
Retaining effective teachers: D
Eliminating ineffective teachers B
Overall rating: C

New Mexico is ranked 48th in education among the 50 states in the American Legislative Exchange Council report card for 2008. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year gives New Mexico an "F" in its for overall academic achievement, and an "F" for the academic achievement of low income and minority students, and an "F" for the return on investment per dollar spent.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chano Merino Honored

One of the once truly powerful, national-class labor activists from New Mexico during the past half century, Chano Merino was honored by the Democratic Party of Dona Ana County this morning in Labor Day festivities at the Farm and Ranch Museum in Las Cruces.

The large annual gathering of Democrats was attended by various statewide candidates and party officials, including Congressman Harry Teague, Lt. Governor Diane Denish, State Treasurer James Lewis, PRC Commissioner Sandy Jones, state party chair designee Javier Gonzalez, and candidates for Lt. Governor Rep. Jose Campos, former party chair Brian Colon, and Sen. Linda Lopez. All factions of the local party were represented, including many of the get-out-the vote specialists from various parts of the county, such as Guadalupe Valdivia, Bobby Rodriguez, Don Kurtz, and Arturo Uribe.

Merino recounted some of the battles he and his labor allies fought over his long career, beginning with the labor disputes in the copper mines in Grant County and continuing to campaigns for statewide candidates and national struggles over civil rights. But, modestly, he failed to mention that in his prime he was one of the half dozen or so go-to persons the national AFL-CIO office counted on to trouble shoot problem areas in the Western states during tough elections.

In recent years Merino has been active in local party affairs, highly respected not only because of his strong loyalty to the Democratic Party but also because he was never hesitant to criticize tendencies within the party that he thought were detrimental to the long run strength of the nation. The honor was long overdue.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lt. Governor Candidates at Dennis Chavez Event

Three of the Democratic Party candidates for Lt. Governor spoke at an event sponsored for the Dennis Chavez Club of the Dona Ana Democratic Party at the home of former Rep. Paul Taylor on Sunday evening. Rep. Tomas Campos, from Santa Rosa, spoke about the need for economic development and infrastructure, stressing his background as current chair of the Council of Governments organization for the western states and his experience as a small businessman. He is also mayor of Santa Rosa. Brian Colon, former state Democratic Party chair, spoke about improving New Mexico educational performance, stressing the dropout rates, and reminded those in attendance he has lived for ten years in Dona Ana county. Sen. Linda Lopez, who has been in the news recently advocating a roll-back on taxes to the wealthy as a means of improving the state's financial crisis, stressed her experience as a legislator and her passion for helping youth.

Frances Williams, who blew the whistle on the Smiley Gallegos housing empire last year, leading to an indictment, asked each candidate what they would do about ethics reform in light of recent multiple scandals. Each spoke briefly to this question, stressing the need for ethics reform and pledging to address ethical issues during the campaign.

Former Rep. Paul Taylor was the host for the evening at his historic home in Mesilla, full of old New Mexico paintings, santos, and other art work, which he has bequeathed to the state of New Mexico.

Other announced candidates for Lt. Governor are Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, and Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Economic Times in Juarez Hard on Clowns? El Tachuelin Arrested

From Diario: Adrián Enríquez Parra, who uses the nickame “Tachuelín” when he performs as a clown, was arrested on August 28 in Juarez, along with Antonio Indalecio López Ramos, both accused of kidnapping and extortion of a businessman who owns a recycling facility. Soldiers from the 7th Armored Reconnaissance Brigade, which is still patrolling in Juarez, rescued the businessman and arrested the two after receiving information from an anonymous source. According to law enforcement authorities the two men had gone to the recycling plant planning to take payroll funds at gunpoint, but when they found out there was no money, they decided to take the owner instead, and held him captive for about 8 hours before he was rescued. They were demanding a payment of about $120,000 for the release of the businessman.

The army unit received an anonymous tip that a blindfolded man had been taken into a house located at 419 Arquitecto Julio Corredor (Col. Horizontes del Sur). When elements from that unit arrived at the house, a man answered the door saying the only persons there were his brother and his father. Soldiers entered the house and found two firearms (almost always illegal possession in Mexico), and a decision was made to take the men for questioning at the headquarters of Joint Operation Chihuahua. During the transfer of the three men, one of them blurted out that he was being kidnapped by the other two. They had threatened to kill him and his family if he did not go along with the story that the other men were his sons.

The guns in question were a 38 caliber Llama and a 32 caliber Undercover. Ten cell phones were also found in the house.

Kidnapper and Extortioner Captured

On Thursday the kidnapping unit of the state police in Juarez arrested Roberto Gallegos Reyes, alias “El Beto,” 32, shortly after police in Chihuahua captured four men charged with kidnapping a businessman on August 28. They apparently named Gallegos as the leader of a gang responsible for multiple kidnappings of prominent medical doctors and may have given information about his whereabouts. The gang was also responsible, according to authorities, for a series of extortions in Chihuahua city and Juarez.

Armed Thief Kills Partner by Mistake in Restaurant

From Norte: Patrons at the Mandilón Marinero Restaurant (Corner of Torres and Manuel Clouthier) on Thursday night were forced at gunpoint by three thieves to relinquish their wallets, one by one. While this operation was underway, the manager got into a verbal argument and scuffle with one of the thieves. Another thief saw this and, perhaps nervous or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, shot at the manager, but killed his partner instead. Miguel Ángel Escalante Ramos, apparently one of the thieves, was apprehended by federal police a few minutes later when he tried to lift his dead partner into the Jeep Cherokee he was driving. He appeared to be inebriated. The other thief got away. Federal police (PFP) had been alerted about the situation in the restaurant and responded.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Mexico After CDR

This story also appears in Haussamen

The revelation Governor Richardson will not be prosecuted for the CDR scandal comes on the heels of news the state, again, has underestimated revenues for the fiscal year, this time to the tune of $430-450 million, possibly more, through June 2010, for a budget of about $5.5 billion. Earlier this year the state adjusted to a $309 million shortfall for the fiscal year that ended in June 2009.

This leaves the state in a double crisis, one political, the other financial, and the two are connected. The political crisis can be summarized as a growing awareness the state is mired in a culture of entrenched corruption, coupled with a fear law enforcement is unlikely to do much about it. The decision not to prosecute the governor aggravated this sense of helplessness. Concerns are already circulating that Rebecca Vigil, the indicted former Secretary of State will get off. The governor's trip to Cuba has sparked rumors Richardson is about to be named ambassador to Cuba. Rumors, however baseless, reveal what is on peoples' minds, and right now impunity is high on the list. Meanwhile, Brian Colon, until recently Democratic Party state chair and currently candidate for Lt. Governor, continues as a member of the law team suing Smiley Gallegos for his default on a $5 million bond provided by the State Investment Council. This is a conflict of interest. As a candidate for Lt. Governor with party connections it seems unlikely he would want to court the animosity of House Speaker Ben Lujan, who supported his friend Gallegos for years despite serious accusations against him. Is there no shame?

The crisis of integrity in New Mexico politics is aggravating a fiscal crisis of unprecedented magnitude, caused in part by the drunken-sailor spending of Governor Richardson, who bullied his way into taking principle from the Permanent Fund, cutting taxes irresponsibly, and spending lavishly on education with no improvement in educational performance. Is there anyone who still believes Richardson has the slightest credibility, or interest, in deciding what to cut, now that the day of reckoning (for New Mexico!) has arrived, nine months after he hoped to be in Washington? But cut we must, and the fault lines in the legislature are already beginning to emerge.

On one side the governor proposes to cut everything except public education, which takes up 48% of the budget. Problem is, now that the first quarter of the fiscal year is gone, if education is not cut this will imply a 12% cut across the board elsewhere, including higher education, to get us to June 2010. Cutting health and social services by 12% would trigger something like a $400 million loss in matching funds from the federal government, a devastating blow to those who depend on Medicaid for health care. But Richardson can probably rely on the votes of legislators who collect state education paychecks, such as Sen. Pete Campos, Sen. Cynthia Nava, Rep. Mimi Stewart, Rep. Tomas Garcia, and Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton; they usually do what the governor asks in education matters. While the budget crisis poses a conflict of interest for these legislators, no one expects them to recuse themselves from voting, although they should. Should their votes in favor of education determine what gets cut, this will not enhance the ethical reputation of the legislature in the public eye.

An opposing side to the governor's budget plan has not yet emerged, although some proposals are floating, such as Sen. Linda Lopez's, advocating a roll-back of the tax cuts Richardson gave to the well off. In her case, as in others, it is not clear she can find the votes to raise taxes in an election year.

We have yet to hear much from respected legislative heavyweights, such as Kiki Saavedra and Senators John A. Smith and Stuart Ingle (there are others) about the fiscal crisis. Behind the scenes they are apparently trying to master specific details about a complex problem and perhaps sorting out the smoke-and-mirrors proposals from the more responsible ones before crafting legislation. Their leadership is crucial. Only a handful of legislators have enough stature and credibility to satisfy the public that forthcoming cuts are reasonably fair and necessary, as well as having the legislative clout to pass a bill. If these leaders don't step up to reassure the public, we may enter an election year with large sectors of the public lumping the political and economic crises together into one unhappy basket.

The two crises are linked. Public policy in New Mexico--whether building a courthouse, funding education, providing affordable housing, investing pension funds, or doling out contracts--has been abused as never before at multiple levels as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, an entitlement to mischief, rather than a solemn trust. Just one transaction is said to have made $2 million in fees for Richardson buddy Marc Correra, who brokered a State Investment Council investment of $90 million in pension funds with Vanderbilt Capital Group, which (of course) contributed to Richardson's presidential campaign. The investment lost $86 million. The magnitude of the current fiscal crisis is just one of the costs: the loss of public trust is another. During the next few weeks and months legislators who have not squandered all of their credibility have a small window of opportunity to prove they can reverse the trend and steer the state through two of the most severe storms in the past ninety eight years of statehood. Can we set a goal to clean up the state by the 100th anniversary?