The revelations leaked by Edward Snowden that the NSA committed acts of espionage against top Mexican officials and the president himself have so far provoked only mild indignation from the Mexican political class. Secretary of Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade appeared to be reassured by President Obama’s ‘word’ that he would launch an investigation into the workings of the U.S. government. Notwithstanding the incongruity that any government investigating its own internal wrongdoing would have any interest in publicizing conclusive evidence of its own criminal activity, President Peña Nieto has been reluctant to push the Obama administration further on the issue, presumably for fear of undermining Mexico’s position as a staunch U.S. economic and political ally.
Ex-president Vicente Fox, meanwhile, enthusiastically endorsed U.S. spying on Mexican politicians, claiming he knew the U.S. spied on him while he was president. Indeed, Fox took comfort in the fact that the world’s superpower monitored his every move and his phone calls, evoking the ominous adage reminiscent of all authoritarian political institutions: one has nothing to be concerned about so long as one has nothing to hide and done nothing wrong. “Everyone will do better if they think they’re being spied on,” he noted, at once reinforcing the dubious entitlement of the U.S. government to act as the world’s police force while simultaneously apologizing for the illegal activities of the NSA. Mr. Fox seems unable to comprehend the basic moral and legal truism that merely because many are involved in committing criminal activities, the moral and legal implications do not simply vanish into thin air. A reasonable observer might instead conclude that the greater the number of international government institutions that are involved in criminal activity, the more serious the problem, not the reverse. “It’s nothing new that there’s espionage in every government in the world, including Mexico’s,” Fox observed. Flummoxed as to why Snowden’s revelations have provoked outrage among the Mexican populace and investigative journalists (if not in government itself), he declared, “I don’t understand the scandal.”
One document obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University details Janet Napolitano’s (then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) official meeting with President Peña Nieto in July 2013. According to Napolitano’s briefing, avoiding discussion of NSA spying on the upper echelons appears to be a Mexican, not solely U.S., initiative. The Mexicans, the document claims, wanted to ‘put to bed’ the issue of NSA intrusions. Indeed, nowhere in the summary of their meeting does the issue arise. Instead, discussions focus on maintaining and increasing border security in order to protect commercial interests and on reducing the number of undocumented migrants entering the United States.
The listless and at times surreal reaction to NSA surveillance by Mexico’s political class demonstrates their level of craven subordination to their U.S. counterparts. One can only begin to imagine the response of the U.S. political class and media pundits were they to discover that Mexican intelligence had repeatedly intercepted the electronic communications and tapped the phones of the Commander in Chief himself.
The Mexican reaction to NSA snooping on the inner circle of government stands in stark contrast to that of Brazil’s. Snowden’s leaks provoked fury within the government of President Dilma Rousseff. She blasted the NSA tapping of her phone and interception of government communications in a fiery speech clearly aimed at President Obama at the UN General Assembly. She lambasted the NSA for spying on millions of Brazilian citizens, tapping the phones of Brazilian embassies, and spying on the country’s partly state-owned petroleum giant, Petrobras. Interestingly, she remarked that the bulk of NSA spying in Brazil was not designed to thwart potential terrorists or to undermine the activities of transnational criminal organizations, but instead, to further U.S. business interests through both international economic and commercial spying. As a result, Rousseff cancelled her planned diplomatic visit to Washington, called for an international conference on data security, began setting up a protected governmental electronic communications system, and proposed changing underwater cables so that international Brazilian internet traffic would no longer pass through U.S. territory.
Brazil’s position, of course, is a reflection of the changing nature of U.S.-Latin American relations more generally. Brazil, the emerging regional power and now less of a fixture of Uncle Sam’s backyard, can afford to take an increasingly independent stance from Washington. Several countries in the region are integrating with each other politically and economically and establishing firm trade links with China, India, and South Africa—an unprecedented dynamic which has had the effect of undermining U.S. hegemony in the region.
Mexico, however, dependent on the U.S. market for 80% of its exports, is much less able to stand up to the superpower. Indeed, Mexico’s traditional position as a subordinate and reliable ally of its northern neighbor is becoming all the more crucial in maintaining the waning U.S. empire, increasingly defensive and militaristic as it reasserts its influence over the region. With a myriad of uncertainties lying ahead for U.S. power in a region that has witnessed the birth of new left-wing social movements that have had considerable success at the ballot box, it is becoming imperative for the United States to uphold and preserve its political, economic, and military alliances as per Mexico and Colombia. In Mexico, U.S. funding for the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has provided a convenient pretext for heavy militarization throughout the country and a clamping down on political dissent and organized popular movements. Spying and surveillance programs are key to achieving the U.S. objective of continuing and reinforcing a status quo that now sees well over half the population in Mexico living in poverty and unparalleled levels of economic inequality.
As in Brazil, U.S. spying in Mexico seems less to do with the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’—two key rhetorical tenets of U.S. interventionism—and more to do with the realpolitik of ensuring that a pliant and subservient political class, personified by Fox, Calderón, and Peña Nieto, guard the current transnational dynamics—a socio-economic system that rewards the powerful moneyed neoliberal elites on both sides of the border and keeps the poor and marginalized in their place.
There is a further aspect to the Mexican response to NSA spying which warrants scrutiny. Throughout the Cold War, the CIA and its Mexican counterpart, the DFS, shared all manner of material and intelligence on dissidents (Marxists, communists, students, guerrillas, trade unionists, peasant activists, feminists, etc.) who were often incarcerated or liquidated because, as the authoritarian and paternalistic President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz claimed, they were a threat to ‘national security.’
The current partnership between the U.S. and Mexican governments allows for a level of surveillance of which Mexico’s Cold Warriors could only dream. In collaboration with telecommunications giants, the U.S. and Mexican governments provide the wherewithal and funding for large-scale spying on the Mexican citizenry. Indeed, Mexico’s Federal Ministerial Police (PFM) has recently designed a system of total surveillance and increased storage of electronic communications. In a climate in which there exist widening socio-economic disparities, a grave security crisis, and a growing disillusionment with the status quo, both the U.S. and Mexican governments have a shared interest in forestalling the development of a widespread popular political revolt and a potential ‘Mexican Spring.’ Were there any mystery as to why the Mexican response to Snowden’s revelations was so moderate, one would only need to recall Vicente Fox’s unintentionally shrewd observation that all governments have an interest in spying on one another and on their own citizens. The lackluster reaction from Los Pinos to the NSA revelations is reflective of the extent to which Mexican elite politicians acquiesce in the intrusions, largely because they themselves use domestic spying to further their own sectional interests in a country in which, little more than a decade after the ‘transition to democracy,’ the majority of the population are excluded from meaningful political participation.
Peter Watt teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the book, Drug War Mexico. Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books 2012).
The torture death of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique (“Kiki”) Camarena near Guadalajara in the western Mexican state of Jalisco in February 1985 was linked to drug running by the US-backed “contra” rebels seeking to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua, according to two former DEA agents and a former pilot for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Camarena was kidnapped by criminals working for Rafael Caro Quintero, a founder of the so-called Guadalajara Cartel, and was executed at one of Caro Quintero’s ranches. According to the US, the cartel targeted Camarena because he had uncovered Caro Quintero’s marijuana growing and processing operation. Under pressure from the US, the Mexican government eventually captured Caro Quintero and sentenced him to 60 years in prison for Camarena’s murder.
The new allegations appeared on an Oct. 10 broadcast by the rightwing US-based Fox television network and in an Oct. 12 article published by the left-leaning Mexican weekly Proceso. Both reports were based on interviews with Phil Jordan, an ex-director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC); former DEA agent Héctor Berrellez, who said he directed the investigation of Camarena’s death; and Tosh Plumlee, who worked as a pilot for SETCO, a CIA-linked airline that flew military supplies to the contras. It isn’t clear why Fox chose to air the allegations now, but attention on the Camarena murder increased after a Mexican judge released Caro Quintero from prison on a technicality on Aug. 9 of this year.
According to the Fox and Proceso reports, CIA operatives had infiltrated Mexico’s now-defunct Federal Security Directorate (DFS), many of whose agents provided protection for Caro Quintero’s criminal activities in the 1980s, including the Camarena kidnapping and murder. CIA infiltrators were present when the DEA agent was killed, the reports allege. “I was told by Mexican authorities… that CIA operatives were in there,” Jordan said to Fox News. “Actually conducting the interrogation. Actually taping Kiki.” Ex-DEA agent Berrellez gave Proceso the name of at least one CIA operative he claimed was involved. “Two witnesses identified Félix Ismael Rodríguez,” he said.
The Cuban-born Rodríguez was a long-time US agent who was active in the Bay of Pigs invasion, in the Vietnam war and in the October 1967 execution of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara in Bolivia. In the middle 1980s Rodríguez was in El Salvador working with another Cuban-born agent, Luis Posada Carriles, supplying contra operations [see Update #1185]. According to the Proceso report, Rodríguez introduced the Honduran drug trafficker Juan Matta Ballesteros to the Guadalajara cartel. Matta allegedly used his Colombian connections to supply cocaine to the cartel, with the complicity of the CIA, which received part of the money and used it to supply arms and other military equipment to the contras. The reason for Camarena’s murder, according to Proceso, was that Camarena had “discovered that his own government was collaborating with Mexican narco trafficking in its illicit business.”
The CIA denies the accusations. “[I]t’s ridiculous to suggest that the CIA had anything to do with the murder of a US federal agent or the escape of his killer,” a CIA spokesperson told Fox News on Oct. 10.
A number of sources reported in the 1980s and early 1990s that the contras were funded in part through drug sales with the help or complicity of the CIA. In 1998 CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz told Congress that the CIA “worked with a variety of … assets [and] pilots who ferried supplies to the contras, who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity.” The “CIA had an operational interest” in the contras and “did nothing to stop” the drug trafficking, Hitz said. Mainstream US media generally avoided the subject. In 1996 the Mercury News of San Jose, California, ran a series linking the contras to the sale of crack in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, but the paper later repudiated the articles. The reporter, Gary Webb, lost his job at the Mercury News and was never employed by a major newspaper again. He died in December 2004, an apparent suicide [see Update #777]. (Fox News 10/10/13; Proceso 10/12/13; El País (Madrid) 10/15/13)
- NarcoNews: Assassinated DEA Agent Kiki Camarena Fell in a CIA Operation Gone Awry (blacklistednews.com)
The latest analysis of Snowden leaks from the German magazine Der Spiegel is a bombshell for Mexico.
“The NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years,” reads the opening line in the Oct. 20 issue.
The article goes on to detail three major programs that together constitute a massive espionage operation against Mexico. No one seems to have been immune from its intrusions, including two presidents.
The presidential computer network was infiltrated since 2010 when Felipe Calderon was still president. The ever-zealous National Security Agency (NSA) was apparently very proud of itself for hacking the private communications of the leader and cabinet members of an allied nation.
In a “top secret” report, its “Tailored Access Operations” division (TAO) crows:
“TAO successfully exploited a key mail server in the Mexican Presidencia domain within the Mexican Presidential network to gain first-ever access to President Felipe Calderon’s public email account”, calling it a “lucrative source” to gauge Mexican “political system and internal stability”. The leaked operation was code named “Flatliquid”.
Mexicans first found out that their nation, along with Brazil and other Latin American countries, was a major target back in September, when Brazil’s O Globo published an article by Glenn Greenwald, Roberto Kaz and Jose Casado on tapping Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s phone and other communications. The article noted that the NSA had Mexico in its sights too.
A specially designed NSA program spied on then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto to find out who he was planning to appoint to his cabinet and how he’d handle the volatile drug war—the cornerstone of US policy in Mexico.
That caused a stir and the Peña Nieto administration sent a diplomatic note and demanded a U.S. investigation.
Sunday’s revelations add details to the previous information and show a far vaster and more insidious operation than was first imagined. Text messages from Peña Nieto’s cell phone—85,489 to be exact, according to the Der Speigel-Snowden report– were harvested and organized into data bases, identifying nine close associates for surveillance and analysis.
A third program called “White Tamale” dates back to 2009, when the NSA managed to hack into the emails of high-level officials in the now-defunct Public Security Ministry.
“In the space of a single year, according to the internal documents, this operation produced 260 classified reports that allowed US politicians to conduct successful talks on political issues and to plan international investments.”
The documents note that the spy operation allowed the NSA to gain access to “diplomatic talking points”.
What does this mean? Wouldn’t using ill-begotten private communications in negotiations be something akin to blackmail?
In any case, it seems to have fulfilled its purpose because during the subsequent period U.S. intelligence, military, police and drug enforcement agencies achieved an unprecedented margin to operate in-country, effectively breaking down any remaining resistance to their activities on Mexican soil.
The Der Speigel article states that in spy operations in Mexico, “the drug trade” was given top priority level, while the country’s “political leadership”, “economic stability” and “international investment relations” received number-three priority rankings on a scale of five.
This latter category gives credence to charges from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that the NSA used its apparatus for industrial spying, seeking advantages. Her charges are borne out by documents that show that Brazilian oil company, PETROBRAS, was a target of U.S. espionage. The Mexico revelations were more general but also indicate economic espionage.
The NSA, as reflected in its own documents, seems to have no sense of boundaries—it qualifies its invasions as unqualified “successes”. Der Spiegel quotes another document that reads,
“These TAO accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning — we intend to go much further against this important target.”
It goes on to state that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”
Mexico’s Muted Response
The response from NSA to questions was predictable,
“We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”
So far, no enterprising journalists have asked the Mexican government if it has 85 thousand text messages off of Obama’s phone.
Since September the Mexican government has known it was massively spied on by the United States. After the revelations regarding Peña Nieto’s communications and contacts with US diplomats, Mexico says President Obama agreed to carry out an investigation.
But what exactly does the Mexican government expect of this investigation? No one has questioned the authenticity of the documents. Everyone knows Snowden has them, otherwise why would the U.S. be trying to force his extradition and threatening countries offering asylum. And it seems that asking the U.S. government to investigate NSA be an exercise in futility, especially since the Der Speigel article states explicitly that the programs had presidential authorization.
Not surprisingly, Mexico’s response was widely considered weak.
So far, the response to this latest round of revelations hasn’t shown much more backbone. The foreign relations ministry called the practice “unacceptable, illegitimate and against the law”—and said it would be sending another diplomatic note.
“In a relationship between neighbors and partners, there is no room for the practices alleged to have taken place,” the ministry said.
When Der Speigel asked for a comment from Felipe Calderon, Harvard University, apparently the spokesperson for the beleaguered ex-president since it took him under its ivied wings as a Global Leaders Fellow at the Kennedy School, said it would give him the message.
A senior U.S. State Department official told CNN that the Mexican government reached out about the report, and that the two governments will be discussing it via diplomatic channels.
Peña Nieto has to react now. Brazil is taking specific steps to protect privacy from the long ear of the NSA. Rousseff has been outspoken in its indignation, taking it to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly and cancelling a state visit to Washington.
Mexico’s economic dependence on the United States under NAFTA puts the Peña administration in a tougher bind. Big business will put pressure on Peña to let it slide. The PRI is likely to be seriously annoyed, but it also knows an important part of its power base rests on its relationship with the U.S. government and economic elite, almost a tautology, as shown again in the fact that taxpayer-supported NSA spying was directed at industrial spying to give U.S. companies an edge in bidding, investing and competing.
Whatever the response, the revelations are a blow to a somewhat shaky relationship. Peña Nieto has made it clear it will not allow the same carte-blanche treatment U.S. agencies were given under former president Calderon, but he has also continued security integration and U.S. expansion under the guise of the war on drugs.
Calling into question the terms of the bi-national security relationship should not necessarily be viewed negatively. Demands for a more transparent and less military-oriented relationship between the U.S. and Mexico have been growing. The NSA documents reveal a global security doctrine that has spun dangerously out of control, with what Greenwald calls “the construction of a worldwide, ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus” that apparently has no qualms regarding the right to privacy or national sovereignty. Neither the Mexican nor the U.S. Congress has sufficient knowledge of what’s going on to provide reasonable oversight, and the Mexican government apparently has little knowledge of the realm of shadowy U.S. intelligence activity in its own country.
When you add in the private contractors hired under the $2 billion-dollar Merida aid package, it makes for a vast and murky world of post-Cold War conniving.
That can’t be good for diplomacy, or democracy.
Laura Carlsen is director of the Mexico City-based CIP Americas Program.
US electronic surveillance in Mexico reportedly targeted top officials, including both current and previous presidents. Intelligence produced by the NSA helped Americans get an upper hand in diplomatic talks and find good investment opportunities.
The US National Security Agency was apparently very happy with its successes in America’s southern neighbor, according to classified documents leaked by Edwards Snowden and analyzed by the German magazine, Der Spiegel. It reports on new details of the spying on the Mexican government, which dates back at least several years.
The fact that Mexican President Peña Nieto is of interest to the NSA was revealed earlier by Brazilian TV Globo, which also had access to the documents provided by Snowden. Spiegel says his predecessor Felipe Calderon was a target too, and the Americans hacked into his public email back in May 2010.
The access to Calderon electronic exchanges gave the US spies “diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico’s political system and internal stability,” the magazine cites an NSA top secret internal report as saying. The operation to hack into the presidential email account was dubbed “Flatliquid” by the American e-spooks.
The bitter irony of the situation is that Calderon during his term in office worked more closely with Washington than any other Mexican president before him. In 2007 he even authorized the creation of a secret facility for electronic surveillance, according to a July publication in the Mexican newspaper, Excelsior.
The surveillance on President Nieto started when he was campaigning for office in the early summer of 2012, the report goes on. The NSA targeted his phone and the phones of nine of his close associates to build a map of their regular contacts. From then it closely monitored those individuals’ phones as well, intercepting 85,489 text messages, including those sent by Nieto.
After the Globo TV report, which mentioned spying on Mexico only in passing, Nieto stated that US President Barack Obama had promised him that he would investigate the accusations and punish those responsible of any misconduct. The reaction was far milder than that from Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, another target of NSA’s intensive interest, who has since canceled a planned trip to the US and delivered a withering speech at the UN General Assembly, which condemned American electronic surveillance.
Another NSA operation in Mexico dubbed “Whitetamale” allowed the agency to gain access to emails of high-ranking officials in country’s Public Security Secretariat, a law enforcement body that combats drug cartels and human trafficking rings. The hacking, which happened in August 2009, gave the US information about Mexican crime fighting, but also provided access to “diplomatic talking-points,” an internal NSA document says.
In a single year, this operation produced 260 classified reports that facilitated talks on political issues and helped the Americans plan international investments.
“These TAO [Tailored Access Operations – an NSA division that handles missions like hacking presidential emails] accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning – we intend to go much further against this important target,” the document reads. It praises the operation as a “tremendous success” and states that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”
Economic espionage is a motive for NSA spying, which the agency vocally denied, but which appears in the previous leaks. The agency had spied on the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras, according to earlier revelations. This combined with reports that the NSA hacked into the email of Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, triggered a serious deterioration of relations between the two countries.
While the NSA declined comment to the German magazine, the Mexican Foreign Ministry replied with an email, which condemned any form of espionage on Mexican citizens. The NSA presumably could read that email at the same time as the journalists, Der Spiegel joked.
From Mexico to Qatar, obesity rates are soaring to unprecedented levels. The alarming trend is damaging economic performance, as well as the health of millions of consumers worldwide.
Take our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, mix in a generous portion of American fast-food and dubious agricultural practices, add a dash of corporate duplicity and you have a recipe for high obesity rates across the planet.
The newly released United Nations report on global nutrition does not make for very appetizing reading: Amid an already floundering global economy, the reality of a fattening planet is dragging down world productivity rates while increasing health insurance costs to the tune of $3.5 trillion dollars per year – or 5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
31.8 percent of US adults are now considered clinically obese. This is a remarkable figure, especially considering that it is approximately double the US obesity rate registered in 1995, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
An individual is considered obese when their body mass index (BMI), a measurement obtained by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of the person’s height in meters, exceeds 30 kg/m2, according to the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, much of the international community is quickly catching up with the global consumption superpower. Mexico, for example, just surpassed US obesity rates with a whopping 32.8 percent of Mexican adults now considered to be clinically obese.
The unprecedented weight gains in Mexico, however, as well as many other countries, appear to be no accident.
Following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico became the dumping ground for a slew of cheap fast food and carbonated drinks, according to a Foreign Policy report.
Thanks to NAFTA, there was a more than 1,200 percent increase in high-fructose corn syrup exports from the US to Mexico between 1996 and 2012, according to the US Agriculture Department. In an effort to place a cap on the high-calorie drinks, Mexican officials introduced a tax on beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup. American corn refiners, however, cried foul and the tax was voted down by the World Trade Organization.
Mexicans now consume 43 gallons of soda per capita annually, giving the country the world’s highest rate of soda consumption, according to estimates by Mexico’s national statistics agency.
Yet another disturbing casualty on the obesity trail is tiny Qatar, an oil-rich Arab nation of 250,000 people that is also rich in fast food diets.
“Like most people in the Arab Gulf, (Qataris) were traditionally desert-dwelling and therefore much more physically active,” according to a 2012 report by Policymic.com. “Now, cars have replaced camels and fast food and home deliveries take the place of home cooking. Even housework and child rearing is left to maids and nannies.”
Today, some 45 percent of Qatari adults are obese and up to 40 percent of school children are obese as well.
Last month, nutrition experts from around the world shared their views at an obesity and nutrition conference in Sydney. For many of the attendees, the primary culprit in the global obesity scourge is out-of-control corporate power, where the free market decides everything.
The rise of global fast food outlets has been a key change in our environment leading to fattier foods and fatter people, Bruce Neal, professor at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, told the Indo-Asian News Service.
“As fast as we get rid of all our traditional vectors of disease – infections, little microbes, bugs – we are replacing them with the new vectors of disease, which are massive transnational, national, multinational corporations selling vast amounts of salt, fat and sugar,” Neal said.
John Norris, writing in Foreign Policy, explained some of the global dynamics that contributed to the so-called “globesity” epidemic, including the soft drink industry’s move to use cheaper high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar in many of their products.
“Suddenly, it was cheaper to put high-fructose corn syrup in everything from spaghetti sauce to soda. Coke and Pepsi swapped out sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, and most other US soda and snack companies followed suit,” Norris wrote. “US per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup spiked from less than half a pound a year in 1970 to a peak of almost 38 pounds a year in 1999.”
While some might be tempted to downplay the negative effects of such a harmless sounding additive, researchers from Canada’s University of Guelph, as pointed out by Norris, discovered that a high-fructose corn syrup diet in rats produced “addictive behavior similar to that from cocaine use.”
As obesity explodes, US fast food companies look abroad.
Americans, thanks in part to First Lady Michele Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ program, have recently woken up to the unsustainability of their soda guzzling, fast food ways. Other politicians and activists have also weighed in on the debate, making the environment for the fast food industry not as comfortable as in the past.
In March, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attracted the ire of the soft drink industry when he placed a ban on the sale of sodas in sizes larger than 16 ounces. Violators will be fined $200.
In his 2004 a documentary film, “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock stunned audiences by tracking the physical effects on his body – none of them positive – after consuming nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. As a result of the experiment, Spurlock gained 24½ lbs. (11.1 kg), a 13 percent body mass increase, and a cholesterol level of 230, among other negative side-effects.
Perhaps the biggest wake-up call for the fast food industry came in 2002 when two teenagers accused McDonald’s of deceptively marketing its menu from 1985 to 2002, causing them, they alleged, to become obese. The judge dismissed the case in 2010, but the message to the industry was crystal clear.
As a result of these and other public awareness campaigns, the American fast food industry – although slower than some may like – has been gradually rewriting their menus and marketing campaigns, many of which are aimed at kids.
At the same time, the junk food industry – sensing the sea change of attitudes in the United States as the physical effects of junk food manifests itself – are investing increasingly in foreign markets where public awareness of the subject is not so developed.
Similar to the crackdown on the tobacco industry in the late 1990s, US fast food companies are busy setting up shop abroad for easy, unregulated markets to hawk their wares.
Already the size of their presence is breathtaking: “Coca-Cola and PepsiCo together control almost 40 percent of the world’s $532 billion soft drink market, according to the Economist. Soda sales, meanwhile, have more than doubled in the last 10 years, with much of that growth driven by developing markets. McDonald’s investors were disappointed that the company only turned $1.4 billion in profit during the second quarter of 2013, having become used to years of double-digit gains every three months,” according to the Foreign Policy report.
So while the United States is steadily finding ways to regulate its fast food, soft drink industry, and thus nip the obesity epidemic in the bud, it is, at the same time, legislating on behalf of unhealthy exports abroad.
Now the question is, will the rest of the world bite the hand that feeds?
The NSA monitored communications of the leaders of Brazil and Mexico, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald said in an interview on Brazilian television, according to the Associated Press.
The revelations come days before President Obama is to travel to Russia for a meeting of the G20.
Greenwald told the Brazilian television program “Fantastico” that he has a document indicating Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s emails were being read. The document is dated from June 2012, a month before Nieto was elected.
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has leaked thousands of documents related to the U.S. surveillance programs to Greenwald.
The document from June 2012 shows who Nieto was considering for appointments to key government posts, according to the AP report.
While Greenwald said that document shows “specific intercepted messages” in the case of Nieto, the tracking of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was done through a program known as DNI Presenter that allows the NSA to open and read emails and online chats, the AP report said.
It said the U.S. targeting mapped out the aides with whom Rousseff communicated and tracked patterns of how those aides communicated with one another.
The NSA programs seem likely to come up in some of Obama’s meetings at the G20 in St. Petersburg. Brazil and Mexico are both members of the G20, and Snowden has been granted asylum by Russia.
- NSA spied on Brazil, Mexico presidents – Greenwald (rt.com)
- Greenwald claims up to 20,000 Snowden documents are in his possession (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Brazil may reject US fighter jet deal over NSA spying scandal (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Greenwald Testifies to Brazilian Senate about NSA Espionage Targeting Brazil and Latin America (alethonews.wordpress.com)
San Sebastián Bachajón: Following the Assassination of Juan Vázquez Guzmán, the Struggle for the Defense of the Land Continues
“The government does not like the people to organize and defend what is theirs; they repress us with state forces and order assassination to silence our movement”, declared the ejidatarios (communal landholders) of San Sebastián Bachajón recently. Despite the assassination of their much-loved community leader Juan Vázquez Guzmán, they insist: “we are here, we are staying here and we are not going to leave our land which is the birthplace of our mothers and fathers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, who also fought and gave their lives for the mother earth.”
Their struggle against luxury tourism in their territory
The indigenous Tzeltal ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón is situated in the jungle region of the state of Chiapas in South-East Mexico. It is located in an area of great natural beauty, rich in flora and fauna. The common lands of the ejido straddle the access road to the spectacular series of turquoise waterfalls of Agua Azul, and are not far from the great Maya archaeological site of Palenque. For over 20 years, the Mexican government has planned, as part of the “Maya World” concept, a high class tourist mega-project in Chiapas to rival Cancun; Agua Azul is to be the “jewel in the crown” of this development, with a luxury “eco-lodge retreat” complete with arrival at the waterfalls by helicopter or seaplane. Unfortunately for the people who have lived on and cared for this land for centuries, for whom territory is the basis of a dignified life, they are now the only obstacle to what could become, for rich tourists, “one of the most special experiences in the Western hemisphere”, and, for the resort owners, a lucrative source of income. The realization of this project would inevitably involve dispossessing or co-opting the indigenous population, and taking over their ancestral lands and territory.
As a result, the ejidatarios of Bachajón have become the recipients of daily threats, aggressions, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, imprisonment, extensive use of torture, and attacks from paramilitary groups. The strategy of the three levels of government has been to develop alliances with, and give support to, local political party members so they will back the government plans, and to criminalise those who resist these plans, with the aim of generating conflict among the communities in the area.
Since 2006, Juan Vázquez Guzmán had been at the center of the struggle in defense of the common lands of the ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón. On 24 April, 2013, he was shot dead with six bullets in the doorway of his home. He was aged only 32, and the father of two small children aged four and seven. His community members were left devastated, and his assassins escaped into the impunity which reigns in Mexico. There has been no evidence of an investigation into the murder, and the material and intellectual authors of the crime have not been identified.
Focus of conflict: the ticket booth
In 2007, the ejidatarios of San Sebastián Bachajón “organized to defend our mother earth and natural resources”, and decided to become ‘Adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle’, a Zapatista initiative which seeks to bring together the struggles of all those ‘from below and to the left’. As part of their struggle, they decided to take back control of the booth where tourists buy tickets to view the waterfalls.
In a communiqué released on July 2, 2013, they describe what this booth represented to them: “Our toll booth is a symbol of our struggle and resistance…. It represents the exercise of our right to autonomy and self-determination, not for personal gain but for the collective benefit of our people; using the income from the booth, work and projects are carried out for the common good and the defense of our territory; it is a space of struggle.”
Government-backed forces have violently evicted the Bachajón ejidatarios from the booth on repeated occasions. One of the most serious attacks was on February 2, 2011, when federal and state authorities took possession of an area of the common lands, as well as the ticket booth, through the use of state forces together with armed civilians. This provoked a clash which resulted in the arbitrary detention of 117 people, “as a means of dissolving the indigenous organization in resistance and of pressurizing them into handing over their lands into the control of the Mexican state”, according to San Sebastián Bachajón’s legal representative, Ricardo A. Lagunes Gasca.
Following the events of February 2, 2011, the ejidatarios of Bachajón put out an urgent call for solidarity, which was answered by Movement for Justice in El Barrio from New York, who coordinated an international campaign which continued until the last four of the prisoners were set free on July 23, 2011. “Here in Chiapas law and justice do not exist, but rather the government imposes its mandate,” Juan Vázquez Guzmán explains in one of the videos released during the campaign. “We will never negotiate our lands. The only thing we are asking is that they respect our right to self-determination as indigenous people. We are demanding justice, control of our land and territory, and, above all, the right to care for ourselves and conserve the natural resources of the land.”
On March 2, 2011, one of the founders of the ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón filed a petition requesting amparo (an order for legal protection) against the arbitrary deprivation of their common lands, and protection of their territory and collective rights. The acts of February 2, 2011, the petition stated, constituted “a partial and definitive deprivation of the common use lands, without consultation, and without the full, prior and informed consent of the General Assembly.”
On January 30, 2013, the Seventh District Judge of Tuxtla Gutiérrez gave judgement on the amparo after almost two years, declaring the request inadmissible. A different court, on May 16, 2013, overturned this decision, and ordered the amparo to be reinstated, referring the claim to the General Assembly of the Ejidatarios. The matter remains unresolved; as the community’s lawyer has pointed out, this is just the beginning: the theft of the rest of their land is still to come.
At the end of May 2013, the ejidatarios sent a delegation to Mexico City to present a letter to the president of the Council of the Federal Judiciary, asking him to ensure impartiality and objectivity in the resolution of their amparo. They also visited the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to demand the return of their territory, and asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to issue measures to protect the autonomous authorities of the ejido and the family of Juan Vázquez Guzmán.
The struggle continues
At the end of May, 2013, a worldwide alliance of grassroots community organizations announced a new initiative in support of the adherents to the Sixth from San Sebastián Bachajón. The Week of Worldwide Action: “Juan Vázquez Guzmán lives! The Bachajón struggle continues!” took place from Tuesday, June 25(Juan’s birthday) to Tuesday, July 2, 2013.
Groups and individuals from all five continents took part, and acts of solidarity took place in countries including Mexico, the US, the UK, Germany, India, Austria, Peru, the Philippines, Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Italy, Uruguay, Brazil and Colombia. Messages of support were received from many parts of the world, from organizations such as the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre, and from well-known writers and thinkers Hugo Blanco, Sylvia Marcos, Gustavo Esteva, and Raúl Zibechi.
In his pronouncement, Gustavo Esteva concluded: “The struggle of Juan and the people of San Sebastian Bachajón is clearly in the forefront of the battle in which our destiny will be defined….. Juan’s struggle is directly linked with that of all of those who are defending their lands and their waters, their territories and their common properties, and also with all of those who have taken to the streets in other struggles against corruption and for justice.”
“Juan’s total commitment”, wrote Sylvia Marcos, “to the struggle for a dignified and autonomous life for his people and for the safeguarding, protection and defense of their territory was the reason for his vicious murder”.
On July 2, 2013, hundreds of men and women from San Sebastián Bachajón, adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, carried out one of their traditional acts of protest, an “informative roadblock” of the Ocosingo-Palenque highway, near the entrance to the Agua Azul waterfall. They released a communiqué the same day which they read aloud during the roadblock: “The men, women and children of San Sebastian Bachajón are willing to give their lives for our mother earth and for our struggle, just as compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán did, and as the native peoples of Mexico and the world have done for hundreds of years against oil, mining, wind, gas, dams and tourism projects, all of them bringing dispossession and death to our people, intending to destroy our way of life, our language and our culture.”
As they said in an earlier communiqué, on May 6, 2013: “The bad government wants to fill our lands with death and fear, so we get tired and no longer continue to defend our life, the people, our mother earth….but we are here and we are not going to leave, because even though they kill us and want to destroy us as indigenous peoples, the heart of the people is alive and will continue struggling whatever the cost.”
For further information in English: http://vivabachajon.wordpress.com/en-ingles/
Thirty years ago, the international development community was abuzz with excitement. This was because it appeared that the perfect solution to poverty, exclusion and under-development had finally been found in the form of microcredit. As originally conceived, microcredit is the provision of micro-loans to the poor to allow them to establish a range of income-generating activities, supposedly facilitating an escape from poverty through individual entrepreneurship and self-help. Perhaps nowhere more than in Latin America was the excitement so intense. Stoked by the uplifting claims of Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto , that a vastly expanded informal economy would prove to be the economic salvation of the continent, the U.S. government through the World Bank and its own aid arm, USAID, along with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), led the charge to establish the microcredit movement as the dominant local intervention to address poverty.
However, the sour reality that Latin America faces today is that all the excitement over microcredit was fundamentally misplaced. As I argue in a recent article [PDF] published in the Mexican journal Ola Financiera, the microcredit movement has likely proved to be one of the most destructive interventions brought to Latin America over the last 30 years. A growing number of Latin American governments and international development agencies are now finally reconsidering their once unconditional support for the microcredit model. So what went wrong? Let me point to a few of the most important problems.
First, the overarching outcome of the microcredit model in Latin America has been an increase in the supply of “poverty-push” informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures. Yet rather than creating a De Soto-esque foundation for rapid growth and poverty reduction, the very worst possible foundation for promoting long-term poverty reduction and sustainable development was created. As economists such as Alice Amsden, Robert Wade and Ha-Joon Chang have convincingly shown, the now wealthy developed countries and the East Asian “miracle” economies found that what is really needed to escape poverty is for the state to engineer an entirely different constellation of the “right” enterprises: that is, enterprises that are formalized, large enough to reap important economies of scale, can innovate, can use new technology, are willing to train their workers, can supply larger enterprises with quality inputs, can facilitate new organizational routines and capabilities, and can eventually export. Economic history shows, too, that financing the expansion of the “wrong” sort of informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures will simply not lead to sustainable development. As Ha-Joon Chang brilliantly points out, Africa has more individual entrepreneurs than perhaps any other location on the planet, and many more are being created all the time thanks to rafts of microcredit programs backed by the developed countries, yet Africa remains in poverty precisely because of this fact. Likewise in Latin America: by programmatically channelling its scarce financial resources (savings and remittances) into informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures, and so away from virtually all other higher-value uses, the continent has actually been progressively destroying its economic base.
Mexico exemplifies the microcredit trap created in Latin America. Its financial institutions have all proved to be adept at channelling their funds into hugely unproductive and all too often temporary informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures – so-called “changarros” – leaving the bulk of potentially growth-oriented, but low profit and high risk, small and medium industrial enterprise projects increasingly without financial support. Over the last two decades this “crowding out” trend has undoubtedly undermined Mexico’s once powerful industrial and technological base.
A very similar story emerged in Bolivia since the 1980s, where the U.S. government-supported push for microcredit has played a not-unimportant role in gradually destroying an economy that was once slowly industrializing under Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policies. Essentially, Bolivia’s carefully built-up raft of efficient industrial small and medium-sized enterprises was starved of funding and left to collapse. Resources were instead shifted into promoting the hugely unproductive and no-growth informal microenterprise and self-employment sector, which has, not surprisingly, dramatically expanded in recent years. Today, with nearly 40 percent of Bolivia’s financial resources now independently intermediated into these “wrong” sort of (micro)enterprises, the Bolivian government has its work cut out to try to stop the damaging de-industrialization trajectory underway in the country.
The second key problem with the microcredit model in Latin America arises from the fact that in the neoliberal 1990s it was aggressively commercialized and extensively deregulated. The primary motive for this move was to eradicate all government and international development community subsidies from the world of microcredit. The use of subsidies (typically to maintain low interest rates) was felt to be ideologically suspect by the main U.S.-based international development agencies, and it was also thought to unjustifiably add to the tax burden on business elites. With extensive advice and financial support provided by USAID, Bolivia was turned into the “best practice” example of commercialised microcredit, thanks mainly to BancoSol, the world’s first dedicated commercially-driven microcredit bank. Yet turning microcredit into a for-profit business under minimal regulation has proved to be a singular disaster: spectacularly damaging levels of Wall Street-style greed, profiteering and financial market chaos soon ensued. Microcredit effectively became the developing world’s very own version of the USA ’s sub-prime lending crisis.
In Bolivia, the commercialization of microcredit has been a major development disaster for the poor. First, Bolivia’s scarce financial resources were disastrously shifted into the “wrong” enterprises, as I just pointed out. Commercialization also directly precipitated the “microcredit meltdown” that Bolivia experienced across 1999-2000, an event that inflicted very serious long-term damage on the Bolivian economy. Crucially, however, commercialization has been a massive success for those managing and investing in Bolivia’s microcredit institutions. The elite group of individuals involved in running Bolivia’s main microcredit institutions, famously including BancoSol and its predecessor, PRODEM, have all become very rich indeed. High salaries, bonuses and dividends have been important to those most closely associated with the management and ownership of BancoSol. The first employees in PRODEM, an institution that has its origins as an NGO funded by the international community to “help the local community,” eventually made millions of dollars after they gradually took control of PRODEM and then brazenly sold it off to a Venezuelan bank. We should, of course, not be surprised to find that little trust, respect or solidarity exists between Bolivia’s poor and the microcredit sector supposedly established at great expense to help them.
Mexico’s experience also exemplifies the tremendous damage wrought by the commercialization of microcredit in Latin America. Even more so than in Bolivia , it is not the poor that have been benefitting from the increased supply of microcredit, but a small financial elite that has been quietly profiteering to a simply stupendous extent. Probably the best/worst example here is that of Banco Compartamos, an organization founded in 1990 as an NGO and making extensive use of international donor grant funding. Even with laudable goals written into its founding articles, very early on it became clear that the main intended beneficiaries of Compartamos’s operations were going to be its senior staff. After 2000, for example, the senior staff began to reward themselves with Wall Street-style salaries, bonus packages and cheap internal loans which allowed them to buy shares in Compartamos. Then in 2007, when Compartamos underwent the inevitable IPO, key senior staff really hit the big-time, with a number of them pocketing several tens of millions of dollars when they off-loaded their shares into the market. A number of external investors also made vast fortunes from their shareholdings in Compartamos, notably the Boston-based microcredit advocacy and investor body ACCIÓN, which saw an initial $1 million stake in Compartamos (of which $800,000 was actually a grant to ACCIÓN) rise in value to nearly $270 million. Note also that Compartamos generates the revenues to support such high financial rewards to senior staff by charging as much as 195 percent real interest rates on its microloans to mainly poor Mexican women.
Inevitably, the supply of microcredit has begun to reach its saturation point in Mexico. Compartamos’s growth has been nothing short of dramatic, while many other domestic microcredit institutions have also grown very rapidly. Compartamos has been the world’s most profitable microcredit institution for five of the past six years, and its nearly $100 million dividend payout to investors is now larger than the balance sheets of most other microcredit institutions. With such huge financial rewards made possible by lending to Mexico’s poor, the big profit-hungry international banks, such as Citigroup, have entered the market, clearly adding to the lending frenzy underway. However, real fears exist that Mexico cannot now avoid a destructive sub-prime-like “microcredit meltdown” episode not unlike the one that hit the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 2010. Indeed, it is well known that multiple lending to households has begun to reach epidemic proportions in many parts of Mexico, especially in the massively over-supplied state of Chiapas.
Nevertheless, the question remains: has microcredit in Latin America in general, and Compartamos specifically, been helping the poor to escape their poverty? If the answer is broadly positive, then the spectacular financial rewards accruing to the providers of microcredit might be justified to an extent if meaningful benefits are accruing to the recipients – the poor. However, the unpalatable answer to this question is a resoundingly negative one: there is not a shred of real evidence to support the claim that Compartamos’s microcredit activities have played a role in resolving poverty. First consider that a U.K. government-funded study of virtually all previous impact evaluations of microcredit dramatically showed there is no empirical evidence anywhere [PDF] to show that microcredit has had a positive impact on poverty. Even long-standing supporters of microcredit now accept this extremely unpalatable fact.
More specifically, consider the findings of a just-released impact evaluation of Compartamos [PDF], financed by Compartamos itself and centrally involving one of the most high-profile microcredit supporters, professor Dean Karlan, who is based at Yale University in the U.S. In spite of Comapartamos’s huge presence in poor communities across Mexico, and its previous claims to be greatly helping Mexico’s poor, the impact evaluation team could only come up with a tiny amount of evidence of any positive impact arising from its activities. This was bad enough. But this tepid conclusion actually hides a much more disturbing fact, which is that the research team could only manage to arrive at this sliver of good news by effectively refusing to adopt/adapt an evaluation methodology that would capture the most important downsides to the microcredit model. One can only presume that this was felt necessary in order to ensure that they could come up with the required (very limited) positive impact result they later disingenuously claimed to have found, and which allowed Compartamos and other institutions involved to inevitably spin into the specious claim that Compartamos “generally benefits (its) borrowers”.”
Notably, the research team entirely overlooked so-called “displacement” effects – that is, the negative impact on incumbent microenterprises in the same community that lost business and income thanks to waves of new Compartamos-supported microenterprises. With most Mexican communities for a long time adequately served by simple informal microenterprises providing retail and other services to the poor, the arrival of rafts of new microenterprises operating in exactly the same sub-sector will inevitably have precipitated very large displacement effects. But these downside impacts were ignored. The team also failed to factor in the impact of exits, which is when a microenterprise fails – which the vast majority actually do, and usually very quickly – and the hapless individuals involved then have to either divert other funds (pensions, remittances, savings, etc.) to continue to repay their microloan, or else they lose assets lodged as collateral when they are forced into outright default.
But perhaps the most egregious downside impact ignored by the research team relates to the fact that they also chose to examine a very short and unrepresentative time period – introducing microcredit into a community where before there was none. This then allowed them to simply aggregate the short-term results in such virgin territory into a generally upbeat assessment of the longer-term impact. This is utter nonsense. By doing this, the research team chose to ignore, first, the fact that Compartamos has contributed to further inflating Mexico’s already over-blown and massively unproductive “changarros” sector, which a growing number of analysts now accept is creating an existential threat to the Mexican economy. Second, there was also no comment on the huge opportunity cost involved when scarce funds are gradually diverted away from the “right” enterprises. This silence prevailed in spite of the fact that even the neoliberal-oriented IDB had the guts to publicly admit in 2010 that this “crowding out” issue actually lies at the heart of Latin America’s recent history of poverty and exclusion. Third, you will find nothing in this impact evaluation that discusses the over-indebtedness problems that are clearly looming on the horizon for Mexico’s poor communities, and particularly for many of Compartamos’s long-standing clients.
The Latin American economies have all been ill-served by the microcredit model, which has provided, and continues to provide, a serious headwind to those governments in Latin America hoping to escape once and for all from poverty, exclusion and primitivizing development trajectories. That microcredit continues to attract such support today thus needs some explanation. I would argue it is down to two factors. First, the politics and ideology; principally the need by the U.S.-led international development community to ensure that individual entrepreneurship and self-help remain the only potential paths out of poverty for the poor in Latin America, and not the exercise of any form of “collective capabilities” through social movements, trade unions, pro-poor governments, or any other similarly “subversive” intervention that the poor might wish to collectively deploy to escape their poverty, and might even have voted for as part of the “pink tide” of leftist governments. Second, there is the issue of the massive wealth that a tiny financial elite has been able to generate for itself thanks to (over)lending to the poor, and which it is now, quite predictably, unwilling to forego. This wealth has allowed, among other things, for the microcredit industry to aggressively lobby governments, mount massive PR campaigns and effortlessly finance deliberately dodgy impact evaluations, all in order to persuade the key actors in Latin America to continue to support the microcredit model.
All told, Latin American governments urgently need to disentangle themselves from the egregious myths and neoliberal-inspired fantasies surrounding microcredit, and begin to completely re-think their (often imposed) allegiance to what has proved to be an ultimately destructive poverty reduction and local development model.
 Hernando de Soto (1986): El otro sendero: la revolución informal. Lima: ILD
Milford Bateman is a freelance consultant on local economic development and also, since 2005, a Visiting Professor of Economics at Juraj Dobrila at Pula University in Croatia.
- Are Microcredits really the Rock Stars of International Aid? (tablenumbersix.wordpress.com)
By Joe Bryan | Public Political Ecology Lab | July 23, 2013
The Lawrence World-Journal recently reported the Defense Department’s decision to fund the latest Bowman Expedition led by the American Geographical Society and the University of Kansas Geography Department. Like the first – and controversial – Bowman expedition to Mexico, this latest venture will be led by KU Geographers Jerome Dobson and Peter Herlihy and will target indigenous communities.
Like previous Bowman Expeditions, the expedition’s goal is to compile basic, “open-source,” information about countries that can be used to inform U.S. policy makers and the military. This time, however, they won’t be focused on a single country. Instead they’ll be working throughout Central America, a region that Herlihy and Dobson have elsewhere called “The U.S. Borderlands.” What is this Expedition about? And why is the Defense Department funding academic research on indigenous peoples?
As with the expedition to Mexico, Herlihy and Dobson are focused on land ownership. Echoing a growing list of military strategists, Herlihy and Dobson contend that areas where property rights are not clearly established and enforced by states provide ideal conditions for criminal activity and violence that threaten regional security.
Herlihy and Dobson propose to use maps made with indigenous communities of their lands to clarify this problem, ostensibly with an eye towards securing legal recognition of their property rights. In their expedition to Mexico, Herlihy and Dobson turned over their findings to Radiance Technologies, an Alabama-based military contractor specializing in “creative solutions for the modern warfighter.” It’s not clear whether this new expedition will do the same, though the program funding it, the Minerva Research Initiative, evaluates proposals according to their ability to address national security concerns.
The rationale for these Expeditions has been parsed in film, print, and by academics (myself included), revealing them to be little more than intelligence gathering efforts carried out by civilian professors and their graduate students. Zapotec communities visited by the previous expedition to Mexico have further denounced Herlihy’s and Dobson’s efforts as “geopiracy,” (and again here) that replay some of colonialism’s oldest tactics of extracting information from communities for people (the U.S. Army) who live elsewhere. Zapotec communities in Oaxaca have also accused Herlihy of failing to inform them of the U.S. Army’s role in funding the Expedition and process data collected by it.
Military funding for the latest Bowman Expedition raises the question of what the U.S. military wants to know about Central America. Moreover, why is it funding research on indigenous peoples? It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. military has much interest in the nuances that distinguish, say, Tawahka communities from Emberá ones. Nor does the military appear concerned with the chronic insecurity of land rights, which continues to be one of the primary threats faced by indigenous communities. A far more likely answer lies with the military’s growing interest in collecting information about the “cultural” or “human” terrain that they can use as needed for a variety of purposes, from managing risks posed by natural disasters to planning military interventions.
Maps of the sort produced by the Bowman Expeditions are certainly useful for this task compiling information about who lives where and place names, to give two examples. But maps can only describe the territory. What they cannot describe are the intricacies of the “terrain” such as the social networks through which access to land and resources are negotiated or the history of struggles over land.
The U.S. military is more familiar with this terrain than one might think. Beginning with the “Banana Wars” of the early 20th Century, the U.S. military has intervened more times in Central America that just about any other region in the world. Indeed the Marines’ first resource on counter-insurgency, the “Small Wars Manual,” drew extensively from their experiences navigating the indigenous Mayanagna and Miskito communities in pursuit of Augusto Sandino’s anti-imperialist forces in Nicaragua.
In the 1980s, U.S. military advisors once again traversed the indigenous areas of Central America for tactical gain. In eastern Nicaragua and Honduras, they helped train and organize Miskito-led armed groups as part of the proxy battle strategy of the Contra War. In Guatamala they targeted Maya communities as bastions of guerilla support with genocidal consequence. Dense forests and other isolated areas throughout the region further provided cover for airstrips also used for illicit shipments of cocaine and weapons orchestrated by the Reagan Administration in support of the Contras.
Herlihy knows this history well. He’s been mapping the forested areas in eastern Honduras used by the Contras and Miskito armed groups since the late 1980s. Herlihy’s (and Dobson’s) main military contact, Geoffrey Demarest, knows this history too. A graduate of the School of the Americas, he served as a military attaché to Guatemala. He’s since become an expert on counter-insurgency, publishing extensively from his experience in Colombia and its relevance for current wars. More recently, he enrolled in the Geography Ph.D. program at KU under Dobson’s supervision.
Still, what is the national security interest in Central America that a Bowman Expedition there can help address? Indigenous land ownership has already been extensively mapped in much of the region as part of property reforms supported by the likes of the World Bank. Several countries in the region now also have promising laws on the books recognizing indigenous and black land rights.
Yet neither maps nor legal reforms have been enough to stop the region from becoming a major transshipment route for cocaine en route to the United States. The State Department estimates that more than 80 percent of cocaine bound for the U.S. passes through Honduras. Some of this trafficking makes use of infrastructure created by counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1980s.
In 2011, Herlihy once again mapped the Honduran Mosquitia as part of another U.S. Army-funded Bowman Expedition. Shortly thereafter, in 2012, the region was targeted by the DEA who made use of counter-insurgency tactics developed in Iraq to fight traffickers. Among those lessons of Iraq applied in the Mosquitia was the use of forward operating bases immersed in the region’s physical and cultural terrain of the Mosquitia. Two of those bases, El Aguacate and Mocorón, were repurposed bases constructed during the Contra War. The campaign fits a broader pattern of escalating militarization of Central America further illustrated by this map compiled by the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation.
(Source: Fellowship of Reconciliation)
The application of counter-insurgency tactics gives mapping indigenous areas a more sinister edge. Historically the U.S. military has relied on the designation of “Indian Country” and “tribal areas” to designate areas at the edge of state control, often turning them into free-fire zones where the conventions of war, legal and otherwise, do not apply. Better knowledge of these areas has scarcely reduced incidents of violent conflict as Dobson suggests. Instead, that knowledge has served as a “force multiplier” – to use General Petraeus’s term – that allows the U.S. military to intervene with greater efficiency. Herlihy and Dobson claim to champion the rights of indigenous peoples, but the money and data trail suggests that is only a secondary concern to U.S. military interests.
So why is the U.S. military funding academic geographers to do research in indigenous areas in Central America instead of relying on its own people to do the work? In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has relied on social scientists embedded with combat units as part of the Human Terrain System program to gather similar information. Funding academic researchers to do similar work poses a number of advantages. For starters, it sidesteps the ethical controversy raised by the Human Terrain System. It also brings the added benefit of relying on “civilian” researchers to access communities who might otherwise be wary of soldiers in military uniform. At the same time, it gives the military precisely the kind of detailed, georeferenced information – the spatial “metadata” – sought by the Human Terrain System for areas that lie far from current combat zones. It’s an approach consistent with what geographer Derek Gregory describes as the “everywhere war” currently waged across society on the whole by covert military teams, surveillance, and drones. By taking the measure of indigenous communities according to security interests, the Bowman Expeditions stand to perpetuate a role that is far too common in Geography’s history. The Bowman Expeditions have generated some productive debate (see also here, here, and here) in this regard, though in a context of shrinking budgets for university research and education the allure of military money remains powerful enough to trump ethical concerns.
Meanwhile as geographers debate the merits of military funding, indigenous peoples continue facing a long list of violent threats from drug trafficking, illegal logging, loss of lands, and institutional racism. The military-funded Bowman Expeditions merely add to that list. Still, as the Zapotec communities in Oaxaca forcefully remind us, it’s their information and the decision to participate in projects like the Bowman Expeditions – or any other research — ultimately resides with them. Herlihy’s and Dobson’s failure to address those concerns will only diminish their access to this field, undermining the kinds of rights and free exchange of knowledge they profess to support.
US training of Mexican military forces spiked in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, coinciding with a sharp rise in drug-war homicides in Mexico, an analysis of records made public under the Foreign Assistance Act show.
The training in those two years, funded by the US Department of Defense, and to a lesser extent by the US Department of State, covered a wide range of military skill sets and involved hundreds of training programs offered in the US to Mexican forces as well as dozens (at least 60) provided inside Mexico.
For example, in Mexico City during that two-year period, the US military provided to Mexican security forces training in, among other tactics, “asymmetrical conflict,” “anti-terrorism,” and “open-source intelligence” gathering. US military training also was provided in other parts of Mexico, including the state of Campeche, where infantry, marksmanship and intelligence programs were offered to Mexican troops; and in Chiapas, in fiscal 2011, infantry training was provided to Mexican Marines over two-week periods in April and September.
The latter training programs might be considered particularly sensitive for Mexican politics, given the Mexican state of Chiapas is home to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials).
The Zapatistas are a rebel indigenous group governing more than 1,000 rural communities that rose up in arms in 1994. However, since peace talks were initiated in 1995, the Zapatistas have not fired a shot and have converted to peaceful and civil resistance.
In the 1990s, under Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, a member of the PRI Party, an unsuccessful, violent counter-insurgency campaign was waged against the Zapatistas that involved the use of both the Mexican military and civilian paramilitary forces — as part of an effort to destroy the indigenous movement and its autonomous communities.
On another sensitive front for Latin American/US relations, Foreign Assistance Act records reveal that US military training also was provided to Mexican soldiers in fiscal 2010 and 2011 by the US Department of Defense’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The Institute was formerly the School of the Americas, which, in past decades, provided training to some of the most notorious violators of human rights in Latin America.
WHINSEC, now reportedly reformed and sensitive to human rights, offered at least 10 different training programs (some multiple times) to Mexican troops in fiscal 2010 and 2011 in subjects such as “counter-narco-terrorism,” “joint operations” and “counterdrug ops,” according to data provided to Congress under the requirements of the Foreign Assistance Act. … Full article
- Mexico: Nine Indigenous Prisoners Released in Chiapas (alethonews.wordpress.com)
The southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas released nine indigenous prisoners from its Los Llanos prison near San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state’s highland region on July 4. State governor Manuel Velasco Coello arrived at the prison from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital, to deliver the release papers in person. The nine prisoners, described as adherents of the 2006 Other Campaign of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), had participated in hunger strikes and other actions over several years to win their freedom. Rosa López Díaz, the only woman in the group, was pregnant when she was arrested in 2007; she lost her child, reportedly as a result of torture.
Under pressure from Mexican and international groups, the state appears to have started releasing EZLN allies imprisoned on questionable charges. Francisco Sántiz López was freed on Jan. 25 [see Update #1161]. But the best known of the prisoners, the schoolteacher Alberto Patishtán Gómez [see Update #1173], remains at Los Llanos, along with a prisoner named Alejandro Díaz Sántiz. Patishtán was allowed to take part in the release of the nine prisoners on July 4. He walked a few meters out of the prison and told the relatives, with a smile: “I’m turning the compañeros over to you here; I’m still staying here, but one shouldn’t lose hope.” He then walked back into the prison with Gov. Velasco Coello and various officials. “We’ll go on struggling until we achieve the release of compañero Alberto and all the compañeros who are still prisoners,” former prisoner Rosario Díaz Méndez promised after his release. (La Jornada (Mexico) 7/5/13)
The case of the failure of Mexico’s Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, nestled on the jagged Veracruz seacoast, reveals the need to nix nukes and fortify public right-to-know mechanisms.
With Latin American countries still turned off to nuclear power two years after Japan’s monumental Fukushima meltdowns dispersed radioactive fallout across the ocean to them, events inside a similar facility in Mexico have fueled mounting skepticism over the potential for developing the energy technology.
Fissures, leaks, shutdowns, government secrecy, a failed upgrade, alleged bid-rigging and contract fraud at Mexico’s lone atomic power station, the state-run Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, were vetted during the 9th Regional Congress on Radiation Protection and Safety held in Rio de Janeiro in April.
The audience of Latin American experts eager to share the information at the professional association forum starred scientists from Argentina and Brazil, which also have nuclear power plants, as well as from Venezuela, Chile and Cuba, which had made tentative moves toward establishing atomic energy stations before the Fukushima catastrophe stymied aspirations.
The irregularities at Laguna Verde came to light thanks to a courageous group of anonymous high-level employees inside the power plant and to the public information requests by their spokesperson, Mexico’s National Autonomous University Physics Professor Bernardo Salas Mar, a former plant employee and valiant whistleblower.
Some of Salas Mar’s most recent research was accepted at the International Radiation Protection Association congress in Brazil, but his university did not provide him with travel expenses to attend in person.
Salas faces high-level attempts to have him fired as a result of his persistent efforts to make public his discoveries of dangerous faults and cover-ups at the Laguna Verde plant. But Salas’ achievements speak for themselves. Were it not for his ceaseless hammering on the doors of the 10-year-old Federal Information Access Institute (IFAI), perhaps no one ever would have known about the latest incidents at Laguna Verde until it was too late.
Based on his freedom-of-information requests to the institute, Salas and Laguna Verde’s own technicians revealed in an April 19 letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto that Mexico has been defrauded to the tune of more than a half-billion dollars by the international companies that won the bid for the federal contract to uprate the two reactors at the plant located near the Caribbean port of Veracruz.
“Uprating” is industry jargon for boosting the capacity of nuclear reactors so they can generate more electricity.
The letter to the President alleges the Federal Electricity Commission purposely botched the bid letting by omitting the usual requirement for a contractor to abide by the Review Standard for Extended Power Uprates. Apparently the CFD did this to favor the Spanish company Iberdrola Ingenería and the French company Alstom Mexico, which lacked the capability to carry out the changes to the nuclear steam supply system according to standard specifications.
Employees in key positions at Laguna Verde had alerted the two previous presidential administrations to the issue as far back as 2006, communicating their “worry over the capacity-boosting work contemplated for this nuclear plant, considering it to be unreliable, risky and overpriced,” according to the letter. Still Iberdrola and Alstom got the $605-million contract to increase the plant’s power output by 20 percent.
Iberdrola announced the successful conclusion of the five-year, $605-million modernization project in February, noting that it overhauled equipment dating back to 1990, in the project that created more than 2,000 jobs.
The president of Alstom in Mexico, Cintia Angulo, was arrested a week after the announcement of the upgrade conclusion on charges of giving false testimony in an unrelated French case of non-payment.
However, the more spectacular fraud for both firms will prove to be the Mexican uprate contract, which not only failed to accomplish the goal of boosting Laguna Verde’s power output, but also left the reactors in worse condition than before, Salas and employees charge.
The Federal Electricity Commission responded to Salas’ inquiries, saying that Reactor Unit 2 would be operating at 100 percent of planned output in April and Unit 1 would be at 100 percent in May.
Nonetheless, after further information requests, Salas revealed that the National Nuclear Safety Commission has denied both reactors the licenses to operate at higher output in the aftermath of the contract, due precisely to the fact that the guidelines for the nuclear steam supply system were not followed.
Employees say the failure to follow the guidelines during the uprate cracked the jet pumps that inject the water to the core of the General Electric boiling water reactors, the same kind that melted down due to a generator system crash at Fukushima.
“The situation of the reactors is not serious yet, but operating with fissures could cause a major problem to the extent that it could endanger national security. (Remember Fukushima and Chernobyl.)” the letter to President Peña Nieto says. The employees consider it “risky and unacceptable for both reactors to continue operating with the fissures that have been encountered.”
Simultaneous suspension of operations at both reactors in September 2012 and related confusing news releases, some blaming the pump fissures, caused alarm in the communities around the installation.
Authorities first said a diesel generator breakdown was at fault for the interruption in service of one reactor, while fuel-cell restocking was the reason for a stoppage at the other.
The next day they said a clogged seawater intake was part of the reason for removing both reactors from service. An escape of hydrogen gas from a condenser was posited. And finally, officials stated to the public that the fissures in both reactors’ water pumps were to blame.
Government secrecy about details surrounding the event accentuated longstanding worries in the population near the plant. The fear of accidents and serious concerns over the ongoing situation was highlighted by an NGO’s court appeal arguing that people should be exempted from paying their light bills due to the fact that their civil rights had been violated by the lack of safety measures and accountability at Laguna Verde.
In response to Salas’ information requests, the Energy Secretariat, in charge of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the National Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSNS), said it didn’t have the answers to his questions.
Its commissions presented incongruous replies. The vagueness of the answers provided by the Federal Electricity Commission prompted the researcher to appeal to the IFAI to require revised responses.
After his second round of questioning, he was able to deduce that the cooling water intake channel had indeed filled with sediment and it had been dredged, so it did not present a hazard and did not cause the reactor operations’ interruption.
He also then could determine that the hydrogen had been released from the ductwork into the cooling water of the main generator, during the month of August. While the amount of gas was unknown, the escape was not to the atmosphere, and neither presented a danger nor was cause for halting operations.
The CSNSNS responded that the diesel generator failed when a piston stuck due to lack of lubrication resulting from a bearing problem on Sept. 12. The event did not endanger life and limb, according to Salas.
Simultaneous reloading of fuel cells at both reactors was the most likely reason for the concurrent stalling, Salas concluded after the numerous freedom-of-information requests.
While the main present dangers appear to be the fractures in the cores’ water pumps, a Jan. 11, 2013 scram (emergency reactor shutdown) remains to be inspected under the looking glass of the IFAI.
The institute created by decree in 2002 has provided important tools for shedding light on the machinations of the nuclear plant, among other formerly opaque federal operations.
Yet, as this case underscores, IFAI should strengthen its own processes in order to avoid the kind of inconsistent and self-belying responses that ensnared this most recent of many investigations into the lack of security at Laguna Verde.
Even so, that won’t protect the population from the specter of accidents or deteriorating health and safety in the advent of air and water pollution from the facility, which is located on a part of the coast with only poorly maintained roads to offer escape routes.
If Peña Nieto and company are to be more responsive to community needs than their predecessors, one way to show good intentions would be to comply with demands for conducting an emergency public evacuation drill, something that never has been done in the history of the 17-year-old nuclear plant. Another would be to take the irresponsible parties to court to establish accountability.
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