Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Corruption, Impunity, and a Stunning View of Central Park

by Maggie Ervin

Oaxacan resident Claudia Trujillo was eating lunch behind the cash register as she does every day, her elderly mother sitting next to her. “It makes me angry…Here I am breaking my back, facing higher electricity and phone bills and sales tax, and they’re off buying properties in New York, Miami, and who knows where else, and opening bank accounts in Switzerland.” She was reacting to one of the latest political scandals in Mexico, which sometimes feel as much a part of daily life as warm tortillas and hour-long lines at the bank. 

The latest one hits close to home for Claudia. An exhaustive investigative report in the New York Times last week revealed that ex-governor of Oaxaca José Murat has bought at least six high-end properties in the U.S.: in Utah, in Texas, and in the extravagantly expensive Time Warner Tower in New York City. Murat is from humble beginnings, and rose up through the ranks of the PRI party starting in the 70’s. He is a man known for his stentorian voice and larger than life presence, but when it came time to buy luxury property in the U.S., he became more discreet. By using names of relatives, altering his own surname, and founding a shell company, he was able to buy millions of dollars worth of property, much more than his government salary could have afforded. This may sound like the back-cover summary of a John LeCarré-meets-Horatio Alger novel, but this is the stuff of non-fiction.

Let’s go back to his home state for a moment. Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state out of thirty-one. Over half of its citizens live in poverty, and about a quarter in extreme poverty. Home to diverse cultures and languages, archeological wonders, culinary riches that make mouths water the world over, more biodiversity than many nations can boast, and a blinding variety of crafts - not to mention alluring beaches - it’s no wonder Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s main tourist destinations. And yet this hasn’t translated into wealth for many Oaxacans. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the state has a long tradition of emigration that started during the Bracero Program in the 1940’s and increased over the last twenty years, after NAFTA rendered small-scale farming a profitless endeavor. Remittances are essential to many families throughout the state. But not only in Oaxaca. Currently 10% of Mexicans live in the U.S., and in 2013 they sent a total of 21.6 billion dollars in remittances, the most significant sector of the Mexican economy after petroleum.


“José Murat...was a bad governor whose administration was marked by repression of social movements, co-optation of community leaders, and corruption,” ruminated Miguel Angel Vásquez de la Rosa of a local NGO, EDUCA. “In Mexico and in Oaxaca there are many politicians like José Murat, but unfortunately the Mexican justice system doesn’t take any actions to bring them to justice.” Indeed. The last few months alone have offered a wealth of examples: President Peña Nieto’s wife purchased a palatial $7 million home from a contractor cozy with her husband, Guerrero’s governor Aguirre had to step down due to suspected links with drug cartels, former governor of Veracruz Fidel Herrera was discovered to have multi-million dollar properties in New York, and ex-president Salinas’ brother Raúl, who amassed 84 million dollars and 41 properties during his brother’s administration, was exonerated of all charges. 


Of course, impunity in Mexico is a problem Mexico ultimately has to solve. But it's not the only issue at play here. Lax property laws in the U.S. which allow millionaires to buy property virtually anonymously are also to blame in this dynamic. By permitting sales in cash, or in the name of limited liability companies, shell companies, or trusts, these laws facilitate the movement and concealment of millions upon millions of dollars of dubious origin from all around the world. As Louise Story explains in her NYT piece, “In many ways, the (U.S.) government has allowed the real estate industry to turn a blind eye to the source of money used to buy luxury properties…Foreigners who buy real estate in the U.S. often have an easier time keeping it out of reach of investigators, victims and plaintiffs back home.” Which is to say, these laws contribute to the impunity that criminals like José Murat enjoy in Mexico and in other countries. The fact that it’s so difficult to trace the money makes prosecutions and convictions extremely unlikely. There is another troubling issue in this interplay of geopolitics and geocapitalism: a certain double standard. At the same time that the flow of people to the U.S. has become more restricted, cumbersome, and risky (i.e., a more militarized border, stricter immigration laws, higher deportation rates), the flow of money to the U.S. has become less restricted, easier to conceal, and more difficult to trace. 


Meanwhile, like Claudia and Miguel Angel, other Oaxacans I spoke to about the Murat revelation also expressed anger and fatigue. “Politicians are allowed to make a living, that’s fair. But steal from the people? That’s not right.” said Carlos Figueroa, who works six days a week at a local hardware store for $11.66 a day. “We know this goes on all the time, but every time there’s new proof I get pissed off all over again.”


Corrupción e Impunidad: Prácticas que Rompen Fronteras

por Maggie Ervin

En la ciudad de Oaxaca, Claudia Trujillo almorzaba detrás del mostrador, tal como lo hace todos los días, con su anciana madre sentada a su lado. "Se siente feo. Aquí estoy trabajando duro, cada vez con pagos de luz, teléfono y el IVA más altos. Y ellos están comprando propiedades en Nueva York, Miami, y no sé dónde...y con sus cuentas en Suiza”, señaló. Esta fue su reacción ante el último escándalo político en México, presentes en la vida cotidiana tanto como las tortillas calientes y las filas de una hora en el banco. 

El más reciente escándalo impacta a Claudia más que otros. Un reportage de investigación publicado la semana pasada en el New York Times reveló que el ex gobernador de Oaxaca José Murat ha comprado al menos seis propiedades lujosas en EE.UU.: en Utah, en Texas, y en la extravagante Torre Time Warner en Nueva York. Murat es de origen humilde, y se involucró en la política ingresando al PRI, escalando posiciones a partir de los 70. Es un hombre conocido por su estentórea voz y personalidad desbordante, pero al momento de comprar propiedades costosas en EE.UU., se volvió más discreto. Usando nombres de familiares, alterando su propio apellido, y fundando una empresa fantasma, comenzó a adquirir inmuebles que valen millones de dólares, y que su salario gubernamental no hubiera sido suficiente para cubrir. Esto puede sonar como el resumen de una novela colaborativa de John LeCarré y Horatio Alger, pero en realidad no es ficción.

Regresemos a su estado natal por un momento. Oaxaca es el segundo estado más pobre de México, de sus treinta y uno estados. Más de la mitad de los ciudadanos viven en situación de pobreza y cerca de un cuarto en pobreza extrema. Cuenta con una gran diversidad cultural y lingüística, maravillas arqueológicas, riquezas culinarias que hacen agua la boca de todo el mundo, tiene más biodiversidad de la que muchas naciones enteras pueden presumir, y una variedad de artesanías - por no mencionar sus playas seductoras. Así que no es de extrañar que Oaxaca sea uno de los principales destinos turísticos de México. Sin embargo, esto no se ha traducido en riqueza para muchos oaxaqueños. Tal vez no es sorprendente, entonces, que este estado tenga una larga tradición de migración iniciada durante el Programa Bracero en la década de 1940 e incrementada en los últimos veinte años, después de que el TLCAN hizo que la agricultura de pequeña escala se volviera no rentable. Las remesas son esenciales para muchas familias en todo el estado. Pero no sólo en Oaxaca. Actualmente el 10% de la población mexicana vive en EE.UU., la cual sólo en el 2013 envió unos 21,6 millones de dólares en remesas, constituyéndose como el sector más importante de la economía mexicana después del petróleo.


"José Murat…fue un mal gobernador. Su periodo estuvo marcado por la represión a movimientos sociales, la cooptación a líderes y la corrupción", reflexionó Miguel Ángel Vásquez de la Rosa de una ONG oaxaqueña llamada EDUCA. "En México y en Oaxaca hay muchos políticos como José Murat, pero desafortunadamente la justicia mexicana no actúa contra ellos..." En efecto. Tan sólo en los últimos tres meses han surgido una gran cantidad de ejemplos. La esposa del presidente Peña Nieto compró una lujosa casa por 7 millones de dólares a un contratista que resulto ser amigo cercano de su marido, el gobernador de Guerrero Angel Aguirre tuvo que renunciar debido a presuntos vínculos con cárteles, el ex gobernador de Veracruz, Fidel Herrera fue descubierto con propiedades con un valor de millones de dólares en Nueva York, y el hermano del ex presidente Salinas, Raúl, quien amasó 84 millones de dólares y 41 propiedades durante el gobierno de su hermano, fue exonerado de todos los cargos.


Por supuesto, la impunidad en México es un problema que el mismo México, en última instancia, tiene que resolver. Pero no es la única cuestión en juego. Las leyes de propiedad tan laxas en EE.UU. que permiten a millonarios comprar propiedades prácticamente de manera anónima también son culpables en esta dinámica. Al permitir las compras en efectivo, en nombre de terceros, y a través de empresas fantasma o fideicomisos, estas leyes facilitan el movimiento y el ocultamiento de millones y millones de dólares de origen dudoso de todo el mundo. Como Louise Story explica en su reporte, "En muchos sentidos, el gobierno (estadounidense) ha permitido la industria de bienes raíces hacerse de la vista gorda respecto a la fuente del dinero utilizada para comprar propiedades de lujo... Los extranjeros que compran bienes raíces en EE.UU. con frecuencia logran esquivar a quienes quieren investigarlos, así como a sus víctimas y demandantes en su lugar de origen. “ Lo anterior quiere decir que estas leyes contribuyen a la impunidad de la que los criminales como José Murat disfrutan en México y en otros países. El hecho de que sea tan difícil rastrear el dinero hace que los procesos y condenas sean extremadamente improbables. Además, resulta preocupante otra cuestión en este juego geopolítico y geocapitalista: un cierto doble estándar. Al mismo tiempo que el flujo de personas a los EE.UU. se ha vuelto más restringido, engorroso y arriesgado (es decir, una frontera más militarizada, leyes migratorias más estrictas, más deportaciones), el flujo de dinero a los EE.UU. se ha vuelto menos restringido, más fácil de ocultar, y más difícil de rastrear.


Mientras tanto, al igual que Claudia y Miguel Angel, otros oaxaqueños con quienes hablé acerca de la revelación sobre Murat también expresaron ira y cansancio. "Esta bien que ganan la vida. Pero robar a la gente? Eso no se vale", dijo Carlos Figueroa, quien trabaja seis días a la semana en una ferretería por 11,66 dólares al día. "Sabemos que eso pasa todo el tiempo, pero cada vez que hay nuevas pruebas me enojo de nuevo".


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Our conflict is not internal, but imposed": Lessons from Colombia for U.S. aid to Central America

By Julia Duranti, Witness for Peace Colombia

In a January op-ed for the New York Times, Vice President Joe Biden called for $1 billion in aid to Central America to address the migration and human rights crisis, citing Colombia as a successful example of U.S. intervention in Latin America. More details on the State Department’s proposal for the Northern Triangle have since emerged, and it appears that social, economic and development aid programs comprise 80 percent of the requested funds—a perfect inversion of Plan Colombia’s counternarcotics and counterinsurgency aid approved 15 years ago. While deemphasizing military aid is a positive development, the current proposal from the Department of State would maintain military and security funding for Central America at current levels, in addition to the separate Department of Defense budgets for foreign military aid.
There is also troubling language about “trade promotion” and economic development that is code for Washington Consensus policies of free trade, privatization and foreign investment.  The current fraught reality in Colombia, a partial result of Plan Colombia and its successor programs and a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. implemented in 2012, demonstrates that throwing money at the related issues of organized crime, violence and forced displacement – instead of addressing how the same policies actually drive those phenomena – does not solve human rights crises in Latin America.
U.S. intervention in Colombia has been expensive, costing U.S. taxpayers over $9 billion since 2000, not to mention the enormous human cost of the militarization of Colombia’s countryside. Of the seven million victims of the conflict registered since 1954, 5.9 million victimizations have occurred since 2000, when U.S. funding began to support Colombian security forces already known for collaboration with brutal paramilitaries. While paramilitaries officially demobilized in 2005, many simply reformed into loosely organized criminal structures that the Colombian government calls BACRIM, or criminal gangs. The BACRIM act as guns-for-hire involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, human trafficking, and protection services for wealthy land and business owners along with multinational corporations.
Now the biggest threat to citizen security, the BACRIM carry out threats, forced disappearances and assassinations against members of Colombian social movements. In January they were responsible for a wave of threats against Colombian journalists and human rights defenders, as well as the 2014 spike in death threats against more than 150 human rights workers, activists and politicians, dubbed “Black September.” The splintering and reclassification of the paramilitaries as BACRIM allows their activities to be painted as a “climate of lawlessness” that justifies U.S. intervention and support for the Colombian state—as if both states had not tacitly encouraged the creation of these groups in the first place via proxy financial support to corrupt armed forces and neoliberal economic policies that decimated economic opportunities outside the informal or illegal sectors.
At six million people, Colombia’s internally displaced population is the second largest in the world. Some are rural farmers driven from their land by Plan Colombia-funded militarization and aerial herbicide fumigations intended to eradicate coca crops. In other cases, powerful monoculture palm oil and banana operations have collaborated with legal and illegal armed actors to force communities off their land. Additional examples of this type of development include sugar cane production for ethanol that has all but replaced agriculture in southwestern Colombia, while the cut flower industry heavily promoted by USAID has devastated food security in the savannah region surrounding the capital of Bogotá.
Even as the U.S. government has promoted these industries in Colombia, it has protected U.S. corporate interests by privileging U.S. corn, ethanol and other agricultural exports to Colombia under the FTA. In the three years since the FTA was implemented, U.S. exports to Colombia have skyrocketed and Colombia has seen its trade surplus of $8.7 billion evaporate and balloon into a trade deficit of $2 billion. Unable to compete with the flood of subsidized U.S. imports, small-scale producers have been driven out of the market, prompting thousands of Colombians to take to the streets in protest of the FTA and related policies in 2013 and 2014.
Violent displacement, the proliferation of paramilitarism via BACRIM, some of the highest corruption in Latin America, widespread impunity for human rights violations and one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world continue to haunt Colombia as problems that Plan Colombia successor programs and the FTA failed to address, or even exacerbated. Implementing the same strategy in Central America — already reeling from high violence and crime along with its own FTA with the U.S., DR-CAFTA is unlikely to lead to better results. If the Obama Administration wants to get serious about a plan for Central America, it should pressure Congress to fund policies that address the true drivers of organized crime and forced migration, like U.S. demand for drugs and harmful trade agreements that privilege large corporations and the wealthy elite at the expense of local economies and communities.