Mexico News and Analysis: February 15-28, 2010

1. Chiapas Human rights defender kidnapped
2. Chalco residents protest
3. US closes consulate in Reynosa.
4. Welfare program Oportunidades expands
5. PRD accuses Calderon of “favorites” in drug war
6. Calderon raises army pay
7. Scapegoat released in Brad Will murder
8. Demonstrators repressed during Calderon visit to Juarez
9. SME calls for national strike


1. Chiapas Human rights defender kidnapped
Margarita Martinez, a human rights defender with the group Enlace Comunicacion y Capacitacion in Comitan, was kidnapped, beaten and threatened with death by unknown assailants on Friday as she walked through the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas.  The kidnappers covered her head with a plastic bag and forced her into a car where they beat her repeatedly, telling her to stop her denunciations of functionaries in the state government.  The aggressors characterized their attack as a “gift” from Comitan Mayor Eduardo Ramirez.  The attack comes amid rising tension in Chiapas as authorities and paramilitary groups increasingly resort to violence to resolve local disputes.


2. Chalco residents protest
Eight civilians and one policeman were injured during confrontations between residents of Chalco, a large working class barrio on the outskirts of Mexico City, and federal and state police on February 25.  Residents tried to block the Mexico-Puebla highway to protest the lack of government action after thousands of people lost their homes and possessions when a ruptured canal flooded large sections of the community with sewer water on February 5.  It took authorities a week and a half to repair the canal and dry most of the streets, which were left covered in sewage.  At least 300 police blocked 250 residents from taking over the highway, which was opened only the week before after floods destroyed sections of the road surface.  Protestors tried to break through the police blockade with a pickup truck, which police set on fire with a tear gas canister.  Officials then proceeded to indiscriminately beat men, women and children.  The confrontation marked the second time in ten days that residents tried to block the highway, a common protest tactic in the Mexico City area.  Federal authorities distributed 20,000 pesos per family after the flooding, but many affected families received nothing, and even those receiving aid complained that it didn’t come close to covering their losses. 


3. US closes consulate in Reynosa.
The State Department closed its consulate in Reynosa, just south of McAllen-TX, for at least two days last week as violence engulfed this beleaguered border city.  Consul General Michael Barkin announced the closure on February 25 “until further notice.”  Interestingly, the Consulate did not recommend that infamous “Spring-breakers” avoid Reynosa, only that vacationing students take extra care when traveling to the popular border city.  Oscar Luebbert Gutierrez, Mayor of Reynosa, lamented the decision to close the Consulate and accused the US of setting a bad example by alarming the population.  Local authorities attributed the closure to a series of violent confrontations between the Golf Cartel and the Zetas, a paramilitary group of ex-army troops formerly aligned with the Gulf Cartel.


4. Welfare program Oportunidades expands
President Felipe Calderon reported on Thursday that the country’s principal welfare program, Oportunidades, expanded this year from five to six million families, covering about 28 million individuals, or more than a quarter of the entire population.  Only families considered in or near “extreme poverty” are eligible for the program.  Oportunidades is a “social engineering” style welfare in which poor women receive monthly payments in exchange for participating in monthly family planning workshops and unblemished school attendance records for their children.  Calderon made the announcement in Merida, where Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco refused to greet the President as he debarked from his plane.  This serious breach of protocol is indicative of the rapidly failing political power of Calderon as the unpopular President completes his fourth year in office.


5. PRD accuses Calderon of “favorites” in drug war
Federal Deputy Alejandro Encinas, leader of the PRD in the lower house, accused President Felipe Calderon of favoring the Sinaloa Cartel and its leader, Joaquin Chapo Guzman, in the war on drugs.  Encinas sited statistics contained in a recently released federal report: “If there were more than 54,000 arrests [under the Calderon administration] linked to narcotics and only 900 correspond to the Sinaloa Cartel, obviously there is a favored cartel.”  Calderon denied the accusations, but couldn’t explain the arrest statistics.


6. Calderon raises army pay
President Felipe Calderon, speaking at the annual Army Day festivities, announced a 40% increase in army paychecks last Thursday.  The increase amounts to about 1,000 pesos (US$76) per month for a typical serviceman.  Calderon has increased troop pay by 115% since taking power in 2006.  The children of active duty troops also receive free tuition at any public or private university in Mexico.


7. Scapegoat released in Brad Will murder
After spending 14 months in prison accused by the Federal Attorney General of murdering US journalist Brad Will, Juan Manuel Martinez was released last Thursday for lack of evidence.  Martinez is a member of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), a civil coalition opposed to Governor Ulises Ruiz.  Will was sympathetic to APPO and it made no sense that a member of the coalition would murder the journalist.  Yet the Calderon administration, in search of a scapegoat to assuage US pressure, arrested Martinez, despite powerful video and ballistic evidence linking paramilitary groups aligned with Governor Ruiz to the murder.  His release followed months of public demonstrations by APPO along with pressure from lawyers as well as the Will family.  Will was murdered in Oaxaca City during street demonstrations on October 27, 2006.  The real assassins have never been brought to justice, despite investigations conducted by respected international human rights organizations and independent investigators that clearly point to armed paramilitary groups caught on videotape by Will himself only moments before his death.


8. Demonstrators repressed during Calderon visit to Juarez
More than 200 protestors faced beatings by Federal Police when they objected to the presence of President Felipe Calderon in Ciudad Juarez on February 16.  Amidst unprecedented security measures that included army troops, the Presidential Guard and local and federal police, Calderon met in a local hotel with a small group of politicians and carefully selected community leaders.  His presence was meant to ease anger at the recent murder of 14 adolescents in a popular barrio of Ciudad Juarez, but instead protestors called for the removal of some 8,000 army troops from the city and the President’s resignation, along with that of the Governor and Mayor.  Calderon named Luis Alvarez, a fellow member of the PAN and perhaps best known for his failed attempts to negotiate peace with the Zapatistas, as his representative in Juarez in charge of coordinating security and social efforts to halt growing violence in this border city where drug cartels battle for control of lucrative transshipment routes.  Antonio Vivanco, currently the President’s coordinator of advisors, and Abelardo Escobar, current Secretary of Agrarian Reform, will work with Alvarez.  After refusing entry to human rights activists and at least one opposition member of Congress, Calderon asked forgiveness from the organizations that couldn’t attend the event.  Federal authorities plan to invest at least US$50 million in the “social reconstruction” of the city under the We Are All Juarez initiative.


9. SME calls for national strike
Martin Esparza, head of the Electrical Workers Union (SME), called for a nation-wide 12-hour general strike on March 16 in repudiation of President Calderon’s government.  Esparza called for solidarity with mineworkers striking at Cananea who are in imminent danger of being arrested by Federal Police after a judge called their strike illegal last week.  Other unions may join the strike, including university, airline and telephone workers, though they have still not agreed on a firm date.