Mexico News and Analysis: March 15-21, 2010

1. NaRCo-blockades plague Monterrey
2. Calderon offers labor reform
3. SME on strike

1. Narco-blockades plague Monterrey
Hundreds of youth paid by narcotics cartels blocked major highways on Thursday and Friday in Monterrey by commandeering private cars and trucks, forcing the drivers to abandon their vehicles at gunpoint.  At least 85 local and state police officers, and possibly many more, assisted with the blockades or helped cartel members escape when army troops closed in.  More than 60 private vehicles, some set on fire, were used to blockade Monterrey’s airport access and other major highways for hours.  Officials speculate the highway blockades are meant to protest increased enforcement activity by the Marines.  Monterrey is Mexico’s third largest city, located three hours south of the Laredo border.

On Friday night, army troops exchanged automatic weapons fire with cartel members circulating in armored pickups at Monterrey Tech, one of Mexico’s most prestigious private universities.  Initially, the army reported two cartel members killed, but on Sunday the University Rector clarified that both were award-winning graduate students.  Earlier in the week, Marines invaded two cartel ranches in Bustamante and Villaldama, small towns about an hour north of Monterrey.  Marines killed at least ten cartel members during the confrontations, though residents reported up to 50 deaths, including some minors. 

The latest round of narco-inspired violence began late last week when three people associated with the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez were murdered in two drive-by shootings.  President Barrack Obama demanded a quick and decisive response by Mexican authorities, while Calderon insisted responsibility be shared by both countries.  The FBI established a multi-agency task force in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, and within days at least 100 gang members affiliated with Los Aztecas were arrested.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Mexico City next week, accompanied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Bilateral military strategy will be high on the agenda, probably with an emphasis on intelligence sharing, though the meeting may include much more.

Many experts are concerned that Calderon may be developing new strategies that essentially place US forces in charge of law enforcement efforts in Mexico.  

Calderon’s largely failed strategy for dealing with Mexico’s six major drug cartels has come under withering criticism in both political circles and among the general populace.  To date, Calderon has focused on disrupting transshipment routes utilizing thousands of army troops, many of whom are coming under the influence of the cartels.  Unexplained is Calderon’s reticence to go after money laundering operations that may include as much as US$40 billion per year in narcotics funds.  While many Mexicans blame the US for their recent increase in violence – the US is the major market for narcotics sales as well as the main source of military style weapons for drug cartels – most are unwilling to sacrifice sovereignty with increased US intervention.  Given the extent of police and army involvement in Mexico’s cartels, and the historic links between drug dealers and politicians, Calderon may be left with limited choices.  The Calderon administration is suspected of favoring the Sinaloa Cartel under the direction of Chapo Guzman, who “escaped” from a federal maximum security prison in 2001 under a previous PAN administration. 

This week, General Victor Renuart, head of NorthCom, predicted the drug war in Mexico will last at least another eight to ten years.  This may be an effort to pressure the Calderon administration, ahead of meetings with Clinton, to accept strategic methods developed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, all under the watchful eye of US authorities. 

2. Calderon offers labor reform
The Calderon administration offered a labor reform bill this week that would limit the ability of workers to strike, shorten the length of strikes to a maximum of six months, and present obstacles for registering new unions.  Under the rubric of flexibilization, the bill would legalize outsourcing, allow hourly wages instead of daily wages, and provide for provisional employment of up to 90 days without fringe benefits.  Striking workers would be obligated to accept arbitration if employers demand it.  Opposition parties declared the proposal dead on arrival, though Calderon’s National Action Party immediately suggested negotiations with the PRI.

3. SME on strike
The Electrical Workers Union (SME), displaced from its workplaces last October when the Calderon administration transferred control of Central Light and Power (LFC) to the Federal Electric Commission (CFE), declared a strike on Tuesday.  Thousands of fired workers supported by other unions and social organizations hung traditional black and red strike banners in front of LFC installations.  The Calderon administration responded with force, sending the Federal Police to break up demonstrations and prohibit strikers from establishing encampments in front of LFC installations.  At least 12 SME workers were beaten on Thursday and one suffered a gunshot wound.  At least 13 people were arrested and may be charged under federal law.  The police violence forced workers to end their encampments in front of some LFC offices, but the strike continues.