Mexico News and Analysis: February 6-19, 2012

1 - STATE DEPARTMENT REISSUES TRAVEL ADVISORY
2 - BILLBOARD CALLS FOR END OF U.S. WEAPONS IN MEXICO
3 - ANONYMOUS STRIKES AGAIN
4 - U.S. INFLUENCING MEXICAN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
5 - CATHOLIC CHURCH JOINS ELECTION BATTLES
6 - FAMILY OF FORMER CHIAPAS GOVERNOR IN HOT WATER  

In anticipation of Spring Breakers travelling south, the State Department reissued a travel advisory that includes 14 Mexican states, mainly along the US border.  Travel updates have become an annual event in anticipation of thousands of US students vacationing in Mexico in March.  In addition to border states, the latest advisory includes parts of Aguascalientes, Guerrero and Nayarit.  About 50,000 people have been killed over the past five years in drug-related violence, with US citizens accounting for about 400 deaths.  Despite the drug-related violence, Mexico attracted a record number of tourists last year as 22.7 million foreign visitors arrived by air.  These figures do not include the millions of US tourists who travel by land.  Visitors from the US travelling by air declined by 3%, possibly due to increased airline prices since the demise of Mexicana Airline, but Brazil, Russia, China and Peru registered sizable increases over 2010.  Tourism is Mexico's fifth largest source of foreign currency, following migrant remittances, illegal drug sales (mainly to the US market), petroleum exports and maquiladora production.

2 - BILLBOARD CALLS FOR END OF US WEAPONS IN MEXICO
A three-ton billboard built with decommissioned weapons illegally exported from the US provided the backdrop for a speech by President Felipe Calderon last week in which he claimed, "One of the main factors that allows criminals to strengthen themselves is the unlimited access to high-powered weapons, which are sold freely, and also indiscriminately, in the United States of America."  The billboard, posted on the border at Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, read in English "NO MORE WEAPONS."  Calderon did not mention, and presumably did not want to include in his critique, the US$1.4 billion Plan Merida, which sent advanced weapons systems over the past three years from the US to Mexico's military and police.  The timing of his publicity-garnering complaint is likely related to the current presidential campaign in which parties traditionally try to mark a certain distance from their northern neighbor.

In related news, Calderon appointed the first woman to head the federal police force, perhaps an effort to aid the PAN's first ever female presidential candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, in July's election.  Maribel Cervantes replaced Facundo Rosas as commissioner general of the federal police, the civilian body that has played the largest role in the President's "war on drugs."  The apparent message in a historically macho society is that if a woman can handle the police, then a woman can handle the presidency.

3 - ANONYMOUS STRIKES AGAIN
The Anonymous hacker collective struck again last week, posting sensitive but unguarded information from Alabama state sites, rendering several Mexican government sites inoperable, and publishing data about working conditions in Mexico's mining industry.  The Alabama attack protested the state's draconian new immigration laws, which have forced thousands of immigrants to leave the state.  Anonymous shut down Mexico's Senate and Interior Ministry sites for a time in opposition to pending anti-piracy legislation that would level fines of up to US$100,000 for copyright infringement.  And the group published 730MB of emails from the Mexican National Chamber of Mines, objecting to "extreme" labor conditions in the mining industry.  "While you rob your own miners, we rob your email accounts," read the public justification.  Anonymous has been on a role in recent weeks, even taking down the CIA's web site.

4 - U.S. INFLUENCING MEXICAN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
US court documents released last week show Mexican drug cartels paid US$4.5 million in bribes to elected officials from the opposition PRI, whose presidential candidate currently leads in polls.  The Texas money-laundering case charges Antonio Pena, a San Antonio resident, with funnelling cash from the Zeta Cartel to Tomas Yarrington, Governor of the border state of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005.  Yarrington enjoys close ties with many Texas political figures, including Governor Rick Perry and former President George W Bush, and is an important national figure in the PRI.  The accusations appear to place the US political class squarely behind the PAN's presidential candidate and her likely continuation of Calderon's "war on drugs" if elected, despite close links between Yarrington and the Republican party.  The strategy may backfire.  The PRI enjoyed close ties to drug cartels for many years, and the Mexican electorate may be ready for a behind-the-scenes negotiated settlement of the drug war orchestrated by the PRI that would reduce public violence.

5 - CATHOLIC CHURCH JOINS ELECTION BATTLES
The Catholic hierarchy drew criticism this week for releasing a set of "guidelines for the faithful" in anticipation of the July 1 presidential elections.  The Church is constitutionally banned from political activity.  Without naming any specific party, the pastoral guidelines offer a thinly veiled critique of the PRD, the party that supports abortion rights and gay marriage.  Catholics should not "choose as a political option those who support or promote false rights or liberties that attack the teachings contained in the holy scriptures, tradition and doctrine of the church."  The Catholic hierarchy, among the most conservative in the world, has long supported the National Action Party (PAN), historically at a discreet distance, though in recent years much more openly.

6 - FAMILY OF FORMER CHIAPAS GOVERNOR IN HOT WATER
The brother-in-law of former Chiapas Governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia was arrested last week for running a clandestine espionage center from his home.  Jose Luis Paulin Palma, who used to work for Chiapas state security, had computers and communication equipment from his former employer that enabled him to monitor government communications.  Salazar Mendiguchia is currently in prison, charged with misuse of government funds during his years as Governor from 2000-2006.  Paulin Palma was apparently monitoring state legal strategies used to prosecute Salazar Mendiguchia.  The case is unusual in that politicians are seldom prosecuted for stealing while in office, an indication that Salazar Mendiguchia must have made many enemies during his time in power.