Will Mexico’s Telecom Reform Hurt Internet Freedom?

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Here is a link to a recent on AQBlog article of mine, titled “Will Mexico’s Telecom Reform Hurt Internet Freedom?“, published on April 22nd, 2014.

Please feel free to visit and comment.

Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

 

On March 24, Enrique Peña Nieto presented the Mexican Senate with a bill for a new telecommunications law that complements theconstitutional reforms he approved in 2013. The legislation proposes, among other things, to promote competition in the sector, improve telecom services, and regulate the radioelectric spectrum through the new telecommunications regulator, the Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (Federal Telecommunications Institute—IFETEL).  The bill is now being revised, and is expected to be approved in the coming days.

However, the proposal is already raising eyebrows and creating waves in the digital sphere, where it’s being labeled as a form of government censorship.

According to Article 2 of the bill, the legislation is intended to “protect the nation’s security and sovereignty,” and the most controversial articles in the initiative are preceded by mentions of criminal prosecution and promoting the public interest. There is room for discussion on the potential effectiveness of this objective, but much like the current debate in the U.S. over the NSA’s capabilities vs. individual freedoms and privacy, citizens in Mexico are worried about ceding too much power to the federal government.  The far-reaching legislation has created a number of trending topics on Twitter, under hashtags like #EPNvsInternet #ContraElSilencioMx and #NoMasPoderAlPoder (roughly translated to #PeñaNietoV.Internet, #AgainstSilenceMx and #NoMorePowerToTheOnesInPower).

One of the most popular bloggers in Mexico, “Sopitas,” criticized Peña Nieto’s proposal by stating that social media has been the only widespread communication channel where the public can express its dissent with the current government.  On April 21, #EPNvsInternetbecame a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and, as these words are being written, “netizens” in Mexico City are organizing a massive demonstration at the Ángel de la Independencia monument in downtown Mexico City, which also hosted many of#YoSoy132’s protests against Peña Nieto’s alleged alliance with Televisa in the 2012 presidential elections. When the neutrality of the largest news media conglomerate in the country is in question, citizen journalism becomes crucial.

Attempts to control speech on the Internet are not new. One need only consult Global Voices’ Advocacy project to see that, when given the power to do so, governments unequivocally use Internet restriction as a means to block and control dissent.

But how would the president’s telecom law proposal trample on free speech? What are netizens protesting against? Here are some highlights:

  • Article 145, Paragraph III states that Internet Service Providers (ISP) “will be allowed to block access to content, applications or services upon express request by the user, per order of authority…”
  • Article 189 proposes that ISPs be forced to provide real-time geolocation of specific devices to public officials “awarded the faculty of requesting it…”
  • Article 190 states that ISPs will be “obligated to permit […] intervention of private communications…”
  • Article 197, paragraph VII states that, if requested by authorities, ISPs will “temporarily block, inhibit or nullify telecommunication signals in events and locations critical to public or national security…”

Supporters of the proposed telecom law might argue that these new attributions would allow government to better combat organized crime, but the other side of the story shows that if the legislation is approved as-is, any government would be legally awarded the power to read emails exchanged between its detractors, know their location and cut off their communications.

Would the government consider a mass protest on Avenida Reforma to be an event against public security, and thus block cell phone communications in the area? Those opposing the new law seem to think this is a possibility.

This developing story has caused outrage on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Will this outrage help write a different conclusion—one in which the proposed telecom bill is overturned? Or will Mexico join the ranks of censorship-friendly countries such asCambodiaTurkey and Venezuela?

Politicians Under Fire in Mexico

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Here is a link to a recent on AQBlog article of mine, titled “Politicians Under Fire in Mexico“, published on April 17th, 2014.

Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

This week, two mayors in the state of Michoacán were arrested by theProcuraduría General de Justicia del Estado de Michoacán (Attorney General of the State of Michoacán—PGJE ). Uriel Chávez, the mayor of Apatzingan and a member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), and Noé Aburto Inclán, mayor of Tacámbaro and a member of the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN), were detained on suspicion of extortion and embezzlement, respectively.

As if Mexicans needed more reasons to distrust their elected officials, two other cases this month, coming from the PRI, show just how low some publicly elected officials are willing to stoop in a country plagued by impunity.

Cuauhtémoc Gutiérrez was the president of the PRI in Mexico City until April 2, 2014. Gutiérrez is the son of the late Rafael Gutiérrez—a former council member for the PRI in Mexico City known as the “The King of Trash” because he led the capital city’s trash collectors’ union for more than 20 years.  Rafael Gutiérrez’s wife, Martha García, confessed to having the “The King of Trash” murdered in 1987. She justified the murder by saying she had endured 11 years of physical abuse from her husband, and also said that Gutiérrez had sexually abused his underage niece.

Apparently Cuauhtémoc has followed in his father’s footsteps. A recent investigation byNoticias MVS radio journalist Carmen Aristegui  reported that Gutiérrez’ office ran ads to hire 18 to 32-year-old women as hostesses that were also expected to provide Gutiérrez sexual favors in exchange for higher pay. In recorded testimonies, four victims mention performing sexual favors for Gutiérrez inside Mexico City’s PRI offices, as well as accompanying him on business trips and to nighttime events. The Procuraduría de Justicia(Justice Department) in Mexico City is now investigating the case.

Gutiérrez has denied the allegations and denounced the MVS report. However, after the investigation surfaced, the PRI’s national leadership immediately stripped him of his position. Emilio Gamboa, the PRI’s senate leader, declared that Gutiérrez should face these charges alone and that “you can’t charge a whole party for one person’s actions.”

The case of the Jesús Reyna from the PRI also reached national headlines this month.  A two-time federal congressman, Reyna is a former interim governor of Michoacán and current minister of the interior for Michoacán’s state government. On April 4, theProcuraduría General de la República (Attorney General’s Office—PGR) ordered Reyna’s detention as part of an ongoing investigation of possible links between the politician and the criminal organization known as the Knights Templar.

El Universal revealed that the PGR began investigating Reyna after learning that the former governor had been in meetings with the Knights Templar’s leaders, Servando Gómez (“La Tuta”) and Nazario Moreno (“El Chayo”) in 2011.

Unfortunately, the recent cases are not scandals by exception. A look back through Mexico’s recent political history includes cases of corruption and crime across the three major political parties. Some of the recent scandals include allegations of fraud against the former D.F. secretary of finance, Gustavo Ponce of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD)—although he was later released for lack of evidence—and the René Bejarano (PRD) video scandal, which earned the former president of the Comisión de Gobierno of the legislative assembly the nickname “the king of rubber bands” after he was seen  receiving up to 8 million in pesos and dollars in rubber band-bound wads of cash from businessman Carlos Ahumada.

As far as the PAN goes, the current mayor of Monterrey, Margarita Arellanes, has raised some questions after her purchase of a $1,543,860 (20 million peso) home on a $7,805.90 (101,377 peso) a month salary.

You can’t charge a whole party for one person’s actions, says Gamboa, and he’s right. But with cases like the ones herein mentioned piling up in Mexico’s political history, you start to wonder if the problem has shifted from particular exceptions, to a generalized rule.

The Candigato is back in Mexico

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “The Candigato is back in Mexico“, published on April 3rd, 2014.

Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

In 2013, Morris, the Candigato (Cat Candidate) gained notoriety in Mexico’s social networks and news outlets after launching a successful online campaign via Facebook and Twitter, in a mock run for the position of Mayor of the city of Xalapa, Veracruz. The Candigato’s comedic slogans, such as “Tired of voting for rats? Vote for a Cat,” became popular among the online community and almost instantly his account on Facebook gained close to 250,000 followers. Morris, the Candigato, is a perfect reflection of Mexico’s idiosyncrasy: Many Mexicans will laugh at their tragedies.

The online campaign lasted for two months and only cost as much as the registry for the web domain. Yet after the votes were counted, CNN reported that Morris had bested at least 3 of the 8 actual candidates running for office. The creators the Candigato were recognized by the Victory Awards, winning the “Best Political Innovator” during the 2014 Marketing Político en la Red (Political Online Marketing) Conference—an unusual selection for an award usually won by political consultants.

Unfortunately, while the Candigato’s online success may be amusing, it is also points to Mexican society’s apathy and callousness for its political leaders. Now Morris is back with a different mission.

In a similar strategy to Bill Maher’s #flipadistrict, the creators of the Candigato are once again using humor to raise awareness. This week, Morris announced that he would be organizing an awards ceremony to recognize the worst politicians in Mexico under three categories: worst governor, worst political career, and finally, honorary sandbox, for retired or deceased politicians.

While this online campaign obviously follows no official protocols or processes to denounce ineffective public officials, it is quickly and easily providing an open channel for frustrated constituencies in different parts of the country. Replies from the Candigato’s followers on Facebook and Twitter mention too many politicians to list, but Nuevo Leon’s governor Rodrigo Medina and Estado de México’s governor Eruviel Ávila have gained repeated mentions. One Facebook user sarcastically commented “I’m worried Morris will have a tough task ahead finding a winner. Maybe he should just declare a 32-way tie,” referring to the governors of all 31 states and the Head of Government in Mexico City.

The Candigato may be just another joke about Mexico’s corrupt and ineffective politicians, but it is notable that a social media campaign with no funding is able to obtainhalf of the write-in votes for a cat running for mayor of Xalapa. The effectiveness of theCandigato’s campaigns show the level of disapproval Mexican constituents have for the candidates proposed by formal political parties in Mexico.

With the Candigato Awards showcasing some of Mexico’s allegedly “worst” elected officials, we will see if this affects their future careers or if it just serves as comedic distraction. And as long as the political class in Mexico continues to have low credibility among many constituents, Mexicans will keep tragically laughing.

The Best University Student in Mexico is an Inmate?

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “The Best University Student in Mexico is an Inmate?“, published on March 6th, 2014.

Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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The penal system does not work; criminals that do jail time do not reform. We’ve heard these arguments in Mexico before—and for the most part, they seem to be true.

Stories abound of drug lords continuing to run their operations from within their cells by using unauthorized mobile phones, and of youth that are imprisoned for minor crimes, only to turn  into full-blown criminals once they enter the penal system.

However, one case in Baja California sheds a beacon of light that could be a sign of better things to come in the Mexican penitentiary system.

Pedro Antonio Gerardo Acosta is a 29-year-old inmate in the El Hongo jail near the city of Tecate in Baja California, serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping. This convicted criminal also recently obtained the highest score in the countryon the national academic test for higher education (public and private), administered by the Centro Nacional de Evaluación para la Educación Superior A.C. (National Evaluation Center for Higher Education—CENEVAL).

Gerardo Acosta is one of the first inmates to graduate from a pilot program run by the Baja California State Penitentiary and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), which allows people serving a sentence in El Hongo to receive higher education while incarcerated.  Along with Gerardo Acosta’s amazing achievement, two of his inmate classmates also received special recognition for outstanding academic performance in 2013.

Rosaura Barahona, renown editorialist for El Norte newspaper, commented that El Hongo’s educational program is part of a number of changes in the state’s penal system, which is migrating away from a “lock them up and throw away the key” strategy toward a transformative strategy of rehabilitation-and-reinsertion.

“Educating someone is never a waste of time” said Barahona, noting that Gerardo Acosta earned his degree despite having eleven more years to serve behind bars.

Felipe Cuamea Velázquez, Dean of the UABC, agrees with Barahona and congratulated Gerardo Acosta for this achievement. “It represents a great step in his life and an important tool towards his reinsertion into society,” said Cuamea Velázquez.

Of course, the educational program will never be bulletproof, and there is no evidence to say that someone who goes through it will never commit a crime in the future—but there is no arguing against the fact that it is better than the alternative of doing nothing.

Moreover, the three students’ success is proof of the seriousness with which the state penitentiary is taking this program seriously. It is not a PR ploy for authorities to boast that they are trying to reinsert convicts into society, but is actually a legitimate project that provides access to top-level education to people who never had it before.

The way I see it, a person who is in jail but who is studying hard enough to receive better scores than non-criminals is also an inmate who is staying away from trouble; someone looking to better himself because he wants a different life after he serves his sentence.

Baja California’s El Hongo is the first state penitentiary to initiate a program like the one with the UABC—and although it has only graduated ten students thus far, imagine the possibilities if this program were to be implemented at a national scale.

What if a young guy who committed a minor crime served his sentence—and instead of having learned to be a more effective gang-banger, he came out a university graduate?

Transforming Monterrey’s Landscape

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I had forgotten to post a link to this article on AQBlog, titled “Transforming Monterrey’s Landscape“, published on February 26th, 2014. Please feel free to visit and comment.

Also, here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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Monterrey, one of the largest cities in Mexico, has recently become a hotspot for criminal activity and host to a number of violent incidents. An ambitious urban development initiative, however, is set to change the city’s deteriorating reputation.

Seventy years ago, an institution that transformed the educational system in Mexico was bornTec de Monterrey, an icon of entrepreneurial spirit and industrial development success based in the city of Monterrey. Dubbed by many of its alumni as the “MIT of Latin America”, Tec was founded in 1943 by Don Eugenio Garza Sada, an MIT graduate himself.

Tec de Monterrey is much more than a university, it is a nation-wide system of high school, university and post-graduate campuses with a common mission: to develop human and professional potential in its students. Its headquarters and most important campus is the Campus Monterrey, located in the valley of the famous Cerro de la Silla of southern Monterrey, an  area that has hosted violence, including the tragic deaths of two students in a 2010 shooting.

However, Tec de Monterrey recently presented a 500 million dollar urban development project which will, among other things, reclaim public spaces of 17 neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Monterrey Campus. The money funding the project will come predominately from donations and proceeds from the annual Sorteo Tec,  a lottery system similar to state-run lotteries, that is privately organized by Tec de Monterrey.

 

“District Tec” as it is being called, will include drastic improvements to surrounding roads and infrastructure to be built over the next 15 to 20 years. A large public park is part of the project, as is the renovation of the campus’ library. The old football and soccer stadium, currently home to the Rayados de Monterrey professional team, will be demolished and replaced by sports facilities, leisure areas and an underground parking lot.

José Antonio Fernández, President of the Tec de Monterrey Board, said that the university “will work hand in hand with the community and authorities in order to transform this part of the city into a safe, attractive and inspiring place where talent can be attracted and retained.”

District Tec is a scarce but valuable example of visionary collaboration between the private and public sector and the communities. It will certainly pose its set of implementation challenges, but while many efforts to curb violence and insecurity—such as government crack downs on illegal casinos and brothels—have been short-lived, the brilliance of the District Tec is its focus on a long-term solution.

Mexican society has traditionally played the victim when it comes to dealing with issues of insecurity. It is far too easy to blame the government while we see our communities deteriorating. District Tec shows only too well what city leaders should be paying attention to—if you’re not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. Congratulations to Tec de Monterrey for its commitment to this bold effort in making their neighborhood safe again. I look forward to my children enjoying their university experience the way that I did back when it was much safer to live in Monterrey.

Narcocorridos Drum up Support for the Knights Templar in Michoacán

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Narcocorridos Drum up Support for the Knights Templar in Michoacán“, published on February 6th, 2014. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

Narcocorridos—songs that celebrate drug dealers as folk heroes—have been a part of Mexican culture for as long as the illicit activity has existed in the country.  Attempts to censor them from reaching radio airwaves have triggered debates over freedom of speech, as well as outcries from the more liberal media.

But as a recent concert in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán, shows, there is a fine line between painting a pretty picture of criminality and actually engaging in direct support for organized crime groups that have brought parts of Mexico to unmanageable levels of violence.

The state of Michoacán has been in the spotlight for almost a year now, due to a complete degradation of the rule of law. A clashing arena for a number of criminal organizations including the Familia Michoacana, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Zetas and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), Michoacán is a case study where criminality has grown larger than the state itself.

Given the dire situation, self-defense groups have taken up arms in rural areas throughout the state, claiming they are ready to do the job the government won’t in order to protect their families and communities.  José Manuel Mireles, one of the leaders of the Consejo Ciudadano de Autodefensa (Citizen Council of Self Defense Groups), famously said that the self-defense movement “[…] started when the narcos started abusing our women and daughters.”

However, organized crime is so embedded in Michoacán life that on February 2, one of the capital city’s main entertainment venues hosted a Narcocorrido lineup whose outright and explicit support for the Knights Templar would chill any law-abiding citizen. The concert was approved by the state authorities and state police officials were on hand to ensure that the event ran smoothly.

The headliner group, “Los de la A,” started their concert by yelling out to an audience of nearly six thousand: “If they chop off my head, I won’t care. Knights Templar all the way!” receiving cheers and jeers from the riled-up crowd.

“Los de la A” originate from Apatzingán, Michoacán, one of the towns currently controlled by the self-defense groups.  After a couple of songs, the lead singer known as “El Komander” addressed the crowd, encouraging them to support the Knights Templar in reclaiming control of that town: “We’re recruiting people to go to Apatzingán and kick some a** over there!”

Half-way into the show, envelopes filled with cocaine started making their way through the crowd. Concert-goers snorted the drug right in front of police officers, who did nothing to stop them, even after the lead singer of the band cheered, “Bring out all the drugs! Let’s all get crazy tonight!”

Granted, the violence and drug problem in Michoacán and the country will not disappear by censoring narcocorridos, in the same way that inner-city violence has not disappeared since they stamped those “Warning: Explicit Lyrics” stickers on gangsta rap CDs in the U.S., but when a person is allowed to take the stage in a state-owned forum and motivate his fans to take up arms and shoot civilian groups to support a drug trafficking organization, the issue is larger than freedom of speech.

Mireles says that self-defense groups will “put their weapons away once rule of law is re-established in Michoacán.” The essential ingredient for this to happen is the generalized adoption of—or at least, sympathy for—a culture of lawfulness in the communities.

As long as there are people who are convinced that the narco way is best, there will be no peace in Michoacán. Unfortunately, those who would support the re-establishment of order and harmony in the state don’t have folk musicians to hold concerts at their beck and call.

Mexican Drug Cartels use Christmas to Expand their Fan Base

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Here is a link to an article I published in January for AQBlog, titled “Mexican Drug Cartels use Christmas to Expand their Fan Base” I had forgotten to re-post it in my personal blog so here it is in case you missed it. I’m posting a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it here, but I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

They might be taking their cues from legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was famous for helping out numerous communities in Colombia and donating parks and recreation centers to unprivileged communities. Or maybe they’re inspired by the legend of Jesús Malverde, the so-called narco-saint folk hero from Sinaloa, sometimes seen as a Mexican version of Robin Hood. On the other hand, they may feel threatened  by  the “self-defense” groups spawning in Michoacán and Colima—civil vigilante groups  that have taken up arms against the cartels after declaring that local authorities are unable or unwilling to tackle organized crime battles head-on.

For whatever reason, drug cartels in different parts of Mexico took to the streets this holiday season in order to “give back,” and—ironic as it may sound— spread holiday cheer.

In the southern state of Oaxaca the impoverished communities of Viguera, Bugambilia and Calicanto were surprised on Three Kings Day (January 6) withbundles of toys, which mysteriously appeared in different points of the city, some with signs explaining that they were left there “so that people can see that the Zetas support humble people. ” Not surprisingly, these images did not make it into mainstream national media but were shared via Twitter.

The eerie irony behind these charitable acts is that the Zetas are known for being one of the most cold-blooded criminal groups of the country, often resorting to torture and public displays of their victims.

On the other side of the country, in Tampico in the northern state of Tamaulipas, theCártel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel—CDG) took to the streets on Christmas Eve and handed out gifts, food and money. The CDG had the gall to parade in pickup trucks and set up different distribution points throughout the city, never fearing an attack from the authorities. In what would seem like a well-thought-out, below the line marketing strategy, they recorded, edited and uploaded videos that later went viral on YouTube.

One of the videos shows pickup trucks outside of hospitals, the main bus station and other parts of the city, distributing food bags and giftwrapped boxes. The crowds gather around and some of the cartel members try to organize the distribution as if they are conducting an aid campaign. The clip then transitions to another part of the city, outside of a public clinic, where members of the CDG deliver dozens of pizza boxes to people who not only thank them for the gift, but even organize to yell out a “hip, hip, hooray”-style cheer: “A la bio, a la  bao, a la bim bom ba, ¡el Cártel del Golfo, ra, ra, ra!”

The video shows how children run to these criminals with smiles on their faces and exchange a thank you for a plastic toy trinket. Unbeknownst to them, the toy was bought with blood and drug money. The fact that parents would let their kids get close to the cartel members is the perfect illustration of how engrained organized crime has become in underprivileged communities in parts of Mexico.

The larger problem is not that the cartels have the audacity to do these charity runs. The real and critical situation is that, given their lack of opportunities to survive otherwise, abandoned communities have embraced the cartels and come to regard them as semi-gods and role models. Mexico has become a place where, inside a posh shopping mall in Mexico City, a soccer mom can tell her kids to take a picture with Santa Claus, while a less privileged mother might invite her own children to ask the nice drug dealer for a handout.

What an unfair situation to put a kid in. What a terrible way to sentence our children’s futures.