Energy Reform in Mexico and Brazil

"The Offshore Drilling Oil Rig And Supply Boat Side View" by num_skyman at
“The Offshore Drilling Oil Rig And Supply Boat Side View” by num_skyman at

I’ve just returned from three weeks in southern Mexico, where the biggest political issue in the news has been the President’s energy reform plan. In 1938 Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the petroleum industry. This measure attracted popular acclaim in Mexico, and fury in the United States. While President Roosevelt was pressured to act, he knew that World War Two was coming, and had little interest in alienating a key neighbor. The state oil company PEMEX is now Mexico’s largest economic organization, and a source of national pride. When you travel in Mexico, all of the gas stations have the green stripe and red eagle of PEMEX. But now the company faces massive challenges. …

The Zetas: a Flawed Victory in Mexico’s War on Drugs

Earlier in this blog, I’ve discussed the Mexican drug war and the narco-blogs that have covered it. Calderon will leave Mexico’s presidency at the end of the year, but the drug war appears to continue unabated. As someone who began his career studying the Latin American military I have followed events closely. One of the aspects of the conflict that has struck me has been the extent to which the Mexican armed forces have relied upon the navy in the conflict, likely because the drug cartels have extensively infiltrated the army. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful cartel, the Zetas, emerged from within the armed forces itself. Now we have truly remarkable news coming out of the Mexico, that marines managed to kill the head of the Zeta cartel, Heriberto Lazcano. If true, this represents a striking victory for the government. Or it would, except that heavily armed members of the cartel promptly stole the body from the funeral home. If the armed forces cannot even provide security for this body, how can they impose order on society? Still, despite this strange loss, the Zetas have suffered from a series of deadly blows over the last year, and their power is waning. Lazcano’s death would surely accelerate this process. Still, this victory seems unlikely to change fundamentally the dynamic of the drug war, which grinds on. In the meanwhile, check out this excellent piece by the New York Times on Lazcano’s death, and the disappearance of his body.

Avian Influenza and the new SARS

I’ve just returned from a conference at Oxford entitled “Influenza 2012: One Influenza, One World.” The reference to “One World” in the

Avian influenza virus courtesy of dream designs at

title makes the point that human and animal health are intimately interlinked. While at the conference there was discussion of the current avian influenza outbreak in Jalisco, Mexico, and since returning there is now news about the discovery of a new corona virus in Saudi Arabia (this family of viruses covers a diversity of diseases from the common cold to SARS), which has killed one person and gravely sickened another. In this context, it makes sense to talk about the global ethical and scientific problems raised at the conference. …

The Lost Island of Bermeja

The world is filled with mythical islands, maybe because the idea of an isolated place evokes ideas of a utopia. Perhaps that is why Judith Schalansky’s

Image of islands courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at freedigitalphotos

Atlas of Remote Islands became a popular book. But few mythical islands islands have been as enduring as Bermeja, which cartographers have been placing on maps off the coast of the Yucatan since Alonso de Santa Cruz first mentioned it in 1539.  In the nineteenth century something strange happened. The island disappeared, likely because it had never existed. But the power of this idea is so strong that people continue to look for it, including a BBC film crew.

What is more important, however, is the popular view of the island in Mexico. How is that an island that existed on maps for centuries could disappear? A cynic might wonder if map-makers had been copying each others’ maps for centuries. But within Mexico there are conspiracy theories, which argue that the United States destroyed it. Because Mexico lost so much of its national territory to the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War, there is a profound distrust of the U.S. in Mexico. Much of Mexico’s national budget comes from the operations of the state oil company PEMEX, which pumps much of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico. And a June 2000 treaty between Mexico and the United States defined rights to oil reserves based on the distance from U.S. or Mexican territory, in particular islands. For this reason, one can find Youtube clips blaming the United States for dynamiting the island into oblivion, and calling on Mexicans to be aware of what has been stolen from them. Posts about this are easy to find on the web. Mexican radio stations and TV news also discuss this topic, as these Youtube clips (for those who speak Spanish) show. …

Mexico’s Military and the Drug War

I already discussed the drug war in Mexico in an earlier blog posting on the UNC website. But it’s worth returning to this topic, because of many new developments since last February. At this point, over 45,000 people have been killed in the drug war since President Calderon began it in December 2006. The toll of this carnage has been described in detail by the Los Angeles Times, which has had the best coverage of this conflict from its inception. Sadly, its very difficult for Mexican reporters to cover this conflict, because the drug cartels have infiltrated the major media organizations, and are killing reporters who cover the war. For this reason, Mexicans have turned to twitter and blogsfor information. While these sources provide a great deal of information,  one topic, in particular, seems to me to be under-covered: the struggle’s impact upon Mexico’s armed forces.

Photo of army truck by Stuart Miles

Hillary Clinton was widely denounced within Mexico in September 2010 for declaring that the conflict had taken on the appearance of an insurgency. But the reality is that Mexico is no longer primarily engaged in law enforcement, but rather a war between the government and the cartels. Mexico has become a frequent topic in the Small Wars Journal, which is devoted to low-intensity warfare (the British term) and counter-insurgency operations (COIN, the American term). Consider a recent communique from the Zeta’s drug cartel, as described on a blog covering the war:”A communique from the special forces of the Zetas. Message to the nation, the government, and all of Mexico and to public opinion. The special forces of Los Zetas challenges the government and its federal forces. Not the Army, not the marines nor the security and anti-drug agencies of the U.S. government can resist us. Mexico lives and will continue to live under the regime of Los Zetas. Let it be clear that we are in control here and although the federal government controls other cartels, they cannot take our plazas. You want proof? Look at what happened in Sinaloa and Guadalajara. If we can get all the way into their kitchen we are not going to lose control of our territory. Sincerely, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, Z-40.” Such statements leave little question how the cartels themselves view the contest. …

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