Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.

Mexican stand-off

 

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.

 

Tan lejos de la patria

An exhibition displays the struggles and successes of Mexicans living in the UK

Part of the ‘Being Human’ festival, ‘Mexicans UK’ illustrates a mixed community of backgrounds both similar and distinct, of futures aimed and obscured. It explores concepts of blurred humanity and personal imagination among those Mexicans who came to the UK for work or study, for love or family.

It is a collaboration between the brother-sister act of Mexican-British photographers Roxana and Pablo Allison. It consists of 32 portraits: one person from all 31 Mexican states and also the federal district of Mexico City.

Here are some of the images that stood out for me:

Mariacarmen Cárdenas - (Pedro and Roxana Allison)

Mariacarmen Cárdenas (Mexico City) – Credit for this image and all photos below: Pablo and Roxana Allison

Mariacarmen Cárdenas told a sad tale. After coming to the UK with her British husband, the marriage broke down and she went through family and workplace battles. She painted a sorrowful picture of life in the UK but was adamant she would not be returning to Mexico. She seemed to be facing her situation defiantly; a position of quiet strength emphasised in the picture above by her gaze and the political memorabilia of indigenous struggle.

 

Karla Mancilla - (Credit: Pedro and Roxana Allison)

Karla Mancilla (State: Baja California Sur)

Originating from Baja California Sur, Karla Mancilla’s story struck me as the narrative of water: migration and movement. Waves swell with force and becalm with stillness; they could carry Karla back home, or bar her way. She is from a Pacific state back home and is sitting in the picture here next to a British watercourse. She talks in detail about the oceanic fauna of her state, the whale sharks, dolphins and sea lions. Ms Mancilla lists shredded manta ray as her favourite dish.

 

Willams Santis - (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Willams Santis   (Chiapas)

Williams Santis came to the UK for family. He met an Irish girl in Mexico and had a baby with her, then moved from Mexico to be with them in the UK. He now works in a car park and as an artist. Here, leaning against an open caravan door, is he pondering the racism that he says he suffers in the UK? Or his proud indigenous roots? Maybe he is thinking about the Irish woman and his child. For Mr Santis, love knew no bounds.

 

Michelle Dominguez (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Michelle Dominguez   (Chihuahua)

Troubling security and political instability are the main concerns for Michelle Dominguez, as she looks back to the land of her birth. I liked her pose here, caught between two rooms – two countries – casually hovering under one sky, one roof. She is leaning on the threshold against a pane of mottled glass, blurring the views back to where she has come from and blurring the future for those left behind.

 

Efrain Carpintero (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Efrain Carpintero   (Querétaro)

The quietness, religiosity and burgeoning economic activity of Querétaro state are called to mind by Efrain Carpintero, who is in the UK researching for a PhD. I felt a positivity coming through this portrait, an academic ambition from a softly beautiful state.

 

Natalia Cervantes (Credit: Pablo and Roxana Allison)

Natalia Cervantes   (Sinaloa)

Layered in Nature, staring straight ahead, perhaps Natalia Cervantes is combining her thoughts: a wooded mix of the dusty plants from her home state of Sinaloa and the wet verdancy of her adopted country. This image caught my eye for its natural setting and the fact the woman is Sinaloan, from an edgy corner of the country, and here is painting a picture of the people and the food, tinged with bloody streets of drugs violence, set against the mountains, plains and coastline.

Desafíos para Chile

Subsecretario de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile ante una mesa redonda en Londres

El viernes 9 de octubre oímos las posiciones de Edgardo Riveros ante unos temas. El asunto que discutió a un nivel más profundo fue la Alianza del Pacífico, un acuerdo de comercio libre entre Chile, Colombia, México y Perú.

Frente a unos embajadores en un cuarto de lujo en Canning House, dijo que el TPP es un chance de profundizar las relaciones exteriores, un paso importante para el subsecretario, que quiere que Chile aproveche las oportunidades globales.

(Hablando, derecha) Edgardo Riveros, el Subsecretario de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile

(Hablando, centro) Edgardo Riveros, el Subsecretario de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile

Observó que el mundo funciona en bloques y redes de vínculos, notando que la Alianza del Pacífico es un “desafío especial”, diciendo que es un grupo que trae problemas para superar. Actualmente, Chile exporta más a los países de Mercosur (Argentina, Brasil, Paraguay, Uruguay y Venezuela) que a los otros tres estados miembros de la Alianza del Pacífico, algo que quiere cambiar el subsecretario.

Después de su discurso, Sr. Riveros aceptó unas preguntas: una sobre la posición de poder de Brasil en la región y la segunda que trata de la posibilidad para América Latina a transformarse y acercarse como la Unión Europea en términos de supranacionalidad.

Respondió que sí existe un parlamento de Unasur (la Union de cada país en América del Sur) pero Latinoamérica “corre un esprint, no un maratón como en el caso europeo”. Por el momento, él cree que hay muchos instrumentos internacionales que tiene que fortalecer, y el rumbo hacia una multinacional soberanía más cohesiva y de colaboración está algo para muchos años en el futuro.

La cuestión de Bolivia y el acceso al mar

Yo quise saber la visión u opinión política que nos pudo ofrecer el subsecretario sobre Bolivia y la cuestión del acceso al mar para el estado andino, que perdió su costa después de una guerra contra Chile en los finales del siglo XIX.

Cuando pregunté al político, unos gemidos y acogidas sonaron por el cuarto, pero claro que este tema trata de Chile y de las relaciones exteriores del gobierno en Santiago.

Sr. Riveros me dijo que su país está listo para discutir el tema, pero afirmó a este blog que “Chile y Bolivia tienen definidos los límites territoriales”. Nos dio una idea de la política que seguirán los diplomáticos chilenos en La Haya cuando dijo “no tiene obligación de negociar”.

Por el subsecretario, no vale mucho la idea de cuestionar acuerdos históricos – “no puede desafíar cada tratado”. Tiene razón que los mecanismos de diplomacia global quedarían paralizados si los acuerdos entre países fueron desafiadas todo el tiempo pero él no puede forzar que los bolivianos olviden sus sueños.

Es claro que Sr. Riveros cree que la posición chilena es una de poder: el territorio es reconocido internacionalmente como parte de su país. Pero a la vez Chile tiene una debilidad: Bolivia no tiene nada que perder y su postura como desamparado puede afectar a Chile, que corre el riesgo de parecer ser el bravucón en la disputa.

En septiembre, la Corte Internacional de Justicia dio a conocer la decisión que sí estaría en una posición de oír el caso sobre el acceso al mar, un paso que fue entendido extensamente a señalar que Bolivia ha marcado el primer gol de partido.

Lo que espera La Paz es que logrará la devolución de acceso al mar, probablemente por el uso mutual de un puerto chileno.

Este resultado ofrecería al país naval un regreso a las olas: Bolivia ha mantenido una marina a pesar de que el país ha sido un estado sin costa desde 1904 – el año de la cesión de la región litoral a Chile.

Cartel Land – a review

 

Silhouette of man with rifle

Still from the film

Opening in a menacing jungle darkness, hissing acid and eyes among the trees, hooded men cook methamphetamine.

The scrubland chemicals fizz as they chew over their occupation: “we know what we do causes harm in the United States”. A thousand miles to the north, peering through night-vision goggles, a weather-bitten man mutters about the influence of the Mexican drug gangs spilling over the border “this is no longer the USA… we are David and they are Goliath”.

These are the opening scenes of Cartel Land, the latest film from American producer and director Matthew Heineman. At its shivering, gristly core, this is a film that tries to put its finger on the pulse of two groups of vigilantes (one in south-west Mexico, one in southern Arizona) who are challenging the bloody philosophy of the gangs.

Both start-up defence movements are led by tall, striking men, who see themselves as proactive spearheads filling a vacuum created by inefficient law enforcement and a terrifying cartel-created chaos. The Knights Templars are the first villains we come across in the lawless Mexican state of Michoacán. There we are among wailing mourners shuffling on grey dirt grave mounds, burying their relatives. A farmer has not coughed up his extortion fee demanded by the Templars. They have punished him by slaughtering all his farm workers and their children, smashing infants on rocks and throwing their bodies in a well.

This sets the stage for the Autodefensas, the Mexican group with whom Heineman embeds himself and his tiny team. He develops a rapport with the vigilantes as they build support, community by community. The men are guided spiritually and physically by a local doctor, José Manuel Mireles. He speaks in town squares as his team fend off the gangsters and replace the army in the forgotten villages of Michoacán.

In Arizona, we meet Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley and his small band of men. Sharp in camouflage, working his weapons, he stares out across the Altar Valley. We come back to the American self-defence team throughout, but Heineman spends more time developing and laying out the Mexican story. That despite the fact that he only originally planned to tell the account of the so-called ‘Arizona Border Recon’ of ‘Nailer’ and his lieutenants. It was when the director came across news of Dr Mireles in Michoacán that he chose to balance the documentary with both sides of the border story.

There is no narrator and we are guided through the parallel narrative by events, be that the moralising of the vigilantes or the crackle-moans of men being electrocuted. There are chilling scenes with the Autodefensas, and the director bounces in and out of cars, capturing the vigilantes’ shoot-outs with cartel members. In one scene, as the men close in on two leading gangsters, Heineman is understandably running around corners and in the film he has left in shots where he loses focus on his camera, the lens jolting and whitening in the sun. This means the action is not sanitised; we undergo the visceral shock of being in a gun-fight. The two gangsters are captured, reported to have tortured and dismembered relatives of the vigilantes. Cartel Land is raw, it is unfettered, the viewer is wincingly enmeshed in the violence, as one man punches the gangster known as ‘El Cheneque’, hollering and demanding to know where his uncles’ bodies are buried.

The director himself admits he is not a traditional war reporter; his embedding is of a different sort, with groups operating in a blurry, semi-legal world. They assure the locals that they are the good guys, but where vigilantes build up a following they can take on a cult hero presence and with growing sway they risk challenge and downfall. As the narrative develops, we spend more time south of the border and Dr Mireles begins to lose control. His mutinous understudies join a government-sponsored ‘Rural Defence Force’, he is frozen out and forced to flee, his civic leader status is undercut by an unnerving audio recording of a sexual encounter with a mistress. His life is collapsing and he ends the film behind bars, suspiciously incarcerated amid claims of official silencing.

The Mexican heart of darkness has been documented before. In Cartel Land the audience gets a fresh view of the horribly regular themes of torture and extortion through the two counterpoints to a transnational problem. The drugs and guns come and go on both sides of the border and the director shows the community resistance building in the grassroots in both countries.

This is most stunningly illustrated in the cinematography in the two main theatres of action: the Arizonans patrolling the wild wastes of the Sonoran Desert; or the blood-red sunset scenery over Mexican towns, with the hunched shoulders of some young rifleman silhouetted against a empty dusk. It is at turns a darkly comic and distressingly graphic film, and deservedly took home two awards at the Sundance festival earlier this year.

Heineman was at the same sold-out screening of the film, at the Frontline Club in London, as I was, taking questions afterwards. I asked him about the cyclical role the meth lab scenes play, used at the beginning and the end. He explained the tense relationship-building that went into working with the cooks and debunks the Breaking Bad-style glorification. Heineman said he wanted to present the drug manufacturing process as it was, in the half-light, lost in the backwoods.

The deceitful tendrils of policemen, politicians, gangsters and vigilantes are exposed then by one of the cooks, who we see at the end sporting a ‘Rural Defence Force’ polo shirt. The incorruptibility of the Autodefensas is never certain and the group’s strategies and members change as the movement grows. The corrupt but, ultimately, unsurprising cycle is complete in this final scene, the drug-running phoenix rising from the tarnished flames of a movement that is turning into the very danger it was formed to confront.

Cartel Land is showing at cinemas across the UK. See cartellandmovie.co.uk for more details.

This review first appeared in Sounds and Colours on 7 September

UK-Mexico love-in

On Monday 22 September the British Mexican Society held its annual ‘Two Ambassadors’ event to celebrate and promote the countries’ bilateral relations

The Mexican Ambassador to the UK's residence

The Mexican Ambassador to the UK’s residence

Once more this fixture in the society’s calendar was fully booked, with a brimming audience anticipating the latest high-level update from both diplomats, held in the Mexican ambassador’s residence in London. It is a congratulatory type of occasion, and those in attendance looked not for discord but rather a chance to cherish the joint ambitions for the future and successes of the past. The two nations have deep links that stem from the birth of the modern Mexico, as the United Kingdom was the first country to recognise informally the new country after independence from Spain and the second (after the US) to notify the Mexican government officially. The two countries have a long and shared literary, artistic, sporting, scientific and industrial history.

The Mexican ambassador to the UK, Diego Gómez Pickering, spoke first, softly to start with as he warmed up by praising the UK’s “solid economic recovery” and “business-oriented strategy” and confirming that he thought that Great Britain was “destined to remain a world leader in the eyes of Mexicans”. He divided his presentation into four sections that roughly broke into: current economic situation/UK recovery; uniqueness of the countries’ relationship; Mexican structural reforms; and the future untapped economic partnerships.

(L-R) Mexican Ambassador to the UK, Diego Gómez Pickering; British Ambassador to Mexico, Duncan Taylor; and British Mexican Society chairman, Richard Maudslay

(L-R) Mexican Ambassador to the UK, Diego Gómez Pickering; British Ambassador to Mexico, Duncan Taylor; and British Mexican Society chairman, Richard Maudslay

After that, the diplomat went on to look at the upcoming, if rather ungainly-titled ‘2015: The Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico’. This ‘dual year’ will “foster better understanding…/renew projects and initiatives”. It appears that culture and education will be the bases of the twelve months of intended mutual positivity, with the nations focusing their ‘year’ on universities, the arts and society as a whole.

Mr Gómez Pickering also looked forward to the visit next month of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall and there was an added regal element to this year’s event in London, as the society’s patron, the Duke of Gloucester, was there.

The British ambassador to Mexico, Duncan Taylor, spoke at length in praiseworthy terms about the “remarkable and palpable goodwill towards Britain [from Mexico]”. He said he was “encouraged by the warmth of feelings” and commented that the two nations thought “very much alike”. He spoke about shared values and outlooks and lauded Enrique Peña Nieto’s structural reforms as an “extraordinary series of measures”. He was on more uncertain ground when talking about joint development projects in Belize. He recognised the “different histories and different perspectives” when describing the British-Mexican togetherness: one a previously colonising country and the other a nation that was colonised.

There were questions from the audience that followed up on three themes: the coming bilateral cultural year mentioned above; science and innovation; and literature. After the event, there was a reception in another room in the residence where margaritas and some Mexican culinary delectation was were on offer. I spoke to the Mexican diplomat then about two matters. Firstly: indigenous rights, which President Peña Nieto had just addressed at the UN Plenary Session of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The leader discussed the importance of protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous people and their cultures and customs across the globe. Mexico, for its part, recognises 56 languages in use by its more than 15 million native peoples.

I also asked Mr Gómez Pickering on a more difficult issue: the exorbitant numbers of child migrants attempting to cross Mexico’s northern border and the disappearances, murders, rapes, robberies and extortions committed in the deserts and forests of Mexico against travelling workers. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted recently that despite the change of government (from the conservative PAN of Felipe Calderón to the centrist PRI) there had been no let-up in the violations of human rights against undocumented migrants. The ambassador palmed off the issue to his human rights attaché, Stephanie Black, who did admit the enormity of the problem and suggested that while the PRI had been addressing the matter there was still a long way to go.

Guatemala talking

On Monday 11 February, the Guatemalan foreign minister, Fernando Carrera, attended several events in London. This is a review of the talk he gave at Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute

Guatemala is a small nation. With a population of 14 million, it is dwarfed in many ways by its huge northern neighbour, Mexico. So on matters of policy it generally tends to stick together with the other little Central American states. Its foreign minister is a stocky, smooth-talking economist who was at great pains last night to point out the much larger ambitions that his country has – particularly in terms of regional integration.

Fernando Carrera, in a late afternoon talk at Canning House, focused his short speech on regional integration and relations between Latin American countries as a whole and the democratisation of the region.

INTEGRATION

Carrera could not have been more excited by the prospect of a closer economic and political club for the Central American countries. He was especially vocal about the possibilities of partnership between the southernmost five states of Mexico long with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – “[that will be] part of our future, for sure”. He then added Cuba to the guest list for entry to what he labelled the ‘4 x 14 million’ group. These are four areas: Southern Mexico; Guatemala; El Salvador and Honduras; and Cuba that have about 14 million people and may be open to getting together to form another Latin American bloc. Such alliances are not rare. From the Organisation of American States (every North and South American country), through CELAC (the same lot minus the US and Canada) to ALBA (a leftist group of eight states), the politicians of the region seem to spend a lot of their time dreaming up acronyms for the next combination of countries.

One of these blocs that Carrera eulogised was the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile); he praised its abilities to “go beyond traditional markets”. This comment could have been seen as a slight nudge to some of those aforementioned blocs, which pander to regional trade and policy. The Pacific one is trying to get the nations on the other side of the ocean involved as well. Guatemala is an observer of the Alliance. However, he did also make sure he underlined the importance of running a healthy home as well as planning holidays abroad – “by supporting each other, we learn how to get out of war” and “it’s clear today that creating economic opportunities in Central America is very easy”.

DEMOCRATISATION

Mr Carrera used the latter part of his talk to address the current state of democracy in the region. He was openly happy that Latin American countries had finally got over the hurdle of arguing about different political ideologies and got on with some proper dialogue at the head-of-state level. He said that a “united Latin America can now be considered” and that democracy had opened the minds of the people of Latin America in a way that had not been previously possible.

After his talk, Fernando Carrera took four QUESTIONS, of varying themes:

He was first pressed on Guatemala’s relations with Belize. The two countries have been disputing their shared border for many years and have agreed to hold simultaneous referenda in October on submitting Guatemala’s territorial and maritime claims to the International Court of Justice. Mr Carrera did not mention Belize when he was discussing teaming up with his neighbours, despite the two countries’ proximity to one another. This omission was noted by the audience; the minister called the issue “challenging” but he did say that he would “love Belize to be part of the regional integration plan”.

The second question focused on co-operation between Guatemala and its neighbours to try to combat the ongoing violent crime in the region. The politician said that one major problem that needed fixing was the weakness of the state actors of Central American countries. He conceded that this had been lacking in his nation, saying that the strengthening of national executives, legislatures and judiciaries across the area was paramount to being able to take on the violence in a strong and measured manner.

After that, Mr Carrera was asked about further integration with Mexico. He referenced simple ideas such as academic exchanges and grander plans like a possible chamber of commerce between certain areas of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Finally, I wanted to know what steps the minister could take through his foreign affairs role to try to safeguard the lives and rights of Central American migrants making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States. Crimes against migrating workers – regularly travelling illegally and therefore taking even more hazardous decisions and routes – are common and range from robbery to rape and murder. Mr Carrera had spoken a lot that evening about integration and it seems that it is only with international action that such violence could possibly be confronted. The minister said it was a “pity not to be able to guarantee the migrants’ lives and rights”, saying that his government will “do our best to avoid this horrible situation”. He highlighted that one way to try to act was through ensuring that “we strive not to allow state actors to violate rights or perpetrate crimes” against the migrating workers.

A long way to go

The new Mexican president tries to ease himself into an uncomfortable chair

After a five-month hiatus that followed his election win in the summer, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto has finally settled down into the presidency. He has had a busy few days since taking the presidential sash from the outgoing Felipe Calderón. And, just like the election on 1 July, this time of political change has not been free from controversy.

The man at the helm of the Mexican ship is young and claims to be leading his refreshed PRI party out on a new message of national unity and endeavour. But his agenda and the political mystique surrounding the PRI’s comeback have been under scrutiny during the long campaign, the election, the summer interregnum and now the handover of power. Critics say that the PRI is simply an old book that has been re-covered and its return to the top job is like the re-issuing of a booming, controversial tome that once kept all other books out of the shop window and pushed back onto the dusty shelves.

The conservative PAN and their embattled former president were seen as increasingly tired as Calderón’s six-year term was coming to an end. Enrique Peña Nieto has clearly tried to highlight the change at the top by underlining his rhetoric with energetic plans and policy announcements. And, just one day after his inauguration, he oversaw a cross-party agreement to try to overcome the infamous squabbling in Congress. (Even though the PRI retook the presidency, it does not have a majority across the two houses of parliament.) The ‘Pact for Mexico’ saw the three chiefs of the big party beasts (the PRI, the PAN and the left-leaning PRD) agree to work together in three main policy areas: telecommunications; education; and local government finances.

There were serious street protests ahead of and during the handover ceremony on Saturday 1 December. This was nothing new: the president came to power in the face of massive student demonstrations spearheaded by the ‘YoSoy#132′ group and this blog witnessed first-hand the energy of the youth protests which often coupled their anti-PRI heartbeat with a pro-PRD leaning. This time around 92 people were arrested amid violent scenes: police had to fire tear gas to contain protesters who showed their ire at the congressional confirmation of power on a man they see as a puppet for a fraudulent few moving behind the scenes at the top of Mexican society. Stones and firecrackers were thrown, banks and hotels’ windows were smashed and bonfires started in the roads of the capital.

The PRI has had to continue to dampen the ongoing claims that it secured its new election success through the old techniques of vote-buying, smear campaigns and manipulation of the media. But in the summer, after the defeated socialist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a legal challenge to the result, the country’s highest court found in the PRI’s favour and Mr Peña Nieto was free to prepare for his groundbreaking move to the presidency.

But the major national issue that overwhelms all Mexicans and belittles all the legislative changes and electoral arguments is the wave of violent and organised crime that still floods the country. On Sunday, as the co-operation agreement between the three parties was announced, there was a timely reminder of Mr Peña Nieto’s biggest challenge. Nine people were found dead in the northern city of Torreón. In one house, seven men had been dismembered and Chihuahua state authorities found heads, torsoes, arms and legs stuffed in plastic bags; across town another two bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered.

66,000 Mexicans have died and thousands more are desaparecidos after the war that ex-president Calderón declared on the gangsters. Civilians, police officers, members of the armed forces and criminals have all been killed in this civil war. There have been some successes for the authorities (25 of the 37 most-wanted barons have been killed or captured) but the public would like a new way to try to quell the fear of extortion, rape, kidnap and torture that exists across large swathes of the nation. For the moment, the new leader has maintained the deployment of the army and navy on the streets and he has categorically denied that there will be any secret, shadowy handshakes and winks with the gangsters, a tactic his party has been accused of using in the past.

The president may be new but the violence is not. And, in fact, the PRI has never been denied the chance to discuss combative policies to sort out the destruction as it has never fully been beaten out of office. Despite missing out on the last two presidencies it has held on to many state governorships (including Peña Nieto himself in Mexico State from 2005-11) and it too has suffered from the crime: PRI politicians have been threatened and killed.

Mr Peña Nieto has won the hearts of many housewives with his good looks and he undoubtedly won the votes of many Mexicans in the election. But his road to the presidency has not been smooth and the challenges he now faces are not small in number or in scale. He has a long way to go to prove to the country that whilst the Mexican political behemoth may be back, it is a reformed political creature with a taste for fair governance rather than widespread corruption.

Long-grass policy?

Cannabis policy moves in the US and Uruguay re-ignite calls for drugs strategies to be reviewed

Earlier this week the Mexican president Felipe Calderón joined several regional counterparts for talks. One of the topics up for discussion was the possible social implications of legalising the sale and possession of cannabis. The Mexican leader, who has two weeks left in Los Pinos before the handover of power to Enrique Peña Nieto, has spent most of his six-year term waging a brutal and costly war against drugs gangsters in his country. On Monday he spoke of another tactic: legalisation. This is a popular idea in Latin America and former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, along with ex-Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all said legalisation has to be considered.

Another country in the Americas that has thought about scrapping national penalties on the sale and possession of pot is the US – albeit at the moment on a state rather than federal level. On 6 November the vast majority of the United States was focused on a very different set of policy arguments: the tax plans; jobs measures; foreign ideas; and grand-standing of the candidates in its presidential election. But in three (safe Democrat) western states, voters were also going to the polls over the issue of legalising the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington passed the vote whilst Oregon rejected a move to get rid of criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of cannabis recreationally. At a federal level, the United States does not currently favour the national legalisation of pot-smoking but that position is changing in the presidential offices of some of its regional neighbours.

In Uruguay, the government has faced up to the issue of weed consumption rather than trying to deny it or only discuss further penalising it. Montevideo is set to establish a ‘National Cannabis Institute’ through which the state will regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The government has said it is determined to offer what it describes as ‘better quality’ pot than that which is currently bought and sold on the Uruguayan black market. It is a novel way to confront the issue.

Socially, the Americas seem to be driving the global discussion on drugs regulation. But there are still differences from country to country. Unlike Mexico, Uruguay is not fighting a bloody civil war, wrought with the images of decapitated men and women set against a backdrop of hillsides flaming as fields of confiscated cannabis are set alight. To say ordinary Mexicans are tired of the destruction would be an understatement. They long for a way out of the violent mess. Is that exit labelled ‘legalisation’?

Consumption within Mexico is not the issue at hand – but would more wide-ranging reform of the system in the US, particularly on a federal level (or with the compliance of federal authorities to laws passed in individual states) calm the warfare to the south? Gangs would have less reason to smuggle weed into a country where it could be grown and sold legally. Mexican politicians have tried forging secret pacts with the gangs; they have tried to crush them with the civil deployment of the armed forces. They need a new way.

The policy moves at either end of the Americas underline the international dimension to the drugs debate. Could the gangs be defeated through cross-border measures and agreements? Mexico has lost a lot of energy in the war on drugs. Surely the talks hosted by Felipe Calderón this week with the leaders of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica demonstrate that there is everything to gain by closer neighbourly chats: talks over how to deliver a social policy blow to the gangs rather than using bribes or bombs?