Archive for July 1, 2012
You can bet that Washington was watching election returns in Mexico City tonight with a degree of concern about potential impact in the two nations war against drugs. As candidates across party lines suggest new strategies, like reducing violence and taking troops off the streets, some U.S. lawmakers say they’re nervous that cross-border cooperation could wane after Mexican voters pick a new president July 1.Last week, a Republican congressman told the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that he was concerned about Mexico’s “impending change in power.” And Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in February that he feared at least one Mexican presidential candidate was not committed to continuing his country’s campaign against organized crime.
Worries in Washington as Mexico’s election looms are a reminder of the close ties binding the neighboring nations. The two countries share billions of dollars in trade and a border that stretches for nearly 2,000 miles. Millions of U.S. citizens travel to Mexico every year, and millions of Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal – live in the United States. “Almost no other country affects the United States as much on a day to day basis as Mexico,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Latin American studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What happens in Mexico is hugely important for the United States.”
For nearly six years, a brutal drug war in Mexico with a staggering death toll of more than 47,500 people has dominated discussions between the two countries. Announcing a crackdown on cartels and sending troops into the streets to help fight the battle were among the first major moves by President Felipe Calderon after he took office in December 2006. The United States voiced its support and offered $1.6 billion to aid in the fight. U.S. officials have praised growing cooperation with the Mexican government as a key weapon in the war on drugs. But on the campaign trail in Mexico this year, the three leading candidates have stressed the need to shift strategies.
Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the opposition Democratic Revolution Party has summed up his security policy as “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets). He started his campaign with a pledge to pull back troops from Mexico’s streets, but he said last month that the military would remain deployed until there is a “trained, skilled and moralized” police force. Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party has apparently tried to distance herself from Calderon’s policies with a simple slogan: “Josefina Diferente” (Different Josefina). “The results will be measured not just by criminals captured, but by how stable and secure communities are,” her campaign website says.
Enrique Pena Nieto of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has pledged to focus more on reducing violence and less on catching cartel leaders and blocking drugs from reaching the United States. He told CNNMexico that federal, state and local authorities would coordinate a better security plan on his watch. “I propose adjusting the strategy and making a national front that involves the three levels of the government, focused on diminishing the violence in the country,” he said. Some political opponents of Pena Nieto, whose party governed Mexico for more than 70 years until 2000, have warned that negotiating with drug cartels and gangs could be on his agenda — an accusation that Pena Nieto has repeatedly denied. But his denials haven’t squelched speculation on both sides of the border that negotiating with cartels — or at least easing the pressure on them — could be on the table.
In a congressional hearing last week, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said the war on drugs was nearing a “potential crossroad,” referring to Pena Nieto’s plan and his party’s political history. “While in power, the PRI minimized violence by turning a blind eye to the cartels,” the Wisconsin Republican said, noting that Pena Nieto “does not emphasize stopping drug shipments or capturing kingpins.” Minutes earlier, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart had testified that Mexico had extradited more than 200 accused suspects to the United States since 2010. “Without reservation, I would characterize the cooperation between United States and Mexico at an all-time high,” she said. Sensenbrenner said the close teamwork could be short-lived. “I worry that the relationship could be at a high water mark with the impending change in power,” he said.
In a statement the next day, Pena Nieto’s campaign said he was committed to combating organized crime. “The law is applied, it is never negotiated,” the statement said. No matter who wins, the election will likely mark “a change from where U.S.-Mexico security strategy has been,” said O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. But the shift is something U.S. officials who work with Mexico have prepared for, she said. Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington, said a change in presidential leadership will give Mexican officials a chance to consider fresh approaches to deal with drug-related violence and other issues that affect the United States, such as economic and energy policies. “Between the three candidates and the predecessors, there would be an opportunity to reflect on what worked, and what didn’t work, and how, perhaps things should be changed,” he said.
The concerns from some U.S. lawmakers about a shift in drug war strategy are overblown, he said. “All three of the major candidates have committed themselves to fighting drug trafficking and reducing the violence,” Pastor said. “All three are very much committed to working with the United States.” That itself is a notable shift from past elections, when cross-border relations soured or sweetened based on who won the presidential vote, according to Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The U.S.-Mexico relationship has now matured to a point where changes in party and personality matter less than they used to,” he said. “This is a country that matters enormously for the U.S., and for the first time, perhaps, what happens in the elections won’t change [that relationship] much.”
While U.S. officials will, no doubt, focus attention on bi-lateral issues like drugs and immigration the world will look at Mexico a little differently. If Mexico were a stock, now might be the time to buy. The country has been severely under-valued in recent years. Despite high rates of crime and violence elsewhere in Latin America, the media tend to focus relentlessly on Mexico’s drug war. The murder rate is nearly 20 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, but this is significantly lower than in Brazil, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. And the Central American nations of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras have murder rates nearly twice that of Mexico. Still, because of exaggerated fears that Mexico is becoming a “failed state” or sliding into a “narco-insurgency,” many tourists and investors have shied away from the country. And these fears in turn fuel often unfounded concerns about Mexico.
When five burned bodies were found in the Arizona desert earlier this month, the local authorities were quick to blame spillover violence from Mexico. Post-mortem reports now indicate that the incident was probably something that is, unfortunately, more typical of the US: a murder-suicide in a troubled marriage. Mexico’s public relations problems have not been limited to security. Three years ago, Mexico bore the brunt of the global H1N1 or swine flu crisis. Some reports initially called it the Mexican influenza, even though the epidemic may well have started elsewhere in North America. And in the latest wave of panic among global investors, the Mexican peso took an unexpected dive this month.
With some opinion polls showing increased support for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate, the peso’s value dropped by 12% from its long, stable 13:1 ratio against the dollar. But for long-term Mexico observers, things are not as bleak as they might first appear. According to the latest analysis by the Trans-Border Institute, drug-related homicides were down by some 19% compared with the same time last year. If this pattern continues, 2012 will see fewer drug killings than in the two previous years which saw admittedly high levels of violence with some 15,000 and 16,700 murders respectively. Such a change would be welcome in itself but it would also reflect that there is much more to Mexico than drug violence.
While Mexico is on the list of travel warnings issued by the US state department, along with Iran, Algeria and Syria, it is still the number one destination for US citizens travelling abroad. There were more than 20 million visits by Americans last year. And an estimated one million US citizens reside permanently in Mexico. Mexico is also of growing economic importance. It needs to improve its energy sector, but it is the seventh largest oil producer and the third biggest oil supplier to the US market. More US export-based jobs depend on Mexico than on any other country except Canada. And Mexican investors now own major US brands like Dairy Fresh milk products, Entenmann’s pastries, and Thomas’ English Muffins.
Even the New York Times is part-Mexican, with billionaire Carlos Slim owning about 7% of the company and rights to buy up to 16%. This all reflects the growing buying power and role of Mexican investors in the international economy in recent years. The purchasing power of Mexicans is also set to grow in the coming decade. Mexican income levels, currently around $13,000 (£8,350) per capita, have grown modestly but they have grown. Shifting population dynamics and better employment opportunities in Mexico have also begun to reverse outbound migration, a major change on the last three decades. To be sure, Mexico is entering a time of some uncertainty.
The presidential election is likely to see the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country for 71 years. Its candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, benefits from a unified party apparatus, telemetric looks, and weak rivals in Mr Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the governing party. For some, the PRI is unfit to take back the reins of power, given concerns about corruption within its ranks. An alternative view is that the PRI’s alleged corruption allows it to negotiate with drug traffickers and restore order. Both views are probably over-simplified.
Mexican voters have a lower tolerance for corruption than in the past, and with drug gangs fragmented after years of fighting it would be harder to strike a deal with them. Mexico is unlikely to turn back the clock on democracy or fall prey to the fiery populism that has taken hold elsewhere in the region. While security remains a problem, the drop in drug-related killings is promising. Mexico was arguably the Greece of the 1980s and 1990s, suffering excruciating debt and monetary crises. But Mexico, which hosts the G20 summit next week, is Greece no more. The country is likely to continue to grow economically, reduce poverty, and nourish its small, but expanding, middle class. Regardless of who wins on 1 July, it is time to change the conventional exceedingly bearish outlook on Mexico.
CNNMexico.com contributed to this report. The BBC contributed to this report.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — (DMN/Al-Jazeera) – Mexican opposition candidate Enrique Pena Nieto’s campaign team has claimed victory in the country’s presidential election after exit polls showed him winning by a comfortable margin. Pena Nieto, 45, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), led by between 8 and 11 percentage points in exit polls published by three of Mexico’s main television networks after voting ended on Sunday night. Shortly afterwards his campaign manager Luis Videgaray declared victory. “It is a resounding triumph,” Videgaray told Milenio television, adding he was hopeful the PRI would have a majority in the Senate and possibly in the lower house of Congress too.
The PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years until losing in 2000, has staged a comeback behind the handsome Pena Nieto, who has pledged to open state-owned oil monopoly Pemex to foreign investors, raise tax revenue and liberalise the labour market. The exit polls showed him winning around 40 per cent of the vote. Leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was in second place with Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, trailing in third. Vazquez Mota said none of the exit polls favoured her. The candidate for President Felipe Calderon’s National Action was the first woman presidential candidate for a major party. Preliminary official results were due in the next few hours.
Reporting from the Juarez valley, an often-lawless rural region near the US border, Al Jazeera’s Chris Arsenault said: “Voting has been calm in these area and the electorate – most of whom are farmers – seems split between the PRI and the PRD. As in the rest of the country, the biggest issues are unemployment and insecurity.” “The PAN’s candidate has already conceded defeat.After their massive loss, the party will receive less funds from state and has basically been relegated to the political wilderness. The left-leaning PRD swept Mexico City, carrying about 60 per cent of the vote, but it looks like the PRI will coast to victory on a national level.”
Vazquez Mota’s campaign was dragged down by a brutal war with drug cartels and the government’s patchy economic record. “It’s time for the PRI to return. They’re the only ones who know how to govern,” said Candelaria Puc, 70, as she voted in the beach resort of Cancun. “The PRI is tough, but they won’t let the drug violence get out of control.” Others feared a return to the worst years of PRI rule and put Pena Nieto’s big lead down to his cozy relationship with Televisa, Mexico’s top broadcaster. “It’s the same party as ever and the people who vote for him (Pena Nieto) believe they are going to live happily ever after like in the soap operas,” Humberto Parra, a systems engineer, said as he went to vote in Mexico City. By the time it lost to the PAN in 2000, the PRI had a reputation for widespread corruption, electoral fraud and authoritarianism.
The PRI was in disarray by 2006, when its presidential candidate came in a distant third, but it has rebounded since then and Pena Nieto gave it a new face. He is promising to restore security to cities and towns ravaged by the drug war and also plans to reform Pemex, a proposal once considered political suicide. Mexicans are fiercely protective of Pemex, but the PRI, which nationalized oil production in 1938, could be the one party able to liberalize the energy industry. The PRI laid the foundations of the modern state with a nimble blend of politics and patronage that allowed it to appeal to labor unions and captains of industry at the same time. Mexicans eventually tired of heavy-handedness that stifled dissent, rewarded loyalists and allowed widespread corruption.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — (DMN) – Polls have closed in Mexico’s presidential election, in which voters seem set to bring the PRI, the party that ran the country for seven decades, back to power. Nearly 80 million Mexicans were eligible to cast ballots in Sunday’s vote. Election officials are expected to announce the first official results at around 04:45 GMT on Monday. Final results are expected later in the week, with the opposition party that dominated the country for most of the past century poised for a comeback after the ruling conservatives failed to provide strong growth or halt a brutal drugs war. Twelve years after the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost power, polls show its candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, heading into the vote on Sunday with a double-digit lead over his opponents, despite lingering doubts about the party.
Tainted by corruption, electoral fraud and occasional bouts of brutal authoritarianism during its 71 years in power, the PRI was voted out in 2000. But it has bounced back, helped by the economic malaise and a tide of lawlessness that have plagued Mexico under the conservative National Action Party (PAN). After ending the PRI’s rule in 2000, the PAN raised hopes of a new dawn for democracy in Mexico. But years of weak growth and the death of more than 55,000 people in drug-related killings since 2007 have eroded its popularity.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) insists that his figures show that he can pull an upset victory. Lopez Obrador lost in 2006 by less than one per cent and claimed he was robbed of his victory. Weeks of mass protests followed, bringing Mexico City to a standstill. Polls show Josefina Vazquez Mota from PAN in a distant third, with about 24 per cent support, while Gabriel Quadri, a civil engineer representing a party created by the country’s powerful teachers’ union, has between two and four percent support.
Mexican presidents are elected by simple majority for six-year terms and are banned from running for re-election. Consecutive re-election is also banned in all other elected positions. There is no run-off vote, meaning that a plurality of votes likely will be cast for someone other than the winner. Mistrust in the electoral system runs high. Pre-vote surveys suggested that 40 per cent of the nearly 80 million eligible voters will not bother to show up at the polls. A survey out Friday by the Autonomous University of Mexico showed that 71 per cent of Mexicans believe electoral fraud is possible.
- Voters elect 500 deputies, 128 senators, Mexico City mayor, six state governors and the president
- The president is elected for a single six-year term and cannot stand for re-election
- Nearly 80m registered voters
- More than 30,000 monitors
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Rachel Levin, reporting from Mexico City, said that this election has seen an unprecedented amount of monitors. “There are more than 30,000 observers distributed throughout the country and all the main political parties sent their own monitors. There are also 700 observers form 60 countries to make sure this is a free and fair election,” Levin said. Also on the ballot are 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies who serve for three years; 128 members of the senate, who serve for six years; and various mayoral and gubernatorial positions. In Ciudad Juarez, a border city in northern Mexico, election officials told Al Jazeera that at least 138,000 eligible voters have either fled the city or been killed by the city’s unprecedented levels of violence in recent years.
Despite fears of election day violence, Al Jazeera’s Chris Arsenault in Ciudad Juarez reported that, “voters at some of the larger polling stations in Juarez are waiting an hour to an hour and a half to cast their ballots but no one seems to mind.” “The biggest issue is, unsurprisingly, security,” Arsenault said.
Follow the Mexican election coverage in Spanish at CNNMéxico.com
HOUSTON, Texas — (DMN) – A Southwest Airlines flight from Houston’s Hobby Airport to Chicago landed in Indianapolis, Indiana today due to the plane’s brakes overheating. Southwest flight 3587 with 141 people on board was delayed but no one was hurt according to officials in Indianapolis. Firefighters met the plane on the runway to help cool the brakes.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — (DMN) – Mexico’s voters appeared poised to bring the old guard back to power on Sunday, a dozen years after the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Partylost the presidential seat it held for more than seven decades in a contest that proved the country was finally a democracy. The party known as the PRI, led by telegenic former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, has held a strong lead throughout the campaign, and also appears likely to retake at least a plurality in the two houses of Congress.
As voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, allegations are flying that candidates are offering money and swag, flouting campaign-spending limits in the process. Most allegations are aimed at the old guard Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which polls say holds a sizeable lead after being kicked out of the top office by voters 12 years ago. The PRI held on to Mexico’s presidency for 71 years, using vote-buying and other kinds of fraud when deemed necessary, until it was defeated in 2000 by the National Action Party, or PAN. The PRI claims to have changed, and political reforms instituted since 1988 have made Mexican elections far harder to steal. But in the latest contest, the PAN accused the PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto’s campaign of acquiring about 9,500 prepaid gift cards worth nearly $5.2 million (71 million pesos) to give away for votes.
Pena Nieto has also been dogged by allegations that he overspent his $330 million campaign funding limit and bought favorable coverage from Mexico’s television giant, Televisa. With a double-digit lead in most polls, Pena Nieto has seldom felt the need to respond to the attacks.” We are going to win with your vote, with your free participation, nothing coerced or conditioned,” he told a crowd last week at a closing rally in southern Chiapas state.
But the election fraud unit of Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office says that since the campaign officially began March 30 it has opened investigations into 585 alleged electoral crimes, largely involving complaints that voters were being bought off or coerced to vote for a certain candidate. They have arrested 380 people and convicted 58. “In a country so poor, with so much inequality, there are undoubtedly forces that will try to take advantage of that,” said Ricardo Becerra, coordinator of the institute’s election advisers.
On Sunday, Mexico’s more than 79 million voters will elect a president, who serves one six-year term, as well as 500 congressional deputies and 128 senators. There are governors’ races in six of Mexico’s 31 states, plus Mexico City, as well hundreds of local offices up for grabs. For president, voters will choose among Pena Nieto and his chief rivals: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party; Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party and Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance.
Becerra said ballot fraud is “materially impossible” because 92 percent of the 143,151 polling stations nationwide will have registered representatives from all three major parties. At the start of the day, all three must sign off on the ballots, ensuring they are blank. At the end of the day, the marked ballots will be counted again and stamped at the polling place, so counterfeits cannot be brought in. There will also be about 700 international observers, the largest contingent from the Organization of American States. But that’s down from more than 900 in the 1994 and 2000 elections, when Mexico’s emerging democracy was under much more pressure.
The PRD and PAN, as well as the PRI, have been accused of giving out gift cards and groceries to garner votes. Technically, parties are allowed to give away anything they want, as long as they report the expense, don’t exceed spending limits and don’t make people feel the gift is payment for their vote. In practice, such distinctions are not always clear. Maria Dolores Flores Sandoval, 66, works the unpaved roads of her Mexico state slum neighborhood in Tultitlan looking to sign up voters for Pena Nieto, saying she has been promised she’ll get paid for her work “once they get into office.” “I work at bringing the people out to vote,” she said. “I hope it happens soon,” she said of her payment, “if not, I’m going to die of hunger.”
Cesar Solaris hands out discounted, $7.50-per pair eyeglasses worth three or four times that much at a Pena Nieto campaign office in Mexico City in what he calls “part campaign work, part social work.” A video posted on social networks shows a huge warehouse stuffed with election give-away groceries in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz. The PRD held a press conference Wednesday to display 3,000 gift cards from the Soriana department store that it said were worth about $75 (1,000 pesos) each and had been distributed to voters in the State of Mexico by the PRI in exchange for promises of support in Sunday’s election.
PRI leader Pedro Joaquin Caldwell hotly denied his party was involved in any of the card schemes, and has suggested that opposition party members who are far behind in the polls are crying “`fraud” because they know they’ll lose. “It is a completely implausible accusation,” Caldwell said. “The PRI has already opened its books … let me remind you that in spending reports on the pre-campaign (primary races), the PRI was the only party that complied with all the rules.” Becerra acknowledged that technology allows some new methods for vote-buying, but he doubts they could swing an election. “You could say that, in the past, some cacique (political boss) would hand out envelopes filled with cash at his house, and now it could be a credit card with a certain pre-paid amount,” Becerra said. “But I find it unlikely that could be done a thousand times with nobody seeing it, or reporting it.”
He said one safeguard is that no matter what voters take or promise, they can still vote freely once inside the curtain-draped booth. “You can’t really tell a man who’s poor not to take that (gift),” Becerra said. At least three groups have set up sophisticated websites where citizens can upload complaints and videos or other material to document irregularities. There are also social media sites for reporting alleged fraud in real time, something unthinkable in the 2006 contest, when Twitter was a few months old. “Six years ago we didn’t have the have the tools we have now,” said Carlos Gershenson, a leader of the Contamos election watchdog group.
Lopez Obrador is Pena Nieto’s closest challenger, but is behind by at least 10 points in most recent polls. He charged that his narrow loss in 2006 to President Felipe Calderon was because of fraud, though he never proved it. He has been the most vocal against allegations of vote-buying, leading many to fear he won’t concede if he loses and will lead his supporters into clogging Mexico City’s streets in protest as he did six years ago. Even Lopez Obrador acknowledges that “2012 is not 2006.” “Things have changed. In 2006 we lacked organization, now we are organized,” he said, referring to his party’s near-complete coverage of polling observers.
Voter fraud was a well-practiced tradition under PRI rule, including the delivery of ballot boxes to polling stations with the votes already marked. Among the most dramatic examples of alleged vote stealing was the 1988 presidential election, which many people believe Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the PRD won. Cardenas was ahead until a power outage shut down the count. When the power came back, Carlos Salinas of the PRI was winning and became the next president. After more than two decades of political reforms, such a maneuver would be impossible today. But handouts are still practiced by all parties, which is legal if the expenses are reported.
Supporters for all parties are brought by bus to massive campaign rallies and given lunch and other gifts in a long-standing Mexican electoral tactic known as the “acarreo,” which roughly translates as “trucking in.” At Contamos, whose name can be translated as either “We Count” or “We Tell,” activists skew largely young, Internet-savvy and anti-Pena Nieto. They say the PRI accounts for 85.4 percent of the 1,000 or so complaints the site has received about campaign overspending or vote-buying and have seen some new schemes. In one such alleged scheme, voters would carry pre-marked ballots to deposit at the polls then take out their blank ballot to present for pay. Becerra said the new ballots are hard to counterfeit and are specially stamped when they arrive at the polls.
In another, candidates’ supporters allegedly have sought to “borrow” the voting credentials of people planning to vote against them for a fee, returning them after election day. The elections institute ran ads during the 90-day campaign reminding voters that such practices are illegal. There have also been reports that voters have been offered cash if they agree to take cellphone photographs inside the voting booths, showing their ballot marked for a certain candidate. Authorities have not found decisive proof that practice is occurring. Even if a candidate is found to have vastly overspent his campaign limit, the result is simply a fine after the election, not the reversal of the results. “Someone could say, `Yes, I spent ten times more the than the campaign spending limit, fine me whatever you want’,” said Jesus Zambrano, the leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.
CBS News contributed to this report.
There is no faster way to pass a law then to make people afraid of something. Post 9/11, the Patriot Act which saw basic freedoms erode at an unprecedented pace passed with almost no debate. Why? We were a nation in fear. In fear of terrorists. Lynne Kiesling writes on her blog that “fear is a strong motivating factor, having evolved over millennia as we have protected ourselves against predators. Fear supports self-preservation by making us risk-averse and cautious. But such a deep, visceral, evolved emotion does not always serve our long-term objectives of thriving; it leads to maximin outcomes, and it is often mismatched to the actual threats to our self-preservation. As our environments change around us, we can fear things we shouldn’t and may not fear things that we should; we overthink everything and tend toward a “precautionary principle” approach, making us risk-averse and cautious.”
Kenneth Dowler at the Department of Criminal Justice California State University at Bakersfield writes that public knowledge of crime and justice is largely derived from the media. This paper examines the influence of media consumption on fear of crime, punitive attitudes and perceived police effectiveness. This research contributes to the literature by expanding knowledge on the relationship between fear of crime and media consumption. This study also contributes to limited research on the media’s influence on punitive attitudes, while providing a much-needed analysis of the relationship between media consumption and satisfaction with the police. Employing OLS regression, the results indicate that respondents who are regular viewers of crime drama are more likely to fear crime. However, the relationship is weak. Furthermore, the results indicate that gender, education, income, age, perceived neighborhood problems and police effectiveness are statistically related to fear of crime. In addition, fear of crime, income, marital status, race, and education are statistically related to punitive attitudes. Finally, age, fear of crime, race, and perceived neighborhood problems are statistically related to perceived police effectiveness.
In American society, we are reactionary. After fear is established and touted by media stories and talking heads, we come up with some bad public policy whether it’s an elimination of due process under the Patriot Act, the expansion of draconian sex offender registries or over criminalization, mandatory minimum sentencing and so on. In Texas, 1 in 25 adults are in prison, jail or under court supervision. Our legislature has created, with the strokes of a pen, one of the largest group of felons in the United States. It’s not just Texas that has a problem. A contingent of parents at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan say their criminal pasts shouldn’t keep them from participating in their children’s education.
They began circulating petitions at an open house, asking the Grand Rapids Board of Education to loosen its procedure for screening in-school volunteers. Grand Rapids — like all school districts in Kent and Ottawa counties — screens prospective volunteers through the Internet Criminal History Access Tool. Some districts also screen volunteers through the Sex Offender Registry and the Offender Tracking Information System. While some districts use criminal histories to advise administrative decisions on volunteer assignments, Grand Rapids Public Schools only permits volunteers who can meet the same bar the state sets for school employees: No felony convictions. “Something you did back in the day when you were young and dumb, should not be allowed to haunt you forever and make you a less effective parent,” said Wendy Cross, 36, who pleaded guilty to writing bad checks in 2001.
Cross, a mother of six, said she moved her sixth- and her fourth-graders from MLK this fall, although she was very satisfied with the school, so she could volunteer in their classrooms and chaperone field trips. The children’s new school, New Branches, a local charter school, only denies volunteer applicants with criminal sexual conduct or drug charges or convictions for crimes against children. New Branches volunteers with drunken driving offenses can’t drive on field trips but are permitted to do other types of service. “It takes more time to decide on a case-by-case basis, but we’re willing to do it,” said Pam Duffy, principal at New Branches, which has 285 students. “The involvement of parents is vital to their child’s success in school.”
Screening volunteer applicants according to felony classification could be a full-time job in Grand Rapids Public Schools, an urban district with 18,000 students. Cross said School Security Director Larry Johnson told her he doesn’t have enough manpower to scrutinize nuances. Policies prohibiting felons inside schools stem from Michigan’s 2006 Student Safety Initiative, which requires criminal background checks and fingerprinting of school employees and subcontractors, said Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District. The law does not expressly include school volunteers, but the KISD board adopted a policy requiring volunteer criminal background checks, but not fingerprinting, in 2007. Koehler said he believes no member districts allow convicted felons to volunteer.
No one is suggesting a soft on crime approach but life-long listings as felons and sex offenders are, in many cases, patently unfair. Florida Governor Charlie Crist said it best in 2008, “once somebody has truly paid their debt to society, we should recognize it. We should welcome them back into society and give them that second chance. Who doesn’t deserve a second chance?“
A Texas District Attorney stands accused of allowing a killer to escape. Surely this cannot be so. Not in “
tough stupid on crime” Texas! Soon after her daughter was shot to death by a former lover, Hermila Garcia recalls hearing these comforting words from the local Texas prosecutor: “I am the state. I am the law. I am going to represent and defend your daughter.” Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos’ office did secure a murder conviction and 23-year prison term against Amit Livingston, but federal prosecutors allege he also orchestrated a scheme to line his own pockets that allowed Livingston to escape. Five years later, the killer remains at large.
The Associated Press reports that a dozen people, half lawyers, have been indicted as part of a federal probe into what some observers call the most widespread case of judicial corruption they’ve ever seen. The saga has gripped the community in this southernmost tip of Texas. Besides Villalobos, two others charged were present the day Livingston dodged prison: Abel Limas, the judge who presided over the murder trial, and Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio, a lawyer who represented the victim’s children in a civil case. While Lucio and Villalobos are scheduled for trial next month, it was the case against Limas — who was convicted and awaits sentencing — that showed how deep the alleged crimes go. His indictment outlines the bribes and kickbacks exchanged for judicial discretions prosecutors say turned his courtroom into a criminal enterprise and earned him at least $257,000.
A cascade of indictments followed implicating a former state legislator, a former investigator from the prosecutor’s office and most recently Villalobos. Federal wiretaps on Limas’ phones intercepted some 40,000 calls, some of which have provided an ugly glimpse of justice behind closed doors where friendships and bribes among lawyers and judge sometimes tipped the scales against the legal process. “It’s been building steadily ever since the first charges came out,” said Anthony Knopp, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas-Brownsville. “I think people are even more horrified with each new accusation and revelation. It seems to be so extensive within the legal community.”
Villalobos’ attorney Joel Androphy declined to answer questions about the case before trial, which is set for Aug. 30, saying only “somebody has got some things wrong.” Lucio also declined to comment when asked recently in the federal courthouse where he and Villalobos watched Limas testify against another lawyer. But many observers consider the Livingston case to be the most egregious of all. Federal prosecutors allege that Villalobos conspired with Limas and Lucio, a long-time friend and former law partner, to game the system at the expense of justice.
Limas and Villalobos were well acquainted. Villalobos was the first prosecutor assigned to his court in 2001 and later worked as his court’s public defender until running for district attorney. For their scheme to work, federal prosecutors said, it involved a conspiracy among key players both in Livingston’s criminal trial and the civil case against him on behalf of the three children of the murder victim, 31-year-old Hermila Hernandez. They say Villalobos set Lucio up to represent the three children, and the criminal and civil cases both landed in Limas’ courtroom. The trio’s target was the $500,000 bond put up for Livingston’s release before trial. To get it, they convinced Limas to convict and sentence Livingston on the same day, thereby freeing up the bond to be used as the settlement in the lawsuit. But Limas also agreed that day to Livingston’s request that he have 60 days to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. That meant putting Livingston on the street without any bond — highly unusual for a convicted killer already sentenced to decades in prison.
Houston attorney Greg Gladden, who represented Livingston in the criminal and civil cases, said the negotiations over his client’s murder plea seemed to proceed normally until Limas agreed, at Villalobos’ insistence, to sentence Livingston on the same day he pleaded guilty. “We’re in chambers and the judge said, ‘That’s fine we’ll just do the plea and we’ll reset it for sentencing,’” Gladden said. “Villalobos says, ‘Well, no judge, we don’t care if you want to let him turn himself in later but the family is here, the press is here, we want to get it all done now. We want you to sentence him now, and if you want to let him voluntarily surrender, we don’t care about that.’” Gladden was stunned. Livingston would be let loose for 60 days without bond on a promise he’d return to serve his sentence. “I walked out of the courthouse wondering, you know that means the sheriff is going to have to release the bond money once the civil case is resolved and I just wonder how much of that money Villalobos is getting,” Gladden said.
The answer, according to the federal indictment: $80,000. That came out of the $200,000 Lucio received in attorney’s fees on the wrongful death suit. Together they kicked about $10,000 to Limas to keep him quiet, according to the indictment. Moises Salas Jr., president of the Cameron County Bar Association, said repairing the system’s image will take years. “Down here, I think the perception has always been that the lawyers are crooked, the judges are crooked and they’re all kind of watching each other’s back, you know greasing the skids for each other,” Salas said. “And this comes out and I think for the general public, I hear people saying, ‘Well, that just confirms what we always believed.’”
I’ll take it a step further, if cases of malfeasance in the Texas justice system were limited, there would be little to complain about other than the obvious miscarriage of justice but in a state that ranks third in the number of DNA and Non-DNA exonerations and where justice, on many occasions, is a sad joke this is simply not the case. The systematic abuse and corruption in Texas is so integrated throughout much of the states so-called justice system, nothing short of a legislative enema will fix it but don’t expect that anytime soon because appearing “tough on crime” trumps everything, especially admitting the system is broken.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — (DMN/BBC) – Turkey has scrambled six F-16 fighters jets near its border with Syria after Syrian helicopters came close to the border, the country’s army says. Six jets were sent to the area in response to three such incidents on Saturday, the statement said, adding that there was no violation of Turkish airspace. Last month, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet in the border area. The incident further strained already tense relations between former allies. Turkey’s government has been outspoken in its condemnation of Syria’s response to the 16-month anti-government uprising, which has seen more than 30,000 Syrian refugees enter Turkey.
On Friday, Turkey said it had begun deploying rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns along the border in response to the downing of its F-4 Phantom jet on 22 June. The move came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey had changed its rules of military engagement and would now treat any Syrian military approaching the border as a threat. Syria said the Turkish F-4 was shot down by air defence fire inside its airspace. Turkey insists it was downed by a missile after briefly entering and the leaving Syrian airspace. The plane crashed in the Mediterranean, off the coast of the southern province of Hatay. Its pilots are still missing. Mr Erdogan spoke of Turkey’s “rage” at the incident and described Syria as a “clear and present threat”.
James Reynolds BBC News, Antakya, southern Turkey
Turkey’s military has more than 500 miles of border with Syria to defend. It has now decided to treat everything that happens on the Syrian side of the border with extreme suspicion. The scrambling of the jets is a sign of continuing tensions. A little over a week ago, Syria shot down a Turkish warplane. Syria says that the aircraft was flying inside Syrian airspace – a charge denied by Turkey. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced that it had revised its military rules of engagement towards Syria. From now on, every military element that approached the Turkish border from Syria would be considered as a threat. The military has now acted on its new rules.
Turkey is keen to show that it’s protecting its territory. The government allows its southern border region of Hatay to be used as a staging ground for Syrian opposition rebels. But it doesn’t want this region to become an actual battleground.
Nato condemned the attack and voiced strong support for Turkey, after Ankara invoked Article 4 of Nato’s founding treaty, which entitles any member state to ask for consultations if it believes its security is threatened. Four of the six jets were scrambled on Saturday from the airbase of Incirlik in response to two occasions of Syrian helicopters flying close to Hatay province, Sunday’s army statement said. Later, two more F-16s took off from a base near Batman, in southeastern Turkey, after Syrian helicopters were spotted close to the province of Mardin, it added. The military said the helicopters flew as close as 6.5km (4 miles) to the border, according to the AP news agency.
The border incident comes after the UN and Arab League envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, warned of the danger of the Syria conflict spilling over into the wider region if the bloodshed is not stopped. He was addressing an international meeting of major international and regional powers in Geneva on Saturday, aimed at reviving the six-point peace plan for Syria brokered by Mr Annan. The countries present at the Geneva talks reached an agreement calling for a ceasefire and a transitional government in Syria.
Western demands to exclude President Bashar al-Assad and his allies from the interim administration reportedly foundered on opposition from Russia. Moscow sees Syria as its closest ally in the region, and rejects any attempt to impose a solution on Syria from the outside. The Paris-based opposition Syrian National Council rejected the Geneva deal as too ambiguous, according to the AP news agency. Violence has worsened in Syria recently despite the cease-fire mediated by Mr Annan as part of his six-point plan earlier this year. On Friday, government forces recaptured the Damascus suburb of Douma – an opposition stronghold – after 10 days of artillery bombardment. Activists described conditions in the town as “catastrophic”.
Activists estimate that as many as 15,800 have died since the uprising began early last year. Casualties figures are difficult to verify, as Syria does not allow foreign journalists to operate on its territory. The conflict is seen as becoming increasingly militarised, with both rebels and government forces thought to be receiving arms supplies from abroad.
Clinton: World may not succeed in Syria
There is no guarantee that a sweeping new international agreement on Syria will succeed in ending the conflict there, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded, as opposition activists said the number of dead had skyrocketed in recent months. “There is no guarantee that we are going to be successful. I just hate to say that,” Clinton told CNN. But she expressed optimism that a new agreement hammered out Saturday would help ease President Bashar al-Assad out of power.
The first plan backed by Russia and China as well as the West, it calls for a transitional government as a step towards ending the 16-month uprising. Opposition activists immediately criticized the deal as leaving open the possibility that al-Assad would remain in power. “The new agreement provides vague language which is open to interpretation,” the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said in a statement Sunday. “This provides yet another opportunity for the regime’s thugs to play their favorite game in utilizing time in order to stop the popular Syrian Revolution and extinguish it with violence and massacres across Syria.” But Clinton said al-Assad and his inner circle would be excluded from any transitional government.
Both sides have to agree on the membership of the interim body, and Clinton said there was “no way anyone in the opposition would ever consent to Assad or his inside regime cronies with blood on their hands being on any transitional governing body.” “Assad will not be part of it,” she said in an interview late Saturday in Geneva, Switzerland, after the deal was hammered out. Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, invited diplomats from the U.N. Security Council and envoys from Turkey, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League to the global meeting in Geneva on Saturday.
Clinton said the Russians, who have long been al-Assad’s most steadfast supporters, had finally decided to back a transition away from his rule. “They have committed to trying,” she said. “But they also admitted that they may or may not have enough leverage to convince not just one man, but a family and a regime that their time is over.” Bloodshed continued unabated in the wake of the international talks, with at least 20 people dying on Sunday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria. They said Sunday that more than half of the people killed since the Syrian crisis began 16 months ago were slaughtered in the past four months.
More than 14,000 people have been killed by the regime, according to tallies from opposition activists. June was a particularly gruesome month, with 2,386 people killed compared to 1,196 in May, the LCC said. The dead on Sunday include several people who died from injuries sustained in a blast at a funeral procession in Zamalka on Saturday, the group said. “Dr. Jamal Tabarneen was martyred by the regime’s army gunfire while he was helping in resuscitating the injured in Zamalka’s explosion,” the LCC said. The international group meeting in Switzerland agreed that both the regime and opposition fighters should immediately adopt a cease-fire and implement Annan’s six-point peace plan without waiting for the actions of others, Annan said. The group also called for a transitional government.
Annan said it could include members of the current Syrian regime, making it theoretically possible that al-Assad will be a part of the transition. But Annan pointed out it is the Syrians who will decide the make-up. “I think people who have blood on their hands are hopefully not the only people in Syria,” Annan said. “I think the government will have to be formed through discussion, negotiations, and by mutual consent. And I will doubt that the Syrians — who have fought so hard for their independence, to be able to say how they’re governed and who governs them — will select people with blood on their hands to lead them.” The LCC said it was “gravely concerned” by what could happen in a transitional period with al-Assad’s military and security forces.
There are “core conflicts between the Revolutionaries and Bashar al-Assad’s pillars and symbols, whose hands are stained with blood and must be excluded from the transitional phase,” the opposition group said. “No Syrian will accept a regime waiver of responsibility over crimes and violations against human rights.” The agreement in Geneva also calls on the Syrian government to release detainees and allow journalists access to the country. The right to peaceful demonstrations must be respected, Annan said. Clinton said the U.N. Security Council should endorse the plan, thus allowing the possibility of sanctions against Syria if the requirements aren’t met. Russia, widely viewed as a key ally to the Syrian regime, said the agreement should not be interpreted as outside powers imposing a transitional government on the Syrians. That process must come from inside Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The BBC, Al-Jazeera and CNN‘s Saad Abedine and Holly Yan contributed to this report.
In as many days, a drunk driver going the wrong way on a Houston area interstate highway has crashed head-on into another vehicle with deadly consequences. Three people died this morning in Montgomery County, north of Houston. Apparently a white car with two people inside traveling southbound on I-45 was spotted swerving. The driver then entered the exit ramp at The Woodlands Parkway on to the interstate driving the wrong way. It was just seconds later that the driver of the white car crashed head on into another vehicle. Police have said that the wrong way driver was speeding at the time of the crash. “This is a very sad situation,” said DPS trooper Erik Burse. “It’s not a road problem. It doesn’t appear any signs or road markings would have someone turn around and do that.”
The wrong way driver, who is suspected of DUI according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, survived the crash and was taken by Life Flight to Memorial Hermann Hospital. The three victims involved in the wreck were pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the vehicle traveling the wrong direction is 42 years old and his passenger was 47. The two passengers in the other car who were killed were 25 and 27 years old. No identities are being released at this time, nor is the condition of the alleged wrong-way driver.
A 23-year-old woman has been charged in a wrong-way crash that killed two people and injured another near Conroe early Friday, according to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. The crash happened on the North Freeway near Highway 242 shortly before 4 a.m. Witnesses called police reporting that a pickup truck, driven by Nicole Baukus, was traveling northbound in the southbound lanes of the freeway. Before officers had a chance to get to the scene, Baukus slammed head-on into a car carrying three people. The car driver, 19-year-old Nicole Adams, and a passenger in the back seat were killed. The other victim’s name has not been released. The third person in the car, 21-year-old David Porras, was rushed to a Houston hospital in critical but stable condition.
Baukus was also injured and taken to the hospital. Investigators determined she had been drinking. Baukus was charged with two counts of intoxication manslaughter and one count of intoxication assault. Her bond is set at $140,000. The crash shut down the freeway for several hours, forcing morning commuters to find alternate routes. These cases are, sadly, anything but unusual in Texas. Getting tanked and driving is the norm. Last year, 1,400 people were arrested for DUI on the 4th of July holiday weekend. That’s a lot of people but what does it actually mean.
More than 1,000 Texans lose their lives every year in alcohol-related car accidents. And there were more than 10,000 total deaths nationwide in 2010 due to DWI, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Part of the problem is attitudes and laws regarding drunk driving in Texas.
Criminal status of DUI laws in Texas:
In Texas, 1st offense is a class B misdemeanor, 2nd offense within 10 years is a class A misdemeanor, subsequent offenses are 3rd degree felonies. Citation:Penal Code ??12.21, 12.22, 12.34, 49.04 & 49.09 (2)
Harris County (Houston) has the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths among the nation’s most populous counties, researchers say, and a series of horrific crashes blamed on drunken drivers in recent days seems to back the claim. Experts agree the county’s high DWI fatality rate is partly a byproduct of limited public transportation for the region’s 3.9 million residents and an urban sprawl leading them to drive many miles. Stepped-up enforcement by more officers patrolling the roadways at peak times for drunken driving offenses, meanwhile, keeps the county jail full of DWI suspects. Adding to the deadly mix is a stubborn reluctance to rely on designated drivers, or cabs and other services that keep the intoxicated from driving.
Here’s a dose of reality for you. District Attorney Pat Lykos told the Houston Chronicle that around 10,000 driving while intoxicated cases filed each year, has called the county’s DWI problem a “pandemic plague.” In 2009, Lykos announced a new DWI policy at a meeting of the Houston/Harris County Office of Drug Policy, which released a report noting the county has been designated the worst in the nation for alcohol-related fatalities per capita. And about 60 percent of the county’s traffic fatalities are alcohol-related, twice the national average, the report states.
Hope Rangel, head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Houston-area chapter, said those who drink any amount of alcohol should not drive. “It’s about choice. We don’t have enough folks who are really being cognizant about what their responsibility as a driver is when they get behind the wheel of a car,” Rangel said. But some question that worst county designation, arguing the statistics are manipulated to make a serious problem appear worse. “I’m not saying there are no intoxicated drivers; clearly there are. But I don’t think it’s as bad as statistics make it appear,” said attorney JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “As far as I’ve been able to tell, the statistics don’t differentiate between those that are DWIs and those that are not.”
Finding the exact number of DWI fatalities in Harris County can be confusing. The city-county report, citing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other sources, lists 174 fatalities in 2006 involving drivers who were legally drunk. In contrast, The Texas Department of Transportation lists a significantly lower toll of 145 deaths in 2006 in crashes in which a driver had any measurable amount of alcohol. Lassalle, with HPD’s DWI task force, provided figures showing the NHTSA ranked Harris County first in per-capita alcohol-related deaths among 10 of the nation’s most populous counties in 2006 based on 232 alcohol-related traffic deaths and 203 traffic deaths in which a driver was legally drunk. Second was Dallas County, followed by Phoenix’s Maricopa County. “You have a huge population covering a huge territory and they’re doing it all in their own vehicles,” Lassalle said.
Houston’s DWI task force receives about $480,000 a year in grants to pay overtime for officers to catch and process drunken drivers, said task force member Don Egdorf, also HPD’s liaison with the district attorney’s vehicular crimes unit. “I don’t know if there are more drunks on the streets, but there are more officers looking for the drunks so there are more of them getting picked up,” he said. Troy McKinney, a Houston attorney who specializes in defending DWI cases, said alcohol-related deaths are being “massively overstated” and notes large numbers of DWI cases are eventually dismissed by the courts. “The realty today is, if you’re drinking and driving and are stopped by police, you’re going to jail whether you’re intoxicated or not. That’s the default,” McKinney said. “The attitude making its way to the government is: People shouldn’t be drinking and driving at all, but it’s not against the law.” It doesn’t take a NASA rocket scientist to see a problem here.
A Texas man with a long history of drunk driving convictions is now facing a murder charge … Craven is now incarcerated in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas. Bail has been set at $200,000 for the murder charge …LifeNews.com · 6/25/2012
“Here I am, a prisoner of my own body,” said Sean Carter, a drunken driving crash survivor and new “face” of the Texas Department of Transportation’s “Faces of Drunk Driving” campaign. He spoke during a news conference in Houston. Carter’s …Click2Houston.com · 6/28/2012
Police arrested Ms. Wiggins for driving under the influence of alcohol. A Harris County toxicologist testified that she had a 0.21 blood alcohol level – almost three times the legal limit in Texas. Ms. Wiggins later was convicted of two …StreetInsider.com · 6/19/2012
A state trooper arrested a Zavalla man after he reportedly got caught driving drunk with a five-year-old girl in the vehicle with him Tuesday afternoon. DPS spokesman David Hendry said Billy Wayne Powell Sr., 43, was driving northbound on US 69 South when …KTRE · 6/27/2012
HOUSTON — A driver made quite a mess at a Shell gas station in northeast Harris County Thursday morning. The car ran into the building along the North Sam Houston Parkway near John Ralston Road. The cause of …KHOU · 6/27/2012
A Harris County jury has awarded a verdict of more than $2.2 million against a drunk driver who caused a 2010 car crash that left one woman severely injured and killed her friend. Huffman resident Angela Maxwell, 63 …Your Houston News · 1 day ago