The Definition of Insanity

As the saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

This is the phrase that comes to mind around Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s upcoming trip to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump at the inauguration of the USMCA trade agreement.  

Why is AMLO coming?  Does he think that he can stand side-by-side with Trump and control the image and the message of this visit? Ojo. Significant interactions between Trump and Mexican leaders have not tended to break in the latter’s direction. 

Let’s review the outcome of past meetings between Mexican leaders and Trump.  

First, there was the memorable meeting between President Enrique Peña Nieto and candidate Trump in August of 2016.  Peña Nieto invited both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Whatever the original motivation for the invitation, we know the outcome. Trump came. He looked presidential. Peña Nieto appeared accommodating, standing next to Trump who had shortly before been spouting insults about Mexican migrants being criminals and rapists. Upon return to the U.S., Trump gave a strident immigration speech calling for building “the Wall” and reaffirming that Mexico would pay for it.

While Peña Nieto might have thought that he could control the image and message by hosting the meeting with Trump, he was wrong. Trump seized the opportunity, using it to reinforce his message to his base of supporters.

Then last year, President Trump grew frustrated with record numbers of Central American families fleeing violence and requesting asylum in the United States. These asylum seekers had crossed Mexico to reach the U.S. southern border. Trump wanted the flow to end and he wanted Mexico to make it stop. If Mexico did not act decisively to stop Central Americans from reaching the United States, he threatened to impose an immediate 5% tariff on imports which would scale up to 25%.

AMLO sent Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to Washington to negotiate. The outcome seemed more capitulation to the threat than negotiation. Mexico’s new National Guard was deployed to its southern border to block migrant crossings; it committed to detain and deport more Central Americans and expanded the “Remain in Mexico” program, under which those seeking asylum in the United States would be forced to remain in Mexico while their cases were adjudicated in the United States.

At the beginning of the AMLO administration, only months before, any of these actions would have been unthinkable for Mexico.  At the start, AMLO’s new migration policy was to be based on respect for migrants, not treating them as criminals or a security threat.  Yet, at the threat of U.S. tariffs, Mexico folded.

The change in Mexican migration policy was a big political win for Trump. It fed his base. He might not have been able to get Congress, or the Mexican government to pay for “the Wall”, but he could turn Mexico into a wall.

Now, just a year later, AMLO comes to Washington to celebrate the USMCA. This is a dangerous visit. Trump is intensely campaigning for another term in office. He does not respect Mexico or the rights of Mexican migrants in the United States. He will seek to use AMLO to reinforce whatever message his campaign finds advantageous this week. It would be insane to expect a different outcome.  

Published in 7/6/20

When All You Have is a Hammer

President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador recently decreed that the military would keep its public security role until 2024. What’s wrong with this idea?

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” You need the right tools to address a problem, and continually relying on the military, the wrong tool, won’t create safe and secure communities.

Using the military for things other than national defense, or allowing the military to participate in activities other than national defense, is something that happens too often in the Americas. Giving non-defense roles to the military seems to make sense to those who govern when looking for quick fixes to problems that might require force or national level logistics. The military is big, can operate throughout the country, is highly organized, structured to take orders and, while not Amazon, has serious logistical capacity. Voters sometimes reward using the military for problem solving. It appears tough and decisive.

But the military and police are not interchangeable cogs in the machine of government. They exist for different reasons, have different missions, doctrine, training, equipment and structure.

While scholars have spent their careers debating the functions of these institutions in a democracy, simple definitions make the point clearly enough.

According the Wikipedia, the common denominator of modern definitions, the military is “…a heavily armed, highly organized force primarily intended for warfare….The main task of the military is usually defined as defence of the state and its interests against external armed threats.”

The police, on the other hand, according to Webster’s, is a civilian body, “…concerned primarily with maintenance of public order, safety, and health and enforcement of laws… charged with prevention, detection, and prosecution of public nuisances and crimes.”

Within those definitions lies the fundamental problem. Policing is about maintaining public order, crime prevention and prosecution (in some countries). The tools used in effective policing are very different than those used by the military. To prevent or investigate crime, the police need a regular presence in, and the trust of, a community. They need to work with the community.

For decades, the Mexican military has been used in public security on a “temporary basis,” often moving into a city or state plagued by corruption and violence. At times, as in Tamaulipas, state and local police have been dissolved while the military assumes their responsibilities. This can bring short-term results, a temporary homicide reduction, as the military occupies an area. But military occupation is not a public security strategy, nor should it be unless the community is the threat being defended against.

The military can occupy territory, but they don’t work with communities. They don’t resolve corruption. And, they don’t rebuild the state institutions needed to create and maintain public safety. You can’t occupy your way out of public security problems or into creating safer communities.

Using the military to do public security will not make Mexico safer because it is not the right tool for the job.

The US has been using the wrong tool, the police, to solve social problems for decades and with devastating results. In the US, we call the police for any disturbance and they are the ones who respond. When homeless people annoy businesses, we call the police. When mentally ill people cause a disturbance, we call the police. When addicts are a nuisance, we call the police. The police and criminal justice system are not designed to deal with homelessness, mental illness or addiction.

Overuse of the police to deal with social problems explains a lot about why the US has the largest prison population in the world. Too many of society’s problems are funneled through the criminal justice system.

Using the military as police will do no more to address Mexico’s murder rate than using the police to address racial problems in the US.  Remember – “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When all you have is the military, everything will look like a problem to be solved through occupation and suppression.

Let’s find the tools, and develop the public institutions, that we actually need to address the problems we have.

This column was published in, 6/22/20.

Systemic Injustice Unmasked

While we have all been appropriately covering our faces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the pandemic, accompanied by economic implosion and racial protests, has unmasked systemic injustice. Frustration with racial injustice has boiled over in the United States this past week, but the U.S. and Mexico hold in common many fundamentals for systemic injustice.

The trifecta of crises has produced stark reminders of how unequal suffering is in our societies. Making direct comparisons between the two countries is difficult because of how statistics are kept (or not kept). Nevertheless, here are a few questions that have brought systemic injustice to the fore in recent weeks.

Who dies from Covid-19? A study produced by the Brookings Institution highlighted racial disparity in Covid-19 deaths. In Louisiana, Blacks make up a third of the population, but represent 70% of the Covid-19 deaths. Similar patterns are being documented in other cities including Washington, DC. Poor pre-existing health conditions are often blamed for the disparity. The article’s author Rashawn Ray, argues that a variety of structural realities create health disparities, “Blacks, relative to Whites, are more likely to live in neighborhoods with a lack of healthy food options, green spaces, recreational facilities, lighting, and safety.” All things that contribute to better overall health environment.

Official Mexican statistics on Covid-19 do not document race.

Who is hardest hit by the economic impact of the pandemic? This one is obvious, those who didn’t have much economic margin to begin with. Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Policy, CONEVAL, reports that economic fallout from the virus could force 9 million Mexicans into poverty, a 50% increase from 2018. Feeding America, a network of foodbanks in the United States, estimates that one in six people in the U.S. could face hunger as a result of the pandemic. Prior to Covid-19, the number was one in nine.

Who dies at the hands of the police? The project has found that in the United States, “Black people were 24% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population.”

Who goes to jail? While I would argue that the criminal justice system “works” much better for the rich than the poor, the data in the U.S. is recorded by race. According to

“Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but 33% of the prison and jail population, while Latinos make up 18% of the U.S. population and 23% of the prison population.

Systemic injustice in no less a problem in Mexico and is borne out by any number of other statistics. For example, a CONAPRED study found that 54% of Mexicans reported having been discriminated against because of their appearance in the previous 12 months. Official statistics report that 87% of indigenous municipalities experience high or very high marginalization.

The gruesome death of Floyd George at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, while others watched, has spurred an unexpected wave of protest across the U.S. The death of Giovanni Lopez at the hands of the police in Guadalajara has prompted protest in Mexico as well.

These past few weeks and months have been brutal. The question is, “What will we do with this experience?” If we return to the previous normal, without addressing the social and economic inequities that have been so grossly brought to our attention, we will deserve the animosity and unrest that will no doubt follow.

At some point in the future, when we can all take off our masks, let’s make sure that we come out of this with more equitable and systemic change.

Protest in a Pandemic

“How are you today?” has become a hard question.

I feel sorrow and somehow a sense of loss.

Last night was tough in Washington, DC, where I live. The President of the United States had a peaceful group of demonstrators teargassed to clear a path between the White House and St. John’s Church, one block away. Once cleared, he crossed the park to stand in front of the church for a photo-op, Bible in hand. He does not attend St. John’s Church. He didn’t pray. He didn’t attempt to console the nation.

As the night went on, in a residential neighborhood, other non-violent protesters were cordoned off by police and then confronted. They fled on foot. One neighbor opened his front door, pulled people inside and sheltered dozens of protesters, complete strangers.

This morning, I, like many others, awoke feeling sorrow.

Why had I not yet attended any of the protests? I have been to many DC protests over the years. How can I respond to the outcry against racism and police violence in the context of a pandemic? Only a week ago we were commemorating the 100,000 lost to Covid-19. DC is only in the first stage of reopening. It didn’t feel responsible to go out and protest.

When I learned that the President was headed to the John Paul II Shrine this morning for yet another attempt at religious endorsement, I knew that I needed to find a way. Pandemic or not, I would try to protest responsibly.

My husband and I met three others from our church at an intersection near the Shrine. It was fairly spontaneous. A few hundred people gathered with homemade signs. People were cordial but kept their distance. Families attended in small groups. It was completely peaceful.

Every now and then we were joined by intense, yet supportive, honking. The loudest and most sustained came from garbage trucks headed to the nearby dump. Garbage collectors are essential workers. They couldn’t join us, but they could make themselves heard.

After the President entered the Shrine, we waited for him to leave before disbanding. In that quiet time, I struck up a conversation with an African American woman who lives nearby. She woke up just as I did, with a feeling of sorrow and an understanding that even within the pandemic she needed to figure out how to protest, how to be counted.

Our protest was insignificant, but it helped me. Talking with a stranger helped. I left feeling lighter, more connected and with a little hope, not that the President will lead us somewhere better, but maybe my neighbors will.

Mexico Uniquely Positioned to Help Venezuelans

Mexico’s foreign policy has long been based on the principle of non-intervention, a “mind your own business” approach. That approach has its benefits. It keeps you out of other nations’ armed conflicts. In general, it is hard to get in trouble when you aren’t involved. But it also means that Mexico doesn’t always help its neighbors when it could. 

Right now, Mexico’s reputation for not getting involved is an asset and makes it one of the few countries that could make a difference in the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

The political/economic crisis in Venezuela has prompted an external displacement of around five million Venezuelans; a human scale second only to Syria. Everyone knows that Syria is a disaster. Syria is at war. But the sense of urgency in international response to the Syria crisis is missing from Venezuela. The Venezuela crisis was not created by natural disaster or war, but has been slow breaking and what the international community defines a “complex humanitarian emergency.” 

In February, pre-Covid-19, a UN assessment found that one in three Venezuelans were “food insecure,” meaning that they were in need of food assistance. Many experts believe that to be an under-representation of the crisis.  

Now there is also a scarcity of gasoline. This country has the largest oil reserves in the world, but production has been in decline for years. US sanctions have almost stopped oil sales. When gasoline is available, it is costly. In April Venezuelans reported paying US $7.50 a gallon, while international prices are at shocking lows. Very little gas is being produced in Venezuela. Without oil sales to fund the purchase of foreign gasoline, shortages are crippling the country.

Combine the pre-existing political/economic crisis with US sanctions and Covid-19 and you get Venezuela’s current humanitarian disaster. Essential workers don’t have transportation to can’t get to their jobs. Desperately needed food, produced in Venezuela, is rotting in the fields because trucks don’t have gasoline to take it to market. Electrical outages are constant and without electricity for pumps clean water is often unavailable to the general public.  Worse yet, hospitals don’t have water for basic sanitation.

Even before Covid-19 and the tightening of US sanctions, providing humanitarian assistance in Venezuela was not easy. The Maduro government has not wanted to admit the extent of the crisis. Just a little over a year ago, the provision of humanitarian aid provided by the US, who supports the Guaido government, was grossly politicized in an assistance delivery stand-off at the Venezuela/Colombian border. 

Many international non-governmental organizations, professional humanitarian assistance workers, not political groups in disguise, want to work in Venezuela, but are unable to do so because the Venezuelan government hasn’t approved their legal status. Applications have been pending for months, if not years.

This is where Mexico could help. The people of Venezuela need an a-political advocate for humanitarian assistance. They need someone who has a track record of not getting involved in others internal affairs. Mexico has not been close to either of Venezuela’s two competing presidents Maduro or Guaido.

Mexico doesn’t need to get involved in Venezuela’s internal political machinations, or the geopolitical dynamics involving Russia, Iran and the United States playing out there. Mexico could, and should, use its good offices and long history of non-intervention, to help the Venezuelan people by encouraging the acceptance and execution of an a-political humanitarian response.

Guerrero Deserves a Functioning State

Issues of violence and human rights in the state of Guerrero can bring the most ardent optimist to throw up her hands. Last week, I was reminded of that frustration while reading the latest report from the International Crisis Group, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, (May 4, 2020). Instead of getting better, the situation of violence and crime in the state is becoming more complex.

My first visit to Guerrero was in 1990. I accompanied Mexican colleagues to document violence and human rights issues. The PRI and the PRD were contesting local elections. These were the early days of the challenge to one party rule. Parallel governments were set up in towns where the PRD believed they had won but were not allowed to take office. Some set up parallel police forces. State repression against protesters was serious. People were beaten and killed. It was one of the most overtly tense environments I have ever experienced.

The complexity of violence in Guerrero did not start in 1990. That political conflict was set upon historic poverty, an absence of state presence in rural communities and a lack of needed political reform. The 1960s and 70 saw the formation of small guerilla groups met by intense state repression during Mexico’s Dirty War.

Layer the problem of drugs on top of that. Drug production has been a staple of the Guerrero economy for as long as anyone living can remember. Drugs from the Andes started being trafficked through Guerrero to the United States in the 1980s as trafficking routes shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico. And then there is the role of the Mexican military, which has been eradicating drug production in the same rural parts of Guerrero for decades – literally.

Lack of democracy, poverty, corruption, and illicit commerce are a toxic brew for violence. Instead of challenging the underlying problems, every political party that has governed the country and the state has found it easier to ignore rural areas, accommodate or turn-a-blind eye toward illicit actors and maintain the status quo.

The Crisis Group report highlights a newer ingredient to this toxic mix that has added another level of complexity – self-defense forces. Communities without adequate state presence, had to figure out how to fend for themselves in this complex and too often violent environment. They formed their own local defense forces. According the Crisis Group, “Clashes between the self-defence forces and criminal groups now account for much of the violence afflicting Guerrero. But in seizing territory and resorting to extreme violence, some of these autodefensas have started to resemble criminals themselves.”

Guerrero is a place where state administered justice is in short supply. In 2014, 43 students were disappeared here in one attack. Local, state and federal investigations have all failed to tell these kid’s parents what happened to them, much less hold the perpetrators responsible.

Bringing fundamental reforms to Guerrero would be no small feat. It would be dangerous, costly and most importantly require sustained political will. The citizens of Guerrero deserve functioning government. It is time for the state and federal governments to give these communities the sustained attention that all citizens deserve. That attention, in and of itself, could be the beginning of a solution.

Published 5/11/20 in Mexico Today

Twisting Opportunity in Crisis

April 27th opinion piece published in Mexico Today

I value the idea of seeking opportunity in crisis, but President Trump has ruined it for me.

Periods of crisis are times of accelerated change. The people who can see through these moments come out on top. Their creative abilities are put to the test. Practicality and innovation surface. Problem solvers thrive in this environment. 

At least, that is how I used to think about it.

When our national energy is focused on surviving the public health and economic crisis presented by the coronavirus, President Trump has taken advantage of this moment to tighten the noose on the US immigration and asylum systems.  And, he does it in the name of protecting us from the virus.

He is taking a truth, that we need to be careful about the transfer of the virus and twisting it into a rationale for implementing policies he has long desired, like dramatically restricting migration, or keeping people in search of asylum off US soil.  

Think back over the past few years. First there was the “Muslim ban”; then attacks on “chain migration” otherwise known as family reunification; then refugee resettlement numbers were slashed; then there was “metering” – only allowing a few asylum seekers to enter the US on a given day; followed by “Remain in Mexico” – forcing people who have already applied for asylum in the US to wait out their legal determination in Mexico. The combination of the last two stranded tens of thousands on the Mexico side of the border.

Now Trump has twisted “opportunity,” using the coronavirus response to further his immigration goals. The Administration now pushes unaccompanied migrant children back into Mexico because they could carry the coronavirus, while at the same time, allowing commerce between the two countries to flow.  Are children more likely to be virus carriers than truck drivers?

This past week, he announced, by tweet of course, that he is suspending immigration to the United States.  “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” (April 20). Not surprisingly, that wasn’t exactly accurate, as temporary worker visas continue to flow as they are deemed essential workers, but he is stopping family reunification.  

There is a rule of thumb in public policy advocacy that it is much harder to secure rights in law and practice than it is to take them away.  They say that the new restrictions are temporary and will be reviewed in two months – but will they?  

Trump has found a twisted form of opportunity in this crisis, and I’m afraid I will never see this concept the same way again.

Searching for the Disappeared in Mexico

In the context of organized crime – often drug related – people have been disappearing in Mexico for decades. Prodded by the victims’ families, the government has finally begun a more serious effort confront the reality of the disappeared.

Families of the disappeared often received little help from the state. As a result, small groups of families have taken matters into their own hands and formed “collectives” to investigate the disappearance of their loved ones. This is dangerous work.  If your family member is disappeared it is because the perpetrator didn’t want them found. These “collectives” are made up of some of the bravest people in the country, real heroes.  Some have killed as a result of their efforts. 

The “collectives” have gotten results. They have identified perpetrators, found clandestine graves and forced the government to exhume remains. The Lopez Obrador administration committed to address the issue of disappearance during its campaign and, so far, progress is being made. That progress can be evaluated in stages:  1) identifying the scope of the problem; 2) identifying as many existing remains as possible; 3) and dealing with disappearances in real time. Here are two positive things have been done so far. 

First, the government has collected more complete data. 40,000 is the number that has was commonly used as the tally of the disappeared.  But in January, the government’s National Search Commission released a report documenting 60,053 disappearances between 2006-2019. 

That number is still below reality, as 12 Mexican states (shamefully) did not participate in the data collection, but it is an improvement. To address disappearances, the scope of the problem needs to be fully understood.

Second, the government has agreed to the formation of a national/international group of technical experts to clear the backlog of unidentified cases through forensic testing. Thousands of families have provided DNA samples in hope of finding a match with the recovered remains. But, the backlog in DNA testing is massive. There are 37,000 unidentified bodies and thousand more fragments, that need testing. Hopefully, this new group of technical experts can start making a dent in the backlog.

Then, when this group is up and running, it should allow domestic forensic teams to focus the governments’ DNA identification capacity on real-time case work, facilitating the prosecution of criminals. In 2019, 5,000 people were disappeared in Mexico.

According to a new report from the WOLA, the US will help fund these efforts to address disappearances. This is appropriate as many disappearances are related to criminal activity rooted in trafficking oriented toward the United States. Confirming this reality, the National Search Commission documented that in 2018 and 2019, three of the four Mexican states with the highest number of disappearances bordered the United States. 

Government institutions previously established to resolve the problem of disappearances in Mexico, have failed miserably in their mission, letting down the valiant families desperately searching for their loved ones. Efforts to fix the system have begun showing some promising signs.  Let’s make sure this time it works.  

* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson

Reflections from my Pandemic Home Office

This is also my most recent opinion piece in Mexico Today

I’m working from home during the pandemic. My life has slowed down.  There is a mental space that you have when you aren’t problem solving all day.  You can observe, read, chat with people, and walk your dog – a lot.  I keep thinking about what I should learn from this experience.

Here are two reflections:

First, the divide between hourly workers and those with salaries is so big, that it is hard for me to feel the pain of those who have lost their jobs. 

I’m a consultant, without a regular paycheck, but I work this way by choice.  While I sympathize with the plight of laid-off hourly workers, it’s not my current experience. I have to think back to when I was younger. Then, I did live paycheck-to-paycheck. It was stressful. It required so much mental energy and planning.  You have to be really good at managing money when you are poor.  

My guess is that if you are reading this, you are not a minimum wage worker.  Think about this, if you made minimum wage, how would you get your family through the week? Now think about what it would be like to get laid off. That is stress. That’s what hourly workers are experiencing.

While this is a difficult situation for so many in the US, I got a call from an old friend in Honduras.  She is not an hourly worker.  Worse yet, she is in the “informal” sector. She and a small group of women make snacks and sell them on the street and in small local stores.  Virus related restrictions prohibit her from selling, and without sales they don’t eat.

Those of us with salaries, still being paid, must not be complacent about what current stay-at-home restrictions mean for those without income.  

Second, both Mexico and the US are run by men who either don’t believe in science or who simply won’t listen to scientists and medical professionals.

A big difference between life during the Spanish Flu of 1918, that killed an estimated 50 million, and COVID 19 is that we now understand how pandemics spread. With that knowledge, we have the opportunity to lessen the impact of this virus.  But knowing how to control the spread and actually doing it is not the same thing. 

The scientists are saying to use social distancing as much as possible to slow the spread.  Both President Trump and President Lopez Obrador have resisted this message. Having access to scientific knowledge isn’t enough. Our leaders must implement policies that use this knowledge to protect the community as a whole.

Our leaders must understand that we want evidence based public health policies.  At the same time, those of us with an income need to really feel the hard choices that are being made between public and economic health. Sacrifice needs to be made by all in the interest of the public good. 

Lastly, let’s make an effort to see people who are in need and help them.  And while we are at it, let’s start electing people who believe in science.

Mexico Today Column 3/16/20

Opinion | Thank You to Women Protesters

If you pay attention to Mexico, and unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the women’s movement has grown dramatically in visibility and influence over the past year.  They are having an impact.

To protest violence against women, last week the movement put tens of thousands (at least) in the streets one day and on strike another, forcing the media, government, and the economic sector to pay attention. 

Mexican social movement protesters get high marks for turnout and creativity. This round included “a day without women” strike, chants that included dance moves and the names of 1,000 femicide victims painted in the central square.  The last reminded me of the AIDS quilts of the 1980’s – striking a chord too personal to ignore.

Creativity is key because that’s what makes the message stick.  And the message was clear.  Women have had it with the violence that impacts our daily lives.

These protests made me stop and think about how violence against women is normalized, and how we structure our days to avoid violence directed toward us. Not random violence, but violent acts committed against us because we are women.  

It is engrained in us from youth to consider:  when we go out, where we go, what we wear, whether we consume alcohol, if we take a cab instead of walk, and so forth. We live trying not to get hurt.  And the unspoken message is that if we are irresponsible with our surroundings or behavior, being abused will be our own fault.  

I thank and herald the women of Mexico who made me stop and think about the insidiousness and flagrancy of violence against women. 

They gave us two days of creative action. Now it is our job to work every day to recognize the ways we limit ourselves, and to work harder for justice for those killed because they are women and because men can unleash violence against us without consequence.