Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

Helping Mexico Help Itself

by Shannon K. O'Neil Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I wrote the following for a CFR “expert brief” which originally appeared here.

Brazen assassinations, kidnappings, and political intimidation by drug lords conjure up images of Colombia in the early 1990s. Yet today, it is Mexico that is being engulfed by escalating violence. In 2007, drug related killings topped 2,250; in 2008 they reached nearly 6,000. Drug cartels are adopting guerrilla-style tactics – sending heavily-armed paramilitary battalions to attack police stations, ambush military brigades, and assassinate high-level security officials, political officials, and journalists. They also are adopting innovative public relations strategies to encourage recruits and intimidate their enemies and the population in general: hanging narcomantas–drug banners–in public places, placing videos on YouTube depicting gruesome murders, and more recently staging street protests against the military’s presence in some of Mexico’s largest cities and most violent regions.

Mexico’s drug business has changed significantly since the 1980s. Previously primarily middlemen, Mexican drug cartels now produce, transport, and distribute drugs. Every year over 500 metric tons of cocaine, 15,500 metric tons of marijuana, 18 metric tons of heroin, and a still unknown amount of methamphetamines make their way through Mexico into the United States. These cartels also supply Mexico’s growing domestic market for illegal substances, and their networks have become increasingly sophisticated. U.S. and Mexican interdiction efforts in the last two decades weeded out mom-and-pop operations, leading drug trafficking organizations to professionalize their operations and add former Mexican military officials, some of them U.S.-trained commandos, to their payrolls. They also diversified their business structures, adding new products (such as meth) and moving into U.S.-based distribution and production.
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Why Venezuela’s referendum is the least of Hugo Chávez’s Worries

by Shannon K. O'Neil Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Sunday Venezuelan voters will go to the polls to decide whether elected officials, including President Hugo Chávez, can run for re-election indefinitely. Chávez has thrown the full force of the government behind the yes vote, while the opposition and student movement have brought hundreds of thousands into the streets for the “no.” Many inside Venezuela and abroad believe this referendum could be the last straw, breaking Venezuela’s fragile and imperfect democracy if passed. Overlooked by optimists and pessimists alike is the real decider of Venezuela’s political future – the economy.

The referendum does matter. Ten years of single strong executive rule have taken a toll on the country’s democratic institutions. The referendum’s passage would open the possibility for Chávez to run again in 2012, and indeed to remain in office for decades to come. But, Chávez would still have to win reelection – and that may now prove to be the most difficult part.

High oil prices granted Chávez an extraordinary political honeymoon. Multi-year double digit economic growth, historically low unemployment, and prolific public spending on social programs fueled the adoration of previously excluded sectors of society. Skyrocketing consumption and the halving of poverty levels won the approval of the middle class.  In fact, according to the pollster Latinobarometer, Venezuelans are among the most satisfied with their democracy in the region.
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