Saturday, November 15, 2014

Los 43: Mexico's Missing Students

The 43: An interview with a student about the crisis in Mexico

The Mexican national anthem begins with the words

"Mexicanos, al grito de guerra, el acero aprestad y el bridón, y retiemble en sus centros la tierra, al sonoro rugir del cañon!"

In English, this translates to 

Mexicans, at the cry of war, make ready the steel and the bridle, and may the Earth tremble at its centers, at the resounding roar of the cannon!

The cry of war has sounded in the state of Guererro, a state south of Mexico City on the Pacific Coast. The people have made ready the steel and the bridle, and the earth trembles beneath their feet, even if there are no cannons around today. 

43 Mexican university students are missing.  Many fear they are dead, kidnapped and massacred by a drug cartel. 

To shed light on this crisis is Javier, a native of Mexico and former president of George Washington University's Mexican Student Organization.

Javier, can you describe the circumstances of how these students went missing? What happened?

The students went missing on September 26th, 2014, around 9 in the evening.  They were ‘normalistas’ (students aspiring to become professors for rural, impoverished areas) who were traveling by bus to Iguala. The municipal police attacked and chased them. After they were taken to their main facilities (cuartel),  Cocula police (Cocula is a town close to Iguala) moved them to Pueblo Viejo, where they were handed over to the Guerreros Unidos, a drug gang. 

So was this a random disappearance? Or did these students anger some entity to cause their disappearance?

The students wanted to protest and boycott the annual DIF governance report (informe anual) of María de los Ángeles Pineda. She's the wife of the mayor of Iguala.  Last year they had boycotted the same event, but this year, she tried to prevent protests by deploying policemen in streets around the event’s venue. Pineda wields considerable influence concerning the  everyday work of the Iguala municipality, and her family had a criminal history.  She is facing a criminal prosecution, accusing her as the main operator in government of the Guerreros Unidos gang. This is a website you can go to to learn more. 

What's the consensus among people you know, either in Mexico or in the United States, about the fate of these students? What do people think happened to them?

The consensus is that the students are dead, but we have the underlying hope that they could still be found alive. People think that certain municipal governments and their police forces are corrupt and allegedly work closely with gangs and/or drug cartels.

I've read that some seem to believe the state, or actors linked to the state, were responsible for this crisis, and possibly the death of these students. Why would the Mexican government, or people linked to the Mexican government, kill a few dozen college students?  What motivation would they have?

The Mexican government has three levels, namely federal (1), state (32) and municipal (2,438). Its structure is similar to the US-the country's official name is United Mexican States.  Some municipalities, such as Iguala, have close ties with gangs and drug cartels.  Public servants like them have become ‘caciques’ (power-tyrants) who are corrupt and nepotistic. They act and feel immune to law enforcement. 

Admittedly, I don't know much about the Mexican government. I know Enrique Pena Nieto is president, and before him was Felipe Calderon. From my limited perspective, it seems as if Mexico is a generally democratic country that struggles with corruption. Feel free to correct me if I'm making any incorrect assumptions.

Democracy in Mexico is present, even mature, but imperfect, much like most other democracies. Corruption is a problem, though, and because of corruption, government institutions are not strong enough, the rule of law is not fully enforced, and not everybody is equal before law.

What role do the Mexican Armed Forces play in this crisis?

The role of the Armed Forces is minimal when talking about Ayotzinapa. The only tangible role they've played is  providing security in different municipalities of Guerrero in recent weeks. 

Is the government trying to prevent these protests or are they allowing them to proceed?

I would argue that all protests are uncomfortable for the government, but the protests have proceeded.  The population does not trust the government.  The government puts a lot of effort on planning, but now that the situation has become less controlled, the handling of the crisis has been clumsy and reaction has been very slow.  Instead of been more publicly available in media, Peña Nieto has isolated himself.

Are the protests peaceful?

Yes, they are generally peaceful. Violence has occurred, but it's isolated and uncommon.  There have been some events such as the burning of buses and buildings-two buses have been burned in Mexico City and these actions haves been linked to revolutionary groups, who are not usually very active.  Suspicion exists primarily on professional agitators or infiltrated people.  In regards to the building burning, that only happened in the state of Guerrero and were targeted against parties and public servants’ facilities.

If the president was to resign, what would be the next step?

Long story short, if the President resigns before December (before two years of government), a new interim President would be appointed by Congress and new elections would be eventually summoned for next year.  If the president resigns later, Congress would designate a new President that would finish this term.
The President's probably not going to resign, though.  The next month will be very important to see if his position improves or worsens, and every Mexican president since 1934 has completed their six-year term, despite all sorts of crises.

Are any political entities or parties calling for reform? Or is this discontent directed at all of Mexico's political establishment?

Discontent is directed at Mexico’s entire political establishment.  Iguala’s major was a member of the leftist PRD.  Guerrero’s governor, who resigned weeks ago, was of a coalition between the leftist PRD and the rightist PAN, but was a lifetime member of the PRI.  The President of Mexico is form the centrist PRI.

You mentioned you were born and raised in Mexico. Have you noticed a change in recent years as to how the situation has deteriorated? How do your relatives and family feel about this crisis?

Mexico’s a large country, the situation has improved in some areas and deteriorated in others.  For example, higher education has improved while basic education has deteriorated.  

Focusing on security, the problem has worsened throughout the years.  Please look here: 
Focusing on economics, economic growth has decelerated in the past two years (Peña Nieto’s government) and the lack of money is felt in most homes.  Reforms were promised as drivers of economic growth, but there has not been a significant effectInterestingly, Querétaro (my state) has kept is growing pace.  Please look at this note that was written more than one year ago.  Prosperity keeps increasing. 

Who is Jesús Murillo Karam and what was the significance of his remark of "Enough, I'm tired"/"Ya me canse"?

Jesús Murillo Karam is the Attorney General and main prosecutor of the Ayotzinapa case since the PGR (Procuraduría General de la República = Attorney General) relinquished the case from the Guerrero State Attorney.
The "Ya Me Cansé" phrase was a great phrase that Murillo crafted after the information conference about the state of investigations. He said it on camera when the press was asking him questions about the crisis, so in turn,  the population has turned it around and used it to say they are tired of the Mexican political system and the Ayotzinapa situation.  It was a global trending topic at the time and has been a trending topic for one week.

Do you know anyone living in Guerrero? Are they involved in the protests? 

I know people of Guerrero, not from Ayotzinapa or Iguala.  They are not involved in protests.  But on the other hand, people I know in Mexico City have attended the protests.

Have the protests spread to other large cities in Mexico? Have their been protests among Mexican-

Americans in the United States?

Probably not.  Mexico is a very centralized country, so protests escalate from the focal source to Mexico City, and that’s it.
Mexican-Americans have not protested directly as one voice.  But those who are interested attend protests organized by Mexican students not only in US Universities but around the world.

Have similar problems been epidemic in other Central American countries? 

The closest may be Brazil.  The spark that started the protests was different but the underlying issues are similar: corruption, overspending, small economic growth, violence and inequality.

Friday, November 14, 2014

GW Basketball: Season Preview 2014-2015

On Friday, 22nd Street will be bustling under the flourescent blue light emanating from the Charles E. Smith Center. That's right, folks, GW Colonials basketball is coming back to the Nation's Capital. Barbecue will be sizzling, the beer will be flowing, and the seats will be packed.

Last year, Foggy Bottom hoops had a resurgence of attention. The Colonials finished the season 3rd in the Atlantic 10 Conference with a 24-9 record overall and an 11-5 record in the conference, snagged a revenge win against UMass in the A-10 playoffs, and a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost a heartbreaker at the PNC Arena in Raleigh to the Tigers of Memphis.

It's time to restart and end the hibernation. Time to tip off a new century of basketball.

GW already played their exhibition match, an 89-47 blowout of Bloomsburg. Since Bloomsburg is a Division II squad, this was expected. The main takeaway from this game is it was a team effort. Six different Colonials (Patricio Garino, Kevin Larsen, Kethan Savage, John Kopriva, Darian Bryant, and Yuta Watanabe) scored ten or more points. Two of those players are freshmen. Yuta Watanabe is the reason you'll see the Japanese Rising Sun flag instead of the Serbian tricolor hanging off the front of student section bleachers. (Side note: Nemanja Mikic's graduated, so the "Kosovo is Serbia" signs are likely a thing of the past)

Let's look at each game one-by-one.

Grambling State

Grambling State finished a dismal 5-24 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, with only 3 wins in the conference. GW would look absolutely terrible if they were to lose at home. Expect a fast and early lead for GW to develop and a good amount of playing time for the freshmen.


GW beat Rutgers at home. It'll be an intimidating building with Rutgers' home opener taking place for this game, but considering Rutgers' 12-21 record last year, it shouldn't be hard for GW to win this one. And GW will need as much momentum as they can get for the next matchup.

#9 Virginia

Yep, we're headed to Charlottesville this year to take on the Cavaliers in their barn. Last year, GW suffered an early loss to a ranked team last year as well when Marquette handled the Colonials in Anaheim at the Wooden Legacy, but the Colonials also managed to pick up an upset in the same circuit when they shut down Doug McDermott and the Creighton Blue Jays. Virginia's strength is in their defense, and playing on the road at a large state school. Despite GW's improvement over the last few seasons, it'll be a major upset if the Colonials walk out of Charlottesville victorious.


Same as Grambling State and Rutgers, Longwood had a dismal record last year (8-24) in a smaller conference. This is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so expect a smaller crowd than usual at the Smith Center.

Seton Hall

Seton Hall raised some eyebrows when they beat Villanova last year on a buzzer-beater shot, but their final record was 17-17 and they finished with a 6-12 record in the conference. To be fair to the Pirates, the Big East is extremely difficult to compete in with powerhouses like Villanova, Creighton, and Providence.


Expect a win, GW plays well against UMBC, beating them convincingly last year.


Two years ago, a young GW team showed a harbinger of what was to come when Charlotte, widely expected to handle the Colonials in DC, got thrashed by a final score of 82-54, back when the teams were both in the A-10. Charlotte has since moved to Conference USA, where they finished 7-9 in conference play and 17-14 overall. This is the BB&T classic game, played at the Verizon Center, where Maurice "Mo" Creek put away Maryland with a buzzer-beater nothing-but-net shot.


DePaul was dead last in the Big East conference last year, at 12-21, winning only 3 games in conference play.

Penn State

Penn State's not usually known as a basketball school, but the Nittany Lions boast tremendous home-court advantage and they swept Ohio State (ranked #20 this year) as well. If the Colonials are unable to quiet down the crowd early, it could be difficult to come back, but GW stacks up well and should hold their own in hostile territory.

Ohio U.

Don't overlook this game just because it's the "lesser" Ohio state university. The Ohio Bobcats were 25-12 last year, and 11-7 in conference play.


VMI played to a very respectable 22-13 record last year but play in a relatively weak conference. GW should be favored in this game but must play carefully in order to avoid an upset. The game is at home, which should help the Colonials massively-they were 14-1 at the Smith Center last year.

St. Joe's

This will be the first conference game for GW and it's a challenge. St. Joe's started slow last year but looked very dangerous in the later parts of the season. GW played and beat St. Joe's in the one meeting of the teams, but it was a narrow win.

St. Louis

The Bilikens are rebuilding after losing a handful of seniors and GW came very close to beating last year's fantastic squad, which went into the A-10 tournament as the first seed.

La Salle

Last season, GW split the series with a mediocre La Salle team. This was a considerable disappointment because La Salle was a team that was beatable and the game ended on a questionable call.


Richmond is a consistently good team, but not a consistently great team. GW narrowly won out against them last year on the road, and it was a much-needed win coming in the middle of the most difficult part of the season.

George Mason/Fordham

GW swept the Patriots and Rams last year, both of which were at the bottom of the conference in 2013-2014. These games are winnable and important to bolster GW's record.


Duquesne is slowly improving but should not pose a serious threat to GW as long as GW stays healthy and

#15 VCU

VCU was the unanimous favorite to win the Atlantic 10 this year and runs a devastating press. Coupled with a strong home court advantage, this is a team to be feared. Last year the Smith Center hosted a rocking win for the Colonials, but then GW got routed in Richmond later in the season.


The last time GW played URI, the Colonials jumped out to a 35-9 lead early. They proceeded to go on cruise control after that and still won the game convincingly.


Last year, GW lost badly to Dayton in Ohio, but that game saw three of GW's most important players absent from the court in McDonald, Savage, and Creek. Dayton started slow last year but then proceeded to go on a tear and into the Elite Eight, effectively becoming the Cinderella team in last year's tournament. Dayton will give us a fight but if we assume a healthy Colonials side, a win is definitely possible.

Davidson/St. Bonaventure

Davidson, the newcomer to the conference, is not expected to do much this year. St. Bona is still a solid team, but the home court they had in the close game against GW last year won't be there to help them


UMass is a consistent force in the A-10 but it's yet to be seen whether the team will have the same fire they did against the Colonials last year-star player Chaz Williams is no longer with the Minutemen.

Likely Wins: 
Davidson (2)
St. Bonaventure
Duquesne (2)
Mason (2)
Fordham (2)
Grambling State
St. Louis


Penn State
Seton Hall
St. Joe's

Tough Match-Ups: 

VCU (2)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ukraine: New Rada, New Era

Check out my previous work on Ukraine below! Like Mind of Menyhert on Facebook

Two interviews with a student in Lviv

A guide to Ukraine's Presidential Election

A rebuttal to an article in The Nation

Yesterday, Ukrainians headed to the polls to elect a new Verkhovna Rada, or Parliament.

The country finds itself tired and bandaged since the War in the Donbas, which still sees occasional flare-ups after a ceasefire was declared on September 5th.

The election may not unite the divided country after the tumult of the EuroMaidan Revolution and the War in the Donbas, but it could substantially change the political landscape in Ukraine. Exit polls point to a much different Verkhovna Rada than the one that took office in the 2012 elections

In the east, two breakaway pro-Russian republics find themselves relatively independent of Kiev. The Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic are intact, but are unlikely to get formal recognition from the west, meaning the two republics may end up like the frozen states of Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, the products of conflicts on or near the Russian border since the fall of communism. None of these states have significant international recognition, but they are more or less de facto countries today. 

The disputed region, called "Novorossiya" (New Russia) is a far cry from its original namesake, which stretched from Odessa to Luhansk when it was part of the Russian Empire. It is small in area, but holds nearly three million people. If we add Crimea into this equation, Ukraine has effectively lost around four million people, from a previous population of about 44 million. Before the war, Donetsk was home to nearly a million people, and Luhansk about 450,000. Elections for the Verkhovna Rada will not be held in rebel-controlled areas, meaning the size of the Verkhovna Rada will be effectively decreased by 27 seats out of a previous 450.

The two states that make up "Novorossiya" are planning their own elections for the 2nd of November, and they will effectively have to start from scratch, though it's fairly likely pro-Kremlin parties will win elections since the breakaway republics are founded on being pro-Kremlin instead of pro-Europe and pro-Russia parties like the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) and Fmr. President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions were popular in past elections.

Exit Polls indicate the voting in the rest of Ukraine is shaping up to look as such:  

Petro Poroshenko Bloc: 23.1%
People's Front Party: 21.2%
Self-Reliance Party: 13.4%
Opposition Bloc 7.6%
Radical Party 6.4%
Svoboda/Freedom Party: 6.3%
Fatherland Party: 5.6%

Data from Radio Svoboda. 

Meet the Parties

The Petro Poroshenko Bloc is fairly self-explanatory. The current president of Ukraine is Petro Poroshenko, a rich businessman who made millions in the chocolate industry. His pragmatic, pro-European views received widespread support from Ukrainians in May when he was elected in the first round of voting, easily beating the 2nd-place candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko. His allies include Vitaly Klitschko, the former boxer and founder of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party, usually shortened to UDAR ("Strike") and present mayor of Kiev. 

The party's platform includes, as outlined on their website (in Ukrainian)

Promotion of open list elections
Decentralization of the Ukrainian state
Creating a public television network
Bringing attention to the plight of the Crimean Tatars
Ensuring language rights for Russian speakers while maintaining Ukrainian as the sole official language
Full membership of Ukraine in the European Union
Welfare and social protection for poor citizens
Law enforcement reform and creation of an independent judiciary
Ending corruption
Ensuring Ukraine's territorial integrity

Energy independence for Ukraine

Photo credit to Mikola Lazarenko of RIA Novosti. 

Photo credit to Wikipedia. 

People's Front 

The People's Front performed surprisingly well in exit polls considering previous polling data. A recent poll conducted by Gorshenin earlier this month had the party winning 7.9% of the vote. The Party won three times that according to exit polls coming in at 21.2%. This party is only a few months old, created in March by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Expect the People's Front to be part of a coalition with the Poroshenko Bloc, as Yatsenyuk and Turchynov were important players during and after the February Revolution. 

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk(left, photo by Sergei Supinsky of AFP) and Fmr. President Turchynov (photo from Wikipedia)


Another surprise out of the exit polls was the success of the Self-Reliance Party, headed by L'viv mayor Andriy Sandovyi. The party was created in 2012, but this is the first time it's been seen in Ukrainian national politics. The party aims to join "Christian morality and common sense", and will likely be allied with the Poroshenko Bloc and the People's Front. Second on the party's list is Syemen Semenchenko, a native of Donetsk and the head of the volunteer Donbas Battalion which fought the separatists.  Speaking of politicians directly involved in the Donbas War...

Radical Party of Ukraine

Oleh Lyashko

The Radical Party of Ukraine, led by Oleh Lyashko, received around 6.4% of the vote in exit polling, slightly less than that of Gorshenin's estimate. It is a left-wing party that has taken a strong stance against the oligarchs that wield considerable influence in Ukraine. The party has nationalist and populist overtones to it, and Lyashko himself has been influential in establishing volunteer battalions in eastern Ukraine to fight against the pro-Russian separatists, even taking part in the fighting himself. He was a member of Batkivshchyna until 2012, but received one seat in the 2012 elections to the Rada. His party wants to restore Ukraine's nuclear status and "end the War in Donbas by force". Lyashko received 8.32% of the vote in the May presidential election, a distant third to Poroshenko, and the party's continued influence will likely depend on Lyashko himself. This may be the party Poroshenko chooses to consult when dealing with the corruption that plagues the country. 

Opposition Bloc

Led by Yuriy Boyko, this imaginatively-named party is a coalition of members of previous parties that did not endorse the Euromaidan Revolution. It received 7.6% of the vote according to exit polling, and is populated by some former members of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, including Boyko himself, who ran for president earlier in the year. The party received substantial support in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, not far from the separatist fighting, which raised some eyebrows. It will wield some influence despite the heavily pro-European parliament as its constituents are largely Eastern Ukrainians, and Poroshenko may seek its help in compromising in future deals to ensure legitimacy with voters in eastern regions. 

Svoboda/Right Sector

Oleh Tyhanybok, leader of Svoboda/Freedom. 
Picture from David Mdzinarshvili, Reuters. 

Svoboda means "freedom" in Ukrainian (and many other Slavic languages), and is Ukraine's nationalist party, led by the wild-eyed and oftentimes crass Oleh Tyhanybok, whose party is commonly accused of being fascist. 
Like the more moderate Fatherland party, Svoboda and by extension its cousin Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) lost considerable power. Svoboda won 35 seats and  slightly more than 10% of the popular vote in 2012, but only 6.3% of the vote this time around. 

Right Sector, another nationalist organization in Ukraine and a favorite target of Russian state media smear campaigns, is barely more than an afterthought at this point if we are to take the numerous polls at face value. The Gorshenin poll had Right Sector winning barely more than 1% of the vote. It's important to remember that Right Sector is against integration with Europe, an odd outlier of a revolution commonly referred to as "EuroMaidan". 


Yulia Tymoshenko, photo from Reuters.

A surprising loser in these elections, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) barely scraped past the 5% threshold. By contrast, Fatherland was the 2nd largest party to win seats in the 2012 Parliamentary election, winning more than 25% of the vote and over 100 seats in the Rada. Perhaps it is the party's outdated image and leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, who is partially responsible for this change. Tymoshenko made an emotional speech to Maidan protestors after President Yanukovych was ousted and her release from prison generated considerable fanfare, but some Ukrainians, as I learned in an interview (link at the top of the page) that Tymoshenko is considered excessively proud and a symbol of the old guard by some Ukrainians, despite her pro-European views. Fatherland's party platform may still enable it to join a coalition with the Poroshenko Bloc and People's Front, but the party has severely declined since 2012.


"With 45.03% of electronic voting reports processed, the People's Front has 21.62% of the vote, while the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko has 21.47% of the vote in Ukraine's early parliamentary elections.
The Samopomich Union received 11.13% of the vote, the Opposition Bloc got 9.76%, Oleh Liashko's Radical Party 7.36%, and the Batkivschyna All-Ukrainian Union 5.71%, according to the information board at the Central Election Commission's (CEC) press center.
The Svoboda Party is close to the 5% election threshold, having scored 4.68% of the vote at the moment."

UPDATE 2: (From Interfax Ukraine)

"The results of processing 60.69% of the protocols obtained by the Central Election Commission (CEC) from elections commissions have shown People's Front winning 21.59% and Petro Poroshenko Bloc 21.41% of the votes in the parliamentary elections held last Sunday.
The Samopomich Union has mustered 11.16% of the votes, the Opposition Bloc 9.91%, the Radical Party 7.36%, and the Batkivschyna 5.64% of the votes, according to information posted on an interactive display at the CEC press center.
The results so far show the remaining parties and blocs falling short of the 5% election threshold, with the Svoboda all-Ukrainian Union coming closest with 4.7% of the votes."