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Mexican Election 2018

Almost all the foreign coverage of next Sunday’s Mexican election focusses on the drug wars and the murder rate: 30,000 killed last year, and looking to be even higher this year. But there are 127 million Mexicans, so it’s not really all that bad by Caribbean standards.

Mexico is not even in the top ten countries in terms of its murder rate, although seven out of those top ten are in the Caribbean: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Colombia. In fact, Mexico is ranked at number 20 worldwide, behind apparently safer countries like Brazil, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.

The Caribbean is a tough neighbourhood, but Mexico is actually one of its safer places. So why is everybody, including the Mexicans themselves, obsessed with the local murder rate? It’s because the killings are so brazen and spectacular – and that is largely due to the fact that so many of them are part of the incessant wars between the rival drug gangs.

‘Cartels’ is no longer the right word for these gangs: they have splintered into a multitude of rival organisations fighting to maintain or expand their access to the lucrative US market. It’s a bloody business, but it’s not what the election is about – or at least not openly.

We already know who is going to be the president of Mexico for the next six years. It’s ‘AMLO’, short for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The last opinion poll, with only a week to go, put him at 37% of the vote, and his nearest rival at only 20%. He has little to say about the drug war, apart from vague talk about giving some criminals an amnesty. What he concentrates on is inequality.

Traditionally a far poorer place than the other big economies in Latin America, Brazil and Argentina, Mexico is now level-pegging with Brazil in per capita income, though still trailing Argentina. Indeed, if you calculate it in PPP (purchasing power parity), Mexico is now even with Argentina and well ahead of Brazil. The problem is that the income (in all three countries) is so unevenly shared.

At least a third of Mexico’s people live in poverty, and if anything the inequality has become worse as the economy grew. Some of the slums around the big cities are such deprived and violent places that even ambulances will not go there at night. That is López Obrador’s priority: he will be Mexico’s first left-wing president.

His rivals paint him as a Chávez-style radical who will ruin the economy, but his record as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 suggests a much more pragmatic politician: ‘Mexico’s Bernie Sanders’, as some have called him. “No expropriations, no nationalisations”, he pledges – but he does promise to address income disparity as no previous Mexican government has done.

It’s remarkable that Mexico had to wait so long for the emergence of a successful left-wing politician. The 60-year stranglehold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – what it institutionalised was corruption – was broken in the 2000 election, but the winner was the National Action Party (PAN), a centre-right, business-friendly organisation.

In 2006 PAN made the fatal mistake, at the behest of the United States, of launching the ‘war on drugs’. In the place of PRI’s policy of co-existence – you sell the drugs in the US, give us a share of the profits, and we’ll leave you alone – it set out to smash the cartels.

It succeeded all too well. That’s when the murder rate took off, as the many fragments of the old cartels fought each other for market share. As long as the demand is there in the US, the drug trade will thrive, but now there is also highly visible carnage in Mexico. Indeed, one of the reasons that PRI came back to power in 2012 was the horror Mexicans felt at the violence unleashed in their streets.

PRI did nothing to solve the problem, however, and it will be an also-ran in this election. López Obrador’s government will be a very different proposition. It may or may not declare a ceasefire in the local drug war, but it will certainly shake up the Mexican elites.

It will also annoy Washington greatly. López Obrador is promising that all 50 Mexican consulates in the United States will help to defend migrants caught up in the American legal system.

“Trump and his advisers speak of the Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination,” López Obrador wrote just after the Great Distractor’s election.

It’s quite likely that within a year the US intelligence services will be tasked with the job of finding ways to bring him down.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 4. (“Mexico…Bahamas”; and “Cartels…openly”)

Smeed’s Law

7 September 2006

Smeed’s Law

By Gwynne Dyer

I was in a taxi in Beijing this morning, in heavy traffic moving very slowly, when a truck tried to change lanes and push in front of us. The taxi driver was having none of that, so he nosed forward to block the truck. The truck driver held his course, the taxi pushed forward again, and after about fifteen seconds of that came the inevitable crunch. Small accident, nobody hurt.

You see this sort of thing almost every day here, and you sometimes wonder why Chinese drivers are such idiots. But they aren’t. They’re just first-generation drivers.

China still has less than one car for every fifty people, but even ten years ago over 100,000 people were dying on its roads annually. The death toll is probably much greater now, because car ownership has grown at least fivefold since then. But I’ll bet that it is already falling in terms of deaths per vehicle-mile (vehicle-kilometre) driven. There is a national learning curve in driving, and China is already climbing it. So is the rest of the developing world.

Around the world, about 1.2 million people are killed in road accidents each year. An astounding 85 percent of those deaths happen in developing countries, although they own less than a fifth of the world’s vehicle fleet. There’s no getting round it: they are very, very bad drivers in China, India, Africa and the Middle East. (And they are almost as bad in South-East Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.)

Take Liberia, for example. If the Liberian death rate per million miles (kilometres) driven were transposed to the United States, six million Americans per year would be killed on the roads. Actual American road deaths are about 40,000 a year, so it is 150 times more dangerous to drive in Liberia than in the United States. You can’t blame all that on poor brakes and bad roads. But why is it like that?

Back in 1949, R.J. Smeed, Professor of Traffic Studies at University College London, proposed a statistical “law” — more a rule of thumb really — which was, to say the least, counter-intuitive. He said that a growing number of cars on the road leads to a DECREASE in the number of accidents per vehicle. A growing car population means a big, persistent annual fall in the death rate per million miles (kilometres) driven.

Common sense tells us the opposite. It says that, other things being equal, the number of single-vehicle accidents (driving into trees, running over pedestrians) ought to increase more or less in direct proportion to the number of cars on the road. Two-car crashes and multi-car pile-ups ought to increase as the SQUARE of the number of vehicles. But it doesn’t work like that.

The amount of road traffic in the United States has grown fourteen-fold since 1925. If the number of American deaths per million miles (kilometres) driven had stayed steady at the 1925 rate, there would now be 300,000 deaths per years on American roads, not 40,000. Americans have become much better drivers — and everybody else will, too.

Smeed offered no explanation for this phenomenon, but I think that there is a collective learning process as more and more people become experienced drivers, and particularly as the generations turn over and children grow up in families that already own cars.

In thirty years, the mass stupidity that was Mexico City’s road scene in the 1970s — make six lanes where there are only three, block the intersections, and blow your horn incessantly — has morphed into the relatively disciplined, relatively silent Mexico City traffic of today, which flows more smoothly now even with three or four times as many cars on the road.

Between 1925 and 1984, the US road death rate per million miles (kilometres) driven fell steadily by 3.3 percent per year. In Britain, between 1949 and 1974, it fell by 4.7 percent a year. You can’t just attribute it to safer cars, because modern cars in the hands of first-generation, Third-World drivers still achieve kill rates as high as those of 1920s Americans in their Model T Fords. Better engineered roads may make a bit of difference, but on the other hand there are far more cars on the road.

Eventually, you hit diminishing returns: in the last ten years US road deaths per million miles (kilometres) driven have fallen at less than two percent a year. When almost everybody is a third-generation driver, what’s left to learn? But Smeed’s Law still holds, because the number of miles (kilometres) driven per year in the United States isn’t growing fast any more either.

So this year’s 1.2 million traffic deaths will not soar to five or ten million when all the people in the developing countries get cars too. It will rise for a while, due to the huge surge of new drivers, and then it will fall back as they gain experience, perhaps even below the current figure.

Which leaves only two problems. The long-term one is that the world may go into climate meltdown because of those two or three billion cars. (The current global car population is about 500 million.) The short-term one is that Beijing, where an extra thousand cars are put on the road every day, will achieve total gridlock just in time for the 2008 Olympics.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Common…that”; and “In thirty…road”)