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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithJanuary 14, 20167min306

Congratulations to those Mexican Marines who recaptured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán after a bitter gunfight in his home state of Sinaloa. Unlike his 2001 escape when he was at large for 13 years, this time he was recaptured in less than six months.

For most Americans, this seems like a fairly simple case of excellent police work with the major side story being Sean Penn. What I’ve heard from many calls to friends in Juárez and Palomas is very different.

Angela, a businesswoman in Juárez asks why Chapo was captured just two days after a very critical editorial (“Mexico Stubbornly Resists Accountability”) in The New York Times about President Enrique Peña Nieto. To bump up the president’s sagging popularity? Why were others killed in the shootout but not Chapo when the Mexican Marines have a reputation of not taking prisoners? Why was his head covered when he was put in the helicopter to go back to Mexico City? An employee of hers suggests that the man being loaded in the helicopter was a double. José Antonio says that this is a “cortina de humo,” or smoke screen or a game, between Chapo and Peña Nieto and that he will never be extradited because he has too many secrets.

Vicente, a doctor who works in one of the prisons agrees that this is a deal between Chapo and Peña Nieto to get the latter’s favorability ratings up and that part of the deal is that Chapo won’t be extradited. The photographer Julián says that, if there is an extradition, it will be a lengthy process during which all sorts of strange things can happen. Ivonne, a businesswoman in Palomas, sees this as a distraction from the much larger economic problems of sinking oil prices and the increasingly strong dollar.

This overwhelming sense that the government in Mexico is only for the rich and powerful is one reason why Chapo was able to escape twice from the most secure prisons in the country and why he is so highly regarded by so many.

Obviously, money is a factor. It would be fascinating to know how much the two escapes cost Chapo. Fear is a factor. Wouldn’t you help him escape if his people knew where your wife worked or your children went to school? More to the point, how would you feel if you were one of the soldiers standing next to him at the time of his capture with your face uncovered?

However, respect and contempt are even stronger factors. Respect for Chapo’s contributions to the poor, especially in his home state of Sinaloa and contempt for the failure of the Mexican government to do the same. This creates an environment in which the severity of his crimes are diminished, in which someone like Aurora in Juárez can say that he is just a “businessman” and that drugs are really an American problem.

Given his brutal history, this is a tough argument to accept until you have a chance to witness firsthand this daily callous disregard of the needy. In my case it happened once again the day before Chapo’s capture. My brother-in-law and I crossed the border at Santa Teresa on the west edge of Juárez, my car bulging with used clothing for a hospital down the road as well as for several desperately poor families. Then I got the red light in the Mexican customs traffic lane, was pulled over, searched and fined. My argument that I was helping the poor — in fact, doing what the Mexican government should be doing — went nowhere.

This was a minor inconvenience compared to the experience of the founder of the hospital that same night. In order to get a van full of donated beans the 25 miles from Sunland Park, New Mexico, to his hospital and avoid an exorbitant bribe at Santa Teresa, he had to drive more than an hour west to the border at Palomas, Mexico, wait several hours until the right Mexican customs official came on duty, give him a $300 bribe, cross into Mexico and drive an hour and a half back to the hospital on a terrifying two lane road — a trip of almost 200 miles plus a payment of $300 because of the cruelty of the Mexican government. No wonder even someone as brutal as Chapo has public support. These aren’t isolated events; this is simply the reality of the border.

As for the future, Chapo is probably finished, whether or not he is extradited. And other narcos will quickly fill his place as has repeatedly happened when kingpins are arrested. There will be little impact on the drug trade.

More important, Mexican leaders and perhaps even President Enrique Peña Nieto might ask themselves why someone whose drug trafficking had caused such extraordinary damage can still be so popular. It doesn’t matter what country you live in. Government ought to be for the people, not against them.

Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and served as Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture. He travels to Mexico at least monthly to document and assist various humanitarian projects. Reach him at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.


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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithJanuary 10, 20167min377

“Hey, Morgan. It’s Paul and we’re in Santa Fe.” What a surprise to hear this voice from the past. Paul Brown and I served together in the Colorado House of Representatives for two terms — 1975-1978 — but I hadn’t seen him or his wife, Sue, for decades.

Paul first became involved in politics in 1970, joined the “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” and was an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach for George McGovern in 1972. In 1974, the Watergate year, he was one of those gutsy candidates like Nancy Flett and Dorothy Witherspoon who were willing to run in traditionally Republican districts (Grand Junction in his case) and, by winning, gave Democrats the first House majority in many years. (Little did we know then that it would only last two years and would be followed by nearly 30 unbroken years of Republican majorities.)

Former state Rep. Paul Brown and his wife, Sue, look back on a long life in politics during a recent visit with Morgan Smith. Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

That year, Paul ran against the then-Mayor of Grand Junction and, to quote him, “was probably the only person in the county who didn’t have enough sense to know that I did not have a chance to win the race.” He won by over 14 percent that year and 6 percent in 1976, a lower margin because of a gun control bill he had co-sponsored. Those were unique times. As he says, “Regardless of political bent, we were able to talk to each other and even disagree as friends.”

When he cites the legislators he remembers best, as many Republicans as Democrats appear on the list. Republicans like Sandy Arnold, Joe Shoemaker, Frank Traylor, Ann Gorsuch and Betty Ann Dittemore, most of whom would probably be unelectable today, given current conservative litmus tests. He also cites Democrats like Jim Lloyd, Arie Taylor and Ruben Valdez. He describes serving on the Judiciary Committee as his most interesting experience as a legislator, as well as having to go before the Joint Budget Committee for issues like making the case for a new sewer system for the town of DeBeque.

He then decided not to run for a third term. “Serving in Denver while Sue and our daughter were in Grand Junction was proving pretty rough on our family life, especially on the salary that we got at that time. “ (It was $7,600 a year.)

Paul later worked for the Division of Property Taxation, as community impact coordinator on the Colony Oil Shale Project and as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ray Kogovsek from 1983-84.

However, what Paul described as his most intense political experience occurred fairly recently. In 2006, he ran for Mesa County assessor and lost to Barbara Brewer. “Over the course of the campaign we became friends,” Paul says. “There was no mudslinging.” In fact, Brewer suggested that Brown apply for the position of Mesa County public trustee and offered to write a letter in support. In 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him to the post and in 2011, Gov. John Hickenlooper re-appointed him.

Then-state Rep. Paul Brown, D-Grand Junction, hams it up at the Legislature’s annual Hummers event in the late 1970s. Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

One of his jobs was to have legal notices published in a legal newspaper. Initially, he used the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. This was highly lucrative for the paper; Mike Moran, the current Mesa County public trustee has said that the Sentinel was paid more than $500,000 for foreclosure notices in 2010.

Finding repeated mistakes in the Daily Sentinel’s notices, Brown began looking for other options. There were two other papers in the county at the time, the Fruita Times and the Palisade Tribune (the Daily Sentinel eventually bought both papers). After going through a bidding process, Paul entered into a contract with them in 2012.

This unleashed the fury of the Daily Sentinel’s publisher, and Paul was subjected to an unending cascade of negative articles and editorials. As a result, Gov. Hickenlooper declined to reappoint him in 2012, not even giving Paul the opportunity to tell his side of the story. Staffers at the governor’s office told him that he was “too controversial” and that he had made the largest newspaper on the Western Slope very angry.

Notwithstanding this treatment, Paul and Sue remain very involved in local Democratic politics. Sue is on the State Central Committee as one of Mesa County’s representatives. She is also the CEO and founder of Home Care of the Grand Valley, a non-profit providing care for a wide range of the ill in Mesa County.

Despite the Daily Sentinel issue, Paul continues to be optimistic about the need to work together and about the quality of people who run for office from both parties.

“Sometimes differences of opinions are the best vehicle for making sound decisions,” he says. “I have never met anyone who got into politics for anything other than honorable reasons. We all truly wanted to do the best for our constituents.” Congratulations to him and Sue for their service.

Morgan Smith is a former state legislator and served as commissioner of Agriculture and executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net


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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithSeptember 19, 201515min322
On a steamy Friday night in early August 50 years ago, I was taken prisoner by the Ku Klux Klan outside the small town of Oxford, N.C. I was lucky to survive, but because I got into this mess through my stupidity and the stubbornness of my fellow employees at the Congress of Racial Equality […]

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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithJuly 21, 20159min293
“El Chapo for President of México,” Pastor Galván says. “He’s like Pancho Villa or Emilio Zapata. They had money, but they helped the poor, something the government doesn’t do.” This was one of the many reactions I heard during a trip to Juárez, Mexico, two days after Joaquín “El Chapo “ Guzmán’s extraordinary escape from […]

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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithJuly 13, 20157min437
“Puras mentiras,” Cecilia Vazquez says to me. Nothing but lies. The other Mixteca Indians nod in agreement. We’re at the Santa Teresa border crossing just west of El Paso, Texas, and I’ve asked them about the Judicial Watch report claiming that ISIS had set up terrorist training camps in Anapra and Palomas, Mexico. Anapra is […]

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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithJuly 12, 20159min245
“Governor Love is a dumb bell.” It was a Sunday afternoon and David Gaon was listening to the Herrick Roth show, when suddenly a man named J.D. MacFarlane made this comment about Gov. John Love. Gaon immediately called MacFarlane, offered to work on his campaign for attorney general, went to Pueblo to meet with Wally […]

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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithJanuary 2, 20157min211
Congratulations to President Obama for being the first president to stand up and reject the counterproductive and long outdated Cuban embargo. And to heck with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and others for their attacks on him. How can they justify an embargo that was first imposed on October 19, 1960, extended on February 7, 1962 […]

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Morgan SmithMorgan SmithDecember 12, 20149min275
SMITH: BREAKING AWAY HERE AND YONDER

“After I vote, I look up into the sky and say a prayer that it will turn out alright,” says a Spaniard named Francisco Noviola. Despite the agony of our November 4 elections, it’s November 9 and here we are in Barcelona, Spain to observe another election — the referendum on independence from Spain that was taking place throughout the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. Noviola was one of the many voters I interviewed.

Although our American Dream of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, religions and parts of the world has been largely successful, this model is not one that is
followed in most of the world. The tendency is to break apart rather than to work together. The Catalonia/Spain independence issue is just one of many such situations. Here are several examples, some good, some bad:

Imagine how much more secure Iraq would be if it could split up and Kurds, Sunnis and Shia could live apart.

Voters from Catalan who put Catalan flags on their dogs.

Look at Belgium with the split between French and Dutch speakers or Quebec separatism in Canada.

See the successful splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak republics or the much bloodier breakup of Yugoslavia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union is still an unfinished issue as Russia seeks to claw back the Ukraine.

On a much more local level, consider the recent effort in Colorado whereby 10 counties wanted to “secede” and form a new state called North Colorado.

The Catalan independence movement has been simmering for decades, even centuries. A voter with the Catalan flag is seen in this photo.

Although no one at our national level is talking about secession, look at how the increasing hostility between Republicans and Democrats has almost turned us into two warring countries.

This Catalan independence movement has been simmering for decades, even centuries. When we lived there, (1999-2004) we saw how many Catalans simply reject the idea that they are part of Spain. Take immigration, for example. When Catalans would ask us about the immigration debate in the U.S., they would always say that they too had immigration problems. So I would ask where their immigrants came from.

“Andalusia,” they would say.

“But that’s part of your country,” I would answer. “In the U.S. we wouldn’t say that someone who had moved to Colorado from New York, for example, was an immigrant.”

Then I would ask when these Andalusians had come to Catalonia.

“After the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and 40s,” would be the answer. In other words, even though their children and grandchildren were born in Catalonia, these Andalusians were all still considered immigrants!

A voter with the Catalan flag.

The issue has exploded now because of the financial crisis. Specifically, the Catalan government, deeply in debt because of the decline in property values as well as its excessive spending, believes that the Spanish central government collects too much in taxes and redistributes back to Catalonia too little. Catalans rightfully want the kind of state-level taxing powers that states in the U.S. have. If this could be accomplished, the independence movement would be largely defused. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen because there isn’t the money; the central government is too dependent on tax revenues from Catalonia, its richest region to agree to any change that would reduce the revenue it receives.

The November 9 vote itself was simply advisory; actual secession would require a vote by all Spaniards, something that simply isn’t going to happen. Over the course of three days, I talked to cab drivers, waiters, friends who live in Barcelona as well as voters waiting in line like Noviola or his friend, Montlui who proudly claimed he could trace his Catalan roots back to the 13th century. The actual voting process was extremely impressive as people waited patiently and cheerfully in a light rain with their dogs and children. Of six million eligible voters, 2.3 million voted or about 37 percent and 81 percent of those voted for independence. Afterwards, both the separatists or “independistas” and the central government claimed victory, the separatists pointing to the 81 percent and the central government arguing that the low turnout made it meaningless.

Catalan voters such as Noviola on the left and Montliu on the right, proudly claim they could trace their Catalan roots back to the 13th century.

Photos by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

No one knows what, if anything, will happen next but it’s time for everyone involved to move on to more pressing issues — the economy and endemic corruption.

Spain’s unemployment rate is 23.6 percent as compared to 10.4 percent in France, 5.15 percent in Germany, 12.6 percent in Italy and 5.8 percent in the U.S. Although this figure is somewhat exaggerated because so many people work “off the books” or for cash or barter, it is still excruciating, especially for young people. In fact, youth unemployment (ages 15-29) was 53.7 percent last September.

As for corruption, consider that Cristina, the sister of the King has been charged with tax fraud, Jordi Pujol, the “father” of Catalonia (He served as President for 23 years.) has just admitted to hiding money in Switzerland for the last 35 years, and Ana Mato, the Health Minister has just been forced to resign because of a kick-back scandal. The job approval rate of the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy is only 21 percent, one half that of our beleaguered President, and a brand new political party, Podemos (We Can) has suddenly shot ahead of both major parties in the polls.

When you peel away the talk of nationalism, the basic issues are the same as ours — taxes, corruption, the economy and a lack of confidence in our leaders. It’s time to forget about breaking up and focus on those issues. And we should all follow the advice of Francisco Noviola — look up in the sky and say a prayer.

Morgan Smith is a former Colorado legislator and Commissioner of Agriculture. He is a frequent traveler who maintains a home in Barcelona. Reach him at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.



Morgan SmithMorgan SmithNovember 21, 20147min178
SMITH: MAJOR PROBLEM STILL EXISTS WITH IGUALA

To the great surprise of most observers, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has pushed forward three major reforms that could lead to dramatic political and social improvements for Mexico as well as new business opportunities for Colorado companies. He has broken the telecommunications monopoly, meaning that Mexicans should soon have better and cheaper phone service. He has attacked the corrupt teacher’s union, a union that has controlled teacher’s training and licenses with the result that many teachers can just buy licenses without having any training and many others never even have to show up to teach classes. Thirdly, he is opening up PEMEX, the national oil company, to foreign investment, an initiative that could reverse PEMEX’s decline in production and provide additional revenues for long-neglected social programs. These reforms are controversial — teachers who receive salaries for doing nothing, for example, are incensed — but they are long overdue and Peña Nieto deserves credit.

This is important to Colorado because Mexico is our second largest export market, one that has grown rapidly since the passage of NAFTA some 20 years ago. In fact, our exports to Mexico increased by 17 percent just between August 2013 and August 2014. Colorado has worked hard to develop this relationship with continuing support from all recent governors, especially John Hickenlooper, and with the skills and energy of the staff in its trade office. These three reforms could mean much more business, particularly in terms of telecommunications equipment as well as technology for the energy and environmental industries.

There is one major problem, however. It’s called Iguala.

Iguala is the small city just south of Cuernavaca that no one had ever heard of until Sept. 26 when students clashed with the police, six people were killed and another 43 students were taken away in police cars. One of those killed — a student — was found the next day with his eyes gouged out and the skin stripped off his face, the trademark of a drug cartel. On Oct. 4, 28 burned bodies were found in several pits but initial forensic evidence now suggests that they are not the students. So where are the students and is there any chance that they are still alive? And who are the people whose corpses have been found in the pits? Dozens of people have been arrested, most of whom are police; the Mayor, José Luis Abarca, his wife and the police chief, all suspects, have disappeared; and Benjamin Mondragón, the leader of the Guerrero Unídos gang that the investigators believe was involved with the police in regard to the deaths and disappearances has now died in a raid by security forces. There have been enormous protests all over the country as well as in cities like Berlin, Barcelona, London, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Madrid, Brussels and San Francisco. This follows a June 30 incident near Mexico City in which 22 people were killed in what was originally called a “shoot out” with Mexican soldiers but is now being deemed a mass execution, fueling the belief that the police and military are often as dangerous as the cartels.

Are these killings just the behavior of rogue police officers, soldiers and gang members or do they symbolize a widespread way in which cartels are using drug money to infiltrate municipalities, police departments and even the military? Many observers believe that it’s the latter, that the staggering amounts of money gained from the drug trade are essentially being used to “buy” governments, and that the relative calm we have seen in some areas of Mexico isn’t a symbol of lawfulness but rather of one cartel having crushed the opposition and/or reached a pact with government officials.

For example, recently I wrote about how the tiny town of Palomas on the border west of Juárez was coming back to life after several years of extreme violence. A friend who has run an orphanage there for 15 years responded as follows: “It is interesting that the violence has been curbed but we should not think that the cartel has gone away. A couple of our people were face to face with the current head of the cartel in Palomas, recently, and it is definitely the head of Palomas to which all others bow.”

If, in fact, what happened in Iguala is more than just a savage but isolated explosion of violence and cruelty, if it is really “government action” in the sense that it was mostly carried out by the local police, then President Peña Nieto has a staggeringly complicated problem that could sink his administration and negate his reforms. For example, why would foreign oil companies invest in oil-rich areas like the state of Tamaulipas in northeast Mexico if the security situation isn’t improved?

Colorado, via our Attorney General’s participation in the Council of Western Attorneys General, has worked to improve the justice system in Mexico and has helped with the training of more than 12,000 members of the Mexican legal community. In the longer run, these training programs are invaluable, but Peña Nieto’s problem is now. How he and his administration deal with Iguala will have a huge impact not only on his legacy but on future business opportunities in Mexico. Let’s wish him luck because Mexico is an important partner.

Morgan Smith was the Director of the Colorado International Trade Office under Gov. Romer and opened Colorado’s first trade office in Mexico. He is also a member of Gov. Hickenlooper’s Mexico Ambassador Group. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.