A hornet's nest for Obama

Mexico

Miguel doesn't sleep well these days. It's not his conscience - in his view, it was quite reasonable to kill the man who shot him in the head.

"I was taught to return a favour," he says. "It was a small sin."

Miguel is not his real name, but the one he has chosen for the purposes of interview. He wants to be filmed in shadow, which is a shame because it means we cannot show how his brow is distorted by an acute dent in the left temple where the bullet entered, and a wider, shallow one where it exited on the right. He says he was shot by a member of a rival drug cartel, who was owed US$250,000 by Miguel's boss. After 32 days in a coma, Miguel emerged to take his revenge.

His restless nights are the product of a more general anxiety. Now might be a good time to retire, he thinks, but it's hard to change career at this stage because if your enemies don't get you, then your friends will.

"You can change your phone number but your friends know how to find you," he says. "I can't let them down, because we're the same, we're family and you have to respect your family."

Miguel lives in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, the state at the centre of Mexico's spiralling drug wars. In early December, the bodies of 13 men turned up at the side of a country road, their hands tied with rope, gunshots in the head and the back. They are believed to have worked for one of the drug cartels whose turf war is tearing Mexico apart. Such killings are an everyday occurrence all over the country, most commonly along the drug routes leading to the US border.

In the past year, nearly 5,400 people have been killed in drug-related murders, more than doubling the previous year's total. Many were de capitated. Others had their tongues cut out. The cartels, which have been weakened by war, are now turning to kidnap, extortion and other forms of organised crime.

"The spiral of violence is a sign of ungovernability which may lead to anarchy," admitted President Felipe Calderón in early December. American pundits have warned that Mexico may become a failed state.

For 70 years, Mexico was governed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, which accommodated the drug business. Politicians were paid, drug traffickers plied their trade and violence remained under control. But when Calderón came to power in 2006, he decided to take on the cartels, which were growing more powerful as they were squeezed out of Colombia and pushed north.

"Calderón poked a hornet's nest with a big stick, but he made no preparations for the consequences," says Mario ópez Valdez, a PRI senator for Sinaloa. "Now the angry hornets are out, but no one's wearing protective clothing."

José - again, a pseudonym - drives around Tierra Blanca, the middle-class residential area of Culiacán where the drug traffickers used to live. He likes to show off his huge 4x4 Chevrolet Avalanche, which he drives while drinking beer and talking on the mobile phone to a string of girlfriends. Apparently high on cocaine, he talks at machine-gun pace in narco-slang, somewhat alarmingly taking his hands off the wheel to point out the sights to visitors.

"That's where El Mochomo was betrayed," he says, indicating a house where one of the most famous drug traffickers, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, was arrested in January. Graffiti on the garage door reads: "I love you, Mochomo, I miss you, your girl loves you."

José and Miguel work for the Sinaloa cartel, members of which are believed to have turned Beltrán Leyva over to the authorities as they battled to gain new and more profitable trafficking routes. In response, the Beltrán Leyva cartel murdered the son of the Sinaloa cartel's fugitive leader, Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo, which translates as "Shorty".

"That was when the war began," says José. He is sorry to see the streets so quiet, after years in which they pulsated with luxury vehicles and extravagant parties. Many houses are empty, their drug-trafficker owners having quietly removed themselves to the countryside, where they are less likely to be killed.

At the shrine to Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, a trio of guitar, harmonica and singer are playing a narcocorrido, a praise-song to the drug cartels. As drugs are the foundation of Culiacán's wealth, and the present war is bad for business, it is a lament:

Tierra Blanca, you seem so sad now.

Your streets are deserted,

No longer humming with the latest cars,

Nor with the roar of the machine-gun.

Jesús Malverde is a Robin Hood-type figure, a bandit who was hanged by the Mexican authorities in 1909. Once a simple folk hero, he is now worshipped by those who have become rich on narco-profits. At his shrine, plaques in the name of the Beltrán Leyva family, among others, bear legends such as: "Thank you for safeguarding our journey from Sinaloa to California."

Drugs are now deeply embedded in Mexican culture, while corruption runs through the bureaucracy and the security forces. As the violence increases, President-elect Barack Obama may find that he has to deal with war not just far away in Iraq and Afghanistan, but right on his border.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.