Dispatch

Fear Dimitra

How one 62-year-old grandmother explains the Greek crisis.

ATHENS — After a year with the same old crowd of anarcho-leftists and labor unionists at the endless anti-austerity protests in Athens, I finally met a Greek who might well be the poster woman for the economic crisis.

Dimitra is a 62-year-old grandmother who lives in the once-fancy, now-bedraggled central Athens neighborhood around Victoria Square. She runs a mini-market that supports not only her, but also her underemployed daughter and two grandchildren. It's about to go under. She has always paid her taxes, even as her tax-evading friends have ridiculed her, and never spent more than she could save. But the austerity measures have driven up her tax and utility bills, so her savings are running out. And if that wasn't enough, her neighborhood is now filled with drug addicts and gangs. She's afraid to go out after dark because she's gotten mugged more times than she can remember. "I am wearing out," she says.

For many years, Greek politicians didn't pay attention to people like Dimitra. They should have. This silent majority -- the Greeks who followed the rules, paid their taxes, and lived within their means -- are now paying for debts racked up by a corrupt, inefficient, and clientelistic political system that gave them almost nothing. The government shouldn't fear the aganaktismenoi, the slogan-chanting Greeks who have camped out for weeks in Syntagma Square in a sit-in anti-austerity protest modeled after Spain's indignados. They should fear Dimitra, and every other Greek like her who has quietly given Greek politicians the benefit of the doubt and, after this year of austerity gone nowhere, finally lost patience with them.

Greece's many problems, of course, predate the embattled government of George Papandreou. The center-left PASOK party that his father, Andreas, founded was elected in October 2009 on a mandate to expand government -- until it discovered that the country was more than $400 billion in debt. Now, a year of austerity measures in exchange for emergency bailout loans to keep the country from going bankrupt has done little to calm markets or creditors, and it has cut deeply into Greeks' disposable income and their sense of security. Papandreou's government will pay the immediate price, even after surviving Tuesday's midnight confidence vote.

But even with early elections, which look increasingly likely as faith in Papandreou's government plummets, the main opposition center-right party, New Democracy, is widely viewed by voters as equally ineffective. "The debt crisis should have been a time for political parties -- and political movements -- to unite to save the country, but instead they have remained attached to their vested interests even as the ship was going down," says political analyst Dimitris Skalkos. "It's like they can't see past their own rhetoric to actually work to get us out of this mess."

Domestically, the mess has many layers, including a stagnant, almost Soviet-style economy that favors patronage over meritocracy, a culture of corruption that has squandered public money, and a recent rise in illegal immigration that's been badly managed by both the Greeks and the Europeans, leaving thousands of unemployed, undocumented, and increasingly desperate migrants stranded in Athens. In the last year, a troubling increase in violent crime has also egged on once-marginal neo-Nazi gangs, whom some longtime inner-city residents now see as a more effective security force than municipal and Greek police.

"People don't feel safe anymore, in any way, and it makes them tense, angry, suspicious," says Father Maximus, the priest at Aghios Panteleimonas, a cathedral in a central Athens neighborhood of the same name that has seen some of the worst crime in the past year. "I don't know what to tell the elderly women who show up crying, bruised after an Afghan or African migrant has mugged them on the way to church. I don't know what to tell the teenage prostitutes from Africa who show up here, begging for help and a way out of the trap of their lives, or the homeless migrants squatting outside the church. There's no order, and in this atmosphere anyone who is a victim can also be a villain."

I met Father Maximus, a Greek who lived in Germany and likes to play improvisational jazz, at his church earlier this year. Like other Greeks who have lived abroad, or like diaspora Greeks like me, he held on to the idea that Greeks stuck together in tough times and always opened their hearts to strangers. "It seems like we lived in some kind of nostalgic fantasy," he told me, as we walked through his battered neighborhood. Things have really devolved in the last year here, he said. Many pensioners refuse to leave their homes because they are scared of getting held up by xenoi, the "foreigners" from Africa and Asia who now outnumber them in the neighborhood. In response, right-wing gangs police the streets and have attacked makeshift basement mosques while Bangladeshi migrants worship inside.

Many in those gangs belong to Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, a fringe fascist group despised by most Greeks. In provincial elections last October, exasperated residents in crime-ridden Athenian neighborhoods helped elect Chrysi Avgi's leader, Nikolas Michaloliakos, to the Athens municipal council because he promised to crack down on crime and kick out migrants, who were presumably responsible for it. Michaloliakos has been known to greet his fellow council members with a Nazi salute. While Chrysi Avgi has no prospect of winning parliamentary seats, "its appearance in politics does show that, as support for the two main parties in Greece have weakened, the space for the fringe has opened," says Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale University who follows developments in his homeland closely.

One party already in parliament, the Popular Orthodox Rally, has rallied support by playing on Greeks' increasing fear of foreigners. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, an Amherst-educated economist who was Papandreou's college roommate, got the most applause from his fellow conservatives during an anti-austerity speech last week by saying he would roll back PASOK's citizenship law, which gives citizenship to the Greek-born children of migrants who have lived here legally for five years. "It's an uneasy time, and it's disappointing that prominent people are scapegoating immigrants to explain away our problems," says Anna Triandafyllidou, who studies migration as a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

Most Greeks are not xenophobes, but the crisis has made this somewhat parochial culture more insular. Many are recoiling from Europeans, especially the Germans, who are judging them, often unfairly, for being lazy spendthrifts with an entitlement complex. Others are recoiling from the IMF, whom they fear is trying to take over Greece. I've seen flyers for the "buy Greek" movement, which aims to stoke both national pride and the economy by promoting Greek products. A few conspiracy theorists are also reaching for a dated anti-Americanism that assumes an Evil Empire United States, with President Obama as Darth Vader, is bringing Greece to its knees because they want to pillage it. "We have hidden reserves of oil and gold," a mechanic named Yiannis told me at a recent anti-austerity demonstration. "The big powers want to take it all away from us."

Many Greeks are also recoiling from Papandreou, a genial, Minnesota-born sociologist from one of Greece's most prominent political families, because they don't think he's Greek enough. "Why can't Jeffrey eat a souvlaki with the rest of us?" sighed Dimitris, a 50-year-old wedding photographer who protested outside Parliament during Tuesday's confidence vote, pointedly using Papandreou's nickname to signal his "otherness."

It's notable that Papandreou saved his government last week by replacing his finance minister with Evangelos Venizelos, his biggest foe in the party, and a political veteran who is a familiar face in Greek politics. Venizelos, a constitutional law scholar and former defense minister, is known as a brilliant, if vicious, political strategist who speaks beautiful Greek.

To her great credit, Dimitra, the grandmother, was fighting this insularity when I met her last month. She was stout and direct, with short gray hair, schoolteacher glasses, and a disarmingly girlish smile. She wouldn't tell me her last name, saying she didn't like reporters, but she stuck by me during a memorial service for Manolis Kantaris, a 44-year-old Greek man who had been robbed and stabbed to death early last month as he was loading his car to take his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth. Dimitra didn't know Kantaris, but he had lived in her neighborhood, and she wanted to leave flowers at the makeshift shrine marking the spot where he died. Witnesses told police three "dark-skinned foreign men" had killed him. A Bangladeshi man was stabbed to death in retaliation. (Police have arrested two afghan migrants on suspicion of killing kantaris, but no one has been arrested in connection to the Bangladeshi man's death.)

The crowd at the memorial service was already angry by the time I showed up. "Foreigners get of Greece!" they chanted, and waved Greek flags and chased a hapless African migrant who was dumpster-diving for food and soda cans to recycle for money. Gangs of sweaty young Greek men rolled up their flags and held the poles like clubs, ready for a fight. When the crowd broke into an angry rendition of the national anthem, Dimitra refused to join them. "This is not my country," she said, crying. "Why have we ignored our problems and let them boil over into something this ugly?"

AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Legalizing Drugs Won't Stop Mexico's Brutal Cartels

Like all good multinational businesses, they've diversified.

MEXICO CITY — When the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) releases its annual status report on the narcotics trade later this month, it will almost certainly show a decrease in the volume of cocaine traveling through Mexico into the United States. Last year's report did too -- a 40 percent drop in seizures between 2006 and 2008. Worldwide, the cocaine market today is worth about half as much as it was just 15 years ago -- $88 billion compared with $165 billion in 1995.

This would be excellent news -- if it weren't for some alarming trends going in the other direction. As the cocaine trade through Mexico has fallen dramatically, the violence here has risen remarkably. Whereas 2006 saw just over 2,000 deaths attributed to drug violence, in 2010 there were an estimated 11,000 such killings, according to data from Stratfor and local press accounts. Ciudad Juárez, a border city of approximately 2 million at the center of the ongoing violence, has seen a particularly sharp spike. In 2001, there were just 16 murders for every 100,000 Ciudad Juárez residents. In 2010, that number reached 93 -- an increase of nearly sixfold -- according to the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

In other words, the war on drugs may be taking its toll on the narcotics trade, but it hasn't done anything to end the violence -- a stubborn fact that runs counter to an emerging consensus about the drug war. Across Latin America, intellectuals, scholars, and even policymakers are increasingly arguing that there is just one thing that can bring an end to the narco-troubles: the decriminalization of the drug trade in the United States. Legalize and regulate use, proponents argue, and prices would drop and the illicit trade would disappear overnight. Cartels would be starved of their piece of the global illicit drug pie, which the UNODC has estimated at some $320 billion per year.

But would legalization really work? With each day that passes, it looks like it wouldn't be enough, for one overarching reason: The cartels are becoming less like traffickers and more like mafias. Their currency is no longer just cocaine, methamphetamines, or heroin, though they earn revenue from each of these products. As they have grown in size and ambition, like so many big multinational corporations, they have diversified. The cartels are now active in all types of illicit markets, not just drugs.

"Mexico is experiencing a change with the emergence of criminal organizations that, rather than being product-oriented -- drug trafficking -- are territorial based," says Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the UNODC office in Mexico City. They now specialize in running protection rackets of all kinds, he says, which might explain why the violence has gotten so bad: Mafias enforce their territorial control by force, killing anyone who resists or gets in the way.

"Before, we had organized crime, but operating strictly in narcotrafficking," adds Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, a consultant and former advisor to the Mexican presidency. "Now we have a type of mafia violence ... and they are extorting from the people at levels that are incredibly high -- from the rich, from businesses." For this reason, Mazzitelli says, legalization would have "little effect."

Cartels such as the Zetas and La Familia, long categorized as drug-trafficking organizations, have transformed themselves into territorial overlords. With distinctive zones of influence, complex organizations, and a wealth of manpower on which to draw, they act as shadow governments in the areas they control, collecting "taxes" on local establishments and taking a cut of the profits from illegal immigration to the United States. "This fight is not solely or primarily to stop drug trafficking," Mexican President Felipe Calderón told the U.S. Congress in May 2010. "The aim is to ensure the safety of Mexican families, who are under threat of abuse and wanton acts of criminals."

The cartels' expansion may have begun through their everyday narcotrafficking work -- namely through money laundering, one of the most discussed topics in Mexican politics today. Once upon a time, this was quite easy to do; cartels could wire the money in convoluted ways or open new accounts to which individuals would report earnings from businesses that existed only on paper.

But as the government cracked down in recent years, the cartels got more creative. In June 2010, Mexican authorities put strict limits on how much cash any individual could deposit into a bank on any given day or in any given month. They also limited the amount of cash one could use to buy things like airplanes or cars. So the cartels started engaging in actual trade, which helps them launder their drug profits, explains Shannon O'Neil, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. They buy consumer goods, such as televisions and perfumes, in the United States and sell them on the Mexican side at a loss. The revenues are "clean" money. And as a bonus, the cartels have a network of vendors ready and willing to sell illicit goods.

Other markets are entirely separate from the narcotics business. Perhaps the most dramatic example is oil, one of Mexico's largest exports and increasingly a vehicle for illicit trade. On June 1, the country's national oil company, Pemex, filed a lawsuit accusing nine U.S. companies of colluding with criminals linked to the drug trade to sell as estimated $300 million worth of stolen oil since 2006. That's an amount equal to the entire cocaine market in Mexico, says UNODC's Mazzitelli. In other words, if the cocaine trade dried up, the cartels would still have access to an equally large source of revenue.

Equally troubling is the firearms trade, which has a direct link both to the violence and to the sustainment of the criminal organizations working across this country of 107 million. There are no reliable estimates of just how big this market is, but according to a recent U.S. Senate investigation, some 87 percent of the weapons used by the cartels are sourced from the United States. "If this were Southeast Asia, they'd be bombing the gun stores in Arizona, as if that's the Ho Chi Minh trail," says Ted Lewis, head of the human rights program at Global Exchange.

Mexico's cartels have also infiltrated the government and security forces, though primarily at a local level. "Just going by all the reports -- academic and media -- we could safely assume that all municipal police departments are infiltrated," argues Walter McKay, a security consultant who has spent the last three years working in Mexico. "But it's not just the police. We focus on police and police corruption, but the entire apple is rotten." In the latest example of how high the rot goes, the ex-mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon, was recently arrested for gunrunning and alleged links to organized crime.

Then there is the cartels' sheer size. An estimated 468,000 people worked in the drug trade in 2008, making the cartels collectively among the biggest industries in Mexico. (By comparison, the state oil company, the largest firm in Mexico, has about 360,000 employees.) The cartels also now outnumber the police, estimated at just over 400,000 personnel nationwide in 2010.

The corruption and weakness of the police explains why, over the last half-decade, Calderón has deployed 50,000 troops across the country to decapitate the cartels' leadership and reclaim their territory block by block. Take away a criminal organization's leadership and turf, the thinking goes, and you also rob it of the ability to control just about every market -- not just the narcotics trade. Just on Tuesday, June 21, the government apprehended José de Jesús "El Chango" Méndez, leader of the so-called "Knights Templar" cartel. Calderón quickly touted the arrest as a "coup by the federal police against organized crime" on Twitter.

Yet critics of the government's strategy say it has been far too militarized. Violence has increased every year since the drug war began, and many civil society groups here accuse the national security forces of hurting as many civilians as they do actual criminals. And even "success" risks a "balloon effect," as a cartel squeezed in one location will almost inevitably pop up elsewhere. This effect is already painfully visible in Latin America as a whole, with Mexican cartels such as the Zetas moving into Guatemala and overwhelming the much-weaker state.

Many activists are thus calling for a completely new approach. Silvano Cantú, a researcher at the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, argues that Mexico needs to think bigger than trying to win back its turf city by city. "We need to be talking to everyone," he says, mentioning the United States, Colombia, Europe, and "anywhere they clean money and buy arms." The government, too, is frustrated with the guns; cutting down on the sale in the United States is one of the Calderón administration's key demands.

The legalizers, a group that includes former heads of state from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, largely agree with this comprehensive approach. Trying to cut supply without cutting demand is a losing game, they argue. "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," they wrote in the most recent report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an independent panel that has called for a dramatic rethinking of the drug war. Their recommendations call for the normalization of drugs (that is, legalization of possession linked with public-health regulation), including cocaine.

That would almost certainly hurt the cartels, but it probably wouldn't be enough, counters Mazzitelli of the UNODC. "Legalization is a fake solution to the problem of security," he argues, citing a 2010 Rand Corp. report that found that legalizing marijuana in California would cut cartel profits by just 2 to 4 percent. If it does come, legalization is also quite a ways off -- and Mexico's crisis is happening now. Only about half of U.S. citizens polled last year by Gallup supported legalizing marijuana, the least lucrative (and arguably the least dangerous) drug entering the country from Mexico.

If legalization is out and sending in the Army doesn't work, what's left? Among the most popular alternative ideas floating around Mexican civil society is that of creating "citizen security" -- empowering local communities to resist organized crime. That means not only improving policing but also reintroducing the state in other ways, through education, economic opportunity, and a judicial system that investigates and punishes crime, explains Edgar Cortez, a researcher for the Mexican Institute of Human Rights and Democracy.

The broken justice system is unquestionably part of the problem. Mexico has a poor record of holding criminals to account for all manner of improper activity -- from trafficking to homicide to regular old theft. "You have all these arrests and more than 40,000 deaths, but we don't have anybody arrested and investigated successfully," says McKay, the security consultant. Most police departments in the United States and Canada, he notes, have an 80 to 90 percent "solve rate" of finding the alleged perpetrator. "In Mexico it's almost zero." It's no coincidence that crime rates of almost every kind are up, according to the Mexican government's own data. Extortion, bank robbery, kidnapping, and armed robbery have all risen dramatically since 2006.

The sheer amount of progress needed to stop the cartels is daunting. But Cantú, the human rights researcher, chooses to remain optimistic. "We have to put forward alternative options," he argues. "We have to call upon the people to have hope."

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images