2009-03-26T14:15:06-06:00Following in the tradition of the 200th and 100th blog posts, here is our latest, and last, offering of the best and worst in Mexico over the last several months. I’ll truly miss writing this blog, but all the feedback from you all has made it a great ride. Most impressive tequila collection: Ricardo Ampudia’s 3,600 bottles in his Tepotzlan villa are an amazing sight. There are bottles shaped like rifles and whales, donuts and Pancho Villa. Visiting his tequila cave is like entering shangri-la for anyone who likes a snort. I didn’t get a chance to try his favorite bottle, the Don Maximiliano, but seeing how he almost began drooling as he described it, I can imagine it’s pretty good. Best Mexican Documentary: “Los Ultimos Heroes de la Peninsula (The Last Heroes of the Peninsula),” perfectly captures the plight of five ex-champions in the Yucatecan city of Merida. The humor and spirit of these men, even as they struggle to get by, is a look at the best of Mexico. The men have lost their fortunes thanks to wine, women and unscrupulous promoters, but retain their dignity. This quiet movie blew me away at the Morelia Film Festival. Hopefully it becomes commercially available soon. Least favorite Mexico City activity: Fighting off the paranoia. Living here, it’s not hard to succumb to the creeping tendrils of fear. You see friends robbed and assaulted. You hear of far worse in the local papers. You lay in bed at night and plot escape routes. You keep a wooden stick studded with sharp nails in your bathroom. But you can’t give in. To do so is to miss out on the carnival of experience available in this unique city. Here you can catch a Klezmer band playing in a 17th Century building at 2 a.m.; find exquisite street tacos and gourmet fusion cuisine on the same block; wander through labyrinthine markets of potions and moles. You can enjoy it all - if you can keep the paranoia at bay. Favorite Discovery: Mexico City rapper Boca Floja is among the best in a burgeoning movement of Mexican rappers. While in Mexico I saw Cartel de Santa frontman Babo get locked up for murder. But evening out that depressing turn of events was the discovery (a little late granted) of this Chilango MC. A buttery flow over head-nodding beats, spiced with socially conscious lyrics makes him a must-know for anyone into hip hop. And further evidence that the true soul of rap may just have fled the bling of America and migrated south of the border. Best soap opera: As dull as it sounds, my vote is for watching Mexico City try to solve its infrastructure woes. From its search for a place to stash its tons of daily garbage, to its plans to smooth out traffic horrors and find an adequate water supply, the city is on a constant quest to make itself more livable. It’s unclear whether that’s possible in a bowl-shaped valley stuffed to the mountaintops with people, but check back in 2010, when the city plans to strut during the Bicentennial celebrations. Best tacos in Mexico City: I never made it to the famed cow eye tacos in the Coyoacan quesadilla market, but I’m torn between two other delicacies: the tacos al pastor from El Huequito, a literal hole in the wall that’s been making tacos since the 1950’s; and the carnitas tacos in the stand outside the Zapata Metro station. The latter are so good, I’ll invent reasons to travel to this charmless section of the city just to get a taste. Ugliest Trend: The extortion and protection rackets that are proliferating in cities and towns in the grip of drug cartels. This is one vivid example of how the drug war affects innocent third parties. Everyone from the hamburger stand owner to the hardware store magnate gets hit. And in most cases there is no local authority to turn to. Either pay or lose your business (or life). Most inspiring story: Watching Carlos Villanueva and a group of other migrants from the U.S. try to break the political vice grip of the local strongmen in San Marcos, Guerrero. Talking with the men, it was possibl[...]
It’s with sadness that I have to report the end of the Uncovering Mexico blog. As some of you may have read, Cox Newspapers is shuttering its Washington D.C. bureau as well as its foreign operations. That means bureaus in Beijing, London, Jerusalem, the Caribbean and Mexico City are closing. The Mexico City bureau actually closed on March 15.
It’s been an amazing three years in Mexico, and I’m grateful for all our readers, a small, but loyal tribe. Since beginning at the end of 2006 we’ve tallied 299 entries and more than 650 comments. Be on the lookout for the grand finale, the blowout 300th blog post in coming days.
It’s no revelation that struggling news organizations have been cutting back coverage, nowhere more so than in their foreign operations. Since I arrived in Mexico in 2005, I’ve seen the foreign press corps dwindle. One longtime correspondent remarked that any gathering of reporters quickly assumes the air of a wake. I’ve seen the bureau closures of the San Antonio Express-News, Newsday and the San Diego Union-Tribune, seen the McClatchy chain’s position remain unfilled, and a significant reduction in the size of the Dallas Morning News bureau. Great journalists remain in Mexico, doing amazing work. But too many are nervous about their jobs.
So what will the future look like? If the trend continues, regional papers will find themselves without a presence in places like Mexico. Newswires like AP and Bloomberg, along with national papers like the Washington Post and New York Times, will likely become the main sources for foreign news. Such operations do great job of covering breaking events and finding interesting features. But what will go missing are those local connections to Mexico, stories that illuminate immigrant communities and explore the connections between American cities and their vast neighbor to the south.
For those of you interested in Mexico, there are reasons for hope. More than ever, papers are striving to give readers what they want, and that represents a potential opportunity. As newspapers across the country reinvent themselves, let them know what kind of coverage you want to see. Engage with newspapers. Be proactive, and interactive. Continue to seek out news about this fascinating country, which is far too vast and complex to be pigeonholed.
As for me, I’ll be moving to Austin where I’ll be writing for the Statesman on local issues. Keep in touch and drop a line. And thanks again for keeping this blog going as long as it has. Hasta la proxima.
After years of languishing on the backburner, I think we can safely say that Mexico has landed firmly on the U.S. radar. In coming weeks, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will all visit the nation. And while Obama’s visit in particular has revived hopes in Mexico for some kind of immigration reform, there’s no doubt what has generated all the newfound attention: the grueling drug war.
Since I arrived in 2005 (and for years before that), Mexican officials and analysts have been urging the U.S. to take a closer look at Mexico, whether it be on immigration or the alarming spike in drug violence. They were rebuffed, the American gaze firmly fixed on the Middle East. Mexico lay on the doorstep, but politically felt like a distant stepchild.
So what has changed? Has the nature of the drug war been fundamentally altered? Are the dynamics different now than they were in say, 2006, when President Felipe Calderon sent the Mexican military to confront the cartels?
What’s clear is that violence levels have reached unseen proportions. As has been exhaustively documented, the number of drug killings continues to break records. But the extreme violence that is grabbing American headlines and broadcasting on American airwaves, is in many ways, nothing new. Decapitations, grenade attacks, mass graves and YouTube executions have been a staple of the drug wars since at least 2006. In 2007, the hugely important manufacturing city of Monterrey nearly imploded in drug violence, causing barely a ripple in the U.S. American law enforcement has considered Mexican cartels the biggest crime threat on the American side of the border for several years running. Journalists have been executed and newspapers been attacked with grenades, sparking no discernible outcry in the U.S.
Watching the recent American reaction from Mexico, it’s as though a switch has been flipped. Someone high up the food chain has decided that what happens in Mexico matters.
That, on its face, is a good thing. Mexico cannot handle its drug trafficking groups by itself, it cannot purge corruption from its police forces by itself, it cannot build a functioning, leak-resistant intelligence apparatus by itself.
But with American involvement and help, it seems, comes a certain distortion of the Mexican reality. After a recent visit to Mexico City, my mother’s friends back home congratulated her on not getting shot. As spring breakers are warned against places like Cancun, Mexico slips into caricature and clumsy stereotype.
In the coming weeks President Obama’s visit is sure to spark a fresh round of Mexico examinations. Let’s hope for coverage that gives American readers and viewers a little more context and perspective as to what is going on south of the border.
But just like that, the dream turned into a nightmare. Heavily favored Team Mexico was destroyed 17-7 by Australia Sunday night in the opening match of the World Baseball Classic’s Group B. So bad was the beating that the game was ended after 8 innings, thanks to the World Baseball Classic’s mercy rule. The Mexican press called it a “nocout.” Reforma newspaper labeled the game a “Historic Ridicule.”
It was Mexico’s first time hosting the World Baseball Classic and hopes were high here for a strong showing. But after Sunday night’s “paliza,” Mexico will have a tough road even getting out of the first round (baseball powerhouse Cuba is also in the Mexico City group). And while the fervor didn’t exactly match that for say, the World Cup, among hardcore Mexican baseball fans the WBC is about as good as it gets.
Emotions were high even before the first pitch (which was thrown by Finance Minister Agustin Carstens, who was mercilessly booed). The Mexico-Australia game was the second of a day-night doubleheader. A good number of fans had been drinking beer in the hot sun since before noon, and the stadium was shaking with chanting and singing. But Mets pitcher Oliver Perez promptly put a damper on the party by allowing three runs to the first three Australians he faced. As the night wore on, the mood turned increasingly sour in the stands. An exuberant Cuban fan, who had enchanted the crowd with his antics during the first game, leading fans in group chants and the like, suddenly became the object of all manner of abuse and hurled insults.
Luckily we left before things got truly ugly.
It’s time for the 8th and final installment of Graffiti Dreams, the look at Mexico’s, and particularly Mexico City’s, magnificent street art. This chapter takes us to southern Mexico City and the neighborhood of Copilco. This particular wall is near the sprawling UNAM campus (Copilco is also home to leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador). For those that missed the previous installments here are numbers 1 through 7: I, II,III, IV, V, VI, VII
And here are a couple of pieces near the Coyoacan Market. The shadows were a little harsh, but the art is amazing, apparently by a Chiapas-based group:
It’s a maxim of the murderous drug wars in Mexico that the vast majority of the victims are not innocents - they are either cartel hitmen or dirty cops or military men involved in a direct confrontation.
But there’s one aspect of the drug war that most definitely does involve innocent third parties, and disturbingly it appears to by skyrocketing throughout the country. Officials are reporting a spike in the extortion of everyone from business owners to mayors to priests.
According to Reforma newspaper, the head of the national business association (Coparmex) says extortions of small and medium-sized business owners have risen 700 percent in the last year. Meanwhile, El Universal reports that government numbers show that while in 2002 there were only 53 cases of reported extortion, recent years have averaged about 50,000 complaints.
In most cases, the dominant drug trafficking group in an area begins charging protection fees to local businesses (kind of like we saw in Goodfellas or The Godfather). On a recent trip to Nuevo Laredo, I found that while drug violence has virtually disappeared over the last couple years (most believe it’s because the Gulf Cartel has vanquished its rivals from Sinaloa), the number of extortions have grown. According to residents, everyone from the successful restauranteur to the street vendor selling tacos is getting caught up in the burgeoning protection racket.
Then comes this report, also from El Universal, which alleges that at least 80 mayors around the country have been shaken down by drug traffickers. According to the story, mayors receive telephone calls that go something like this: “We are lieutenants of the (fill in the blank) cartel and we are coming to your town and we want to leave the mayor in peace and not start problems with you. We need money for the war we are about to wage in your territory. We need financing, but we want to leave you in peace.” The mayors are then ordered to deposit money into an account at a local store.
But it’s not just traffickers who are engaging in the practice. On Monday, authorities arrested 25 federal police officers who allegedly extorted various business owners in Merida, mostly nightclub owners.
In a country that struggles mightily to provide enough jobs for its people, the last thing small business owners need is a monthly tax to organized crime.
We just got back from a 3,000-kilometer, 32-hour sojourn from Mexico City to the Texas border in Coahuila in a rented van. The goal of the trip was to transfer three pet turtles, who are unable to fly because their little heads can’t handle the pressurization of 30,000 feet. The turtles made it across the border, although not without a half-hour in secondary haggling with customs officials. Luckily we had printouts from the three (at least) federal agencies that regulate the importation of turtles: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Customs and Border Protection. The ace in the hole was an email from customs spokesman extraordinaire Rick Pauza in Laredo, which seemed to hold the most weight among the three or four customs officials huddled around our increasingly nervous turtles. The short version is that is indeed legal and free to import up to six pet red-eared slider turtles. But the bureaucracy is pretty overwhelming.
The rest of the trip was interesting, if not a little brutal given our van’s lack of air conditioning as we sped across the northern deserts. Because of the heat, we decided to return in the evening and stumbled on a strange sub-world of 18-wheelers. As we left Nuevo Laredo in the dwindling sunlight, the highways became increasingly filled with tractor-trailers. By 9 p.m., we were in the middle of a forest of 18-wheelers, which seemed to get increasingly aggressive as the night wore on. The most surreal part was the stretch of highway between Monterrey and Saltillo, where blinking lights on the edges of the road gave it the appearance of some futuristic runway or a techno dance floor. All the while trucks groaned up the mountain passes, some at no more than 10 m.p.h., others flying by a breakneck speed.
As we left Saltillo we found that what on the way north had looked like an abandoned, dusty stretch of highway, was transformed into a bustling line of mini-cities. Restaurants and cafes that looked lonely and shuttered during the day were suddenly jumping juke joints, with no shortage of painted ladies of the night moving among the drivers. One bar was aptly named “El Infiel,” or the Unfaithful One.
The other bizarre part of the trip was driving through the notorious valley between San Luis Potosi and Matehuala, where residents sell all sorts of endangered species to tourists. Throughout the sun-baked valley, huge government billboards warn drivers against buying the endangered species. But dozens or roadside stalls were selling dried snakeskins and barrel cacti. We didn’t stop to get a closer look at what else was for sale and were a little nervous about getting stopped at one of the many checkpoints on the highway and having our pet turtles mistaken for some exotic species we had just illegally purchased.
In all, we hit five checkpoints on the way up, but amazingly not a single checkpoint on the way south.
Anybody else take a Mexican road trip and live to tell the tale? I’d love to hear about it.
Lance Armstrong has arrived in Mexico and his first order of business was a private meeting with President Felipe Calderon. Armstrong, who is in the country as the guest of honor for the 1,320 kilometer Vuelta Mexico bicycle race, said he hopes his visit brings more cancer awareness to Mexico and pledged to help the country in its battle against the disease. He also told Calderon that his first race took place in Mexico, a triathlon in Zihuatanejo when he was 15.
Calderon for his part, used the meeting with Armstrong to talk about the need to get Mexicans more physically fit. “Mexico is a country that urgently needs sports,” Calderon said after their meeting. “Mexico has the second highest obesity rates among adults and is first among children.”
He also thanked Armstrong for bringing his message of hope to Mexico. “In the name of all Mexicans, my enormous gratitude for having come to Mexico. This is a people that loves you and admires you. They know you are our neighbor and hope that you can return very soon.”
Armstrong now travels to Oaxaca, where he will kick off the first leg of the Vuelta Mexico in Oaxaca City tomorrow.
It will be interesting to see if Armstrong’s visit revives his once popular LiveStrong bracelets. When I first arrived in Mexico City in 2005, the distinctive yellow bracelets were all the rage here. Everywhere you looked, from the Metro to posh clubs, young people were wearing them and street stalls sold bootlegged copies in massive quantities.
Mexico is abuzz with the news that Lance Armstrong is coming to Oaxaca for the Vuelta Mexico, a 1,320-kilometer ride through eight Mexican states. But Armstrong won’t be riding, numerous Mexican media outlets report. Rather he’ll be the race’s honorary “godfather” and give the starting signal for the race’s first leg.
According to Reforma newspaper in Mexico City, Armstrong is also tentatively scheduled to meet with President Felipe Calderon sometime before the March 1 race.
Armstrong recently decided to get back into competitive cycling and is seeking an 8th Tour de France victory this summer.
2009-02-19T16:33:19-06:00So just what happened this week along the border when thousands of protesters shut down nine international bridges as they protested the presence of the Mexican military in the government’s war on the drug cartels? In nearly a dozen cities, including Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, protesters took to the streets against Mexican military, calling on President Felipe Calderon to send them back to their barracks. For years now, Mexican soldiers have been directly confronting drug cartels, which many experts say has sparked a bloodbath of violence among the traffickers. Were the protesters stooges of the cartels, paid or intimidated into joining the protests? That is certainly what the Mexican government is saying, and what the vast majority of the Mexican press is repeating. Or are they legitimately grieved residents who are tired of suffering abuses at the hands of the military? Human rights groups have lodged a series of complaints against the Mexican military and it appears certain that in some cases, soldiers have committed abuses against civilian populations in the areas where they are stationed. The American press took different approaches to reporting the story. The initial AP story reported it as straight-up protest and only framed the influence of drug cartels as a possibility. Time magazine likewise took a measured approach, speaking with protesters and exploring their grievances. “The protesters are…saying they’re on the streets because soldiers rape, rob and murder civilians and have not made the streets any safer from the wrath of gangsters,” wrote reporter Ioan Grillo. A Dallas Morning News story took a more aggressive stance, warning in its lead that the protests are a new, and “potentially powerful” tool of the drug cartels, qualifying the statement with only an “analysts say.” And the New York Times had this eye-catching lead: “They kill. They bribe. They launder money. And now Mexico’s drug cartels may have their hands in a new activity: street protests.” The biggest argument in favor of the protests being the work of narcos, it seems to me, was their nature: they were extremely well organized and stretched across several states. Besides some of the larger labor unions and political parties, I’m not aware of a civil group in Mexico with that kind of organizing prowess and reach, especially in the north. On the other hand, drug cartels are highly disciplined entities with a presence and influence in nearly every state in the Mexican union. The simultaneous nature of the protests, as well as the relative lack of civil organizations that have come out proclaiming their involvement in the protests, all seem to buttress the claim that the cartels were involved. On Thursday, Calderon blasted those who are calling for the soldiers to be sent back to their barracks, calling the traffickers he says organized the protests traitors and cowards. Some voices, particularly on the left, have argued such talk obscures the legitimate grievances of military abuse and makes it seem as though all dissent of the president’s military strategy is compromised by links to the cartels. And that would be yet another tragedy in this drug war. [...]
Quick, think of a word that describes the 20 million-strong madhouse that is Mexico City. Romantic? Yeah, didn’t think so. But city officials, as part of a quest to spruce up the city’s image, are planning the world’s biggest kiss this Valentine’s Day in the Zocalo. Organizers are hoping to lure more than 32,000 smooching couples, which would break the Guinness World Record for largest mass kiss. If successful, the “mega-beso” would top the previous record of London, England. The Valentine’s Day festivities will end with a free concert by legendary crooner Vicente Fernandez.
This is the second time the masses are aiming to break a record in the Zocalo in recent years. In 2007, 18,000 people stripped naked for photographer Spencer Tunick, becoming the largest mass dis-robing in recorded history.
The term “Besame mucho” (or kiss me a lot, from the famous Consuelo Velasquez song), has become Mexico City’s official slogan and officials are projecting an image of a kinder, gentler DF in hopes of luring more tourists and visitors.
The Mexican government has its sights set on regulating a white, powdery substance, but not the one drug cartels make billions off of. The offender in this case is salt, and regulators say it is being dangerously abused by Mexican eaters. According to officials, Mexicans eat twice as much salt as is recommended by the World Health Organization, leading to alarming levels of hypertension, heart problems and obesity.
So the Mexican government is trying to help Mexicans kick their salt addictions. In March, the nation’s health department will embark on a pilot program to ban salt shakers from restaurant tables in select cities. If eaters want to add a little more salty stuff they will have to ask their waiter. While they wait they can read a tableside sign warning them of the dangers of salt.
The salt initiative is part of a larger plan to make eating out in Mexico healthier, according to Reforma newspaper. The government also wants restaurants, as well as street stalls (the taco stands where the majority of Mexicans eat out), to offer more vegetables, smaller portions and meat cooked with less oil. As delicious as Mexican street food is, it’s best not to think what those carnitas and quesadillas are doing to your arteries.
Mexico hasn’t been shy about using government regulation to make restaurants healthier. Last year, Mexico City banned smoking in restaurants and bars, overcoming bitter resistance in this cigarette-happy city.
The best fighter in Panama right now is the spectacular Celestino “Pelenchin” Caballero, a super bantamweight who won the country’s fighter of the year award (that’s him in the middle with fellow champions Guillermo Jones, left, and Anselmo Moreno). If you’re a boxing fan, treat yourself to some of Caballero’s fights on Youtube if you get a chance. His destruction of Steve Molitor and brutal annihilation of Ponce de Leon give goosebumps. Most in Panama believe it’s just a matter of time before he becomes a worldwide star on the order of Manny Pacquiao or Shane Mosley.
Panamanians talk boxing like Americans talk baseball or football (taxi drivers will talk your ear off about their favorite fighters if you broach the subject). I can’t imagine a country with more boxing connoisseurs than Panama. One local boxing scribe told me the country virtually shuts down during title fights, with people glued to their TV screens.
Speaking of Duran, we took an unscheduled taxi ride through his notoriously dangerous home neighborhood, El Chorillo. While well-intentioned Panamanians had warned us away from El Chorillo since our plane touched down, one brave taxi driver took us through an impromptu tour of the neighborhood as he searched for a short cut to avoid Panama City’s horrendous traffic. We found ourselves driving past hulking tenement buildings and abandoned cars before driving headlong into a wild block party being broken up by the cops. The neighborhood bore the brunt of the 1989 American invasion (that took out strongman Manuel Noriega) and saw nearly all of its houses destroyed. In their place the government erected the massive apartment buildings, which our driver warned were filled with drugs and guns.
Uncovering Mexico is journeying south to Panama for a couple of stories and our wanderings have of course led us to the Panama Canal, currently undergoing a $5.2 billion expansion. The project, approved by voters in 2006, is serving nicely as perhaps the world’s best stimulus package: a massive construction project that is worth nearly a fourth of the country’s yearly budget and which will create about 40,000 jobs. FDR would be proud.
The expansion, which will build a new set of speedier, water-saving locks at either end of the country, is expected to be finished by 2014 (it will be quite a bit shorter, and one would hope safer, than the original project, in which some 27,000 workers perished).
Seeing the Canal firsthand, I finally understood just what these mysterious locks are. Engineers needed to find a way to move ships up from sea level to the level of Panama’s inland lakes, which actually make up the majority of the Canal. The locks are a series of sealed chambers in which boats are raised with incoming water or lowered (as they leave the country) as water is released from the locks. The ships then float up or down in several stages.
I never realized just how long the process takes. Passing through the three chambers at the Miraflores Locks took about a half-hour to 45 minutes per ship. And ships go through two at a time in the two parallel lanes (switching direction at midnight), meaning there is often quite a line of mega-freighters waiting to get through. Out in the Pacific we saw boats lined up for miles waiting to squeeze through the Canal and learned that traffic jams of up to a week aren’t unheard of.
The expansion will not only build a set of wider locks, allowing the biggest of today’s super-freighters to pass through, it will also speed up the process. And the new locks will save the water from Panama’s inland lakes, currently used to power the lock sytem, meaning it can be used by local communities, some of which lack drinking water.
Watching today’s inauguration of President Barack Obama, which featured former presidents Clinton, Bush Sr. and Carter, it was hard not to think of the glaring differences with Mexico’s last inauguration.
Back in 2006, Mexico’s Inauguration Day found the country in the midst of a broiling election controversy, the result of a super-tight election (Florida in 2000 anyone?) between conservative Felipe Calderon and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. When Mexico’s top electoral court proclaimed Calderon the winner without ordering a full recount, Lopez Obrador’s supporters cried fraud and swore to never recognize Calderon.
I was lucky enough to attend Calderon’s inauguration inside the Mexican Congress in downtown Mexico City, and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more chaotic political moment. Several serious fist fights broke out, with rival legislators throwing real punches, grappling on the ground and delivering a kick or two. The goal of Lopez Obrador’s supporters was to physically prevent Calderon from attending his own inauguration. They failed, but only because Calderon pulled a military-like manuever to enter the auditorium, slipping through a back door.
When he did enter the Congress, he was met with pandemonium. Opposition lawmakers tried to drown out his oath with piercing whistles and chanting. A huge banner hung over the proceedings read, ”Mexico Doesn’t Deserve a Traitor to Democracy as President.” (Check out the craziness about a minute into this YouTube video:)
After a lightning quick ceremony, Calderon was whisked away to the posh Auditorio Nacional for an invitation-only event filled with supporters.
Despite Calderon’s inauspicious inauguration, he managed to pull off in his first months and years what many thought was impossible: he rallied the country around a common cause (confronting the drug cartels), sidestepped partisan clashes and managed to push through a number of reforms despite a heavily divided Congress.