24 February 2007

Mexican firefighers to help resolve labor crunch in Alberta


The Alberta and Jalisco governments signed a twinning agreement in the late 1990s that originally concentrated on agriculture, but later grew to include education and business links. The two jurisdictions are now cooperating on fighting forest fires as the Alberta government will help establish a training center in the Primavera Forest just west of Guadalajara. The Mexicans trained at the center will eventually make their way north to battle blazes in Alberta during manpower shortages, which are forecast due to the province's red-hot economy. With fire season in Jalisco about to start and Alberta's beginning in the late spring - just as the rainy season arrives in Mexico - the arrangement should work well.

I recently wrote on this for the Miami Herald Mexico Edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/23530.html

As an aside, no Alberta publication to my knowledge has bothered to report on this arrangement ... good news stories out of Mexico unfortunately don't fit anyone's news agenda these days.

23 February 2007

Northern Lights Music Festival wraps up in Ajijic

The Northern Lights Music Festival wraps up in Ajijic on Feb. 27 with a gala concert. The festival, which turned five this year and generally showcases young Canadian talent, was co-founded by Chris Wilshere (wearing the gold tie) a Toronto native who now plays violin for a state symphony orchestra in Culiacan, Sinaloa - a town perhaps better known for banda sinaloense rather than classical sounds. Despite the challenges of fomenting a demand for classical music in Mexico, the festival is now one of the biggest in the region.
UPDATE: The Toronto Star ran a story that I wrote on Chris Wilshere and the festival in the Feb. 24 edition: http://www.thestar.com/artsentertainment/article/184786

17 February 2007

More attention given to crime in Mexico

At some point this rash of stories about Canadians meeting misfortune and death will quiet down - but not just yet. The Globe and Mail ran an excellent investigative piece on the 2006 murders of Domenic and Nancy Ianiero in Playa del Carmen in the Saturday paper. It's quite possible what the victims' son and his high-profile lawyer allege - robbery and later murder - isn't so.

For many expats living down in Mexico, this whole saga - more specifically, the intense media coverage - has been bothersome. No media outlet that I'm aware of has mentioned that for all of the bad news streaming out of Mexico, the Canadian expatriate population in Ajijic, Jalisco keeps on growing. (It probably numbers around 7,000.) And if the expats are looking for a dose of bad news, a friend here commented, "Everyone down here can watch City TV, which they get through their satellite system, and see crime and shootings back in Toronto on a regular basis."

Why some of the other cases down here - the story of Peter Kimber, the B.C. native rotting in an Oaxaca jail, case comes to mind - suddenly receive attention is curious? I exchanged emails with a British couple near Huatulco, whom Kimber's supporters allege screwed over the Canadian. The couple, Kevin and Tess Hunneybell, seemed rather perplexed that two years after Kimber's incarceration began, the Canadian media suddenly showed interest. No one bothered to contact them for their side of the story either.

Or most egregiously, the excessive coverage on the London, Ontario couple struck in a hit-and-run in Ajijic last month. Since when does a snowbird getting hit in a foreign country warrant a front-page story? (the Guadalajara Reporter quoted a public security official who said the male victim had alcohol in his system ... Not sure if the Canadian media has mentioned that.)

Other Canadians have met misfortune in Mexico and returned - I include myself in the group. I once interviewed a prospector from Vancouver who was drugged and robbed while travelling on a bus from Guadalajara to Michoacan. He expressed no bitterness towards Mexico; here's what he told me back in the spring: “I’m not down on Mexico at all ... I think this could have happened anywhere.

“Just be a little more intelligent than me.”

The couple of Canadians caught up in a recent Acapulco shootout expressed similar sentiments and drew ridicule from back in Canada for their positive feelings towards Mexico.

One thing puzzling in all of this: why are some of the Canadians meeting misfortune in Mexico receiving such attention, but not others? The Ianieros' deaths were preceded by the murder of a Canadian in the Lake Chapala area in late 2005. The facts are murky - a lot of people have theories - but only the Vancouver Sun ran an opinion piece on the case. Kristen Deyell, an exchange student from Calgary, was shot dead outside a Guadalajara-area nightclub in April 2004 (I lived 200 meters from the crime scene and was at the same place that night). The main suspect is the son of public enemy No. 1. This case hasn't received near the attention of the Ianieros'.

Perhaps most unfortunate in all this - speaking for myself - is seeing how ignorant Canadians are about Mexico and Latin America. There's more to this country than sleaze and sin in Tijuana and murder in Playa del Carmen, but you'd never know that by reading a Canadian newspaper.

16 February 2007

Dog coming back to Mexico

Duane "Dog" Chapman, the Hawaii bounty hunter with a legendary mullet, lost his extradition fight and could be sent to Jalisco state for trial. Chapman, who gained notoriety through his A & E reality show, nabbed fugitive Max Factor heir Andrew Luster in Puerto Vallarta back in 2003, but was subsequently detained by Mexican authorities. The bounty hunter left Mexico upon being released, returning to Hawaii, where he had been free on bond while awaiting the court decision on Mexico's request.

Dog could go to jail for up to four years if convicted. Mexican justice moves extremely slow - there are few oral trials - so a verdict could still be a long way off. (Oral trials have been introduced on a limited basis in some states.) Chapman, 53, has expressed fears he'd never survive a prison term in Mexico and be the target of every want-to-be tough guy wanting to scalp a gringo.

Mexican officials should tread carefully ... Dog's potentially lousy fate could sour U.S. public opinion on the country and reinforce negative perceptions of its under-performing justice system.

14 February 2007

Wal-Mart moving in on lucrative Mexican banking sector

Mexicans revile few institutions with as much vigor as the nation's banks, which according to industry insiders, are highly profitable. Not surprisingly then, Wal-Mart plans on entering the fray with bank branches inside its more than 700 Mexican outlets that would cater to lower-income clients.

Wal-Mart brings a track record of upsetting the genteel status quo in Mexican business. It burst on to the nation's retail scene by opening a single Sam's Club in 1991. Fifteen years later, it became the Mexico's largest employer and now dwarfs its competitors.

Like the retailers Wal-Mart put the boots to - Soriana, Comercial Mexicana and Gigante - Mexico's six big banks, five of which are foreign owned, are in need of a shake up. An article in yesterday's Miami Herald Mexico, noted that earnings at Spanish-owned BBVA's Bancomer operations, "Constituted the biggest contributor to (BBVA's) profits," and that paradoxically, "(BBVA) would use those profits to expand their services in Spain." (Bancomer is Mexico's second-largest bank.)

Walmex, Wal-Mart's Mexican subsidiary, conquered Mexico's retail market for a reason. It's poised to do the same in banking, although it will most likely succeed by expanding the market - approximately 80 percent of Mexican's don't use banks - than pummelling the competition.

10 February 2007

Another tale of a Canadian experiencing Mexican injustice - or not

An interesting press release (for lack of a better description) from an expatriate couple in the Huatulco area contradicts the woeful story of Peter Kimber, a British Columbia native locked up in an Oaxaca jail who has recently been the subject of nationwide media coverage in Canada.

The Canadian, who was in Mexico with his common-law wife and children, said Mexican authorities tossed him in jail after hotel owners Kevin and Tess Hunneybell supposedly sent the cops after him because of $20,000 that was owed. The money was paid, according to the Hunneybells, for Kimber to construct a building. Kimber's completed work was apparently shoddy.

The couple took exception with this line from The Globe and Mail story on Kimber's plight and the work the Canadian was hired to for:

At a site where he was helping to build a hotel, a dispute developed with the owners who told police that he owed them money.

The Hunneybell's countered:

(Kimber) was NOT ‘helping’ to build the hotel, he WAS the contractor and was paid to do this work. He was later found to be both negligent (unsafe foundations) and illegal (had no permit to work, nor build, nor to remain in the country.)

Kimber's story of spending more than two years in a Mexican jail ran in The Province (Vancouver) on Jan. 31 and later in both national newspapers. Coincidentally, a spate of newspapers stories on Canadians' misfortune have come out around the same time.

This is, unfortunately, part of a feeding frenzy. Canadian newspaper editors generally show a crushing disinterest in Mexican affairs - except when a Canadian tourist meets an untimely end or misfortune. For an alternative opinion on Mexico, a media outlet could run a dispatch from Ajijic, Jalisco, where the Canadian population keeps on swelling each year. It's one of the largest enclaves of Canadians outside of Canada. The Kimber story, though, fits what they're looking for. And, in fairness, Peter Kimber could be the victim of an injustice and his accounts of prison life are certainly hellish.

The Hunneybells perhaps should have scrutinized Kimber's immigration documents - which the couple said were fakes - a little more thoroughly, although in expatriate circles, there tends to be a lot of good will and a willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt. And no shortage of charlatans and people with shady backgrounds pass through.

The other side of this story definitely needs to be reported more thoroughly.

The Mexfiles blog summed up this situation quite nicely and the author quite accurately commented towards the end of his post, "Canadians, for all their good qualities, sometimes can be awfully provincial."

Update: The Globe and Mail reported on Saturday that police in Acapulco impounded a green Nissan Tsuru taxi (aren't all taxis Tsurus in this country?) and are searching for the driver who usually rents the vehicle, which might have struck and killed Ontario native Adam de Prisco on Jan. 7. The family said it hasn't received updates on the case and maintains that de Prisoco was beaten prior to being involved in the hit-and-run collision that two coroners concluded was responsible for his untimely death.

08 February 2007

Poutine arrives in Mexico

Chef Bernard Corriveau proudly shows off a plate of poutine. The Quebec native, who now resides in Zapopan, prepared the dish for a group of cooks from the Sanborns restaurant chain. Sanborns locations in Guadalajara will put poutine on the menu this month as part of Canada Week in Jalisco. No word on if Carlos Slim, Latin America's wealthiest man and the owner of Sanborns, signed off on the menu selection.

Poutine, a plate of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds, is wildly popular in Quebec - not to mention an instant heart attack.

05 February 2007

A Canadian finally talks straight on Mexico

The bad news on Canadians meeting misfortune while travelling in Mexico seemingly won't abate, but at least one person - the inadvertent victim in a shootout - is finally voicing a lot of what the "don't travel to Mexico" crowd completely overlooks: that this country has many redeeming qualities and that once experienced, are difficult to overlook.

Rita Callara, a woman from the Niagra Falls area, and another Canadian, suffered injuries at an Acapulco hotel after a gunman opened fire. Despite being in the wrong place at the wrong time, here's what she told Toronto radio station AM 640, “I'm not scared ... That's some of the things that happen. What about Toronto – every night they kill people?”

Finally someone with the courage to point out that Toronto hasn't been the most tranquil spot. A buddy in Ajijic reacted to the Adam de Prisco shooting by saying, "People here can turn on City TV (Toronto), which they get via Star Choice, and see shootings all the time."

I've been accused of being insensitive to the bad things happening to Canadians - some are just dreadful, like the British Columbia resident rotting in a Huatulco jail - but I've had my own brush with tragedy. A classmate from Calgary, who I never met, was shot dead after leaving a Zapopan nightclub in April 2004. Ironically, I was at the same nightclub on the same night and lived 200 meters from the crime scene. The alleged perpetrator is none other than the son of a notorious narcotics trafficker. Despite all this, I returned to the Guadalajara area in 2005 - and so has every other Mount Royal College exchange student studying in Mexico at the same time as the victim. The victim's family, obviously distraught due to a lack of justice, urged my alma mater to discontinue exchanges with Mexico.

Two things:

1. The world doesn't work like Canada - and there's value in witnessing that. Canada is quiet, supposedly safe and very safety conscious. While visiting another Canadian friend here in Guadalajara, we took the dog for a walk and carried our adult beverages out the door with us. We both commented on how nice it was to not have some busybody scolding us.

2. A feeling runs rampant in the forums about the Canadian deaths that the government should be protecting Canadians abroad. How? Contrary to popular belief, maple leafs sewed onto backpacks are not protection. Bad things happen to Canadians - and foreigners of all nationalities while travelling abroad. Why is Mexico being singled out?

03 February 2007

Stolen mail surfaces in Ciudad Juarez

A story in today's Miami Herald, Mexico Edition reports on the PGR busting a small group of postal workers in Ciudad Juarez that stole an estimated 640,000 letters coming into the country from the United States. Apparently, the sticky-fingered posties were searching for valuables and cash, which is sometimes mailed back home as remittances from Mexican migrants in the United States.

If remittance money is being stolen, then this once again sadly highlights abusive behaviour by Mexicans in lower-level government positions towards migrants in on the other side of the border at the same time as the SRE and Mexican government officially lobbies on behalf of migrants. (Other stories have been published over the years of crooked cops and border officials stealing Christmas presents from migrants returning home for the holidays.)

As for the Mexican postal system (Sepomex), it's a disgrace. Mail often arrives late and the letter carrier in my neighourhood just chucks the letters at the house. Residents at Ajijic also report receiving bad service as Sepomex reportedly puts its employees in Chapala, keeping the Ajijic office understaffed.

In a curious event each November, letter carriers have a day in their honor marked on the calendar and it's customary to give them a tip. A friend here in Guadalajara failed to do so in past years and would subsequently receive no mail for several weeks thereafter. It begs the question: is it a tip being offered, or a bribe?