23 April 2007

Tartin, Nayarit's original "perdido"


Last August, a trio of Mexican fishermen were rescued near the Marshall Islands, some 5,500 miles from their base in San Blas, Nayarit and nine months after they had headed out to sea. Questions almost immediately surfaced about the group's story. For one thing, while they looked like they were in rough shape, their condition wasn't as bad as expected. While the men were lost, their families apparently never notified Seguridad Publica of the men's disappearance. Rumors also abound that the "perdidos" (lost men) were in another kind of business.

Further south in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, a fisherman by the name of Jose Alfredo Torres, better known as Tartin, survived spending 38 days at sea. And he's extremely skeptical of the San Blas crew's account. I wrote on him for today's Miami Herald Mexico Edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/miami/24338.html

22 April 2007

The low-rent correspondent goes "naco"


A DJ friend in Mexico City commented recently that "the style in Mexico is to be naco (slang for tacky or lacking taste) ." The Malverde bar in La Condessa would be a prime example. Named for Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of narcotics traffickers, the bar sells a 75-peso "Martini Malverde" along with a heaping dose of all things kitch - lucha libre figurines, raunchy comic-book pages covering the table tops and Virgin of Guadalupe icons. Of course, it's a voyeuristic and pricey experience and not the real thing - there are plenty of cantinas and pulque bars for that - but it's damn good fun.

21 April 2007

Saving the heart of Chihuhua's forests


I went tree planting with the residents of a remote Indigenous village in the rugged sierra of Chihuahua state last month. The area was charred by forest fires a few years back and normally in Mexico, reforestation efforts aren't very successful. Here's my account from today's Miami Herald Mexico Edition:

By David Agren, near Bocoyna, Chi

Josefina Torres Lagarda recalls the night several years ago when a wildfire swept towards her tiny farm in the remote sierra of Chihuahua state. The blaze mercifully spared her home and land, where she and her husband grow corn, beans and oats and raise animals, but the aftereffects have been harsh. The blackened nearby hills still are still barren – even with reforestation efforts two years ago. Due to soil erosion, swift streams that form during the rainy season now wash out much of her crop.

"We've barely harvested anything over that past few years,” she explained.

Torres' problems with erosion and deforestation are hardly unique in Chihuahua, the republic's biggest state. Although arid in parts, pine and oak forests cover much of the state's rugged sierra, site of the Copper Canyon and home territory for the indigenous Tarahumara. Unfortunately, poor forest practices are rife and environmental concerns are often an afterthought in much of the region as timber barons wield enormous influence and clandestine loggers take to the forests in large numbers. Murky interpretations of agrarian laws, ejido conflicts and the exploitation of indigenous peoples living in the woods further complicates things. Government-sponsored land management plans are often ignored.

The results, according to Chihuahua-based experts working in the area, have been troublesome for the local indigenous populations and the environment.

Most of the old pine forests in Chihuahua have already been cut down,” Manuel Sosa, professor of natural resource sciences at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, adding that the soil in many parts of the state is now extremely thin.

To change things – at least on a small scale – Sosa and a Chihuahua-based NGO, Fuerza Ambiental, A.C., started working on a reforestation program in the 80-hectare burned-out area near Tuchiachi, an indigenous village only accessible via a beat-up single-lane road running from the Chihuahua-Creel highway up into the woods. Earlier this month, under Sosa's guidance, some 20 residents of Tuchiachi and the town governor fanned out across three 1,000-square-meter grids and walked shoulder-to-shoulder downhill, counting the up-and-coming trees sprouting from the thin soil. Later, many of the young trees were measured.

While lunching on sandwiches afterward, Sosa told the community members that the zone they had just inspected contained an average of 510 trees per hectare. He called the results encouraging, but added the forest still needed a more time to recover.

Gina Uribe Zuñiga, an anthropologist and founder of Fuerza Ambiental, explained that local reforestation efforts are often poorly executed. Many residents in the affected areas usually lack knowledge and expertise in overseeing a recovery. In the case of Tuchiachi, many of the trees were planted too close together. Many of the seedlings also arrived dead. She said Conafor, the national forest commission, “Threw money at (the problem),” and didn't do much else in Tuchiachi.

To increase the odds of success in Tuchiachi, Fuerza Ambiental is training some of the promising locals in advanced management techniques. While participating in the tree counting, Uribe commented, “I want to show (Conafor) another way ... what's really going on in the region.”

Uribe and her partner in Fuerza Ambiental, Cliff Mathies, started working with the residents of Tuchiachi about two years ago. Fuerza Ambiental focuses its efforts on helping with reforestation and restoring creek beds, inventorying natural resources and helping indigenous communities assert their rights. Uribe and Mathies initially proceeded slowly in Tuchiachi as many residents were somewhat wary of outsiders offering help. After more than a year of establishing relationships, the locals started attending consultation sessions, which Mathies, said were important for succeeding and establishing trust.

“We've done a year and a half of diagnosing, speaking with (the locals) and having them tell us what they need,” said Mathies, who initially came to Chihuahua in the mid 1990s as part of a model-forest program sponsored by the Canadian government. (He said powerful forestry interests and waning government enthusiasm in Mexico scuttled the program.)

Many of the concerns centered on the forest, which Mathies described as “the lifeblood of the sierra,” along with water and soil erosion.

"The impact of soil erosion in the sierra is often noticed far beyond the sierra in Chihuahua's major cities and even the neighboring states. Fuerza Ambiental originally started working in the sierra with the goal of improving the local watershed, which supplies Chihuahua city and Ciudad Juárez with water and feeds both the Rio Grande and rivers flowing west towards the rich agricultural areas of Sinaloa and Sonora on the other side of the continental divide. (Improving water flow to the Rio Grande via the Conchos River in Chihuahua was seen as a way of helping Mexico repay a previous water debt.)

"Almost everyone in the state depends on the sierra (for water),” Manuel Sosa explained.

Closer to Tuchiachi, Josefina Torres Lagarda expressed hopes the reforestation efforts would abate the water rushing through her land and help restore the local area.

"We hope that the mountain is cared for ... that we save the heart of the forest.”

14 April 2007

Atlas, Guadalajara's fresa team, struggles for respect

Mexican society has its fresas (young snobs, usually from wealthy families) and nacos (tacky or bad mannered folk, who will never penetrate the Mexican elite's closed circles; think Rodney Dangerfield in Caddy Shack), although these days, it's sort of trendy to be naco (just witness the fresas packing the Lucha Libre in Guadalajara on Tuesday nights.)

In soccer, Guadalajara's Club Atlas is considered fresa. It draws many of its fans from the west side of the metropolitan area and the area's private universities. But the club is ironically one of the least affluent in the Mexican league - and has only once captured a championship. It lags far behind Chivas, the common man's team, in both popularity and on-field success. Atlas, though, develops more talent than any other Mexican club, through its network of soccer academies, which have churned out star players Oswaldo Sanchez, Rafael Marquez and Jared Borgetti - among others. (All now play elsewhere.) Seven current and former Atlistas suited up for Mexico's 2006 World Cup squad.

With the Tapatio Classic between Atlas and Chivas going tonight, here's my piece on Club Atlas in today's Miami Herald Mexico: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/24239.html

Ianiero case keeps making news

The usolved 2006 murders of Canadian tourists Domenic and Nancy Ianiero in their Playa del Carmen hotel room keep getting ink back in Canada as The Globe and Mail is reporting that a documentary to air on CTV alleges the oft-maligned Mexican prosecutor in the case has attempted to "cast suspicion on innocent Canadians and away from a suspected Mexican killer." The motive: protect Mexico's tourism industry, which is ailing due to drug-gang violence in the northern border region and Acapulco and the lingering effects of last year's conflict in Oaxaca. (The Tourism Secretariat reports visits to Mexico dropped in 2006.)

The theory sounds plausible since Mexico depends so heavily on tourism income and the Mayan Riviera was badly battered by hurricane Wilma in 2005. More recently, President Felipe Calderon pushed expanding the tourism industry as one of his government's top priorities. (He even said Mexico would make issuing 180-day tourist visas standard.)

But Mexico's prosecutorial system is often lacking. Sad, but true. And the Ianieros aren't the only ones seeking justice. Take the case of Brenda Martin, a Canadian woman locked up in Guadalajara's notorious Puente Grande prison. She and an American woman, Rebecca Roth, ended up working in Puerto Vallarta for a Canadian, who, according to the Edmonton Journal, was running an Internet scam. Although the fraud artist has since been convicted and acknowledged that the women had no role in his schemes, the pair have been locked up for more than a year.

What sadly taints things are cases like Peter Kimber, who spent time in an Oaxaca jail and told a horror story to Canadian media outlets seemingly anxious to run anything that smacked of a Canadian suffering misfortune in Mexico. It turns out that a British couple in Huatulco, who were not contacted for their side of the story, allege that Kimber cheated them out of $20,000. (Kimber was not asked to pay a $20,000 bribe, but to reimburse the couple.) The Canadian also apparently passed himself off as a building contractor, but did shoddy work on a building the Huatulco asked him to construct. Kimber is thankfully out of jail - and out of Mexico.

13 April 2007

PRD: AMLO lost on July 2

PRD protests

Finally, more than nine months after the July 2 presidential election, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) acknowledged that its candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), lost the contest and recognized Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) as the president of Mexico. Neither AMLO nor the PRD initially viewed Calderon's victory as legal and AMLO was declared "legitimate president" on Nov. 20. But for AMLO, it's been a somewhat lonely struggle. Several PRD governors have recognized Calderon and within the PRD, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard is currently outshining his predecessor.

Having the PRD's president recognize Calderon - and in a sense, turn the page - can only hurt AMLO even more. This could also be the PRD trying to project an image to the public that it's more than just an appendage of its former presidential candidate. The party made handsome gains in the last senate and congressional elections and with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) now striking deals with the PAN - witness the ISSSTE pension reforms and the unseemly alliance keeping Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz in office - the PRD and its allies (the PT and Convergence) are functioning as the opposition.

The PRD also has other members harboring presidential aspirations for 2012. Ebrard would surely top that list. The next presidential election is still more than five years away, but he's the early favorite - or, at a minimum, being the mayor of Mexico City, the most visible. (This being Mexico, it's never too early to speculate, is it?)

08 April 2007

Los "Cristos" de San Martin de Hidalgo, Jalisco

San Salvador Cristo

An apt piece on Good Friday festivities in a small Jalisco municipaliy published in today's Miami Herald Mexico Edition.

Tradition thrives in Jalisco village

El Universal
Domingo 08 de abril de 2007

Nobody is sure of the origins of the custom which is unique to the town.

SAN MARTÍN DE HIDALGO, Jal. - In the weeks preceding Good Friday, a member of the García clan lowers the family´s treasured wooden Christ statue from a cross in their home and takes the fragile figure to the local church for a special Mass, where the icon is washed and blessed.

Then, in a re-enactment of Christ lying in rest after his crucifixion, they place the 16th-century statue on a bed of laurel leaves, under the gaze of a Virgin of Dolores photo, in the front of their barrio La Flecha home.

Finally, after the local Passion Play finishes on Good Friday, the Garcías welcome hundreds of guests, who come to pay their respects.

While many Mexicans decamp the country´s cities and towns and head for the beach during Semana Santa (Holy Week), the residents of San Martín, an agrarian municipality southwest of Guadalajara, instead turn their homes into capillas (small chapels), where their Christ statues lie at rest, awaiting resurrection.

According to local priest Luis Zuñiga, "What´s represented is the moment that Jesus is being lowered from the cross" and prepared for burial.

Nobody really knows the exact origins of the tradition, which only happens in San Martín, although Malaquías García González, 77, said it dates back centuries.

His statue, named Cristo San Salvador, has been in his family for five generations and might be the oldest in the municipality.

Legend has it the Spanish, who arrived in 1540, brought indigenous craftsmen from Michoacán, who made the statues and founded barrio La Flecha. (Flecha, or arrow, referred to the founders´ indigenous and less affluent roots.)

Some 32 statues are registered as being at least 150 years old, but with time, the custom expanded beyond barrio La Flecha and now includes many younger Christ figures.

Jorge Mendoza, a trumpet player with the mariachi group "Los Flecheros" - a name taken from the barrio - first built an altar for his relatively new Christ statue in 1998 after surviving an accident that claimed the life of a band member.

Somewhat aptly, he named his statue, Cristo del Mariachi.

Some motives for participating in the tradition, though, might be less pure, said Susana Evangelista, whose family runs a small restaurant and owns the 200-year-old Cristo de la Agonía.

"Here, we´re all sort of copy cats," she said cynically.

Still, she acknowledged faith just might be driving the tradition. "People (in San Martín) have stayed pretty loyal to the Catholic Church," she observed.

07 April 2007

So-called "Indy" media gloats over Oaxaca reporter's firing

A friend once caustically commented to me that the tenor of the Indymedia coverage streaming out of Oaxaca last fall was making him look like a hardened right winger due to his moderate views and less-than-favorable opinion of the actors in the unrest that consumed his city last fall. (Indymedia coverage was decidedly on the side of those battling the embattled governor.)

Indymedia - more specifically, The Narco News Bulletin- are now at it again, this time tossing dirt on the grave of former Associated Press stringer Rebeca Romero, who critics accuse of bias and exaggeration - a truly curious charge considering Indymedia's lionizing of left-wing radicals.

Perhaps Romero's biggest sin - and the one Narco News found most objectionable - was that her small Oaxaca news agency accepted government advertising. (The Oaxaca conflict pitted striking teachers and a leftist group dubbed APPO against thuggish and corrupt PRI governor Ulises Ruiz.) Taking government advertising, according to Narco News, violated the AP stringer agreement. And on the surface, it taints Romero's coverage.

Now as someone who has previously, but no longer, worked as an occasional AP stringer, there are rules and the company, in my experience, was diligent about checking our backgrounds and how we were earning our livelihoods. Attacking AP is quite frankly stupid.

As for Romero taking government advertising money, it would be a lot more remarkable in Mexico if she refused to take such funds. Governments at all levels here run an endless stream of ads, boasting all sorts of dubious accomplishments and ambitions. What I'm saying is her actions are not especially unusual in this country. But don't expect Indymedia to point that out.


As I suspected, comments left here have both been anonymous and sympathetic to APPO. I published the comments - hit-and-run style comments - since I'm not going anywhere and hey, perhaps I'll be next on somebody's threat list.

First, let's start by saying that if Rebeca Romero violated the AP's rules, then obviously they should take action. But having Narco News pompously take issue with her supposed bias is absolutely absurd. The hagiographical portraits of groups like APPO and the EZLN coming out of some "media" outlets are downright silly. Two colleagues, both sympathetic to the EZLN, covered the otra compana and produced a story full of quotes from supporters lamenting things like "witnessing a dead movement."

Sergio Sarmiento - not a supporter of left-wing causes - pointed out in a column that some of those involved with APPO used to receive money from the Oaxaca state government, but the funds were axed by Ulises Ruiz. Why is he the only one pointing this out?

Ultimately - and this bugs me more than anything else about the Oaxaca coverage - everything is being presented as good vs. evil. APPO = good and Ruiz = bad. How about seeing some shades of gray? Ruiz is bad. (Perhaps evil is a better word.) But does that make APPO the good guy?

Writing in BeyondChron.com, Barbara Lopez, who grew up in Oaxaca, said of APPO:

While there are very positive elements to APPO such as the Indigenous rights group and NGO’s, APPO has also included very violent elements such as anarchists from the U.S., Mexico City, and Puebla and many street children and drug users who are rightfully angry, but whose actions have hurt the movement.

I did not meet a single Oaxacan who hasn’t had a violent confrontation with APPO – except for those very involved. My cousin, a single mother who lives near the television station, was told by a group of drunken “APPO leaders” to provide food and money or they would harm her and her children. The same group dictated to her when she could leave the house or not.

My aunt who owns a restaurant downtown was forced to give $22,000 pesos or her restaurant would be burned down. My uncle was stoned in his car because he had government plates (ironically he has them just so he can sell trinkets in the airport). Our housekeeper was also coerced into giving whatever money she had and a bus was burned in front of her house, scaring her and her family.

People we talked to at the bus corner spoke about wanting peace again while the APPO-controlled radio stations called for violence in the streets. The streets are covered in graffiti, including the 400-year-old churches made of green stone that cannot remove graffiti. This is not what a social movement should look like because violence only further divides a town, usually affects the poorest members of society, and brings on a stronger repression.

I'm checking out of this mess. It's just bizarre. Teachers go on strike for the 25th consecutive year - and are lauded as heroes. APPO protests cripple the state's tourism-based economy, but they're supposedly the good guys. Ruiz acts like a troglodyte and ... he deserves all of his bad press. Adios to this subject.

06 April 2007

Another journalist killed in Mexico

A friend and fellow reporter once attended a seminar in Nuevo Laredo on the growing threats against journalists covering areas plagued with narcotics trafficking violence. A short time later, the newspaper that hosted the event was shot up.

Mexico is now the most dangerous places in the hemisphere to be a journalist with 10 reporters meeting untimely ends in 2006. Sadly, Mexico passed Colombia for that dubious distinction. Somewhat ironically, the Mexican press now regularly scrutinizes the government and hard-hitting stories regularly blanket the front pages. (Compare that to 15 years ago when many journalists had patrons, or even further back when a newsprint monopoly wouldn't sell paper to those whose views went against the PRI government.) But anyone writing on the escalating war on drugs, or, more specifically, delving into narcotics gangs, is basically signing a death wish. Unfortunate, but it's true. And no surprise here, no journalist I know in Mexico - and I include myself - wants to investigate anything pertaining to drug activity.

Now, Televisa's Acapulco correspondent, Amado Ramirez, was assassinated earlier today after completing a radio program. An editor in Guadalajara once suggested to me in an interview that many of the fallen reporters worked for smaller, less-prestigious outfits in provincial cities - which made them easier targets. Not this time around. In Mexico, Televisa is as big as it gets. While maligned in the past - and still disliked by many, especially PRD supporters - the station isn't quite the nefarious government-propaganda beast it was during the PRI years. It's widely watched, which should keep this case in the spotlight for some time to come.

Perhaps worst in all of this is the lack of justice. Few - if any - crimes against journalists are solved. Former president Vicente Fox promised action, but little was accomplished. The impunity in this country is astonishing - and must end.

05 April 2007

Always patronize a busy taco stand

Taco de pescado/Fish taco

I eat far too many tacos, although I'm no longer consuming the straight-taco diet I was gorging myself on when first arrived in Mexico. It being Lent, fish tacos are pretty popular these days in most parts of Mexico and the line on Fridays stretches at least 15 deep at Happy Fish, a seafood taco stand in suburban Guadalajara that I like to patronize. For just 12 pesos, Cesar Diaz and his crew serve up fried and battered "La Paz-style" shrimp or fish tacos (octopus was taken off the menu for some reason). Best of all, the condiment stand is loaded with more than 20 options, ranging from coleslaw to thick guacamole.

Even during the non-Lenten period Happy Fish does a brisk business. There's always a line - a good sign for a taco stand since the locals here advise against eating at an empty place. And like a good Mexican, I confess seeing the line outside Happy Fish initially piqued my curiosity. Sure enough, it's both cheap and good. Here's my story on the place for the Herald Mexico: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/24055.html

03 April 2007

A heretic in the art world


Dan Ferguson and his wife Nisha, a pair of expat Canadians in San Miguel de Allende, make impressive ceramic sculptures - not to mention a good living. According to Dan, some visitors express amazement that the couple runs a commercially-viable art enterprise, DaNisha Sculpture.

While branded "sell-outs" for their approach, the Fergusons make no apologies. Dan says most students are "brainwashed" in art school that there's no living to be made in art. He and Nisha are proving the starving artist stereotype false.

Here's what I wrote on them in the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/24033.html

02 April 2007

Major League Soccer goes "naco"

Temperamental Mexican striker and naco extraordinaire Cuauhtemoc Blanco signed with the Chicago Fire of the MLS, taking his oft-controversial act north of the border. Blanco previous starred with Mexico-based Club America, a soccer team akin to the Oakland Raiders - you either love it or hate it. In fact, after America won a controversial championship in 2005, the team invited fans to "hate me more." (In fairness, America wins more often these days than the Raiders, although Club America owner Televisa is surely more nefarious than Al Davis or any bad-boy Raider legend.)

In many ways, Blanco epitomizes all that's wrong with Mexican soccer. A talented player, who rescued Mexico from a near-elimination during 2002 World Cup qualifying, Blanco played much his career in Mexico, where he earned a good living, but was never properly challenged. (Think big fish in a small pond.) He joined a Spanish team briefly, but quickly returned to a cushy spot in Mexico. Sure enough, he was never outstanding in the World Cup - and his equally coddled Mexico-based teammates couldn't pick up the slack.

Now with his career on the decline, he jumps to the MLS, where star power - however fading - means more than talent. Adios Cuauhtemoc. I for one won't be watching, although some will.

ESPNsoccernet columnist Steve Davis said of the whole sordid saga:

"Watching the Chicago Fire's high-stakes pursuit of Cuauhtemoc Blanco takes me back to that weird, low-speed O.J. chase of years back. Just like then, I keep thinking to myself: I'll watch this unfold because it's interesting, but there is no way this thing finishes with a happy ending."

01 April 2007

Not the 'Motorcycle Diaries'


While camping in Sayulita, we stumbled upon a pair of brothers reliving their transient childhood by traveling from San Diego to Chile by motorcycle. While any trip combining South America and motorcycles draws comparisons to revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Gueverra - and the hagiographical 2004 flick - Ian Rowan rejects any similarities, although he happily wears a brown T-shirt with a red star on most days.

The Rowan brothers grew up on a yacht, sailing down Mexico's - and later Central America's - Pacific Coasts. They spent extended periods of time in La Paz, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Costa Rica and Panama, attending local public schools and scratching out a living in what ever way possible. (Ian sold gum to tourists; his brother Josh and their father gave boat tours - after bribing the harbor master.) Their tales are colorful and highly-entertaining and Ian will write about it in a magazine feature after the excursion ends.