30 December 2007

Following explosion, fireworks town safer, but less-visited

Hugo Dominguez

David Agren
The News

Hugo Domínguez is a self-confessed pyromaniac. The Cuernavaca native has always been always fascinated with fireworks; he often played with fire as a child. And so Domínguez entered the pyrotechnics industry as a naïve 14 year old, moving from Cuernavaca to Tultepec, State of Mexico so he could pursue his mischievous passion.

He immediately began learning the craft from veteran pyrotechnics makers in Tultepec, where a thriving cottage industry in fireworks dates back to the late 1800s. Domínguez worked in both legal and illegal workshops, where he would mix chemicals, roll firecrackers and stuff gunpowder into bottle rockets, known as cohetes. He also stared peddling fireworks, ranging from sparklers to Roman candles, at a crowded seasonal tanguis market for the pyrotechnics industry.

Safety was always an afterthought.“I didn’t really know the risks … that the whole thing could blow up,” he said during an interview one recent afternoon at the San Pablito fireworks market on the outskirts of Tultepec, a municipality of 130,000 just north of Mexico City.

But shortly after 1 p.m. on Sept. 15, 2005, the eve of Independence Day celebrations, one of the busiest selling days for the fireworks industry, the entire market exploded. Domínguez, still a baby-face teenager, vividly recalled hearing a rapidly growing crescendo of firecrackers as he was serving a customer.

“I knew right away,” he said.

He abandoned his stall and darted out of the market, which was flattened in mere minutes by an estimated 150 tons of exploding fireworks. No one died in the blast, but civil protection officials in Tultepec reported 128 injuries, including burns, bruises and broken bones. Merchandise loss totaled nine million pesos and 40 cars in the parking lot were torched.

The blast’s origins remain uncertain, but the incident tarnished the reputation of Tultepec, which has become infamous for calamities stemming from the irresponsible handling and storage of gunpowder and fireworks. But the explosion also ushered in even more industry regulation as the Defense Secretariat, or Sedena, imposed new rules for boosting vendor, producer and customer safety.


The new rules radically transformed the Mercado de Artesanias Pirotecnicos de San Pablito, where vendors previously occupied a single area full of small plastic stalls that were bursting at the seams with pyrotechnics. The market officially reopened in December 2005 with enhanced security precautions like a permanent firefighter base and weekly Sedena inspections.

It now lacks electricity wire and phone lines – or anything else that could create a spark. A large sign at the entrance admonish customers not to smoke. Another tells drunken patrons to stay away.

An orderly collection of 80 red and white brick huts with metal roofs now house 300 small pyrotechnics businesses, which are christened with colorful names like Pingüino, Miguelito and Danubio Azul. The huts dot a 5,000-square meter property and are separated by 11-meter-wide aisles crisscrossing the market. Each business measures nine square meters and is supplied with 200 liters of water, 100 kilograms of sand, a fire extinguisher, shovel and pick. Explosive merchandise must now be stored behind thick plastic display cases.

But convincing the public of the new commitment to security has been difficult. Vendors at San Pablito report seeing fewer customers and experiencing diminished sales during the busy September and December sales seasons.

“There still aren’t as many people as before,” Domínguez said.

“Many people know that we’re open … they’re just scared that it’s going to blow up if they come.”

A Sedena rule limits customers to purchases to 10 kilograms of fireworks per visit, something Domínguez says state and federal police officers use a pretext for pulling over customers from outside the municipality.

“The police are always hassling our customers,” he said.

“They steal their merchandise or demand a bribe.”

Javier Bolaños regularly patronizes San Pablito, where he buys sparklers and bottle rockets for traditional Christmas posadas in his hometown of Tultitlán, a municipality sandwiched between Tultepec and Mexico City. He says the new market is a vast improvement over the previous version of San Pablito.

“Trips here used to be a really frightening experience,” he said while exiting the grounds with a bundle of sparklers slung over his shoulder.

“People would be doing stupid things … like smoking.”

Many vendors also speak well of their new facilities – even if sales are slack.“[Customers] used to enter drunk, or they were smoking … they didn’t know the seriousness of this,” says vendor Lizdeth Campos Sánchez, who managed to survive the San Pablito blast despite being slowed while helping a pregnant customer to escape the area.

Despite the risks, she says almost all of the vendors working prior to the explosion returned to San Pablito, which is open from mid July through Dec. 31.

“This is what we know,” Campos Sánchez said.


An estimated 30,000 people work in the Tultepec fireworks industry, according to the artisan promotion department of the municipal government. And a large yellow sign on the way into town dubs the municipality, “The fireworks capital of Mexico.”

Each year on March 8, local residents fete San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of those working with explosives and fire, with a series of castillos, towering wooden-frame structures with spinning wheels that spew sparks and fireworks. The National Fireworks Fair takes place every November.

The percentage of the population making a living from pyrotechnics was higher in previous years, according to Campos Sánchez, who grew up in a family of fireworks makers.

“We used to make bottle rockets on the kitchen table,” she said.

Unlike several her siblings, who still make pyrotechnics, Campos Sánchez opted for retailing fireworks instead of dirtying her hands with gunpowder.

Her shop, No. 143, hawks the standard assortment of locally-produced merchandise, including 50-peso bags each containing 500 firecrackers and 35-peso boxes of “chupacabras” that shoot off sparks and violently slither across the floor upon being lit.

Business was steady prior to the explosion as Campos Sánchez averaged sales of 15,000 pesos per month. But those numbers tumbled by 70 percent after San Pablito reopened, she said.


The Tutltepec government and Sendena moved many previously home-based fireworks makers to a 10-hectare farm on the outskirts of town in the early 1990s after a series of explosions.

Regulations also gradually tightened over the years – especially after a 1998 explosion that claimed ten lives and damaged 180 homes. Legal fireworks makers – Antonio Urban Ramírez, director of the Tultepec government’s artisan promotion office says 551 licensed shops operate in the municipality – must purchase their supplies, including gunpowder, from Sedena.

But clandestine workshops and sales outlets still persist, including several tucked away on a rutted alleyway mere blocks from city hall, just off Calle 5 de Mayo. On this day, a 13-year-old boy riding a mountain bike lured customers to the shops, which operate out of private homes where entrepreneurs are wary of answering questions about their operations.

However, these unlicensed operators are becoming less common as the older generation of fireworks makers retires from the business, said Nacho Reyes, a Spanish-trained fireworks maker, whose hands and clothes were blackened with gunpowder.

“It’s a lot of old-timers who don’t want to leave their homes,” he said of the clandestine producers.

Neither Reyes nor anyone else interviewed in Tultepec criticize the new safety measures or crackdown on clandestine operations, but Domínguez, the young vendor, reminisced about the old days of lax regulation.

“It’s safer now, but not nearly as much fun,” he said.

24 December 2007

Felipe Calderón gets his man

Felipe Calderon campaigning

By David Agren
The News

Germán Martínez Cázares, a staunch supporter of President Felipe Calderón, assumes the presidency of the National Action Party, or PAN, on Dec. 8.

Officially, the 40-year-old former federal comptroller will head the governing party for the next three years and lead it into the crucial 2009-midterm elections.

Unofficially, his ascent will sideline the party’s conservative-minded old guard, which has frequently bickered with the president and enjoyed little electoral success over the past year.

Martínez’s rise to prominence also marks a victory for Calderón and his pragmatic stream of the PAN as the president finally wrests control of his center-right party away from his detractors in the PAN’s conservative-leaning Catholic wing.

“It puts someone in who is close to the president,” said Jeffrey Weldon, a political science professor at ITAM, who noted Martínez’s moderate political views.


Martínez inherits a badly divided party rife with ideological and personality-driven feuds that has sputtered of late in state and local elections – most notably in Yucatán and Aguascalientes, where conflicts over candidate selection and forging alliances doomed PAN campaigns in traditional party strongholds.

And his party presidency, which ushers in a younger generation of leadership, comes at a time when the PAN is making the difficult transition from being an erstwhile opposition fighting the previously entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to establishing itself as the governing party.

Martínez succeeds outgoing president Manuel Espino, a polemic figure identified with the PAN’s conservative-Catholic wing, whose term as party head ends three months earlier than scheduled. Espino frequently squabbled in public with Calderon, who represents a more moderate and pragmatic faction that until recently was not well-represented in the PAN leadership.

“[Espino] created this view of a divided PAN,” Weldon said.

The tension between Espino and Calderón dates back to before Espino became party president in 2005, when Calderón endorsed a rival candidate for the PAN's top position.

Later, the Espino-led party hierarchy, which included former president Vicente Fox, openly supported former interior secretary Santiago Creel for the PAN presidential nomination and never enthusiastically backed Calderón’s presidential bid.

Calderón responded to the lack of support by branding himself “the disobedient son” during last year’s campaign.


Calderón and Martínez share many similarities, dating back their modest upbringings in Michoacán and later advancements into the upper echelons of the PAN.

“They’re both very much the same kind of person in terms of who they are and where they come from and what they’re seeking,” said Federico Estévez, a political science professor at ITAM.

Both men hail from from lower middle class backgrounds and were mentored by Catholic academic and former PAN stalwart Carlos Castillo Peraza. The pair, both self-starters, also climbed the ranks of the education system, won two terms as federal deputies, served in high-level party positions and showed sharp political instincts for advancing to the top and “staying there,” according to Estévez.

Martínez also brings less baggage to the PAN presidency than Espino, who claimed the party’s top job under cloud of controversy after being accused him of rigging the party leadership vote and employing corporatist practices during the contest.

Espino, who won with Fox’s backing, took active interest in the selection of local candidates, taking advantage of the influence wielded by the presidents of Mexico’s political parties.

“[Party presidents have] a lot of discretionary power,” Estévez said.

“You can’t get anywhere without the [party] president coming onboard.”

Relations further soured with Calderón after the July 2, 2006, when, according to Mexico expert George Grayson, “Espino became a thorn in the side” of the recently-elected president.

Grayson, a government professor at the College of William & Mary, said that Espino appointed PAN leaders in the new Congress affiliated with the party faction hostile to the president and dithered over forming an alliance with the PRI in last summer’s Chiapas gubernatorial election, which was narrowly captured by the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

Espino’s tough approach to leadership also dismayed many in the PAN as internal conflicts dominated the headlines during his term. The federal Electoral Tribunal recorded complaints from 1,530 PAN members over the past year regarding the infringement of their party privileges – some 77.5 percent of all grievances filed.

It also led to mixed electoral results. The PAN successfully maintained its grip on the presidency and captured record pluralities in both houses of Congress in 2006 – accomplishments Espino frequently points out. But the PAN suffered some embarrassing losses in state and local contests afterwards, which Martínez addressed when he announced his candidacy for party president on Oct. 29.

“If we continue losing municipal governments we risk losing the presidency in 2012,” he said at the time.

According to Aldo Muñoz, a political science professor at Universidad Iberoamericana, Calderón and Martínez champion a pragmatic, “neoPANista” wing of the party, while Fox and Espino allegedly lead a religious-conservative “doctrinal” branch, which is influential on the state and local level in Western Mexico and is often referred to as “El Yunque,” or The Anvil.

Martínez recognized the PAN schisms during a campaign rally in his hometown of Quiroga, Michoacán and promised to include members from both sides of the party in the party’s executive committee. He also noted the challenge of incorporating new members drifting over to the PAN due to its proximity to power.

But pollster Dan Lund questioned whether Martínez and Calderón would be able to unite the party around themselves going forward.

Lund noted that the PAN has long lacked the underpinning of a policy agenda, which has made it more vulnerable to internal disputes and power struggles.

“I don’t think anyone has forged policy leadership,” said Lund, president of the Mund Group in Mexico City.

“And when you don’t have a plan you tend to get bogged down in personalities and fiefdoms.”

19 December 2007

Guerrero inches toward the brink

Bells in Playa Ventura/Campanas en Playa Ventura

With political and social conditions ripe for upheaval, a student movement could push the state over the edge

David Agren
The News

Once again, trouble is brewing in Guerrero.

Since November, striking students from a teachers' college in the state of Guerrero have raided the state legislature, barricaded the doors to the governor's residence and fought with state and federal police officers in an effort to extract more funding for rural education and reverse plans for closing down their college.

After unsuccessfully pressing their case to the state governor last week, the students, known as "normalistas," blockaded the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, one of the nation's busiest roads, and occupied radio stations in the state capital Chilpancingo.

The normalistas' protests have made national headlines, especially after they took over a highway tollbooth in order to raise money for their struggle.

Although observers say the protests are not without precedent, the strife comes at a time when political conditions are. One-party rule reigned in the state until the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was unseated in 2005. And as a counterpoint to the official political powers-that-be, Caciques, or local strongmen, have long laid down the law.

Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, candidate Zeferino Torreblanca finally ousted the PRI in 2005 after campaigning on an agenda casting aside decades of repression and dirty tricks. But his failure to meet expectations of change and achieving social calm has left many voters disenchanted, said Mario Patrón, a lawyer with Centro Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, a human rights group based in Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero.

Patrón explained that the 2005 political transition is now viewed as simply one of "alternating power," rather than change. "There have been the same practices, same methods, basically the same vices."


The current tensions have provided just the right conditions for upheaval, according to analysts.

"Conflicts between the state and the normalistas have always occurred. It's not anything new," said Aldo Muñoz, political science professor at Universidad Iberoamericana. "The difference is [that before], there had been a period of stability and calm."

That relative calm may about to end in the state, which ranks among Mexico's poorest and most underdeveloped. The state's illiteracy rate is more than than 40 percent in many rural areas and the human development index scores of its most marginalized municipalities are on par with Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations.

Guerrero's rugged hills have also spawned social uprisings and guerrilla movements since the time of the Revolution and been the scene of massacres and intense military activity as soldiers hunt down rebels and marijuana growers.

"Guerrero is a state that has been marginalized for decades," Muñoz said. "Because of this marginalization there have been guerrilla groups, groups that are extremely radical in their political postures."

Discontent has been simmering throughout 2007. The EPR, a guerrilla group originating in the state, bombed Pemex pipelines on two occasions over the summer. Campesinos near the coastal city of Acapulco are currently taking legal action against a massive hydroelectric project that threatens to submerge their humble plots of land. They suffered a major setback last month, and the EPR announced it would take up their cause. Narcotics-connected gang violence and recent crime-related beheadings in Acapulco have led to an increasingly tense climate in the state.


The Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa opened its doors in 1926 with the aim of training teachers to work in the state's rural schools. The school, located in the community of Ayotzinapa, 14 kilometers from state capital of Chilpancingo, enrolls students from small towns and farms. The pupils live at the college during their four years of studying and receive scholarships to attend.

"We're children of campesinos. We're children of the villages where poverty exists," said Alejandro González, a normalista from El Portero Oriental, a town of 544 people, where 46 percent of the population lacks an elementary school education, 18 percent of its residents are illiterate and 31 percent of homes have dirt floors, according to the government.

"All of us studying here understand that our communities need public education," he added.

The striking normalistas left their classrooms in early November, demanding that the state government not close their college (it cited budget concerns as the reason for wanting closure), guarantee teaching positions each year for graduating students and scrap plans for ending a degree program that trains elementary school teachers. They also wanted the education system in Guerrero improved.

González said the state lacks 1,000 teachers in rural areas. Schools in some remote towns have been closed for up to five years, he added.

José Luis Rosas Acevedo, director of regional development institute at Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero in Acapulco, said the level of public education in the state was "very low."

The Escuela Normal has a long reputation for grooming politically minded teachers, and has also gained fame for producing rebels. (A large mural of Chiapas rebel subcomandante Marcos gracesthe Ayotzinapa campus.)

"The normal has historically graduated teachers known for their social combativeness," said Patrón."

"It's also known for imparting a social and left-wing ideology withits students."

Lucio Cabañas, perhaps the school's best-known graduate, founded the Partido de los Pobres, or the Party of the Poor, in the late 1960s. The armed group kidnapped then PRI Sen. Rubén Figueroa Figueroa, holding him three months in 1974. Figueroa, who later became state governor, was rescued during a police raid. Cabañas was assassinated before the end of the year.


According to Rosas Acevedo, Guerrero's teachers – despite being poorly paid – are often held in high esteem in the communities where they work.

"Teachers, priests and doctors are very important people in these communities," he explained.

"The teachers have a lot influence."

Their influence extends to the political arena, where teachers are especially active. The Guerrero section of the national teachers' union, or SNTE, has a reputation for radicalism and has had frequent feuds with the national leadership.

"The [current] conflict could [have] many repercussions because the teachers and normalistas in Guerrero manage the political parties on the regional level," Muñoz said.

Patrón, whose organization operates in several of the state's poorest regions, expressed pessimism about the ongoing conflicts in the state being resolved peacefully, given the attitude of the state government.

"The present administration … is closing practically all the places for dialogue with social movements and organizations," Patrón said.

"It's generating a tremendous social polarization and social movements are becoming more radical."

14 December 2007

Across Mexico, water bills go unpaid


By David Agren
The News

For six months of the year, water flows only intermittently from the taps in Guadalupe Nava’s apartment in the capital’s Colonia San Rafael neighborhood, often forcing her to haul buckets down to a local well for filling.

Nava grumbles about the price she pays for the unpredictable utility, which is subsidized by the city and costs just over three pesos per 1,000 liters. The elderly homemaker would prefer not to pay at all, though not necessarily because of the inconsistent service.

“For households, it should be free,” she said while washing clothes at a laundry in another neighborhood due to a lack of water at her apartment.

Even so, Nava says she always manages to pay her water bill, though it’s often a late settlement on an overdue account, and one that’s made largely made due to pressure from the other tenants in her cooperative apartment complex.

Nava’s story illustrates a Catch-22 of water service in Mexico, where many users, citing poor quality and a belief in the constitutional right to free water, pay infrequently or not at all. For their part, providers say the lack of reliable customer payment prevents them from making much-needed infrastructure and service improvements.


According to the National Water Commission, or Conagua, 60 percent of water bills go unpaid nationwide. In some municipalities in the Valle de Mexico, the agency says, the delinquency rate reaches 90 percent, causing some water providers to give up on pursuing deadbeat customers.

In September, Conagua director José Luis Luege Tamargo called the present water billing problem “extremely critical” and blamed payment delinquency for leaving the country's water infrastructure in a sub-standard state. He went on to warn that the lack of revenue from payments could jeopardize the long-term supply of water in northern and central Mexico, where more than 70 percent of the population resides and one of every six aquifers is “overexploited.”

In an effort to address the problem, the Environment Secretariat, or Semarnat, launched an ad campaign over the summer, warning consumers of the long-term consequences of not paying their water bills – like continued inconsistent service, a lack of new pipes and persistent drainage problems.

The effort to rally citizens to pay their water bills may be largely in vain, said Sylvia Gutiérrez y Vera, a sociology professor at Universidad Iberoamericana, who added that the idea of free water is ingrained in the psyche of many Mexicans.

“In Mexico, it used to be said very clearly that water should not be denied to anyone,” she said.

The concept originated in a social pact between the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and the citizenry, Gutiérrez y Vera said. It resulted in local laws that barred utility companies from cutting service to delinquent customers – no matter how much they owed or how long they had owed it.

And the culture of nonpayment extends beyond cash-strapped pueblos. Some of the country's best-known institutions – and even the federal government – have accumulated enormous water debts.

Popular soccer franchise Chivas left an unpaid 5-million-peso water bill upon closing its Guadalajara sports club last fall. In September, Ramón Aguirre Díaz, water systems director for Mexico City, criticized the federal government for running up a debt of 4.6 billion pesos with his municipal utility.

Aguirre Díaz also accused Conagua of owing 2.8 million pesos, a charge hotly denied by the agency. Federal officials maintain that a constitutional amendment exempts them from paying for water services.


In the central city of Aguascalientes, capital of a small, semi-arid state 500 kilometers northwest of Mexico City, a private waterworks concessionary demands timely payment and cuts service to delinquent customers after just two months.

According to the waterworks, Concesionaria de Aguas de Aguascalientes, or CAASA, 90 percent of its customers remit payment before the deadline. By comparison, in Mexico City, where service is seldom – if ever – suspended for nonpayment, one-third of bills go unpaid after two months.

Water customers in the city of 633,000 pay some of the highest rates in the country: 8.80 pesos per cubic meter, or 1,000 liters. The fee covers the full cost of the liquid flowing from users’ taps, something rare in a country awash in government subsidies.

“In the (country’s) 100 biggest cities, only four or five will charge the real price for water,” said former Aguascalientes governor Otto Granados Roldán of the PRI, who presided over the water privatization.

CAASA, a French, Spanish and Mexican partnership that assumed control of the Aguascalientes waterworks in 1993, says its network serve 99 percent of the municipality’s residences, up from 70 percent at the time the concession was granted. In addition, some 80 percent of city neighborhoods receive 24-hour service, a jump from 51 percent in 1996, according to CAASA. The firm also boasts that nearly all its wastewater is treated, while nationwide, Conagua put the number at around 30 percent.

Per-capita water consumption also dropped by 20 percent after privatization, added Granados Roldán, now a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Aguascalientes.

“What we wanted, in effect, was a measure – like the concession was – to change people’s habits,” he said.

Still, some Aguascalientes residents complain about the relatively high price of their water. And CAASA recently landed on the consumer protection agency Profeco’s list of most complained about companies.

Enriqueta Medellín, legal representative for the (NON-GOVERNMENTAL?) environmental group Conciencia Ecológica de Aguascalientes, agreed with the idea of making delinquent customers pay their water bills. But she said that CAASA’s service is too expensive for poor residents and the quality fell short of what was mandated in the original concession.

“It’s been a bonanza for the water company, but from a social point of view, no,” she said, pointing out that in her own neighborhood, service is often intermittent.

“It’s the same or even worse service.”

Water issues surfaced in summer municipal election as the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and Convergence Party promised to revoke CAASA’s concession. Both parties, however, finished well behind the PRI and the incumbent National Action Party, or PAN, which have shown a more favorable attitude toward the concession. In 2006, the PAN and PRI voted down a measure that would have revoked CAASA’s right to suspend service.


Water tariffs in Aguascalientes, a relatively prosperous industrial city, increase regularly to keep pace with inflation. But in Mexico City, PRD Mayor Marcelo Ebrard opted this fall to keep prices low and not to impose a retroactive rate hike for the remainder of 2007. Instead, the mayor said the capital would improve on its collection rate before raising tariffs.

David Barkin, a water expert at the capital’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, said charging higher rates or bringing in a concessionaire wouldn’t necessarily solve Mexico City’s problems. As evidence, he cited mixed results after four private companies were hired in 1994 to handle commercial affairs for the municipal waterworks, including billing.

Barkin also questioned the fairness and viability of charging poor residents high rates for a service so essential for life.

“How can you charge a private rate of return to people whom the system doesn’t pay a living wage?” he asked.

Nava, the San Rafael resident with intermittent service, said “the poor shouldn’t pay for water,” but citing the example of a neighbor that never remits payment, she acknowledged, “Some people would abuse it.”

11 December 2007

12 de diciembre

An estimated eight million Mexicans will descend on the Basílica de Guadalupe in the capital this week and fete Our Lady of Guadalupe, the country's most revered religious icon. This gentleman in Puerto Vallarta honored the Guadalupe with a sandcastle by the Malecón

I spent the wee hours of Wednesday morning at the basilica. Here's what ran the following day in The News.

Pilgrims descend on the capital to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe

David Agren
The News

Esteban Cruz tumbled into the deep end of a swimming pool six years ago while horsing around with a cousin. Unable to swim, he quickly sunk to the bottom. Desperate and "drowning" he begged the Virgin of Guadalupe for intervention. A lifeguard pulled him from the pool moments later, sparing him a watery death.

Cruz has made a pilgrimage every December since to the Basílica de Guadalupe, where he gives thanks for what he considers a miracle. This year, he pedaled his red mountain bike from Valle de Chalco Solidaridad, a sprawling municipality on the southeastern outskirts of the capital, to the basilica in the northern part of Mexico City, leaving at 9 p.m. and arriving just in time for Midnight mañanitas.

"I thought I was going to die," Cruz recalled while sitting on the curb in front of the basilica during the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

"Thankfully, the virgin intervened."

Cruz was just one of an estimated eight million Mexicans flocking to the basilica over the past week as the country feted its patron saint, a dark-skinned virgin that they believe appeared in front of an indigenous farmer named Juan Diego on Dec. 12, 1531. And 476 years later, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe still captivates tens of millions of devotees in the world's second most populous Catholic country.

The virgin also draws adherents from immigrant communities in the United States and Latin America. The Basílica de Guadalupe attracts 20 million visitors a year, ranging from gaggles of clowns decked out in face paint and baggy pants to world leaders – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega paid a visit over the summer, fulfilling a campaign promise to visit the shrine if he retook power in the Central American

Her influence on Mexican society is still strong. Author and social commentator Carlos Fuentes even called President Felipe Calderón's win in last year's election, "A triumph of the Virgin of Guadalupe."

In spite of a long-term decline in the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Catholic, the virgin's popularity shows few signs of waning.

"In reality, it never has diminished, but actually grown," said Conrado Ulloa Cárdenas, a philosophy professor at the University of Guadalajara.

"The devotion [is still] growing against all our predictions to the contrary."

Devotion to the virgin persists most strongly in Mexico City and the states surrounding the capital, especially among the working classes and the poor, according to Ulloa Cárdenas.

He added that wealthier Mexicans still believe in the virgin but are less inclined to publicly show their devotion.

Many of those arriving at the basilica arrived on foot, walking for days in many cases. Others rode bicycles or took the Metro. Entire families toting backpacks, blankets and bagged lunches spilled out of the Metro stops surrounding the basilica in the hours leading up to Midnight on Tuesday.

As the clock struck 12 a.m., fireworks exploded, trumpets from the assembled mariachi bands blared and the assembled masses began singing traditional mañanitas, or birthday songs to the virgin.

Many of the out-out-state pilgrims would later camp out on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the basilica – and even between the pumps at a Pemex station.

Midnight also ushered in a day of 15 masses. The lineup included a solemn mass featuring mariachi groups, a 2 a.m. service for construction workers and concheros, or traditional Aztec dancers, and a mass for cyclists coming in from two municipalities in Puebla.

Some visiting the Basilica started repaying mandas, or fulfilling promises made to the virgin in exchange for intervention.

María Luisa Guerrero and four family members poured 100 cups of coffee for pilgrims caught in the crushing line to enter the basilica, starting at midnight.

"It's something small, but it's the act that counts," she said.

"It's what I could afford to do."

Guerrero prayed to the virgin after her daughter was hospitalized with severe intestinal problems during the spring. She promised that she would serve coffee to the pilgrims streaming past her home every Dec. 12 if her daughter was cured.

"I always had a lot of faith," Guerrero said, adding that her daughter made a full recovery.

Guerrero, who lives mere blocks from the basilica, has always believed in the virgin, but never participated in the Dec. 12 festivities until recently. She said the numbers were as large as ever, but the local government and church officials had created a more controlled atmosphere.

A force of more than 2,200 police officials – some in riot gear – patrolled the area along with support workers from the local borough and inspectors from the federal consumer protection agency Profeco on the lookout for price gouging.

The numbers could grow even larger said borough of Gustavo A. Madero spokesman Ruben Chavarría as the Archdiocese of Mexico City builds a new plaza near the basilica containing shops, a museum and crypts.

Vendors in the area viewed the new project with suspicion, however.

"The government and the church is kicking us out of here," said Jazmín Hernández, a vendor whose family has been selling religious items at the basilica for four generations.

"The church sees a business opportunity and wants to capture all of it," she added.

Her family is devoted to the virgin, but Hernández's merchandise selection now features statues of the Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a skeletal figure popular with the downtrodden and kidnapping gangs. She expressed misgivings about the church, but not the virgin.

Others were less questioning, including Cruz, the Chalco resident, who planned on leaving the Basilica at 4:30 a.m.. That would provide him with enough time to pedal home and still arrive at work on time. Although he acknowledged his fatigue and carried a heavy portrait of the virgin on his back, he was undaunted by his journey and the full day of manual labor at a marble cutting business awaiting him back in Chalco.

"If you don't have faith, the [pilgrimage] can be pretty uncomfortable," he said.

03 December 2007

The Real Deal (My account of the Lucha Libre)

Lucha Libre at the Guadalajara International Bookfair

I penned a rather large account of the Lucha Libre, Mexico's campy, but increasingly popular, version of professional wrestling: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20071130.lucha01/BNStory/specialTravel/home

The Lucha libre is good fun and worth taking in during a trip to Mexico. Shows are staged regularly around the country, although the epicenter is the Arena Mexico in Mexico City's Colonia Doctores.