30 January 2008

Sayulita dispatch

Fishing boat in Sayulita

I decamped Mexico City last month for a few days and jetted to Sayulita, a Nayarit beach town 40 kilometers north of Puerto Vallarta. The town is kind of grungy with many unpaved roads and packs of stray dogs roaming the streets, but it also attracts an eclectic mix of expats, fashionistas and hippies. The influx of the latter groups produces a bizarre mix of upscale delights - great wood-oven pizzas, lychee martinis and a shop selling Tahitian black pearls - and down-market charms like beach vendors, locals igniting pre-dawn fireworks and one of the best fish tacos on the Pacific Coast. (I'm still partial to Happy Fish by my old place in suburban Guadalajara, though.)

The Globe and Mail ran my dispatch last Saturday.

29 January 2008

A political Pandora's Box

With more NAFTA protests scheduled for Jan. 31, calls for change are getting louder


By David Agren
The News

Corn farmer Pedro Galicia was girding for a fight earlier this month as he marched down Mexico City's Paseo la Reforma to the U.S. Embassy, clutching a rusty machete in his calloused right hand.

The native of San Salvador Atenco, State of Mexico, has a history of struggling against long odds. He participated in a 2002 uprising of machete-wielding campesinos that derailed plans for a new Mexico City airport, which was scheduled to be built on his ejido, or communal farm. He also scrapped with local and state police in May 2006 after vendors were removed by force from a San Salvador Atenco flower market. Galacia and his ejido members regularly wade into conflicts around the region, waving their machetes at demonstrations as a show of solidarity.

Now he's vowing to fight the 14-year-old NAFTA agreement that mandated the lifting of agricultural import tariffs on Jan. 1.

Galicia, a short man with thick stubble, proudly pointed his machete skyward has he expressed concern that a flood of duty-free corn and beans from highly subsidized U.S. producers would wipe out his livelihood and eventually drive members of his ejido from their land.

"[The opening] puts us at a disadvantage against our rivals," he said.

"We want to be able to eat … to live with dignity."

Galicia is just one of millions of campesinos facing an uncertain future as duty-free imports of white corn, beans, sugar cane and powdered milk started flowing duty-free into Mexico on New Year's Day.

The opening has provoked concerns that some of the country's poorest and most marginalized residents will be forced to abandon the countryside, unable to compete against better equipped and more highly subsidized competitors looking to claim market share south of the border.

Nationwide protests have flared since Jan. 1. The nation's largest farm group, the National Campesino Confederation, or CNC, also promised a day of action on Jan. 31, saying the new NAFTA measures would adversely affect 1.4 million campesinos in 2008.


But if everyone knew it was coming, why was no one ready?

Mexican producers have had 14 years to get ready for the arrival of foreign competition, but many corn and bean producers still seem unprepared for open markets - even though the federal government has been increasing its funding for agriculture support programs.

"It ended up being a mixed blessing to have 14 years [to prepare]," said Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, political science professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

"It turned out to be too long. If the timeline had been five years ... I think it would have been very clear to many of the producers that this was [more urgent]."

The angst over NAFTA's impact on the rural economy has spurred opposition politicians into action. Former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador made the reworking of NAFTA an integral part of his 2006 president campaign. And the Permanent Commission of Congress passed a non-binding resolution on Jan. 4 urging President Felipe Calderón to revisit the parts of NAFTA governing agricultural issues.

But opening NAFTA, while possible, would put everything on the table – including the manufacturing sector and labor standards – said Sidney Weintraub, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"If they were to renegotiate agriculture they'd have to renegotiate everything," he explained.

He added that any NAFTA partner could, in theory, opt out or ask to rework sections of the agreement, but he said that wasn't likely to happen.

"You don't sign free trade agreements to renegotiate them every five years," he said.


The federal government appears unwilling to propose NAFTA revisions.

Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico's ambassador in Washington, recently cautioned against reopening NAFTA, saying that doing so could "open a Pandora's Box."

Calderón also publicly dismissed calls for reworking NAFTA, telling a gathering of the country's diplomatic core: "The countries in the region now buy five times more from Mexican producers than they did in 1994."

Analysts agree with the president.

"In terms of agriculture, things have actually gone pretty decently under NAFTA," said Federico Estévez, a political science professor at ITAM.

"[Farmers] haven't adjusted fully ... but it's clear that productivity has risen - even production itself has risen in certain key areas."

Mexico now produces more corn than when NAFTA was implemented in 1994, with production jumping from 18 million tons to 33 million tons in 2007, according to the Agriculture Ministry, or Sagarpa. Productivity also improved, with corn yields going from the less than two tons per hectare 14 years ago to 2.9 tons last year.

Corn and beans were among the final products left protected by NAFTA, however. (Tariffs on other crops were slashed at earlier dates.) Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cárdenas Jimémez pointed to the removal tariffs on 40 agricultural items in 2003 as evidence that the forecasts of misery in the countryside were unfounded.

"They said there was going to be chaos and that death would come to the countryside, but what happened with the majority of those [40] crops is that production and productivity increased over a period of three to four years," he said in early January.


The CNC, an organization founded in 1938 that has long been closely affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, disagreed with the favorable assessments of NAFTA, which it blamed for displacing five million campesinos. CNC spokesman Guillermo Correa accused successive federal governments of forgetting the countryside over the past 20 years and pursuing policies that would see "campesinos disappear."

Many Mexican farmers work on small plots of land – 57 percent of corn producers have less than two hectares – that were often distributed as ejidos after the Revolution. The ejidos tied farmers to their properties as they were unable to sell. (A land reform package passed during the presidency of Carlos Salinas now allows ejidos to be sold.)

The ejiditarios became dependent on government institutions for providing fertilizer, supplies and credit – often though corrupt and inefficient institutions – and sold their products to Conasupo, a government buyer. Come election time, organizations like the CNC would marshal campesino support behind the PRI.

Correa blamed many of the current problems in the countryside on a lack of infrastructure, the dismantling of Conasupo in the 1990s and the closing of agencies selling basic agriculture supplies.

Estévez, the ITAM political science professor, said that much of the money previously mandated for farm programs was gobbled up by middlemen and vast bureaucracies, leaving producers with only a trickle of funds.

He also described much of the current CNC maneuvering and some campesino behavior as a throwback to the long period of PRI rule.

"You still have a mass of people tied to the soil in the countryside that are relatively unproductive ... and they're waiting for handouts," he said.

"That's all they've ever gotten; of course they're wanting more."

The federal government will spend 20 billion pesos on agriculture in 2008 with much of the money going to farmers through the Procampo program, which pays stipends directly to those who work the land – often around election time, according to Estévez. The Procampo program was also introduced during the Salinas administration. The program was expanded under President Vincente Fox – a move that Estevez says helped boost the National Action Party's rural vote in 2006.

Iberoamericana political science professor Aldo Munoz noted that large producers in northern and western Mexico collect most of the Procampo money, but he added that the modest amount paid to small producers "deactivates protests" in the countryside.

Galicia, the machete-wielding farmer, begged to differ. At the protest, he spoke of the unrest springing from increased competition ushered in by NAFTA and the continued neglect of the countryside.

"The government is creating the conditions for rebellion," he said.

24 January 2008

The rise of Jesus Malverde reveals a downside of Mexico's drug war

Malverde busts for sale

By David Agren
The News

Six months ago, Cesar Moreno was flat broke. His paycheck was already three days overdue. Desperate and hungry, he visited a sidewalk shrine in the Colonia Doctores dedicated to Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of narcotics traffickers, where he asked for a miracle. While walking home, he stumbled upon a 100-peso note.

"It wasn't much ... but it was something," he recalled while clutching a green candle during a monthly celebration at a Mexico City Malverde shrine.

Today, Moreno regularly prays to the figure. Dressed in western clothing with pale skin, a full mustache and a thick shock of dark hair, Malverde is a pseudo saint beloved by some of Mexico's most unsavory characters.

Moreno is one of a growing number of believers in Malverde, a stagecoach bandit, who supposedly carried out his misdeeds in the hills of Sinaloa a century ago. In spite of his notorious handle – the patron saint of narcotics traffickers – or perhaps even because of it, Malverde's appeal has spread in recent years from the narco heartland of northwestern Mexico and spilled into the nation's capital, immigrant communities in the United States.

The surge in Malverde's prominence coincides with an escalation in drug-related violence in Mexico, which claimed more than 2,500 lives during 2007. Since taking office, President Felipe Calderon has sent more than 30,000 federal troops and policemen to various states throughout the country to crack down on organized crime.

Experts say Malverde's rise to prominence is no coincidence, directly attributing Malverde's appeal to the growing influence of the drug business and the culture that surrounds it.

"The phenomenon of Malverde has been promoted in other parts of Mexico thanks to narcotics traffickers. There's no other explanation for this," said César López, a history professor at the University of Guadalajara.

"Narcotics trafficking is a growing industry in this country and the saint's popularity has been growing along with it," he said.

In a country where drug culture has spawned celebrities, perhaps Malverde's popularity really isn't that surprising.  Sandra Avila Beltran, otherwise known as "La Reina del Pacifico," was known to dine in some of Mexico City's swankiest restaurants. Before her 2007 arrest – the cops tracked her down through her usual eating haunts – her rise to power in the male-dominated world of drug-trafficking had created a cult of personality embraced by feminists around the country.

Narcocorridos,  a subgenre of Nortena music featuring lyrics about kidnappings, drug deals and local narco bosses, are sold in markets throughout the nation's most drug-plagued states.  Various YouTube sites are dedicated to drug-traffickers like "Chapo" Guzman. Just as gang culture is celebrated by some in the United States,  narcos are increasingly admired by many in Mexico.

But the Malverde phenomenon currently appears to be in a league of its own.

For one, it has become big business. Guadalajara brewery Cervecería Minerva recently launched a pilsner with the label, "Malverde," and a chain of "kitsch" bars in the capital region has adopted the unofficial saint's name. (The Condesa branch features one of his busts inside.) Malverde's entered the art world too: a Malverde-inspired piece won acclaim at a recent national exhibition. Even the Mexican military has placed a Malverde bust in its Mexico City museum.

Most Malverde followers insist he isn't just for narcos. Alberto Jiménez, a vendor in the Mercado Sonora – a hub for witchcraft-related items, dubious miracle cures and folk saints unrecognized by the Catholic Church - said Malverde images began appearing at the market about five years ago and became popular with people going through rough spells.

"Jesús Malverde is who you turn to when things are tough," the market veteran explained. Jiménez, like many Malverde followers, acknowledged the narco saint's murky background as a bandit, who, like Robin Hood, reputedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor. And while most adherents also identify themselves as Catholics and profess a belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe, few express misgivings about Malverde's unrecognized status as a saint.

"[The Catholic Church] doesn't like him," said Sabino Martínez, a musician playing guitar at the shrine, who referred to Malverde as "a saint for the poor.

"They won't make a saint out of someone who robbed to help the poor."

Thief or not, no solid proof of Malverde's existence has ever surfaced, although his image resembles famed actor and Sinaloa native Pedro Infante.

The story has it that Malverde was born JesúsJuárez in 1870 and was hanged from a tree on May 3, 1909. His legend, however, lives on, especially in Sinaloa, a western state with a long coastline, some of Mexico's most abundant agricultural regions and a rugged sierra. Sinaloa officially lives for agriculture and the state license plate boasts an image of a tomato. But with the advent of marijuana and other smuggling activities, Malverde's fame grew throughout the state.

"He might not have existed before, but he sure exists now," said James Griffith, a retired University of Arizona professor and expert on Mexican folk saints.

A shrine built in Malverde's honor was moved in the 1970s, but only in order to accommodate the construction of a new state legislature. Maps provided by the Culicacán tourism board give directions to the new shrine. Outside, vendors hawk Malverde trinkets – wallets, key chains and pendants. Bands milling around the exterior play narcocorridas.

Inside, people wait patiently to enter a dimly-lit central room adorned with wood paneling and red carpeting that houses a venerated Malverde bust, which most followers kneel in front of and gingerly touch with an outstretched hand.

The narco saint's adherents fail to fit any one stereotype, according to an elderly woman named Doña Tere, a long-time vendor, peddling Malverde paraphernalia-like busts, necklaces and belt-buckles in a corner.

"All sorts of people come here ... famous people, important people, poor people [and] rich people," she said, pulling out a stack of photos featuring banda musicians and famous actors who had paid a visit.

Some followers leave Polaroid photos taken at the shrine. Others leave notes. Consider one from Daniel, Alejandro and Miguel. "Jesús Malverde, help us with our objective and care for us on this road we have chosen and permit us to return to give thanks for our fortune and health," wrote the trio.

Those returning with cash sometimes pay for plaques, which speak of "favors received" and "success in business." Visitors also leave behind donations that fund the shrine, charity projects like burials for those who lack money and an annual party on May 3. At the bash, bands play narcocorridos and the attendees are showered with giveaways, including toys and household items.

A similar, but lower-key scene plays out at the Colonia Doctores shrine on the third day of each month, when some 30 to 70 adherents gather. At dusk, a life-size statue of Malverde – with a noose around its neck and dollar bill tucked in its shirt pocket – is loaded into a pickup truck for a spin around Doctores, a tough barrio known for chop shops and Arena Mexico, home of the Lucha Libre.

María Alicia Pulido Sánchez erected the shrine last fall after her teenage son recovered from an automobile accident more quickly than expected. She turned to Malverde at the recommendation of a friend. But with growing commercialization, it's not only the disenfranchised who are turning to Malverde. Fresas, or snobs, are increasingly indulging in the naco – the tacky or low class, side of Mexico's popular culture.

At Bar Malverde in Mexico City's hip Colonia Condesa the house specialty is an 80-peso Martini Malverde, a mix of vodka, melon liqueur, Cointreau and lime juice.

Apparently ignoring narco-saint Malverde's bust right next to him on the bar, bartender Luis Mondragón insisted the name "isn't about glorifying narcos."

Cervecería Minerva, which leveraged the narco saint's name, branding its newest pilsner "Malverde," claims that sales are doing well.

Malverde was mostly unknown outside of Northwestern Mexico a decade ago, according to sales manager Alejandro Orozco, but now he's "known by everyone." He attributed Malverde's popularity to the national trend of embracing "kitschy" things rather than the tendency to glorify criminals.

But he did compare his brewery's feting of Malverde to marketing efforts north of the border that have leveraged the notoriety of gangster Al Capone and other nefarious characters.

"[Malverde] isn't just liked by narcos, but by honorable people too," he said.

01 January 2008

The Hanson Brothers

What better way to celebrate the New Year than with the thuggery of the Hanson Brothers and the Charlestown Chiefs?