30 December 2006

Live cheap in Tlaxcala

Above Guanajuato

Perhaps not surprisingly, Los Cabos, a pair of burgeoning towns at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, jumped to No. 1 in a survey of living costs in 42 Mexican cities, surpassing the expensive Federal District and industrial hub Monterrey. Tlaxcala, a small state capital (of a state also named Tlaxcala) just east of Mexico City came in last. In a slight surprise, Guanajuato, a picturesque university town set in a canyon, was second-least expensive.

Here are the results of the Mercer Consulting survey:

Most expensive:
1. Los Cabos, Baja California Sur
2. Monterrey, Nuevo Leon
3. Mexico City, Federal District
4. Cancun, Quintana Roo
5. Tijuana, Baja California
6. Guadalajara, Jalisco

Least expensive:
1. Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala
2. Guanajuato, Guanajuato
3. Chetumal, Quintana Roo
4. Durango, Durango
5. Pachuca, Hidalgo

*Information published in the Excelsior newspaper, but not online.

Development trouble stirs in San Miguel de Allende

sma protest

Development issues continue vexing San Miguel de Allende as residents - both Mexican and expatriate - voice concerns that the municipality is imprudently granting too many construction permits for projects that fail to conform with the town's historic ambiance. Things came to a head on Dec. 16 with a demonstration against a seven-story condominium project called the Caracol, which was to be built next to the Caracol roadway, a bypass connecting the Salida to Queretaro with the Salida to Celaya.

Construction has been halted while the municipality reviews the project. The developer, in comments to the Atencion newspaper, blamed a small group, including expatriates, for stirring up trouble and pointed out that 108 San Miguel de Allende workers are now left without jobs. Critics of the development countered that the construction permits shouldn't have been given in the first place.

A new Super Gigante and large Comerical Mexicana outlet also opened earlier this month, saving many residents a trip to Celaya or Queretaro for worthwhile grocery shopping. And while popular - at least Comerical Mexicana is, while Gigante, a lackluster operation at the best of times, suffers with the new competition in town - the stores' plain, suburban-style facades drew grumbles from some of the marchers at the Dec. 16 protest. (More so Comercial Mexicana than Gigante.)

San Miguel resident Bob Kelly has followed this issue closely. Here's one of his articles from the Miami Herald, Mexico edition: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/miami/22528.html

10 best Mexican destinations seldom visted by Canadians


I penned a travel story for today's Ottawa Citizen on the 10 best Mexican destinations seldom visited by Canadians.

I obviously couldn't include everything I wanted to and I've yet to visit many parts of Mexico - like Chiapas or the Baja Peninsula. Here's the list compiled in alphabetical order:

  1. Colima, Colima
  2. The Costa Alegre, Jalisco
  3. Mineral del Monte, Hidalgo
  4. Papantla, Veracruz
  5. Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila
  6. Patzcuaro, Michoacan
  7. Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
  8. Rio Nexpa, Michoacan
  9. Tequila, Jalisco
  10. Zacatecas, Zacatecas

Update: Canwest News Service picked up this story and it's made its way into five addition newspapers, most recently, The Winnipeg Free Press.

War on drugs heats up in Mexico

Perhaps trying to prove he's a man of action, Felipe Calderon recently ramped up Mexico's war on drugs by sending the army into his home state of Michoacan, where executions and beheadings have become disturbingly common. The president's action followed a less-than-successful scheme dubbed "Mexico Seguro" that was rolled out by his predecessor in an effort to secure northern Mexico. The results were unspectacular. It also was reported in the Reforma newspaper earlier this week that the recent operation in Michoacan has yet to do anything to stop executions in the state.

Fred Rosen, a columnist with the Miami Herald, Mexico edition, wrote almost mournfully in the opening paragraph of his last piece, "We can only wish the government well. But somehow it seems like we've been down this road before with precious little to show for it."

I could go on with calamitous examples of people's brushes with the war on drugs - some of them highly-amusing, like the mariachi musicians in Guadalajara who told me business was lousy in recent years because many of the narcotics traffickers (previously their best customers) in the city had moved on to other places, including prison. Other stories are just tragic. A former classmate from Calgary was shot dead outside a suburban Guadalajara nightclub in 2004. The main suspect is the son of a notorious drug kingpin.

It somehow seems that no matter what the Mexican government does, it won't abate this situation as the traffickers become increasingly sophisticated and brutal in their tactics. There's also a consumption problem in the U.S. and until that diminishes - or drugs are legalized - Mexico will keep on suffering.

24 December 2006

Arthur March R.I.P.

A sad chapter in one of Lake Chapala's longest-running soap operas closed on Thursday, when former resident Arthur March died in a Texas prison. He was 78. March, father of convicted killer Perry March, passed away after serving four months of a five-year prison sentence for his role in a botched murder-for-hired scheme designed to eliminate Perry's former in laws. The hit, which turned out to be a sting, snared Arthur after he went to the Guadalajara airport to pickup the hitman, who turned out to be a jailhouse informant. (Perry just filed suit against the informant.)

According to reporting by Chapala-area journalist Dale Hoyt Palfrey, Arthur March was supposed to provide a safe haven in Ajijic for the hitman. Mexican immigration authorities later seized March outside of an Ajijic doughnut shop last winter and quickly put him on a plane out of the country. (The amaparo March had obtained against police action had just expired and March's attorney apparently failed to notify his client.) March had vowed never to leave Mexico without a struggle and according to Hoyt Palfrey, March pulled a belt-buckle knife - the popular kind from the Ojeda factory in Sayula, Jalisco - while being apprehended.

Perry March, who was previously a prominent Nashville attorney, was convicted earlier this year of murdering his wife Janet, who disappeared in 1996. Her body was never found. In a plea bargain, which a Tennessee judge later threw out, March said he disposed of Janet's body at Kentucky golf course. After the deal was nixed, March was sentenced to five years in prison. Perry is serving a 56-year sentence, but is appealing. The younger March was also convicted of stealing money from his in laws' legal firm.

Although convicted of participating in a murder-for-hire scheme, Arthur March still has his supporters, one person said of him on the Chapala.com message boards, "In spite of everything, I knew him well, he was a great person always positive and helpful, he had pride.... he will be missed." Others strongly disagreed.

Even with Arthur gone, Perry will keep this saga going for years - witness his custody petitions from prison. And, just musing, where's his new Mexican wife holed up these days? And where's the money Perry allegedly swindled? Anyway, this will be gossiped about at Lakeside for a long time to come.

20 December 2006

Adios Oswaldo

Only 10 days after leading Chivas to an improbably victory in the Mexican soccer league's Apertura (opening leg), goalie Oswaldo Sanchez traded the red and white candy-cane stripes of Club Deportivo Guadalajara for the somewhat less illustrious green and white stripes of Santos Laguna. The Torreon-based club - and not the UANL Tigres of Monterrey as previously rumored -acquired the star national team goalie after making what Sanchez called a "very attractive" package reportedly worth US $6 million over three seasons.

Santos, which is owned by Grupo Modelo (Corona), finished second from the bottom in the 2006 Apertura and risks relagation without a marked improvement in the upcoming Clausura. The club also signed midfielder Juan Pablo Rodriguez, who played on the 2006 Mexican World Cup squad.

Allowing Sanchez to leave would normally raise hackles of outrage in Guadalajara - his hometown - but with the team ending a ten-year championship drought last season, Chivas owner Jorge Vergara will most likely be forgiven - for now. Sanchez had flirted with the idea of playing in Europe after the 2006 World Cup, but didn't receive any especially attractive offers. (High transfer fees could have hindered the process too.) Given his age, 33, he'll probably finish his career in Mexico.

16 December 2006

Pirate cabs on the prowl in Mexico City

Taxi en San Angel

Upon entering a cab early yesterday morning on Calle Homero in Mexico City's swank Polanco district, the driver asked, "Young man, why do you trust me so much?" I pointed to the "L" on his Federal District license plate - which signifies libre, or a taxi not attached to a station. He responded by pointing a laminated credential from the local government with a photo hanging from the rear-view mirror, before adding that many of the taxi licenses are fake. (Some pirates simply use a normal plate instead of one with the letters "L" or "S" and the necessary red trim.)

An estimated 20,000 pirate cabs prowl Mexico City's congested streets. When asked why some many are out there, the cab driver responded, "The government allows it."

Another cab driver in a more expensive sitio taxi (one with a radio and home base) said the pirate taxistas support the PRD party and thus have obtained protection against possible enforcement.

Obviously the licensed taxi drivers object to the pirates due to the extra competition. Tourists might be hesitant as Mexico has been notorious for express kidnappings in which the passenger is escorted to several bank machines and ordered to empty his or her accounts.

But what does this say about the PRD administration in capital? This smacks of the old PRI-style corporatist system that tied unions, businesses, etc. to the once-mighty party in exchange for patronage. It also suggests a lack of respect for the law - something critics of presidential candidate and former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have long alleged the perredista is guilty of.

14 December 2006

$450 for a bottle of Tequila Patron? No gracias!

Atotonilco Cantina
Originally uploaded by David Agren.
An interesting article earlier this month in the National Post on the misery of dealing with Liquor Control Board of Ontario noted that a special edition bottle of Tequila Patron was on sale for more than C$450.

That same weekend, I downed a copious amount of tequila in Atotonilco el Alto, Jalisco - where Tequila Patron is made - at my landlady's family reunion. Of course, since Atotonilco is a legendary tequila-producing town, we drank the local brands: mainly 7 Leguas and 3 Magueyes. Don Julio, which is also distilled locally, was absent, perhaps due to its high price - which in Mexico is far less than what the LCBO wants for Tequila Patron. Also missing was Tequila Patron, a brand gaining fame outside of Mexico, but everyone in Atotonilco that day had little positive to say about it. When I told one cousin about the $450 price tag, she commented: "That's abusive."

13 December 2006

Sandcastle in Puerto Vallarta

Jose de Jesus Ramirez sculpts sandcastles on the beach in front of Puerto Vallarta's famed Malecon. Being Dec. 12, he made an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a revered religious icon in Mexico. Legend has it the dark-skinned virgin appeared to Juan Diego, a poor indigenous peasant, at Tepayac Hill in what's now the northern part of Mexico City back in the 1531.

When not shaping saints out of sand, Ramirez makes sandcastles, which take about 10 hours each to complete, to fit the season. Next week he said he'd craft a nacimiento (nativity scene) then Santa Claus and various reindeer and finally in early January, the three wise men.

10 December 2006

The good guys (read: Chivas) capture Mexican soccer title

Chivas fans

Long-suffering Chivas fans took to the streets on Sunday after their squad bested Toluca 2-1 to capture the Mexican league's Apertura (Opening leg). The Guadalajara-based team only fields Mexican players - which endears it to millions across the Republic - and hadn't won the championship since 1997. Along with celebrations at Lakeside, Chivas fans also swarmed the Glorieta Minerva in Guadalajara and the Angel monument in Mexico City and later lined a two-kilometer stretch of the Carretera Guadalajara-Chapala (which runs by the airport) in order to welcome their conquering heroes home.

Despite the loss, Toluca, the runner up, has perhaps been Mexico's most successful club over the past decade. According to sports marketing expert Hector Lopez Zatarain, the Diablos Rojos (Red Devils, as Toluca is known) have been well managed and seen little turnover. Players are also paid promptly - unlike at some other clubs. The consistency differs from the coaching carousel in Guadalajara, but with a championship under his belt, no one's really blaming Chivas colorful owner Jorge Vergara for anything right now.

Update: The Miami Herald, Mexico Edition ran my piece on why Chivas' is more than just a popular soccer team.

San Miguel’s cantinas

Cantina in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel’s cantinas

By David Agren, Dec 8, 2006

Shortly before 5pm on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, an old- timer, clutching a cane, pushed through the wooden doors of Cantina La Colonia, a drinking establishment on Insurgentes in San Miguel de Allende. After approaching the bar, he ordered a generous shot of Gran Centenario Reposado Tequila and then proceeded to the tiny restroom behind a curtain in the corner. Upon emerging, he paid 30 pesos, took a sip from the shot glass before pouring the rest of the tequila into a red disposable cup and leaving the premises.

Ramon García’s family has owned Cantina La Colonia on Insurgentes since 1949.
Cantinas such as La Colonia generally sell alcohol in simple establishments to an older, less-affluent clientele drawn from the municipality’s barrios and ranchos. They generally open early and serve customers until midnight, seven days a week. Although similar to bars, cantinas usually lack polish and are governed by different licensing regulations. They’re also a throwback to days gone by, when only men would imbibe at such places and the tipplers were supposedly all macho. And while cantinas are still commonplace, business in many establishments isn’t exactly brisk.“In the old days, all the cantinas had a lot more people,” said Ramon García, owner of Cantina La Colonia.

Cantinas, however, live large in San Miguel de Allende’s municipal lore. Back in the 1960s, members of the Beat Generation, including Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, would populate La Cucaracha, perhaps the area’s most legendary drinking establishment. Twenty-eight years after Cassady’s death on the railroad tracks heading toward Celeya, cantinas still dot most San Miguel de Allende neighborhoods, providing a cheap spot to drink beer and socialize with the Mexican population. In some cases, though, cantinas are tourist attractions and cater to both locals and foreigners in atmospheres that are genteel and not entirely authentic. And at places like La Cucaracha (cockroach in Spanish) and El Gato Negro (The Black Cat), the crowds can be decidedly young at times.

At Cantina La Colonia, owner Ramón García tends bar every day in a cheery establishment, which recently moved one door down the street. (He rented the old corner location at Insurgentes and Hernández Macías to a furniture store.) In the new location, he painted the walls mauve. It has three simple Corona-branded tables, a television set, a jukebox and a small shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. He figured about 40 people could squeeze in at any given moment. Although possibly imposing for a foreigner passing by the swinging doors—the kind straight out of an old western movie—García rejects the idea of a cantina being an unsafe or unwelcoming place.

“The myth is that there were really macho people (in here),” he said between drags of a Marlboro cigarette. And he listed another fiction about cantinas: “That there used to be people here many years ago who had knives and guns.”

As a result, García said that foreigners—and some Mexicans—“Wouldn’t enter any cantina ... they were scared they would get beat up or that they could be killed.”

Cantina La Colonia first opened in 1949, the year García was born. He grew up in the cantina his father started shortly after moving from Mexico City. “For my father, this was a good business,” García said.

Since assuming control of the cantina, he said business has slipped due to the general economic malaise that has settled over Mexico for the past 25 years. (Last week, though, it was the cold weather that kept customers at home, and one night he closed early at 8:30pm.) Garcia also groused about the lack of a local industrial base and the dependence on tourism jobs, which he said don’t pay all that well.“San Miguel lives—for me—for nothing more than two things: artisans and drunks,” he said somewhat sarcastically.“Nowadays, the situation is [economically] pretty critical. Everything is going up in price and people don’t earn all that much money.”

Mostly Mexicans patronize his cantina—only about 20 percent of the clientele is foreign. Bottled beer is the most commonly ordered drink, followed by tequila. (García only sells Grupo Modelo products because the brewery, which makes Corona, Victoria and Negra Modelo, offered him a cash payment for signing an exclusivity deal.) Cantina La Colonia doesn’t serve food because cantinas are not allowed to serve it. The jukebox, loaded with a surprising variety of music ranging from Latin rock groups such as Maná to ranchero crooners such as Vicente Fernández, swallows an enormous quantity of coins. Cantina La Colonia almost never has live music—another thing forbidden by municipal rules. (Cantinas also can’t impose a cover charge.) Rules aside, bars, nightclubs and even strip joints are pulling customers away from cantinas, according to García, who lamented the large number of liquor licenses granted in the city center. “San Miguel is extremely saturated with bars,” he commented.

Silvia Hernández, a secretary in the Fiscalización office at city hall, said the municipality grants liquor licenses after consulting with the department of urban development and the general guidelines set out by the ayuntamiento (municipal council). As for cantina permits, she said few applications are made and most potential licensees seek permission to sell beer in small mom-and-pop shops.

And while bars and cantinas are different, some establishments blur the distinction. At La Coronela on the corner of San Francisco and Relox, the atmosphere is classy with large portraits of movie stars from the golden age of Mexican cinema gracing the walls. The music—a song from the sappy Mexican pop sextet RBD blared from the television during a recent visit—hardly seemed apt for a cantina. The establishment caters to both locals and foreigners, but in a departure from other cantinas, it hires well-dressed bartenders and waiters, each of whom declined to comment on the record for this newspaper.

Farther out from Centro, down Canal Street, Bar Casanova seemed a more authentic spot to watch the Chivas-Cruz Azul soccer playoff last Saturday evening. At Bar Casanova, a bottle of beer costs only 10 pesos and a waiter wearing a grubby white shirt and faded jeans delivered it to the table. Pictures of dogs playing poker covered some of the walls. Most of the denizens were glued to the match, with Chivas, a beloved squad that only fields Mexican players, drawing the most support. After a Cruz Azul shot hit the post, one inebriated patron yelled, “Pinche suerte!” (Cantinas are wonderful places to learn off-color Spanish.)

José Luis Perales, a lawyer trained at UNAM, has been the owner of El Gato Negro on Mesones for 23 years. The legendary cantina, which is adorned with photos of Marilyn Monroe, first opened in 1921.

On the other side of Centro from Bar Casanova, El Gato Negro delivers a more eclectic ambiance than virtually any other San Miguel de Allende cantina. Owner José Luis Perales decorated his establishment—the second-oldest cantina in San Miguel de Allende—with Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. El Gato Negro probably vies with La Cucaracha for the unofficial title of the most famous cantina in town.

“[El Gato Negro] has been famous because people comment ... ‘When you come to San Miguel you have to come to El Gato Negro,’” Perales explained.The landmark cantina on Mesones dates back to 1921. The original owner had a business delivering fuel, and a black cat was its mascot. Sort of by default, the cantina gained its name from the fuel company’s mascot, according to Perales. And while it was once a male bastion, Perales said that changed in the 1970s as Mexican women began receiving more legal rights and social customs changed. Nowadays, pretty much any sober person over the age of 18 can drink in a cantina.

“If you have a voter’s credential and it says 18 years old, you can enter,” he said.

Perales, like Ramón García at Cantina La Colonia, grew up in the cantina business. But unlike his competition, he previously studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Although he is a lawyer, Perales said, “I prefer working in a bar.”

Perhaps topping El Gato Negro in notoriety is La Cucaracha—but just barely. Esquire magazine once dubbed La Cucaracha one of the 10 best bars in the world. Located on Zacateros—it moved from its original location by the Jardín about a decade ago—it draws a mixed crowd of locals during the week and foreigners and tourists on the weekend.But beyond the plain and easy-going ambiance, history is La Cucaracha’s biggest calling card. The Beat Generation frequented La Cucaracha in the 1960s. Legend has it one writer gave writing lessons upstairs in order to cover his bar bill. Ramón García said La Cucaracha’s original owner was “a good promoter” who courted the American writers. “The Americans used to arrive and give him their checks,” Garcia explained. “If there wasn’t any money, it wasn’t important.”

Due to its notoriety, business is seemingly better at La Cucaracha than at pretty much any other cantina, including García’s La Colonia, which isn’t really thriving but, according to the owner, still provides an OK living. “It’s a business that isn’t especially profitable,” García said. “But it’s livable.”

Published in Atencion San Miguel

05 December 2006

Adios, President

Adios, Presidente

A look back at six unremarkable years of Vicente Fox

David Agren December 4, 2006

Cantina owner Ramon Garcia once held high hopes for Mexican President Vicente Fox. He supported Fox not once but three times, as Fox previously ran for governor in Garcia's home state of Guanajuato before successfully deposing the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000. But with time, Garcia, like many Mexicans, grew disillusioned as Fox repeatedly stumbled and failed to implement much of the change promised during the heady days of his presidential campaign.

"He wasn't born dumb," Garcia commented, before adding, "Fox just never knew how to be president."

Garcia pointed to his ailing San Miguel de Allende bar business as proof of Fox's unfulfilled promises of creating prosperity. He said his clientele, mostly working-class folk from nearby barrios and surrounding ranchos, lacks the purchasing power of past years. Good jobs are still scarce.

Fox left office on Friday after six stable but unremarkable years of governance – if you don't account the early accomplishment of outsting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and improving the macroeconomic climate. Despite running on an agenda of change, much of the old Mexico he promised to banish stubbornly persists, perhaps nowhere more visibly than in Oaxaca, where a teachers' strike descended into a battle between disgruntled leftists and the state's corrupt PRI governor. Inaction, a failure to broker deals with a divided Congress and a tendency to avoid conflict will no doubt go down as some of his biggest shortcomings. But many of Fox's problems stemmed from the high expectations created by his presidential campaign.

"He was an imprudent president incapable of biting his tongue,” said Marco Antonio Cortes, director of the political science department at the University of Guadalajara.

A gifted campaigner and lousy politician, the former Coca-Cola executive effectively turned the 2000 presidential race into a referendum on 71 years of PRI rule, coining the slogan, “¡Ya!” (loosely translated: now, or enough). He also was all things to all people and in the euphoria of seeing the PRI unseated – a feat compared to landing a man on the moon – pretty much anything he said seemed possible. Governing, however, proved more difficult than winning office.

"Fox never had a serious plan for governing,” said Dan Lund, president of Mund Americas, a Mexico City market research firm. Almost from the start, “There was a sense of drift that began to set in.”

Opposition lawmakers immediately seized on the president's poor political instincts and unwillingness to wield power like his predecessors. Much of Fox's agenda got bogged down in legislative gridlock. He quickly became a lame duck president.

His unwillingness to act decisively extended beyond partisan politics as he repeatedly backed down from confrontations. In 2002, he abandoned plans for a new Mexico City airport after machete-wielding campesinos refused to cooperate. Left-leaning presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador shut down central Mexico City for six weeks over the summer to protest alleged election fraud. Fox later fled the capital during the fiestas patrias (national holidays) rather than confront Lopez Obrador supporters camped outside of the traditional spot the president delivers the grito (the annual reenactment of Miguel Hidalgo's 1810 shout for independence). The Oaxaca conflict simmered for months, but Fox refused to send in the federal police until an American activist/journalist was shot dead in late October.

Perhaps most infamously, Fox said he'd resolve the Chiapas crisis in 15 minutes. Six years later it's still unresolved, although jungle-dwelling rebel subcomandante Marcos is now a peripheral figure, better loved by foreign lefties than Mexicans outside of Chiapas.Economically the country stagnated, although 2006 has been promising in terms of job creation. Growth averaged just 2.5 percent annually during the Fox years – a far cry from the seven percent promised. Migrants still decamp the campo (countryside) in large numbers. (The president promised to achieve an immigration deal with the United States, but 9/11 derailed those hopes.) Fox spoke of job creation, but the informal economy is as robust as ever. Monopolies and duopolies – most notably in telecommunications, broadcasting and brewing – still gouge Mexican consumers. Pemex, the state-owned oil company, is sorely lacking investment. Unions wield as much power as ever.

"We've got more macroeconomic stability, but that's all we've got,” Lund said. "Monopolies and privileges are braking – if not absolutely impeding – economic growth.”

Still, some of the macroeconomic figures are impressive. Inflation dipped below three percent, banks now issue fixed-interest rate loans, the peso failed to crash and the stock market tripled. Fox also drove down the budget deficit.

"He deserves credit, but not all of the credit that's been attributed to him,” said Marco Antonio Cortes. "He's been lucky.”

High oil prices swelled profits at Pemex, the government's main cash cow. (The company remits more than 60 percent of its gross income to the Mexican government, leaving little cash for exploration or maintenance.) Remittances from Mexicans abroad also accelerated, going from less than $10 billion in 2002 to a projected $24 billion in 2006.

Stability aside, Cortes remarked, "(Fox) hasn't achieved any of his important projects."

But that didn't stop the president from returning to what he did best: campaigning. Los Pinos (the presidency) aired an endless stream of TV and radio commercials and erected signs along many of the Republic's major highways boasting of the “Gobierno de Cambio” (government of change). Many Mexicans didn't believe it, but Fox remained somewhat popular. The propaganda, though, confused the residents of one Veracruz hamlet, who changed their town's name to Licenciado Vicente Fox Quesada in a bid to avoid missing out on the supposed largess flowing from Los Pinos. (More importantly for one resident commenting in Mexico City newspaper El Universal: “Most of the town is illiterate and this is one of the few names everyone could remember.”)

Fox's successor, Felipe Calderon, also spoke of change and made numerous promises during the 2006 presidential race. Unlike Fox, many analysts, including Cortes, give Calderon a better chance of succeeding.

"(Calderon's) intelligent, an able negotiator (and) much more prudent," Cortes said. Perhaps more importantly, "He thinks a lot more prior to opening his mouth."

David Agren is a freelance journalist living in Guadalajara

This article appeared in Reason

APPO leaders arrested

While not entirely placid, a sense of normalcy is returning to Oaxaca. And sadly, Governor Ulises Ruiz is still in power.

After the late November dust up, which saw a number of buildings burn, more than 100 APPO supporters were arrested and jailed in Nayarit state - a long ways from Oaxaca. Several top APPO leaders were also apprehended yesterday in Mexico City and are now apparently in Altiplano, one of the country's most notorious prisons.

This whole Oaxaca situation is tough to completely understand and no side is without blame. Seemingly, there are just varying degrees of bad.

Why, for example, do the teachers strike every year? Or, why, despite assertions to the contrary, do APPO-led protests sometimes descend into violence? Of course, Ulises Ruiz and his thugs in the PRI have much to answer for - and his ousting would effectively put an end to much of the unpleasantness.

One troubling part is how APPO has garnered such sympathy. Are their motives entirely pure? Sergio Sarmiento pointed out in one of his Grupo Reforma columns that APPO used to receive money from the Oaxaca government, but Ruiz put an end to the payments.

That fact doesn't negate many of APPO's grievances, but it raises questions.

Adios Presidente

Vicente Fox finally left office after six unremarkable years and sadly many of things his Gobierno de Cambio promised to change stubornly persist - just witness the unrest in Oaxaca where radical lefties are battling an old-school PRI governor.

Fox isn't a bad man, he's just a lousy politician with a gift for campaigning. Here's what I wrote for Reason Online ... it's not all that complimentary.

04 December 2006

Paco heads for Gobernacion (Interior Ministry)

Former Jalisco governor Francisco "Paco" Ramirez Acuna collected on an imense political debt with his ascension to the interior ministry, perhaps the most prestigious spot in President Felipe Calderon's cabinet. Paco, who governed Jalisco from 2001 until a few weeks ago, gained a reputation as a no-nonsense character willing to have the police bust heads when necessary - principally at the May 2004 summit of European and Latin American leaders held in Guadalajara. Local and state police forcefully cracked down on globalifobicos (anti-globalization protesters) trying to enter a restricted downtown area. Human rights abuses were documented and some of the protesters were detained for months without being charged. When asked to explain things, Paco testily responded afterwards, "Nothing happened."

Few tapatios (Guadalajara residents) lost much sleep over those events as the city and region generally sees few protests and the local population is seldom enamored with causes viewed as radical.

That doesn't mean Paco was well regarded. He certainly never achieved the same levels of popularity as Alberto Cardenas, Paco's predecessor. Paco seldom spoke to the media, took numerous foreign junkets of dubious value - promoting tequila in Poland comes to mind - and accomplished little other than bring the 2011 Pan Am Games to Guadalajara. (No other cities made bids.) A fuss broke out in Chapala after the new malecon was named for the outgoing governor last month. (PAN was just voted out of city hall in Chapala after disastrous back-to-back terms and Lake Chapala has improved slightly in spite of government inaction.) New PAN governor Emilio Gonzalez Marquez won fewer votes in Jalisco than Felipe Calderon and only a deeply-negative campaign kept the state from going PRI.

Although perceived as a law-and-order guy, Paco willing broke the rules when it served his purposes. After a new transparency law was passed, he refused to show his paycheque - as required - to a constituent.

But Paco backed Felipe Calderon back in 2004, going against the PAN establishment - and Cardenas. And now Paco's collecting.

13 November 2006

Labour unrest casts shadow over popular vacation mecca

Policia de Oaxaca

This piece was published in Sunday's Calgary Herald. It focuses on the strife in Oaxaca, but also the political implications of the unrest as it coincides with Fox's departure from Los Pinos (the president's residence.)

Labour unrest casts shadow over popular vacation mecca


Potential Oaxaca visitors frequently query ecotourism promoter Ron Mader about the situation in his strifetorn Mexican state, where over a six-month period a teachers' strike has descended into open revolt against the state government. He often demurs, though, before suggesting people read the message boards at his popular website, Planeta.com, after which, travellers can make an informed decision about going to a part of Mexico the Canadian government recently admonished its citizens to avoid.

But when asked about the impact of the dispute, which has scared off tourists and generated negative international headlines, he responded, "You've taken a poor Mexican state and made it 90 per cent poorer."

Given the backdrop of conflict in Oaxaca, drug gang-related beheadings in Michoacan and a bitter presidential election, which was never conceded by the runner up, reports of a bombing last Monday at a Scotiabank Inverlat outlet in Mexico City — along with explosions outside the nation's election tribunal and the headquarters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — seemed disturbingly routine.

Over the past six months, the news streaming out of parts of the Republic has at times been decidedly grim — if not absurd.

And it all comes with less than three weeks remaining in President Vicente Fox's term in office. He'll leave Los Pinos (the president's residence) having achieved little, spare unseating the long-ruling PRI after 71 years in power — no small feat — and improving the country's macroeconomic climate. (Interest rates and inflation have both dipped to seldom-seen low levels.)

Perhaps most disappointing, much of the old Mexico his gobierno de cambio (government of change) was supposed to supplant stubbornly endures.

Unwelcome brushes with the country's corporatist and authoritarian past also keep resurfacing, reminding an increasingly-jaded population of the failures of the Coca-Cola executive-turned-president — not to mention nearly six years of dashed expectations.

But the ongoing conflict in Oaxaca state, which the Mexico City bombers cited as their motivation for action, will most likely go unresolved until Fox leaves office and it becomes the responsibility of president elect Felipe Calderon. Depending on how the two men manage the Oaxaca situation, the conflict could spread, plunging Mexico into even deeper turmoil. Its outcome could ultimately determine Fox's legacy.

For some observers, Oaxaca — and much of the recent upheaval in Mexico — is the symptom of two of the president's biggest shortcomings: an inability to broker deals and an unwillingness to get tough when needed — perhaps due to fears of inadvertently emulating the often inglorious suppressions carried out during the PRI years.

"He's never understood that in order to rule a country as difficult as Mexico you have to use the police once in a while," said Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist with Grupo Reforma, who cited a long list of inaction dating back to 2002, when machete wielding farmers thwarted plans for a new Mexico City airport. "He often simply gives in to the demands of people who use or threaten to use violence." The Oaxaca situation started off rather quietly though after the teachers walked off the job — an annual occurrence in the culturally rich, but impoverished southern state. According to Sarmiento, "The teachers' union in Oaxaca has struck every year for 26 years." (They all have drawn paycheques while off the job.)

This time around, the teachers demanded not only better pay, but wage parity with their counterparts in wealthier parts of Mexico — something that was eventually achieved. (Teachers in Oaxaca may earn less than teachers in other states, but according to Sarmiento they receive Christmas bonuses worth approximately 90-days' pay.)

After negotiations bogged down in June and a botched attempt at dislodging the strikers from protest sites in the state capital of Oaxaca de Juarez was made, the labour dispute turned violent as the striking teachers were joined by farmers, students and leftists protesting under the name: the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). A call for the governor's head was issued shortly thereafter.

After abiding months of protests, Fox finally ordered in the federal police after a U.S. journalist was shot to death in late October. The journalist's colleagues alleged gunmen loyal to the governor pulled the trigger. The PRI denied any culpability, but promised to protect any party member accused of the murder and keep PRI Governor Ulises Ruiz in power.

Ruiz, a polemic figure with a sordid reputation for corruption and thuggery, obtained power after a scandalous 2004 election. His state chapter of the PRI has always governed Oaxaca. Diego Petersen Farah, director general of the Publico newspaper in Guadalajara, wrote last week, "Ulises Ruiz is a troglodyte and the Oaxaca PRI is more a criminal organization than a political party.

"Keeping Ruiz in office will be costly for Oaxaca, costly for the country and a tragedy for the PRI."

But removing Ruiz would trigger political consequences that could jeopardize the president-elect, who disgruntled presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez

Obrador vowed would never take office. Thus, despite decades of ill-will, a sort of mutual blackmail has started flowing between the federal PRI, which was embarrassed in the federal election and won't let one of its governors fall, and Fox's National Action Party (PAN), which barely held on to the presidency.

"The reason Ruiz hasn't fallen is because the PAN has decided not to antagonize the PRI. They have no choice," Sarmiento said.

"Either (PAN) makes agreements with the PRI or they forget about ruling the country for the next six years."

For months, the Oaxaca conflict was overshadowed by the country's close election race and the subsequent post-election fallout. After narrowly losing the July 2 election by less than one percentage point, Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) screamed "fraud," began floating wild conspiracy theories — like subliminal messages being placed in pre-election ads — and assailed the country's electoral institute. He caustically commented after losing an appeal, "To hell with Mexico's institutions."

Lopez Obrador eventually launched a massive six-week shutdown of central Mexico City and had himself declared the "legitimate president of Mexico." The PRD congressional delegation has already prevented Fox from delivering the annual "informe" (state of the nation address) and according to Sergio Sarmiento, the PRD won't play ball with Felipe Calderon.

Despite being weakened — the PRD just lost a governor's race in Lopez Obrador's home state — the former Mexico City mayor recently backed the APPO protests and officially assumes the "legitimate president" title on Nov. 20 in a ceremony Fred Rosen, a columnist with The Herald Mexico, dubbed, "Pure theatre." "It's not serious politics anymore." And while targeting the PRI and elector tribunal held some logic — five leftist guerrilla groups wanting Ulises Ruiz ousted claimed responsibility — why they would target Scotiabank Inverlat remains a mystery. (Mexican banks are generally reviled after a clumsy nationalization in 1982 and a later bailout after a crony-driven privatization in the 1990s went awry — something Lopez Obrador railed against during his campaign.) Away from the political theatrics of Mexico City and conflict in Oaxaca, additional unrest is also brewing. A rash of drug-related beheadings and gangland killings in Acapulco, Michoacan and Baja California has continued unabated for months.

Even pipe-smoking bandit subcomandante Marcos reappeared recently after the EZLN established roadblocks in parts of Chiapas state in order to support APPO.

Fox once infamously promised to resolve the EZLN crisis in Chiapas state in 15 minutes. It never happened. Oaxaca might go the same way for the president, giving Fox the dubious privilege of starting and ending his regime with a crisis in Southern Mexico.

University of Guadalajara political scientist Javier Hurtado predicted the Oaxaca conflict would be resolved in the first week of December after Felipe Calderon takes office and some of the mutual blackmailing ends.

"The problem is what's going to happen from now until Dec. 1," he said.

"How many more people are going to die?"


That giant sucking sound gets louder

A decade after railing against NAFTA and infamously speaking of a "giant sucking sound" - jobs being pulled south to Mexico - the company founded by former presidential candidate Ross Perot bolted for Guadalajara, where, according to the company, Perot Systems Corporation will employ 270 engineers.

It's an obvious win for Guadalajara, dubbed the Silicone Valley of Mexico - and referred to as such far too often by the foreign press. The local technology sector slumped badly earlier in the decade as foreign competitors put the boots to Guadalajara - and much of Mexico for that matter. But things are bouncing back; HP, IBM, Flextronics and Solectron all have significant operations in the area. A friend in the industry said many companies find it more convenient to have operations closer to the U.S. - something that compensated for the lack of cost advantages in Asia. Competitiveness is an issue though as tax incentives make keeping an inventory of supplies costly and there's not a 24-hour port of entry at the Guadalajara airport.

Lower wages in Mexico was cited as a reason for the Guadalajara expansion. Many university-educated Mexicans speak English, but there's also a glut of professionals, which, in part, drives down wages.

In an interesting twist, Perot will rent space in the local World Trade Center, which has been sparsely occupied since its completion. Despite the abundance of space, new offices keep being constructed and rents stay stubbornly high.

12 November 2006

Should travellers avoid Mexico? Depends on who you ask

David Agren
Calgary Herald
Friday, November 10, 2006

November 10, 2006 - With newspapers splashing headlines from Mexico about bombs, beheadings and barricades, many travellers might think twice before jetting south. And yes, avoiding Oaxaca state, scene of a teachers' strike gone awry, might be advisable--the Canadian government says it is. People in the area, though, say going to Oaxcaca at this time isn't an entirely foolish proposition either.

Oaxaca-based ecotourism promoter Ron Mader advises, "As long as you're not a tourist pretending to be a journalist, taking photos of gunfights, I think you're going to be pretty safe."

He recommends reading the discussion boards on his website Planeta.com, where potential travelers can pose questions for knowledgeable locals. Mader also points out that for people experienced in Mexico travel (read: people who actually put down their margaritas and leave their all-inclusive resorts), the uproar in his state wouldn't be a large deterrent.

"The people that are here in Oaxaca and are traveling to Oaxaca ...are people who love Mexico and love Oaxaca and aren't going to cancel their plans."

With last Monday's bomb blast at a Scotiabank outlet in Mexico City, the Canadian government once again emphasized its running advisory, which admonishes citizens to take precautions when visiting the capital.

All of it is sensible advice, yet I've disregarded much of it on my five trips to Mexico City this year. Although sketchy in parts and horribly polluted, it's an endlessly fascinating place and the site of everything imaginable--good and bad.

The reality is that with the exception of Oaxaca, rural zones populated by dope growers, some of the northern border cities like Nuevo Laredo and certain Mexico City neighbourhoods at night, the country is generally safe--not to mention quiet.

Canadian-educated columnist Sergio Sarmiento quite accurately points out that most of the country is perfectly safe.

However, he cautions that "it's riskier to be here (in Mexico City) than in Toronto or Calgary.
"Mexico City's not much riskier than it was a year ago and Cancun is not riskier either, [but] Oaxaca, it's not a tourist paradise right now."

Having traveled from Tijuana--a place with an undeserved bad reputation--to Veracruz over the past year, I've yet to encounter trouble beyond a few dishonest cab drivers and contaminated taco dinners.

I regularly flag down green Volkswagen taxis in Mexico City--despite warnings not to--eat street tacos and ride the chicken bus to some of the country's less glamorous pueblos.

Perhaps, I've just been lucky.

08 November 2006

Congress clips president's wings

President Vicente Fox leaves office with a whimper in less than three weeks and now, perhaps in a final act of spite - or pettiness - Congress denied him permission to travel to Australia and Vietnam. (Fox has a daughter living in Australia. The APEC summit goes later this month in Vietnam.) In Mexico, the Congress and Senate must approve all presidential trips - a mere formality in the old days of PRI rule.

"I regret that lawmakers from the PRI refuse to listen to the voice of the people and aren't capable of acting responsibly to resolve local conflicts," he said, jabbing the PRI over the party's ongoing support for embattled Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz, whose resignation would surely help resolve the conflict in the southern state.

With Oaxaca smouldering and last Monday's bombs in Mexico City, an argument could be made that Fox should stay put, although, quite frankly, he's accomplishing little and seems to be just biding his time until Felipe Calderon takes power on Dec. 1. Going abroad wouldn't really change much.

The element of pettiness, though, is tough to ignore. Fox has bickered with Congress repeatedly. Legislators previously deep sixed plans to visit Canada and the United States back in 2002.

06 November 2006

Oft Underestimated Calderon Could Accomplish What Fox Couldn't

Felipe Calderon isn't really the most inspiring figure, but the man shows good political instincts. He also seems to think before speaking - unlike President Vicente Fox. He might actually accomplish a few things in his sexenio - like work constructively with congress. I penned an article on the man and his ascent to power for World Politics Watch. Check it out here.

05 November 2006

U.S. election stirs passions among ex-pats in Ajijic


Photo by Steven H. Miller

El Universal
Domingo 05 de noviembre de 2006

AJIJIC, Jal. - Wanting to cast a vote in the upcoming U.S. midterm races, St. Paul, Minnesota, native Mary Jo Oberg dropped in at a voter-registration drive being held at the Lake Chapala Society (LCS) in Ajijic to fill out an absentee ballot request just three weeks before election day.
She had requested a ballot previously, but it failed to arrive at her La Manzanilla, Jalisco, home in a timely fashion. While filling out the forms in the lush LCS garden, she described the cumbersome process as "not complicated," but "very legal."

Although the voting-abroad process generated a seemingly endless stream of complaints in Ajijic, passions flared when talk turned to the parties on the ballots - more specifically: the direction the United States is heading, the war in Iraq and the U.S. president.

"I´m very interested in the election because I´d like to see some changes in the policies coming out of the U.S.," Oberg said.


Like the 2004 contest, which produced a charged atmosphere in the Lake Chapala area (Lakeside), the 2006 election is also generating immense interest, even though it´s a mid-term election and the campaigning has been less intense.

Last time around, George P. Bush, the U.S. president´s nephew, and Diana Kerry, the sister of Democratic candidate John Kerry, stumped for expatriate votes in Mexico. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza drew criticism after delivering a speech in Lakeside that many Chapala-area Democrats considered partisan. Friendships reportedly dissolved over political differences.


This time around, opinions are split once again - not so much along partisan lines, but instead about U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

"It´s easier to identify the pro-Bush and anti-Bush people," said Clifford Rogers, an independent voter, who resides in Ajijic.

"And the two groups aren´t speaking."

New York state native Phil Pillsworth took that description a step further, saying, "I think you could say it´s war versus anti-war."

Pillsworth, who along with his wife Mary were previously Peace Corps volunteers in Brazil, figured left-leaning voters outnumbered their conservative counterparts in Lakeside.

"There´s a certain kind of person that would live abroad and they tend to be liberal," he explained.

His assessment was echoed by Debra Lattanzi Shutika, an English professor and ethnographer at George Mason University in Virginia, who studies migration between the United States and Mexico.

"In general, the (expatriates) I encounter tend to be more liberal than conservative," she commented, referring to the migration trend for all of Mexico and not specifically Lakeside.


Norm Pifer, chair of Republicans Abroad at Lake Chapala objected to portrayals of conservatives as non-travelers. Supporters of his party, he said, generally keep their political views and affiliations to themselves. After his chapter was founded in 2004, Pifer recalled, "A lot of people discovered they weren´t the only Republicans at Lakeside."

Both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad are well represented at Lakeside. Gauging which party draws more support is difficult to ascertain.

"It´s a real mixed bag," Pifer said, adding that local Democrats tend to be more "vocal" and have been organized for longer. "It´s a small fringe group making all the noise."

An Ajijic resident since 2003, he figured most long-time denizens tilt toward the Democrats or, "Whatever party extends Medicare benefits," while the more recent arrivals have diverse political views.

Even with Republicans arriving in larger numbers than before, fortunes for the party at Lakeside, like those for their counterparts north of the border, may be sagging in the short term - something Pifer acknowledged.

"A lot of people, including Republicans, are leaning away from the Republican Party."

Local Democrats, on the other hand, were decidedly upbeat about their prospects. When asked how things were going, Kathie Coull, chair of the Democrats Abroad at Lake Chapala, responded, "Fantastic."

"I´ve gotten beyond excited to just plain giddy."


To facilitate voting, Democrats Abroad organized a voter registration drive open to all U.S. citizens in the months leading up to the election. Many people, though, waited until the last minute to request ballots - and wound up disappointed.

"We bend over backwards to do whatever we can," said Madelyn Fisher of Democrats Abroad, who helped organize voter registration in Ajijic.

"But there´s only so much we can do."

The ease of voting seemingly depends on the state - or in some cases, the county - involved. Some jurisdictions stopped accepting ballot requests almost a month before voting.

"It´s a very messy and confusing process," said Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, which established a web site that simplified voting for expatriates.

"You have to walk people through it."

Miranda added that his party was actively courting expatriate voters. "We can´t take a single thing for granted," he said.


Despite the presence of approximately 1 million U.S. citizens in Mexico (by some estimates), the Chapala chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad both seemingly arouse little attention within their parent organizations. Local Democrats tried to lure the 2007 Democrats Abroad conference to Lakeside, but lost out to Heidelberg, Germany.

"There are more Democrats Abroad in Europe and they´re working," Kathie Coull explained, adding that unlike most Lakeside Democrats, "They´re not retirees."

Fundraising and membership events are also low key, usually consisting of speeches by local speakers or, in the case of the Democrats, documentary screenings, which, according to Norm Pifer, have included offerings from Michael Moore.

"They recycle that film so many times," he commented.

He said Republican functions at Lakeside "default to the social because we simply can´t afford US$25,000 to bring a speaker down here."

But even with both parties diligently organizing their adherents - Pifer defined his organization´s mandate as "getting Republicans to vote" and not to "change minds" - he said some expatriates simply tune out and stop following U.S. affairs after spending so much time abroad.

"A lot of people here leave the U.S. back at the border."

01 November 2006

Lopez Obrador reappears

Fresh off a stinging defeat in his native Tabasco, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador surfaced in Mexico City yesterday, lending support to an APPO demonstration in Mexico City. (Lopez Obrador will be pronounced, "Legitimate President," of Mexico on Nov. 20.) APPO minimized his role, though. The Herald Mexico reports that Lopez Obrador offered to help lead a march to Los Pinos (the president's residence), but was turned down.

Lopez Obrador, could, according to University of Guadalajara political scientist Javier Hurtado, take advantage of the Oaxaca unrest, using it to delegitimize the incoming regime of Felipe Calderon.

"It's unfortunate that Lopez Obrador is getting involved," he said, adding that with Lopez Obrador on the scene, "The conflict isn't going to be resolved."

The PRD has already called for Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz to resign - like the teachers' union and APPO - and its congressional delegation won't be a party to the mutual "blackmail" being carried out by the PRI and PAN. (The PRD won Oaxaca in the presidential race along with the state's two directly-elected senate seats.)

The politics underpinning the entire Oaxaca situation are downright unseemly. The congress and senate recently passed resolutions urging Ruiz to resign. But will the PRI actually force him out? That's highly doubtful. The PRI has an inglorious track record of closing ranks around losers and all sorts of oily characters - most notably: Failed presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo and Puebla Governor Mario Marin, who tried to railroad journalist Lydia Cacho last fall.

The PAN might not want to act too quickly either. As Hurtado pointed out: "If Ulises Ruiz leaves office, Felipe Calderon won't come to power," adding that an environment of ungovernability worked in Lopez Obrador's favor.

Publico columnist Joaquin Lopez-Doriga V. followed a similar theme in today's paper, writing, "Lopez Obrador isn't organizing this conflict. No, he's taking advantage and putting himself in charge.

"The opportunity is presenting itself for becoming president from the street through the advent of ungovernability."

As for Ruiz, he pledged to continue, even though he's by all accounts unable to govern and is thus often out of the state.

31 October 2006

Tequila Ley .925 sets world record

ley 925 tequila

A bottle of tequila similar to this one, but crafted from pure platinum just set an official world record for being the most expensive bottle of liquor ever sold. It fetched $225,000 last July. A 50-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich single malt Scotch whisky held the previous record. Ley .925, the tequila distiller - it seems the actual tequila is an afterthought here - will auction off a similar bottle studded with diamonds next year for $1 million.

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos
Originally uploaded by David Agren.

Happy Halloween! And no, it's not the same as Dia de los Muertos - even though several years ago a large coffee shop chain substituted Day of the Dead items like catrinas and sugar skulls for traditional Halloween items.

Halloween has seemingly invaded much of Mexico - especially in Wal-Mart stores, which are bursting with Halloween merchandise. But Day of the Dead is still widely observed and it makes up a large part of many local economies - most notably in Michoacan and Oaxaca, although strike violence is impacting celebrations in the latter location.

Traditional markets still operate in most Mexican cities, selling things for building altars, which are adorned with items enjoyed by the deceased.

Most interesting, Dia de los Muertos is finding popularity in Canada and the U.S. A Canadian anthropologist I spoke with last year said it fits with the whole trend towards indulging "New Age" things, which many yuppies have embraced in recent years. Or think of it this way: Halloween is for the kids, while Dia de los Muertos is for their "sophisticated" parents.

EZLN (Zapatistas) jumps into Oaxaca fray

Zapatista March
Originally uploaded by Yolande1.
Pipe-smoking bandit subcomandante Marcos once again leveraged unrest to promote his ailing movement, which has largely fallen out of sight. Speaking in Chihuahua - about as far away from Chiapas as he could get - Marcos said the EZLN would block roads on Nov. 1 in its territories of influence, namely: parts of Chiapas, in order to show support for APPO, a group of fellow travelers agitating in Oaxaca and outside the national Senate in Mexico City.

Marcos has been touring Mexico on a motorcycle since New Year's when he kicked off his "otra campaña." The tour has barely registered with most Mexicans. At his stop in Guadalajara last March, many in the audience spoke of witnessing a "dead movement" that lacked the spark of several years ago. Much of the EZLN's support is garnered from beyond Mexico - and in the pages of La Jornada - where Marcos is a sort of folk hero for the international left.

About the only time Marcos seems to appear in the headlines is whenever violence erupts - or, in one case, refusing to take off his mask when trying to enter a Guanjuato jail. His most notable surfacing was last May after a violence erupted at a flower market in suburban Mexico City. He later said the election winner would be knocked off.

Opponents of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tried to scare the electorate by highlighting Marcos' reappearance as a possible sign of what might happen under a PRD government. Marcos never endorsed Lopez Obrador and branded the PRD a recycling machine for the worst elements of the PRI.

The EZLN movement is seemingly a spent force outside of Chiapas. But try telling that to its sympathizers in other countries, who don't understand that Marcos, for all his supposed sex appeal, unsettles many Mexicans.

29 October 2006

Naturopathy focuses on diet, prevention

Naturopathy focuses on diet, prevention

BY DAVID AGREN/The Herald Mexico
El Universal
September 02, 2006

Martha Herrera- Lasso, 20, used to faint every few months for inex plicable reasons. When she was 12, she consulted her family doctor, who diagnosed her with blood sugar problems. Later, she saw an endocrinologist and gynecologist. They prescribed costly medicines and hormones, but Herrera-Lasso continued feel ing lousy — and fainting at inop portune times.

Two years ago, taking the sug gestion of a friend and figuring she had nothing to lose, she tried some thing different and unconvention al: She visited a naturopath.

“I was pretty open-minded about it,” she recalled. “I had been with a lot of doctors ... but it hadn’t worked out.”

Within a week of following the naturopath’s advice, she noticed major improvements in her energy levels. Her blood sugar levels also seemed to steady. As the months passed, she stopped fainting, her digestion improved and she now leads a normal life as a theater and literature student at the National Autonomous University of Mexi co (UNAM).

Naturopathy, which worked well for Herrera-Lasso, departs from the traditional medical model of prescribing pharmaceuticals and simply treating symptoms.

It instead focuses on prevention, emphasizes nutrition and treats the patient holistically. It’s an increasingly accepted practice in the United States and Canada, but surprisingly, it’s virtually unknown in Mexico, where numerous curanderos and naturalistas ply their crafts and tianguis vendors hawk miracle cures — some of dubious origins — for virtually every malady known.

“The naturopath studies the most perfect laboratory in the world, which is the human body,” said Bob Worthington, a naturo pathic doctor in Mexico City. “It’s basically getting back to nature.”

Worthington practices in a quiet home office in the leafy Colonia del Valle neighborhood, although he also sees clients during trips back to Riverside, Calif., where he resided prior to moving south in 2003, and El Salvador, his mother’s homeland.


He mostly treats family members and friends along with people referred to him. In some ways, he’s a pioneer; the number of naturopaths working in Mexico is difficult to ascertain, but Worthington figured the number was extremely small.

Those who do practice in Mexico do so with few of the tools that their counterparts in Canada and the United States rely on. Quality nutritional supplements are generally in short supply; regulatory officials often prevent the impor tation of many vitamins and herbs. Many of the domestically-produced supplements inspire little confidence and Worthington said certain forms of many vitamins are classified as pharmaceuticals.

“Mexico tends to be very strict on their availability of natural sup plements,” he said, adding that product exaggerations are fairly common.

“In the United States, you can’t say anything about herbs that help. Here, the claims are just wild.”
Worthington keeps claims of naturopathy’s virtues to a minimum — even though he’s personally experienced impressive re sults. (He finally brought his own weight problem under control by figuring out the ideal diet and addressing the underlying problems.) He also said he would seek out a regular medical doctor in many situations.

“If I get run over by a truck, please don’t bring me an herb,” he said, laughingly. “Allopathic medicine is fantastic when it comes to trauma.”

Naturopathy has its critics, though, who charge that science and studies to back up claims are generally lacking. Mainstream medical doctors have been attacking naturopathy for decades — often branding practitioners as quacks. Some naturopaths use unconventional treatments like cleanses — traditional doctors say the body is self-cleansing and doesn’t really need an assist — and heavy doses of nutritional supplements.

Naturopathic education also varies. Some naturopathic medical schools offer curriculum similar to conventional medical schools, but teach more classes in nutrition and botanical medicine. (Medical students in some universities graduate without taking even a single nutrition course.)Graduates of these naturopathic medical schools — there are six in the United States and Canada — form professional associations and are licensed in certain jurisdictions. They are often allowed to prescribe some pharmaceuticals and perform minor surgeries.

Other schools, like the one Bob Worthington graduated from, also provide comprehensive programs, but don’t mirror normal medical education and teach a variety of disciplines, including herbalism and homeopathy.


Despite the naysayers, many people disenchanted with mainstream medicine seek out a naturopathic approach and find it can sometimes work wonders — even in Mexico, where supplements are lacking.

Worthington makes up for a lack of tools by taking a different approach, but conceded it was difficult practicing upon his arrival in Mexico City.

“I was kind of traumatized,” he said.

He now depends on a limited range of available supplements and dispenses nutritional advice — primarily, what foods should be avoided. Additionally, Worthing ton uses applied kinesiology (also known as muscle testing) to assess what his patients lack and should stay away from. The practice, which is scorned by critics as junk science, has fallen out of favor in some naturopathic circles.


Worthington, who worked as an electrical engineer in the power industry before switching careers, acknowledged the skepticism, saying, “(Applied kinesiology) is sort of like witchcraft to traditional medicine.”

Results, however, prompted Worthington to use applied kinesiology, even though he found it somewhat tricky to learn and fully understand. (Several underlying factors, which unskilled practitioners sometimes ignore, can skew results.)

He explained applied kinesiology this way, “(By) using a muscle of the body, (you can) determine what is beneficial and what is not. What is giving it energy and what takes away energy.”

Worthington often uncovers food intolerances — which aren’t food allergies — through applied kinesiology. He said many of his clients have problems after eating dietary staples like wheat, dairy, corn, soy and sugar. Other supposedly-healthy foods can also be troublesome. Carrots caused digestive distress for one client.

After using applied kinesiology on Herrera-Lasso, Worthington discovered that wheat, milk and sugar triggered unpleasant symptoms. He banished all three offending foods from her diet. He also recommended two dietary supplements: magnesium and digestive enzymes. Herrera-Lasso followed the ad vice — even though “it was really hard” — and discovered many pleasant surprises as a result.

“I lost a lot of weight ... in a good way and my energy levels were high,” she recalled. “I stopped fainting and started feeling really well.”

Herrera-Lasso still avoids wheat, dairy and sugar and said eating a bowl of cereal in the morning pretty much ruins the rest of her day. She occasionally indulges a piece of birthday cake, though. The results are fairly predictable.

“I sometimes do eat (a forbidden food) ... but I feel really bad af terwards,” she explained. “My body just rejects it so it’s really not worth it.”


Herrera-Lasso still drops by Worthington’s office for consultations, mainly to deal with emotional issues, which she said can trigger problems if left unresolved. Worthington uses applied kinesiology and a form of emotional acupuncture to assess and treat his clients. He considers addressing emotion al health issues as important as treating the physical ones.

“Although you can do wonderful things with nutrition and diet, there comes a point where people get better, but it doesn’t quite seem to be enough,” he said. “The emotional side is very important.”

Due to Herrera-Lasso’s success with a naturopathic approach, many of her friends and family members now use Worthington’s services. Her improved health has also taken a load off of their minds, she said.

“It’s good because I have control now and that makes everyone feel safer.”

28 October 2006

Oaxaca erupts

President Vicente Fox, a man anxious to avoid conflict, finally sent federal police officers and the army into seemingly lawless Oaxaca, site of a months-long teachers' strike, civil unrest and most recently, scene of an American journalist's murder.

The unrest started back in May when the teachers stages their annual walkout - something they've done for more than 20 consecutive years - after demanding a salary increase. The state government balked and violence later erupted. The teachers then demanded governor Ulises Ruiz's head. A left-leaning group dubbed APPO joined in.

Their protests effectively killed the local tourist trade - especially after they sabotaged the main stage of the Galaguetza, one of the state's premier cultural festivals. Highways into the state were at times blocked. Hotels in the state capital report receiving few guests. The U.S. and Canadian governments advised their citizens to stay away.

Who's to blame? The teachers and APPO say the governor, a product of the state's old-school PRI machine, who won an election marred by accusations of fraud in 2004 and who allegedly employs thug tactics. In an egregious attack on the press, a sindicato (union) sypathetic to the governor shut down an opposition newspaper last year - without the concent of the employees the sindicato supposedly represented.

A friend in Oaxaca city blamed both sides. Newspaper reporters in the state say many people prefer not to openly criticize either side. The teachers recently voted to return to classes - although not overwhelmingly - but insist they'll continue their struggle. (Even though they've been off the job, they reportedly have drawn paycheques the entire time.)

Much of the violence has been in the state capital. My landlady's son, who lives near Huatulco, has been teaching Grade 3 and 4 students on an ejido in exchange for food and 300 pesos a week until the union settles its strike. He reported calm conditions along the coast.

Ruiz's resignation or removal from office would obviously help resolve the situation. The PRI, however, has closed ranks behind the governor. The PAN is hesitant to oust an elected official, knowing the reality of the tenuous victory it obtained in the July presidential vote. More importantly for PAN, it needs the PRI to advance Felipe Calderon's legislative agenda in the federal Congress and Senate. University of Guadalajara political science professor Marco Antonio Cortes opined that the two sides would engage in a sort of "blackmail" - the PAN would save Ruiz, while the PRI cooperated on other issues. The PRI, having been humiliated on July 2, can't afford another defeat.

Meanwhile, independent American journalist and activist Brad Will was shot dead. Witnesses say plainclothed police officers were responsible, according to several reports. A journalist from Grupo Milenio was also shot in the foot.

How will this situation end? Stay tuned.

(Photos available at Mark in Mexico's blog.)

More: Grupo Reforma columnist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa asks in today's column, "How many deaths is Ulises [Ruiz] worth?"

"Ruiz is the beneficiary of a paradox. No one supports him, but no one wants to throw him out."

25 October 2006

The Fox legacy: avoiding conflict

If this narrative seems old, it is. President Vicente Fox cancelled the annual Nov. 20 sports parade due to the potential for conflict with backers of election runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will be coronated "legitimate president of Mexico" on the same day. The cancellation follows Fox fleeing the capital for Dolores Hidalgo back in September, when a potential confrontation with protesters in the Zocalo hastened his departure.

The decision is puzzling and once again shows Fox's dreadful political instincts. Lopez Obrador's PRD just lost the gubernatorial race in Tabasco - Lopez Obraodor's home state. The party's governors recently pledged to recognize Calderon as president - not Lopez Obrador. Lopez Obrador squandered much of his political capital - at least in the short term - with his boisterous attacks on the country's institutions and six-week shutdown of central Mexico City. And now Fox, instead of taking advantage, holes himself up in Los Pinos and cedes the public square once again to Lopez Obrador, quickening a weakened movement.

Fox vacates Los Pinos in less than six weeks and despite assertions to the contrary, he'll leave a festering conflict in Oaxaca and Lopez Obrador's antics for Felipe Calderon to deal with. The president's refusal to address pressing issues in Mexico will, no doubt, go down as his real legacy.

17 October 2006

PRD alleges fraud in Tabasco

Barely 100 days after the PRD, led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, narrowly lost the federal election, the left-leaning party fell well short of victory in last Sunday's gubernatorial race in Tabasco, Lopez Obrador's home state. In a swift reversal of fortune, PRD support dropped by 34 percent, or 165,000 votes, despite the best efforts of Lopez Obrador, who campaigned recently in the small, but oil-rich state.

Lopez Obrador, who lost a scandalous 1994 gubernatorial race in Tabasco, is receiving much of the blame as critics, both in the PRD and outside of the party, castigate his post-election protesting and assailing of Mexico's electoral institutions. Analysts are largely accusing Lopez Obrador of inadvertently tarnishing his party's image - Tabasco being the first example of that - and putting his own interests ahead of the PRD's in an effort to prove fraud in the federal race.

Sergio Sarmiento somewhat harshly wrote in today's Mural (Guadalajara), "In a short time, Lopez Obrador has revived the viloent image of the PRD as a party that demonizes institutions and uses roadblocks as a weapon of political pressure."

Other were more charitable. An article in The Herald Mexico pointed out the PRD ran an unpopular candidate, who had lost two previous gubernatorial races. (The 2000 election results were annulled, but the PRI won again in a re-vote.)

The PRI, which brought a sordid past in Tabasco politics, won the race, although unseemly allegations of vote-buying and harassment surfaced. While encouraging and a boost for the troubled party, it only proves the PRI can win on the state level and hardly signals a national revival.

14 October 2006

Jalisco school teaches sustainability

Case tractor

I recent visited the ACA center near Jocotepec, where two Canadians and a Mexican assistant teach local farmers organic farming techniques. They also sell the best mixed greens on either side of the border for just 20 pesos a bag at an on-site market called GG's. Check out the article I wrote on the center from the Oct. 14 edition of The Herald Mexico.

13 October 2006

AMLO in tough at home

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has seemingly dropped out of sight since being declared the "legitimate president of Mexico" on Sept. 16 while his election opponent - and the official winner of the race - Felipe Calderon basks in the media spotlight.

This Sunday's Tabasco gubernatorial election could change that - should the PRD win - or hasten Lopez Obrador's descent into obscurity and irrelevence. Polls and analysts are suggesting the latter should happen, although the race is close. A telling Grupo Reforma poll last week said most PRI voters would back their party's gubernatorial candidate, who also would receive enough support from dissatisfied Lopez Obrador voters to possibly pull out the win. As for the PAN, the party claimed a paltry three percent of votes on July 2 and shouldn't be a factor.

But even if the PRD pulls out a win in Tabasco, Lopez Obrador gains little. As in Chiapas - a state the PRD barely won recently - some of the PRD leadership recognizes Felipe Calderon as President-elect. This, more than any tactical blunders after July 2 on Lopez Obrador's part, sabotages his bid to lead an alternate government, or more accurately, an effective protest movement. The PRD is more than Lopez Obrador, whose aspirations and behavior are damaging the party more than any PAN attack ad ever could.


Thirteen PRD supporters were arrested for supposedly planning to sabotage Sunday's election. The PRI currently governs the oil-rich state, which has a long and calamitous history of holding not-so-fair elections, so detaining perredistas on the eve of the vote obviously looks suspicious. Sadly for the PRD, though, the party now has a reputation of not abiding by election results and being democratic only when it suits it best. Thus, when it cries foul - and perhaps quite justly in this situation - the public will imply ignore them.

10 October 2006

What's with high tomato prices?

Photo by Steven H. Miller, taken in Tepatitlan de Morelos, Jalisco

A kilogram of tomatoes at my local Gigante supermarket in Guadalajara now sells for 40 pesos. I took a pass.

The price of the normally-cheap Mexican dietary staple jumped recently due to hurricane Lane, which last month battered Sinaloa, a major tomato-producing state. (Sinaloa adorns its license plates with a tomato and the Culiacan baseball team is called the Tomateros, or tomato growers).

And as an unexpected consequence of the high price, Mexico's inflation rate also soared, passing the four-percent plateau. Low inflation - it dipped below three percent for the first time ever during the winter - had been one of the Fox administrations biggest accomplishments, but that could now be jeopardized.

Tomatoes comprise a major part of Mexico's consumer price index. And according to a Los Angeles Times article, "[N]o dietary staple can gyrate a nation's consumer price index like Mexico's tomatoes."

The index's spike won't resolve itself until after several more harvests. In the meantime, expect to see fewer tomato-based dishes and fresh salsas on the nation's menus.

09 October 2006

Soy Rebelde!

The show ceased production and exited the Televisa airwaves earlier this spring, but Rebelde, the popular and over-the-top teen telenovela lives on in other markets and the show's spinoff band, RBD, which is presently recording an English-language album, keeps churning out one sappy track after another. (Actually, the group made headlines this weekend when one of the male members, Christian, insisted he wasn't gay and a female member, Anahi, said she wasn't anorexic.)

I mention all this because traffic to a posting about Rebelde on my blog exploded recently and most of the hits are coming from South America - most notably Brazil and Peru - along with Romania. Many visitors have left comments in Portugese.

My only brush with Rebelde, other than hearing RBD songs on the radio, came from writing an article for a Calgary alt. weekly - and posting it to my blog - about how the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Alberta teamed up to bring the show to the Canadian Rockies for a week of episodes last year. Based on the show's demographics - lot of fresa kids watched it - and the positive feelings towards Canada held by many young Mexicans, the deal apparently made sense.

Here's what I wrote ... it's amusing, which is about the best way to describe Rebelde - the uniforms, characters, social dynamics, curious storylines, etc. - and RBD.

07 October 2006

Chivas for sale?

The saga of Jorge Vergara, the multi-level marketing kingpin-turned movie producer and soccer club owner, churned out an endless stream of stories last week, ranging from the possible of sale of Club Deportiva Guadalajara to a massive unpaid water bill.

Vergara bought Chivas, a wildly-popular, but badly-underperforming team, from a group of shareholders back in 2002. Not all the shareholders sold out, and now one is going after Vergara in a lawsuit, which could alter the club's ownership structure. Vergara took out full-page ads recently to state that Chivas is not for sale.

The team's training facility and athletic club in Guadalajara's Providencia neighborhood apparently is though. But in order to sell it, Vergara must deal with a five-million-peso water bill issued by SIAPA, Guadalajara's water utility.

Also going unfulfilled, Chivas' grandiose new stadium in suburban Zapopan. So far, not much has been accomplished, even though Vergara pledged back in 2002 to have the stadium completed by 2006, Chivas' 100th anniversary. The team is still selling private boxes, although according to Mural, if the stadium is not completed by the end of 2007, the money must be returned along with 25-percent interest. Another story said permits obtained from the municipality of Zapopan have lapsed.

Vergara's presence always seems to loom larger than his team - and Omnilife, his supplements empire. (The company expanded into Russia last year and just last month opened a massive new facility in suburban Guadalajara.) This saga should drag out for a while longer.

05 October 2006

When media members become the news

My good buddy Sean Mattson, the San Antonio Express-News' correspondent in Monterrey, describes the joy having his photo published in a local paper and how one reporter, who identified Sean as "Shan Kan," viewed the only foreigner in attendance at a press conference with the governor of Nuevo Leon as a possible security problem.

04 October 2006

PRI legislators to play ball

After six years of intransigence and a humbling by the Mexican electorate, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) finally agreed to play ball with a National Action Party (PAN) president. The PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years, responded positively to the prospect of passing parts of president-elect Felipe Calderon's agenda.

PRI stonewalling during President Vicenete Fox's administration parked Mexico in a sort of political purgatory. Fox, being a somewhat weak politician, couldn't play hardball and the PRI, led by Roberto Madrazo, expected stalling would pay dividends and eventually return the presidency to the PRI. The PRI antics hurt Fox, but ultimately failed - the party didn't capture a single state in the presidential race and is now the third-place force in both congress and the senate. (Madrazo, of course, shoulders much of the blame for the PRI's demise.)

Calderon, an often-underestimated man, will no doubt capitalize on the PRI's weakened state - and possibly marginalize the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and its allies. (He's already usurping parts of the PRD's platform.) The public's appetite for progress should also force the PRI hand.

The PRI lacks a strong ideology, meaning it will shift where needed - even if it's toward's Calderon. Survival will be its inner guide. If the party behaves as before, it could accelerate its descent into irrelevance.

03 October 2006

Traffickers to cash in on border wall


The 700-mile border wall the U.S. government proposes building will undoubtably make slipping into the United States more difficult, but shouldn't deter many would-be migrants from decamping rural Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Politics and hurt feelings aside – the Mexican government likens the barrier to the Berlin Wall and considers the construction plans unneighborly – the biggest beneficiary will probably be polleros (traffickers), whose business of smuggling migrants should become a whole lot more lucrative.

In an insightful column in today's Publico (Guadalajara), editor Luis Miguel Gonzalez laid out the polleros' economics. According to a 1993 study, one of every six undocumented migrants hired a pollero. By 2004, the figure jumped to two out of every five. The value of the human-smuggling business is estimated to be worth $5 billion annually.

The smugglers have elaborate networks on both sides of the border and charge fees based on where the migrants want to go and the route being used.

Gonzalez wrote, “The fees vary according to the services. In Baja California, a false passport is obtained for $700 and they charge $700 for jumping the fence.

“Times will be very good for traffickers. ... Money won't be lacking because it's a business nurtured by dreams and crisis.”

02 October 2006

Fox as president - and public speaker

Although his term doesn't expire until Dec. 1, President Vicente Fox and his wife Marta Sahagun, who critics sarcastically contend probably wields as much influence as her husband, have now started promoting themselves as public speakers on the lucrative ex-world-leaders' speaking circuit. Their profiles already appear on the Henry Walker Agency (HMA) Web site.

No fees for the pair's services were given, but in glowing profiles, HMA describes Fox as "a charismatic reformer," who went from "deliveryman to CEO of Coca-Cola" and "succeeded in controlling inflation and interest rates, and in achieving the lowest unemployment rate in all of Latin America."

Keeping with a focus on the president's business background, it somewhat curiously states, "Under Fox, Coca-Cola surpassed Pepsi as Mexico's top-selling soft drink." (Pepsi once outsold Coke in Mexico?)

Coca-Cola has always sold well in Mexico and despite a rash of upstarts - most notably Big Cola - it's still selling very well. (The average Mexican guzzles 148.1 liters of cola each year; Coca-Cola currently owns 60 percent of the market.) As for topics, Fox is available to speak on "Surveying the Geo-Political Landscape" and "Bringing the New Economy to Latin America." The Web site summarizes the latter speech as:

In this address, President Fox discusses his businesses-centered approach to the development of Mexico, the future of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the opportunities available for international corporations in the region. A critic of the populist movements sweeping Central and South America, President Fox offers an alternative that should be heard by everyone concerned with the future of the hemisphere.

Sahagun, whose profile reads, "(She) has dedicated her life to public service and to fostering social investment and responsibility," will speak on "Social Responsibility in the 21st Century." It made no mention of her sons and their supposed business skills. Once again, the First Lady cashes in on her proximity to power.

Fox should find this new role a natural; even critics acknowledge he's a brilliant speaker and campaigner - even if his political skills are lacking. Some what ironically, President-elect Felipe Calderon said in today's Milenio that he's looking for cabinet members possessing political skills. That would certainly omit Fox - if he were looking for a post.