30 December 2007

Following explosion, fireworks town safer, but less-visited

Hugo Dominguez

David Agren
The News

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

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

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

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

“I knew right away,” he said.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They steal their merchandise or demand a bribe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 December 2007

Felipe Calderón gets his man

Felipe Calderon campaigning

By David Agren
The News

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 December 2007

Guerrero inches toward the brink

Bells in Playa Ventura/Campanas en Playa Ventura

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

David Agren
The News

Once again, trouble is brewing in Guerrero.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"The teachers have a lot influence."

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

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

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

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

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

14 December 2007

Across Mexico, water bills go unpaid


By David Agren
The News

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

11 December 2007

12 de diciembre

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

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

Pilgrims descend on the capital to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe

David Agren
The News

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

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

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

"Thankfully, the virgin intervened."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 December 2007

The Real Deal (My account of the Lucha Libre)

Lucha Libre at the Guadalajara International Bookfair

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

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

30 November 2007

Viva The News

The News, Mexico's English-language daily, on sale at the Jardin in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

The News

17 November 2007

'Bridge between politics, culture' faces uncertain future

David Agren
The News

The National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, selected a new rector last Tuesday. But given the media coverage of the secretive selection process, one could be forgiven for thinking the country had elected a new president.

Or as some observers perhaps more aptly put it, named a new Pope.

José Narro Robles, former dean of the UNAM medical school, officially takes over as the university’s rector on Nov. 20.

Unofficially, he assumes a much larger role in Mexico’s cultural and political life as the leader of the country’s pre-eminent institution of higher education, which has been described by outgoing rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente as the “grand social project of the Mexican nation.”

“Rectors have always had an important role, like that of a [cabinet] minister without legal recognition, someone [whose position] had enormous weight,” said UNAM professor Imanol Ordorika, who studies higher education institutions and co-authored a book on UNAM’s internal politics.

“The rector has an enormous influence in the national political scene.”

That influence stems from the stature and size of UNAM, which educates nearly 300,000 students per year, carries out roughly half of the nation’s scientific research and has produced graduates who went on to become presidents to Nobel Prize winners to billionaire businessmen – former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, writer Octavio Paz and impresario Carlos Slim Helú, to name three.

Its sprawling Ciudad Universitaria campus in southern Mexico City recently attained status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the school’s professional soccer team, Pumas, has a long history of success and a large and loyal following.

UNAM also defines and dominates much of the nation’s intellectual scene and is affiliated with La Jornada, a left-leaning daily newspaper. As UNAM sociology professor Roger Bartra Muria put it, “[UNAM] is the principle bridge between politics and culture.”

Outsiders agree about UNAM's role. The university is a “very important, very influential institution,” said Carlos Briseno Torres, rector of the University of Guadalajara, the nation's second largest public university.

The school has always held a proud place as a public institution providing generations of Mexicans from all social classes with a secular and free education.

But UNAM’s sway has diminished somewhat with the advent of private universities. Private schools now educate approximately 40 percent of the nation’s university students, a 400 percent jump over the past three decades, according to Ordorika, who added that the federal government hasn’t invested in expanding access to public higher education over that time.

Although widely regarded for its profession programs, some UNAM humanities and social sciences graduates entering the job market report having their credentials belittled by private sector employers.

Thus, one of Narro’s biggest challenges will be maintaining the national university’s stature as Mexico’s educational and political landscape continues to shift. And already, the new rector has pledged during his candidacy to uphold the tenets of secularism and free access, which perhaps give the national university its greatest fame.

“The big challenge is to put [UNAM] in tune with the needs of Mexico and the challenges of the future,” the new rector said on Thursday.

Many UNAM professors have already expressed approval for Narro’s approach.

“For the population that doesn’t have easy access to education, the university resolves that problem,” said Rafael López González, an UNAM professor and coauthor of a book on the university’s political history.

“It’s a fundamental institution for higher education in Mexico.”

UNAM students only make a voluntary payment of 20 cents towards the cost of their studies. According to political science student Lucía Alvarado, “When you pay, you get a stamped receipt that costs more than the actual fee.”

Alvarado opted for studying at UNAM instead of an expensive private university costing 7,000 pesos per month, explaining, “UNAM is a better school in terms of research, freedom of thinking and the humanities.”

She also liked UNAM’s approach of admitting students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

"There are all types of people ... including the children of important political figures studying here," she said.

"We're all equal friends here ... in the [private schools], there are so many cliques."

Many of Alvarado’s classmates lacked her educational options, though.

Adrián Paredes, also a political science student, said he enrolled in UNAM for “the quality of its programs,” but more importantly, “It’s accessible.”

He noted, however, that the lack of resources generated by a tuition fee creates challenges for UNAM. The school only accepts about one-third of all applicants on an annual basis. It also urgently needs to upgrade aging classrooms and fading athletic facilities, Paredes added.

University administrators proposed a tuition fee in 1999 as a means of funding infrastructure improvements, but the plan sparked a backlash that shut down the school for nine months.

Outgoing rector De la Fuente assumed UNAM’s top job in the midst of the student strike. But during his eight-year tenure the school regained some of the stature it lost during the shutdown. It climbed into the ranks of the top 100 universities in the world on a prestigious survey of higher education institutions and undertook ambitious research projects, including developing the most powerful supercomputer in Latin America.

In spite of the fact he's inheriting a top university, Narro will face challenges as the new rector. Already, he has faced criticism, albeit indirectly.

Some faculty members, observers and protesting students – who burned down the doors to the rectory building on Thursday night – objected to the perpetuation of a management style they described as secretive and not fitting with the country becoming more open and democratic. They also took exception with the 15-member UNAM Board of Regents’ less-than-transparent method of choosing De la Fuente’s successor.

Ordorika compared the selection process to that of the Vatican.

“It’s like a conclave of cardinals, where the cardinals – in this case, 15 cardinals – meet behind closed doors and decide who is going to be rector,” he said.

Narro’s ascent into the rector’s office was greeted on Wednesday with newspaper headlines and commentaries inferring that De la Fuente was instrumental in naming his successor – a charge the outgoing rector and board members deny. But Ordorika noted that 13 of the 15 current board members were appointed during De la Fuente’s tenure by the UNAM University Council.

Additionally, “The proposals made by the rector are always approved,” Ordorika explained.

The list of eight aspirants vying for the rector’s position also drew scorn from some UNAM faculty members, who were hoping for candidates who would usher in a new era of leadership, untainted by previous political connections.

Bartra, the UNAM sociologist, said, “Many of the candidates are actually old PRIistas.”

He noted that all but one of the candidates either had deep roots in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, or have recently switched to the governing National Action Party, or PAN.
Only candidate Rosaura Ruiz Gutiérrez, who rose through the ranks of the faculty unions and student movements, lacked such a background. (Narro previously headed the IMSS during the administration of former president Ernesto Zedillo.)

Still, with a PAN president in Los Pinos, Bartra sees opportunity for UNAM and Narro.

Previous PRI presidents would often meddle in the rector selection process and by proxy, the UNAM agenda, according to Bartra.

But with the PAN – a party whose senior officials mostly attended private universities – now occupying presidency, he ironically saw an opportunity for UNAM to part with the remnants of the old PRI system.

“I believe this is a good thing,” he said.

“It implies more autonomy. A real autonomy.”

And with increased autonomy for the university – which President Felipe Calderón has promised to respect – Bartra expressed cautious optimism about the future of UNAM.

“It seems that now UNAM is in a new stage that hasn’t ever been explored,” he said.

“It’s something fascinating to witness.”

14 November 2007

Small farmers use courts, not machetes, to block dam project

By David Agren
The News

It’s a public works project of the grandest scale.

La Parota, a massive hydroelectric development 28 kilometers northeast of Acapulco, is projected to produce at least 765 megawatts of power, enough to light up the entire state of Guerrero for an entire year.

Its curtain is to tower 162 meters over the Papagayo River and its reservoir will flood more than 17,000 hectares, an area 10 times the size of the Bay of Acapulco.

The dam is also supposed to create 10,000 construction jobs, ensure a steady supply of drinking water for rapidly growing Acapulco and increase economic development in a marginalized region populated by subsistence farmers.

For the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), La Parota is a crown jewel in a string of high-profile projects meant to produce clean energy and help power the ambitious economic growth plans envisaged by the federal government.

There’s just one problem: The dam is expected to displace hundreds of small farms, many of which are organized as ejidos, the communal properties distributed to landless campesinos following the Mexican Revolution. And the farmers, or ejiditarios, don’t want to leave.

In the past dozen years, machete-wielding ejiditarios have derailed several high-profile development projects, including a $300-million golf course development in Tepotzlán, Morelos and a new airport for Mexico City in Atenco, State of Mexico.

But in the case of La Parota, a group of residents from the village of Cacahuatepec have opted for law books rather than machetes.

And in a story evoking the tale of David versus Goliath, the farmers took CFE to court and won an injunction in September against the dam, successfully arguing that the Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) and the National Water Commission (CNA) improperly granted permits for the project.

On Nov. 7, however, federal Judge Livia Lizbeth Larumbe Radilla reversed her decision, ruling that the laws permitting the dam’s construction would not directly deprive the complainants’ access to their land and water.

The villagers and their lawyers plan to appeal.

“We’re now in the second round of the game,” said Xavier Martínez, an environment lawyer with the civil rights firm that argued the landholders’ case.

Still, he called the judge’s original decision to halt construction “unprecedented,” and said the dam was not being impeded by the courts, “but a social movement.”

The CFE is not likely to walk away from the $800-million dam project - despite the legal roadblocks. Its crews have not yet returned to the La Parota site, according to Martínez.

Even so, say experts, the precedent set by the villagers of Cacahuatepec could complicate future large-scale infrastructure projects that require relocating established communities.

“Previously, the state would throw all of its weight behind the construction of these types of projects and nothing could be done about it,” said Arturo Pueblita Fernández, a law professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

“Now there’s more openness and an attempt to avoid social conflicts. Therefore, it could be the case that construction on this project might never happen.”

The ongoing legal complications surrounding La Parota – and conceivably at other locations in the future – could complicate the economic growth objectives of President Felipe Calderón, who in September won congressional approval for a fiscal reform overhaul that was designed, in large part, to help overhaul the country’s sagging infrastructure.

Three decades in the works

The CFE first proposed building La Parota in 1976 on the Papagayo River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean southeast of Acapulco on the Costa Chica, a thinly populated and underdeveloped region known for its Afro-Mexican inhabitants.

The rugged hills of Guerrero, home to some of the nation’s poorest communities, have spawned numerous armed uprisings against the federal government. Its populace includes the People’s Revolutionary Army, or EPR, a long-standing Marxist guerilla group that has made recent headlines with a series of attacks on Pemex gas pipelines. According to lawyers working in the region, it is instinctive for Guerrero’s marginalized populations to fight back when encroached upon by outsiders.

The La Parota project, however, received little attention until CFE construction crews arrived unannounced in 2003. Then, a local movement to fight the dam was formed almost immediately.

Mario Patrón, a lawyer with the Guerrero-based Centro Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, worked with some of the residents fighting the dam. He said the locals’ determination to stay put grew even stronger as they learned of the impact of previous public works projects, including hydroelectric developments in Nayarit and the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, which displaced thousands after opening in 1989.

“At La Parota, an opposition movement was generated because … they’ve known that hydroelectric projects don’t bring development for those that get relocated,” Patrón explained.

“The campesinos said that they didn’t want to be kicked off their land and leave for [Acapulco] where they would be working in some bad-paying menial job.”

Despite a clause in the Constitution requiring compensation for land expropriations, the CFE has never made “a firm offer” to any of the impacted landholders, he added.

CFE spokesman Gerardo Cubos declined to comment on La Parota, citing the ongoing legal actions.

However, in comments published by the Mexico City daily El Universal shortly after construction was halted in September, CFE manager Gerardo Cruz Velázquez acknowledged to a business audience in Acapulco that the CFE fell short in pitching La Parota-area residents on the virtues of relocating.

He also accused international rights groups protesting against La Parota of being naïve to the situation in Guerrero and the dam’s potential benefits.

“It doesn’t interest them that people [here] eat nothing more than a tortilla with chilies once a day and they have to carry water jugs on their heads from the river to their homes,” Cruz Velázquez said.

International attention

Two United Nations representatives visited the impacted area in early September and expressed dissatisfaction with the CFE’s attention to transparency and human rights.

A recent Amnesty International study also expressed concerns. According to its August 2007 report, intimidation has been rife in the area and three people have been killed. In one of the killings, an opponent of the dam, Eduardo Maya Manrique, was dragged from his home by three unidentified men and stoned to death in January 2006, according to the report. No one has been charged in the matter.

The report also questioned the true number of people the dam would impact.

According to the CFE, approximately 3,000 people would have to be relocated, but Patrón put the figure at closer to 75,000, explaining that the CFE failed to account for residents indirectly impacted by the dam and its reservoir.

Even properties not submerged could be negatively impacted, he added. Two settlements, for example, would become islands. In other places, ground water would become scarce. The Papagayo River would also be permanently impacted.

The CFE’s website provides little information about the dam, its potential impact and prospects for future completion, although it boasted of other large ongoing and recently completed projects on the Santiago River in the western state of Nayarit.

Regardless of whether La Parota is ever completed, the ongoing judicial action in Guerrero is likely to have a significant impact on future public works projects undertaken by the federal government, said Martínez, the environmental lawyer involved in the farmers’ case.

“They just can't keep on building projects like the way they were,” he said.

SIDEBAR: When machetes beat back development
The News

Atenco, 2002:

In July 2002, local farmers in San Salvador Atenco, backed by left-wing, anarchist and anti-globalization groups, fought with police for three days over a government plan to build a $2.3-billion airport in their town.

The airport would have taken over approximately 10,000 acres of land in 13 villages in the municipality outside Mexico City. In exchange, the farmers were to be paid $3,000 per acre as compensation, but the locals rejected the offer and took to the streets with machetes in hand.

Dozens of people were injured in the ensuing clashes. Nineteen public officials were taken hostage and later exchanged for imprisoned farmers in an act that critics said rewarded violence.

The government later raised its compensation offer to an amount reportedly seven-times the initial bid, but the farmers rejected it.

Finally, two weeks into the showdown, Transportation Secretary Pedro Cerisola announced the government was abandoning plans to build the airport in Atenco.

Tepoztlán, Morelos, 1995:

Golf Course Inflames Mexico Town
The News, with files from The New York Times News Service

A coalition of campesinos, small-business owners and environmentalists in this town south of Mexico City reacted violently in August 1995 after the municipal government approved a golf course development and industrial park in an ecologically sensitive area.

After 12 days of unrest – during which time the protesters beat back riot police with rocks and barbed wire, seized hostages and occupied city hall – the mayor backed down and promptly resigned.

Some Tepoztlán residents had accused Mayor Alejandro Morales Barragan of rubber-stamping the development project behind their backs.

Opposition to the projects drew together an unusual alliance of affluent people, who wanted to preserve the town's character, and villagers suspicious of the promises of foreign corporations.

Tepoztlán has become a favorite weekend retreat of Mexico City's wealthy elite. But many of its 13,000 residents still cling to the village's peasant traditions.

Development backers balked at suggestions their plans would have ruined the town, explaining that the project would have created more than 9,000 construction-related jobs and nearly 3,000 permanent service jobs. The land, they added, was indeed located inside of a national park, but was privately-owned. Environmental impact studies had also been completed.

28 October 2007

Mexico City museum honors Bolshevik revolutionary

Mural en Coyoacan

David Agren
Special to the Express-News

MEXICO CITY — Sixty-seven years ago in Mexico City, a Stalinist assassin plunged a pickax into Leon Trotsky's skull. The Bolshevik revolutionary died in exile from the Soviet Union.

During the latter part of his three-year stay in Mexico, Trotsky lived with his wife, grandson and a team of security guards in a small compound surrounded by high walls in Coyoacán, a bourgeoisie neighborhood in the southern part of the Federal District.

Nowadays, Esteban Volkov Bronstein, Trotsky's grandson, helps run a museum in the former abode, which attracts an eclectic mix of curious tourists — usually in the area to visit the nearby Casa Azul, artist Frida Kahlo's longtime residence — and idealistic lefties, who pay their respects on the anniversary of the attack by laying flowers at the hammer and sickle-adorned mausoleum in the garden.

Alberto Fonseca, a philosophy professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, has visited the Trotsky Museum on Aug. 20 — the day Trotsky was assassinated — for 12 consecutive years, delivering a speech that highlights the aspirations of modern-day revolutionaries such as Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Fidel Castro, to a small group of communists sporting Marx and Lenin pins, and leading an off-key rendition of the Internationale, the communist anthem.

Although Trotsky lacks the present-day stature of Ernesto "Che" Guevara — who Fonseca described as a "sexier" icon — the Ukrainian-born revolutionary has enjoyed a modest surge in popularity in recent years.
More than 24,000 visitors passed through his museum in 2004, taking in its tranquil garden, shaded by tall trees and dotted with cacti; modest study stocked with revolutionary tomes; three guard towers; and the chicken coops and rabbit cages, which housed the animals Trotsky lovingly tended to. The reappearance of the infamous murder weapon in 2005 captured worldwide headlines. (A secret police commander apparently lifted it from the evidence room and his daughter wanted to sell it. The museum, however, refused to pay.)

The hit 2002 movie "Frida" portrayed moments from Trotsky's Mexican sojourn, including his supposed affair with the film's namesake — an event Volkov doubts. He explained that the guards, who accompanied his grandfather around the clock, said it couldn't have occurred without their knowledge.

"I never found out until I read it in a book," he said.

He conceded, though, "(Kahlo) had a great capacity for seducing men.

"She was a little spiteful towards Diego (Rivera) because he often deceived her."

In his day, Trotsky, famous for his trademark round-rim glasses, disheveled hair and goatee, dominated one of the feuding streams of international communism. A disillusioned George Orwell wrote "Animal Farm," a stinging rebuke of revolution run amok, after barely escaping a purge by Stalinist thugs during the Spanish Civil War.

Like Snowball, the well-intentioned pig from Orwell's novel, chased off the Manor Farm by a ruthless rival, Trotsky went into exile after losing a power struggle with Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin, bouncing around Europe for nearly a decade, constantly staying one step ahead of ever-present assassins.

Mexican President Lazaro Cárdenas granted Trotsky asylum in the 1930s at the urging of Diego Rivera and members of the Mexican Communist Party. Upon his arrival, Trotsky found a country full of revolutionary fervor. During Cárdenas' six-year reign, he nationalized the Mexican oil industry, openly supported the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and redistributed millions of hectares of hacienda land. Trotsky initially lived with Rivera and Kahlo in the Casa Azul until ideological differences with Rivera — and not an affair with Kahlo — forced the revolutionary to move.

Volkov arrived in Mexico in 1939, having lost virtually his entire family. His father disappeared in a Soviet gulag. His mother committed suicide in 1933. A sibling was left behind in the Soviet Union. Because of his frequent moves, Volkov pretty much lost his ability to speak Russian.

He lived with his grandfather for a little more than a year, surviving a "well-planned" machine gun attack on the Coyoacán house led by famed muralist David Siqueiros, a Stalinist. Volkov survived by hiding under his bed. Some of the bullet holes still riddle the museum.

But Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist agent, infiltrated Trotsky's inner circle. He carried out the dirty deed as Trotsky reviewed documents supposedly penned by the attacker.

Volkov stayed in Mexico after the attack, living in Coyoacán and working as a chemical engineer, but he never became politically active. In his retirement, he's kept his grandfather's legacy alive through the museum. But decades after the assassination, some bitterness remains.

"In mere seconds, (the assassin) liquidated one of the best minds of the Marxist revolutionaries."

From the San Antonio Express-News

26 October 2007

The nation’s ‘legitimate president’ soldiers on in spite of facts


By David Agren
The News

TEPEACA, Pue. – Pedro de la Cruz García, a 72-year-old farmer from this rural community 40 kilometers east of Puebla city woke early on a recent Sunday morning, pulled on a bright yellow shirt, gray pants and a pair of well-worn sandals and started walking. Using a cane for assistance, he managed to make the kilometer-long trek to the town square in time for the start of a rally organized by 2006 presidential runner-up Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning PRD.

Like many of the approximately 200 other supporters gathered in the square, de la Cruz calls López Obrador the “legitimate president of Mexico” and considers last year’s election – which his candidate lost to Felipe Calderón of the conservative PAN by less than a percentage point – to have been rigged.

López Obrador also believed the results were rigged, and following the election, he filed a petition asking the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TRIFE) for a vote-by-vote recount. The TRIFE denied the request two months later, but that hardly deterred the candidate popularly known as AMLO. Instead, the former Mexico City mayor vowed to defy the ruling and promised to make the nation ungovernable. He declared himself the legitimate president, formed a parallel cabinet and returned to rallying support from his die-hard constituency, drawn primarily from the poor and working classes.

A year after the Court’s ruling, the “legitimate president” tag still rings true for people like those at the Tepeaca rally. Few were willing to consider Calderón as their rightful leader, and others would only mention his name as part of an insult. One attendee, Ernesto Rodríguez, held a sign reading, “Felipe Calderón is the bastard son of [Vicente] Fox.”

The view at the rally is less commonly held across Mexico as a majority of the population has moved on from the contentious July 2, 2006 election and considers Calderón the true victor. In a poll published by Grupo Reforma on the one-year anniversary of the election, 36 percent of respondents still viewed the results as tainted, but 31 percent of López Obrador voters said they wouldn’t opt for him again. (López Obrador has long taken issue with Grupo Reforma’s polling methods and editorial policy.)

Even in the republic’s poorest and most remote municipalities, which López Obrador tours tirelessly, turnout for his events appears to be diminishing. In Tepeaca, several observers estimated the crowd size at roughly 20 percent of the total that came out for a pre-election appearance.

Despite emerging from a tight election with a precarious sense of legitimacy, Calderón’s approval rating now hovers in the 65-percent range – due in part to an aggressive stance against drug cartels. Furthermore, with backing from the PRI, Mexico’s third party, Calderón achieved passage of a pension reform bill during the spring and a comprehensive fiscal reform package last month. López Obrador urged his party to never negotiate with president, but some PRD legislators sat down with Calderón and his secretaries before eventually voting against fiscal reform. When AMLO called on PRD lawmakers to disrupt the voting, the plan fizzled. A poll by Ulises Beltrán y Asociados showed that 70 percent of respondents disagreed with AMLO’s tactics.

López Obrador’s strategy of organizing an alternative government and eschewing contact with Calderón baffles some political observers, who say that he could be more effective leading a responsible opposition instead of waiting for the economy to collapse or for the president to stumble.

“He’s hoping that Felipe Calderón will fall on his face and that the (downtrodden) will carry him on their shoulders to victory,” says George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and the author of a biography of López Obrador.

A ‘Cordial Relashionship’

While Calderón solidifies his grip on the presidency, López Obrador’s persistence presents challenges for members of his PRD, which made impressive gains in the last congressional elections and holds second-place status in Congress.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Grayson said. “He still has a lot of supporters in the PRD.”

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, has pledged support for López Obrador, but all five PRD governors have kept their distance and even have met with Calderón. None of the governors attended a July 1 López Obrador rally in Mexico City’s Zócalo. Only Ebrard appeared with the “legitimate president.”

There are other signs suggesting López Obrador may be losing influence within the PRD. For example, indications are his candidate for party president, Alejandro Encinas, will not win the party election. And PRD leaders in Oaxaca are calling for him to be stripped of party privileges since he campaigned for non-PRD candidates in local elections there.

Mexico City-based political analyst Dan Lund, however, disagrees with the idea that the PRD is fracturing over López Obrador.

“You’d have to be silly to view him as a liability because the PRD would have disappeared had it not been for him,” Lund said. “Everyone views him as political capital.”

Even so, Jorge Agustín Ortiz, a López Obrado coordinator, acknowledged some separation between AMLO and the PRD.

“Andrés Manuel has a cordial relationship with the PRD, but he has his own movement,” Ortiz said.

The movement, called the Convención Nacional Democrática, or National Democratic Convention, organizes López Obrador followers at the grass-roots level. It claims 1.5 million members and signs up new ones at every rally.

Lund says López Obrador’s goal is to build a pacifist social movement – something rare in a country with a history of authoritarianism and violence. Other political commentators suggest a different motive. In a recent column in the Milenio newspaper, analyst Román Revueltas speculated that López Obrador might be planning a break with the PRD in order start a new party.

It’s all being built with little fanfare, though. López Obrador’s presence in the media spotlight has diminished. As mayor of Mexico City and later a leading presidential candidate, he frequently made the front pages. His daily predawn press conferences provided timely fresh content for the capital’s electronic media outlets. Nowadays, López Obrador appears on a weekly television program Tuesday mornings at 1 a.m. on TV Azteca. His rallies receive scant coverage.


Unlike the constitutional president, López Obrador travels light without much security. He arrived at the event in Tepeaca in a white SUV with no hubcaps and then casually waded through a throng of supporters toward the stage.

During his speech, he mentioned his travails from 2006, but mostly focused on populist issues like rising food and gasoline prices and lavish presidential pensions.

The message resonated with de la Cruz, the elderly farmer who walked a kilometer with a cane to hear it. Afterward, he signed up for the Convención Nacional Democrática.

When López Obrador was mayor of Mexico City, he says, “Things worked, he supported the disabled [and] he was giving money to seniors. Who’s given me even five cents? Nobody.”

After 40 minutes with the crowd in Tepeaca, López Obrador climbed back into his SUV and headed off for another six rallies scheduled for that day. He plans to eventually speak in each of the nation’s 2,438 municipalities, where his message of social justice and benefits for the poor is likely to attract at least some followers of the “legitimate president.”

Many though, have fallen away, including Mexico City taxi driver Dario Espinosa.

"I used to support him, but not any longer," Espinosa says, explaining that he disagreed with López Obrador's six-week blockade of central Mexico City last summer.

"I think he's through."

25 October 2007

Santa Muerte offers hope to those on the fringes of society


By David Agren
The News

Alberto Jiménez considers himself a good Catholic.

The third-generation vendor at Mexico City’s Mercado Sonora, where stalls hawk everything from miracle herbal cures to witchcraft paraphernalia, believes in the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. He also professes a liking for San Judas Tadeo, the patron saint of lost causes.

But perhaps more strongly than any other saint, Jiménez believes deeply in Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a scythe-wielding skeletal figure that is not recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint.

“She isn’t a sacred figure for the Catholic Church, but for people that believe in her, Santa Muerte is sacred,” Jiménez said.

The Archdiocese of Mexico urged Catholics to reject Santa Muerte and has branded the figure as dangerous. And the Interior Secretariat still refuses to officially recognize a Santa Muerte-centered church, despite members’ recent efforts to make her appearance more angelic and less skeletal.

Yet despite the objections, Santa Muerte’s popularity has grown throughout Mexico in recent years – Director Paco del Toro, who in September released a the fictional movie “La Santa Muerte,” estimated she has two million followers nationwide.

And according to experts, those followers are most likely to be people who have been marginalized by the greater society or who operate outside of the law.

Death has been an accepted theme in Mexican culture dating back to pre-Hispanic times – the colorful Día de los Muertos festivities each November being perhaps the most vivid example.

But according to Sylvia Gutiérrez, an anthropologist at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the Santa Muerte phenomenon began much more recently – in the 1980s, and among prison populations. Then, as the inmate adherents were released, Santa Muerte worship expanded into the larger society.

“It began spreading and is now often found in poor barrios, where the locals sell drugs or produce pirated products,” Gutiérrez said.

Pilgrims to Tepito

Tepito, a run-down area in the capital’s historic center famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise, serves as a sort of Mecca for Santa Muerte followers.

Vendors in the barrio, the setting for sociologist Oscar Lewis’s classic work on urban poverty “The Children of Sánchez,” peddle bootlegged CD’s, yet-to-be released Hollywood blockbusters and porno flicks, as well as stolen merchandise ranging from car parts to designer handbags. Legend has it Tepito has been the domain of outlaws since Aztec times, and a commonly told joke in Mexico City advises robbery victims to search Tepito’s markets for their missing belongings.

Tepito is also home to a popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a simple home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the gruesome saint.

Some who arrive via the Metro subway system pass by a stall operated by Rocio Hernández, where they purchase chocolate coins, pink marshmallows, cigarettes and red apples dipped in honey and cinnamon. The items are then left as offerings in front of the Santa Muerte statues that line Calle Alfarería, the street leading to the shrine.

Hernández, a non-believer who acknowledged a purely economic interest in the death saint, also sells Santa Muerte candles, lotion and perfume, which adherents spray on their statuettes as they wait patiently for their turn to enter the small shrine. Others splash the figurines with liquor, and one follower placed a lit cigar in the mouth of his life-sized statue.

While much of Santa Muerte’s popular with current and former lawbreakers, not all who come to the Tepito shrine are seeking spiritual assistance for nefarious activities. Many are simply looking for intervention in their daily lives, Hernández said.

Followers often dress their figurines in colors corresponding to the type of help they are seeking. White generally represents spirituality and requests for protection, while red represents love and yellow or gold is used to attract wealth.

Black, however, is for harming an adversary.

Gloria Franco, a hairdresser from the Doctores neighborhood, stopped to buy an apple for her Santa Muerte figure. She said she hoped the apple would absorb the bad vibes that had been plaguing her salon.

Franco turned to Santa Muerte for help after police officers detained her son several years ago for what she believed to be dubious reasons. The youth spent some time in a holding cell before he was released without harm, which Franco attributed to Santa Muerte, whom she had discovered by chance on a trip to Tepito.

Borders and barrios

Beyond Tepito, Santa Muerte shrines have popped up in other parts of the Federal District, including three in Doctores, according to Franco. The saint’s appeal has also spread to the northern border region, where both migrants and drug runners ask her for help before crossing illegally into the United States.

In recent years, elaborate shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte have sprouted up along the lonely highways leading toward the border.

“It’s the narcos that are putting up the money for the roadside chapels,” said James Griffith, a retired University of Arizona folklore professor and author of the book “Folk Saints of the Borderlands.”

U.S. immigration officials report noticing an increased number of smugglers bearing images or tattoos of the Santa Muerte.

“Often times when we bust a smuggled load, we’ll see a Santa Muerte image,” said Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Phoenix.

Despite Santa Muerte’s increased popularity in Northern Mexico, many narcotics dealers still believe strongly in Jesús Malverde, a pseudo saint that reputedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor a century ago in Sinaloa.

The Catholic Church has condemned the worship of both Malverde and Santa Muerte, but that hardly matters to Julia Huerta, a resident of the capital’s gritty, working-class Ixtapalapa neighborhood. She still brings her meter-tall Santa Muerte statue to Tepito every month.

“The [Catholic] Church asks you for money. The Mormons ask you for money. The [evangelicals] ask you for money,” she said. “Santa Muerte doesn’t ask for anything, only what you want to give.”

Like many Santa Muerte followers, Huerta attributes miracles to the unofficial saint, whom she discovered eight years ago after kidnappers abducted her son. She credits Santa Muerte for his safe return, although he was both beaten and robbed.

Ironically, said Gutiérrez, the Iberoamericana researcher, many kidnappers also request intervention from Santa Muerte.

“She protects those that fall into the hands of kidnappers, along with the kidnappers too,” she said.

Many Santa Muerte followers also believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe, but Gutiérrez said that for people working in the informal economy – essentially outside of the law – Santa Muerte covers large parts of their lives that official saints can’t.

“You have the Virgin of Guadalupe to help you with the part of your life that’s regulated, but in addition, Santa Muerte helps you with things that are outside of that,” she said.

22 October 2007

Cops not packing heat in Ecatepec

This is from the amusing side of the news: Police officers in Ecatepec, a sprawling municipality to the east of Mexico City, are carrying guns with empty cartridges. Due to red tape tying up a potential purchase with the State of Mexico's security agency, some Ecatepec cops are without bullets and many are apparently using out-dated equipment.

Cops in Mexico are obviously notorious for corruption, but it partially stems from the fact that many officers must purchase all their supplies, put gas in their patrol cars and even buy bullets. Thus, extracting mordidas (bribe), stretches their already slim paycheques. Some, though, are just plain nefarious and bribe in order to get rich.

So how much worse is public security in Ecatepec without armed cops patrolling the streets? Probably not much.

18 October 2007

"The News" hits the street

After a five-year hiatus, The News reappeared on newsstands across the capital and in select markets around the country. Unfortunately, the web edition has yet to launch, but it is apparently in the works.

I should mention that I now work for The News as a national reporter, meaning I cover the presidency, the chamber of deputies and senate. I also head off into the states to cover things from time to time.

I'll leave critiquing the first day's edition to others, but I would say our product looks pretty good.

25 September 2007

Taco Bell runs south of the border

File this in the strange, but true category: Taco Bell just opened its first outlet in Mexico. Not surprisingly, Taco Bell went first to Monterrey, a city in Northern Mexico and one that lacks an abundance of good taco stands - or so I'm told.

If you read Spanish, this Expansion blog entry under the title: "Taco Bell and how to sell ice to Eskimos," explains it all: http://www.cnnexpansion.com/blogs/barbarismos/archive/2007/09/01/taco-bell-o-cmo-venderle-hielo-a-los-esquimales

One interesting point in this blog, Taco Bell sales dropped by seven percent during the last trimester. Is Mexico the answer? Taco Bell apparently studied the market and, yes, Mexicans are familiar with the brand.

This isn't Taco Bell's first venture into Latin America. I recall being invited to a Taco Bell in Guatemala City by several local friends. We instead opted for Pollo Campero, a wildly-popular KFC knockoff.

24 August 2007

Adios a Guadalajara


The low-rent correspondent is becoming a little less low-rent these days. I recently accepted a senior reporting position in another part of the Republic. I'll divulge all of the details at the appropriate time.

I also left Guadalajara after nearly three years in La Perla Tapatia. Locals brand it El Rancho Grande, but the city is moving beyond its reputation as a provincial backwater. Just give it a few more years. I've only been gone a week and I already miss it.

13 August 2007

Remittance rate slows down


According to the Bank of Mexico, the rate of remittances sent home by Mexican migrants slowed down during the first six months of 2006 even though the number of migrants living in the United States increased. The Washington Post described the suspected reasons for the decline in a story last week: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/08/AR2007080802241.html

I recently went to Mezcala, Jalisco, a sad sacked town on the north shore of Lake Chapala that bleeds migrants, for the annual patron saint holiday. The saint is a pretext for hundreds of migrants to return home for two weeks every August. Most of those arriving brought money for their families and gifts for community institutions. As one person there told me, "It's tough to imagine life in Mezcala without remittances."

Remittances in Mezcala seemed to be flowing home like always.

11 August 2007

Lake Chapala improves


According to a story in today's Publico (Milenio in Guadalajara), Lake Chapala's water level jumped by 30 centimeters during the first 10 days of August - the best rate since 1992. With at least six weeks left until the end of the rainy season, the water level stands at 58 percent capacity, just shy of the high point of 59 percent reached last fall. The upstream dams are also hoarding more water than usual.

Since Lake Chapala supplies some 70 percent of Guadalajara's water needs, the news sounds good. Unfortunately, Jalisco's dam-building brigade - previously led by both former PAN governor Francisco "Paco" Ramirez Acuna and state water commissioner Enrique Dau, the former PRI mayor of Guadalajara that left office in disgrace after the 22 de abril de 1992 explosion - are still championing the Arcediano Dam on the Santiago River near Guadalajara as the solution to the city's pending water problems.

Cleaning up Lake Chapala, which is fed by the toxic Rio Lerma, instead of trapping and distributing highly-contaminated water from behind the proposed Arcediano Dam might be more logical - but logic has never driven this agenda. As an example, the Arcediano Dam is being built near the convergence of the Rio Santiago and Rio Verde. It will be much lower than Guadalajara, meaning any power generated will go toward pumping the water out of the Huentitan Canyon and presumably cleaning it too.

Additionally, the original plans called for a second dam to also be built in the Los Altos region that would supply Leon, Guanajuato, a thirsty industrial city near former president Vicente Fox's San Cristobal Ranch. The original location would have flooded out San Gaspar de los Reyes. The plans were changed in 2005, though, after locals and migrants from the town living in the San Francisco Bay area raised a fuss.

Besides cleaning up the lake and ensuring a stable supply of water in a full Lake Chapala - instead of say, depleting the lake by allowing farmers in Guanajuato to irresponsibly draw so much from the Rio Lerma in order to grow strawberries for export - SIAPA, the Guadalajara area waterworks, could try fixing its leaky pipes, although with so many customers refusing to pay their water bills - customers can't be cut off - the utility is often lacking resources to repair all it's infrastructure.

28 July 2007

And now: Malverde beer

Jesus Malverde inspires an odd following; he's better known as the patron saint of narcos. He's also fairly popular in Sinaloa, a state notorious for narcotics trafficking, but lately he's been creeping into the country's broader popular culture. In Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, a bar named for the unofficial saint opened recently. And now Cerveceria Minerva, a Zapopan-based microbrewery just registered the label: Malverde. There's nothing like cashing in on the cachet of a notorious figure, something Minerva's head brewer acknowledged in an interview with the Mural newspaper.

Cerveceria Minervia makes great craft beer - something rare in Mexico, where the big two breweries have a stranglehold on the market and hawk rather watery suds. Thus, this offering should be good - even if the name is a bit naco.

16 July 2007

Los extranjeros invaden Jalisco/Foreigners invade Jalisco

State house (Jalisco)

The National Immigration Institute (INM) released figures earlier this week showing that Jalisco has more foreign-born residents than any other Mexican state except for Baja California. (Chihuahua, which like Baja California is also on the border, placed third in the survey. It wasn't mentioned if data from the Federal District were included.)

With booming expat enclaves in the Chapala Riviera and Puerto Vallarta - the latter area spills into neighboring Nayarit state - this news about foreigners in Jalisco shouldn't come as a surprise. The INM said 56,065 foreign-born residents live in the state, a figure that's probably low as many people arriving in Jalisco simply obtain a tourist card - if anything - and stay for less than six months.

Somewhat curiously, a story announcing the INM findings in the Mural newspaper (subscription required) stated:

"La Perla Tapatia [as Guadalajara is referred to] is now considered one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world."

Not so fast. Yes, Guadalajara is much less provincial than before, but locals still call it El Rancho Grande, in English: The Big Ranch. Many of the foreigners here, according to the INM, are studying in one of the seven local universities. But the city doesn't attract many expats that work and/or run businesses - spare some tech industry workers. (The average age of the foreign-born population is supposedly younger than the average Mexican, but this must simply reflect children born to Mexicans in the U.S. that now live down here.)

Foreign retirees now opt in much larger numbers to settle in the Lake Chapala area. (Take a look at the dwindling membership at the American Society of Jalisco if you don't believe me.) Adding to Chapala's appeal, it has an even better climate and less pollution than Guadalajara. Still, Guadalajara is one of the most livable big cities anywhere and tastes are becoming less conservative - even if the politics and social mores still tilt in that direction.

10 July 2007

Guerrilla group sabotages pipelines

The Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) claimed responsibility for two pipeline attacks near Salamanca and Celeya in Guanajuato state that cut the supply of natural gas into the Guadalajara area. Another attack in Queretaro happened earlier today.

EPR, reportedly a group that was active in southern Mexico in the 1990s, demanded that Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz and President Felipe Calderon release two members detained on May 25 in Oaxaca. The group promised that the attacks would continue until their demands are met.

Ulises Ruiz's resignation is long overdue, but groups like EPR hurt that cause with these attacks. Perhaps the Oaxaca conflict will blow up again, deepening the misery for the beleaguered residents being hurt by a lack of tourism.

Meanwhile, the pipeline explosion shut down many factories in Guadalajara and Western Mexico. Residential customers were spared since not many homes are hooked up to the natural gas network. Interestingly, the municipality of Guadalajara has no residential natural gas service as the prospect of combustibles running under the city unsettles quite a few residents, who no doubt vividly remember the April 22, 1992 explosion, which was caused by gasoline that leaked into the sewer system.

Update: As per usual the Mexfiles blog has a thorough analysis of this issue and even presents some of the contrarian opinions voiced in the Mexican media.

08 July 2007

Global warming blamed for bus accident in Puebla

The government of Puebla found a new villain for the tragic bus crash in the state that claimed an estimated 60 lives: Global warming. Never mind that Puebla highways traverse the torturous Sierra Madre and aren't always in the best conditions. This crash was caused by a mudslide - something perhaps aggravated by deforestation.

Perhaps the most harrowing trip I've ever taken in Mexico was going from Mexico City to Papantla, Veracruz via the Sierra Madre of northern Puebla. I highly recommend Papantla, the home of vanilla, the famed voladores and the El Tajin ruins. But the road there is at times frightening.

Blaming global warming, though, seemed apt on July 7, the day former vice president-turned-full-time-scold Al Gore threw his Live Earth concerts.

I confess to never liking Al Gore. He's always passed off as a man of towering intellect, yet his college transcripts suggest otherwise. Gore is receiving a lot of favorable treatment these days, which is no doubt driven by an immense sense of buyer's remorse after the 2000 U.S. election - which should never have been close.

For an alternate view, this New York Times piece is revealing: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/science/13gore.html?ex=1184040000&en=7df896e2a7a46ed6&ei=5070

04 July 2007

While AMLO cries foul, his opponents spend big

PRD protests

In the months leading up to last year's presidential election, wealthy Mexicans sat on their wallets, putting big-ticket purchases on hold. Now they're spending again - and spending big.

German automaker Mercedes Benz reported an 83-percent increase in Mexican sales during June 2007 when compared to the same month last year - which just happened to precede the July 2 vote.

A Cox News feature on Mexico's ultra wealthy described how the luxury car business was impacted by the political cycle:

Just off of Avenue Presidente Masaryk, the Rodeo Drive of Mexico, sits the Mulsanne luxury car dealership. Inside is the crown jewel, a bright yellow Lamborghini Murcielago that sells for $300,000.

The manager, Jeronimo Irurita, says the luxury car business is tied tightly to the whims of the daily news: a rash of kidnappings will send sales plummeting (although his fleet of bulletproof cars do better in those times).

But worse, he says, is the threat of a left-wing government.

"If the left had won, many of my clients would have moved to Miami," he said. "This business would have disappeared, or it would have changed to cheaper cars."

With Calderon's victory, business picked up nicely, and the yellow Lamborghini sold quickly to a Mexico City businessman, he said.

It's not just fancy cars. I recall speaking with the organizers of the EduCanada expositions, who reported robust attendance at this year's events in Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey after experiencing a substantial decline in 2006. The reason: Election uncertainty. One school division superintendent told me that just as many students came to his city as before, but that their parents opted to pay the entire tuition up front, forgoing the monthly payment option.

Anyway, this Mercedes Benz news comes during the same week as Mexico's "legitimate president" Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador held a rally in the Zocalo to mark the one-year anniversary of the July 2 election he says was fraudulent.

Unfortunately, an El Universal poll showed that if Mexicans were to vote today, Felipe Calderon would win by a 15-percentage-point margin. AMLO would still receive 30 percent, though. Thus, writing him off as a spent force would be premature. Yes he shed roughly 15 percent of his support, but 30 percent of Mexicans still back him. Many of them believe the election results were not legitimate. AMLO will persist, but his biggest problem is perhaps a lack of PRD unity. As Sergio Sarmiento pointed out in his Grupo Reforma column this week, none of the PRD governors attended AMLO's July 1 rally in the Zocalo. And look no further than the strife in Zacatecas for proof of problems in the PRD. The PAN has unity problems too, but they seem to close ranks when it matters.