27 March 2007

Matamoros taxi drivers cash in on ´narcoturismo´

Don Enrique

By David Agren/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
Martes 27 de marzo de 2007

MATAMOROS, Tamps. - Cab driver Mario Hinojosa and his sidekick Don Enrique operate from a two-car taxi stand in Matamoros´ Historic Center. They normally shuttle locals and tourists around the border city in a new compact sedan and an aging, yellow 1976 Ford with so many miles that Don Enrique can´t remember how many times the odometer has turned over.
Most of the tourists they serve are daytrippers, who cross the Rio Bravo from neighboring Brownsville, Texas, in search of low-rent diversions like cheap boozing and poring over trinkets.
But a few of the visitors, curious about the dark side of the border, inquire about narcoturismo (drug-trafficking tourism) - which involves visiting the sites where traffickers carried out their dirty deeds and eventually flamed out in battles with law enforcement officials.

"People come here asking about tours all the time," Hinojosa said on a quiet Monday morning, adding that he charges US$60 for narco-inspired excursions.

With drug cartel violence rife in many destinations frequented by foreigners - the northern border region, and resort areas like Acapulco and Mazatlán - some enterprising taxi drivers are cashing in on tourists´ morbid curiosity, leading informal tours to once-blood-soaked locales made infamous during the ongoing war on drugs.

While not well publicized, taxi drivers in Matamoros, a city of 450,000, report fielding queries about jaunts to the neighborhood where former Gulf cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was apprehended.

They´ve also taken passengers to Santa Elena, the site of a ranch that was home to a group of narcosatánicos (narco-Satanists) under the sway of Cuban-American drug kingpin Adolfo de Jesús Constanza - people that Hinojosa said "had a screw loose." (The narcosatánicos carried out ritual sacrifices and smuggled marijuana until they were busted in 1989.)

Thankfully for Matamoros, the worst of its brushes with narco-violence appears to be past - unlike Nuevo Laredo, which still suffers from ongoing turf battles and assassinations.

Many taxi drivers said tourists have little to worry about, but they also cautioned that problems still linger out of sight.

"If you don´t get involved in (the drug-trafficking) business, you won´t have any problems," Mario Hinojosa said.

On the eve of spring break, Matamoros seemed placid and tidy, spare the drunken yahoos in oversized sombreros heading back to Brownsville after a night on the town. The tourist office proudly promotes the Mercado de Juárez, nearby Playa Bagdad and the well-curated Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Tamaulipas.

But when asked of the existence of narcoturismo in Matamoros, an official at the state tourism office expressed horror - as if such things would ever occur in her hometown - and declined comment.

Tour guide Santiago Villanueva, who operates out of a green-and-white maintenance shed on the main drag coming from the border crossing, scoffed at the suggestion in a Grupo Reforma story that narcoturismo was popular in Matamoros. Brandishing a union-issued credential and wearing a green cap that read: "Tour Guide," he emphatically called the article "Mercadotecnia"(Marketing) - scribbling the word in bold letters above a copy of the story. While he didn´t deny the presence of narcoturismo, he said such stories were just a scheme to lure the wrong kind of tourism into Matamoros.

"It´s not just a problem here, but all over the world," he added, pointing to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, scene of a botched 1993 raid, as a notorious place that attracts visitors.

Just up the street from Villanueva´s shed, Taxi driver Alfonso Tirado sometimes gives narco tours, but not as often as before. He failed to see the appeal of such trips.

"You can go, but there´s nothing to see out there ... maybe a few crosses," he said, explaining that Santa Elena is mostly abandoned and overgrown with weeds.

He also defended Matamoros as a reasonably safe spot to visit during the daytime.

"If you go to Ciudad Juárez [a border town where more than 300 women have been murdered since 1993] you won´t see people walking around like here," he commented.

Fewer tourists are coming to Matamoros than previously, according to most taxi drivers, although some thrillseekers are now asking about different novelty tours - like a trip to the wrong side of the tracks.

"They often want to see the poor barrios," Mario Hinojosa explained. They don´t believe such poverty really exists."

It sadly does exist - just like narcoturismo.

UPDATE: A short version of this also ran in The Globe and Mail.

25 March 2007

Los pelicanos de Petatan, Michoacan

Pelicanos en Petatan, Michoacan

A large flock of white pelicans spend every winter in the fishing village of Petatan, Michoacan on Lake Chapala's southern shore. The local fishermen haul in tons of mojarra and charales and the catch is processed in a dozen or so garages. The scraps are then fed to the pelicans in the late afternoon.

Petatan is an easy drive from the Ribera de Chapala and Guadalajara and the road has recently been improved. The pelicans stay in Petatan until April so act fast.

Here's what I wrote on Petatan for the Miami Herald Mexico Edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/23917.html

22 March 2007



EduCanada passed through Guadalajara once again last month as Canadian language schools, universities and school districts pitched their programs and the country to Mexicans, who generally have favorable views of Canada.

Somewhat surprisingly, attendance bounced back this year after dipping in 2006, a phenomenon attributed by organizers to the outcome of last July's presidential election. One school district supervisor said he saw no lack of interest last year, but virtually everyone sending a child north - perhaps spooked by the prospect of a PRD victory - insisted on paying upfront.

Politics aside, Canada remains by far the most popular destination for Mexicans wanting to learn English. The Canadian government accommodates them by not demanding a visa for either entering the country or studying for up to six months. Students in some thinly-populated provinces can stay after completing their courses - and eventually gain residency.

The Miami Herald Mexico Edition ran my dispatch on this year's EduCanada in the Monday edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/23842.html

14 March 2007

Weavers struggle with drop in tourism

Weaver in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Last year's Oaxaca teachers' strike diminished tourism in the southern state - not just in the capital, but also in the numerous artisan pueblos of the Central Valley. I visited Oaxaca in late January and spent some time in Teotitlan del Valle, a Zapotec Indian community, where most of the population weaves rugs. Tourism boosted fortunes in Teotitlan over the past 20 years, but with no tourists last year, an estimated 25 percent of the population left for the United States.

Here's what ran in today's Miami Herald, Mexico Edition: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/miami/23781.html

Update: Teotitlan weaver Luis Lazo Mendoza launched a website: http://www.luislazomendoza.com/ his work is impressive - especially the attention to detail.

13 March 2007

Chugging through the Copper Canyon

El Chepe train

I just returned from a sojourn across Northern Mexico, which included a train ride on the "El Chepe" through the Copper Canyon. Being short on funds, I naturally took the "clase economica" which was comfortable and at times highly amusing. It cost half the price of the tourist service, but who needs an overpriced dining car when gordita vendors at the many stops serve up good cheap eats?

The passenger train, the last one of its kind in Mexico, chugs from Los Mochis, Sinaloa near the Pacific Coast to Chihuahua on the high plains. It climbs more than 2,000 meters and takes around 15 hours. The train is often behind schedule, but not for my trip - at least the first part of it. El Chepe arrived barely two minutes late in Creel, where I climbed aboard.

Creel is a logging town turned backpacker haunt and a popular spot for launching excursions into the canyon. By boarding in Creel instead of Chihuahua, I avoided an early morning departure, but the town is where most budget travelers end their train journey after starting in Los Mochis. I instead headed towards the coast and ran the risk of missing the spectacular scenery near the western end of the run due to darkness.

Perhaps I lucked out. The train passed through the best spots as the sun was setting and there was just enough light. We arrived a bit late in Los Mochis, but after the a ride on El Chepe, who cares.

08 March 2007

Carlos Slim pads his wallet

Telmex czar Carlos Slim padded his wallet by $19 billion over the past year, according to Forbes annual list of billionaires. Slim, whose name miserably describes his wallet's thickness, now trails Warren Buffett by $3 billion and perennial first-place finisher Bill Gates. Slim's net worth now totals $49 billion - more than double its value of just two years ago.

The world's billionaires as group grew even wealthier last year due to stellar equity markets. That certainly explains Slim's growing net worth as Telmex and America Movil (which markets cellular service under the TelCel brand in Mexico) performed strongly.

Anyone in doubt of Slim's ability to maximize profits needs look no further than their monthly Telmex bill. Telecoms in other country barely make money on long distance. Not Telmex, which charges in upwards $1/minute for international calls. Users attempting to escape Telmex's grip by using VOIP services report experiencing lousy call quality and allege - some say they can prove - that the phone giant degrades their ADSL service when trying to phone abroad. (Telmex denies the allegation.) For those ditching Telmex for a cellular phone, Slim's America Movil has around 70 percent of the market and charges some of the highest rates in the region.

In the Forbes survey, Mexico recorded ten billionaires - not surprising since monopolies and duopolies are still rife. Others making the list included Televisa boss Emilio Azcarraga Jean and beer baroness Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala of Grupo Modelo fame.

04 March 2007

The good ol' boys roll into Mexico City

The left-hand-turn circuit (Nascar) comes to Mexico City this weekend for a Busch Series race - on a track that doesn't just feature left-hand turns. And based a successful 2005 debut, expectations for this year's event are high - especially with former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya participating. A number of drivers apparently expressed reservations about running the inaugural race, but according to an ESPN.com story, the only unhappy campers this year were "the merchandise haulers that follow stock car drivers around the Busch and Nextel Cup series [who] aren't quite comfortable making the trip to Mexico City."

A member of Montoya's team jokingly noted that while the Colombian driver's stuff was possibly selling well outside of the race track, "nothing licensed" was being moved. (There's nothing like an army of tianguis vendors hawking pirated merchandise to spoil the party.)

Vendors aside, Mexico City makes an odd stop for auto racing with its elevation (2,200 meters) and distance from Nascar's heartland, but it is the second-largest city in the world and with Nascar increasingly reaching out to a non-good-ol-boy crowd, the Mexican capital is a logical stop.

The race also reflects the growing importance of the Mexican market to U.S. professional sports organizations. The PGA Tours just staged an event near Cancun last week - its first tournament in Mexico. The LPGA, piggybacking on Guadalajara golfer Lorena Ochoa's success, now has two Mexicans stops and the NFL drew more than 100,000 fans to Estadio Azteca for a regular season tilt between two struggling teams in 2005. Look for this trend to continue, although talk of putting an NFL or MLB franchise is just that: talk - at least for now.

02 March 2007

RBD member comes out of the closet


Anytime one of the members of the Mexican pop sextet RBD makes news - usually for pretty inconsequential stuff, like denying anorexia rumors - traffic to my blog surges. Today, for example, band member Christian - best known for his flamboyant hair colors - came out of the closet, confirming stories that he is, in fact, gay. Rumors also abound that he tied the knot in Canada. Just as expected, traffic to my blog is suddenly brisk.

Here in Mexico RBD is sort of the Latin American answer to S Club 7 - just far more gauche.

RBD came out of the teen telenovela Rebelde, which exited the Televisa airwaves months ago, but lives on in far away places like Romania and Peru. Set in an elite private school, Rebelde in many ways highlighted the unseemly class schisms rife in Mexican society - and the fresa-naco rift. Ironically, Christian played a naco character on the show. (Naco is slang for tacky or lacking class; the newly rich are often branded nacos.) The show, though, was in many ways naco. Rebelde also ran a storyline in which one of the character's father went to the trouble of setting up his son with the father's trophy girlfriend to prove the young man wasn't gay.

Anyway, this isn't exactly newsworthy, but it's all highly amusing. I wrote on Rebelde's Canadian adventure back in 2005 - the photo sent by Tourism Alberta was smoking hot, but also, dare I say, naco?

01 March 2007

Por Fin! Jalisco's new governor takes power

Mitin del PAN en Tepatitlan de Morelos, Jalisco

Nine months after besting the PRI in a bitter gubernatorial contest, Emilio Gonzalez Marquez finally assumed power in Jalisco, succeeding Francisco "Paco" Ramirez Acuña, who departed in December for a spot in President Felipe Calderon's cabinet. Gonzalez, the former mayor of Guadalajara, heads the conservative state's third-consecutive PAN government. Originally from Lagos de Moreno in the Los Altos region east of Guadalajara (and just across the state line from Vicente Fox's San Francisco del Rincon, Guanajuato,) he's long been linked the Yunque, a secretive conservative organization sympathetic to the PAN. (Gonzalez denies the connection.)

Gonzalez takes over a state that could best be described as middle of the road. While not especially corrupt, Jalisco is hardly an innovator on the national level. Guadalajara's sleepy elite-family-dominated business scene is prospering like always and the high-tech sector is making a nice recovery after a long slump.

Paco accomplished little over his term other than bring the 2011 Pan American Games to Guadalajara - a competition won by default - crack down on the globalifobicos at a 2004 summit in the state capital and take numerous foreign junkets of dubious value. Gonzalez's track record in Guadalajara was hardly stellar as he flip-flopped constantly and revved up a dormant publicity machine. During the election, he went negative early on and blasted the University of Guadalajara, an institution with prominent PRD members in top leadership positions. Perhaps most conveniently, the PGR, acting on old allegations of fraud in the Zapopan IMSS, showed up at PRI candidate and former Zapopan mayor Arturo Zamora's upscale Valle Real home mere days before the July 2 vote.

Perhaps Gonzalez will turn out okay. He's already won his battle for an audit at the U de G. But he'll probably turn in another lackluster term - the norm for Jalisco.