28 May 2007

U.S. women in Jalisco fight for justice

Jailed U.S. citizen claims innocence

By David Agren/The Herald Mexico
El Universal
Lunes 28 de mayo de 2007

GUADALAJARA - Rebecca Roth led the good life for eight years in Puerto Vallarta, where she ran a boutique. Nowadays though, she lives in a six-bunk cell in Jalisco´s Puente Grande Prison with a dozen other women as she battles money-laundering charges stemming from a brief sojourn working for a convicted scam artist.

Despite her tough surroundings, the former financial consultant from Lake Oswego, Oregon, produces whimsical paintings that draw inspiration from a far more cheerful place, during her advanced art classes. Her sister Barbara Roth has framed several and displays them in her Lake Chapala-area home - but a painting of two sisters called "Dos Hermanas" is most prominent. And appropriately so, especially considering the women´s struggles.

For the past 15 months, Rebecca and Barbara have waged a lonely fight in a legal system that seemingly dispenses little justice. Although gaining recent support from the local expatriate community and some Mexican friends, Rebecca still faces an uncertain future as her pleas of innocence have fallen on deaf ears. If convicted, she could face 20 years in prison.

"How do you prove your innocence in this country?" Barbara asked rhetorically.

Rebecca Roth´s misadventure started in late 2000 after meeting Alyn Waage, a Canadian who ran an Internet investing scheme called Tri-West. He hired Rebecca as a personal assistant and paid her US$4,000 per month. In April 2001, he was arrested in Puerto Vallarta. While he was in a Mexican jail, US$50,000 was deposited into Roth´s Mexican bank account so she could pay the domestic staff and expenses at his eight luxurious Puerto Vallarta properties. The proposed transaction unsettled Rebecca, but a Puerto Vallarta lawyer said everything was legal. The advice proved erroneous.

Waage later fled to Costa Rica, but was eventually extradited to the United States, where he was convicted of running a US$60 million Ponzi scheme. He is serving a 10-year sentence in a North Carolina prison.

Rebecca thought little of her intersection with Waage´s life - it had lasted slightly less than four months - and carried on with her business, which is still being operated by three Mexican employees. In 2005, sister Barbara also moved to Mexico, building a home on Lake Chapala´s north shore. Their lives here seemed idyllic, but everything changed quickly.

At 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 as Rebecca was closing up her business, she was apprehended and driven overnight to Puente Grande. She was told she would be back in Puerto Vallarta the next day. It´s already been 15 months.

Two other former Waage employees were also apprehended: Brenda Martin, a Canadian woman that also worked as chef, but had been fired, and Waage´s former Mexican bodyguard. The bodyguard, a former Puerto Vallarta police official, was released after five days due to a lack of evidence, according to a local newspaper.

The key evidence against Roth is the bank deposit, even though she paid Waage´s staff with the funds and kept receipts. Waage recently signed a deposition saying Rebecca was not involved in his schemes. The U.S. prosecutors from the Waage case told Rebecca´s U.S. lawyer that they had no interest in her.

None of that has so far satisfied the Mexican prosecutors.

"In Mexico, the crime she´s charged with is worse than murder," sister Barbara said.

Although in a fight for her life, proving Roth´s innocence and preparing a defense has been difficult.

Upon arriving at Puente Grande, Rebecca was told to sign a document saying incorrectly that she was fluent in Spanish. Her public defender was also of little use. He often went missing in action.

After disappearing for a month, he told Rebecca she had just ten days to submit her evidence and witness list. She reportedly asked, "Don´t they care about justice?" The defender reportedly responded, "Of course not!"

Finding a better lawyer was also trying. All of the potential attorneys either demanded large up-front payments or would back off after viewing the court documents. One hotshot lawyer pitched himself as the "Johnny Cochran of Mexico" and demanded US$100,000 plus expenses. The women declined.

"We´re no O.J. Simpson and we don´t have that kind of money," Barbara said.

The women eventually settled on an erstwhile law student, but still needed to pay his professor approximately 200,000 pesos.

Enlisting help from U.S. officials has also been difficult. Barbara turned to the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, but found little help. She wrote her senator and still is waiting for a response. A friend recommended writing a Florida senator after reading about how he helped a constituent jailed in Vietnam.

The desperation of the situation hit both women hard. Rebecca´s asthma worsened and was aggravated by the summer rainy season and sleeping on the floor. She spent three months in the prison infirmary.

Barbara´s health also declined. After months of intense stress she was diagnosed with diabetes.

"This is what´s made me ill: none of this makes any sense," she said.

26 May 2007

Miami Herald Mexico Edition R.I.P.


By joint decision, El Universal and The Miami Herald pulled the plug on The Miami Herald Mexico Edition. The last issue will be released on May 31. The Herald Mexico now joins an illustrious list of English publications in Mexico to go belly up.

This comes as a surprise, but only a slight one. The paper never sold much advertising and El Universal (the Mexican partner in the venture) was seemingly derelict with handling circulation. I've been told that many El Universal employees simply viewed the English paper as more work for no extra money.

El Universal perhaps also lost its taste for risk. It has already let staff go earlier this year. It also recently oversaw failed Spanish-language publishing ventures. Ultimately, though, the company probably never truly understood the expat market niche. A little more entrepreneurial thinking would have helped too.

I contributed to the paper on a regular basis so yes, this hurts, but it won't be fatal to my economic wellbeing.

Other English-language publications exist in the provinces and many appear to be doing well - attracting ads, but often not putting out a quality product.

Inside Mexico recently launched in Mexico City, although it is a monthly, and a new online project will launch soon. (I'll post details when they become public.)

22 May 2007

Dame una Duff!


An aspiring young entrepreneur in Guadalajara scooped up the rights to make beer under the Duff brand made famous by The Simpsons. The lager currently sells in Spain, although it should hit the Mexican market by mid July. Here's the story from today's Miami Herald Mexico Edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/24725.html

20 May 2007

Americanistas turn out in force

I've never especially liked Club America, a Mexico City soccer team owned by the Televisa empire. The side often wins and projects an image of power and status. It comes from the mammoth capital, where much of the country's political and economic power is still concentrated. Club America also fields well-paid imports and controversial figures like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a prolific goal scorer, but bad teammate, who deserved to be left off of the 2006 World Cup squad.

Due in large part to Televisa's long reach, Club America is popular in virtually every part of Mexico - even in Guadalajara, the home of Chivas, a team that only fields Mexican players.

Here's my take on Club America's popularity in the provinces: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/miami/24702.html

18 May 2007

Tourist tragedies do not reflect the true Mexico

Photo by Steven H. Miller

Here's the dispatch from Ajijic, published in today's Calgary Herald: http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/story.html?id=e1080d06-0d51-448d-88cf-24a14cf34a0b

Tourist tragedies do not reflect the true Mexico

David Agren, For the Calgary Herald

Published: Friday, May 18, 2007

Chris Wilshere left Toronto several years back for an orchestra job in the sweltering heat of Culiacan, Mexico, a prosperous state capital north of Mazatlan famous for a baseball team called the Tomateros (Tomato Growers) and a shrine to Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of narcotics traffickers.

Some of his colleagues never understood his motives for heading south, but he found a steady paycheque, appreciative audiences for classical music and a pretty young lawyer, whom he married six months ago.

He now promotes one of Western Mexico's largest music festivals, which showcases young Canadian talent.

Wilshere lives in a "glorified dust bowl" that even Mexicans consider dodgy. Narco-gang violence flares often.

Virtually everyone can recount stories of their brushes with narcos -- like the Hummer dealership employee who witnessed someone paying for three new vehicles with a thick wad of cash.

While acknowledging, "Mexico doesn't come without its problems," he considers his adopted home "safe" and expresses few misgivings about his personal security.

"I think that as First World (residents) we get paranoid over the tiniest, insignificant things that may threaten our health or safety."

Before arriving in Culiacan, Wilshere initially began visiting Ajijic (pronounced: Ah-hee-heek), a sedate lakeside village near Guadalajara, where his grandmother had retired. Ajijic attracts Canadian retirees in droves with its perpetual spring-like climate, access to good health care and affordable prices. (Property tax bills run about $100 per year.)

Canadian licence plates are ubiquitous, a Canadian Club chapter meets monthly and a local supermarket peddles Moosehead beer for $3.25 a six-pack.

Ajijic is one of the largest enclaves of Canadians outside of Canada.

The Canadian Embassy in Mexico City estimates some 8,000 expatriates winter in the region.

Approximately 3,000 Canadians live there year round, although with high-speed Internet, VoIP phones and satellite TV, many closely follow affairs back home.

And what they're seeing nowadays -- a spate of tourist misfortune stories -- dismays virtually everyone, including Dan McTavish, the former Canadian Club president in Ajijic.

"Everyone down here can watch City TV, which they get through their satellite systems, and see crime and shootings back in Toronto," he comments.

Crime happens in Ajijic too. A Vancouver man in a neighbouring municipality was shot dead in late 2005 for unknown reasons, although rumours abound about a water dispute. A London, Ont., couple was struck in a January hit-and-run -- an incident that reportedly happened after an evening of drinking.

The story made the front-page of a national newspaper -- as if such calamities never happen in Canada.

The incidents unfortunately blemish Ajijic and Mexico's image, but hardly sour any Canadians on their adopted country, which is generally placid -- spare parts of the northern border region -- and populated by law-abiding people.

Many Canadians express feelings of hurt and embarrassment over the provincial viewpoints streaming out of Canada these days, along with the eagerness to malign Mexico for tourist tragedies that often stemmed from irresponsible or disrespectful behaviour.

"I can't help but feel (these are) individual situations that the media have run to sell papers," says Allan Rose, the former honorary Canadian consul in Guadalajara and a 20-year Ajijic resident.

Rose was consul during NAFTA's advent, a time when "Mexicans actually discovered where Canada was."

He frequently promoted Canada to Guadalajara-area universities and business organizations, which perhaps considered the diplomat "something of a novelty . . . a new-found interest."

Mexicans discovered Canada and now travel north in sizeable numbers for tourist and study excursions, but Canadians never reciprocated to the same degree.

"I'm personally aggrieved and hurt by some of these (negative) references," he says mournfully.

Rob Parker, a former Conservative MP living near Ajijic, also objects to the unflattering portrayals of Mexico, saying,

"If it were that dangerous, Canadians wouldn't be here."

Petty aggravations are rife in Mexico -- like early morning fireworks, discourteous drivers and abusive monopolies -- but it's a fascinating, complex and culturally rich country. Canadians here accept the shortcomings, even if they don't like them, and find it unnecessary and disrespectful to scold Mexicans for how they order their affairs. "It's their country to decide. It's our decision to live here," Parker says. "We like living here."

15 May 2007

Stars and stripes over the Chapala Malecon

Photo by Steven H. Miller

A steady stream of feature articles muse about an influx of Americans moving to Mexico. Some one million Americans supposedly now live here. In Chapala, a municipality south of Guadalajara and the home of a large expatriate enclave, the local government recently began flying both the U.S. and Canadian flags at its recently renovated wharf and malecon.

The mere sight of a Mexican flag drives clowns like the Minutemen nuts, but here in Chapala, the Stars and Stripes gently flutters over a government-owned site - and none of the locals seem bothered by that.

14 May 2007

Desde la Ribera de Chapala

Photo by Steven H. Miller

I spent the weekend in Ajijic, a town on the north shore of Lake Chapala, enjoying the moderate climate, spectacular lake views and a few adult beverages. For those reasons, Canadians descend on the region in droves. According to the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City, some 8,000 Canucks winter here and 3,000 live in Ajijic year round, making it one of the largest enclaves of Canadians outside of Canada. While idyllic, it falls short of perfection, but not by much. (I prefer nearby Guadalajara as I'm young and speak Spanish.)

Most members of the Canadian population here expressed dismay - in some cases anger - with the coverage of the recent death of a Canadian tourist in Cancun and the portrayal of Mexicans as sleazy and inept. (Funny how once cocaine was citied in a toxicoligy report the Canadian media sheepishly backed off the story.) As one expat sarcastically asked me this weekend: "Is there a lack of bad news in Canada?"

Some Canadians come to Ajijic to simply stretch their retirement savings. They don't stay for long. The people who retire here generally love Mexico and appreciate the culture - even if there are a few inconveniences. Of course, no one in Canada cares about that.

I've written many stories on Canadian issues and expats over the past two years. Contrary to what many Canadians think, Mexico is full of opportunities, law-abiding citizens and a welcoming culture. Mexicans truly like Canadians and show a genuine interest in our country. It's a shame that so many Canadians are too provincial to understand that, or reciprocate the good will.

Allan Rose, Canadian trailblazer in Ajijic (Miami Herald Mexico Edition)

Dazzling DaNisha (Miami Herald Mexico Edition)

Even-tempered expats aren't arguing over election (Guadalajara Colony Reporter):

EduCanada aims to recruit
(Miami Herald Mexico Edition)

Expatriate Canadian building chocolate empire (Guadalajara Colony Reporter)

Rebelde with a cause (FFWD)

11 May 2007

Cocaine found in dead Canadian's system

The Canadian Press is reporting that toxicology tests found traces of cocaine in the system of Jeff Toews, the Grande Prairie, Alta. man, who suffered a fatal head injury while vacationing in Mexico last Monday morning. The Cancun hospital that treated Toews carried out the tests.

The family still insists there's a cover up, although their comments at a press conference on Thursday - held prior to the toxicology report being released - were unconvincing. CanWest News Service reports:

"Murray Toews admitted the family has no firm answers about what happened between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. on Monday, but claimed Mexican authorities were trying to protect their tourism industry in releasing the damaging report."

When in doubt, blame the Mexicans. And since Canadian reporters and editors generally know little about the country - Mexico isn't a priority or interest - they're inclined to run with that narrative. (If I sound bothered by this: I AM.)

So many Canadians are unfairly maligning Mexico these days, but failing to properly scrutinize the reckless and disrespectful behavior of some of their fellow citizens coming down here.

09 May 2007

Canadian media stick to script

Yet another Canadian tourist met misfortune in Mexico and once again the Canadian media are all over the story. Jeff Toews, a northern Alberta man, is in a coma after suffering a head injury. The family - and some headline writers - say he was beaten at the Cancun resort where he had been staying. Mexican authorities - the same ones handling the Ianiero case - say otherwise.

A friend of Toews told the Edmonton Journal: "He was on the resort property and somewhere between the nightclub and his room, something happened."

I'd like to know what that something was, too. Did he accidentally fall over the stupidly-low railings that are so common in Mexico? Alcohol? (I must ask.) But since Mexico is involved, there can only be one outcome, right?

Somewhat unbelievably, the same Journal story says of the Thunder Bay women erroneously considered suspects in the Ianiero case by the Quintana Roo attorney general: "The two women have launched a website, http://www.mexicoinjustice.ca/, proclaiming their innocence and lobbying the federal government to ban travel to the Cancun and Mayan Riviera regions." (Emphasis added)

I just returned from a jaunt to Culiacan and Mexico City. Surely those places warrant more of an advisory than Cancun and the Mayan Riviera - even though I've never encountered problems on my eight trips to Mexico City over the past year. Also, aren't Canadians free to travel where they wish?

With the Canadian media these days, the only stories from Mexico that matter involve tourist tragedies. It's as if bad things don't happen back home; is there a sudden lack of crime?

Update: Jeff Toews unfortunately has been declared brain dead. He was flown back to Alberta last night. The family alleges a cover up, something many Canadians are no doubt inclined to believe. And why not? In Quintana Roo, the Cancun police chief is now under investigation for links to narcotics traffickers.

But the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa disputes the Toews' claims. It issued a document detailing what supposedly happened on early Monday morning at the Moon Palace in Cancun. Among other things, the victim had been drinking heavily, according to Mexican authorities.

The fact the Mexicans are taking public relations seriously is a welcome change. Having worked as a journalist in Mexico for more than two years now, I find few people down here understand the concept of publicity or communications, but I digress ...

Some Mexico observers are tiring of this endless barrage of stories on Canadian tourists encountering problems in Mexico. The Mexfiles perhaps sums up the frustration best with this headline: http://mexfiles.wordpress.com/2007/05/10/canadian-press-on-mexico-same-shit-different-day/

07 May 2007

Siglo 21: Guadalajara's original muckrakers


The 15th anniversary of the 22 de abril de 1992 sewer explosion in Guadalajara passed recently so it seemed apt to recount the role of Siglo 21, an upstart newspaper that both predicted the imminent danger and provided thorough coverage of the explosion - unlike its derelict competitors, who were pushing the same old government line. The explosion changed journalism in Western Mexico; here's the story from the Miami Herald Mexico Edition:

National tragedy breathed new life into press

By David Agren/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
Martes 01 de mayo de 2007

In the days leading up to April 22, 1992, residents in Guadalajara´s Sector Reforma neighborhood complained of an unpleasant gasoline odor coming from the sewer. Firefighters investigated, but their superiors reported at an April 21 press conference everything would be fine .

Alejandra Xanic, an intrepid reporter from the upstart newspaper, Siglo 21 (21st Century) took their comments skeptically, however. She stuck around and later encountered firefighters emerging from the sewers, who were openly worrying about a ticking time bomb under the streets. Xanic later filed a story on the imminent danger and based on her reporting, a map was drawn, showing the areas at greatest risk.

The front-page map proved prophetic. Shortly before 10 a.m. the next day, an explosion ripped up an eight-kilometer stretch of roadways, claiming more than 200 lives and leaving some 20,000 homeless. The competition, meanwhile, simply published unscrutinized accounts from the officials at the press conference.

The April 22, 1992 explosion ushered in vast social and political changes in the nation´s second-largest city. It also launched five-month-old Siglo 21 to prominence at a time when restrictions on the press were gradually loosening. Although it was only published for less than a decade, the independent newspaper radically transformed the news business in the region by practicing civic journalism, instead of feting the political classes. According to its original editor, Jorge Zepeda Patterson, the newspaper largely achieved its objective of playing a role in fomenting an open and more democratic society.


Somewhat ironically, Siglo 21 was founded by Alfonso Dau, the cousin of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) mayor of Guadalajara. In the early 1990s, few independent newspapers existed, although La Jornada in Mexico City, El Imparcial in Hermosillo and El Diario de Yucatán were increasingly going against the standard pro-establishment line.

To help bring the concept to Guadalajara, Dau recruited Zepeda, an academic from the Colegio de Michoacán, who had planned on pursuing a PhD in political science from the Sorbonne in Paris, as his editor. And rather than simply copy a U.S.-style newspaper or one of the more independent Mexican publications, the pair drew the inspiration for Siglo 21 from El Pais, a Spanish newspaper founded after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

"I liked the role that El Pais had played in the Spanish transition," Zepeda explained in an interview last year, adding that they saw parallels in the Spanish and Mexican experiences."Our hope was ... that Siglo 21 fulfill a role similar to what El Pais had in its country."

After Zepeda had spent time learning the ropes at El Pais, the pair started Siglo 21 in November 1991.

The paper debuted at a time when vices were still rife in Mexican journalism. Many reporters sold advertising and augmented their incomes by penning favorable articles for their political clients. A government newsprint monopoly had previously denied paper to newspapers going against the PRI. Investigative journalism was uncommon.

In Guadalajara, Siglo 21 went up against two strong competitors, El Occidental and El Informador, which were both solidly behind the local establishment. Neither engaged in much in-depth reporting, but both were commercially strong - especially El Informador.

"(El Informador) was an institutional newspaper," Zepeda recalled. (Somewhat ironically, Zepeda now edits Mexico City magazine Día Siete, which is distributed in Guadalajara by El Informador.)

"It was a newspaper that didn´t present conflicts ... it curried favor with the political classes."
By contrast, Siglo 21 almost exclusively hired young reporters with no journalism experience. The newspaper paid better salaries. Reporters would generally write only one story a day and tackled tough subjects the competition wouldn´t.

Despite its maverick approach, the newspaper struggled for the first six months. Circulation stagnated at 4,000 copies a day.

Then the explosions came.

Gasoline from a Pemex pipeline had leaked into the sewer system. Theories abound as to what caused the leak and subsequent explosions - gasoline theft from clandestine pipeline connections, the accumulation of chemicals and solvents discarded by auto repair shops in the zone, and the construction of a subway line have all been mentioned - but the impact devastated a working-class zone southeast of the city center.


Having been the only newspaper to report on the imminent danger, Siglo 21 naturally led its peers in covering the disaster - and the inept government response. Its reporters lived with the homeless and blew the whistle on the rampant pilfering of relief supplies.

The paper also mercilessly skewered the government response and sought out the responsible parties. The state governor and mayor of Guadalajara - the cousin of Siglo 21´s owner - eventually left their posts. And while Siglo 21 dedicated 80 percent of its pages to coverage of the tragedy, the competition kept running the official government explanations - and bizarrely, non-urgent stories.

For the competition, "It was just another story," recalled Luis Miguel González, editorial director of the Público newspaper in Guadalajara, who covered the explosion for Siglo 21.
According to Zepeda, El Occidental ran a front-page story about "hunger in Russia" on the day following the explosion.

"I´m pretty sure that in Russia the explosion in Guadalajara was the most important story," he said.

In the days following the explosion, Siglo 21´s circulation soared to 40,000 copies, which made the newspaper "untouchable," although Zepeda said the federal government asked Siglo 21 to back off for "reasons of national security" as it was feared making Pemex look inept would diminish Mexico´s stature in NAFTA negotiations.

After the explosion coverage quieted down, Siglo 21 kept up its muckraking ways - and demonstrating its non-partisan approach. The paper reported on misdeeds that led to the ousting of the National Action Party (PAN) mayor of Zapopan. But frictions between Dau and Zepeda were becoming untenable. The new PAN administration in Guadalajara uncovered documents suggesting the PRI had paid Siglo 21 inflated advertising rates.

The end finally came after Zepeda received unsettling news from former President Ernesto Zedillo. During a trip to Guadalajara, Zedillo met with Zepeda and recounted how Dau offered Siglo 21´s support for the 1994 PRI presidential campaign in exchange for five million pesos.

The president reputedly told Zepeda in 1996, "In my 16 years of politics, I had never encountered such extortion."

After a terse confrontation with Dau, Zepeda quit. The former editor Zepeda later founded Público and in a fatal blow to Siglo 21, more than 90 percent of the newspaper´s staff went over to the new publication. Siglo 21 eventually folded after Dau reportedly failed to pay his employees.

Público was sold to the Milenio chain shortly after Zepeda founded the newspaper in 1997. A well-financed competitor was coming to Guadalajara with a US$18 million war chest. Zepeda feared he couldn´t compete on a commercial level.

Despite Siglo 21´s demise, Luis Miguel González said the newspaper accomplished its objectives. And Zepeda agreed.

05 May 2007

Happy cinco de mayo - like anyone in Guadalajara cares

Carta Blanca

The great north-of-the-border booze fest better known as cinco de mayo goes today and no doubt, most of the drunken revelers will eroneously toast Mexican independence, when the proper day is Sept. 16.

Here in Western Mexico, cinco de mayo is just another day. All of the small businesses lining my suburban Guadalajara street are open - and look busy. Perhaps in Puebla they're celebrating, but somewhat ironically, Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican general who defeated the French at the 1862 Battle of Puebla, will soon have his image removed from the 500 peso note. Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – ironically, both communists – will replace him. That speaks volumes about the holiday's stature in most parts of Mexico.

Anyway, the CanWest newspapers recycled a story I sent last year to the Calgary Herald on Mexicans disinterest in cinco de mayo. It's informative and like this post, a bit cynical.

03 May 2007

3 de mayo: a day for bricklayers, journalists and the patron saint of narcos

Malverde soap and perfume

Everyone in Mexico is feted for at least one day on the calendar and on May 3, albañiles (bricklayers) receive their due. Additionally, the country observes press freedom day - a rather grim event in 2007 - and up in Culiacan, Sinaloa, a bizarre mix of narcos and the clases populares (working classes) celebrated the unremarkable life of Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of narcotics traffickers, who was reputedly hanged on May 3, 1909.