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.