31 December 2009

A bit of New Year's self-promotion

Ejido Modelo Emiliano Zapata

I spent three days in early December working as a fixer in the Lake Chapala area and Guadalajara for a New York Times reporter, who was investigating what happens to the undocumented migrants that lose access to health care services in the U.S. and subsequently return to Mexico. The story focuses a 34-year-old woman, Mónica Chavarría, from an ejido on the Jalisco-Michoacán state line. She has end-stage renal failure and used to receive treatment at a public hospital in Atlanta. But the hospital closed the kidney dialysis clinic earlier this year due to budgetary issues.

The undocumented migrants receiving dialysis were offered three months of treatment elsewhere and a trip home. (U.S. Citizens with kidney failure are eligible for Medicare.) Mónica returned to Mexico with her youngest son, while her husband and older son stayed in the Atlanta area. Her husband has been working as a paver and raising money to pay for a transplant - which would cost far less in Mexico.

Read the full story here, at the Times' website.

Happy new year to everyone!

26 December 2009

Christmas potpourri

Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Photo by Steven H. Miller.

I avoided working on Christmas Day for the first time in three years. But I noticed enough happenings back in Mexico worth mentioning in a blog post. (There certainly weren't any here in Canada worth mentioning, spare this outstanding year-end column penned by Lord Conrad Black from his Florida prison cell on the worst nonsense of 2009.)

Trips to the newsroom on the past two Christmas Days were rather bleak affairs - and made even more bleak by a big boss that was partial to a no-fun, let's-take-ourselves-too-serious editorial policy that kept the lighter side of the news out of the newspaper on holidays. (How many times can you write seriously about Andrés Manuel López Obrador rallies in the Zócalo? For the record, I've done it more than 20 times.)

The lighter side of the news in Mexico around this time of year often involves fireworks - or, more accurately, some mishap with fireworks, such as a pyrotechnics warehouse blowing up in Cancún.

And with most Mexicans feasting on their Christmas dinners - accompanied by generous amounts of drink - late on Dec. 24, a not-so-enterprising reporter in León wrote about the traditional remedy for a night of hard drinking: A hot bowl of menudo, or tripe soup. Menuderías were, no surprise, busy on Christmas morning, ladling up hot fare for those that hit the liquor a little too hard.

Others hitting the liquor a little too hard got busted by the "alcoholimétro," or breathalyzer. The Mexico City Public Security Secretariat reported that 1,096 motorists have been detained so far this holiday season for failing breathalyzer tests. Cops in the capital have reputedly been less inclined to take bribes from those anxious to avoid a possible trip to the drunk tank.

Reforma, meanwhile, noted that the Mexico City prison population also got into the Christmas spirit by hitting the liquor a little too hard. The newspaper reported in a Boxing Day story that wealthier inmates celebrated Christmas with feasts that featured "Serrano ham" along with "alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, music and ... and hired women."

Inmates with culinary skills reportedly prepared the feasts for their wealthier counterparts, who, the Mexico City daily said, "Are known as godfathers." An inmate known as Juan "N" told Reforma that guards got in on the act, too, but in a far less festive fashion. He said that the guards charged less-fortunate inmates double to be marked "present" during roll call because they needed money for Christmas bonuses and didn't want to have to disrupt the prison parties.

Christmas, unfortunately, was bleak for many in Mexico's working and lower classes, who have suffered through an economic crisis in 2009 that has been marked by rising prices, lower wages and record unemployment.

El Universal interviewed one of the Santas moonlighting in Mexico City's Alameda Central, who said he took the gig because his construction job wasn't giving him any hours. The 15-year-old Santa said that his temporary gig paid 130 pesos per day and that he liked the work - even though his reasons for saying so seemed truly dismal.

"They pay me less here, but I like it more," he said. "I remember my childhood [while working as a Santa], although Santa never brought me anything."

One person grumbling about the big Santa better known as the federal government not bringing anything for anyone was López Obrador - the so-called "legitimate president" and self-styled champion of the downtrodden. Not one to avoid mixing disparate happenings and holiday events with his pet causes - recall his August 2008 proposal to solve insecurity and kidnappings by avoiding the "privatization, open or disguised, of the national petroleum industry" - López Obrador invoked Jesus Christ in his Christmas Twitter remarks.

"According to history, a day such as today, 2009 years ago, Jesus Christ was born, the most important defender of the poor that has ever existed."

Naturally, Mexico's religious institutions weighed in on Christmas - but not with the usual tidings of comfort and joy. Bishop Raúl Vera López of Saltillo - a man, who, like López Obrador, shows frequent disdain for the country's political class - delivered a Christmas Day rebuke to the federal government's recent scalping of cartel kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva.

Members of the Mexican Navy shot Beltrán Leyva dead during a Dec. 16 raid in Cuernavaca. That raid, and the subsequent papering of the body with bank notes by crime scene workers, upset the good bishop. He told inmates at a women's prison that the federal government appeared to have no interest in capturing Beltrán Leyva, only executing him.

"They went to execute, not to apprehend," the bishop said.

"They went to execute, in a way to exhibit the executed people in the same way they exhibited those that were killed and left hanging from trees in the era of the Revolution.

"Now they're smearing them in bank notes."

Bishop Vera has been critical of the federal government's war on drugs from outset and told me in June 2007 that soldiers should be sent back to their barracks since they lack the proper training for dealing with the public.

The Archdiocese of Mexico City differed. Cardinal Norberto Rivera - who seldom sees eye-to-eye with Bishop Vera - told reporters Dec. 20 that he favoured keeping soldiers in the streets since there wasn't another organization ready to take their place.

But the cardinal became far more animated by the Mexico City Assembly (ALDF) approval last week of same-sex marriage laws and the last-minute changes to the legislation to allow same-sex couples to adopt children.

Archidocese of Mexico City publication, Desde la Fe, reported Dec. 24 that during the archdiocese's annual posada, the cardinal "expressed his discontent with the recent approval by the (ALDF) of 'marriages' between persons of the same sex and the adoption of children by theses couples." (Bishop Vera, for the record, backed a 2007 initiative in Coahuila state, site of his diocese, that approved same-sex civil partnerships. He also has blessed the formation of a gay Catholic youth group in Saltillo.)

The salvo against the ALDF for its approval of same-sex marriage was only the latest in a series of tart editorials and statements from the archdiocese against the ALDF and the Chamber of Deputies. Past salvos have taken issue with lawmakers' lavish salaries, partisan political posturings, and their supposed frivolity in the face of the serious economic and social problems facing the country. The archdiocese went even further than just blasting the ALDF for approving same-sex marriage, however. The archdiocese issued an especially grumpy Christmas statement blasting the recently approved Mexico City budget, which increases taxes and metro fares and imposes a new water tariff regime that is meant to stave off forced water rationing in 2010.

"Why is the [majority] PRD, a fierce opponent of federal taxes, such a thief on local (taxes)?" the archdiocese asked.

"Will it be that they need more money to sustain corruption in the boroughs and the scandalous budgets of local deputies that they only use to approve criminal laws such as the one for abortion, immoral ones such as weddings between homosexuals and unjust ones such as the adoption by couples of the same sex.

Going beyond the ALDF, the archdiocese took issue with federal lawmakers, too. A Dec. 1 editorial asked federal lawmakers "to set the example" and take less generous Christmas bonuses, known as an aguinaldos.

The 500 deputies took their usual bonuses - a pro-rated sum of 65,000 pesos this year. The bonuses also included 9,157 pesos in coupons for a Christmas dinner.

At least there was no re-run of last year, when the deputies were reimbursed the money from their aguinaldos that had been deducted in taxes.

16 December 2009

PRD kingpin quits party


A PRD senator on the losing end of a power struggle in the Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa has quit the left-wing party.

Sen. René Arce - PRD power boss in Iztapalapa, one of the biggest local-level jurisdictions in Mexico and one of the party's most populous bastions of support - announced his departure Dec. 15 in a move that had been expected, but underscored the ongoing disunity and disarray in the Mexican left. In an open letter to PRD president Jesús Ortega, Arce expressed dismay with the refusal of the party's hardline factions to negotiate with political rivals - such as the PAN and PRI, parties that former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador brands, "The mafia" - or advance structural reforms in areas such as taxation and the petroleum sector.

"Our country requires a left, that, without fear of the taboos of the old marxist left or of the anachronistic revolutionary nationalism, is willing to reach broad national agreements, including [agreements] with those in all sectors of society and with our political adversaries," Arce said.

The comments were pointed directly at López Obrador, who has admonished PRD members to avoid all dealings with the PAN and PRI and crusaded tirelessly - and unsuccessfully - last year against plans to allow greater private sector participation in the state-controlled petroleum sector.

Arce had crossed swords with López Obrador over the years, but the feuding between the two intensified after the latter narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election.

The senator had been a key organizer in a PRD faction known as the New Left, which is loyal to Ortega and narrowly prevented López Obrador's preferred candidate, Alejandro Encinas, from winning the 2008 internal election. (The electoral tribunal [Trife] overturned the annulled internal election and awarded the PRD presidency to Ortega.)

López Obrador, aided by ace Mexico City organizer René Bejarano and the PRD's IDN faction, took revenge on the New Left and Arce in the March 2009 primary election for PRD borough chief candidate in Iztapalapa, however. (Arce and his brother, Víctor Hugo Cirigo, were previously borough chiefs in Iztapalapa and Arce's ex-wife Silvia Oliva competed in the 2009 PRD primary.)

The former Mexico City mayor later ousted the Arce clan from Iztapalapa. He promoted the successful primary candidacy of Clara Brugada, although she was disqualified in June by the Trife due to irregularities at some of the polling stations in the primary election. The Trife decision set in motion the "Juanito" saga in which López Obrador co-opted the PT campaign of Rafael Acosta and had Acosta promise to step aside for Brugada if the PT won the election. Juanito won on July 5, held office briefly, but took leave so that Brugada could take his place. (Read about the Juanito saga here and here.)

López Obrador's Iztapalapa coup severely weakened the New Left. Ortega also appeared to be weakened as party president and unable or unwilling to intervene in Iztapalapa on Arce's behalf. According to some columnists, Ortega has stayed out of Iztapalapa in an attempt to make peace with the López Obrador factions so that he could launch a bid for the Mexico City mayor's office in 2012.

Arce is reportedly trying to form a new local party with former Chamber of Deputies speaker Ruth Zavaleta - who also resigned from the PRD - that would most likely align itself with the PRI.

Already, Adrián Rueda wrote in his La Razón newspaper column that Arce has a political association that could be converted into a political party. But even before any party is formed, Rueda reported Dec. 16 that Arce was creating headaches for the local PRD in the Mexico City Assembly, where three Arce loyalists also quit the PRD. Their departures deprive the PRD of a majority in the Assembly and thus means that the leadership in the Assembly will be rotated among the represented parties - the PRD had been in position to hold the Assembly leadership for the next three years.

15 December 2009

President unveils political system overhaul

Calderón's proposed political reforms include reelection, run-off elections and fewer federal lawmakers

President Felipe Calderón unveiled a proposal on Dec. 15 for staging run-offs in future presidential elections. The process would pit the two biggest vote-winners in a run-off election to determine a clear victor - and presumably avoid a rerun of the narrow 2006 presidential contest, when Calderón narrowly won by less than a single percentage point and the scorned runner-up, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, derided the process as rigged.

The president unveiled the proposal as part of a 10-point plan for overhauling an oft-maligned political system that is dominated by powerful political parties and, according to some observers, run by an irresponsible political class that lacks both professionalism and accountability to voters.

The 10-point plan
fulfilled a promise made earlier this fall to advance reforms such as the reelection of legislators and mayors, introduce the possibility of holding referendums and allowing for the election of independent candidates.

Calderón's proposals include those ideas, but, if the version he sent to Congress is approved, it would also eliminate the Senate seats distributed through proportional representation and reduce the number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies by 25 percent.

Other proposals call for allowing citizens and the Supreme Court to propose laws and creating a mechanism for the president to critique legislation already approved by Congress before signing it into law. (Torreón-based writer Patrick Corcoran of the Gancho blog compares this to a version of the line-item veto.)

One proposal could potentially imperil the nation's minor political parties - the Green Party, Labor Party, Convergence party and New Alliance - by raising the minimum-vote threshold necessary for them to maintain their registrations with the Federal Electoral Institute from two percent to four percent.

Opposition lawmakers greeted the president's plan with muted enthusiasm. Senate president Carlos Navarrete of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) groused about the president sending the plan to Congress on the final day of the ordinary sessions. (The permanent commission of Congress begins sitting next week.)

"The president likes to wait until the minute and send it in a nick of time, well, he needs to understand that Congress will take its time evaluating the proposals," he told reporters.

Navarrete - described in news reports as being "bothered" by the president's timing - said debate would likely begin in February.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), meanwhile, questioned the president's motives and timing and suggested that Calderón was pursuing diversionary tactics.

"It seems that this change of direction comes after the adverse and precarious results with which the executive arrives at the second half of its government ... in the economic and security matters that were its priorities" said PRI Sen. Pedro Joaquín Coldwell, president of the constitutional points committee.

Still, some in the PRI appeared open to holding discussions with the president, although Coldwell raised the possibility of his party pursuing other reforms such as an overhaul of the presidency itself and giving Congress more of a role in vetting presidential appointments. (PRI heavyweight, Sen. Manlio Fabio Beltrones has long called for creating a "cabinet chief" position, while Coldwell said the PRI wanted to end the "cronyism" in Calderón's cabinet selections.)

State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto appeared even more cautious that his Senate counterparts. He told reporters that he opposed reelection for historical reasons that go back to the national mythology that constant reelection during the rein of Former President Porfirio Díaz provoked social unrest and led to the Revolution.

Peña Nieto, an early favority for the 2012 PRI presidential nomination, previously has said that he instead favours extending legislative and mayoral terms from three years to four years. His support for any proposals could be key as he reputedly wields enormous influence over the roughly 40 PRI lower-house lawmakers from his home state.

For his part, López Obrador blasted the Calderón proposal for a run-off election. In a Twitter posting, he said, "The mafia want a run-off in the elections. They think that with Televisa and their two parties [PAN and PRI], they're going to keep themselves in power forever."

Calderón and López Obrador both claimed 35 percent of the 2006 popular vote; most analysts say that a run-off would have undoubtably gone in favor of the PAN.

12 December 2009

Influence of Our Lady of Guadalupe still strong

Sandcastle in Puerto Vallarta
A sand sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on display in Puerto Vallarta

A majority of Mexicans still confess a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, according to a survey published in the Spanish newspaper, El Pais.

The telephone survey by Mexico City pollster Maria de las Heras found 64 percent of respondents “confess a strong devotion” to Guadalupe.

Another 40 percent of respondents “profess that they have personally received a favor or miracle” from Guadalupe, de las Heras said. Some 28 percent of respondents reported that they visit the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe at least once per year, while a similar number say they visited the site multiple times each year.

The survey reflects the enormous influence of Guadalupe over Mexican society. As de las Heras put it: "It's impossible to understand Mexico without knowing Mexicans' devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe."

It also comes on the eve of Dec. 12, when millions of followers converge on the basilica to celebrate the anniversary of Guadalupe’s appearance at Tepeyac Hill in what is now northern Mexico City.

Father Jose de Jesus Aguilar Valdes, director of radio and television for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said that the number of visitors to the basilica has increased over the past year due to the economic crisis in Mexico that has sent unemployment to record-high levels and plunged millions of families into poverty.

Local officials in the borough of Gustavo A. Madero - which includes the basilica - estimated that 5.1 million pilgrims visited the Basilica de Guadalupe this year.

Catholics believe that Guadalupe appeared before Juan Diego – then an indigenous farmer – at Tepeyac Hill in 1531. Juan Diego was canonized in 1999, although a former rector of the basilica, Guillermo Schulenburg, was against the canonization and didn't entirely accept the story of Guadalupe making an appearance at Tepeyac. He also doubted the existence of Juan Diego.

The influence of Guadalupe on Mexican society has been strong for nearly five centuries, however. Her influence extends beyond Mexico, too. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega fulfilled a campaign promise to visit the shrine after winning power in 2007. Former FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt visited the basilica in 2008, saying that she had prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe while being held in the Colombian jungle.

De las Heras wrote, “(Our Lady of Guadalupe) is more than a religious symbol,” and that for 42 percent of Mexicans, “She is also a patriotic symbol like the flag or national coat of arms … that more than a few social movement leaders throughout our history have taken advantage of.”

Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of Mexican Independence, was perhaps the most prominent of those leaders; he adopted a Guadalupe banner in 1810 to rally followers to the cause of overthrowing Spanish colonial rule. More recently, the leadership of a union representing fired utility workers adopted a similar banner for its protest marches that attempted to shut down Mexico City.

Church leaders in November condemned the use of Guadalupe by any group pursuing political ends.

Our course, foreigners also try to leverage Guadalupe's popularity. Then-presidential candidate John McCain made a well-publicized appearance at the basilica during the 2008 election campaign - perhaps an attempt to win favour with Latino voters and shave the rough edges off of a party known for negative views toward undocumented migrants. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited the basilica in 2009 as part of a trip to Mexico that was marked by her insisting that Mexico was not a failed state.

11 December 2009

Adios Juanito

Casa de Campaña
Juanito's campaign office and home in Iztapalapa

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard finally snookered Rafael Acosta, the vendor-turned-politician better known as "Juanito," by forcing his departure from the borough chief's office in the capital's most populous borough, Iztapalapa.

His unceremonious departure ends a colourful political run for the headband-wearing antihero, whose ascent to the top job in one of the country's most populous jurisdictions was both improbable and unseemly.

The mayor proposed that Clara Brugada - the Andrés Manuel López Obrador loyalist that the electoral tribunal disqualified from the July 5 borough chief election - take over in Iztapalapa. Brugada had governed in Iztapalapa for 59 days until Juanito ended a leave of absence in late November. He later fired her as judicial director after taking his office. (Taking a leave of absence fulfilled a promise he made during the election campaign, when he lent his candidacy for the Labor Party (PT) to Brugada.)

Media reports say that Juanito met with Ebrard earlier in the week, when he was presented with evidence showing that he had supposedly registered for the election with a false birth certificate. Juanito apparently used that false birth certificate - unwittingly or not - to obtain an IFE voting credential and CURP identification. How the mayor and Clara Brugada obtained the documents is still unknown, although officials in the capital were quick to also produce evidence that one of Juanito's closest collaborators failed to declare her full net worth while she held a position in the PAN-run borough government of Miguel Hidalgo.

Juanito apparently quit upon learning that he potentially faced up to eight years in prison - double for being a public servant - for the local and federal crimes of using false documents.

He told Radio Formula on Dec. 11 that the PT handled his documents for registering as a candidate in the July 5 election. But Juanito denied that the prospect of prison motivated his departure - and suggested that the PT lost his original document. Instead, he said, he left because of "the problems that were taking place every day in Iztapalapa.

"When I was a candidate, I wanted peace and quiet and if I wasn't personally well received, I prefer to step aside so that for someone other than Clara Brugada."

Brugada's supporters had surrounded the Iztapalapa borough offices and had hindered access to the building at times last week.

Ebrard has proposed that Brugada take over again in Iztapalapa. The Mexico City Assembly still must approve his proposal, but the PRD is divided over her return. The factions loyal to López Obrador and the PT only have 32 of the necessary 34 votes, according to the Reforma newspaper. The PAN, PRI and Green Party all want nothing to do with Brugada.

Seven members from the PRD's New Left faction hold the balance of power, but it's uncertain if they would back Brugada. Iztapalapa, of course, had been the main power base of the New Left and its Mexico City lieutenant, Sen. René Arce.

Ironically, Arce's ex-wife, Silvia Oliva, was defeated by Brugada in the PRD primary. Later, the electoral tribunal overturned Brugada's primary victory and named Oliva the candidate. López Obrador and Brugada extracted their revenge, however. They co-opted Juanito's campaign and ousted the Arce clan from the Iztapalapa borough government. Why the New Left members would now do any favors for Brugada is uncertain - especially with Arce on the brink of leaving the PRD.

05 December 2009

Juanito takes over

Desde la delegación Iztapalapa

"You're fired!" Rafael Acosta - aka, "Juanito" - said that in so many words to his stand-in, Clara Brugada, after he took over the Iztapalapa borough offices last week.

Juanito, of course, is the elected borough chief of Iztapalapa, who ended a leave of absence that he took after taking his oath of office Oct. 1. Brugada, meanwhile, was the judicial director of Iztapalapa and, for 59 days, the acting borough chief. She was borough chief until Juanito took back his office. He subsequently fired Brugada from her judicial director post and relieved many of her closest collaborators in the Iztapalapa government, too.

The return of Juanito to his elected post - a move that broke a non-binding promise made in public June 16 to step aside for Brugada if he won the July 5 election - has revived an ongoing political soap opera over control of the capital's most populous borough. It also deepened divisions in the country's political left and exposed some of the more unseemly staples of Mexican political culture.

Juanito - to recap - was registered as the PT candidate in Iztapalapa, while Brugada was registered as the PRD candidate. The electoral tribunal disqualified Brugada in June, but López Obrador - who is staunchly backed by the PT - co-opted the Juanito campaign, and had Juanito swear an oath that he would take leave after winning the election in favor of Brugada.

Juanito won, but had second thoughts and ultimately turned on López Obrador.

He acknowledged his sly acts at a press conference last week, saying that he "pulled a coup" on the "López Obrador mafia," and that the Brudada camp would accuse him of just about anything to win his ouster.

"Juanito is accused of everything," he told reporters. "If Clara Brugada gets pregnant, they're going to say it was Juanito."

For her part Brugada refuses to go quietly. Her supporters - many culled from the so-called "frentes" that agitate for housing and run political machines in run-down areas of Iztapalapa - have occupied the esplanade outside the Iztapalapa borough offices since Juanito's return and have blocked access to the building on at least once. They even prevented Juanito from lighting the borough's Christmas tree on Dec. 4 - or so Juanito said after canceling the event.

Flanked by the Frente Popular Francisco Villa - the same frente linked to the pirate taxi business in Mexico City - Brugado marched Dec. 1 from the Zócalo to the Mexico City Assembly (ALDF). Arms locked, her followers chanted slogans to the effect of, "Juanito go to hell," and waved acerbic placards that demanded Juanito's ouster.

Brugada and her allies branded Juanito, "Crazy" - something they failed to fully recognize when they struck a deal with him to take office and then take leave.

Chamber of Deputies rabble rouser Gerardo Fernández Noroña branded Juanito, "A presta nombre," or someone that lends their name or license to another person to circumvent the law. (In fact, Juanito was a "presta nombre" for López Obrador, but withdrew his consent.)

PRD Assembly spokesman, Alejandro Sánchez, went so far as to say Juanito should be ousted because he was not "morally apt" to hold office. His comments drew a sarcastic response from La Razón columnist Adrián Rueda, who pointed to Sanchez's standing within the PRD's IDN faction - the same faction founded by ace organizer Rene Bejarano. Bejarano, of course, was caught on tape in 2003 stuffing wads of cash from a developer into a suitcase. (Bejarano was exonerated on all charges stemming from the incident.)

Brugada loyalists in the ALDF have filed a motion that would remove Juanito from his post due to "ungovernability" in the borough. The measure needs two-thirds support to pass in the ALDF.

The motion seemed improbable, considering that its backers decried similar attempts in 2005 to strip then-mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of his immunity from prosecution - a process known as the desafuero - and prevent him from running in the 2006 presidential election.

An ALDF committee is studying the removal of Juanito and is expected to report back by the end of December. Juanito's critics allege that his entering the borough office through a back door - and thus not having a proper transfer of power ceremony - bringing a locksmith to gain entry to the borough chief's office and not presenting a report on the state of the installations that he took over are serious enough transgressions to support his ouster.

They also accused the PAN of being behind Juanito. The man that launched Juanito's improbable run to the borough office, López Obrador, meanwhile, blamed a familiar whipping boy: former president Carlos Salinas. He blamed his latest target, State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto, too.

During a radio interview with Joaquín López Dóriga, López Obrador denied allegations that he coveted Iztapalapa because of its more than three-billion-peso budget, saying that he only cared about the "wellbeing" of residents in the capital's most downtrodden borough.

Juanito has accused López Obrador of wanting to use Iztapalapa's budget as his "piggy bank" to finance another presidential run in 2012.

The PAN, meanwhile, has denied being behind Juanito, but his ascent has stirred some discomfort for the No. 2 party in Mexico City - one that generally performs well in the wealthier parts of the capital and does poorly in places such as Iztapalapa.

Juanito appointed Alejandra Nuñez, a former head of markets in the borough of Miguel Hidalgo under then borough chief Gabriel Cuevas - who is now president of the Federal District committee in the Chamber of Deputies - to Brugada's old job. But Nuñez ran into controversy almost immediately as it was revealed that she never fully disclosed her full net worth during her time in the Miguel Hidalgo post.

Mexico City comptroller almost immediately found Nuñez unfit for her position - an act of "unusual efficiency" for the comptroller, according to Rueda.

Cuevas and other Panistas seemed to waver on the issue, saying that that Juanito couldn't ensure governability in the borough.

The PAN also appeared to come out in favor a position outlined by the PRI - which has eight members in the 66-seat ALDF - that said it would back neither Juanito or Brugada and would prefer a third option.

That might just come to pass as analysts say that the Brugada supporters in the ALDF lack sufficient support to depose Juanito. One report in the El Universal political gossip column, Bajo Reserva, suggested that some in the PRD viewed Brugada a poor political operator; she lost her grip on the borough to Juanito - a former vendor, actor and waiter.

Juanito picked up one improbably endorsement, however. The business group Coparmex-DF said Juanito should govern since he won the election - even though it's highly doubtful its members would have trusted Juanito to so much as wash their cars prior to his turning against López Obrador, whom business groups savaged with attacks in the 2006 election campaign and branded a danger for Mexico.

01 December 2009

Increasing Decentralization Stirs Disquiet in Mexico

Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto

State of Mexico Governor, Enrique Peña Nieto, arrives Nov. 12 for a meeting with Mexico's Catholic bishops' conference in Cuautitlán Izcalli.

David Agren | 01 Dec 2009
World Politics Review

MEXICO CITY -- Lower house lawmakers convened into the wee hours of the Revolution Day long weekend, Nov. 16, to approve the spending portions of Mexico's 2010 budget, which had been bogged down by demands for increased spending on the beleaguered rural economy from campesino groups linked to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The campesino groups got most of what they asked for, but according to the subsequent media spin, the PRI's 19 state governors emerged as the real winners in the budget process -- the first since the PRI and its ally, the Green Party, won control of the lower house in the July 5 mid-term elections.

The governors received funding for highways and public works projects such as plazas and charro rings -- the outdoor arenas that host Mexican-style rodeo events. Conveniently, they also extracted more money for states staging gubernatorial races in 2010 -- as well as for the populous state of Mexico, whose governor, the PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto, is the early favorite for the party's 2012 presidential nomination. The governors even secured concessions that loosen some of the accountability for funds flowing to the state and local levels, where discretion spending can be the norm and transparency is often lacking.

The rest of the article can be viewed here, at World Politics Review.

29 November 2009

Juanito's back - and this time it's for real

Juanito signage in Iztapalpa
"Juanito" has announced his return to the borough government of Iztapalapa after taking leave Oct. 1 to make way for Clara Brugada, the preferred candidate of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The newspaper Reforma summed up the ongoing Juanito saga best with its Sunday headline: The show returns to Iztapalapa.

The show features an emboldened Rafael "Juanito" Acosta, the headband-wearing, Iztapalapa borough chief with a leave of absence, taking back the office that he ceded to a die-hard loyalist of Andrés Manuel López Obrador that had been disqualified from the July 5 election by the federal electoral tribunal (Trife).

Juanito entered the borough offices through a back door over the weekend and defiantly promised that he would only leave if "they drag me out dead," according to the newspaper Milenio.

"They used me. Now I'm using them," he added.

But the show also features scorned López Obrador followers threatening to prevent Juanito from retaking his elected office. The López Obrador faction in the Mexico City Assembly (ALDF) already has promised to find "legal" ways to remove Juanito from his office, while supporters of the acting borough chief Clara Brugada - including the various "frentes" that agitate for housing in impoverished parts of the borough a and reputedly run the pirate taxi business in the capital - have surrounded the borough office in Iztapalalpa.

Brugada convened an estimated 500 supporters on Saturday night, when she alleged that Juanito was mentally unfit to hold public office and that he was provoking "ungovernability" in Iztapalapa.

"We're going to demand through peaceful means that Juanito keep his word. We're not going to allow social disorder in Iztapalapa," she told her supporters.

The Juanito saga began in June, when the Trife disqualified then-PRD candidate Brugada from the borough chief election due to irregularities at some of the polling stations in the PRD primary elections. Juanito, then-candidate for the PT, was then recruited by López Obrador to run - with López Obrador's backing - and then step aside in favor of Brugada after winning the election. Juanito had second thoughts after the election, but ultimately stepped aside for Brugada.

Juanito's return is provoking headaches for more than just López Obrador, however.

Mayor Marcelo Ebrard deemed the political crisis in the capital's largest borough so urgent that he returned early from a trip and met with Juanito on Sunday morning. The two men had met previously in late September - mere days before Juanito took his oath of office - after which time Juanito decided to take leave and informed the media that he suffered from poor health.

Juanito emerged from the latest meeting undeterred from his plans to retake his office - even though he revealed that Ebrard had offered him the top job in the capital government's sports institute. (Olympic medalist Ana Guevara previously held the job.) He demanded that more security be supplied - he plans on living in the borough office - and said that he would ask President Felipe Calderón for assistance if the Mexico City government failed to comply.

Juanito's motives for ending his 59-day leave of absence remain somewhat uncertain. And although he had said over the past month that he would return to running Iztapalapa, his pronouncements were largely disregarded. He also seemed to be moving beyond politics and capitalizing on his celebrity. Juanito was starring in a play and reportedly had been approached about being a correspondent for a Mexican broadcaster at the World Cup in South Africa. He had been pathetically carting around a statue of himself on a dolly, looking for a place to put it.

It also was no secret that Juanito's relationship with the PT had soured since the election. Juanito had been living in a Colonia Juárez hotel since shortly after the election due to fears for his safety in Iztapalapa, but the PT had stopped the bill last week, according to media reports.

Toward the end of November, Juanito let his scorn be known for Brugada and López Obrador - the latter being a man he passionately supported over the years.

"I asked for leave (Oct. 1) because everyone was against me. Clara Brugada and the López Obrador mafia attacked me with everything and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to govern," he told the newspaper La Razón on Nov. 27.

"I knew that López Obrador, along with Clara Brugada, were going to find a confrontation and blame it on me. I preferred to avoid that and that blood not run."

That scorn extended into Brugada's governance in Iztapalapa and the alleged irregularities in the management of social programs.

Brugada already had raised eyebrows by requesting a 50 percent budget increase for Iztapalapa from the capital government. She also fired some 4,000 employees from the former regime - a frequent occurrence in Mexico when governments are changed.

Juanito called the 4.5 billion pesos that Brugada asked for, "Exaggerated," and alleged, "López Obrador saw Iztapalapa as a jackpot and was going to take from it for his campaign" in 2012.

María Teresa López, Iztapalapa social development director and a Juanito loyalist, told Reforma that since Oct. 1, "(Brugada) has controlled social programs and now we're going to review the management that she was doing of these resources and these beneficiary lists because there's been discretionality."

Juanito may not be so squeaky clean, either.

La Razón columnist Adrián Rueda wrote earlier this month that Ebrard had confronted Juanito back in September with proof that "Rafael Acosta has received a large amount of money from Nueva Viga investors and offers to grant permits to garages interested in dealing stolen auto parts."

How the situation in Iztapalapa unfolds remains to be seen.

The ALDF is expected to address the Iztapalapa situation during its next session on Dec. 1. It's uncertain if the López Obrador faction of the PRD and the PT have sufficient votes to oust Juanito, however. Brugada predicted a lack of governability and "paralisys" due to a suspension in services in Iztapalapa. As proof, Brugada alleged on Sunday that 250,000 homes in Iztapalapa lacked water service - even though the borough government has nothing to do with water service.

For his part, Juanito appears to be going nowhere. He told reporters after meeting with Ebrard: "(The mayor) proposed that I keep Clara in her position and I told him, 'I'm the borough chief and I'm going to stay in Iztapalapa."

28 November 2009

Former Chamber speaker resigns from PRD

Ruth Zavaleta

Ruth Zavaleta, the former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, who jumped into politics and activism after the 1985 earthquake destroyed her Mexico City home, resigned Friday from the left-wing party she helped to found 20 years ago.

In her resignation letter, Zavelta spoke of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) - which was reduced to third-place status in the Chamber after the July 5 midterm elections - as a lost cause. She also mentioned "intolerance" toward the factions that wanted the PRD to move beyond its self-imposed isolation in the legislature and its anti-establishment posturing. Zavaleta instead wanted the PRD to become part of the political establishment and broker deals with rival parties and the federal government - a federal government that loyalists of 2006 PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador consider to be "illegitimate" and refuse to recognize.

"At this time and since the July 5 election, I don't share the way of doing politics in the PRD," Zavaleta said in her letter.

Zavaleta didn't mention López Obrador by name in her letter, but one long-time enemy of the self-declared "legitimate president," former PRD director of political formation, Fernando Belaunzarán, told the newspaper La Razón that she had tired of the "Stalinist intolerance against her," and, "she was attacked in a hypocritical way."

La Razón columnist Adrián Rueda, meanwhile, suggested on Friday that Zavaleta was disappointed that PRD president Jesús Ortega refused to endorse her aspirations for the 2011 gubernatorial race in her birth state of Guerrero - a move that "accelerated" her resignation.

The decision surprised many, but mostly due to the timing of Zavaleta's departure. The PRD holds a "refoundation" forum Dec. 3 - Dec. 6 that has been organized in response to the party's scandalous 2008 leadership race - that Ortega won by barely 16,000 votes and was settled by the federal electoral tribunal - and could result in disaffected factions and members heading for the exits.

Zavaleta expressed pessimism that the forum would produce results.

"I'm not willing to participate in the supposed discussion on the refounding of the PRD because I don't believe that discussion will be had," she said in her letter.

Her departure reflects the ongoing divisions in the PRD as the New Left, a faction loyal to Ortega that favors dialogue with other parties and the federal government, continues to clash with the factions loyal to López Obrador.

Zavaleta - a former New Left member - favored dialogue with the federal government and reflected that posture during her September 2007 - August 2008 tenure as Chamber speaker.

During her tenure, she said that she had a duty to act in an "institutional manner," which meant dealing with the executive branch of government and allowing debate on legislation that might offend the López Obrador faction - such as energy reform. She became the darling of the PAN and Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), however. Then PAN Chamber leader Hector Larios called her, "A star." But Zavaleta enraged parts of her own PRD, whose members so disliked her that on one occasion they failed to vigorously condemn death threats against her.

López Obrador, meanwhile, leveled misogynistic insults after she met with then interior minister Juan Camilo Mouriño - who López Obrador was trying to scalp for allegations that the Campeche native steered Pemex contracts to family businesses. Then-PRD spokesman Gerardo Noroña Fernández also uttered threats against her after she was seen exchanging pleasantries with First Lady Margarita Zavala at a forum on addictions. (Zavaleta responded to López Obrador by calling him, "A man looking for a fight.")

In some ways, though, Zavaleta was a media creation: She had long been a PRD militant and previously served as borough chief in Venustiano Carranaza, but she held a low political profile prior to her becoming speaker.

Her time as speaker was marked by turbulence; the Chamber approved sweeping reforms to the electoral and criminal justice systems, but was shutdown for 16 days by López Obrador loyalists to prevent the introduction of a bill that would reform the petroleum sector. (The bill was eventually passed in October 2008.) Zavaleta became even less popular among the PRD during the shutdown by presiding over sessions convened in an alternate location that allowed the PAN and PRI to approve legislation that weakened the PRD hammerlock on the Mexico City Assembly.

Her tenure ended with a gala departure, but her career since then has been somewhat quiet. Sources say that she had wanted to replace Javier "El Guero" González Garza as PRD leader in the Chamber, but the internal opposition was too strong. Her aspirations to run as PRD gubernatorial candidate in Guerrero also apparently floundered.

Even though Zavaleta has left the PRD, her fortunes, ironically, may be tied to what transpires in the PRD's refoundation forum next month. Rueda - whose daily column in La Razón is required reading for understanding local politics - wrote Friday that Sen. René Arce, the New Left political boss in Mexico City, has a "political association" registered in the capital that might be converted into a new local party before the 2012 elections.

"They will look to consolidate the new party by negotiating in 2012 with whoever has to gain and seek power in Mexico City," Rueda wrote. That might well be the PRI, which is gaining strength nationally, but is weak in the capital.

Zavaleta has said that she won't join another political party, although the PAN has already come calling with César Nava saying that the doors are open for "distinguished citizen" like her. (Zavaleta is reportedly friends with several senior Panístas, including Zavala and Social Development Secretary, Ernesto Cordero - the latter being a member of President Felipe Calderón's inner circle.) But with her media savvy and a cache of good will from former rivals for her work as speaker, her political future remains bright - and most likely lies with a non-left-wing party.

30 October 2009

Political unrest drags down Honduran economy

Cornhusk doll vendors
Indigenous Chorti Maya in the pueblo of La Pintada near the Copan Ruins sell homemade cornhusk dolls, but sales have dropped since the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya on June 28.

The Honduras political crisis - which appears close to being resolved - deepened the economic misery in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. Most Hondurans I spoke with during a recent 12-day trip said that their personal economic situations had worsened due to the political crisis and most wanted nothing more for the elected president (Manuel Zelaya) and interim president (Roberto Mitcheletti) to reach some sort of agreement - any agreement.

The pain was very obvious in Copán Ruinas, a tourist town near the Guatemala border that was being bypassed by travellers on the well-worn Central American backpacker trail. Zelaya's ouster along with the subsequent protests and curfew scared off many potential travellers. Some in Copán Ruinas blamed Guatemalan tourism officials for spreading erroneous information about the border being closed in an effort to keep travellers from crossing into Honduras. The tourism minister from the Zelaya's regime - who was recognized by other Central American governments - also told potential travellers: stay away.

Still, even with the political crisis about to end, the economic situation isn't expected to just miraculously bounce back.

Here are the first few lines from my dispatch on the Honduran economy for Catholic News Service:

Political unrest drags down Honduran economy

COPAN RUINAS, Honduras (CNS) -- Oscar Garcia used to sell 100 pounds of tomatoes every day in the municipal market of this colonial town near the Guatemalan border. Since the June 28 ouster of President Manuel Zeyala, Garcia sells just 40 pounds of tomatoes and has to moonlight as a hotel security guard to support his family.

"I'm working day and night and it's barely enough," said Garcia, the father of four. "There are people here starving to death because of the political crisis."

The June 28 coup plunged Honduras into a political crisis, but also deepened long-standing economic problems in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. Over the past four months, exports have diminished, citizens have reduced their spending and international development aid has been suspended.

Read the
full story here.

19 October 2009

Church revisits role of priests who supported Mexican independence

Photo of José María Morelos mural in Morelia, Michoacán, by Steven H. Miller

By David Agren (Catholic News Service)

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Revelers, clutching flags and clad in patriotic colors -- red, white and green -- gathered in town squares across Mexico earlier this year to celebrate the country's independence with fireworks, music and lusty calls of "Viva Mexico."

They also feted a revolutionary hero, Father Miguel Hidalgo Costilla, with re-enactments of the "grito," his 1810 call for independence from Spanish rule.

The celebrations this year kicked off the countdown to the bicentennial of Mexican independence along with the countdown to the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted in 1910 against the dictatorial rule of President Porfirio Diaz.

But the celebrations ushered in controversy for Catholic officials, who have been attempting to clarify the church's role in the historical event that was ignited by Father Hidalgo's fiery sermon but staunchly opposed by the church hierarchy of the day.

Various dioceses have published editorials and pronouncements on the independence movement. The Mexican bishops' conference, meanwhile, has established a commission for both the bicentennial and centennial. The bishops also sponsored a September conference on the church's role in the independence movement, which pitted the indigenous and mestizo populations, along with "criollos" -- Mexicans of Spanish origin, but born in the New World -- against the reigning Spanish-born elite known as "peninsulares."

The peninsulares, according to historians, were supported by the Catholic hierarchy of the day, although an especially terse editorial by Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara sought to dispel views that Catholics were entirely against the independence movement.

"Mexico always has suffered from a false official history that presents people and events in black and white, when, in everything, there are nuances," Cardinal Sandoval said Sept. 20 in an editorial published by Semanario, an Archdiocese of Guadalajara publication.

"Enemies of the church have wanted ... to obscure the merit of more than 400 priests that took up arms at that time to fight for independence," he wrote.

The various statements have been especially forceful regarding Father Hidalgo, a national icon, whose face adorns bank notes and whose name is given to roadways across the country.

The excommunications of Father Hidalgo and Father Jose Maria Morelos, a fellow independence leader, have provoked controversy for nearly two centuries and have been a source of friction between the church and the nation's political and intellectual elites.

The most recent controversy over Father Hidalgo was provoked by the Mexico City Archdiocese's response to a request from a congressional commission responsible for organizing bicentennial activities. The commission had asked for the intervention of Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City in petitioning the Vatican for the removal of the independence heroes' excommunications. The archdiocese issued a public response Aug. 28 on its Web site that said such a request was impossible because neither man had been properly excommunicated.

The excommunications were invalid, according to archdiocesan archivist Father Gustavo Watson and other church officials, because it was carried out by Manuel Abad Queipo, bishop-designate of Michoacan, who lacked the authority to do so and whose title of bishop was never confirmed by the Vatican.

Additionally, church records show that Father Hidalgo confessed in a Chihuahua convent before dying, was given the sacraments by Franciscan brothers and was buried in a church cemetery. Father Morelos also confessed prior to his 1815 execution, Father Watson said.

"They died inside the Catholic Church and died as priests," Father Watson said. "Therefore, there's no reason to ask that the excommunication be lifted."

Despite the statements and release of new evidence, attempts to change minds could prove difficult. Mexican textbooks teach that the two priests were excommunicated for their activities, although Public Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio told reporters in September that possible revisions would "be studied."

Some historians, meanwhile, accuse the church of trying to revise history and rehabilitate its image in the prelude to the bicentennial.

Political historian Ilan Semo of the Jesuit-run Universidad Iberoamericano in Mexico City concurred that Fathers Hidalgo and Morelos did not die excommunicated, but said church officials were being selective in their historical interpretations.

"The church opposed the independence movement," Semo said. "There were isolated priests in support ... but the hierarchy was against it."

Church officials, however, have called for wiping the slate clean and moving forward.

"Let us not be prisoners of the past," said Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia, president of the bishops' conference's commission on the centennial and bicentennial, told participants at a September forum, "The Church and Independence."

"Let us learn from the path of forgiveness and the purification of memories (so that) the evils of yesteryear don't nourish the hatred that continues doing damage ... and, above all, are not repeated."

01 October 2009

Juanito: The rest of the story

Rafael Acosta "Juanito"

Ice cream-vend0r-turned-Iztapalapa-borough-chief-for-five-minutes Rafael Acosta - better known as "Juanito" - at the PRD 19th anniversary celebrations on May 5, 2008 in Mexico City's Col. Juárez.

Rafael Acosta, better known as "Juanito," took the oath of office as borough chief for Iztapalapa on Oct. 1. He then promptly asked for a leave of absence.

His departure ends one of the biggest political melodramas in recent memory - one that vaulted him into stardom as a sort of antihero: a headband-wearing, ice cream-vending, system-fighting, junior-high-school-educated, man-from-the-barrio, who gained widespread affection by defying the mandates of the country's so-called legitimate president and risking the wrath of a shadowy political machine that made it unsafe for him to hold public office.

Juanito showed that defiance one last time on Oct. 1, when he yelled during the swearing in ceremony, "Death to the PT for betrayal" - a jab at the left-wing party that he ran for in the July 5 election, and later pushed him aside as part of its job of doing the legitimate president's political bidding.

By taking leave, Juanito fulfilled a non-binding promise to cede control of perhaps the county's most populated local-level jurisdiction - and 3.5-billion-peso budget - to Clara Brugada, a former federal deputy and die-hard loyalist of former presidential candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, the man who masquerades as the Mexico's, "legitimate president" and leads an alternative government.

Juanito's decision to step aside has been interpreted by many observers as an AMLO victory - one that will propel him toward another presidential candidacy in 2012, and weaken his internal rivals in the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), whose political heartland had been Iztapalapa.

But it also highlighted the dark - and some might say, "Undemocratic" - side of AMLO, whose confederates resorted to threats of mob rule and violence and made promises to block Juanito's access to take his oath of office. Some lawmakers even devised legal tricks in the D.F. Assembly that would by hook or by crook oust Juanito from the borough office.

AMLO attack dog Valentina Batres of the PRD summed it up best by caustically warning Juanito, "It's best not to come."

(These are same people that decried the 2005 "desafuero" that would have denied AMLO a spot on the 2006 ballot, but four years later proposed pulling the same underhanded tricks on Juanito.)

Juanito basically acknowledged that fear factored into his decision to step aside. He told reporters after making his decision, "I was going to see deaths. I was going to see violence."

The vitriol and threats underscore the importance of Iztapalapa to Lopez Obrador - whose alternative government has been reportedly short of cash - and pretty much the entire PRD, the dominant party in the capital. Such drama probably never would had played out in another borough such as neighboring Iztacalco, for example.

Iztapalapa unfolds across the eastern part of the Federal District and long has attracted poor migrants from outlying states that come to the capital in search of better economic opportunities. It lacks many things: good water service, drainage and adequate housing, to name but three. The population now numbers roughly two million, 25 percent of all people in the Federal District.

It also had been the power base of the New Left, a PRD faction that departs from AMLO's admonishments to eschew all dealings with the federal government - a government AMLO calls "spurious" and refuses to recognize. The New Left won the disputed 2008 PRD election over AMLO's preferred candidate, Alejandro Encinas, in a race that was eventually settled by the electoral tribunal (Trife).

The New Left had governed Iztapalapa since the first borough election in 2000, when René Arce - now a PRD senator - won control. His brother, former DF Assembly speaker Victor Hugo Cirigo, would follow. For the 2009 election, Arce's wife, Sivila Oliva, was the New Left candidate for the PRD nomination. (Some voters interviewed after voting on July 5 cited "nepotism" and fatigue with the Arce clan for voting against the PRD.)

But D.F. ace organizer Rene Bejarano - the same guy caught on film accepting briefcase full of money from a developer earlier this decade - moved in and swayed it favor of Brugada, who captured the PRD nomination for borough chief. (Bejarano reputedly holds sway over PRD politics in most of the 15 other boroughs.) AMLO had seemingly bested his PRD rivials.

The New Left appealed the primary vote outcome to the Trife, which annulled results from some of the polling stations, giving the nomination to Oliva.

The ruling outraged AMLO, who - once again - branded the Trife a "political mafia" and began campaigning heavily in the borough. But he lacked a registered candidate. Even worse, the Trife ruling allowed no time for registering Brugada as a candidate for another party.

Rafael Acosta had a spot on the ballot as the PT candidate, however. Brugada supporters belittle Juanito as a "Nobody" when asked about him, but he was a familiar fixture at AMLO rallies. He would stand out with his trademark headband - complete with "Juanito" written on it in a felt pen - and placards with acerbic comments.

Juanito seemed like a die hard AMLO loyalist - one that would comply with any order from the "legitimate president." In a brief interview on May 5, 2008, he gave me business card that read: "Luchador Social" (social activist). In fact, he was a jack of all trades: waiter, vendor and B-movie actor, among other things.

He was also immensely political, according to Francisco Sánchez, a vendor selling freshly fried potato chips and bananas from the back of 1970 Chevy Malibu parked kitty-corner to Juanito's home-campaign office in the Pueblo Santa Marta Acatitla neighborhood. Juanito showed his political convictions and AMLO loyalty by resigning from the PRD after the disputed internal elections. He subsequently joined the PT and won its borough chief nomination for a race that is normally a lost cause in heavily PRD Iztapalapa.

The Juanito campaign received little acclaim until AMLO plucked him from obscurity on June 16. In an act of quasi-legitimacy, he made Juanito swear an oath that he would resign in favor of Brudaga after winning office.

AMLO later toured each of Iztapalapa's colonias with Brugada - and often Juanito. Signs went up with AMLO and Brugadas photos that implied Brugada was the PT candidate, even though Juanito's name was on the ballot. The intense campaigning ironically forced AMLO to break his own word as he had promised to only promote PRD candidates in the Federal District. (He always intended to back PT candidates in other parts of the country, spare Tabasco, his home state.)

Juanito won on July 5, along with other candidates for Congress and the Mexico City Assembly that AMLO had been promoting.

Then, almost immediately after winning, Juanito had second thoughts. The borough chief job pays roughly 90,000 pesos per month, involves running the biggest borough in the Federal District - one with more people than municipalities such as Monterrey and Guadalajara - and offers loads of presitige.

As Juanito had second thoughts, his celebrity grew. His pronouncements generated immense media attention - much of it from outlets that AMLO disdains and accuses of bias - even if his style of speaking in the third-person and obvious lack of refinement and knowledge were embarrassing.

And, while AMLO had a dark cloud over his head - often railing against electoral fraud and the skulduggery of former president Carlos Salinas - Juanito, with his impish grin and trademark headband has a sunny disposition and simple manner that won hearts across the country, especially in the working classes and among AMLO's enemies.

Juanito even took jabs at AMLO - which generated even more media attention. He said that he was more popular than the former mayor and that he could have won Iztapalapa on his own. He also confessed to feeling used and disrespected by the Lopez Obrador.

A shopping trip to the Hugo Boss store in upscale Polanco made big news. Even trivialities were gobbled up, including an El Universal interview that revealed his immense liking of Rambo movies, obsession with the Cruz Azul soccer team and his fondness for eating "shrimp with lots of catsup."

Juanito's name even became part of the political vocabulary as media outlets branded the female federal deputies (mostly from the Green Party) that took leave in order to have male colleagues take their places - and mock gender equity rules - "Juanitas." (Juanita referring to someone elected that was never supposed to hold office.)

Some analysts began looking at the bigger of what Juanito represented. Diego Petersen Farah, editor of the Guadalajara newspaper Público called Juanito, "Our mirror," someone whose rise to prominence was essentially an attempt by AMLO to "make fun of the law" - a not infrequent thing in Mexico.

But as his celebrity grew, so did the threats. AMLO loyalists such as Assembly members Alejandro Sánchez Camacho and Aleida Alavez - who obsesses over the allegedly heavy hand of State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto - threatened to block access to the swearing in ceremony.

"Frentes," groups that supposedly agitate for housing, but mobilize votes in marginalized parts of Iztapalapa - read: much of the borough - began making not-so-subtle threats that Juanito better keep his word. Death threats were uttered and signs at a Brugada rally on Sept. 26 spoke of "killing" Juanito.

At a Sept. 26 rally near the Iztapalapa borough office, Brugada spoke of "non-violence" and "democracy," while members of the Frentes began screaming, "Juanito a la chingada." The murky Frente Popular Francisco Villa even began a protest camp and marched to the Zocalo. (The "Pancho Villas" have gained notoriety for its involvement in the pirate taxi business that reputedly funnels money into the local PRD and holding "political workshops" for its drivers that were instructed by the FARC.)

Juanito took refuge in a hotel shortly after winning the July 5 election. He even announced plans to live in the borough office and asked the Federal District government for additional security.

As a combatant, he seemed to give as good as he took - especially in dealing with pronouncements from a scorned López Obrador, whose hyperbole included words to the effect of: There's not enough water in the sea to wash away fraud stains.

Juanito would refer to Brugada as "spurious," the same word AMLO disparages President Felipe Calderón with. He would later say, "The people give orders," vintage AMLO language used to justify controversial acts and protests that have shut down parts of Mexico City.

Up until Sept. 27, when he was photographed at a bodybuilding competition," Juanito gave no hint of his stepping aside. He even had sat down with local National Action Party (PAN) president Mariana Gómez del Campo by that point and appeared ready to make deals with the New Left - the faction AMLO wanted out of Iztapalapa.

With Juanito set to take office, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard intervened. Details are uncertain, but after a Sept. 28 meeting with the mayor, Juanito said that he would step aside for Brugada due for health reasons. He apparently suffers from heart problems.

Adrián Rueda, local politics columnist with La Razón, said that Juanito would receive cash and the right to fill two borough secretary positions and name three local territory bosses.

Juanito supporters reacted with disgust and disappointment in comments on a Facebook page for the borough chief-elect. Vendor Francisco Sánchez said many in Pueblo Santa Marta felt the same way.

"People here feel really let down," he said.

Brugada supporters responded with an Oct. 1 rally at the borough office. Juanito was nowhere to be found. La Razón reported that he would be off to Europe and that Juanito might never again live in Iztapalapa.

Most commentators opined that AMLO emerged victorious in the whole affair, while others said that Ebrard showed deft political skill - not to mention strength.

Brugada inherits a borough rife with problems - and the droughts expected to hit Mexico City next spring are expected to hit Iztapalapa the hardest. Some residents expressed little confidence in either Juanito or Brugada to fix things. They include cab driver Jesús Barrera, who figured both were more interested in appropriating the budget than actually serving the people.

"No government has done anything for Iztapalapa," he said, while driving down a rutted road.

"This road (we're driving on) is proof."

29 September 2009

Mexican bishops look to Colombians for help fighting drug violence


Mexican bishops look to Colombians for help fighting drug violence

By David Agren
Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- At a press conference earlier this year, Archbishop Hector Gonzalez Martinez of Durango had planned to denounce extortion attempts against priests in his archdiocese. He instead stunned reporters -- and the whole country -- by announcing that cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted man, was residing in a remote corner of Durango state. Even more stunning, he insisted, "Everyone knows it, except the authorities."

His candor generated nationwide headlines and a warning from presumed associates of Guzman, who dumped two bodies along with a note that advised, "No government, no priest can stand against El Chapo."

Archbishop Gonzalez, the subject of intense media scrutiny, would later respond to reporters' questions with the words, "I'm deaf and dumb."

The archbishop's latter words describe the posture of many Mexicans and church leaders when it comes to denouncing organized crime and addressing a wave of violence that has claimed more than 13,500 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and sent the army to suppress Mexico's drug cartels.

But that posture may be changing for Mexican Catholics. The social ministry secretariat of the Mexican bishops' conference is preparing a comprehensive report on violence in Mexico that is expected to provide both a diagnosis and an action plan for addressing the problem.

None of the report's authors wished to comment on their findings before its November publication, but the issue of organized crime has been a delicate one for the church. Equally delicate is the peril of wading into the public policy arena in a country with a history of contentious church-state relations and the risks of denouncing powerful drug cartels that act as benefactors and de facto authorities in many isolated parts of Mexico.

"They (church officials) would like to avoid confrontations with the government -- and also avoid confrontations with the narcotic traffickers," said Victor Ramos Cortes, religious studies professor at the University of Guadalajara.

Complete article posted at Catholic News Service, here.

27 September 2009

Mexican drug cartel peddles meth, preaches religion


I travelled to the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán last month to speak with local Catholic officials about the Aug. 1 raid on an Apatzingán parish that nabbed a cartel kingpin that federal officials say was responsible for sending truckloads of meth from clandestine labs to the United States. Church officials in Apatzinagan obviously objected to raids on religious events and being expected to play the role of detectives for the Federal Police and Army - whose intelligence gathering is woefully inadequate.

We also spoke about the supposed religiosity of "La Familia Michoacana," a drug cartel known for its acts of charity and piety - along with acts of gratuitous violence such as beheadings. La Familia leaders often speak of "imposing order," condemn the consumption of the very products they manufacture and smuggle, and even preach a homespun version of the gospel from their very own religious text. The cartel also has been the focus of an intense crackdown by federal officials - and, frankly, an embarrassment for federal officials, who had to send reinforcements to President Felipe Calderón's home state in July as a response to La Familia counterattacks.

Here's my dispatch on La Familia's supposed religiosity, published by Canwest News Service.

26 September 2009

Where H1N1 began


H1N1 just keeps on giving in La Gloria, Veracruz, the hamlet where the virus was supposedly first detected back in April. Since the media from the across the globe first descended on La Gloria last spring, in search of the first-known H1N1 carrier, five-year-old Edgar Hernandez, the PRI state government has paved a new road through town, painted many of the public buildings and even erected a statue to young Edgar.

Locals seem indifferent to all of the attention - and many express doubts that something as sinister as H1N1 could have originated in their corner of Veracruz. (Some expressed sentiments like: "If it was so bad, why did we survive?")

Others blame the nearby pig farms - a charge hotly denied by the farm operators - and see the largess from the state government as nothing more than Gov. Fidel Herrera trying to make amends for all of the complaints about the agribusiness in the region. The boy, they complain, is an object of propaganda for the powerful state PRI and Gov. Herrera, who has given the Hernandez family a truck and given Edgar a scholarship. The governor said while unveiling the statue in August that it was a testament to the hearty folks of La Gloria, nothing more. Many speak ill of the statue, however.

I accompanied Thane Burnett of Sun Media to La Gloria in late August: here's his report.

13 September 2009

Gov't abandons plans for Guerrero dam

The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) has canceled plans to build a massive hydroelectricproject near Acapulco known as La Parota that would have produced enough power to light up the state of Guerrero for an entire year. The project had been a crown jewel in the infrastructure plans of successive PAN administrations, but generated enormous controversy among the local campesino populations. The campesinos alleged the CFE failed to properly consult them on relocation and never made proper offers of compensation for their small plots of land near the Papagayo River.

The CFE officially canceled the project due to a lack of financing - and the dam was among a series of projects nixed by the federal government for similar reasons - but the utility had encountered stiff opposition from campesinos and human rights groups, who successfully took the case to court.

I wrote on the controversy over La Parota for The News in the fall of 2007. The story pointed out that irate campesinos and locals facing expropriation over the past 15 years had derailed projects by staging riots, taking hostages and wielding machetes. The failed attempt at building a new international airport for Mexico City earlier this decade in the State of Mexico - where machete-wielding campesinos forced the Fox administration to back down - was perhaps the most notable example. But La Parote was different: The campesinos, backed by environmental lawyers, went to court - and even obtained an injunction against parts of the project.

Whether the federal government and CFE return to La Parota remains to be seen - the dam was first proposed in 1976 and could provide drinking water for fast-growing Acapulco - but the strategy of campesinos mobilizing to fight expropriations that previously would have turfed them from their properties with scant compensation appears to gaining traction.

As examples, just witness the difficulties earlier this year in Tula, Hidalgo, where the state government was unable to expropriate ejido land in a timely enough fashion to meet the deadline for winning the construction of a Pemex refinery. (The state did win the refinery project, but only after a farcical competition with perhaps the most polluted town in Mexico - Salamanca, in the PAN stronghold of Guanajuato - to obtain the necessary land for Pemex.) Or, the Altamira port project near Tampico, where former PAN presidential candidate and legal bigwig, Diego Fernández de Cevallos, won an injuction on behalf of two ejidos facing expropriation that could cost the Transportation and Communications Secretariat billions of pesos.

The campesino skepticism of expropriation offers is understable: Ejiditarios in Tula told Notimex in April that the first time the government came for 50 hectares of their land in the 1970s, they were offered nothing more the five pickup trucks as compensation.

21 August 2009

President signs drug-decriminalization law

President Felipe Calderón finally signed a new law that decriminalizes the possession of small quantities drugs that include marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. The law - which Congress approved in April, despite objections from National Action Party (PAN) lawmakers in the lower house - also requires state and municipal police forces to crack down on small-time drug dealing, known in Mexico as narcomenudeo.

Calderón proposed the law last year as part of a series of measures for combating narcotics-trafficking gangs. Other measures proposed making it easier for the government to seize the assests of organized crime, overhauled the Attorney General's Office (PGR) and created a new Federal Police. The war on drugs has claimed more than 11,000 lives since Calderón took office in December 2006.

The president's original proposal called for mandatory rehabilitation stints for those caught with drugs. Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) senators balked at that proposal and made rehabilitation voluntary. PAN deputies nearly rioted when the bill arrived in the lower house, however. The deputies unsuccessfully demanded mandatory rehabilitation be included and also objected to the quantities of drugs that could be carried without incurring penalties. The amounts surpassed the original proposals called for by Calderón.

The law allows for the possession of five grams of marijuana, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and 500 milligrams of cocaine without incurring criminal penalties.

Calderón waited months before signing the law - he also waited to sign a maximum salary law that forbids any public servant or politician from earning more than the president - fueling speculation that he might exercise the presidential veto.

One PAN lawmaker, who voted against the measure, told me back in May that Calderón would eventually sign the law since it contains provisions that force state and municipal police to begin cracking down on small-time drug dealing. Those tasks had been the exclusive jurisdictions of federal police forces. Small-time drug dealing, he added, also is becoming more common in Mexico as the cartels develop a domestic market for their product and pay their underlings in merchandise.

The law follows a previous effort in 2006 to decriminalize drug possession. Congress passed a bill that year, but President Vicented Fox vetoed it after caving to pressure from U.S. officials.