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.