01 July 2012

Election 2012 – so far

A woman votes July 1 in Chimalhuacan, on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City, for candidates in the 2012 Mexican election

Mexcans voted July 1 amid allegations of vote buying, giveaways and coersion – and ultimately elected former Mexico state Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto as president.

His victory returns the PRI to Los Pinos after 12 years in opposition – during which time it stayed strong on the state level and showed little interest in approving structural reforms.

Peña Nieto now promises those reforms – in the state-run petroleum sector, to name one place – but the PREP vote tabulation is showing it unlikely the PRI will capture majorities in Congress. The president-elect says such an electoral outcome is necessary to improve governance and achieve reforms.

Peña Nieto also captured 38.15% of the popular vote, with nearly 99% of the voting stations reporting. This tops Andrés Manuel López Obrador by 6.5 percentage points – far from the landslide predicted by the polling industry. Considering the non-stop campaigning from the Peña Nieto, the PRI and friendly media outlets, 38% seems somewhat scant. President Felipe lacked the same charm, telegenic looks and marketing muscle – and he achieved only two fewer percentage points in the 2006 election.

As one analyst suggested in a post-election chat, it's possible that the anti-PRI vote continues being alive and well in Mexico and comprising approximately 60% of the population – although, yes, there's a segment of the population very much in favour of the party.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, trailing in second with a respectable showing, promises to contest what he says are widespread irregularities.

Here's my dispatch on the electoral process for USA TODAY. (Click on the publication title for the link.)

Like most journalists here, I've put together a number of reports for the recent elections. Here's a sampling of what I've had published. (with the link, again, embedded in the publication name.)

Mexican presidential candidates mostly mute on drug wars – USA TODAY

Leftist candidate gains among Mexico's well-off – USA TODAY

Mexicans chafe under political negativity ban – USA TODAY

The Canadian Alliance lives on ... in Mexico! – Toronto Star

Mexico's smooth frontrunner glides ahead – GlobalPost

Viva la diferencia! Mexico City tilts left – GlobalPost

Playboy model, underdog, steal Mexican debate – GlobalPost

11 May 2012

Peña Nieto booed out of the Ibero

Peña Nieto lampooned as Salinas

They booed upon Enrique Peña Nieto's arrival at the Universidad Iberoamericana May 11. They screamed, "Out," then, "Out with the PRI," and even, "Killer." When Peña Nieto finished, the assembled students chased after him chanting, "Coward," forcing him to take refuge in a university restroom.

Peña Nieto, former governor of Mexico state, previously canceled twice on the organizers of the event, ironically titled, "Good Ibero Citizen." His reception and rough ride throughout the nearly two-hour encounter explains why.

PRI supporters in the audience clutched signs and applauded, but were drowned out by students covering their faces with masks of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari – who they allege is the brains behind Peña Nieto. Others held banners invoking controversies such as the 2006 crackdown in Atenco and, "Feminicidios," the unsolved murders of women, which critics allege is worse in Mexico state than Ciudad Juárez – something Peña Nieto denied and said was taken serious by his 2005-2011 administration.

The presidential frontrunner – up by 23 points in the May 11 Milenio-GEA/ISA tracking poll – seemed to take all of the jeers and questions in stride, politely responding, never losing his cool and even addressing questioners by name.

It marked the first public demonstrations of discontent with Peña Nieto, whose campaign had been calm and without incidents – until May 11.

But it also marked an escalation the bitter feud between the PRI and the Mexican left and the emergence of a two-man race between Peña Nieto and López Obrador – with Peña Nieto still miles ahead.

It's a natural polarization: the Mexican left hates Salinas (as do many PAN members not in the Jefe Diego faction of the party) for his privatizations and "neo-liberal policies – not to mention allegedly stealing the 1988 election.

Left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose campaign appears to be displacing the PAN for second place, unloaded on Peña Nieto in the May 6 debate and has focused his attacks on the nation's TV industry and the PRI – even though he spent much of the past six years belittling President Felipe Calderón as "spurious" and accusing the PAN president of winning a rigged 2006 election.

Some analysts had said prior to the campaign that López Obrador was aiming for a one-on-one, good-vs-evil showdown with Peña Nieto and the PRI. It appears to be emerging.

For its part, the PRI has accused PRD operatives and an unnamed Ibero professor of sabotaging the appearance – much the way the PAN has accused the PRI of planting people to sabotage appearances by its candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota. (Recall the quesadilla stand fiasco in Tres Marías on the road to Cuernavaca.) Party president Joaquín Coldwell – perhaps oblivious to the allegations of past PRI repression being protested – accused the demonstrators of showing, "intolerance."

The encounter at the Ibero followed a morning of questioning from MVS Radio host Carmen Aristegui, who has been scathing in her assessments of the journalistic practices of Mexico's TV industry.

Peña Nieto – showing a willingness to now face tough audiences after an earlier aversion to controversial circumstances – said he had no special relationships with Televisa, the country's dominant broadcaster. He then went to war with López Obrador for supposedly spending big to become known during his 2000-2005 administration as Mexico City mayor. Peña Nieto complained that the mayor of Mexico City mayor has an unfair advantage since media outlets in the capital are in effect national media outlets. He mentioned López Obrador's early morning press conferences as something unseemly, inferring there was something wrong with a politician smartly scheduling media events for a time that would allow the message to reach a mass audience – free of charge.

Peña Nieto, despite being a little-known provincial politician in 2005, somehow gained better name recognition than that of current Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. López Obrador has stated flatly that Televisa is attempting to impose its preferred candidate on the country – and has the power to do so since TV is so influential in Mexico, where more homes have television set than a fridge, according to the last census.

Peña Nieto also denied having any special relationship with Salinas and, oddly, said the same of his old boss, Arturo Montiel, former governor of Mexico state and a man even PRI supporters talk of with distain.

The fallout of the Ibero appearance remains uncertain, along with the media spin. More likely is that the campaign is becoming a two-man race with López Obrador staking his claim as the preferred alternative for those seeking to block Peña Nieto and the PRI.

-- Updates can be found on Twitter: @el_reportero

07 May 2012

The Debate, winners and losers

The IFE edecán



The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate entered the debate with a 20-point lead and nothing happened to impact that, even though he took repeated shots from from his two main opponents.

He left many of his thoughts on serious matters unfinished, said political science professor Aldo Muñoz Armenta of the Autonomous University of Mexico State, but none of that will hurt Peña Nieto since he adequately defended himself and had no major gaffes.

In effect: Peña Nieto wins the debate by not losing and his 20-point lead should remain in tact, Muñoz said.

A poll from El Universal gave him the win in the debate – with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, representing three left-wing parties, finishing second; Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance placing third and Josefina Vázquez Mota of the governing National Action Party (PAN) bringing up the rear.

Anyone looking for gaffes or a repeat of the Guadalajara International Book Fair fiasco – when he couldn't name three books – was undoubtedly disappointed. The amateur hour antics of the pre-campaign period appear to be history. Somebody from the PRI campaign presumably changed the password on his daughter's Twitter account to prevent intemperate tweets, too.

Peña Nieto came in well-coached and while not especially smooth, again, his performance was sufficient.

Peña Nieto's defence of his 2005-2011 term in Mexico state seemed adequate, if not entirely convincing – although enough Mexican voters really do seem convinced that he really did complete the 608 public works projects that he's built his campaign platform on. Just don't ask anyone at a PRI rally try naming one – they usually can't.

Attempts by opponents to revive the memories of PRI dinosaurs seemed to have little impact, too.

If this synopsis seems boring, that's because Peña Nieto's performance was boring – and that's okay for him: it keeps him in the lead by a large margin.


The New Alliance party candidate had nowhere to go, but up – and he soared. He spoke directly and on the issues. He challenged his rivals over policy issues – such as energy subsidies, over which he disagreed with López Obrador – and even chastised the other candidates crushing disinterest in the environment (his main cause) by taking the segment on that topic to attack each other.

Quadri only needs two percent of the vote for the New Alliance to maintain its registration. His strong campaign performance all but assures that. The Quadri campaign now moves from being novelty news – the unveiling of the Quadri combi; his complaining about the bulletproof Volkswagen Jetta given to him by presidential security; no one appearing when he spoke at the World Economic Forum, to name three headlines – to someone to be taken halfway serious. Of course, there's no hope in hell of him winning the election. He might make a good environment minister in a PRI government, though.

If there's a flaw with Quadri, it's his party affiliation

The New Alliance does the political bidding for thew SNTE teachers' union and its boss Elba Esther Gordillo. She effectively owns the New Alliance and assigns its candidacies to her children and grandchildren.

To paraphrase what a friend tweeted during the debate: Quadri is turning in a strong performance, but his party ...


Thanks to Quadri's performance, the New Alliance should obtain the two-percent of the vote necessary for maintaining its registration. This means collecting a share of the more than $3 billion in public subsidies showered on political parties by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) over the past 12 years. It also means having political positions for SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo to give her children and relatives. Daughter Mónica Arriola and son-in-law Fernando González are running for Senate seats in Chiapas and Sinaloa respectively. A grandson is running for the Mexico City Assembly.

Gordillo's kin might have had a better shot of being elected had the New Alliance-PRI electoral alliance not unravelled due to priístas (mostly in states without a sitting PRI governor to impose order) revolting against the handing over of too many candidacies to a junior partner. Quadri's improving candidacy makes that history moot, although the Muñoz, the political science professor and labour expert, says the teachers are deft political operators and make deals to swing local races in favour of whatever candidate suits their purposes.


The model with the cards, deciding the order the candidates would speak in, stole the show – or, more aptly, her revealing attire did, or, as the AP put it: no one was looking at the urn she was carrying. Certainly Quadri wasn't looking at the urn. As a female friend quipped on Facebook, under a photo of the model: They're more fake than the candidates.

Julia Orayen has posed for playboy and now has a new lease on her modelling life thanks to whoever hired her (apparently an IFE contractor) to work a supposedly serious political function while wearing that dress.



AMLO came out with guns blazing, even though he's been speaking of peace and love during his campaign. He invoked characters from the distant past such as General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was president of Mexico 11 times during his calamitous career. More recent characters included former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a favourite whipping boy of non-PRI politicians, and Arturo Montiel, Peña Nieto's predecessor and former boss in the Mexico state governor's office.

Political analyst Fernando Dworak said AMLO had a discourse still stuck in the 1990s. That was especially obvious when AMLO brought up the scandalous banking bailout Fobaproa.

Invoking Salinas and Fobaproa incited outrage the first time López Obrador ran for president in 2006, but it would seem less so now. Equally uncertain is the impact of López Obrador alleging that the broadcasting industry is imposing its candidate (Peña Nieto) on the country or his railing against the country's privileged elite. (Even if he's correct.)

He delivered the exchange of the night. When Peña Nieto countered allegations made against PRI dinosaurs by bringing up the case of René Bejarando – the ace DF organizer caught stuffing bills into a briefcase – AMLO responded: Bejarano went to jail, unlike any priístas.

His performance makes it likely that he'll overtake ...



The PAN candidate bet heavily on the debate rescuing her campaign. Given those kinds of stakes, she fell short in the debate, even though some in an audience convened by the Reforma newspaper ranked her highly – drawing ridicule from Twitter users about what debate they were watching.

Like AMLO, she went on the attack. She brought up the Coahuila debt situation. She brought up the Mexico state debt – something Peña Nieto refuted. She also brought up the fib from Peña Nieto's informe (state-of-the-state address) that the homicide rate fell 50% in Mexico state between 2005 and 2010. (Peña Nieto has since retracted the claim.)

But it's uncertain if going negative has helped Vázquez Mota so far in the campaign – and it's unlikely going negative in the debates will help any more. She appeared stiff during the debate and clumsily moved to address topics she felt important – such as her carrying on about Pemex and the CFE near the end.

Her campaign needed a miracle – which former President Vicente Fox said was necessary and in which he believes. It didn't arrive last night.

06 May 2012

The Quadri combi shifts into high gear

Nueva Alianza rally in Morelia

Talk about a revelation!

Gabriel Quadri, the man polling one percent and representing a party belonging to the powerful SNTE teachers union, cleaned up in the first presidential debate by talking issues.

His performance was reminiscent of 2006, when Patricia Mercado of the now-defunct Alternativa spoke of issues such as gay rights, equality, abortion and drug legalization – all as her opponents attacked each other and ignored her.

Her party won two percent in the election that year, enough for it to survive until the 2009 midterms and elect five lawmakers in Congress. (A civil war ultimately did in the Alternativa, renamed PSD by the anti-Mercado victors) It's survival also meant that it collected tens of millions of dollars in subsidies that are showered on Mexican political parties.

Here's my two cents on Quadri's performance – and let it be said that the "edecán" (the model in the suggestive dress at the beginning of the event) would probably win the most votes for highlight of the night.

Quadri entered the debate with low expectations. He was polling roughly one percent and making headlines by starting his campaign by reef diving in Veracruz and being offered a bulletproof Volkswagen Jetta by presidential security – his campaign was deemed that insignificant. He later ditched the Jetta for a turquoise-coloured Volkswagen van – the colours of his Nueva Alianza party, which draws its name and logo from the defunct Canadian Alliance.

Yet he stole the show.

He especially shone when tackling the issue of energy subsidies, saying correctly that the country spends more money on making gasoline cheap than alleviating poverty through the oft-acclaimed Oportunidades program – meaning the rich collect most of the cash. He later attacked the "segundo pisos," the elevated express lanes in Mexico City and the State of Mexico, saying they benefitted a privileged group: motorists – the same group benefitting from all the toll roads built by Peña Nieto in the State of Mexico, part of the 608 public works projects he takes credit for in his home state.

Quadri did some of SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo's dirty work during the debate, when he blasted the radicals in the "normales" (teacher training colleges) who are "La Maestra's" most bitter enemies.

He will likely surpass the two percent threshold, guaranteeing survival for the Nueva Alianza. It also means seats in the Congress and Senate for the party – and, should the vote tally rise, seats for Gordillo's relatives. Gordillo's daughter is running for the Senate in Chiapas, her son-in-law is running for the Senate in Sinaloa and her grandson is on the proportional representation list for the lower house.

It must be said that Quadri looked like a marvel compared to the Nueva Alianza's 2006 candidate Roberto Campa, who scowled through much of the first debate that year and repeatedly attacked PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo – the man who ousted Gordillo from the PRI.

It also must be said that he won – and no one was betting on that.

08 February 2012

Mexico's national voter IDs part of daily life

Anyone wishing to participate in the July 1 election must present a valid voter identification card issued by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). The introduction of the card largely cleaned up of the in-person voting part of Mexican elections, where poor folk in rural areas were previously given sandwiches and soft drinks and then taken to vote – as many time as necessary. (Nowadays, cash is a common inducement.)

The identification also bolstered the IFE, which only came into existence 20 years ago as part of a democratic transition in Mexico. While the IFE, which convenes elections and referees partisan political activity, has come under fire from the country's political parties – witness their sacking of the nine-member board back in 2007 and constant disagreement on choosing commissioners – the validity of the credential remains strong. In fact, many people lining up showed little enthusiasm for voting this year (mainly due to dissatisfaction with the candidates) but said they needed the IFE credential for carrying out the most mundane activities: going to the bank, getting into a bar, boarding an airplane, etc.

I wrote about the IFE credentials for USA TODAY. Click here to read it.

30 January 2012

Adios to Club Indios de Ciudad Juárez

El Kartel de Juárez
Soccer fans in Ciudad Juárez go by the name, "El Kartel," in order to make fun of the violence and drug trafficking that has plagued the Mexican border city.

Club Indios de Ciudad Juárez was the little team that could, ascending to the top tier of the Mexican soccer league within three years of being founded, staving off relegation (in a system rigged to favour the incumbent franchises) and quickly reaching the semi-finals in early 2009. It all seemed to good to be true – and it was.

Ciudad Juárez lost its soccer team recently, another blow to the city, which some local observers say has showed signs of improvement. The Mexican Football Federation revoked the franchise, saying its ownership groups wasn't paying employees and players. But Mexican soccer observers say the team was always an inconvenient franchise; some teams almost refused going there to play due to the violence, while the ownership group was underfunded in a league awash with wealthy owners such as Grupo Modelo and Televisa.

The team always had plenty of support from fans, however – known as "El Kartel de Juárez" – and soccer became a diversion in a city overwhelmed with violence and bad news. I attended the final game Indios played in Ciudad Juárez as part of the top tier back in April 2010 and posted these photos to a Flickr site. I also wrote about the loss of the franchise for the Toronto Star.

13 January 2012

Why the pope is visiting Guanajuato – and during the prelude to an election

Central Guanajuato City, Mexico
Photo by Steven H. Miller

By David Agren Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- In 1941, the Mexican government -- under the control of a predecessor to the once-dominant and anti-clerical Institutional Revolutionary Party --- and the Catholic Church made peace, sealing their pact in the state of Guanajuato.

Seven decades later, with the Institutional Revolutionary Party favored to regain the presidency in elections later this year, church and government leaders will meet again in Guanajuato, where Pope Benedict XVI will visit March 23-26 -- at a time church-state relations have decidedly improved.

"It's a very emblematic state, where ... there have been the biggest conflicts ... and the biggest pacts between church and state," Ilan Semo, political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University, said of Guanajuato.

The 1940s pact ended a quarter-century of strife marked by the Cristero Rebellion -- when fighting flared and churches closed for three years in the late 1920s. But church and state remained estranged for much of the last century, and the Vatican and Mexico only established diplomatic relations 20 years ago.

Relations, however, have warmed to the point that President Felipe Calderon -- whose Catholic-friendly National Action Party has governed since 2000 and draws strong support in Guanajuato -- will personally welcome Pope Benedict March 23 for a four-day visit to a region known for the Cristero Rebellion and conservative Catholic politics.

For church observers such as Semo, the setting and timing speak volumes, especially as Mexico moves into an era of improved church-state relations that promises to lift lingering restrictions on church-sponsored speech and potentially promises to provide prelates with a voice in the nation's political and public-policy arenas. But church officials publicly caution against reading any symbolism into the papal visit.

The visit is scheduled barely three months before state and federal elections -- a time previously unthinkable for a papal tour of Mexico, where references to Our Lady of Guadalupe during campaigns have been enough to annul elections.

Pope Benedict is scheduled to celebrate Mass for more than 300,000 Catholics at the foot of the Cerro del Cubilete, a hill topped by a massive statue of Christ considered emblematic by those remembering the Cristero Rebellion and the martyrs since canonized.

"Symbolically, (this) reinforces the presence of the church in Mexico," said church observer Victor Ramos Cortes, professor at the University of Guadalajara.

The visit to Guanajuato, he added, comes as the church has canonized some and beatified even more martyrs of the Cristero Rebellion.

"(The visit) has to be related to with this (church) attitude ... over the past decade and a half ... of putting the Cristeros at the center of their attention," he said.

The Mexican bishops' conference secretary-general, Auxiliary Bishop Victor Rodriguez Gomez of Texcoco, told reporters Jan. 1 the pontiff would visit Guanajuato because of logistical and health reasons. Silao, site of the Mass, is roughly the geographic center of Mexico, while the pope's physicians ruled out a trip to populous Mexico City due to its high elevation -- more than 7,300 feet.

Additionally, Blessed John Paul never visited the area during his five trips to Mexico. The trip to Mexico -- and later Cuba -- is Pope Benedict's first to the countries since he was elected in 2005.

Pope Benedict arrives in Mexico at a difficult time as violence attributed to warring drug cartels and organized crime has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the past five years.

In a statement, the bishops called the trip, "A motive of hope and confirmation of faith in the Lord."

Others in the church, such as Father Robert Coogan, an American ministering to prisoners in northern Mexico, wondered, "What message will he bring for nation that's suffering?"

For the many Mexican media outlets, the trip's timing and location were the message, especially given Guanajuato's stature as the country's most Catholic state -- 94 percent, according to the 2010 census -- and history of spawning conservative movements with friendly policies toward the church.

The National Action Party, founded in 1939 by those in opposition to revolutionary principles, grew strong in the region, where an especially secretive Catholic faction known as "El Yunque," or "The Anvil," supposedly still holds sway.

At the same time, a Catholic agrarian movement known as "Sinarquismo" surged, even though its leaders were openly anti-Semitic and admired fascist leaders of 1930s Europe, and its handful of followers do so to this day.

Guanajuato Gov. Juan Manuel Oliva -- who makes no secret of his piety -- accompanied Archbishop Jose Martin Robago of Leon in inaugurating a new plaza Jan. 2 near the Leon Cathedral. The plaza was built with public money and features a mural highlighting the massacre of victims protesting 1946 election fraud.

Former President Vicente Fox, who ended one-party rule in 2000, also hails from the state.

Fox's party is not favored to win the upcoming presidential elections, but observers such as Ramos say church-state relations will continue warming in the coming years, and Catholic leaders will exert ever more influence, even if the Institutional Revolutionary Party regains power.

"They (church leaders) want to be active in the direction of the country," the professor said.

08 January 2012

Politics and the "pista de hielo" (ice rink)

The Mexico City ice rink – built by the Federal District government in the middle of the expansive Zócalo – ends another wildly successful run Jan. 7, having attracted thousands of want-to-be skaters daily to what has become unlikely winter attraction and unlikely political prop.

The rink debuted in 2007, thanks to Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. He also built urban beaches and opened weekend bike baths. The opposition National Action Party (PAN) branded the ice rink and his other projects, "Bread and circuses," given the pressing problems in the Federal District with traffic, water and garbage.

But the rink proved a smash hit with long lines forming in the pre-dawn hours. The reason: It's free – all the skaters and local officials say.

The rink occupies a spot in the Zócalo, the most prominent landmark in the capital and a seat of power dating back to Aztec times. All politicians aim to project power from the square, says local columnist Adrián Rueda, a keen observer of D.F. politics. And in the case of Ebrard, he needed to project power in the hopes of winning the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) presidential nomination in 2012 – something that will once again go to Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Ebrard, political observers say, came to power lacking control of the corporatist groups in the 16 boroughs – many of which were capably managed by René Bejarano (infamous for the cash-in-a-suitcase video scandal and a López Obrador affiliate) and René Arce, the Senator once part of the PRD, but now in the Green Party, who holds enormous influence over Iztapalapa.

To build his own base, Ebrard turned to the "circus" – a tactic learned from his mentor, former Mexico City regent Manuel Camacho Solis. The circus (the ice rink and the such) allowed him to gain favour among the masses and, to some degree, break the power of the client groups. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't enough to win the PRD nomination this time around.

I recently wrote on politics and the ice rink for the Toronto Star. Read it here.

06 January 2012

The Russians are coming ... to Mexico?

At a time U.S. tourists might think twice about vacationing in Mexico, Russians are flocking to destinations like Cancún in ever-growing numbers. Demand is so great that Aeroflot recent inaugurated direct Moscow-Cancún service.

Russians aren't the only ones looking past the negative headlines: Tourist visits from Brazil increased by roughly 60 percent last year.

I recently wrote for the Toronto Star on the trend of non-U.S. tourists flocking to Mexico. Click here to read it.