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.