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Calderon's busy travel itinerary

President Felipe Calderon is in Paraguay today attending the Ibero-American summit, and heads on to the G-20 summit in France, as I mention in the previous post. But his itinerary keeps getting longer.

The White House just announced that Calderon will meet President Barack obama and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Honolulu, Hawaii Nov. 13. Nice place for a meeting! This from the statement:

“The meeting will build on wide-ranging, on-going cooperation among the United States, Canada, and Mexico with a particular focus on competitiveness, citizen security, energy and climate change, and North America’s role in the Americas as well as in global economic, political, and security issues.  The last North American Leaders’ Summit was hosted by President Calderon in Guadalajara in August 2009.”


Big year for Mexico coming up

France G20 Summit_Nost
President Felipe Calderon will head to France in a few days to attend the G-20 summit in Cannes. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil will hold up the banner for Latin America among the world’s most powerful economies. Protests, like one today in Paris seen in AP photo above, are likely.

For Calderon, it’s a big summit. He’ll come home as the rotating president of the G-20, taking the baton from France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, and presiding over the group at a time of global economic instability.

Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa spoke out about this at a press briefing yesterday, noting that Mexico will host the next G-20 summit June 18-19 in Los Cabos, the Baja California resort city.

The dates of the summit have become a political hot potato in Mexico.

Earlier this week, the entire Chamber of Deputies passed a motion asking Calderon to postpone the G-20 summit. The reason? It would come less than two weeks before July 1 presidential elections.

“The media exposure that the president would get just days before the election would be unbeatable. Over a period of four days, this event will occupy all the television, radio, print and digital spaces,” the statement said.

Espinosa’s response to the deputies: Fuhgeddaboutit. 

“The days selected were the result of a long process of consultations with all the chiefs of state and government that comprise the group,” she said. “The dates were chosen not only to respect the regularity observed previously but also to maintain the sense of urgency needed during the difficult phase unfolding in the global economy.”

Mexico is determined, she said, to play a decisive role in global economic recovery.


A milestone at the Panama Canal

For those who have never seen ships pass through the Panama Canal up close, it is a real sight. Perhaps it is the perennial little kid in me, the one who gawks at big cranes and bigger ships, but seeing what’s known as a Panamax vessel slip through the canal with only inches to spare on either side is remarkable.

Already a century old, the canal is undergoing huge transformation, and it passed a milestone in the past week. 

By 2015, with a $5.2 billion expansion under way, the capacity of the canal will nearly triple.

The project entails construction of two new sets of locks -- one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic side of the Canal. The project also calls for deepening existing navigational channels in Gatun Lake and Culebra Cut. Massive ships will then pass through the 46.8-mile cross-isthmus route, traveling for nine hours and saving weeks at sea.

What happened this week, as you can see from the time-lapse images above, is the filling of a segment of channel linking the new locks with the Culebra Cut.

Remember that famous palindrome? A man. A plan. A canal. Panama. It hints at the magnitude of the project, which left 30,000 workers dead from tropical disease, before the canal began operations in 1914. Was it worth it? The canal revolutionized world trade, shortening the journey by the 8,000 miles it takes to sail around Cape Horn. 

Today, some 14,000 ships pass through the canal a year.  But a lot of ships (some 37 percent of container ships) are too big to pass through the canal. Ships that squeak through can carry 5,000 20-foot containers. They are known as Panamax vessels. With the new locks, container ships will be able to pass through the locks with up to 13,000 20-foot containers aboard. Huge difference.

The expansion has a knock-on effect at U.S. ports. According to this story in Costa Rica’s Tico Times, U.S. ports are scrambling to get ready for the bigger ships:

Other ports in the Americas lack the capacity to handle vessels loaded with that many boxes, so the race is on to deepen and widen harbors and upgrade port equipment in time for Panama’s much hyped canal opening.

The United States’ leading 13 ports have slated $8.57 billion for terminal improvements and channel deepening projects in the next five years, according to a report by real estate consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle. The country’s new infrastructure kick is largely motivated by the Panama Canal project, an absolute “game changer,” said the report’s author, John Carver.


More on tainted beef in Mexico

If anyone clings to the belief that Mexican beef is safe from banned substances, new evidence is here to shake their faith.

I’ve been out of Mexico this week doing reporting in the southern U.S. But I can’t help make mention of the news from the international soccer federation known as FIFA, the World Anti-Doping Agency and Mexico’s own Secretariat of Health.

Turns out that massive numbers of teenage athletes who came to Mexico in June and July to compete in the Under-17 World Cup tested positive for clenbuterol, a steroid-like substance used by ranchers to bulk up their cattle before slaughter.

In an announcement this week, the groups said 109 players tested positive for clenbuterol presence in their urine. The groups aren’t taking any action against the players because at this point it’s widely known that Mexico _ like China _ is rife with tainted animal products. The positive tests came for players from 19 of the 24 squads competing in the World Cup.

Click here to read a story I did on this back in June. I wrote is shortly after five members of Mexico’s national team tested positive for clembuterol.

Tourists take note: When you come to Mexico, if you eat beef, you are likely to be ingesting clenbuterol. I, for one, am trying not to eat meat in Mexico. Just remember: These Under-17 soccer players were only in Mexico a short time, yet they still tested positive. If you live in Mexico, likely levels in your body are higher. 


5 Mexican gray wolves let into wild

Authorities announced Wednesday that they had released five Mexican wolves into the northern desert, reintroducing a species thought to have completely disappeared from the country.

The Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources released these two photos of the wolves, which were apparently brought from the United States.

Lobo2It said three females – age 3, 4 and 11 – were released as well as two males, both 3 years old. It said the wolves spent time in Nuevo Leon state getting accustomed to gradual living in the wild. Then “they were transferred to a Mexican desert ecosystem, in which they were historically endemic, and given their freedom.”

This article says the release probably occurred in northeastern Sonora state.

Each of the wolves bears a radio-tagging collar that gives a constant readout of its location.

The Mexican wolf is the smallest subspecies of the North America gray wolf. Nearly wiped out in both Mexico and the United States, the Mexican wolves were bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in Arizona beginning in 1998. But the program ran into problems, and this NPR story from 2006 said people had illegally shot nearly two dozen of the wolves. Ranchers also complained that the wolves were taking livestock.

Mexican wolves “play an important role in the control of species like coyotes, hares, small rodents and reptiles as well as of their natural prey, deer and boar. This will permit recuperation of vegetation,” the secretariat statement said.

The statement said Mexican wolves once wandered across a vast region of the nation, including the modern day states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potos and even as far as Oaxaca.


Calderon speaks to the NY Times

Apparently after months of delays, caused by a busy schedule that included escorting travel journalist Peter Greenberg around Mexico, President Felipe Calderon sat down last week with journalists from the New York Times.

That there were long delays in arranging the interview is known because Times newsman Damien Cave so tweeted on Sept. 20:

Despite months of requests, President Calderon has decided not to speak with us. Travel shows, yes. New York Times, no.


Pres. Calderon, though he talks often about the U.S., has generally refused to sit 4 tough questions from correspondents in his own country.

And finally,

I should clarify. We still have a request in to Calderon. A long standing request, not yet accepted. But they could still say yes. Right?

In the end, Calderon acceded. The interview took place and was played on the less than illustrious page 6A of the Gray Lady.

What I found interesting is not so much the interview, which probably contains more quotes from others about Calderon than what he had to say himself. Rather, it’s that Los Pinos found it necessary to send out a clarification tonight on several points, including the suggestion that members of the PRI might want to reach an accommodation with narcos rather than continue the kind of battle that Calderon has waged.

Los Pinos found a need to expand on this paragraph in the story:

One change Mr. Calderón has pressed for would give the president wide latitude to declare a state of emergency and suspend constitutional guarantees, provoking criticism that the plan would worsen abuses by the military. 

Los Pinos said Calderon has not considered such a move.

There’s really little surprise that Calderon would take so long to speak one-on-one to a U.S. newspaper with a bureau in Mexico (it’s the first such interview since I arrived in March 2010). Calderon has many audiences that he must address, ranging from those in his own party, Mexicans in general, the political opposition, U.S. politicians, and fellow Latin leaders. I don’t think the general U.S. public would be high on that list. And as Damien Cave suggests, Calderon can get tough questions that need follow-up clarifications.

Mexico's out-of-control prisons

A prison riot in Matamoros left 20 inmates dead yesterday, the latest incident to show how little control authorities exercise in most prisons.

A detailed anatomy of how the riot started and how it unfolded is something you will never learn from any newspaper in Matamoros. I’ve looked on the Expreso and El Diario newspaper websites from Matamoros, and nary a word about the prison riot. The editors would probably get killed if they printed information.

The public security office in Tamaulipas state has issued a statement with only the barest of facts.
In reality, prison violence breaks out monthly somewhere in the country, and scores of inmates are dead already this year. Here’s a quick breakdown as reported in El Universal this morning:

/ Durango: 12 die in a prison riot Jan. 11, and nine more die on May 19 in same place.

/ Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state: A disturbance on July 15 in the prison leaves seven inmates dead. Fifty-six inmates escape.

/Ciudad Juarez: Seventeen inmates die when a gun battle breaks out between inmates.

/ Topo Chico, Nuevo Leon: Two inmates are beaten to death Sept. 26 for fighting one another.

/ Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon: A battle between inmates leaves seven dead and 12 injured.

In some prisons, inmates don’t just have homemade zip guns. They have real firearms, even automatic weapons. Several were found in the last week again in one of the prisons in Ciudad Juarez. 

Mexico has no death penalty, but getting sent to prison can be a de facto death sentence.


Mexico's army and pseudo-science

I wrote on this blog more than a year ago about the bizarre reliance of the Mexican army on the GT200 “molecular detector,” a virtual dowsing rod that is said to detect everything from drugs and explosives to weapons and money.

This week, more has come out _ and it ain’t pretty. If there’s a time for the Mexican army to cast aside machismo and demonstrate that it can admit a mistake, this might be it.

A respected physicist at Mexico’s largest university, Luis Mochan Backal, has come out with this lengthy and damning Spanish-language analysis of the GT200 device made by the British firm Global Technical Ltd.

It turns out that the National Defense Secretariat has bought 940 of the molecular detectors at a cost of about $28,000 each, for a total of nearly $26.3 million. I took the above video at an army roadblock in Michoacan state. The soldiers seemed surprised that I laughed when they conducted the demonstration.

The purchase has popped back into the news this week because the El Universal newspaper reported on the sad case of Ernesto Cayetano, a campesino who was pulled off a bus and thrown in jail for nine months because one soldiers said a GT200 indicated he had drugs on him. Marijuana was indeed found on the bus packed into the back of a seat several rows behind where Cayetano was sitting.

Mochan presented his study of the GT200 to Congress earlier this year but El Universal reports today that the army refused to take part in any further study of the device and said it had full confidence in it.
I suppose if I’d wasted $26 million on a lemon I wouldn’t much want to admit it either.

Mochan notes that Thailand (another nation that had bought the GT200) conducted a double-blind study of the device’s ability to detect C-4 plastic explosives after much controversy about its use. Ten independent observers took part. The study found that in only four of 20 tests did the GT200 detect the explosives, about the same rate as a random guess.

Thailand’s then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva himself announced the results of the study. Thailand no longer uses the device. Britain has partially banned its export.

It takes bravery to admit a mistake, and helps build credibility – both traits that would be useful for the armed forces. 

In an editorial this morning, El Universal arrives at the same conclusion, although quite gently: “It is not a matter of questioning the noble struggle of the armed forces against organized crime. Rather it is the need to count on adequate instruments to carry out this task in benefit of society.”


For politicians, heaven or hell?

Right in the middle of an intense campaign, the latest joke goes, a Mexican politician dies and goes to the gates of heaven, where St. Peter tells him: ‘Look, I’ll give you one day in hell and one day in heaven. Then you choose where you want to spend eternity.’

The politician accepts, and soon drops to the depths of hell at St. Peter’s side. When the elevator opens, he gazes upon an Elysian golf course and sees old friends, who ask him to play. After a few rounds, they head to the clubhouse where they down the finest brandies and, after St. Peter leaves, recall old times of raiding the public till. Beautiful women arrive and the party lasts through the night.

The next morning, the politician rises to heaven. He sees no friends, only elderly women passing from one cloud to the next as harp music plays. He grows bored.

After a day, St. Peter asks him where he wants to spend eternity. The politician waits a pensive moment and declares: ‘Well, heaven has everything a pure soul like mine deserves. But in solidarity with those who have had wretched luck, and forgoing the rewards that my life of service merits, I will choose hell.’

St. Peter accepts the choice, and accompanies him down the shaft. When the elevator opens, instead of green fields all the politician sees is a burning desert. Demons chase poor souls mercilessly, poking them repeatedly. ‘I don’t understand,’ the politician mumbles, ‘this was just fun and fiesta before.’

The chief demon responds amid raucous laughter: ‘That was the day before yesterday, during the campaign. Today, you’ve already voted for us!’

Hat tip to Manuel Ajenjo, the always-entertaining columnist for El Economista, for the laugh of the day.


What to name your Mexican child

According to the Mexico City Civil Registry office, here are the most common names for children. For girls, "Maria Fernanda" is the most common, with 1,022 cases. Next come Ximena (862), Valeria (805), Valentina (763) and Camila (745). Popular but less common are Regina, Sofia, Maria Jose, Nathalia and Renata.

For boys, Santiago (2,130) is the most common followed by Diego (1,078), Emiliano (1,060), Leonardo (819) and Miguel Angel (621).

So if you want to have some fun, go to a playground and yell for Maria Fernanda and Santiago. Some heads are sure to whip around.

Like most Latin countries, Mexico strongly discourages parents from giving, er, unusual names to their kids. If the LA Laker once known as Ron Artest had tried to change to his current name, Metta World Peace, here in Mexico City, he probably would've got a good "what for" from City Hall.

Cuba also has some people with unusual names. I recall an adolescent I met who told me her name was "Fairy" -- with a very Latin pronunciation. I thought I was hearing wrong. Then a Cuban-born journalist here in Mexico City who is a colleague has the name "Peniley." I had a hunch where it came from so I asked her. Sure enough, her parents were Beatles fans and named her after Penny Lane.

But the place where I recall the most unusual names was Panama. One canal worker named a son "Oh Boy" because he heard the phrase so much from Americans. Another gave a child the name "usnavy" because he saw it on a number of ships.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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