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The Tarahumara and famine

Fotos Despensas Sierra Tarahumara
It was early last Sunday when I first saw tweets mentioning a possible famine affecting the Tarahumara Indians up in Chihuahua state.

It looked like potentially very interesting story. First, it involved the Tarahumara, famed for their prowess as extraordinary long distance runners. Many of them still live in cabins in the remote Western Sierra Madre, practicing subsistence farming.

As the day wore on, I saw this Spanish-language video of an activist in Chihuahua state suggesting that some Tarahumara had taken part in a mass suicide by jumping off a cliff because of famine.

That there is famine in that region is beyond dispute. It began with hard frosts in early 2011, and worsened with drought that officials now say is the worst in 71 years.

Let me open a little window into how my job works by describing why I did not rush on a plane to go up there _ which I certainly considered doing.

There were multiple factors. A Swedish television journalist friend and I mulled those factors over all day. If we went, we’d go together. The Tarahumara live in isolated areas far to the west of Chihuahua city. So that meant probably dedicating nearly a week to the story: A day to get up there, another day in the state capital for interviews, a third day to get out to Creel or one of the other towns closer to the area, and perhaps more time to physically walk to a village where the famine may be severe.

Compounding the planning was figuring how to do it safely. Parts of that region are overrun with gun-slinging dopers and bad guys.

By Monday, even as opponents of the federal government were opening up food drives for the Tarahumara (see #sierratarahumara on Twitter), the Calderon administration flatly denied that the Tarahumara were dying from famine. And photos all seemed to be taken from Chihuahua hospital ICUs with a few malnourished children. No photos of withered fields, emaciated adults or supposed mass suicide sites.

The (what seemed to me far-fetched) claims of a mass suicide got fuzzier by the hour. No one could say where it occurred precisely. 

So by the end of Monday, calculating the time, energy and possible danger a trip would potentially entail, and balancing those factors with no certain knowledge that Tarahumaras really are perishing, I decided to keep an eye on the issue but put it on a back burner. What’s really going on up there? Can’t tell you for sure. Given that it is an election year, such matters can also be manipulated for electoral reasons. For now, I’ll keep reading the Spanish language reports and work on other stories.

Earlier today, the Calderon government said it had delivered 14,000 meal packets to Chihuahua for distribution at 104 Tarahumara centers in the region. They sent the photo above.

Maybe its CYA, but the Cabinet-level official in charge, Social Development Secretary Heriberto Felix Guerra, said in a statement that the central government is offering “extraordinary help” to the Tarahumara and that no one will be left hungry or in need. 

Making judgments about all this is an inexact science. But until I have better evidence otherwise, I’m inclined to believe him.

Update: The Univision network has this English language post debunking the idea of mass suicide among the Tarahumara. As reporters, when we find one major aspect wrong with a story, we generally assume there may be more aspects that are inflated, exaggerated or incorrect as well. Univision quotes a journalist saying, "This (story) was driven by social media." It's a cautionary note about what shows up on Twitter. 


A proliferation of pawn shops

Roughly one in 10 Mexicans currently has one or more items in hock at a pawn shop, according to an article in a newspaper this morning. The average loan obtained for the goods is $125.

There are a lot of pawn shops around. And a lot of them are off the books. According to another paper, El Economista, only 3,117 pawnshops are registered with the government and another 3,000 operate off the books. Illegal pawn shops charging usurious rates on loans are targets of a growing number of civilian complaints. In 2,011, the consumer protection agency in charge of the area received 1,197 such complaints. 

In comparison, the United States has 12,000 to 13,000 pawn shops.

The proliferation of pawn shops is one of many signs that tens of millions of Mexicans operate outside the normal banking system. They can’t get credit anywhere else so they put belongings in hock.

Of course, pawn shops have been around for millennia. A research paper I found says that pawn shops existed in ancient China and Babylonia, and began to flourish in the Middle Ages in Europe. 

As of Jan. 31, pawn shops in Mexico most post a sign in a visible place containing their commissions, annual interest rates and storage fees, and the number to call of the federal prosecutor’s office in case of complaints.


Moments of delight in Mexico

I went to buy a bottle of wine at a local wine store yesterday. Behind the counter, a clerk gladly took my money and handed me my purchase. It was not like the United States. There was no snot-nosed kid asking to see my ID. I'm 54. Only a moron would ask to see my ID. Sometimes it is little things like this that make one appreciate living abroad. And another recent moment: We took our car in to get it serviced. When we picked it up, they had cleaned and polished the entire vehicle. It was spotless. 


Carlos Slim's media ventures

Turns out the world’s richest man, Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim, has a deepening desire for involvement in media.

A spokesman for Slim confirmed to Reuters a few minutes ago that the tycoon is negotiating a deal with former CNN talkmeister Larry King on a web project.

"There are advanced talks between the Slim group and Larry's group," spokesman Elias Ayub told Reuters. 

This story first broke on thewrap.com website a day ago.

King is 78 years old, so a deal ought to come soon. King left CNN in December 2010. Before leaving CNN, King lobbed some questions Slim's way in the interview above. Among other things, he asks Slim why he doesn't live in a house that is 10 times bigger. Click here for a photo of King and Slim, showing they seem to be good personal friends.

Slim has a fortune that Forbes puts at $74 billion. He’s been reported to be the second-largest shareholder of New York Times stock, with as high as 8.2 percent of outstanding shares. In 2009, amid an extended advertising slump, Slim offered the Gray Lady a $250 million loan. The Times says it will repay the loan early this year.

Slim’s fortune was built in telecommunications, retailing, construction, banking, insurance, railroads and mining – and his net worth is equivalent to 7 percent of Mexico’s economic output.


A viral video of abusive behavior

Call it what you will – entitlement, privilege, money, an abusive nature.

In many parts of Latin America, some rich people are physically abusive of those of lower status – their maids, police officers who stop their cars, office workers and others. 

You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the gist of the video above taken by a closed circuit camera July 8, 2011, at a condo high-rise in the swank Paseo de las Lomas area of Mexico City.

In it, you see businessman Miguel Sacal Smeke, owner of the Nino Sacalli textile group, physically abuse an attendant who declined to leave his counter job to help change a tire on Sacal’s Porsche. Sacal slaps him around and pushes him down to the ground, apparently breaking two of his teeth. Sacal then starts threatening another employee. The injured employee apparently lost his job after not bending to the bullying.

The video has gone viral in Mexico, putting Sacal on the spot. According to one report, he has described the incident as only a “spat.”

The YouTube video is titled “Gentleman de Las Lomas” – a play on the title of an earlier video gone viral titled “Ladies of Polanco.” I blogged about that video in which upper-class ladies (with little class) berate a police officer for giving them a ticket.

Oh, and it’s not impossible you might encounter this behavior stateside. Property records indicate the Mexican tycoon owns (or has owned) several condos in Aventura, Florida.

Update: This case has taken many new twists. Sacal has offered a public apology to the valet and agreed to pay him an undisclosed sum of money. YouTube is also taking down the video almost as fast as people are reposting it. I'll have more on this when I have more time.

Ahmadinejad in Latin America

APTOPIX Venezuela Ira_Nost
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in Managua in a few hours, the second leg of a trip around Latin America. It is his fifth time in the region, and given U.S.-Iranian tensions the trip has fueled a lot of worried tea-leaf reading. On Monday, his visit to his ideological pal Hugo Chavez in Venezuela generated headlines. After today's stop in Nicaragua, he goes on to Cuba, Ecuador and Guatemala.

Analysts I respect, though, say concerns over Iran's influence in the region may be ill-founded.

On previous trips, Ahmadinejad made big promises that Iran never fulfilled. Where is the oil refinery he promised to build in Ecuador? And the $350 million deepwater port for Nicaragua? Yes, Iran has opened six embassies in Latin America since 2005. But if tensions grow with Iran, are its supporters in Latin America able to offer anything except rhetorical support? 

Here’s are excerpts from what I’ve seen over the past several days:

Michael Shifter, Inter-American Dialogue: “It is worth stressing that Brazil, the region's economic and political powerhouse, is not part of Ahmadinejad's itinerary this time, as it was in 2009. That is a setback for Iran, which would clearly like to develop stronger geopolitical ties with Brazil beyond the existing economic relationship. If Hezbollah and Iran are heavily engaged in illicit activities in the region, that would pose a threat to the major countries, which have made economic and political progress that they will want to avoid putting at risk. Both Iran and Venezuela, Iran's advocate in region, are today considerably weakened in their respective regions.”

Nicaragua Ortega_NostRay Walser and James Phillips, Heritage Foundation: “Ahmadinejad hopes that his Latin “tyrant’s tour” will demonstrate that Iran is not isolated and that he is a respected leader of the anti-American bloc. . . . What does Iran seek in the Americas? It desires diplomatic cover and international support against the U.S. and Western Europe, which are imposing increasingly tougher sanctions. Iran wants commercial and economic outlets for its limited range of exports and sources of secure supply for its domestic market. Iran also desires a set of friends who are willing to buck the U.S. …”

Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America: As he visits the region, Ahmadinejad will encounter some rhetorical support—he will certainly find governments and social sectors that oppose U.S. sanctions and the U.S. approach to Iran. But the trip is unlikely to do much to advance Iran’s strategic interests. . . . (T)he fact that some Latin American countries disagree with the United States about how to approach Iran doesn’t mean that these countries are embracing a strategic alliance with Iran. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may love flamboyant gestures, and be delighted to poke a rhetorical stick in the eye of the United States, but Venezuela is not about to adopt or spread Shiite fundamentalism, and Venezuela—much less Cuba, Ecuador or Nicaragua—is not in any serious position to advance Iranian strategic military interests, nor to serve as a rearguard from which to harass the United States.”


For vote, some Mexicans left hanging

One would think that the Mexican population residing in the United States – with papers or without -- could play a key role in upcoming July 1 presidential elections in the homeland.

It won’t happen. Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute has maintained barriers for registering citizens living outside the borders of the country. A reporter at The Herald in Monterey, California, had a great story on this issue this morning.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 31.8 million people of “Mexican origin” live in the United States. I don’t believe that figure includes the estimated 6 to 7 million Mexicans without proper documentation. That’s a lot of people. But according to The Herald: 

In 2006, of about 4.2 million registered Mexican voters estimated to be in the United States, only 56,000 asked for an absentee ballot and about 41,000 received the voting package. An estimated 33,000 actually voted — an 88 percent voter turnout.

For upcoming elections, the Federal Electoral Institute requires Mexicans living overseas to travel to Mexico to obtain a voter ID card. The deadline is Jan. 15.

It seems to me this is disenfranchisement of a population rather critical to Mexico’s financial health. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans send back upwards of $22 billion a year in remittances to family members in the patria. No wonder some experts call the Mexican population in the U.S. a "sleeping giant."

Mexico makes the record books

Mexico cut the ribbon on a pair of new monumental structures in recent days. One of them is a luminescent tower in the heart of Mexico City. Called the Stele of Light, it is a 341-foot tall illuminated structure set on the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main boulevard.

The fireworks around the monument were both literal (on Saturday night) and figurative. Critics decried the overruns that forced a fivefold increase in cost, ending up at nearly $100 million,  or as one union pointed out – enough to build 150 schools.

Still, the inauguration Saturday was a time for celebration

“Let the Stele of Light monument be an emblem of a new era for Mexico, an era in which the seed of a more secure, fair and prosperous nation flourishes,” President Felipe Calderon said.

Builders of the monument ran into huge delays.  It was to be completed for the bicentennial in 2010, then for the end of 2011 but wasn’t finished till last week.

Protesters held up signs. One said: “This gigantic waste of money is a monument to corruption!” 

The other huge project completed in recent days has a practical use. It is the Baluarte Bridge, a cable-stayed suspension span that Guinness lists as the world’s tallest bridge. The bridge, which crosses a deep ravine in the Western Sierra Madre Mountains, is so high that the Eiffel Tower could fit underneath.

The bridge is 3,687 feet long and at its central span is 1,321 feet over the river bed. Guinness officials were on hand at a ribbon cutting, chalking up the latest Mexican achievement in making a world record

The Baluarte Bridge is one of several tunnels and bridges that will shorten the road trip between Mazatlan and Durango by as much as six hours. The current road is known as the "Devil's backbone" and winds dangerously through jagged peaks.

(Both photos are from the website of Calderon’s office at www.presidencia.gob.mx)



Putting a perspective on murder rates

A lot of people are killed each year in Mexico and Central America, but whether that makes the countries “dangerous” or “unsafe” is a matter of perspective.

Many foreigners who travel each year to the region, and a lot of locals, grow angry at the portrayal in the media (including my articles) of life South of the Border. They say many parts of the region are no more dangerous than in the United States or Canada.

This came to mind a few moments ago reading an article published today in the Calgary Herald of Canada. The headline reads: I went to Mexico and didn’t get Killed

Here’s how the article by Robert Remington begins:

My recent Mexican vacation was fabulous - endless sunshine, beer, fresh seafood, delectable fruit, the dependable hospitality of friendly and polite locals, and more beer.

Not a single headless torso washed up on the beach or got dumped on the street.

The recent murder of two Canadians near Huatulco and Manzanillo won't keep me away. I've been to Mexico often and would go back in a heartbeat.

You can meet violence or get caught in crossfire anywhere. Just ask Jose Neto, the Brazilian exchange student who lost his sight after taking a stray bullet while walking in downtown Calgary one evening in 2008, or the friends and family of Keni Su'a, the bystander killed in the 2009 New Year's Day gang assassination at Calgary's Bolsa restaurant.

I heard a lot about this topic in the past few days in the city I’m currently visiting, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. On a day like today, people walk normally about the streets, puffy clouds sit atop verdant jungle-covered mountains flanking the city to the west, and the place seems like a tropical paradise.

Honduras has one of the highest murder rates at 86 per 100,000 people, according to U.N. estimates, a rate comparable to a war zone. Yet several people have said to me that they don’t feel any less safe here that what they imagine Miami or New York to be like. 

The same can be said of Mexico, where violence is concentrated in a handful of ever-changing hotspots. According to the Reforma newspaper, there were 12,359 drug-related murders in Mexico last year. Hardly any of them occurred in Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos or Huatulco, major beachside tourism destinations.

Mexico’s security situation is highly fluid and perceptions can be tricky. Example: The border city of Ciudad Juarez tallied 1,974 homicides in 2011, nearly a 40 percent drop from the year before. And already residents are proclaiming how much safer things seem.

DSCN1449Still, in cities like Juarez, Acapulco, Tampico and Veracruz, the murder rates are extremely high. For comparison purposes, here are numbers of “murder and non-negligent manslaughter” cases in selected U.S. cities, according to this FBI report, for 2010: Miami (68), New York City (536), Detroit (310), Sacramento (33), St. Louis (144) and Los Angeles (293).

Are these numbers high? If you live in an area with a lot of murders, you probably find them alarmingly high. On the other hand, many people proclaim New York City is safer than ever. Check out this 2009 story with the headline: How New York Became Safe: The Full Story

My own feeling is that if you don’t observe the effects of murder yourself (see a dead body in the street, know someone who has been killed, etc.), a high murder rate might seem an abstraction. A hit squad pumped dozens of bullets into a car carrying a couple along a major thoroughfare in San Pedro Sula yesterday. It was clearly a gangland hit. (Photo above is by Fredy Pineda.) Within a few hours, the scene was all cleaned up. If you didn’t watch the TV newscast or see the newspapers this morning, you’d have never known.


Housing inmates in cargo containers

I was driving around San Pedro Sula, a manufacturing hub in Honduras, earlier today when I saw these improvised jail cells. They are made from shipping containers.

The Honduran who was with me said it was part of a private sector bid to alleviate its overcrowded prisons. Honduras, like the United States and many nations in Latin America, has severely overcrowded prisons. To date, the Honduran government hasn’t accepted the use of the container cells. So the modified containers sit rusting in a field.

Honduras isn’t the only nation that’s considered using recycled containers to house prisoners. Australia and New Zealand (click here and here) both have implemented this kind of prison housing. A news article from New Zealand earlier this year described the modified containers as “the cheapest and fastest way to build extra prison capacity as prisoner numbers reach all-time highs.”

But the issue still burns whether such housing is a sane way of recycling containers and a secure, cost-effective form of incarceration or a cruel way to confine inmates.

By the way, a little Googling on the subject led me to this site on futuristic ways to house prisoners.




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

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