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Going AWOL at the airport

There must've been a darn good reason, right? For some reason, the immigration official that must check departing foreigners at Mexico City's international airport seems to have taken part of the morning off. The kiosk has been vacant for 45 minutes.

That left some 25 disgruntled passengers with boarding passes in hand unable to proceed to the gates. A United Airlines agent standing beside a well-dressed man said she'd never seen such a situation before.

Unless an immigration official shows up soon, dozens of people will lose their flights.

It's as if the TSA folks all decided to take a lunch break at the same time.

Oh, some guy just showed. No apologies or anything.

Be advised: When traveling to Mexico, schedule in time for the 'siesta factor.' Who knows when an official carrying out a public service might need a break?

Going AWOL at the airport


Hombre! What good stuff this is!

President Felipe Calderon holds up a vial of crude oil at a news event this morning that he said was extracted from an ultra deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly giddy at being able to offer up some good news, Calderon said Mexico had finally made a significant discovery, tapping into "treasure" deep under the Gulf of Mexico. The Bicentenario deepwater rig hit a big field of crude oil at the Trion I well in roughly 8,200 feet of water, he said. This could indeed be great news for Pemex and Mexicans, but foreign reporters took a cautious approach, perhaps because Calderon is in his final months or perhaps because there was little supporting information from Pemex. Here's the Financial Times report and here's a Reuters story. Click here for the news release from Calderon's office (in English). Going out into deep water of the Gulf of Mexico was a risky proposition for Pemex. I wrote here about what was at stake a few months ago. 

Tomatoes, apples and U.S. swing states

Let’s take a moment to ponder tomatoes, apples and U.S. electoral swing states. They are related. And Mexico plays a role.

We’ll start with tomatoes: In June, a group of Florida tomato growers appealed to the Obama administration saying they’d been subject to unfair trade practices by Mexican tomato exporters. They asked for the end of a pact that had governed the price of Mexican vine-ripened tomatoes since 1996.

Tomatoes are big business. The U.S. imported well over $1 billion worth of tomatoes last year from Mexico, the main food import from South of the Border. They are also big business in Florida.

And of course, Florida is a swing state in this election year. So a trade war may be in the offing as President Obama looks to secure key Florida votes. The Commerce Department is accepting comments on what it should do until Sept. 4.

Business is weighing in. On the pro-import said is the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

“Special interest groups are using election-year politics to try to start a trade war that will disrupt a 16-year track record of success for bringing fair prices to consumers and healthy variety to family dinner tables,” the group’s president, Lance Jungmeyer, said in a statement a week ago.

Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, Adam Putnam, is backing Florida’s growers. He sent a letter early last month demanding relief for growers from his state.

“Already suffering from weak demand in a difficult economy, Florida’s tomato growers cannot compete in a market flooded by unprecedented imports of tomatoes from Mexico at prices well below the cost of production,” Putnam wrote.

So where do apples fit in? Well, Mexico is a major importer of apples from Washington State. But Washington is not a swing state in this election. It is solidly democratic. If the Obama administration favors the Florida tomato growers, Mexico may retaliate against apple growers from Washington.

Here’s what a columnist for something called The Wenatchee World wrote:

“Trade war talk should scare us. Trade is a two-way street. Washington apples go in while tomatoes go out. Tomatoes are Mexico’s largest agricultural export, and Mexico is the largest export market for Washington apples. When Mexico is upset, apples can get nailed.”

Also from the department of unintended consequences, this Spanish-language story notes that 350,000 Mexicans are employed in the tomato industry, many of them in Sinaloa state. If they lose their jobs, where will they head? North?


The 'journalists' with a cool $7 million

Nicaragua Mexico_Nost-2
The arrest of 18 fake journalists, all presumably Mexican, at the border between Honduras and Nicaragua is troubling on many levels.

The detainees were traveling in six vans with fake decals of Televisa, the Mexican television conglomerate. They were busted Monday trying to enter Nicaragua at Las Manos, a border crossing.

Nicaragua Mexico_Nost-1Nicaraguan police grew suspicious. The detainees had vests with Televisa logos, and said they were going to Nicaragua to cover a trial related to the 2011 slaying of Argentine singer Facundo Cabrales.

Today, Nicaraguan Police Chief Aminta Granera (read my profile of her here) announced that police had found compartments in the vans containing roughly $7 million. All the detainees are now in custody in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.

So who are these guys? Why did they have such a sophisticated cover and so much money? One of the detainees is reportedly named Cecilio López Gutiérrez and is a muncipal police officer from Durango state in Mexico.

One can only surmise without proof. But don’t be surprised if it turns out that the group was part of a cartel squad sent to strong-arm judges, prosecutors, witnesses and others related to the case.

This is a snapshot of the state of Central America. It’s also bad news for real journalists when the cartel gets into the impersonation business of reporters.

Honduran press reports say customs and immigration agents there have been removed for letting the Mexican convoy through.

Just who these guys might be working for gets complicated. The trial in Managua is for Henry Fariña, an impresario who was with the Argentine folksinger when he was gunned down in Guatemala. Some believe Fariña was the real target of the attack and that the Argentine was killed by accident. Prosecutors believe Fariña is linked to a Costa Rica-based gang that is moving drugs for La Familia Michoacana, a powerful Mexican drug group. Apparently that gang is in a battle with another group linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. So behind the fake journalists may be some really sinister goings-on.

The only good news is that Nicaragua was attentive enough to halt further mayhem

Catchy new sound from Monterrey

This is a popular music video that has just come out and is taking Mexico by storm. It's by a band from Monterrey, Band of Bitches, and is superficially about beer and sultry weather. Very catchy. Lots of style and creativity and quite distinct from the sound of Nortec Collective, which I've posted on in the past here.


The installations of Radio Zeta

Just as narcos sometimes set up parallel governments in rural towns (or even cities, for that matter), they also have parallel communications systems.

SEMAR_BOLETIN_166_12_FOTO_02They don’t rely on cell phones. They hijack UHF and VHF frequencies and operate radio networks.

The Mexican navy sent out a bulletin this morning with these photographs saying that marine units had destroyed several narco communications facilities in Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states.

The antenna in the photo is more than 160 feet high. It was found on a lot near the Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo highway. At another site, the navy said, its units found a camper with a UHF digital repeater inside that was operating. It said the unit was part of Los Zetas communications network.

In Veracruz, the navy said it triangulated in and destroyed a communications network atop a hill in Cofre de Perote.

Click here for an interesting AP story from last year on narco communications and here for a Wired Magazine story on the same subject.

Caravan for peace in the U.S.

This is a report from Angela Kocherga at KVUE in El Paso. The Caravan for Peace is the effort spearheaded by poet Javier Sicilia who lost his son to drug war violence last year. Sicilia mobilized a lot of publicity in a series of meetings with President Felipe Calderon. Now, he is leading a small group that began a journey in San Diego and will arrive in Washington DC in mid-September. It's unfortunate for his cause that Sicilia doesn't speak English. He's eloquent in Spanish but the message in translation probably gets lost. I post this because the caravan gets some coverage here in Mexico but very little in the U.S. media.


Reliving the SE Asian tsunami

This is a Spanish language trailer for a movie called The Impossible that will premiere in a little more than a month. It was directed by JA Bayona, a protege of Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro. No English language trailer is yet available on YouTube but try clicking here to access one.

I was with my family in Indonesia at the time of the horrifying 2004 tsunami on which this movie is based. The tsunami and earthquake took more than a quarter million lives. Luckily, we were in Bali, far away from Sumatra near the epicenter of the quake that triggered the walls of water that roared across the Indian Ocean.

I was quickly called to work by editors, and soon found my way on an airplane to Sri Lanka. It looked to be where the tsunami hit the hardest. That's because news hadn't yet filtered out about how badly Sumatra had been smashed. I spent a week reporting on the disaster in Sri Lanka before returning to Sumatra to replace another reporter for our news organization there. I've covered plenty of disasters -- bad ones -- like a volcano-driven avalanche in Colombia that left 25,000 dead in 1985 and the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008 that killed some 80,000. But nothing I've done prepared me for the the tsunami in Indonesia. Miles and miles of terrain were flattened. The tsunami raked many countries, among them Thailand. Click here to see an amazing video by a Swedish couple there. One minute, the woman is wading in surf. Moments later, they have fled to higher ground and are watching other buildings float away. 

I'll certainly go see this movie. Just don't ask me to stay at a beachfront hotel.  

Where chefs shop in Mexico City

My wife has been bugging me for a while to accompany her to the Mercado San Juan in Mexico City’s central district. She’d been with friends several times and described it as a market for gourmets because of its extraordinary variety of foods.

The market has a long history and is beloved by visiting cooks. As Rick Bayless wrote not so long ago: “Folks in the know refer to it as the chefs’ market because of the wide range of meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables—all of it of breathtaking quality.”

PhotoWe went Saturday, accompanying a visiting daughter, with two goals. One was to buy some fresh, fat shrimp for an evening dinner. Secondly was to have baguette sandwiches at Gastronomica San Juan, stall No. 162 (Remember that if you visit Mexico City!).

This market is worth going out of your way for. If you want exotic meats or insects for your table, they are here. Ant eggs, kangaroo, crocodile, grasshoppers, boar, freshly butchered lamb, pheasant … the list goes on. The fish and seafood stands were loaded with all variety of ocean and freshwater fish and seafood.

If you’re vegetarian, skip those sections and visit the vegetable stands. Wow! What displays. What I loved was not the fresh veggies so much as the edible flowers on display, and not just flor de calabaza but other flowers. The Triana coffee stand had a great variety of coffee (and often attracts movie and TV stars. See this entertaining YouTube video about it).

But go to either Gastronomica San Juan or the stand next to it, La Jersey, to get a fresh baguette filled with all kinds of cheese and cold cuts. These places are a delight. You can find all manner of artisanal raw milk cheeses, imported parmesan, pecorino, fontina, aged manchegos and others. With the sandwich, they hand you a little glass of table wine. Then you stand there, savoring the sandwich and enjoying the aromas and colors of the other stands.

Click here and here to read what others have written about the market.


Mexico's curious 'meeting points'

Anyone who wonders around in urban areas of Mexico is likely to see signs like the one above in the most unlikely places.

It is a symbol for a “meeting point,” and it appears everywhere. I saw the one in the photo early this morning on a sidewalk in the Roma district of Mexico City.

A few weeks ago, I saw a “meeting point” sign in the middle of a barren field near the Queretaro airport. I’ve seen them in traffic lanes in parking garages, along roads, and other places where one would only send one’s worst enemy for a “meeting.”

This has been in the back of my mind for a while. At first, I thought it was some sort of practical joke or a bizarre region-wide performance art exhibition. On looking around the internet, I see that in fact there might be a logic to it. Rather than a “meeting point” in a U.S. sense, where you go if lost or separated from your party, these points are gathering spots in case of natural disaster. At least that’s what this Spanish-language answer website says. Another explanation says that in case of fire or earthquake, citizens are to gather at the sites to let relief officials know they are okay.

Aw, I kinda preferred believing this was a work of art, or some unknown symbol that had appeared with shades of Roswell, N.M. 



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

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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