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The Russians are coming

Russian tourism to Cancun is flourishing, and it promises to grow bigger.

The figures help tell the story. According to Mexico's institute in charge of immigration, the number of Russians arriving in Mexico in the first nine months of 2012 hit 49,921, up from 26,651 in the same period in 2011.

Why, all of a sudden, the interest of Russians in coming to Mexico? Ease of travel, for one thing. The number of direct flights from Moscow to Cancun was twice a week last year. Then it grew to three times a week. Starting in October, Aeroflot and Transaero now have five flights a week, bringing up to 1,500 passengers (link in Spanish).

One of the top three online travel agencies in Russia, travel.ru, awarded Cancun earlier this year as the best destination in the Caribbean.

Gov. Roberto Borge of Quintana Roo, the state surrounding Cancun, is ecstatic about the growth, saying that Russian tourists stay an average of seven to 11 days, and spend 30 percent more than U.S. tourists.

The biggest drawback for Russian tourists is that few Mexicans can attend to them in Russian.

"We are preparing ourselves so that in every little business or restaurant (the employees) can speak and understand a little bit of Russian," Borge told Rusia Hoy (link in Spanish).


Calderon's shadowy security chief

It’s not just President Felipe Calderon who’s leaving office Saturday. It’s also the top tier of his government, many of them honorable functionaries, a few less so.

Among the most questioned is Genaro Garcia Luna, the Public Security Minister who seems to be facing ever-greater queries as he leaves office – presumably to go live in Miami.

Garcia Luna, an engineer, has been involved in intelligence operations for more than two decades. Word on the street is that Calderon kept him in his post for his entire six-year term because Garcia Luna knew too much from domestic wiretapping. Those kinds of aides can be dangerous.

In his job as a public servant, Garcia Luna appears to have amassed a sizeable personal fortune. As recently as 2007, he and his family lived in a modest home in a working class neighborhood. By 2009, he’d bought one home in the swank Jardines de la Montana district of southern Mexico City, and begun building another at a cost of nearly $2 million (photos here).

While all the U.S. officials I’ve talked to, usually off the record, voice confidence in Garcia Luna, it doesn’t quite add up.

The Federal Police he oversees have been involved in repeated scandals in the last six months.

First, there was the firefight in the food court at the Mexico City airport in which some federal police fired on and killed three of their colleagues. The shooting blew open evidence that federal police were letting drug rings operate at the terminal. Eventually, all 348 federal police working there were replaced.

Then came the incident in late August when federal police ambushed a U.S. Embassy vehicle in mountains outside of Mexico City. They fired 152 bullets at the vehicle, which they later said they suspected carried kidnappers. Rather, the vehicle carried two CIA operatives and a Mexican navy captain. Fourteen federal police and five commanders have been arrested for what prosecutors called a “direct” ambush.

The latest controversy to swirl around Garcia Luna erupted in the past two weeks. First, the muckraking Reporte Indigo reported that Garcia Luna’s wife, Linda Cristina Pereyra, has bought into a series of businesses in South Florida, including Oggi Caffe in North Bay Village and a pizzeria in Coconut Grove. A number of other enterprises, including security firms, are linked to the couple.

In a second controversy, a drug trafficker known by the nickname “La Barbie” sent a letter to the Reforma newspaper this week saying his crime gang had long paid off Garcia Luna.

"I can attest that he has received money from me, from drug-trafficking groups and organized crime," the Texas-born Edgar Valdez Villareal, 39, wrote in the letter, which The Wall Street Journal also obtained (see here).

Maybe the accused drug trafficker is lying. But still, are there not yet enough red flags up around Garcia Luna to merit a strong look at his wealth and actions?

Celebrating journalists all the time

Tomorrow is Journalists’ Day in Guatemala. You might think it would be the same day to honor journalists all over the region. You’d be wrong.

Like Mother’s Day, which is set on different days in different countries, no nation around here seems to celebrate journalists on the same day. Mexico does so on Jan. 4, Nicaragua on March 1, Honduras on May 25, Costa Rica on May 30, and El Salvador on July 31.

None of them set the day to coincide with International Day of Solidarity of Journalists, which is on Sept. 8.

Reminds me of the confusion in our house over when to celebrate Mother’s Day. In Mexico, Mother’s Day is May 10. Stay home that day if there’s any way possible. The roads are jammed as every Tomas, Ricardo and Enrique takes his mother out for a meal. In the U.S., Mother’s Day is on the second Sunday of May. In Nicaragua, my wife’s land of birth, Mother’s Day is on May 30th.

When I mentioned the confusion to a friend about when to celebrate, he wisely said: “Every day is mother’s day.” Well put. May every day be journalists’ day as well.

Another mismatch is Labor Day. In some 80 countries of the world, Labor Day is May 1, also called International Workers Day, which commemorates the slaughter of workers in 1886 in Chicago who were protesting for an eight-hour work day. It may have occurred in the United States, but in the U.S. we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September.  


Creative ferment in Tijuana music scene

The music scene in Tijuana is in creative upheaval. This is a 4-minute video about the blend of musical styles occurring in the border city, crossing boundaries between dubstep, punk rock, jazz, cumbia, no wave, norteño, banda, noise and techno. This video is done by Erin Siegal, whose videos I've posted before. Tijuana is indeed coming out of hiberation. Here's a story I did after a trip there early this year.


May I park your car, sir?

Where else in the world but in Mexico City would a Best Buy store have valet parking? But sure enough, there is one in this capital. At the attached parking garage, you can’t park yourself. A valet must do it.

I don’t drive a lot in the city. But when I do, I’m always struck by how many places don’t allow one to park one’s own car.

The local Telcel client service office has an attached lot. But valets do the parking, and the ticket stub says you should pay 30 pesos ($2.30) for the service.

Like all big cities, upscale restaurants and large hotels offer valet service. But even modest restaurants, gyms and stores have valets who will park your car for you. Yes, and even Starbucks have valets (h/t to @el_reportero).

This came to mind the other night when a banker friend ranted about how all the on-street parking in our district seems to be reserved for valet parking. It’s true. While parking spaces along streets may seem to be a public commodity, here in Mexico City valet services block them off, preventing public parking and profiting from their use.

It would take serious digging to find out which city official keeps an outstretched palm to allow this. It’s one of the many ways that small levels of corruption affect every day life here.

For those who have resources, it’s a huge benefit. Someone will always find you a space. But for those without, there simply is no place to park.


If not Mexico, how about Anahuac?

Mexico Central Americ_NostA little more than a week before leaving office, President Felipe Calderon has a beef and he appeared before the media to get it off his chest.

“Pardon the expression, but the name of Mexico is Mexico,” he said.

It’s not the United States of Mexico, as the nation’s constitution says. Indeed, before the nation’s delegates at the United Nations, the plaque says simply “Mexico.” Same goes at the Organization of American States.

“When we Mexicans are asked abroad where we are from, we say Mexico. We don’t say the United States of Mexico,” Calderon said.

Calderon referred to history, noting that names bandied about once the country became independent from Spain included: North America Morelos, Mexican America, Mexican Empire, the United Republic of Anahuac, Republic of Mexico, and the United States of Mexico. The last name was chosen in emulation of the neighbor to the north.

Calderon asked Congress to change the country’s name simply to Mexico.

“It is time that we return to the beauty and simplicity of the Mexican name of our country: Mexico. A name that we chant, we sing, that we identify with and that fill us with pride,” he said.

Mexico confronts a sticky situation

When it comes to chewing gum, lawmaker Juan Manuel Diaz Franco knows his stuff.

All it takes is a quick read through a bill he proposes for a tax on chewing gum to see that he’s done his research. Diaz Franco will submit the bill in Mexico’s lower chamber today. But it’s already on the web here.

For starters, Diaz Franco notes, Mexicans chew a lot of gum, an average of two and a half sticks a day, or nearly four pounds a year. And many chewers just throw their wads anywhere, making a mess of things.

Of course, in defending his proposed tax on gum, Diaz Franco notes that this is a worldwide problem, and governments have chosen different methods to tackle it.

England spends around 7 million euros ($9 million) a year cleaning up gum. The city of Liverpool took matters into its own hands and taxes each pack of gum. Northern Ireland is considering a 10 percent tax on gum and says it would raise between $4.9 million and $6.2 million a year.

Spain also has tackled the issue, the bill says. Zaragoza estimates that it spends .11 euros (14 cents) to clean each wad. Murcia spends .30 euros (39 cents). Malaga found 48,000 wads of stuck gum in one park just in one weekend. China has cracked down on gum after 600,000 wads were cleaned up from Tiananmen Square. Singapore banned gum chewing in 1992.

In Mexico, the bill says, an average stick of gum costs about 5 U.S. cents but it requires an outlay of 19 cents to clean it up.

“For decades, we have heard various incoherent proposals to solve this problem, ranging from suggesting that citizens swallow their gum to intimidation campaigns of fines even though it is difficult to detect offenders, due to the speed with which they spit their gum.”


Diaz Franco says City Hall has “invested $50,000 in 10 specialized machines” – I wonder what those machines look like? – “to clean the gum stuck to the streets, sidewalks, plazas, sculptures, trees and elsewhere. Authorities have said they counted 70 pieces of gum stuck per meter square, and 700 detached gum per day, representing a source of infection that urgently needs to be eradicated.”


He goes on: Each wad of gum can contain as many as 50,000 bacteria, and take four to five years to biodegrade.

So here’s the lowdown: The bill would tag a 50 percent tax on each pack of gum and an additional tax of 15 centavos (about a penny) on each stick. The tax would be divided between federal government and cities.

Stay tuned to see if those sticky wads disappear from the sidewalks.


Mexico's poor image in the U.S.

It may come as little surprise that Americans hold a generally unfavorable view of Mexico. A poll released this week offers a snapshot of those views.

A majority 72 percent of Americans think Mexico is unsafe for travel and barely 17 percent consider the country to be modern.

The issues that cause greatest concern about Mexico are drugs and corruption, not immigration and border issues, the survey found. Check this National journal website for a "word cloud" giving a visual interpretation of the negative views.

A thousand adults were asked their views by the polling firm Vianovo/GSD&M in early October. The margin of error is 3.9 percent.

Fully 50 percent had “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” opinions of Mexico. Only 17 percent had “mostly favorable” or “very favorable” opinions. Of 11 countries mentioned in the survey, only China and Saudi Arabia scored more unfavorably. Ranking higher than Mexico were Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Greece, United Kingdom, Turkey, El Salvador and Russia.

Some 55 percent of those surveyed said they’d heard something about Mexico in the past month. Eighty-one percent said it had to do with “drug problems/cartels/drug violence” while 42 percent said it was something about “murder/shootings/beheadings.”

No matter how much positive is written about Mexico in the news media, it will take some time to turn these attitudes around.


But did he eat Aztec Alpo?

Mexican anthropologists reported today that they are studying a mummified dog found in a cave in a semi-arid region of northern Mexico.

ESPECIALISTAS DEL INAH, ANALIZARÁN AL ÚNICO PERRO MOMIFICADO DE MÉXICO. EL CÁNIDO TIENE ALREDEDOR DE MIL AÑOS DE ANTIGÜEDAD.  FOTO DMC. INAH. M MARATMummified dogs have only been found in Egypt and Peru, so the recovery of the parched canine has got the National Institute of Anthropology and History excited.

The dog was found in the Candelaria Cave in the Lagunero area that stretches across parts of Coahuila and Durango states. Anthropologists say a hunter-gatherer group may have domesticated it.

Early estimates are that the mummified dog is 1,000 years old.

The contents of Candelaria Cave were actually discovered in 1953. The cave contained some 200 bodies and 2,500 relics, including funerary vessels, bows and arrows, knives, textiles, baskets, wooden figures and jewelry. The relics and the mummy of the dog were just returned by a regional museum to the Institute.

Anthropologists quoted in an Institute press release say they hope to learn if placing dogs as companions in human burial grounds was a tradition among the ancient peoples, or if it shows general domestication of dogs.

Anthropologists will measure the mummified dog carefully, X-ray it and conduct Carbon 14 testing to determine its exact age, the institute said.

Then they may discover its breed. Any bets on whether it's a precursor of a Chihuahua? Or a Coahuila Collie? Or a Lagunero Labrador? Then again, maybe it’s just an ancient mutt. 


Antivirus king's weird tale in Belize

John McAfee’s surname is synonymous with computer security. A company bearing his name is one of the world’s pre-eminent antivirus software concerns.

But McAfee doesn’t have much security these days – despite the pack of dogs and the small arsenal he keeps. He’s on the lam in Belize, a “prime suspect” in the murder of a fellow American whose body was found in a pool of blood Sunday morning.

The murder took place north of San Pedro Town on Ambergris Cay, where both McAfee and the victim, Gregory Viant Faull, have homes. The area is very popular with foreigners.

McAfee, who used to work for NASA’s Institute for Space Studies before starting his own antivirus company, retreated to Belize in 2008, only to see his $100 million fortune decimated by the global economic crisis. In Belize, when not hanging out with his 17-year-old girlfriend, the 66-year-old McAfee runs a start-up called QuorumEx.com that prospects for substances in Belize’s abundant fauna that might make for potent "paradigm-shifting medicines." It isn't clear if the company is even solvent anymore.

McAfee hasn’t had an easy go of it in Belize. He’s fought with his neighbors, particularly Faull, who complained that his dogs were running wild, barking at all hours and attacking people.

Last Friday night, someone came on McAfee’s property and poisoned the dogs.

Faull is a former contractor from the Orlando area who made a small fortune doing construction projects around Disney World and at other theme parks.

After he turned up dead on Sunday, Belizean police described McAfee as a “prime suspect.”

While McAfee went underground, he kept up a running conversation with Joshua Davis, a reporter with WIRED magazine, and Davis has kept up an account of what McAfee is telling him at both the magazine’s website and on his Twitter account @JoshuaDavisNow.

At one point, McAfee told Davis that he eluded police by burying himself in the sand with a cardboard box over his head so he could breathe. “It was extraordinarily uncomfortable,” he told Wired. “But they will kill me if they find me.” Here are some of Davis’s recent tweets:

2h McAfee says the police raided the house next door to where he was and he evaded them.

2h McAfee just called: He has changed locations. The police have not caught him yet.

3h McAfee says he is not armed. If the police shoot him, it's not because he has a weapon.

7h McAfee 7:05AM PST: "Power was just cut to the house I'm in. I think this is it."

7h McAfee at 5am: "The police have set up roadblocks across the country to catch me. I slept last night on a mattress infested with lice."

If McAfee has a persecution complex, he’s also got ways to protect himself. Click on the WIRED article to see photos of him posing shirtless with what looks to me like a shotgun. Faull was killed with a shotgun wound to his head. When police raided McAfee’s compound in May of this year, a television report said this is what they found: 7 12-gauge pump action shotguns; 1 12-gauge single action shotgun; 1 Taurus 9mm pistol and 1 9mm CZ pistol were found. Five air rifles with scopes that resembled sniper rifles were also found. Some of McAfee's bodyguards are known to be gangsters in Belize.

Click here and here to read Belize television website reports on the search for McAfee. A reporter for Gizmodo also has known McAfee for a long time. His recent article is titled: Secrets, Schemes, and Lots of Guns: Inside John McAfee's Heart of Darkness. The reporter, Jeff Wise, said on this posting this week that McAfee seems to be delving into bath salts, a mind-altering amphetamine that can cause a sustained psychotic state.



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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