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04/30/2013

Al Capone and YouTube

Imagine if gangster Al Capone had an outlet like YouTube. Would he have tried to convince the good people of Chicago of the righteousness of his Prohibition-busting bootlegging?

In Mexico, gangster leaders do have YouTube and they use it. In the video above, Servando Gomez, the leader of the Knights Templar, a crime and narcotics cartel in Michoacan state, rambles on for nearly 14 minutes in Spanish. Known commonly as La Tuta, the alleged drug lord talks about a host of subjects, including his hatred for rival groups Los Zetas and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel.

He also lashes out at self-defense groups that are forming along the Pacific coastal states, and says his group is willing to dialogue with the government -- but not to give up its weapons.

One of the most noteworthy things about the video is that La Tuta has no fear of showing his face. In Michoacan, the Knights Templar are the uber-bosses. Politicians are mostly under their thumb. I bet La Tuta can drive through the larger towns and cities of Michoacan with little fear of harassment or arrest. For those who believe Mexico is getting a grip on crime, do you think Al Capone could wander the streets of Chicago openly? 

Another noteworthy aspect of the video -- it has nearly a million hits and it's only been out for a few days. Clearly, some Mexicans are interested in what he has to say.

Item: I had difficulty viewing this video on Safari. If you, too, have trouble viewing it, try changing browsers.

'New president is serious about reform'

Obama Congress_Nost
President Obama offered a press conference a few hours ago, and the subject of Mexico came up only at the very end even though Obama will be landing here in Mexico City on Thursday for about 24 hours.

Here is the transcript of his remarks on Mexico, in response to a question from Antonieta Cadiz, a Chilean correspondent. She asked how the U.S. felt about Mexico saying Monday that all future contact with U.S. law enforcement will now go through a single gateway, the Mexican Interior Secretariat:

When it comes to Mexico, I’m very much looking forward to taking the trip down to Mexico to see the new President, Peña Nieto. I had a chance to meet him here, but this will be the first, more extensive consultations and it will be an opportunity for his ministers, my Cabinet members who are participating to really hammer out some of these issues.

A lot of the focus is going to be on economics. We’ve spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border. We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be talking about security. I think that in my first conversation with the President, he indicated to me that he very much continues to be concerned about how we can work together to deal with transnational drug cartels. We’ve made great strides in the coordination and cooperation between our two governments over the last several years. But my suspicion is, is that things can be improved.

And some of the issues that he’s talking about really had to do with refinements and improvements in terms of how Mexican authorities work with each other, how they coordinate more effectively, and it has less to do with how they're dealing with us, per se. So I’m not going to yet judge how this will alter the relationship between the United States and Mexico until I’ve heard directly from them to see what exactly are they trying to accomplish.

But, overall, what I can say is that my impression is, is that the new President is serious about reform. He’s already made some tough decisions. I think he’s going to make more that will improve the economy and security of Mexican citizens, and that will improve the bilateral relationship as well.

04/29/2013

A hissy fit from a powerful daughter

Andrea Benitez went to a pricey, chic restaurant in Mexico City’s Roma district last Friday afternoon. She demanded to be seated ahead of other waiting diners.

When she couldn’t get what she wanted, she threw a hissy fit.

She sent out a tweet dissing the restaurant (“Service is the worst … I would never come back @ Maximo Bistrot), and told owner Gabriela Lopez that her daddy was the head of the Attorney General’s Office for Protection of Consumers, and she’d sic inspectors on the eatery and get it shut down.

Sure enough, inspectors showed up and ordered the Maximo Bistrot sealed. The inspectors reported “irregularities” in the system of reservations, and said a type of mezcal on sale was falsely advertised. They backed off when other diners started taping them on their cell phones.

Benitez’s father, Humberto Benitez, is now in hot water indeed.

He issued a statement on Sunday. “I offer a sincere apology to those affected by the inappropriate behavior of my daughter Andrea. She exaggerated the situation, and the inspectors, who are under me, overreacted because they were dealing with my daughter,” the prosecutor wrote.

Benitez is no small potatoes He was attorney general of Mexico from 1994 to 1996, and provided legal advice to President Enrique Pena Nieto when he was running for governor of the State of Mexico. As readers of this blog are aware, Pena Nieto’s own daughter also ran amok with some wildly inappropriate tweets a while back, creating a fierce backlash on social media. Over the weekend, critics took after Andrea Benitez under the hashtag #LadyProfeco, a takeoff on the Ladies of Polanco who once bullied police.

Andrea Benitez (@andybenitezz on Twitter) promptly took her Twitter account private.

Eying an easy target, lawmakers took up the matter Monday, pontificating on the importance of equality.

“We are in a country where everyone is equal before the law, and no one, no matter who they are the son or daughter of, should get any type of privilege,” said Fernando Rodriguez Doval, of the opposition National Action Party, according to Notilegis, the news branch of Congress.

Best to take his remarks with a grain of salt, given that privilege of the powerful trumps about everything else in Mexico. Know any important people in jail here?

04/25/2013

The hooded students on campus

Mexico Protest_Nost

A group of some 15 students, most wearing hoods, have won headlines by seizing the administration tower at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The rebel students have been holed at Latin America’s largest university since last weekend, and images of the takeover (like the AP photo of the student above) are on the front pages of newspapers.

While the incident focuses on matters particular to Mexico, it brings together facets of university life across Latin America, especially the notion of autonomy of campuses – meaning that the police and the army must stop at the gates. Students generally play a role in Latin universities, including in academic affairs, that might seem incomprehensible on a U.S. campus, partly because student leaders are often affiliated to political forces off campus. University battles can seem like societal battles. A third element is the tolerance for violence on the part of students that might seem alien to an outsider.

So the takeover at the UNAM, as the university is called, drags on as the university rector decides whether to invite in federal police to dislodge the protesters. Police say they are ready.

The case at the UNAM, though, is not about major social issues. The hooded students are protesting the expulsion of five students from a different campus following a melee early in February.

According to news reports from Mexico City (I’m in Acapulco following a different story), some 115,000 students, teachers and staff members have signed petitions calling for the removal of the hooded students.

Some 200 student supporters have encircled the administration tower, an iconic building which houses gigantic murals by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Much of Mexico City awaits to see what will happen next.

04/23/2013

A high-tech crossing for Big Bend

Earlier this month, after an 11-year wait, a border crossing re-opened that connects Big Bend National Park and the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas.

Visitors who show up there scan their documents in a machine and converse remotely with a Customs and Border Protection agent more than 300 miles away in El Paso. Okay, you get the point, it's kind of an honor system. If there's a problem, apparently rangers from the national park or Border Patrol agents would arrive.

The video above is from Angela Kocherga and gives an idea of the remoteness of the place. You can actually wade across the Rio Grande there at many times of the year. Boquillas isn't much of a place. According to this Texas Monthly article, it's 150 miles (or five hours on a bus) from the nearest larger town, Melchor Muzquiz.

But it does have its charms, including a Mexican gentleman, Victor Valdez, who serenades those crossing the river with Mexican ballads like Cielito Lindo.

The re-opening also drew the attention of John MacCormack, a veteran San Antonio Express News writer, who noted in this article that many of the Mexicans in the village have stronger ties with the United States than with Mexico:

Food, gasoline, mail and hard cash came from the United States, medical emergencies often were treated in American hospitals and friendships with folks in the Big Bend region went back decades.

That all changed in May 2002, when the crossing was closed as part of a dramatic tightening of the border. With the town's lifeblood gone, many people moved away.

MacCormack went on to note that few thought the Boquillas crossing would ever reopen after terrorism came to the fore with the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last week, after years of work by officials in both countries, what many thought impossible in an age when "border security" is a hot-button political issue, quietly became a reality.

Enjoying a couple of cold ones at the Park Bar were two officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection national headquarters who were tasting the fruits of the successful project.

"We've been coming all the way from Washington for the last three years. We basically worked alongside the National Park Service," said Bryan Kegley, a CBP program manager.

"I think it's going to be great for the park and the river outfitters, and it's certainly going to be great for Boquillas," he said.

04/21/2013

A break for the dishwashers

PhotoIf the aesthetics don’t both you _ and they don’t bother me _ one of the common experiences of eating out at street stands or inexpensive restaurants in Mexico is getting served food on plates encased in plastic bags.

This saves the dishwashers plenty of work and water.

They just take off the used dirty plastic bag and put on a new one. The plate is ready for reuse. Here’s a fish taco I ate the other day – off a plastic covered plate.

I have not seen this done in any other Latin American country. But the plastic covered plates are ubiquitous in Mexico.

04/18/2013

A sign of shortages to come

Scattered around our apartment our buckets and pails of water. We’ve learned the hard way about the intermittent water shortages afflicting some areas of Mexico City in the past three weeks.

We awoke this morning to find water gone. I went to the gym anyway. Water was still out when I got back. So I spent the next four hours in my sweaty clothes thanking my lucky stars I had no business outside to attend to.

We got water but only because we had to buy it. That is big business in Mexico City. It is common to see water tanker trucks backed up to buildings, selling tankfuls of water. We had to pay 300 pesos, which is $25. Who knows how long it will last.

I don’t know how widespread this outage is -- perhaps just a few blocks around our building. But it could be bigger.

Over Holy Week, 13 entire districts of the city (think millions of people) had water cut off for 55 hours for some sort of maintenance. My Swedish friend had his sister’s family visiting. They arrived from the beach to discover they were crowded in his apartment without water. One day. Two days. It gets unpleasant fast. Think about not being able to flush toilets.

Who knows how regularly this inconvenience will occur. But it’s hard not to see the outages as a sign of things to come. After all, Mexico City faces huge shortages of water in the future as the aquifer is depleted.

Click here for a Public Radio International piece on how some families are turning to “rain-water harvesting” to cope with shortages. Earlier this year, city water officials announced a newfound aquifer about a mile deep that may stave off a crisis, at least in part of the city. Overuse of the existing aquifer is casing Mexico City to sink. Here’s a story I once wrote about buildings that settle and list because of the sinking.

04/14/2013

Who owns that stallion? You do

The government gets into some odd businesses. The oddest may be overseeing the return of Mr. Piloto, a quarter horse, to the breeding shed.

Mr. Piloto is stabled at the DL Ranch in Weatherford Station, Texas. He’s racked up $1,002,240 in earnings over his career. And he keeps on giving. His stud fee is $3,000. Helping the fiscal deficit little by little.

But perhaps of greater interest is who once owned him: The brothers Jose and Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, leaders of Los Zetas, the notorious criminal syndicate that terrorizes swaths of Mexico.

A U.S. task force busted Jose Treviño in June 2012 for allegedly laundering money through an Oklahoma-based quarter horse operation. The Feds seized more than 300 horses in the raid. Most were auctioned off last November but the Feds kept five on behalf of U.S. taxpayers. The best known is Mr. Piloto.

This article from the American Quarter Horse Association in February noted that Mr. Piloto is back at stud. The Houston Chronicle carries this article in which reporters tried to get DL Ranch to comment on Mr. Piloto but no one there would do so.

Jose Treviño’s trial is slated to begin this coming week in Texas.

04/08/2013

A mammoth find near the capital

Vista general de los huesos del Mamut descubierto en Santa Ana Tlacotenco, en Milpa Alta. FPTP DMC.INAH. M MARAT
Pity this poor prairie Mammoth. He apparently fell into a ditch at the moment of a volcanic eruption some 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Hot ash buried him until the past month or so.

Mexican archaeologists are busily unearthing the remains of the mammoth in Santa Ana Tlacotenco, a village on the mountainous outskirts of Mexico City, according to a release by the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Costillas y vértebras del mamífero extinto. FOTO DMC.INAH. M. MARATArchaeologists have excavated 70 percent of the beast, which probably weighed 10 tons, stood 16 or 17 feet tall and was 30 years old, it said. It probably strayed from a mammoth herd in search of a female, it added.

The archaeologists are working at an elevation of about 9,200 feet above sea level, an altitude a little above where the mammoths were thought to live in the basin area around present day Mexico City before their extinction.

This mammoth is not the woolly mammoth made well known by the Ice Age animated movies. Rather it is a Mammuthus columbi, an extinct mammoth similar to an elephant. The Institute release describes the tusk-like protrusions as a bony “defense apparatus,” not tusks. But other sources I see (this one) calls the prairie mammoth had tusks as long as 16 feet. The tusks alone could weigh up to 500 pounds.

The dig is drawing crowds of curious residents of the region, at least 100 a day.

The mammoth skeleton “is one of the most complete ever found in the Mexico Basin, which will allow a more complete study of the animal,” the institute said.

04/07/2013

The tribal music of 3ball mty

Barely two years ago, the three young DJs of the group known as 3ball mty could barely get a gig in their home city of Monterrey. Gangland violence made it too dangerous to take their high-energy music around town. 

Today, the music the trio creates, called tribal music, is winning them fame far outside Mexico. They won the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist last fall, and tours have taken them to LA's Staples Center, the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, Central Park in NYC and the Worldtronics festival in Berlin.

For the group's name, it took "3ball" which sounds like tribal in Spanish and "mty" which is the airport code for their home city. Tribal music is a mix of cumbia, Mexican pop, techno with a dose of norteno thrown in.

Even if you don't take to the music, the group's videos are fun because they often feature Mexican dancers wearing pointy boots, the footwear that originated in the northern town of El Huizache. Click here to see photos of the amazing Aladdin-like boots with pointy toes curling up nearly a yard. 

While not exactly a "boy band," the three members of 3ball mty are all either 19 or 20. Two of them met some six years ago outside an Oxxo convenience store, and became fast friends over their shared passion for Latin house music. The third member joined later. The song in the video above is probably their best known hit, Intentalo. 

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Tim

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

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