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Arizona mother freed from prison

Yanira Maldonado, the Mormon mother of seven from Arizona who was arrested at a roadblock in Sonora last week, went free late Thursday and crossed the border early this morning, according to the Arizona Republic.

Maldonado had been accused of trying to smuggle 12 pounds of marijuana, a charge that her family members and lawyers said was a set-up.

According to this morning's Arizona Republic story, a judge released Maldonado after viewing a surveillance video that showed Maldonado boarding the bus. Other news stories indicated that she wasn't carrying any package that could conceal 12 pounds of pot.

Maldonado's case drew a lot of attention. She and her husband had traveled from the Phoenix area to attend a family funeral in Los Mochis in Sonora state last week. They took a bus because they were tired when they had to make the sudden trip and thought the bus would be safe. As I noted in a previous post, bus lines and employees have regularly smuggled marijuana under passenger seats.

The video above was apparently taken beside a hotel pool this morning around 2:30 a.m. in Nogales, Arizona. I'm sure that family is quite relieved that their ordeal is over.


Packing dope under bus seats

You may have seens stories or TV newscasts about a U.S. mother of seven from Arizona who's been arrested in Sonora for allegedly trafficking marijuana under her bus seat. The incident occurred May 22 when Yanira Maldonado and her husband Gary were returning home to Arizona from a funeral. Outside Hermosillo, the state capital, soldiers at a roadblock said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under their bus seat.

The Mormon couple has alleged their innocence and some 12,000 supporters have signed a Facebook page for her release (the husband, curiously, was not charged). The husband, according to this news report, says a judge asked for thousands of U.S. dollars to free the 42-year-old wife. A daughter told CNN she doesn't think her mother has "ever even tried a cigarette in her life or even drank a beer."

What is striking about this case -- besides how apparently clean living Americans have gotten snared in Mexico's judiciary -- is how often marijuana seems to be smuggled under bus seats in Mexico. It seems to be a perfect tactic for bus companies and drivers in cahoots with smugglers. In one case two years ago, a bus carried half a ton of marijuana carefully hidden under the seats of some 20 unwitting passengers. I don't immediately find other examples but remember reading of this every few months.

If you take a bus in Mexico, check under the seat before you settle in. 

Maldonado's case, meanwhile, is drawing lots of attention. It came up at a press briefing Tuesday at the State Department, the Mexican Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying that her "due rights" are being respected, and Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake's office sent me a statement that he "has been in contact with the family, as well as officials in Mexico and the U.S. regarding the case. He will continue to monitor the situation.”



Getting angry over a delayed plane

This video of angry passengers attacking an employee of the low-cost airline Viva Aerobus is causing a stir on the internet. The video was posted two days ago, although it isn't clear when the delay occurred. The flight was to depart Mexico City for Monterrey. Passengers got angry with the lack of clarity of when-- or even whether -- the flight would take off. So a lady lunges at the employee and hits him in the face, sparking similar reactions from others. The shouts in the background indicate that passengers thought the employee was making fun of them. A news story in El Universal says no security agents came to the scene to maintain order. Of course, this sort of thing can happen in any nation on earth. There was this video from February showing an extraordinarily violent tantrum by a Chinese official when he was told he'd missed his flight. Keep calm, fellow flyers! 


Vigilance over cholera in Mexico

When I returned to the country the other day, a Mexico City airport official handed out pamphlets to each arriving passenger on the threat of cholera.

“Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease which is transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio Cholera,” it said in part.

It urged travelers to review “measures of personal hygiene, like washing your hands before and after you got to the bathroom.”

I tucked the bilingual flyer in my bag and just pulled it out a minute ago. I had heard no news about any outbreak of cholera anywhere in the Americas recently so I found the warning unusual.

My flight landed at the same time as an Interjet flight from Havana, where there was a brief and localized outbreak of cholera last year. That’s the only reason I can think of for such a warning. Otherwise, cholera outbreaks are so rare that it seems such a warning might be unwarranted.


A lack of diversity on the coffee farms

I toured several coffee-growing cooperatives in Guatemala today, and one of the surprises I encountered was the prevalence of a certain species of tree used for shade-grown coffee.

It used to be in decades past that shade-grown coffee was considered better for the environment. Farmers used numerous kinds of trees to cast shade, providing some diversity. But everywhere I went today, there was just one kind of tree, a silky oak, an import from Australia. It’s been in Guatemala for decades. It's not a real oak, by the way, but more like a eucalyptus.

You can see it in the background in the photo above, taken at the San Pedrano Cooperative near Esquintla.

The silky oak can be shaped with pruning, and is highly frost resistant, two qualities that coffee farmers like. Other trees, like the endemic Inga, can die in a hard frost. So the silky oak has taken over at some coffee farms.

One of the benefits of shade-grown coffee disappears if the trees providing the shade are a monoculture. Juan Carlos Toledo, an agent with the Federation of Coffee-growing Agricultural Cooperatives of Guatemala, said some U.S.-based specialty coffee buyers were pressuring Guatemalan growers to diversify their trees to replicate natural forest. 

I’ll sip to that.

I've just come across what looks like a Guatemalan coffee industry website that indicates the silky oak, also known as by its Latin name as Gravilea Robusta, is used on only 22 percent of coffee farms in the nation. If still up to date, that would be good news. 


The hostility facing Carlos Slim

The world's richest man, Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, is not finding an easy go of it when he makes public appearances in the United States. Last week, at an event at the New York Public Library along with Salman Khan, the head of Khan Academy, a number of activists in the audience interrupted the event with loud laughing. This Forbes posting cites one activist saying it was a protest against Slim's "monopolistic and predatory practices."

Slim faced protests a year ago when George Washington University gave him an honorary degree.

The Forbes story said Slim's son-in-law, Arturo Elias, believes some of the protesters were paid $35 and a Metro ticket to get to last year's events.

Slim's America Movil offers cellular services in 17 countries. A recent monopoly-busting telecom reform in Mexico, Slim's home base, will make it harder for him to hang on to some 70 percent of the cellular market there and 80 percent of the land lines.


America's 'wicked war'

Where is the wooden leg of famed Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna? Watch this interesting video from CBS's Sunday Morning program to learn more about what a Penn State historian describes as the "wicked" Mexican-American war, America's first war based on greed rather than ideological principal.You'll discover in this video why Mexicans revere the "Niños Heroes" who defended the Chapultepec Castle. And you'll also learn about Santa Anna's leg. If you want to find out why it is somewhere in Illinois, click here.


A fast U-turn at the Mouse House

Day of the Dead Trade_Nost
The reaction was so fast and spirited that it was enough to make heads spin in the House that Mickey Built.

Once news broke on Tuesday that the Walt Disney Company had filed 10 trademark requests for “Dia de los Muertos” for an upcoming Pixar animated movie, social media began to boil with anger and ridicule.

A woman from Colorado, Grace Sesma, posted a petition at change.org and in less than 24 hours, more than 20,000 signatures were posted. Here is part of her introduction:

“Our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit. I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek (to) own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico.”

Disney apparently hoped to market toys, cereal, jewelry and other merchandise with the “Dia de los Muertos” phrase when a Pixar movie of the same name comes out.

For those not in the know, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday in Mexico that has been around since before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Families pray to the deceased before private altars and trade favorite candy and foods. A common symbol of the holiday is the skull, thus dancing skeletal figures like in the AP photo above.

An L.A.-based cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz, created a cartoon in which a mouse rampaging through a cityscape bears the name: Muerto Mouse (Dead Mouse). Click here to see.

With this kind of reaction, Disney went into retreat. It said in a statement:

“As we have previously announced, Disney-Pixar is developing an animated feature inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Disney’s trademark filing was intended to protect any potential title for our film and related activities. It has since been determined that the title of the film will change, and therefore we are withdrawing our trademark filing.”

Word so far is that Halloween and Christmas are still safe from Disney's lawyers.


The mysterious 'third hand'

01 - GCO_7030
The office of President Enrique Pena Nieto sent out the above photograph among the many photos that it moved during the visit of President Barack Obama on Thursday and Friday.

It looks like an ordinary news photo until you look closely at the handshake. A mysterious "third hand" is there. Where's the body belonging to the hand? I don't see anyone who could be hiding behind Obama. It's just a disembodied hand. It's either the coolest magic trick imaginable. Or someone is up to some shenanigans with Photoshop.

I wasn't present at the moment when Obama arrived at the National Palace and greeted Pena Nieto. Obama doesn't speak Spanish really, and Pena Nieto doesn't appear very comfortable in English. So perhaps there was a translator present who got airbrushed out.

Then again, maybe it's just a floating hand -- perhaps the long lost hand of Benito Juarez or Lazaro Cardenas -- or perhaps some other lost soul wanting to "lend a hand" to U.S.-Mexican relations.



Was it 'happy talk' on Mexico?

Mexico US Obama_Nost

President Barack Obama has just left Mexico City after a little less than 24 hours in the city. He spoke publicly on two occasions and held two private sessions with President Enrique Pena Nieto, including a working dinner Thursday night.

In his public remarks, Obama was quite effusive about changes here, describing a “new Mexico,” one that “has lifted millions from poverty” and with a “courageous press” and “robust civil society.”

A “majority of Mexicans now call themselves middle class,” Obama said Friday morning at the National Museum of Anthropology. Here’s the text of the prepared speech although he departed from text several times.

The visit certainly pleased the Pena Nieto government, which is eager to change the tone of US-Mexico relations away from an emphasis on public security and fighting crime into what Pena Nieto called “a multi-thematic” relationship that embraces trade and other issues as well.

Pena Nieto wants to get crime off the front pages, and Obama certainly offered a vote of confidence in his still-ill-defined strategy of prioritizing a reduction in violence over the busting up of drug cartels and the capture of their leaders.

As Adam Thomson of the Financial Times noted, the Obama visit was successful in broadening the bilateral agenda:

Peña Nieto, who has wowed international investors thanks to his apparent determination to push through an ambitious economic reform agenda, wants to promote trade and investment as the two guiding missions of his country’s relationship with its northern neighbor.
Mexico-US trade is already about $1.4bn a day – almost US$1m a minute for the nerds out there – but there is little doubt that it could grow significantly in the coming years. Thursday’s announcement of a joint working group to be populated by Mexican cabinet secretaries and their US counterparts was a clear step in the direction of refocusing the agenda.


But some of the coverage was far more skeptical about what Obama said and the reality of life in Mexico. Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times story that moved this morning after Obama’s speech at the museum:

Obama described a Mexico that many Mexicans do not recognize. He praised a growing middle class when, in fact, economists say the middle class in Mexico has been stagnant for years, and violence has hurt the pocketbooks of many of those who barely emerged from poverty.

Obama lauded a courageous press that holds authorities accountable, when in fact violence and intimidation has silenced most newspapers outside of Mexico City; they do not report on drug trafficking and other issues because of threats or bribes from criminals or local authorities.

His discourse, however, fits in with efforts by both Washington and the Pena Nieto administration to change the image of Mexico, regardless of the facts on the ground.

The Proceso newsweekly magazine was even harsher. It’s story (here in Spanish) said Obama hailed Mexico for lifting millions from poverty “without providing any evidence.”

This gets into tricky terrain because there is no “go to” source. Rather Mexican government agencies even disagree among themselves, and the United Nations and World Bank take sharply different tacks.

First off, Mexico’s population is about 113 million people. According to the Social Development Secretariat, 13 million of them live in “extreme poverty.” Coneval, the agency that measures poverty, said in 2011 that 52 million Mexicans live in poverty.

A U.N. agency, the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, says 40.8 million Mexicans live in poverty while another 14.9 million are indigent (see page 14 of this study which expresses percentages rather than numbers).

Measuring the middle class is less easy, and the World Bank is the one that has touted its expansion in Mexico, saying that 17 percent of the population joined the middle class between 2000 and 2010. It describes middle class as people who make between $10 and $50 per day, so it places the bar low, too low in my opinion. Can someone making $300 a month in Mexico be considered middle class? If so, then maybe Obama wasn’t offering “happy talk” on Mexico. I’m not so sure myself.

A couple of months ago, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald noted in a column that everybody is upbeat on Mexico – except Mexicans themselves. That jibes with my experience as well. So maybe what Obama said was meant more as a pep talk than as a description of reality on the ground.



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

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