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Hope and despair in Mexico

Can one have a bleak view of Mexico’s recent past yet remain profoundly hopeful about its future? The answer is a resounding yes, says Alfredo Corchado.

Corchado is a friend and colleague in Mexico, author of the new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness (Penguin Press, 2013).

I’ve just finished the book, and it is a remarkable soul-wrenching analysis both on the personal and political levels. Alfredo is the son of a Mexican bracero who left Durango state to work in California, taking his family with him nearly five decades ago.

He grew up with a foot both in Mexico and the United States, dragged as a youngster “kicking and screaming” to a new country, leaving behind a patria that his mother believed was cursed and that his father says was in the grip of gangsters who “know no forgiveness.” 

The book offers great, first-hand history of the PRI’s temporary demise in 2000, the political rise of opposition leader Vicente Fox (Corchado was the first reporter to interview Fox after his triumph), then the sinking of Mexico into the grip of brutal criminal gangs.

If your view of Mexico is Pollyanna-ish, this book is not for you. Corchado’s meetings with undercover U.S. agents, narco couriers, his encounters with the grieving relatives of victims of violence in Ciudad Juarez, and the repeated threats against his own life – apparently coming from Z-40 himself, the feared Zetas leader – all convey the wounds of the nation.

I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. What makes it wonderful is how Alfredo parallels the recent history of Mexico with his own compelling family tale and his search for truth about the country's dark side. Yet through that search, Alfredo conveys a deep love of country, its culture, its music, its often vulgar language, its conflicted but grand history, genuine Mexicanidad. And to that, I’m sure Alfredo would raise a glass of tequila.


The fake candidacy of Ernesto Eslava

Gubernatorial elections in Baja California, home to Tijuana, are coming July 7, and a candidate who is not on the ballot is making a splash. The candidate is Ernesto Eslava, a journalist, who has mounted a fake and quite satiric campaign poking fun at the way traditional candidates try to win votes.

In the fake ad above, Eslava imitates the music, the camera angles, the sunlit face, the bystanders who give the thumbs up, and the backdrops that candidates normally use to make themselves seem authentic and "of the people." Like real candidates, he claims to have walked through the entire state. In reality, he looks like a guy who's enjoyed a few too many lunch breaks and could use some good walks to shed pounds, showing the gap between image and reality.

The ad is in Spanish and some of the soundbites have double meanings that don't translate easily. At one point, he says:

"Every time I am asked if I am from Baja California, I say no, Baja California is mine. I'm its best option because I'm from the border. I am like the peso and the dollar, a person of change."

Past governors of the state have sometimes ruled as if the state were "theirs" and more in function of collecting change in their pockets -- be they pesos or dollars -- than in good governance.


The secret dossier on Carlos Fuentes

You may have seen a news report about a 170-page FBI dossier on acclaimed Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who died in 2012.

The dossier, put together over two decades, is here. The FBI started monitoring Fuentes because the writer wanted to travel to the United States and U.S. officials considered him a member of the Mexican communist party, a charge his widow denies.

U.S. authorities turned Fuentes down for a visa twice in the 1960s, describing him as “a leading Mexican communist writer” and a "well-known Mexican novelist with long history of subversive connections.”

In this article, Fuentes’ widow, Silvia Lemus, said Fuentes was a staunch leftist but never a member of the Communist Party.

For a memorable appreciation of Fuentes, one of my fellow journalists (and friend), Marjorie Miller, drew upon a meeting with him over a meal, and unbeknownst to him, gathered information for an eventual obituary


Turning the corner in Monterrey

The industrial hub of Monterrey and the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon seem to be turning the corner against runaway violence. In a meeting last month with some foreign correspondents, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina outlined the policies that are the focus of this interesting video from The Economist. In the meeting, Medina noted the sharp reduction in carjackings in the state. He said they'd fallen from around 70 per day to a little above 10. The video offers different figures but I think it refers just to the city of Monterrey, home to many of Mexico's largest companies. The video says some citizens who'd fled the city for Texas are coming back, which would be a helpful trend for Mexico.


Discovery of a new Mayan ruin

Deep in the jungles of southeast Campeche state, archaeologists have discovered a significant new Mayan site, called Chactun, or Red Rock, that was thrived roughly from 600 to 900 A.D.

DETALLE DE LA ESTELA 1. COMPLEJO OESTE. FOTO MAURICIO MARAT INAHThe site, never reported previously, is “one of the largest sites ever registered in the Central Lowlands,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History said.

Led by Ivan Šprajc, a team of Mexican and foreign archaeologists and experts financed by National Geographic came across the ruin a few weeks ago after studying aerial photos. The expedition was also financed by the Austrian firm Villas and the Slovenian company Ars longa. That's Šprajc in the photos, by the way.

"It is one of the largest sites in the Central Lowlands, comparable in extent and magnitude of its buildings to Becan, Nadzcaan and El Palmar in Campeche," said Šprajc, a Slovenian researcher.

It wasn’t easy to get to the 55-acre site. The explorers and archaeologists followed ancient trails used by gum tappers and loggers.

“The road is passable only with four-wheel drive and one must continually stop to cut back the vegetation with a machete that block the path,” the Institute press release said.

Here’s more from the press release. If language is a little stilted, it's because I ran Google Translate on it:

“The site comprises three monumental complexes. The West, which covers an area of over 11 hectares, while the Southeast and Northeast together account for a combined equal area.

“Around these spaces are scattered numerous pyramidal, palatial structures, including two ball courts, patios, plazas, sculptured monuments and residential areas. While the tallest pyramid, 23 meters high, is located in the West Complex, what is most impressive is the volume of building construction.

“It is the stelae and altars, some of which still contain stucco, that best reflect the splendor of this city in the so-called Late Classic Period (600-900 AD).

“Contemporary Maya cities to Chactun include Calakmul, Becan and El Palmar-known for their large number of altars and stelae, which combine carved inscriptions with painted stucco, a rare feature in this type of monument.

“Of the 19 stelae recorded so far, three are the best preserved.”



Rumbling, big ash emission from Popo

The Popocatepetl Volcano emitted a strong plume of ash high into the clear sky this afternoon. This is a speeded up 30-second video of the plume as it occurred around 1:30 p.m. Webcams caught the action. Read a lot more about it here. Just imagine if that baby actually blows big time some day. 

Losing a bit of cultural heritage

Mexicans don’t sing as often as they once did. Not at home. Nor when getting their hair cut. Nor at their jobs. That’s what Jose Luis Ceron tells me. He’s a sociologist and an expert on Mexican traditional and popular music, particularly the style known as danzon.

I went to see Ceron on a related matter and he started talking about the loss of cultural heritage in the country over the past half century.

“There are two things we don’t do like we used to,” he said, “sing and dance.”

“We used to sing at home. If we got together, someone would grab a guitar and we’d start to sing. People would sing at work. People would sing in barbershops. We sang at get-togethers (tertulias) among young people,” he went on.

Sing at work? Sing in barber shops? Yes, he said, haven’t you seen old Mexican movies? “Mexican cinema reflects this very well,” he said. “You could sing with any pretext,” even at the office. (I'm trying to imagine what it would be like in a newsroom.)

A guitar would always be hanging on the wall at the barber shop, he said, and a patron would invariably pick it up.

Since Mexico City is the center of the national universe, young kids would learn about their country and its heritage from listening to songs. He brought up the song Cachanilla (check out this music video) identified with Mexicali. Cachanilla is the word for a Sonoran variety of tumbleweed.

Children would learn about the far reaches of Mexico from the songs, he said, like Mis Blancas Mariposas, which is from Tabasco.

I can’t say I actually experienced musical Mexico from years past. And I think Ceron refers to a bygone era that would be impossible to recover. But the government could do more. 

He says the nation lacks a strong state policy to promote popular culture, including dance. Young people now watch musicians, rather than take to the dance floor, he lamented. Without the vigorous cultural heritage embodied in popular songs, Ceron said, people don’t learn about their past and their country.

“You can’t love what you don’t know, and they don’t know where we’ve come from,” he said.

Ceron, by the way, is also part of the Garcia Blanco Orchestra that plays popular music, including paso doble, which is the music heard in one of the orchestra’s music videos below.


Rats? Only a cat can bring order

Mexican activists, with a healthy sense of irony, have put forth a candidate for the July 7 mayoral elections in Xalapa, Veracruz state – Morris the cat.

In these videos, they call Morris ‘el candi-gato’ – a play on words that makes him a ‘candi-cat,’ rather than a candidate.

In one video, an interviewer off camera asks the cat what he thinks of various politicians in Xalapa, some of whom are considered “rats” because of their corruption. In each case, the cat pushes an item onto the floor. The other video is a sing-along with a “meowing” Morris.

Morris has already made Time Magazine’s website here, and has a Facebook page that lays out his platform: "Given the number of rats that lurk around these posts, only a cat can bring order. The 'candigato' promises nothing more than the other candidates: To rest and frolic."

According to a CNN iReport, he has more “likes” on Facebook (99,889, as of this writing) than three of the four main candidates running for mayor in Xalapa.

Veracruz is one of Mexico’s most beautiful states. But it’s also terribly corrupt and afflicted by organized crime. Nine journalists have been killed there in a little more than two years, and I chose it as the focus of one of a series of articles on Journalists under Threat in Mexico.


Ferrari's next frontier -- Mexico

Some 15 Mexicans have $1.3 million in hand ready to plop it down for Ferrari’s latest hybrid supercar, the 963-horsepower La Ferrari.

That’s what the Italian performance car company’s North American chief said a few days ago at a forum aboard a yacht in New York City, Forbes magazine says here.

This is no ordinary Italian racing machine. Its top speed is 217 miles per hour. It goes zero to 60 mph in three seconds. At that pace, you could get to the Mexico City airport from my house in six minutes – that is, if you could hopscotch traffic.

So who has that kind of cash in Mexico? Oh, never mind. If I said, I’d probably be dead. They don’t like to have their names splashed around the internet.

“Mexico is the next China,” Ferrari North America CEO Marco Mattiacci said, according to Forbes. He cited dramatic wealth creation from expanding industry and proximity to the U.S.

He didn’t say it, but we all know about the other industry, the one that shall not be named in which bagmen cart duffel bags filled with cash and muscle men carry diamond-encrusted guns. Been a lot of wealth creation there, too.

Things have changed over the past decade, Mattiacci said.

“I can tell you that in 2003 when we launched Enzo … Mexico was not having that kind of request. That’s a big indicator,” Mattiacci said, according to Forbes.


Changing money in Michoacan

A dollar is a dollar, right?

Not in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, a Pueblo Magico that I visited over the weekend in company of some relatives. My wife went into an exchange house so that my niece could change $20 to buy some souvenirs.

“No, ma’am, we don’t change anything but $50 and $100,” she was told.

The teller said that no exchange house in the city would exchange small sums of money, only big bills. My niece looked crestfallen and after further discussion, the teller agreed to change the small quantity.

As soon as my wife told me what happened, it clicked. Michoacan sees a massive quantity of profits from illicit narcotics. Actually transporting U.S. bills is a problem for crime gangs. What better way to minimize the problem than only to deal in $100 bills?

Patzcuaro, by the way, is delightful. I hadn’t been there in 30+ years and my memory was fuzzy. But we found a richer variety of handcrafts than most other places we’ve been. Perhaps not surprisingly, waiters spoke to us constantly in English. Michoacan is the home state to huge numbers of migrants to the U.S. In Chicago alone, there are 250,000 migrants from Michoacan. One man who spoke to us in English said he’d lived for 16 years in Burbank, California.

On another evening, we were with some prominent people from Michoacan, and the conversation naturally turned to security and the dominant crime group, the Knights Templar. Out came several stories the gist of which is that few people believe crime boss Nazario Moreno, known as “El Mas Loco,” was really killed as the government contended in a shootout with federal police in Apatzingan in late 2010. Several years ago, I wrote about Moreno as one of the most colorful of Mexico’s underworld figures.



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

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