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The town that Carlos Slim forgot

A town high in the mountains of Oaxaca state now has a mobile phone network – but it’s not because of Carlos Slim’s Telcel or any other cellular service provider.

The townspeople built their own network with the help of some foreigners, and now their cellular bills are about $1.20 a month, a thirteenth the size of average monthly bills in places where the big players offer service.

The town is called Villa Talea de Castro. Most of its inhabitants are Zapotec Indians.

It’s so remote that there was no cell service. In stepped Rhizomatica, a nonprofit with the goal of increasing “access to mobile telecommunications to the over two billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.”

The U.S. and European experts working with Mexican engineers got the network set up by March of this year. At first, they ruled that phone calls were not to be longer than five minutes each to keep the small network from getting saturated.

By May, local numbers in Mexico City, Los Angeles and Seattle were set up, meaning that Oaxacans in Villa Talea could call relatives in the capital or in California as if it were practically a local call, a few cents a minute.

The French news agency, AFP, just did a story about the project (in English), and here’s an earlier story in Spanish from a Mexican news portal.

AFP says Slim’s Telcel, whose parent company, America Movil, has 262 million subscribers across Latin America, refused to provide service in the town because it had fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.

The local network appears to be quite a success. AFP says “600 villagers signed up since the service opened three months ago.” Already, the Red Celular de Talea (or Talea Cellular Network) is preparing to buy better equipment to improve service and donate their old equipment to another indigenous village.


Peruvians win Mexico City marathon

I'm still hearing people cheering out in the street for the stragglers from this morning's Mexico City Marathon, the route of which passed directly in front of our building.

I took the video above at a little after the 31 kilometer mark in the marathon, or about three-quarters of the race. In it, I believe you see the two leaders at that point, Kenyan runners Simon Njoroge and Rodgers Ondati. Later a Peruvian athlete, Raul Pacheco, would overtake them to win in 2 hours, 16 minutes, 56 seconds. Another Peruvian, Gladys Tejeda, also captured the women's title, a little more than 20 minutes back.

El Universal says Pacheco won a purse of nearly $35,000. I don't see how much Tejeda won.

It was a real delight to see how international the marathon, which drew 20,000 runners, has become. There were many Africans among the early men's and women's finishers.

Below are some handout photos from Mexico City Hall of the event.





The snarled traffic of Mexico City

Tens of thousands of striking teachers have brought mayhem to Mexico City.

Sit-ins and protest rallies by the teachers this week have shut down both houses of Congress, forced a change in the route of the Mexico City marathon this weekend, and partially blocked access to the international airport. The video report above is from Al Jazeera English.

Photo-7Depending on your political persuasion, municipal police have acted with extraordinary restraint – or failed to act.

In either case, more is at stake than the educational reform that has gotten teachers so worked up. Also in play is the future of Mayor Miguel Mancera. He is a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, and many in that party are opposed to the series of reforms that President Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI has proposed. So letting protesters block traffic and shut down Congress pleases some in his party.

But by pleasing his political base, Mancera angers many ordinary residents deeply inconvenienced by teacher roadblocks and marches that snarl traffic. His reputation is already slipping barely eight months into his term. The headline in Reforma today says the city is “held hostage. 

Public security is definitely Mancera’s weak flank. Organized criminal activity seems to be picking up in Mexico City. To wit: 12 people were abducted from a bar in the Zona Rosa in May. Seven bodies turned up this week, perhaps some of the abductees. 

Pena Nieto may also have a rough couple of weeks ahead. As legislators waffle on passing the secondary education reform laws, particularly one that requires teacher evaluations, opposition may build to other reforms. Pena Nieto is scheduled to give his annual state of the nation speech Sept. 1. Then he must submit his proposed package of fiscal reform measures by Sept. 8. That package reportedly calls for taxes on food and medicines, something that may draw more protesters into the streets.


A melee involving Mexican cadets

A group of Mexican sailors who are on a trip aboard the training vessel Cuauhtemoc took a day off Sunday to visit the beach in Poland. At the end of the day, two of them were in the hospital.

A melee at the Gdynia beach between the Mexican group and what the Mexican press describe as Polish hooligans led the Secretariat of Foreign Relations to call in the Polish ambassador in Mexico for a dressing down.

This English language report from Polish Radio said fans of the soccer club Ruch Chorzow comprised the Polish side of the brawl.

The video above comes from police surveillance video.

The Polish radio report cites a prosecutor, Michal Niesiolowski, saying it was clear who started the fight.

“I have personally studied the material in this case, including the surveillance footage,” Niesiolowski was quoted as saying. “At the current level [of investigation], it has been established that the 'attackers' were Polish citizens, and the 'injured' party were Mexicans.”

The radio said soccer club fans said one of the Mexicans kicked a woman in the face, starting the melee.

The 270-foot ARM Cuauhtemoc is a three-masted training ship docked out of Acapulco. The ship is on a tour of the Baltic region.

The incident has incensed some Mexicans on social media. One tweet from a few minutes ago from @lachivamayor notes: “There will be a 2nd round.”


Changes to Mexico's oil industry

This is a quite good video from The Economist on President Enrique Pena Nieto's plan to open up the energy industry to foreign investment. The piece captures some of the nuance of the proposal, though perhaps not the theatricality of the presentation on Monday and Tuesday, in which Pena Nieto constantly mentioned former President Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized the oil industry in Mexico in 1938.

I was speaking yesterday to Juan Pardinas, the director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, and the matter of how Pena Nieto invoked Cardenas repeatedly came up. Pena Nieto has said he simply wants to readopt language that Cardenas approved to article 27 of the constitution, which his government claims would allow private companies to develop the energy sector if it was deemed in the national interest.

Let me transcribe a bit of what Pardinas said:

"They have done an interesting strategy given that they used the figure of Lazaro Cardenas, which is one of the founding fathers of national identity, national sovereignty, national pride through the nationalization of oil. I found it quite paradoxical that we are looking back to a legal framework of 1940 in order to modernize the energy sector of Mexico in the 21st century.

"It doesn't appeal too much to common sense but if we see the limits of political possibility in Mexico, we have learned -- all Mexicans through our textbooks -- how Lazaro Cardenas (took) the Mexican oil from the interests of international capitalists. The government is using the legal framework that Cardenas proposed, which was much more flexible than the one we have now, and (using) it as leverage to pull the reform...

"It was the only way that they could announce it without facing a riot from certain parts of the (political) left..."

"I was telling a joke to a friend. It's like you're going to start an internet business and you ask advice from your great, great, great grandfather. You know, 'what should I do?' Now, with the competitiveness of the 21st century and you are asking someone born in the 19th century. That's how we resolve the challenges we have."


Before crossing the border, check trunk

You’ve heard the stories. A driver affirms he or she was an unwitting mule when border agents discover duffel bags filled with marijuana in his or her trunk.

This was the case with Ana Martinez Amaya, a school teacher who crossed the border from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas, every day to her job. She was arrested in May 2011.

Now, it turns out, traffickers spotted drivers like Martinez because they crossed the border at the same time every day. And maybe, just maybe, because they drove Fords.

As the news piece above by Angela Kocherga of KHOU in Texas points out, a lawsuit by another unwitting mule has been filed against the Ford Motor Company for allowing a dealer in Dallas to cooperate with a smuggling ring that used VIN numbers to get duplicate keys for Ford vehicles. The ring would then stash the drugs in the trunks of vehicles.

Moral of the story: If you cross the border every day, check your trunk before hitting the border crossing. Somebody may be using your vehicle for his or her dirty work.

'We won't let these people return'

I don’t normally post Spanish-language videos. But this one is so extraordinary that I’m making an exception. It is of a physician in the town of Tepalcatepec in Michoacan state talking about how organized crime has penetrated all levels of government.

The video of the surgeon, Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, was made in late June and has caused a stir for several weeks now (while I was out of the country).

In it, Mireles Valverde justifies the emergence of armed self-defense groups in Michoacan, saying that gangsters have strangled the citizenry with demands for cash, ranging from the rancher to the tortilla vendor down to each car owner and parent of each student in public school. From Tecapcatepec alone, he says, they were extracting about $2.5 million a month

Then the rapes began, Mireles Valverde says.

“The problem blew up when they began to come to our home, and tell us things like, 'I like your wife, I'll take her with me for a while ... and while I'm gone, give your daughter a bath because she'll have to spend a few days with me, too," Mireles says, adding that the daughter would always return pregnant.

In December, 14 girls aged 11 or 12 were raped in the township of Tepalcatepec, and six were from a school where Mireles Valverde says he works as an advisor.

Mireles Valverde says the cartels – the Familia Michoacana or the Knights Templar – have taken over all levels of government in the state, from the governor’s office to the lowliest village.

"No authority could perform his function because all municipal, state and federal were part of these cartels or were on the payroll of these cartels," he says.

Complaining about this to the army, or federal police, Mireles Valverde says, does no good.

“We saw how they would site and have lunch or breakfast with them, the big leaders of organized crime. But they would never arrest anyone because supposedly they couldn’t find them,” he says.

From what I could determine on the internet, Mireles Valverde lived for many years in or near Sacramento, California, and was active in groups of Michoacan immigrants in the United States.

He said the armed self-defense groups in Michoacan will not back down in the face or criminal gangs.

“We won’t let these people return,” he says.

The video, by the way, has a closed caption option in Spanish, so if your spoken Spanish is weak and you prefer to read subtitles, there is that option.

Since I’m on the topic of Spanish-language media, two other articles have really caught my eye since my return. One is this lengthy article in sinembargo.mx about the days in which President Enrique Pena Nieto has no public appearances. It broaches the subject of whether Mexicans have a right to know the president’s activities. A second article, much longer, appears in Nexos and is an examination of racism in the nation. While Mexican laws are clear-cut and bar all forms of discrimination, society lags far behind. The article notes how the bulging society sections of Mexican newspapers are virtually devoid of indigenous or people of color.



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

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