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How cartels win with storm damage

As Mexico’s government stumbles in dealing with the massive damage caused by Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid, organized crime groups are trying to fill the void.

Members of the Gulf Cartel allegedly posted the video above to YouTube showing how a caravan of their pickups brought disaster relief to the town of Aldama in Tamaulipas state after it suffered flooding from Hurricane Ingrid.

One slide in the video says, “Helping out – something politicians and governors haven’t done.” And it adds that members of the cartel “are people like you and I.”

There’s some bogus religious imagery in it but the joy of people receiving the aid seems genuine.

One of Mexico’s most incisive columnists, Raymundo Riva Palacio, went further in a column here (in Spanish), saying that the extent of storm damage will have the Pena Nieto administration on the ropes, what with 58,000 people homeless, tens of thousands of head of cattle killed and more than 1.3 million acres of cropland destroyed.

He calls it a “dangerous cocktail” – in part because drug gangs are poised to benefit by offering aid to stricken communities and winning their affections.

“The federal forces do not have the human capacity to simultaneously deploy across the country in rescue and evacuation operations and offering care to communities. The cartels, however, operate surgically with their potential clientele. Criminals will benefit proportionally from the discomfort of those affected by delays in relief or no relief at all …”


Riva Palacio notes that the ports where precursor chemicals come in on the Pacific side for manufacturing methamphetamine weren’t damaged, and that while marijuana and poppy crops were hit the cartels will charge more for the scarcity, reaping benefits.


The fury of Mexico's double storms

Tropical storms occasionally lash Mexico – some from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and others from the Pacific Ocean. Rarely, though, do storms hit both coasts at the same time.

That’s what happened Sept. 15-16, and this image from NASA’s Terra satellite and taken from the NASA website shows the power unleashed on Mexico those two days.

At left is Tropical Storm Manuel, which hit the area around Acapulco on the Pacific side, and at right is Hurricane Ingrid rolling in off the Gulf of Mexico. On the morning of Sept. 15, when this image was taken, Ingrid had winds of 75 mph.

According to this NASA blog posting, the last time Mexico got hit by simultaneous hurricanes was in 1958.

The storms and subsequent flooding took 139 lives, although nearly 60 people remain missing. Losses are estimated at nearly $6 billion.

No bunny relief for disaster victims

Mexico Tropical Weath_Nost
The publishing house that produces Mexico’s edition of Playboy magazine contends the government has rejected two truckloads of disaster relief needed by victims of two hurricanes that lashed the nation’s coasts simultaneously last week.

Grupo Gin Media Business said its employees had rounded up a “modest” contribution for disaster relief.

“We know that this is only a small contribution to all that is needed, however, we think it is worth and will make a difference for at least a small number of families,” it said in a statement.

“Sadly, because this publishing house counts among its titles various magazines such as Open, El Gourmet, Forward, Soy Grupero and Playboy, our help has been rejected because a few deem one of our titles not worthy of cooperating, Playboy magazine,” it added.

Grupo Gin said it would not be discouraged. It said one of its playmates, Brazilian Leia Freitas, would preside over a drive this afternoon to gather more relief supplies and the company would work around the government, delivering the goods on its own.

That's an AP photo above, by the way, of the tremendous damage in La Pintada, the Guerrero state town that was smacked by mud slides and flooding, causing a bulk of the 140 or fatalities from the storm.


Crowded subway cars and fainting

Wherever you were this morning, be glad you weren’t on the Mexico City metro line that goes through the Candelaria station. Due to some bad equipment, the wagons on that line grew super-crowded. The Metro system (@STCMetroDF on Twitter) just tweeted a while ago that eight people fainted in cars going through that station today. “They were treated at the station,” the system said.

Odd fact: I learned by reading their Twitter feed that the city’s deepest subway station is Line 7’s Camarones, which is 30 meters deep, or 98.4 feet. That’s like a 10-story building. Reminds me of visiting a subway station in Pyongyang. There, all the stations are super deep because they also serve as bomb shelters.

Mexico's changing map of pollution

What are the four cities with the greatest air pollution in Mexico? If you guessed Mexico City as one of them, you’d be wrong.

I just got back from a news conference by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, a think tank, and their scholars have taken public data and extrapolated costs related to air pollution.

By far, the city with the worst air pollution in Mexico is Mexicali, an industrial city across from Calexico, California. According to the think tank, 30 people die prematurely a year in the city from effects of air pollution, and 74 out of 100,000 people are hospitalized a year because of its effects. Here's a link to their Spanish-language presentation.

Following Mexicali are (surprisingly!) Cuernavaca, then Monterrey and Tijuana. Cuernavaca is often called the “garden city” for its delightful climate. It’s a resort located over a small mountain range from the capital. Monterrey is a big industrial hub, with steel, glass, cement and autoparts industries, so no surprise that they’d have problems. Tijuana also has a lot of industry.

Mexico City comes in fifth place but its level of suspended particulates smaller than 10 microns was less than a third of Mexicali. I’ve written about Mexico City’s improving air quality. It’s no longer jokingly referred to as Mexsicko City.

The study only measured particulates, not ozone of sulphur. So it has some drawbacks. But if you want to avoid the yuck factor, you might stay away from Mexicali.


The 'disappeared' in Coahuila state

This is a rather artistic seven-minute video by my colleague Deborah Bonello for Global Post on the problem of the disappeared in Coahuila state along the border with Texas. Thousands of people have gone missing in the area around Coahuila. I was up there myself in March and filed this report.


Leahy flexes his muscle on El Salvador

Mandatory Sentences_Nost
A single U.S. senator can change history in Central America. I’ve seen it several times in past decades. It certainly happened with the late Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina who grew deeply involved in efforts to halt communism in the isthmus.

Now, it’s happening with Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Vermont who has been in the headlines everyday this week in El Salvador. That's Leahy above, left, standing next to Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican.

Leahy has had a long interest in Central America, and he has committee heft to make his voice heard. In addition to chairing the Judiciary Committee, he chairs a foreign operations subcommittee.

That means he keeps his hands on purse strings for foreign aid. He’s been in the news here since his office issued a statement last Friday regarding a $277 million pending investment in El Salvador under the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S.-government designed aid program.

Leahy noted that the program was designed “to reward countries whose governments are taking effective steps to address key issues of governance, particularly combating corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and supporting equitable economic growth.”

In many ways, he said, El Salvador is coming up short. Corruption and money laundering are rampant, and organized crime is on the upswing, he wrote. El Salvador must fortify the attorney general’s office and keep the judiciary independent.

He also fired a shot across the bow of President Mauricio Funes, noting concerns “about some public officials in positions of authority who have promoted individuals within the police and security forces who have no business being in public office because of their involvement in illegal activities.”

Whew! And who might those be? Leahy didn’t say but scratch just about any Salvadoran with his ear to the ground and several names emerge.

Funes, notoriously prickly, lambasted Leahy over the weekend, calling him “misinformed.”

Leahy issued a new statement Wednesday, citing “disappointing that Salvadoran officials reacted as they did to my remarks last week.” He noted that Congress has the power to disburse the funds, and “it should not be taken for granted.”

In case President Funes didn’t get the message, or hasn’t studied Central American history, Leahy suggested that he reconsider his response “for the good of the Salvadoran people and if they want a second (Millennium Challenge) compact to be funded.”

Traveling through time in El Salvador

MisterDonutSometimes visiting Central America feels like traveling through time. Here’s an example: In San Salvador, where I am currently, Mister Donut shops are everywhere.

Anyone of a certain age in the U.S. or Canada can certainly remember the Mister Donut chain. It was the biggest competitor to Dunkin’ Donuts, and had more than 550 stores across the continent.

In 1990, the chain was acquired by the parent of Dunkin’ Donuts and virtually disappeared in North America. But it stayed alive in Asia and Central America.

While the logo for Mister Donut is the same as always – a one-eyed chef with a toque -- the Salvadoran shops are bigger than their American counterparts once were and offer Salvadoran specialties, such as stuffed pupusa patties.

Another thing about Mister Donut here: In September, the chain seems to always offer two-for-one doughnuts so all the stores have long lines, so long that it discouraged me from buying a cup of coffee yesterday for an academic whom I met there and was interviewing.

In any case, Salvadorans just can’t seem to get enough doughnuts.


Reptiles on the loose

The flooding from Tropical Storm Manuel that hit Acapulco over the weekend brought some rather scary creatures onto the streets. News articles describe them as crocodiles but looks more like an alligator in the video to me. This article says 50 came out from the Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon) near Puerto Marques to roam the streets. Boas, iguanas and turtles were also displaced by the flood waters, another article says.


Mexico's unexpected Hollywood star

Actor and director Eugenio Derbez’s latest movie hasn’t even debuted in Mexican cinemas yet but he is all over the newspapers.

That’s because Derbez’s low-budget movie, Instructions Not Included, is a crossover bilingual hit and has already opened in U.S. theaters, grossing more than $26 million to date.

It is on target to becoming one of the 10 highest grossing foreign movies ever in the United States. According to this box office site, it’s now shown in 933 theaters and ranked 6th over the past weekend. It’s already surpassed the gross of the last Mexican hit, Like Water for Chocolate (1989).

Few expected such a feat from Derbez, a longtime comic actor more known for his work for the Televisa network than feature films. This is how El Universal opened a profile of him in its Sunday magazine (behind paywall) yesterday:

“Few believed that he’d ever have a hit movie. They said his projects were too ‘Televisa’ and that his name didn’t belong on movie marquees.”

The movie has a different name in Spanish, ‘No Se Aceptan Devoluciones,’ which translates as Returns Not Accepted. It doesn’t open in Mexico till Sept. 20.

The movie is about a playboy from Acapulco who suddenly finds a young daughter he never knew he fathered dropped in his lap. Father and daughter move to Los Angeles and struggle to get by.

Much of the Mexican press on the movie deals with Derbez’s desperate search to find someone to play the role of his child. He sought a boy but couldn’t find a blond, blue-eyed completely bilingual boy. In frustration, he tweeted the requirements for a boy or girl. That’s when 9-year-old Loreto Peralta showed up. She fit the physical requirements and spoke fluent English from spending summers in the United States.

The Los Angeles Times published a feature on Derbez last week, touching on how “entertainment companies, media outlets and advertising agencies have increasingly devoted resources to capturing a share of the growing Spanish-dominant and bilingual audience.”

It’s been a tough struggle. Even hit actor Will Ferrell, who starred in the 2012 movie Casa de mi Padre, failed to hit the mark. That film didn’t even gross $6 million.

Producers “mounted a bilingual advertising campaign for the movie, both on Univision, the giant U.S. Spanish-language TV network, and with billboard, radio and print advertising in English and Spanish,” the Times report says.

Between word of mouth and the advertising campaign, it definitely brought results.



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

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