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.


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.


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.


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.


Buying land near Mexico's coasts

For nearly a century, foreigners have been holding deeds to land near Mexico’s borders or shoreline. The prohibition came as a result of fear of invasion by land or sea.

Over the past four decades, foreigners have indeed been able to obtain beachfront property but through a bureaucratic process in which they set up a Mexican bank trust. The bank actually holds the deed. Through the trust, the foreigners enjoy basically the same rights as Mexicans.

Now, change is in the air, and it could save money for thousands of American retirees and other foreigners who want to buy their piece of paradise in Mexico.

Two days ago, none other than Manlio Fabio Beltrones, put forth a proposal to amend article 27 of the Mexican constitution.

Beltrones is no ordinary politician. He’s a former governor of Sonora state, a former two-term congressman, a current senator, a perennial big shot of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and even a onetime presidential candidate.

Beltrones, presented the proposal along with another PRI deputy, Gloria Nunez Sanchez, and early signs are that members of the center-right National Action party may get behind it.

But first, a little more history: Mexico had legitimate fears of invasion back during the 1917 Revolution. So the constitution minted then included a blanket ban on foreigners owning land within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of any border or 50 kilometers (31 miles) of any shoreline. This website says the ban includes the entire Baja Peninsula.

Following a 1973 law that regulated creation of trusts, foreigners found a work-around. By paying around $2,000 for a permit and registration in the foreign investment registry, plus up to another $1,000 annually for bank trust administration fees, foreigners could buy land near the coasts and borders.

This has made quite a bit of money for banks.

In his proposal, Beltrones notes that fears of invasion are anachronistic.

“Hand to hand combat is no longer the way to settle disputes, thus the danger has disappeared of allowing foreigners to obtain property,” it says.

The trusts, the proposal notes, have confronted foreigners with “high costs of setting up trusts and fee payments for various registration procedures, assessments, taxes and permits prior to the government authority.”

Some Mexican realtors are already touting the proposed change, apparently eager to increase sales.

But any constitutional amendment is lengthy. Beltrones’s proposal has to be passed by both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, then approved by 17 state legislatures before it becomes law.

Moreover, the proposal would only affect those building housing with "no commercial objectives," and that a ban would remain on foreigners owning "direct dominion over the water." I'm not sure what that means. 

Anyone who knows more about the impact of this proposed change, please post below. Some readers would certainly be interested.


A rise in border horse patrols

As undocumented migrants look for more remote trails to cross into the United States, the Customs and Border Patrol is returning to a tried-and-true tactic -- horse patrols. According to this article, the Border Patrol now has 334 horse units, a 33 percent rise since 2008. Horse patrols date back more than a century along the border, to the time when agents policed against Chinese immigrants. "The stealthiness of the horse is great," Border Patrol supervisor Jaime Cluff says on the video. "They get us to areas where not even the ATVs can access."



What's going on in Reynosa?

Reynosa, which lies across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, is a black hole of information.

What goes on in Reynosa matters. But when it comes to drug war violence, you are unlikely to find out. That’s because the newspapers in the city purposefully do not provide news of public security. It is too dangerous to report.

So last Sunday night, mayhem erupted in Reynosa. The Monitor, McAllen’s newspaper, posted a story later citing a state law enforcement officer saying that “there were four trucks filled with bodies” that gangsters retrieved after a fierce firefight.

Newspapers in Mexico City, like Excelsior, reported only what their journalists could learn about the gunfight on Twitter _ that a “presumed clash between the army and members of the Gulf Cartel” broke out near the state attorney’s office. No mention of casualties.

But you only have to listen to a bit of the 15-minute video above to realize that this firefight was extremely fierce with automatic weapons volleys and hundreds of rounds being fired. It sounds like Fallujah or Kandahar.

Reynosa and McAllen have a combined population of 1.7 million people. It is the third largest metropolitan area along the US-Mexico border. Since it is a major border crossing, truckers are eager to learn about incidents there. Here’s what a blog called Mexico Trucker Online said:

“All hell broke loose Sunday night in the border town of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen Texas as various factions of the Gulf Cartel took to the streets to settle internal conflicts within the group.

“For about 3 hours, gunfire, grenade explosions and convoys of armed combatants were seen and reported through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Not surprisingly, mainstream media in Mexico refrained from reporting the incidents.”

Another blog, called Reynosa Libre, also reported on the gunfight but said it left only four or five people dead. Typically, the blog has no name attached to it, no way to verify its accuracy. But the posting does sum up the lack of information nicely:

“Given the obstinacy of the local media and newspapers _ El Mañana, La Tarde, La Prensa, Metro Noticias, En Linea Directa, the local Tv Azteca and Televisa affiliates, among other outlets _ what we have is a sepulchral silence of the voluntary and involuntary accomplices to that which is occurring here.”

The blogger is pretty harsh. The journalists at those outlets might not survive the week if they went up against Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in Reynosa, which by many accounts is totally subjugated to organized crime. As the Los Angeles Times said in this 2010 story, Reynosa is behind enemy lines.

The Tamaulipas governor, Egidio Torre Cantu, visited Reynosa today and Twitter reports and the NarcoViolencia blog say new firefights broke out around 2 p.m. between “armed civilians” _ gangsters _ and federal police. The blog says the cartel henchmen were moving about in 20 vehicles.

Imagine that: A caravan of heavily armed civilians moving around the city, terrorizing the civilian population right on the border of Texas, and no one can provide trustworthy information.


Latest narco tactic: 'Pot cannons'

CNN had a report earlier today on these air-powered "pot cannons" that drug smugglers are using to lob marijuana over the border into the United States. This is the latest permutation on other smuggling tactics. I blogged here when they found a drug catapult. And I've written here about the use of ultralight aircraft to take drugs over the border. Then there are the tunnels. What's left? Fleets of carrier pigeons?


Is this a welcoming sign?

A year ago, then-President Felipe Calderon inaugurated this billboard (above) at the border with Texas to protest what he described as a river of assault weapons being smuggled into Mexico.

Calderon is now gone, ensconced in a teaching post at Harvard. The billboard made of crushed weapons is still there, and at least one state legislator doesn’t like it.

Gerardo Hernandez Ibarra, a state legislator in Chihuahua, is calling for the removal of the billboard, which faces Texas near an international bridge connecting El Paso with Ciudad Juarez.

Hernandez made his feelings known on a posting at his Facebook page on Dec. 24. Here’s some of what he wrote, loosely translated from Spanish:


“The spectacular sign with huge letters says "NO MORE WEAPONS." The intention of this sign was really say to (the United States) to cut the flow and sale without control of assault weapons as a way to confront organized crime. … The sign sends a strong message to those visitors who intend to come to our country that says, “There is still violence in MEXICO."


Hernandez said he is not opposed to fighting weapons trafficking. In a video also posted on his Facebook page, Hernandez notes: “If this sign were helpful in halting the flow of weapons, I’d be here to defend it. But that’s not the case. It hasn’t done any good. All it does is provoke an image of us as bad neighbors to El Paso residents. We should tear it down and put one up that says, ‘Welcome!’”


Better news out of Ciudad Juarez

For the first time in five years, the once-murderous city of Ciudad Juarez passed a weekend without a single homicide.

Death rates have been steadily but slowly falling in Juarez, the metropolis across from El Paso, Texas, that was once _ by far _ the deadliest place in Mexico. Rival drug gangs are no longer at each other's throats as intensely.

The lack of weekend deaths merited a story in El Diario, the local newspaper. Juarez is still wracked by a lot of violence. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 25, the paper notes, there were 724 homicides in the city. But the monthly totals have fallen since January, which tallied 118 deaths.

My friend Bill Booth of the Washington Post visited Juarez in late summer and wrote this chronicle with the headline: In Mexico’s murder city, the war appears over. The story notes that at the peak of the violence in 2010, Juarez chalked up 3,115 murders.



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

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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