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.


Improving life for handicraft artisans

With the help of a global development organization called Counterpart International, some of the one million Guatemalan women whose livelihood is based on making handcrafts are getting a better deal. Some of their handcrafts ended up recently at the International Gift Fair in New York City. This video struck a chord with me. When I worked for The Miami Herald in the 1990s, I once went up to the devastated Ixil Triangle of Guatemala to do a story on women contracted by a major U.S. designer (I can't remember which one now) to knit sweaters that would be sold on Fifth Avenue. The Ixil Triangle was ground zero in the Guatemalan army's scorched earth campaign against leftist rebels in the early 1980s.


Relief for the Tarahumara Indians

The famine that is reportedly afflicting the Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chihuahua state has really gotten the attention of federal officials.

My inbox is chock full of press releases from government ministries and the Mexican marines about how much aid is now flowing into Tarahumara hamlets. These two photos were just sent out by the Marines PR office. It says two helicopters delivered 11 tons of relief supplies yesterday and today. The supplies were among 90 tons that have been collected at Marines HQ since news of the famine first broke about two weeks ago.

If the Secretariat of Social Development is working as hard in delivering supplies to the Tarahumara as its PR department is working at touting the aid, then everything will turn out tip-tip. The latest release says the secretariat has mobilized 300 people, 50 vehicles and two helicopters to deliver aid to 107 hamlets. 

Far as I can tell, social media has driven this huge response to a crisis, partly triggered by false reports of mass suicides among the Tarahumara. Postings on the internet and Twitter led to calls for citizens to deliver relief supplies to the main squares of Mexico City and Monterrey. In an election year, officials had to step up to the plate.




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

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