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.


'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.


Zombies, clowns and the narco actress

What’s going on with the weird candidates in Mexico? We had the satirical ones, like Morris the Cat in Xalapa who promised to “rest and romp” and Ernesto Eslava in Tijuana, who pledged to “turn off the lights” in Baja California.

But there were others, many others.

How about the clowns? Two minor candidates ran as clowns. One was Gregorio Perez in Ciudad Juarez, who is better known as Botoncito, or Little Button. One of his slogans was “Not just any clown.” The other is Esteban Sanchez in Culiacan, who is better known as Cometin. Neither won.

Then there is Claudia Casas. Just don’t go around calling her “narco actress.” At least, not to her face. She doesn’t like that description, though undoubtedly she is quite good at firing of AK-47s and strutting around like a proper drug boss on the big screen. She’s made 42 movies, and most of them fall in the particular Mexican genre of “narco cinema” because they deal with violence, the underworld and narcotics.

Casas, 29, just got a seat in the Baja California state legislature. Now, she wants to be known for more than gun-slinging roles in the movies.

“What I made were action movies, nothing more than that. I would like that (people) took into account other things, like that I'm a wife, a mother of a three-year-old and a graduate in communications,” Casas told the giveaway Publimetro newspaper in an interview this morning.

In another interview, Casas brought up Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying the Austrian born actor "carried arms and killed something like 40,000 people. But it's the movies. I'm not promoting crime."

There's a Spanish-language trailer of one of Casas' movies, La Traicion de un Hijo (Betrayal of a Son), below.

In a big front-page banner headline, Publimetro this morning decried the “freaky” candidates in the recent July 7 elections.

The freakiest just might be Lenin Carballido, who was elected mayor of San Agustín Amatengo in Oaxaca state this month. Turns out Carballido may have earned his nickname the “Zombie Mayor.” He's supposed to be a dead man.

To slip out of a pending gang rape charge dating from March 2004, Carballido apparently faked his own death and got confederates to obtain a death certificate. With the charge dropped, Carballido ran for mayor – and won. But prosecutors now say they will reopen the rape charges and add a new one: falsifying documents.


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.


A convergence of celebrity first ladies

"Laundry Song" Performed by Peng Liyuan from HPeaks on Vimeo.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Mexico tomorrow for an official state visit, at his side will be Peng Liyuan, his graceful wife who is a star in her own right.

Peng is an opera and folksinger known to hundreds of millions of Chinese for her television appearances on Chinese New Year, and she is the object of incessant chatter on the internet about her clothing, beauty and general image.

There is more than a slight parallel with Mexico, where President Enrique Pena Nieto is also married to a woman known to millions of Mexicans as a television idol. Pena Nieto’s wife, Angelica Rivera, has been kept largely under wraps since the Mexican leader took office Dec. 1, with the exception of a few appearances as titular head of a federal family social welfare organization.

Apparently Peng, who you can see in the video above, has been a big fan of Mexican soap operas, so one of her activities on Tuesday will be visiting the studios of Televisa to watch a soap opera taping. At her side, of course, will be Rivera, who is known to Mexicans as La Gaviota, or sea gull, for her part in a widely viewed drama.

There are other similarities between the two couples. In both cases, the wives were used in polished media campaigns to boost the images of their husbands.

Peng, however, appears to do more heavy lifting on behalf of her husband. An Agence France-Presse story filed out of Trinidad, Xi’s first stop on a swing that also took him to Costa Rica and will end in the United States later this week, said Peng was taking the limelight of the visit.

"She's a very beautiful person, very warm, and to chat with her in English was very wonderful," Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said after meeting Peng.

Chinese censors stay atop of Peng’s image. Case in point: In March, a photo appeared on the internet of a younger Peng singing to martial law troops following the crack down on Tiananmen Square democracy protesters. The photo was quickly scrubbed from the internet. Coincidentally, Peng and Xi arrive in Mexico June 4, the anniversary of the bloody quashing of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising.

A note about the video above: In this 2007 performance, Peng dresses in native Tibetan costume, backed by a chorus of Han Chinese also dressed as Tibetans, and sings of the glories of the People’s Liberation Army. She comes on after about 50 seconds, and there are English subtitles. Tibetans find such performances offensive, and say it is akin to white singers putting themselves in “black face” to portray people of African descent.

But it is par for the course in mainland China, where ethnic minorities (comprising only 8.5 percent of the 1.3 billion population) are often seen as objects of fascination and but also viewed as backward and inferior to majority ethnic Han.


The mysterious 'third hand'

01 - GCO_7030
The office of President Enrique Pena Nieto sent out the above photograph among the many photos that it moved during the visit of President Barack Obama on Thursday and Friday.

It looks like an ordinary news photo until you look closely at the handshake. A mysterious "third hand" is there. Where's the body belonging to the hand? I don't see anyone who could be hiding behind Obama. It's just a disembodied hand. It's either the coolest magic trick imaginable. Or someone is up to some shenanigans with Photoshop.

I wasn't present at the moment when Obama arrived at the National Palace and greeted Pena Nieto. Obama doesn't speak Spanish really, and Pena Nieto doesn't appear very comfortable in English. So perhaps there was a translator present who got airbrushed out.

Then again, maybe it's just a floating hand -- perhaps the long lost hand of Benito Juarez or Lazaro Cardenas -- or perhaps some other lost soul wanting to "lend a hand" to U.S.-Mexican relations.



Was it 'happy talk' on Mexico?

Mexico US Obama_Nost

President Barack Obama has just left Mexico City after a little less than 24 hours in the city. He spoke publicly on two occasions and held two private sessions with President Enrique Pena Nieto, including a working dinner Thursday night.

In his public remarks, Obama was quite effusive about changes here, describing a “new Mexico,” one that “has lifted millions from poverty” and with a “courageous press” and “robust civil society.”

A “majority of Mexicans now call themselves middle class,” Obama said Friday morning at the National Museum of Anthropology. Here’s the text of the prepared speech although he departed from text several times.

The visit certainly pleased the Pena Nieto government, which is eager to change the tone of US-Mexico relations away from an emphasis on public security and fighting crime into what Pena Nieto called “a multi-thematic” relationship that embraces trade and other issues as well.

Pena Nieto wants to get crime off the front pages, and Obama certainly offered a vote of confidence in his still-ill-defined strategy of prioritizing a reduction in violence over the busting up of drug cartels and the capture of their leaders.

As Adam Thomson of the Financial Times noted, the Obama visit was successful in broadening the bilateral agenda:

Peña Nieto, who has wowed international investors thanks to his apparent determination to push through an ambitious economic reform agenda, wants to promote trade and investment as the two guiding missions of his country’s relationship with its northern neighbor.
Mexico-US trade is already about $1.4bn a day – almost US$1m a minute for the nerds out there – but there is little doubt that it could grow significantly in the coming years. Thursday’s announcement of a joint working group to be populated by Mexican cabinet secretaries and their US counterparts was a clear step in the direction of refocusing the agenda.


But some of the coverage was far more skeptical about what Obama said and the reality of life in Mexico. Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times story that moved this morning after Obama’s speech at the museum:

Obama described a Mexico that many Mexicans do not recognize. He praised a growing middle class when, in fact, economists say the middle class in Mexico has been stagnant for years, and violence has hurt the pocketbooks of many of those who barely emerged from poverty.

Obama lauded a courageous press that holds authorities accountable, when in fact violence and intimidation has silenced most newspapers outside of Mexico City; they do not report on drug trafficking and other issues because of threats or bribes from criminals or local authorities.

His discourse, however, fits in with efforts by both Washington and the Pena Nieto administration to change the image of Mexico, regardless of the facts on the ground.

The Proceso newsweekly magazine was even harsher. It’s story (here in Spanish) said Obama hailed Mexico for lifting millions from poverty “without providing any evidence.”

This gets into tricky terrain because there is no “go to” source. Rather Mexican government agencies even disagree among themselves, and the United Nations and World Bank take sharply different tacks.

First off, Mexico’s population is about 113 million people. According to the Social Development Secretariat, 13 million of them live in “extreme poverty.” Coneval, the agency that measures poverty, said in 2011 that 52 million Mexicans live in poverty.

A U.N. agency, the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, says 40.8 million Mexicans live in poverty while another 14.9 million are indigent (see page 14 of this study which expresses percentages rather than numbers).

Measuring the middle class is less easy, and the World Bank is the one that has touted its expansion in Mexico, saying that 17 percent of the population joined the middle class between 2000 and 2010. It describes middle class as people who make between $10 and $50 per day, so it places the bar low, too low in my opinion. Can someone making $300 a month in Mexico be considered middle class? If so, then maybe Obama wasn’t offering “happy talk” on Mexico. I’m not so sure myself.

A couple of months ago, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald noted in a column that everybody is upbeat on Mexico – except Mexicans themselves. That jibes with my experience as well. So maybe what Obama said was meant more as a pep talk than as a description of reality on the ground.


'New president is serious about reform'

Obama Congress_Nost
President Obama offered a press conference a few hours ago, and the subject of Mexico came up only at the very end even though Obama will be landing here in Mexico City on Thursday for about 24 hours.

Here is the transcript of his remarks on Mexico, in response to a question from Antonieta Cadiz, a Chilean correspondent. She asked how the U.S. felt about Mexico saying Monday that all future contact with U.S. law enforcement will now go through a single gateway, the Mexican Interior Secretariat:

When it comes to Mexico, I’m very much looking forward to taking the trip down to Mexico to see the new President, Peña Nieto. I had a chance to meet him here, but this will be the first, more extensive consultations and it will be an opportunity for his ministers, my Cabinet members who are participating to really hammer out some of these issues.

A lot of the focus is going to be on economics. We’ve spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border. We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be talking about security. I think that in my first conversation with the President, he indicated to me that he very much continues to be concerned about how we can work together to deal with transnational drug cartels. We’ve made great strides in the coordination and cooperation between our two governments over the last several years. But my suspicion is, is that things can be improved.

And some of the issues that he’s talking about really had to do with refinements and improvements in terms of how Mexican authorities work with each other, how they coordinate more effectively, and it has less to do with how they're dealing with us, per se. So I’m not going to yet judge how this will alter the relationship between the United States and Mexico until I’ve heard directly from them to see what exactly are they trying to accomplish.

But, overall, what I can say is that my impression is, is that the new President is serious about reform. He’s already made some tough decisions. I think he’s going to make more that will improve the economy and security of Mexican citizens, and that will improve the bilateral relationship as well.


The hooded students on campus

Mexico Protest_Nost

A group of some 15 students, most wearing hoods, have won headlines by seizing the administration tower at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The rebel students have been holed at Latin America’s largest university since last weekend, and images of the takeover (like the AP photo of the student above) are on the front pages of newspapers.

While the incident focuses on matters particular to Mexico, it brings together facets of university life across Latin America, especially the notion of autonomy of campuses – meaning that the police and the army must stop at the gates. Students generally play a role in Latin universities, including in academic affairs, that might seem incomprehensible on a U.S. campus, partly because student leaders are often affiliated to political forces off campus. University battles can seem like societal battles. A third element is the tolerance for violence on the part of students that might seem alien to an outsider.

So the takeover at the UNAM, as the university is called, drags on as the university rector decides whether to invite in federal police to dislodge the protesters. Police say they are ready.

The case at the UNAM, though, is not about major social issues. The hooded students are protesting the expulsion of five students from a different campus following a melee early in February.

According to news reports from Mexico City (I’m in Acapulco following a different story), some 115,000 students, teachers and staff members have signed petitions calling for the removal of the hooded students.

Some 200 student supporters have encircled the administration tower, an iconic building which houses gigantic murals by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Much of Mexico City awaits to see what will happen next.



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

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