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.


Mexico's 'smog-eating' building

A modern Mexico City hospital with a decorative facade not only looks pretty but cleans the air. Believe it or not, the space-age materials used in the facade neutralize the smog equivalent of 1,000 vehicles. Here's a CNN report about the building, the Manuel Gea González Hospital. Designed by a Berlin firm, Elegant Embellishments, the molded modules on the exterior are made of a special pigment that when hit by ambient ultraviolet light break down air pollutants into carbon dioxide, water and other less noxious compounds. According to this Bloomberg report, this is the Berlin company's first project but it hopes other buildings and garages will use the technology, either in air-purifying paints or special modules, to reduce smog.  

The firm's depolluting facades aren't the only smog munching walls in Mexico City. Check out these photos of vertical gardens that have gone up around the city. The gardens absorb noise, take heavy metals and pollutants out of the air and add green to the urban landscape. At least three are up in Mexico City, maybe five. Personally I can't figure out how the plants get cared for 30 and 40 feet up in the air. As one who does not have a green thumb (I can even kill cactus), my hat is off to the group behind these gardens, VERDMX.

Item: I'm taking off on vacation tomorrow so this is likely the last blog posting until after my return Aug. 11. Hasta luego!


Mexico's world-class Chapultepec Park

Here is some of what I saw people doing on a sunny weekend morning in the world-class Chapultepec Park in the middle of sprawling Mexico City: strolling, biking, jogging, practicing karate, noshing, running through a shrubbery maze, chasing squirrels, cooling down, getting sweaty, smooching, going to museums, visiting ancient Aztec baths, going to the zoo, meditating, doing yoga, and taking selfies in front of a fountain. Here are some snapshots I took on an hour-long stroll yesterday.




Unearthing a duck-billed hadrosaur

Paleontologists work on the fossilized skeleton of what they believe is a duck-billed hadrosaur, among the last and most common dinosaurs to roam the earth. The skeleton was discovered in 2005 in Coahuila state, abutting Texas, but an official dig didn't begin till July 2. So far, according to a press release from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (which provided the photo), the paleontologists have uncovered some 50 vertebrae of the giant beast, revealing details of articulation that will help scientists learn more about the way the bipedal hadrosaur moved about. The location of the dig is near the town of General Cepeda, in an area that is known for its fossilized dinosaur bones.  


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.


Fallout from Z-40's capture

When you cut off a snake’s head, does it die? Or does it grow a new head?

Mexico Zeta Leader_NostThat’s what Mexicans are waiting to see with the arrest of Miguel Angel Treviño, the alleged leader of Los Zetas, Mexico’s most brutal crime organization.

Trevino was captured around 3:45 a.m. Monday near Nuevo Laredo by a special operations team of Mexican marines, the government says. Also arrested were two others. The photo of Treviño handed out by the Interior Secretariat shows a man who looks like he’s been through some scrapes.

So what will happen to Los Zetas, a crime group that appeared to be on an inexorable upward trajectory until recently? The last leader, Heriberto Lazcano, was killed last October by Mexican marines.

Most analysts agree that rather than calm the waters, the short-term fallout of the arrest of Treviño, who was known by the nickname Z-40, may be greater violence. InsightCrime, a website on organized crime in the Americas, says Treviño’s capture may open the door for a fullscale turf war between Los Zetas and their rivals:


“What comes next could be a spasm of violence as the group balkanizes. In many ways, the Zetas are following a larger trend in Mexico, and indeed the region, of fragmentation. Large scale, vertically integrated organizations are going the way of the dinosaur.”

The strategic forecasting firm Stratfor offered a different twist. It noted that Los Zetas is not a family based crime group but one centered on military style discipline:

“One reason behind Los Zetas' success is the group's ability to replace its leadership, even its senior-most leaders, relatively easily. … Because ex-military personnel formed Los Zetas, members tend to move up in the group's hierarchy through merit rather than through familial connections.”

Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence official in Mexico who is now an independent analyst, was quoted in an Associated Press story arguing that removing the snake’s head would devastate Los Zetas:

“It’s another link in the destruction of the Zetas as a coherent, identifiable organization … There will still be people who call themselves Zetas, bands of individuals who maintain the same modus operandi. There will be fights over illegal networks,” Hope told the AP.

As analysts offered fairly iron-clad predictions, one law enforcement source quoted in Alfredo Corchado’s story in the Dallas Morning News voiced some uncertainty about what would happen next:

“Unclear, hard to say. But things may worsen before they get better. I expect a lot of rivals jockeying for position, which may make the situation more violent,” the source told the Morning News.


In the land of Carlos Slim, obesity

Mexico has captured the dubious title of world’s most obese nation.

This story has been getting a lot of play in the overseas press, and obscures the complexities around the topic, including the links between poverty and obesity. 

Some of Mexico’s poorest areas are also where it has the highest rates of diabetes and obesity. This is partly due to the rise of convenience stores, the power of food and beverage conglomerates like Bimbo and Coca-Cola and a more fast-paced lifestyle. I did an article on the soaring rate of diabetes in Mexico a while back.

Certainly here in Mexico City, the rise of roadside stands serving greasy food and sugary drinks is a contributing factor. With phenomenally long commutes, hardworking Mexicans here have little time for anything but cheap roadside food. No longer do they go home for home-cooked meals at lunch. 

The Global Post story of my colleague Dudley Althaus kicked off the spate of coverage on the obesity. Now, 32.8 percent of Mexicans are obese, pushing U.S. citizens down the world "globesity" list.

The sad thing is, fresh fruits and vegetables are so abundant and cheap in Mexico. I went to a neighborhood market Saturday and filled up a large bag with myriad fruits and vegetables. They all look so much fresher and riper than the normal assortment of plastic-wrapped, wax-covered stuff at the U.S. supermarket. And the cost? About 10 bucks.


Mexico's latest ad campaign

Check out the latest promo video for Mexico City, put out by the Mexico Tourism Board. This item from the Board says the campaign will target the United States and Canada, and will be based on tourist accounts of their travels. A colleague of mine notes on Facebook that she finds it curious the use of women in these ads. Is it that women promote an image of security? Make the travel decisions? Find Mexico's charms more interesting?

I don't know. But it looks like Mexico is also trying to gear up for a greater flow of Chinese tourists. At about the time that President Xi Jinping visited Mexico in early June, Tourism Minister Claudia Ruiz opened her doors to Chinese journalists. Below is the piece that appeared on CCTV Channel 9 in English, which reaches the English-speaking population in China and around the world. The piece most certainly would have appeared on one of the many Mandarin channels operated by CCTV as well as the Spanish language one.



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

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