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.


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.


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.


Las Ladies, episode 7

Mix alcohol and high emotions, and what do you get? If you're at the Estadio Azteca watching a World Cup qualifying match, you can get a pretty nasty spat. Like some others I've mentioned on this blog, this was a spat with racial overtones, a huge sense of entitlement and ridiculously bad behavior.

The above video was taken by an ESPN collaborator, Rene Tovar, in one of the boxes at the stadium last Friday night when the Mexican national soccer team was playing the Honduras squad.

Two women in the front row grew irritated and began insulting the people behind them, calling them "nacos." Click here for a better description of "naco," but take it from me that it's not a compliment. Soon, one woman tosses her beer cup at those behind her. Then it gets worse. One of the two "ladies" pulls a bag of pepper spray from her purse, turns around and begins spraying everyone behind her. Dating from this scandal, "ladies" is Mexican shorthand for referring to arrogant upper-class women with a strong sense of entitlement and little regard for laws. "Gentlemen" conveys the same meaning.

People started to scatter. "I told you not to mess with me!" the woman said, according to this Spanish-language blog posting by Tovar.

She waits a second. "You didn't understand? Let's try it again. Take this!" she said, according to the blog post as she squirted the pepper spray can again.

The video is going viral here in Mexico. One of the women reportedly is a law professor at a private university in Santa Fe, an expensive suburb in the capital. Let's see if there are any consequences for the "ladies." 


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.


A melee involving Mexican cadets

A group of Mexican sailors who are on a trip aboard the training vessel Cuauhtemoc took a day off Sunday to visit the beach in Poland. At the end of the day, two of them were in the hospital.

A melee at the Gdynia beach between the Mexican group and what the Mexican press describe as Polish hooligans led the Secretariat of Foreign Relations to call in the Polish ambassador in Mexico for a dressing down.

This English language report from Polish Radio said fans of the soccer club Ruch Chorzow comprised the Polish side of the brawl.

The video above comes from police surveillance video.

The Polish radio report cites a prosecutor, Michal Niesiolowski, saying it was clear who started the fight.

“I have personally studied the material in this case, including the surveillance footage,” Niesiolowski was quoted as saying. “At the current level [of investigation], it has been established that the 'attackers' were Polish citizens, and the 'injured' party were Mexicans.”

The radio said soccer club fans said one of the Mexicans kicked a woman in the face, starting the melee.

The 270-foot ARM Cuauhtemoc is a three-masted training ship docked out of Acapulco. The ship is on a tour of the Baltic region.

The incident has incensed some Mexicans on social media. One tweet from a few minutes ago from @lachivamayor notes: “There will be a 2nd round.”


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 City -- the updated 2.0 version

The City Hall in Mexico’s capital now has its own think tank, and its organizers are looking for creative solutions to urban problems.

ManceraThey called a press conference this morning on the rooftop of a building, replete with urban garden, and Mayor Miguel Mancera (left) gave his blessing.

The think tank (called Laboratorio para la Ciudad) brings together artists, architects, economists, scientists and researchers to think about how to make urban living better. Mexico City, after all, is the eighth largest urban economy in the world.

Mancera was effusive about the program, singling out a “Hackathon” that he said would occur in November.

“What does this mean? It means that we’ll convoke the citizenry, all the bright minds of men and women in the city, so that they can develop apps in benefit of the city,” Mancera said.

One of those in attendance was Nigel Jacob, a computer scientist who is a board member of Code for America, a group that promotes civic innovation. He also runs the Office of New Urban Mechanics at Boston City Hall.

“We truly believe that Mexico City has the capability … to become a world leader in development of the future city, the so-called city 2.0,” he said.

The ceremony ended and Mancera took questions. Journalists asked about very concrete issues such as traffic problems, public housing, crime in the Zona Rosa district – but nothing about the think tank.

I approached Jacob and said it sounded like the think tank would ponder ethereal and theoretical issues. I asked for concrete examples of how the laboratory could come up with ways to make the city more livable. He noted that cities often have multiple programs that only a few residents take advantage of.

“So you can imaging maybe treating bus services, like bus kiosks, here as informational consoles. So there’s hyper-local content about social programs or educational opportunities in that area so that people can see them,” he said.

He also talked about the way city authorities interact with citizens, and even how they respond to signs encouraging civic behavior.

“When people see garbage, do they report it? When they see potholes, do they report it?” he asked. The response “doesn’t skew to socio-economics necessarily.” It can skew to language and also directing messages not to the greater community – Mexico City – but perhaps to the immediate neighborhood. So instead of signs saying "Keep Boston Clean," signs worked better if they mentioned the specific neighborhood.

“We found a huge difference in how people respond to these things,” Jacob said.


America's 'wicked war'

Where is the wooden leg of famed Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna? Watch this interesting video from CBS's Sunday Morning program to learn more about what a Penn State historian describes as the "wicked" Mexican-American war, America's first war based on greed rather than ideological principal.You'll discover in this video why Mexicans revere the "Niños Heroes" who defended the Chapultepec Castle. And you'll also learn about Santa Anna's leg. If you want to find out why it is somewhere in Illinois, click here.



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

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