Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Today's headlines: When doing your job is front-page news

Only a few hours left in the year and most well-grounded people have other things on their mind than news. So we’ll be merciful and keep today’s round-up quick and dirty. Milenio leads with the news, not unexpected, that El Americano (Luis Antonio Torres) turned himself in yesterday along with some of his men. Torres and rival former self-defense group leader Hipólito Mora, also in jail with his men, led their followers in a shoot-out in a small Michoacán town earlier in December which left behind 11 corpses. Milenio’s head cites a boast by Michoacan’s federally appointed “security commissioner,” Alfredo Castillo: “Castillo: surrender of 37 an achievement for the institutions.” That brings to mind the old bit by the young Chris Rock, when he chastised brothers who bragged about holding jobs and supporting their families: “Man, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Except he didn’t say “man.” El Universal, in its No. 2 head, takes a half-empty-glass approach: "El Americano in prison; 19 arrests still to be made."

Excelsior and La Jornada give us good and bad economic news. The good (sort of) news comes from Excelsior: “Reserves close with 193 billion dollars.” This is from a year-end report from Banco de Mexico, the central bank, showing that foreign reserves are up 15.5 billion dollars from last year. La Jornada reports the negative effect of the plummeting worldwide oil prices: “Crude price fall leaves a budget gap of 198 billion pesos.” Reforma weighs in with its trademark irony: “Deputies enjoy a happy new year.” (There are exclamation points around the word “deputies” which is at the end of the head, meaning we’re supposed to be surprised and enraged.) The story here is that federal lower house legislators (deputies) received a total of 53 million pesos in 2014 in “special funds” not formally budgeted. The parties together took in 336 million pesos. The Reforma story implies that the cash was in exchange for favorable votes on the electoral, telecommunications and energy reforms.


“There will be no Today’s Headlines tomorrow.” See you next year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Today's headlines: How to put other people's money to work for you

Looks like we now know where the money went — or at least a chunk of what investors in the fraudulent Ficrea financial firm have lost. Under the lead headline “Ficrea owner takes a fortune to the United States,” Reforma reports that fugitive Ficrea majority partner Rafael Olvera Amezcua has over the last three years bought up 57 buildings in the U.S., worth about 26.5 million dollars. That’s a small percentage of the approximately 193 million dollars that are missing, but it’s the first indication we have of where the money went. The case has been played up nationwide; it’s a blatant example, writ large, of what so many ordinary people live with — the pressing threat of being ripped off in one way or another as you go about your daily life. It’s common, for example, for bank savings to simply disappear. Sometime you get the money back, sometimes you don’t. But almost never is a culprit apprehended.

The source for the Reforma Ficrea story is the paper’s own investigation. That makes it an exclusive, so El Universal fronts a related story, quoting the president of the victimized Mexico City Superior Court (TSJDF) under its No. 4 headline: “We thought Ficrea was solvent: TSJDF.” The court lost 120 million pesos (about 8.5 million dollars) in the affair. One can only imagined robed jurists and baffled clerks gathered in conference, their faces red with a powerful mix of wrath and embarrassment, wondering what the hell happened. The court president, Edgar Elías Azar, insists that due diligence was exercised before they handed over any money, and Ficrea was found to be “solvent, in appearance.” That seems to miss the point — the problem wasn’t that Ficrea didn’t have enough capital. It’s that they stole it.
    TSJDF’s loss raises a question: What was a court doing with a loose 8.5 million bucks to invest? The answer is that the money didn’t come from the court’s operating funds, budgeted by the Federal District Legislative Assembly. It is (was) interest, gains and carryovers from savings and investments over the years, activities that the court is allowed to participate in to accumulate funds for a rainy day. Elías Azar says the TSJDF will seek compensation “through the courts, like any other person.”

La Jornada leads with the revelation that the last two police chiefs of Cocula, Guerrero, the town just outside Iguala within whose city limits the 43 missing students are thought to have been killed and/or incinerated, were former army officers imposed by the Defense Secretariat. The headline: "Retired military men, chiefs of police in Cocula since 2011." This is the kind of story that fuels the contention of activists, including the students’ families, that the crime was the work of federal, not just state and local, authorities. La Jornada’s source is testimony by Cocula Mayor César Miguel Peñaloza, who was held for questioning all last week by the organized crime division of the federal Attorney General’s Office before being release, uncharged.
    Peñaloza said the army-imposed chiefs had their own agenda and operated independently from the mayor, as though he worked for them rather than the other way around. “They were never accountable to me for their actions or operations,” the mayor testified. Whatever the motives of the army action were, things turned out badly. One of the police chiefs was gunned down in 2012, and the other is under arrest for alleged participation in the Iguala massacre. A third retired army man served as an assistant Cocula police chief before he too was arrested.


Milenio leads with the latest on the Michoacán saga, two weeks after the shootout between rival former self-defense groups that left 11 people dead. “10 deaths attributed to Hipólito’s group” is the Milenio head. Investigators had originally split the death toll — with five of Hipólito Mora’s men killed, and six belonging to the rival gang led by Luis Antonio Torres, aka El Americano. Yesterday, however, a judge from the state capital of Morelia announced that Hipólito and 26 of his men (all in jail) will face 10 murder charges. Only the death of Mora’s son will be attributed to El Americano’s gang, all of whom are expected to turn themselves in today (Tuesday). Mora is saying he and his people acted in self-defense, which, in the unlikely case that it's true, must mean his men are much better shots than El Americano’s. Mora's lawyer say’s he’ll be out in less than a week, and Hipólito himself has indicated he might run for Congress.
    The utter ridiculousness of this episode and the comic-opera absurdity of the characters around it (one of the drug gangs the so-called self-defense groups were up against before they were up against each other is called Los Viagras), tends to obscure the horrific reality of life in Michoacán these days. One of Mexico’s most naturally beautiful and culturally rich states has been gripped by violence for several years now. Its residents live with more fear than hope, except for the lucky ones who feel only resignation. Observers are increasingly questioning the wisdom of investing crime control in a federally designated security commissioner, on the simple grounds that things have not improved since Alfredo Castillo rode into town. Look for a strategy change soon, especially given the expected shake-up of President Peña Nieto’s cabinet, with several current secretaries expected to run for elected office.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Today's headlines: What can the military tell us about Iguala?

One of the entities investigating the police/narco massacre of 49 young people in Iguala— seven confirmed murdered, 42 unaccounted for and presumed dead — is the National Human Rights Commission. Its new head, Raúl González Pérez, has a thankless task; half the population accuses the commission (CNDH) of toeing the government line, the other half says it coddles criminals. At any rate, González Pérez was in Guerrero over the weekend, meeting with the parents of the disappeared students at their rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa. The news hook is expressed in El Universal’s lead headline: “CNDH has asked the army for information about the Iguala case.”
    What’s interesting isn’t the request — why wouldn’t the commission ask for all pertinent information? — but the reason for it. “The participation of the army on the day of the events will be included in the record,” El Universal quotes González Pérez as saying. That participation could be by “commission or omission,” he told the parents. “Omission” means being present but doing nothing to stop the slaughter. That has been alleged often. “Commission” would mean joining in the action. That’s not talked about as much, though the parents insist it happened. The CNDH is preparing its report, known as a recommendation. It’s non-binding but carries a lot of weight.

Prize for the most disturbing story of the day goes to La Jornada, whose top headline informs us that “28 city halls in Guerrero have been taken in support of the disappeared.” By “taken” is meant the physical occupation of the government offices since October by activist groups consolidated in what they call the Guerrero Popular Movement (MPG). In 10 of those towns, according to spokespersons for the activists, "(government) activities are paralyzed.” Among those 10 are major cities such as Acapulco, Chilpancingo and Iguala. In Acapulco, the activists boast, the mayor has been relegated to “an alternative office space.”
    Jornada reports all this in a curious matter-of-fact tone, as though the usurpation of city government and the expulsion of elected officials were routine. (In fact, they’re far from unprecedented; in neighboring Morelos, the municipal offices of Tepoztlán and Tlalnepantla were occupied for long stretches a few years ago by aggrieved residents.) Jornada sources only the activists. There is no confirmation or denial from the supposedly ousted officials, no comment from the state or federal governments, no attempt to verify the claim, no asking around to see how “paralyzed” the municipal governments really are.

Milenio gives its ample top space (the tabloid leads the league in banner headline point size) to another segment of the population impatient for a solution to spiraling corruption and violence — the private sector. “Private sector demands an integrated anti-corruption system” sounds bureaucratic, even dull. But it’s a reminder that the business community, which began the year in an ecstatic dance as the  energy and telecommunications reforms inched toward implementation, is not going to just watch as their dreams of lucre are crushed under the collapse of rotting government institutions. The message came via an end-of-year YouTube video from Gerardo Gutiérrez Candiani, president of the Business Coordinating Council (CCE), the very powerful umbrella organization for most major national business groups. By “integrated” he means a top-to-bottom, wide-net anti-corruption effort that’s formal rather than piecemeal. Unlike the grassroots groups, the CCE supports rather than blames President Peña Nieto. It's Congress they're upset with. Gutiérrez Candiani criticized legislators for recessing without creating the proposed National Anti-Corruption System that would include a theoretically independent special prosecutor. He also said the CCE will soon release a new code of ethics that would presumably apply to the business sector, not always squeaky clean itself.


Speaking of unclean businesses, Reforma leads with the news that among the fraud victims of the shuttered Ficrea financial services firm was none other than the top court at the Mexico City level, the Superior Court of Justice for the Federal District, or TSJDF. Reforma’s head: “TSJDF loses 120 million pesos with Ficrea.” That’s about 8.5 million dollars in taxpayers’ money.

Mexican dailies aren’t always clear about where legislation stands in Congress, or even what it is. But if one senator or deputy insults another, we’ll hear all about it. And if there’s any suspected funny money, it makes the front page. Hence Excelsior’s main headline this morning: “Senate raises its opaque expenditure to 320 million pesos.” This refers to the amount of budgeted funds received over the first three quarters of 2014 by federal legislators to use at their discretion, without transparency rules. This  “opaque” allotment raises suspicion and generates headlines every year. But there’s not much movement to end the practice, since its elimination would have to come from the same folks who are getting the money.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Today's headlines: Bring 'em home

“Number of deportees took off in 2014” is El Universal’s leading headline. You're in Mexico, the United States or anywhere else, and you read that head translated into English, you assume it’s about deportations from the United States, don’t you? But it refers to deportations from Mexico, and only of Central Americans. Through mid-December, Mexico deported 107,199 Central Americans who sneaked into the country, most on their way to the United States border. That’s up from 77,395 last year. El Universal, citing statistics from Guatemalan migration authorities, says that figure is likely to surpass deportations from the U.S., which has expelled 104,688 to Central America over the same period. In an editorial, the paper calls for cooperative action among all the nations affected by the  flow of underage migrants, which peaked last summer.

Reforma leads with the Catholic Church reaction to the murder of Gregorio López Gorostieta, the Guerrero priest who was kidnapped last Sunday and found dead on Christmas Day. El Universal gives it No.2 placement: “Church calls for a halt in Guerrero violence.” The statement from the Conference of Mexican Bishops (CEM) reads in part: “Echoing the feelings of so many Mexicans, we repeat: Enough! We want no more blood. No more deaths. No more disappearances.”  No clues or suspects have yet been reported, but El Universal points out that “Goyito,” 39, was not the first recent sacerdotal victim in the Tierra Caliente region of Guerrero. In September the priest José Ascención Acuña was killed in the town of San Miguel Totolopan, and back in 2008 another was murdered just across the border in the State of Mexico. Neither case was solved, but organized crime is suspected in both, perhaps in the former case through mistaken identity. The current investigation will be carried out by the Guerrero state Attorney General’s Office, a busy agency that just got busier. The assassination of a priest is no small matter in Mexico.

Milenio and Excelsior both lead with stories related to crime in the state of Guerrero (we might as well get used to it; this emphasis isn't going to change until election season, and maybe not then). The heads are similar. Here’s Milenio’s: “Biggest crime-prevention expenditure goes to Guerrero.” The stories are based on the new 2015 budget for the National Program for Crime Prevention, a special fund to supplement the regular law enforcement budget. It just appeared in the official gazette (Diario Oficial), publication in which formally enacts any legislation. The total amount budgeted is 2.6 billion pesos, up 88.2 million pesos, or 3.46%, from 2014. Guerrero, as the headline indicates, will receive the biggest chunk of any state — 207.1 million pesos. That money will be distributed to six zones, most of which are now familiar to much of the world: Acapulco (which gets the most), the capital Chilpancingo, Zihuatanejo, Iguala, Coyuca and Chilapa.

La Jornada goes with coverage of Friday’s Mexico City march marking the three-month anniversary of the tragic events in Iguala. It turned out to consist mostly of family members and friends and close associates of the rural teachers college  (or normal school) victims. Some 5,000 marched, according to Jornada, 3,000 according to El Universal (quoting protest participants) and 1,200 according to the city government. That last figure is not much more than the 1,000 police officers assigned. The take-home message is in the headline: “Election boycott if the normalistas don’t appear.” That threat came from a number of parents who spoke at the rally. Their lawyers had already submitted a formal request to postpone the elections in Guerrero, scheduled for June of 2015. Others spoke ominously about protest marches not being sufficiently effective. The “tone,” they said, needs to be raised. They didn't elaborate, but it's a safe bet they're not talking about organizing conferences or sponsoring pancake breakfasts. The parents continue to profess their belief that the 42 who are still missing (the remains of one of the 43 have been identified) are alive and held by authorities.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Today's headlines: Where the air is clear

Most dailies give space on their front pages for photographs of either clean skies over Mexico City or the abundant snow on the ground in the higher altitudes. With the clouds parting after an unusually rainy 24th, Christmas Day turned out to be clear and crisp, with skies of blue and a hint of optimism.  For a day at least. Reforma, the killjoy, accompanies its photo of la región más transparente with a lead headline warning: “DF losing clear days.” The story cites statistics from the Federal District’s Environment Secretariat showing more bad-air days (163) so far in 2014 than in the previous two years.

La Jornada puts its clear-day picture on the contraportada — the back of the tabloid that serves as a second front page — and instead fronts a photo of family members and supporters of the slain Guerrero normalistas gathered outside the German embassy. The protesters say German-made arms were used to kill six people in Iguala, three of them normal school students, at the beginning of the September 26 events that led to 43 more being kidnapped and murdered. Jornada’s lead headline: “On Christmas, new mobilizations by the normalistas.”  A major protest march along Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City is planned for today, the three-month anniversary of the Iguala massacre.


El Universal is the only paper without a feel-good weather photo, and the only paper to lead with the following (though every paper fronts it): “Priest murdered despite operation in Tierra Caliente.” The Tierra Caliente is a large region in Guerrero, Michoacán and the State of Mexico known for hot weather, low rainfall, constant social unrest and unstoppable crime. It includes the city of Ciudad Altamirano, named for the author of “Clemencia” and other 19th-century novels, the Guerrero-born Ignacio Manuel Altamirano. It was near there Thursday that the priest Gregorio López Gorrostieta was found dead from an execution-style shot, after being kidnapped. Neither motive nor suspect was mentioned in the story. No ransom demand had been made. Security for that part of the state has been under Defense Secretariat control, with 2,000 troops deployed. Hence the reference in the headline to “despite operation.”

Excelsior and Milenio lead with number-crunching stories, the kind newsrooms hang onto for slow news days, which Christmas Day is normally expected to be. Excelsior: “Disappearances hit minors.” The emphasis here is on Interior Secretariat statistics indicating that 34% of the 23,605 persons reported missing this year as of October 30 are 19 years old or younger. That percentage is supposed to shock us, but given the national demographics and the nature of disappearances, it’s about what you’d expect. It’s the 23,605 figure that’s shocking — and that’s only reported disappearances. Milenio: “More than 300 initiatives frozen.” Congress adjourned earlier this month with much legislation approved by one house but hung up in the other. Some of those shelved bills are major, having to do with the debt crisis plaguing local and state governments, an overhaul of the Attorney General’s Office, the rules for forming coalitions in state-level elections, new strategies for dealing with the obesity crisis, a global warming policy and (though it’s not mentioned in the story) increased autonomy for the Federal District. There will be one more congressional session before the 2015 elections in June.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Today's headlines: Okay, back to the subject of the reforms . . .

Milenio and El Universal both lead with a security speech by Gobernación (Interior) Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong. The two papers’ focuses are so different you can’t help but wonder if the reporters attended the same event. Milenio, echoed by La Jornada in its third headline, goes with  “The PF must not let its guard down after Iguala: Osorio,” over a pep-rally story promising that the government, including the Federal Police (PF), will move ahead to “guarantee Mexicans’ security.” At El Universal, however, we get this: “Those affected by the reforms encourage violence: Osorio.” Here, “affected” (“afectados”) implies “against,” and the reforms referred to are the major constitutional overhauls of the energy, education, electoral and telecommunications sectors, among others, that were the hallmark of the Peña Nieto administration until the related crises of insecurity and official corruption changed the subject. Osorio is trying to change it back again. As head of the most powerful government agency after the presidency itself, the secretary was reflecting with his words an administration intent on doubling down on the strategy of linking the Iguala-related protest movement to previously existing opposition, and blaming it for any violence. Nor was the El Universal angle taken out of context. The Gobernación press release on the speech starts right out with: “The structural reforms promoted by President Enrique Peña Nieto affected some people’s interests, and they have reacted in these times of pain from the events in Iguala by provoking discord and violence.” Touché.

La Jornada leads with the Ficrea case, in which investors lost their savings after a crooked financial services firm was shut down by authorities. The fraud victims have taken to the streets, aiming their protests not at the crooks but at two government agencies — the National Banking and Securities Commission and Condusef, the financial consumer protection commission — who they claim were more interested in making the problem go away than protecting the depositors. Hence the head: “Lies and betrayal by authorities in Ficrea case: fraud victims.” There have been no arrests, according to the victims, not even arrest orders, or any information about where the money went. This story has significance wider than one unfortunate episode; it’s being talked about as a case in point of how corruption — and the government’s inability to control it — ruins lives, and often ends them.

Excelsior chooses “Analysis of the remains in Austria will be slower and success is not guaranteed.” What little could be found of the presumably incinerated bodies of the students murdered in Iguala was sent to the Medical University of Innsbruck for identification. The forensic team there was able to identify one victim using traditional DNA tests, but further analysis is requiring more complicated methodology. The news today is that identification will take longer than previously thought and may not be possible at all. 

Reforma stays local across its front page. The main head goes after the unpopular mayor of Naucalpan, the sprawling, mostly colorless city of some 800,000 that hugs Mexico City from the northwest: “Naucalpan fetes its mayor like a king.” It was actually the PRI that threw the party, along with city officials (dipping into their own pockets, they insist) and co-opted neighborhood groups. Hundreds were bused to a city park (Naucalli) for a feast of tacos, beer and turkey. The occasion: Municipal President David Sánchez's 40th birthday, which actually isn't until the 29th. The busing and party is a PRI ploy from time immemorial, and was meant to take naucalpenses’ minds off the surges in crime, corruption and mysteriously disappeared funds that have marked Sánchez’s term in office. The "king" reference in the Reforma headline rhas to do with a mention in the traditional Mexican birthday song to "el rey David," i.e. King David. Sánchez is planning to run for Congress next year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Today's headlines: * The Ayotzinapa parents are seeking a new ally — the pope. * Iguala was neither the first nor the worst case of cop/narco collaboration. * Message to the Jeep-smashing borough chief: This time it's not personal. * Throw Higa from the train.

All five papers front Iguala-related stories, but only Excelsior gives it top billing: “Cocula mayor testifies at the PGR.” Cocula is the small town just outside of Iguala whose police participated in the attack and where most of the students are thought to have been killed and incinerated. César Miguel Peñaloza Santana, the mayor, was reported missing earlier in the day, but it turned out he had been in the hands of the PGR — the federal Attorney General’s Office — since Friday. He was already interrogated in October, but was called back for more questioning by the SEIDO, the PGR’s organized crime division. Which is interesting.

Other papers play up possible Vatican interest in the Iguala case. El Universal’s No. 2 headline is “Parents of Ayotzinapa’s 43 ask the pope to get involved” and La Jornada’s second head is virtually identical. This development came out of a visit by papal nuncio Christophe Pierre to the very rural teachers college (its name is Isidro Burgos) in Ayotzinapa where the students were from. After a Mass the parents handed Pierre letters requesting the support of the pope, which might be in the form of a pronouncement on the case during his Christmas Eve homily. That, the parents hope, would rally the world to their cause. Reforma, Milenio and Excelsior focused on the visit rather than the request, all three in the form of photos with reefers to inside stories. In its photo caption, Excelsior refers to the nuncio’s suggestion that the parents “forgive.” That’s not going to happen any time soon.

Milenio’s top headline is a two-deck banner revealing that “Police are linked to two other massacres.” The reference is to the 2010 killing and mass burial of 72 Central American migrants in the town of San Fernando in the border state of Tamaulipas, and to the 2011 mass murder of 28 in Allende in Coahuila, another border state. The revelation is that in both cases local police officers were actively involved, collaborating with the murderous Zetas drug-trafficking organization. That information was apparently kept under wraps by the PGR until a freedom of information petition by the National Security Archive, a U.S. NGO, resulted in a transparency order by the IFAI, Mexico’s Institute for Access to Information. If the information is accurate, those slaughters of innocents were disturbingly similar to the Iguala massacre, and who knows how many more.

La Jornada leads with two pieces of bad news that seem almost benign in the midst of all the blood-soaked tragedy: “The peso and Mexican oil continue going downhill.” The peso closed Monday at 14.6575 to the dollar, weaker by 0.09% from Friday. Not long ago it was around 13. The value of the peso, however, is a range, not a point. Buying a dollar Monday cost you 14.96 pesos; selling one got you only 14.36 pesos. The price of Mexican crude for export has been falling for the last five weeks. It was at 48.20 a barrel on Monday, down 1.65 dollars from Friday. The drop in value has been nearly 48% for the year, according to the La Jornada article, but much of that fall had been accounted for, presciently, in the 2014 federal budget. Still, every decline is money lost to the national treasury, and that can lead to trouble. Ask Mr. Putin.

El Universal leads again with the woes of the borough chief of Mexico’s Iztapalapa delegación, Jesús Valencia. The story started out with the revelation that the SUV he smashed up after a party last week belonged to an employee of a government provider for whom Valencia had approved major contracts. Then, the more reporters started looking into the company, Amexire, the more mysterious it seemed to be. The news now is that Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera has ordered a formal investigation, which El Universal plays up under the head “MAM: the delegación head’s case is no longer personal.” Both Mancera and Valencia are PRD politicians.

Reforma’s top headline, “Higa thrown off the train,” is its allegedly clever way of informing us that the Communications and Transport Secretariat has disqualified Grupo Higa from participating in the new bidding process for building a rail line from Mexico City to Querétaro. Higa was part of the Chinese-led consortium that was originally awarded the contract, but President Peña Nieto decided to take a mulligan after it came to light hat Higa was financing the construction of a mansion for his wife. The cancellation was a major blow for the president's image, in terms of both his honesty and competence. This is no little choo-choo that has been undergoing a rather botched bidding process; it's a high-speed rail project that will cost billions of dollars. The Chinese consortium can bid again, but it will have to find new Mexican partners.

Monday, December 22, 2014


“Although it was neither an isolated event nor the largest massacre in recent years, what occurred in Iguala has struck at the core of Mexican society. . . .  it is impossible to overstate the effect of the attacks on the country. Mexicans speak of Iguala as shorthand for collective trauma.” That’s from John Gibler’s long article about last September’s student massacre. It ran last week in California Sunday Magazine. You can read it here. If you’re confused about what actually happened in Iguala and its aftermath, or what the Ayotzinapa normal school is, this is the best rundown out now in English — clear, thorough and based on primary sources, i.e. survivors. I worked with Gibler briefly during the APPO unrest of 2006-07, in which a young American photographer was killed. He contributed stories to the Herald Mexico from the scene in Oaxaca while I covered the Mexico City fallout. I’m pretty sure there’s no better chronicler of social unrest writing in English in Mexico today. 

ON THE 43: Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam had this to say during a television interview last week with Carmen Aristegui, the energetic news face of CNN en Español: “Nobody has cast any serious doubt about the investigation of Ayotzinapa.” It was his way of dismissing a December 14 report in the weekly magazine Proceso that the official version of the events in Iguala leaves out the participation of the Federal Police and the army. Proceso’s version: “The attack was orchestrated and executed by the Federal Police, with the complicity or outright collaboration of the army.” Murillo’s version: “It’s clear to me that there’s no reason to suppose that there was any Federal Police involvement.” Yesterday Proceso dropped the other shoe with a follow-up article that goes right after Murillo: “. . . the Attorney General’s Office discredits, lies, hides and exonerates other possible responsible parties in advance and without investigation.”

From the work of Gerardo Deniz, the Spanish-born poet who was raised in Switzerland until age 8 and lived and wrote (and translated) in Mexico from then on: “I will not be reincarnated. That’s all false. When I die it’s fixed that I’ll pass on to purgatory. People assume I’ll be going to hell. Pure petulance.” Deniz died last Saturday at age 80.

Today's headlines: * What if they held an election and nobody cheated? * When fraud hits home. * Christmas cheer for legislators.

Again, five dailies, five unrelated top stories. El Universal leads with the results of its interview with a top election official — “INE following the political parties’ money trail” —  reminding us that national elections are less than seven months away. The entire Chamber of Deputies and half the Senate are at stake, as well as various governorships, state legislatures, mayoralties and Federal District delegación heads, or borough chiefs. One difference this time around — a result of the major overhaul of election law passed in the last year — is that campaign expenditure rules will be enforced more efficiently, even to the point that a candidate’s victory can be annulled if he or she goes over the limit. At least that's the message in El Universal’s interview with Benito Nacif, a councilor of the new National Electoral Institute (INE), which has replaced the old IFE as the election authority. Nacif, who heads INE’s expenditure oversight committee, says the goal will be to avoid having to impose sanctions by maintaining strong enough vigilance to prevent abuses from happening in the first place. “Our mission is to be aware of all funds that go through a party, their origin and their destination,” Nacif says in the interview. It’s a pretty good bet, though, that there will be plenty of squabbling about who’s cheating and who isn’t; that’s basically been the day-to-day tone of  Mexican elections since they started mattering.

La Jornada goes with the story people are talking about the most: “Ficrea fraud victims will lose most of their investment.” Ficrea was a Mexico City financial firm that turned out to be running a Ponzi-like operation. Authorities shut it down last week and confiscated whatever funds they could get their hands on. But billions of pesos and the firm’s owners are nowhere to be found. The remaining cash and deposit insurance aren’t enough to reimburse the victims, save for those without much money invested. The rest are looking at getting just a percentage of what for many is their life savings. The defrauded clients are in continuing negotiations with two federal agencies — the National Banking and Securities Commission and the financial consumer protection commission known as Condusef.

Reforma’s main front-page head is a button-pusher: “Deputies given 90 days of Christmas bonus.” The year-end aguinaldo, or bonus, is compulsory, but that doesn’t mean every worker gets one. When they do, it’s generally the equivalent of a few week’s pay, perhaps with a turkey or cheese-platter thrown in. Legislators in a number of states, Reforma is telling us, are getting up to 90 days worth, which can translate to as much as 300,000 pesos, or more than 20,000 dollars. That’s 15 years worth of income for folks earning minimum wage.

Excelsior turns to positive news for its top story:  “Bank of America: the peso is strong.” By “Bank of America” is meant Carlos Capistrán, the chief economist in Mexico for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, on whose words alone the story is based. By “strong” is meant that Capistrán sees no danger of a repeat of the 1994-95 peso crash, despite the drop in the peso’s worth to where it’s been pushing 15 to the dollar, despite the expected rise in U.S. interest rates, and despite the persistent social unrest.

Milenio informs us that “The drug war has tripled the crime rate.” The source for this unwelcome and unsurprising news is the Institute for Economics and Peace, a global organization that for the last  eight years has put out an annual, nation-by-nation Global Peace Index, which measures “national peacefulness,” defined tautologically as “absence of violence.” The tripling has taken place over the eight years since President Calderón started sending troops after drug traffickers. It has mainly taken place in five Mexican states — Morelos, Guerrero, Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Quintana Roo — as well as  Baja California, Nuevo León, Durango, Guanajuato and Michoacán. The five most peaceful states, according to the report, are Campeche, Querétaro, Hidalgo, Yucatán and Baja California Sur.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mexico by the numbers: * It's name is bribe, legal bribe. * What Mexico City newspaper readers really want. * A comeback for the monarch butterflies? * When minimum really means minimum.

6 million . . . number of dollars that the Mexican government is reported (by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper) to be paying Sony to have scenes in the next James Bond movie filmed in Mexico City.   24 . . . number of Bond films that will have been made once this one, titled “Spectre,” is finished.   341,259 . . . Average daily readership of El Universal in the greater Mexico City area. That almost doubles second-place La Jornada at 183,454. Reforma is third at 130,586. Take those numbers with a grain of salt each, because 1) They come from El Universal itself, not an unbiased source. 2) They are based on survey respondents who said they read that paper the day before, not exactly a scientific survey methodology. 3) What does “read” mean? All of it? Some of it? The main headline only? 4) Circulation figures are generally unreliable anyway.     722, 726 . . .  daily Valley of Mexico readership (same methodology) of El Gráfico, the leader of the “popular newspaper” category, consisting of those tabloids obsessed with the bodies of dead male crime victims covered in blood and live female babes covered in next to nothing. No. 2 is Metro at 533,174 and No. 3 La Prensa at 298,281. Note that the “popular” El Gráfico, published by El Universal, out-readers El Universal itself by more than 2-1.

1.65 . . . number of forest acres (half a hectare) that the returning monarch butterflies occupied last season in the Michoacán and State of México reserves, down from what used to be the norm of six to eight hectares and way below the recorded high of 18.2 hectares or 45 acres. The good news is that the acreage is expected to at least double this butterfly season (now under way) once the figures are in.   2 . . . number of California condors that the U.S. government delivered this fall to Mexico City’s Chapultepec Zoo for breeding in captivity and eventual release. The raptors once lived throughout much of North America, but only about 230 exist in the wild today, all in California and Baja California.   45 . . . number of additional kilometers the Mexico City Metro system is expected to cover by the time Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera’s term ends in 2018. Much of the new track will serve the State of Mexico, including extending Line A from La Paz to Chalco, and Line 4 from Martín Carrera to Ecatepec. Within the city limits, Line 9 will keep going from Tacubaya to Observatorio, paralleling Line 1 for that last stretch. Line 12 will also be extended from its current terminus at Mixcoac to Observatorio. Thus three lines will take riders to the starting point of the future Mexico-Toluca train.

70.10  . . . new minimum wage in pesos that will take effect on January 1 throughout much of the country. That’s a 4.2% increase, 2.81 pesos more than the existing minimum wage. The amount is per day, not per hour, and converts to about five dollars. Minimum wage workers in other parts of the nation will get 66.45 pesos per day. The PRD leader in the Senate, which approved the increase on Friday, called it “paltry.”   30 . . . percentage of State of Mexico residents who spend the equivalent of the aforementioned daily minimum wage to get to work and back each day in public transportation, according to a study carried out by the polling firm Dinamia and the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policies.   70 . . . percentage of mexiquenses who use two or more kinds of public transport to get to the Federal District each day.

Today's headlines: * Peña Nieto has a message for Mexico's governors: 'Do your job.' * Part of their job will soon be running all the local police departments. * U.S. agents apparently helped with the Iguala investigation. Is that a problem?

The major news Friday, according to most of the press, was a security address by President Peña Nieto. The gist of the speech, delivered to 31 state governors, plus security officials and Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, assembled at the presidential residence of Los Pinos for a meeting of the National Public Security Council, was that the governors are going to  have to do a better job of keeping their states safe from drug gangs and other criminals. As if to show he really meant it, the president warned the governors that they could no longer count on the Federal Police or military to ride to the rescue when security breaks down in the states. The top headlines in Excelsior (“Peña to the states: do your part”) and in Milenio (“No more excuses, Peña demands of governors”) reflect that announcement. In issuing the warning, Peña Nieto acknowledged that there are “weaknesses” in local security forces, citing Iguala as obvious proof that certification is no guarantee of integrity or professionalism in a police body or individual officer.

EL Universal relegates the security meeting to third place in its front-page hierarchy, and in so doing focuses on a separate but related angle: “Conago commits itself to speeding up the Single Command.” Conago is the council of the nation’s governors, and Single Command is an awkward translation of the Mando Único, which will put all local police forces under the control of their states. This idea is one of Peña Nieto’s proposed measures in response to the Iguala crisis, and the story here is that the state leaders themselves, assembled Friday in Los Pinos, are promising to implement it. Why the shift? “We have more than 2,000 (municipal) police forces in this country,” the president said Friday. “That's 2,000 municipios in this country that don’t have the technical capacity for policing.” Stripped of the polite term "technical capacity," this means to most people that local police are corrupt, incompetent, dangerous and often neck deep in organized crime. Municipal officials oppose the change, given the loss of control it implies, as do others who wonder (reasonably) if state cops are any better. It is to be hoped that they can be, because with Peña Nieto withholding federal help, and municipal forces going under state control, it’s going to be up to the governors to right this ship.

La Jornada’s coverage of the security meeting is subsumed under the screaming headline: “The U.S. intervened in the Iguala investigation.” What this is all about is a recognition attributed to Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam that some FBI agents “came and helped, mostly in organizing the coroner’s inquest.” The U.S. had publicly offered to help out in the investigation and apparently the offer was taken up. Unless there’s more coming on this story, its front-page lead placement — and the loaded word "intervened" rather than "assisted" — seems meant to stir up the nationalist passions that go with any mention of the United States involving itself with Mexico (or, in equal measure, ignoring Mexico). At some point in any ongoing story of social conflict, the gringo card is played.

Reforma’s front page ignores the security speech and goes instead with “GDF celebrates hidden funds.” The story is the result of a recorded telephone conversation between a Federal District government (GDF) official and a ranking member of the city's legislative body (the ALDF) in which they’re heard rejoicing over the 1.8 billion pesos (some 130 million dollars) that was distributed to the 16 delegaciones and various city government agencies and departments over the year without restrictions. Such non-earmarked funds are budgeted every year, but not every year does a copy of a recorded chat about them fall into the hands of Reforma, a hawkish campaigner against government secrecy.

El Universal continues going after Iztapalapa delegado, or borough head, Jesús Valencia Guzmán, in its top front page head: “I live in Pedegral in a house worth 9.5 million pesos.” Yesterday we were informed that the Jeep Cherokee he crashed after a party earlier in the week was registered to an employee of a borough contractor. Now the hook is the worth of his house, which the intrepid investigative reporter uncovered when Valencia simply told her its worth in an interview. The value converts to about 650,000 dollars — a lot for the low-income, overpopulated delegación of Iztapalapa but not so much in the leafy, cobblestoned Pedegral de San Ángel area where the house  actually is. Another detail absent from the headline: It’s not his house, though he presumably keeps a toothbrush there. It belongs to his girlfriend.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Today's headlines: * One elected official you should never lend your car to. * Whatever happened to fun in Acapulco? * While the world celebrates Obama's bold move, the U.S. Congress fumes. * Maybe it's time to re-think security strategy in Michoacán.

The five papers we follow here go with five different top stories today, not a rare occurrence among Mexico City-based dailies.  Reforma warns in its main headline that “Acapulco is experiencing a wave of violence,” citing a rise in violent crime over the last three months. It’s instructive to explore what “a rise in violent crime” actually means in this context; the Reforma story is helpful in this regard, noting that there have been 17 murders in the resort city just this week. This, of course, is not the kind of headline Acapulco’s tourism boosters want to see on the eve of the winter holidays. Also not helpful, according to Milenio’s No. 2 headline, is that “Airlines haven’t lowered prices of flights to Acapulco.”  Though fallen from favor among international tourists, Acapulco is still a top destination for vacationing Mexicans — or at least it was until the news out of its state of Guerrero turned so horrific. The plan was for the airlines to discount prices to offset the fear factor, but that apparently hasn’t happened, at least not to the satisfaction of the local tourism industry.

Milenio stays in Michoacán for its lead story, which you can’t see until you turn from the Telcel ad that covers the front page. “PRI ‘obligated’ to review its strategy in Michoacán” refers to comments that PRI party president César Camacho made during a promotional event for a new party book with the sobering title, “85 years of the PRI.” This week’s deadly shoot-out between rival self-defense groups makes it clear, Camacho said, that new strategies for restoring order in the state are needed. But, Camacho insisted, any such strategy will not include replacing commissioner Alfredo Castillo, who has full authority in Michoacán, and under whom violence has decreased. Milenio also reports that Hipólito Mora, who heads one of the participating gangs, insisted that members of the federal paramilitary forces called the Gendarmerie did not precipitate the shoot-out by firing first, contradicting comments made yesterday by his rival, El Americano. Nevertheless, Gendarmerie weapons are being investigated along with those of the two groups. Fifty arrests are expected. Yesterday the number was put at 65.

La Jornada follows up big on the Cuba-United States thaw with a number of stories under the umbrella head “Obama will seek to speed the changes agreed to with Cuba.” Jornada is a tabloid that rarely runs body text on its front page, so the myriad headlines work as a kind of table of contents. Its extensive coverage includes the following, as sub-headed on the front page: “We will block the agreements, anti-Castro [U.S.] legislators warn.” That threat surprises no one, but it may be offset by another angle the paper takes: “The White House chose rapprochement given the political turn in Miami.” In other words, the right-wing Cuban-American vote has been losing its impact, and that development influenced Obama’s decision to act now. Also, the New York Times reports, U.S. big business, the guys who bankroll the GOP, are drooling at the possibility of moving into a virtually virgin market. What’s more, the U.S. public is not against restoring relations. The “anti-Castro legislators” may ride their hatred (it’s really fear) of Obama to make trouble for a while,  but for how long? As Fidel himself liked to say in other contexts, they’re on the wrong side of history.

Excelsior leads with upbeat economic news, “A record for Banxico in foreign investment.” Banxico is a nickname for Banco de México, the nation’s central bank, and the story is that more government security holdings are in the hands of foreigners now than ever before, to the tune of a nifty 2.17 trillion pesos. That's considered a healthy sign.

Elected office in Mexico brings its privileges, but it has its down sides. One is that if you’re in an automobile accident, nobody asks if you’re all right. They want to know where you got the car. And sure enough, a day after it was reported that the head of the huge Iztapalapa delegación, or borough, in Mexico City, Jesús Valencia, was involved in a late-night crash, El Universal leads today with “Contractor provided auto to delegación head Valencia." The contractor in question is called Amerixe, which seems to be a jack-of-all-trades provider doing a lot of government work at all levels. The car in question is (or was; it’s pretty well smashed up) a bullet-proof Jeep Grand Cherokee. The implication of the article is that the car may have been a quid pro quo for contracts, but Valencia insists he was just borrowing it from a friend at Amerixe.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Today's headlines: * The U.S.-Cuba thaw is played up big, and the mood is celebratory. * The state of Morelos is seen to be riddled with narco-municipios, and nobody's surprised. * What really happened in Michoacán between rival 'self-defense' groups, besides 11 people getting killed?

News of the breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations broke Wednesday morning, so it was well-known by the time the Thursday papers hit the stands. But such was the magnitude of the event that four of the five major dailies led with it anyway (Reforma, again, was the outlier).  In fact, three papers bannered it: La Jornada with “Cuba-U.S.: The thaw,” Excelsior with “U.S. and Cuba reconcile,” and Milenio with “Obama puts an end to the enmity with Cuba.”  That last might be overstating things. You can expect plenty of enmity from Republicans (and some Democrats)  in the U.S. Congress in the months ahead, though aimed more at Obama than either Castro. The Washington Post is already leading the charge, accusing the U.S. president of handing the Castro regime a “bailout.”

But it’s clear that diplomatic relations will be renewed, if in somewhat truncated fashion at first, and it was hard to find a negative word about it anywhere in the Mexican press. The closest thing to a downside came with the ubiquitous reminders that the embargo will remain in place until the GOP-controlled Congress votes to end it, or until Democrats regain control, or until hell freezes over.  Excelsior offered the nice touch of reproducing its 1961 front page with a banner head announcing the break in relations (which actually came a few months after the embargo was put in place). Similarly, Milenio ran an opinion column by Carlos Marín on Page One as a sort of sidebar to the main story, with the title “The onerous rupture of 53 years ago.” In it, Marín describes the circumstances leading up to the break in relations, although he was still a teenager at the time. Putting Marín’s column on the front page underscores the importance of the story, as well as the fact that Marín is the editor of the paper. (He was also a key player in the historic walkout of staffers and contributors from Excelsior in 1976, described on this site earlier; scroll ahead and click “Earlier Posts” and go to December 4.)

Reforma’s top head is “11 mayors linked to crime,” with the crime being understood as the organized type. The narco-municipios in question are spread across the state of Morelos, which has 33 municipios in all, so we’re talking about a third of them. That’s a shocking percentage — or at least would be in saner times — but most saw it coming. Morelos Governor Graco Ramírez talked openly about the problem earlier in the week. The Reforma story backs up his concerns, sourced now by intelligence officials. One of the mafias some mayors are said to be connected to is Guerreros Unidos, the presumed killers of the 43 teacher trainees in Iguala, which has a presence in Morelos as well.

Excelsior and Milenio give second place to, and all but Reforma front, a follow-up on Tuesday’s armed clash in Michoacán between rival self-defense gangs that left 11 dead. One of La Jornada’s sub-heads tells the takeaway: “It was the Gendarmerie that opened fire in La Ruana: El Americano.” El Americano is the nickname of one of the gang leaders, La Ruana was the site of the battle and the Gendarmerie is a paramilitary force created by the Peña Nieto administration to help fight drug mafias. In other words, the strategy again is to blame the feds. Alfredo Castillo, the federal commissioner for Michoacán who is pretty much running the state, said that 65 different individuals discharged their weapons during the fracas. He also promised that his investigators will get to the bottom of what happened, which seems desirable and unlikely in equal measures.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


TOGETHER AGAIN: Mexico’s buzzing today over the same news most of the hemisphere is buzzing about — the surprise  announcement of the beginning of normalized relations between Cuba and the United States. The Peña Nieto administration was quick to weigh in, with a Foreign Relations Secretariat communiqué that combined support with self-promotion: “The decision by the Cuban and United States governments is consistent with the historical position of Mexico to seek peaceful solution to controversies and to promote peace in the hemisphere.” The president himself, speaking later at an unrelated event, chimed in: “I think this is a decisive and historic step that the Mexican government backs and recognizes, and is disposed to contribute to an effective normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.” Historian Enrique Krauze gushed: “Historic news. The Cold War has come to an end on our continent.” His son Leon Krauze, a media figure on both sides of the border, said: “Beautiful way of welcoming Jeb Bush to the 2016 race.” Agustín Basave, political scientist and writer: “Good for Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. Renewing US-Cuba relations is a historic advance.”

CAN YOU DIG IT?: The Mexican composer Mario Lavista has compiled a monumental body of work over the years, including a haunting (so to speak) opera based on the Carlos Fuentes novella “Aura,” which in turn was based on the  novella “The Aspern Papers,” or at least brings that Henry James story to mind. Even if you’re unfamiliar with his music, you gotta love Lavista for the following: “I liked the rock music of the sixties, mostly in English . . . Today’s (popular) music is commercial, a consumer product . . .  It has nothing to do with music, with art, with aesthetics. It’s all about the market and money, nothing more.” . . . The day after Raúl Salinas was cleared of illicit enrichment charges, Denise Dresser resurrected this quote uttered by the former First Brother in a 2000 recording: “I’m going to tell where the funds came from, who was the intermediary and whom they were for.” The political analyst and prolific commentator’s counter-quote: “We’re still waiting.” . . .

Today's headlines: * High Noon in Michoacán * Not many are celebrating the exoneration of Raúl Salinas. * Speaking of Salinas, some gloomy types see similarities between today's situation and the run-up to the 1994 peso crisis.

The headlines shifted this morning from Guerrero to its neighboring state to the north, Michoacán, where a deadly shoot-out took place between the remnants of two former “self-defense” groups. All the major dailies, save Reforma, run a variation of the following head (from El Universal) for their top page one story in their print editions: “Confrontation of Rural Forces leaves 11 dead.” The official-sounding “Rural Forces” refers in part to a short-lived and ill-advised attempt to semi-legitimize the grassroots self-defense groups that started surfacing in early 2013 in response to what appeared to be an unstoppable infiltration of the drug-trafficking mafias into Michoacán's local and state governments. The links between the PRI state government and the leading mafia, the Knights Templar, were so well-known that one former interim governor (Jesús Reyna) is in jail, another, Fausto Vallejo, was forced out earlier this year, his poor health being the pretext, and yet another, the current appointed governor Salvador Jara Guerrero, a mild-mannered academic with no party affiliation, makes little pretense to being anything other than a figurehead. President Peña Nieto earlier this year sent one of his own, Alfredo Castillo, to run the state, de facto, with the title of “commissioner.” His opponents refer to him as the “viceroy.”

Reforma gives the Michoacán violence second billing, using the headline “A son of Hipolito Mora is taken down.” Mora père heads one of the rival former self-defense groups (they’re both gangs, really, and  include real rural police). On the other side was Antonio Torres González, aka El Americano, whose guys arrived via buses, assault rifles and grenades in tow, to shoot it out with Mora’s men on a piece of dirt called La Ruana, in the municipio of Buenavista Tomatlán, located at the heart of the state halfway between the capital of Morelia and the coast. Why? “Old beefs,” according to Castillo, who made the announcement about the clash. In other words, it was personal. If you're keeping score, Mora’s men killed six of El Americano’s while losing five of their own. But among those five was Mora's son, so you can call it a draw. The absurd Old West feel to the proceedings confirms the commonsense notion that tolerating armed and untrained vigilante gangs was unwise. Which is why authorities earlier this year decided to confiscate the guns and jail the umbrella leader of the self-defense groups. They accomplished the latter, turning José Manuel Mireles into a hero. But as Tuesday’s disheartening violence underscores, they failed at the former.

Reforma leads with a follow-up on its top story from yesterday on the innocence of Raúl Salinas on decades-old illicit enrichment charges: “Salinas pardon causes indignation.”  The indignant ones are spokespersons for the PAN and PRD, who see the judge’s decision in favor of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s brother as an example of impunity running wild. Don’t take that word “pardon” (perdón) literally, by the way. Nobody pardoned Raúl; he was found not guilty.

Just to make sure we don’t run out of things to worry about, El Universal’s third front-page head is “Financial volatility evokes the ghosts of the crisis of 94.” It’s the 20th anniversary of the disastrous peso devaluation that happened just days after Ernesto Zedillo took over from Salinas de Gortari in what turned out to be the last presidential administration in the PRI’s run of 70+ years. The story points out that a number of the conditions are surfacing again: for example, the peso has been losing value (though not nearly as quickly or as much as then), interest rates in the United States will probably go up soon, and social instability is rampant (Chiapas then, Guerrero and elsewhere now). The comparisons probably don't mean much, but the story certainly reminds us of the change in the national mood from just a year ago. Have a nice day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Today's headlines: Were the feds involved in the Iguala violence after all? Did the injured cops in Chilpancingo beat themselves up? Can it be that Raúl Salinas never did anything wrong?

La Jornada is the only major daily leading in its print edition with what all of them should have led with Monday — the federal police (PF) response to a blockbuster story in Sunday’ Proceso. The magazine alleged that the PF, with complicity from the army, were the ones who orchestrated and carried out the attack on protesting teaching college students in Iguala, Guerrero last September, killing three of them immediately and 43 more eventually. The story didn’t run Monday because there was no response yet; the denial by a PF spokesperson (Enrique Galindo, the “general commissioner,” a high post) didn’t come until Monday. And then only Jornada featured it this morning, under the headline “PF: federal police officers did not actively participate in Iguala,” with the word “actively” in italics, the equivalent of scare quotes in Mexican headlinese. The Proceso article is co-bylined by Anabel Hernández, perhaps Mexico’s premier investigative reporter, and U.S. multimedia journalist Steve Fisher, with support from the University of California, Berkeley, Investigative Journalism Program. If it holds, it’s a game-changer. Nobody in the federal government, including Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, the nation’s top law enforcement official, ever mentioned the feds being involved.

Under the headline “The aggression was cruel: Galindo; CETEG distances itself,” Milenio also quotes the PF general commissioner, but not on the Proceso allegations.  It's a follow-up on the violence in Chilpancingo Sunday. The cruel aggression he’s referring to is that of the Guerrero teachers organization CETEG, and he denies that drunken federales started the clash. In fact, he denies that any of them had been drinking.  CETEG, for its part, said the beating of three federal officers in their hotel was not carried out by its members. Next question: Who did, then?

Reforma’s top title changes the subject: “Raúl Salinas is innocent!”  Former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's brother had served 10 years for the 1994 murder of José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the PRI secretary general, former governor of Guerrero and in-law of the Salinas clan. Then he was acquitted in 2005. If it seems a tad odd to serve 10 years for a crime you’re acquitted of, welcome to Mexican justice. (The pop star Gloria Trevi, the subject of a new and controversial book and movie, both written by Sabina Berman, was thrown in jail for four years for child abuse before the prosecutors said, “Never mind.”)  Raúl was also charged with illegal enrichment, which is the rap a judge just cleared him of, and what the Reforma story is about. So now Raúl is, in the eyes of the law, as pure as the driven snow. The rest of us, decades after the fact, still don’t know who ordered the assassination of Ruiz Massieu, or how the president’s brother amassed a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

For the second straight day, El Universal goes with an exclusive rather than the most important story: “Insurance for public servants costs 2 billion pesos.” It’s an investigative piece. A reporting team used the transparency laws to learn that government workers, elected officials and members of the judiciary, including judges, are using taxpayer money for health care at top-of-the-line facilities, instead of the social security services (IMSS and/or ISSSTE).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mexico by the numbers: * Hey, it costs money to look good. * If you can't do the time, go ahead and do the crime anyway. * Marriage is losing its appeal among the young . . . unless you're 12.

100 million . . . number of pesos the Peña Nieto administration has spent on image advice from outside experts, according to the online Mexican news site Sin Embargo. The expenditures, says reporter Linaloe R. Flores in the article, have been for consultation on such essentials as polling, analyses of how TV and radio spots supporting the administration’s reforms are going over, PR strategies, social network placement and a workshop on emotions control.  13.4 million . . . number of Mexican adolescents who had their first sip of an alcoholic beverage before age 18, according to the Health Secretariat’s 2011 National Addiction Survey42,678 . . . number of adolescent alcoholics in Mexico, from the same survey. A report in Reforma based on the survey uses the tone of foreboding that’s de rigueur in reporting about alcohol and young people. But isn’t the fact that 57.1% of Mexican minors have never had a drink (assuming the figures are correct) good news for the boozaphobes? And only 42,678 of the 13.4 million teenagers who have “ingested alcoholic beverages sometime in their life” suffer from alcoholism? That’s less than one third of one percent.  Help them by all means, but let’s not panic.

99.5 . . . If you want to panic, this is a number that should do it for you. It’s the percentage of crimes that go unpunished in Mexico. It’s not pulled out of the air. It’s from INEGI statistics, interpreted by the security analyst Alejandro Hope as follows. It is estimated that 33 million crimes were committed nationally in 2013. Less than 10% of them were reported. And in only a third of that 10% was any action taken by the authorities. Only 7.5% of those investigated cases went to a judge. Factor in the not guilty verdicts and you got about a half a percent of crimes resulting in a convicted perpetrator. And a certain percentage of the convicted, we all know, are innocent.

1,898,000  . . . Mexico’s annual population growth. That figure excludes immigration and emigration. You get it by subtracting the number of deaths each year (602,000) from the number of births (2.5 million). Those numbers adjust themselves over time, of course, and it’s thought that the population growth will level off sometime after 2050. 27.7 . . . average age of a Mexican today. So if it seems like most people around you are younger than you are, they probably are. That number won’t last either; the average age will be moving up. 23  . . . percentage drop in marriages during the first 12 years of this century by Mexicans aged 20 to 29. There were still more marriages in that age group during that period (8.86 million) than in all other age groups combined, according to figures from the National Statistics Institute (INEGI) as crunched by a team from El Universal. 45 . . . percentage drop in teenage marriages since 2002. But: 64,400 . . .  number of children younger than 15 who married in the 2000-2012 period. That’s a tiny number compared to the other age groups, about 5,000 a year. It still seems shockingly high, doesn't it?

Today's headlines: Guerrero gets uglier, the peso gets weaker, and the Federal District gets closer to disappearing

Milenio (“CETEG beats and holds three federal place officers hostage”) and La Jornada (“Confrontations in Chilpancingo leave 22 injured”) both lead with the violence in the state capital of Guerrero that caused the cancellation of a scheduled concert in support of the 43 teacher trainees who were murdered in Iguala last September. The trouble —not hard to see coming — was precipitated either by members of the radical education workers organization CETEG, or the federales themselves, or both, depending on whom you believe. The number of injured has since been put at 25 — 17 civilians and eight officers, as well as three buses incinerated by the ceteguistas. One of the beaten cops is undergoing brain surgery .

La Jornada’s second front page story carries the header “Senate committees endorse DF political reform,” which is also Reforma’s No. 2, with a similar title. Passage in committee means the reform could go to a full Senate vote as early as today (Monday). This is major: If the change is implemented, the Federal District (essentially Mexico City), would sever its last structural links with the federal apparatus and probably become the 32nd state. Moreover, the plan calls for the formation of an elected assembly charged with forging a constitution for the new entity. Mexico City is notably more progressive than the rest of the nation, so its charter could serve as a model — or, if you prefer, a warning —if the nascent movement for a new national constitution ever picks up steam. (What might be the name of the new state? State of Mexico is taken. Anáhuac? Chilango?)

EL Universal covers the Chilpancingo violence extensively, but its lead story is an interview with the governor of Morelos, a state that borders both Guerrero and the Federal District: “Guerrillas and drug traffickers linked: Graco Ramírez.” (It’s common for all the dailies to give exclusivity priority over breaking news value.) Despite the title, Ramírez mostly warns us of the growing phenomenon of the “narcoestado,” with organized crime infiltrating local governments regardless of the party that runs them, including in his own state. The line between drug mafias and clandestine guerrilla groups has blurred, he said, as happened in Colombia. His prognosis is not rosy: “Shots haven’t been fired but they will be. These people have a lot of guns.”

Reforma, where it doesn’t need to bleed to lead, puts this ho-hummer on top: “Senate fails to curb debt.” The story: States and local governments are going through a debt crisis that the federal Congress has been trying to deal with, unsuccessfully, for more than a year. La Jornada reefers on the front-page, and all the dailies run somewhere, this: “Peso recovery not until mid-2015: analysts.” The peso had stayed around 12.50-13.50 to the dollar for several years, but has weakened in recent weeks to the point that it took 15 of them to get  you a dollar on Friday. It’s still near that mark. That’s good news if you’re earning dollars. But if you’re trying to make ends meet in this country, not so much.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

We don't have to live this way

Has anyone had a worse autumn than Enrique Peña Nieto?    
    Bill Cosby maybe. The Philadelphia 76ers. But out here in the real world, the president’s plummeting approval rating — by some measures it’s under 40% — tells us a lot about a new mood in Mexico.
    The cause of his fall, as much of the planet knows by now, is the mass murder of four dozen young people in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, most of them teacher trainees.
    But the president didn’t kill them. He didn’t have anything to do with it. Nor did anybody involved with the federal government, as far as we know.
    In fact, it was Iguala’s mayor who had the students turned over for assassination to the local drug-trafficking mafia, with whom he co-governed. Both that mayor (in custody) and the state governor (resigned) are members of the PRD, the chief political opponent of Peña Nieto’s PRI.
    So why is it Peña Nieto who’s taking the hit?
    The administration’s answer is that political forces opposed to the PRI on other matters are milking the tragedy. The navy secretary was even sent out the other day to accuse the growing reform movement of just that.
    “They’re trying to discredit what the administration has done,” he said. “What angers me even more is that they’re manipulating the parents (of the victims).”
    No doubt the anti-peñistas are pouncing on the situation; that’s what political opponents do. But the administration’s defensive posture doesn’t wash. If people were convinced that what’s going on now is nothing more than cynical manipulation by malcontents trying to hurt the president and destabilize the nation, the president’s rating would go up, not down.
    Peña Nieto hurt himself early when he ignored the tragedy for weeks — the kind of thing that drives political handlers crazy.
    “Why did the president stay silent?” said Antonio Solá, a Madrid-based campaign strategist who advised Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón. “That really hurt his approval rating.”
    Juan José Rendón, a Venezuelan strategist who helped Peña Nieto with his 2012 campaign, blamed the president’s slow response for the very situation that the administration claims exists now.
    “It allowed the idea to grow in public opinion that what happened in Ayotzinapa was a crime of the state,” he said in a newspaper interview. “His adversaries, interested in destabilizing the nation, took advantage of that.”
    Such is the spinmeisters’ default approach to crisis. Forget what’s true, forget what’s right. Just make sure you engage in pre-emptive manipulation to get ahead in the image race.
    So did the president simply drop the ball? Or was there more to it?
    There’s a good case to be made that he was caught flat-footed. Until September 26, when the trouble started in Iguala, his administration had been free of crises, or at least of new ones. He was knocked down by something he didn’t see coming.
    Why anybody in today’s Mexico would be caught off guard by a violent event, even such an extreme one, may seem baffling. But keep in mind that the Peña Nieto administration had not been about crime control. It was about economic reform, which it sees as the ultimate antidote to insecurity. The subject of violence was downplayed.
    As Jorge Chabat, an international studies professor at the CIDE think tank, put it: “It’s as though insecurity were a demon that only appears when you say its name.”
    Iguala shouted the name, and crashing down came the administration’s fantasy of superimposing a prosperous economy on an institutional infrastructure so rotted that a mayor of a fairly good-sized city can rule in tandem with a murderous criminal gang and get away with it until he went too far.
    When it finally engaged, the administration alienated itself more from the energized public by hinting at using force to control the demonstrations, using language uncomfortably reminiscent of President Díaz Ordaz before the 1968 army massacre of students in Tlatelolco square.
    Defenders insist (correctly, on the surface) that the warning was aimed at the violent, march-infiltrating masked anarchists, who in theory are the enemies of both the government and the true protesters. But the message was clear, and Peña Nieto came off, oddly, as opposing a movement to eliminate state violence and corruption.
    Why wasn’t he leading that movement? Wouldn’t it be a more noble defining mission for an administration than opening up a dying oil industry?
    The president’s program for action, once delivered, probably pushed his ratings down a few notches more. Some points seem somewhat helpful, some window dressing, and none new (most were previously proposed by Calderón and opposed by the PRI).
    All, however, miss the point.
    Not many Mexicans are going to be satisfied with strategy tweaks, new laws, tourism promotion projects and money tossed around here and there. The violence and injustice that cheapen the lives of 120 million people isn’t the result of wrong policies but of corrupt, putrid state institutions that need to be disinfected and overhauled.
    Despite the silly slogans about Peña Nieto resigning, and about bringing back the students alive, such a cleansing is what the new movement is really all about. The old nihilism may be giving way to a new notion: We don’t have to live this way.
    The president has lost popularity because people doubt that he can fix things, or even cares to try. They’ve come to the conclusion that he’s not on their side in this fight.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Enrique Krauze walked away from The New Republic, but he still has plenty to say to foreign readers

Enrique Krauze, Mexico’s pre-eminent historian and reigning public intellectual, was among the throng of contributors who recently joined staffers in bolting The New Republic — the liberal-turned-neocon-turned-whatever magazine.
    Their cause? That the newish owner is shifting the century-old mainstay of thoughtful commentary into an online receptacle of click-bait.
     Krauze shook things up early at TNR, contributing in 1988 a hit piece on none other than Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s beloved novelist and pretty much the face of the nation at the time.
    Krauze and his pro-Contra TNR editors dedicated more than 8,000 words to the proposition that Fuentes was overrated and too slick by half as a writer, confused in his leftist politics and hypocritical in his lifestyle (the article’s title was “Guerrilla Dandy”).
    The piece ended the friendship between Fuentes and Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who was Krauze’s mentor and predecessor as editor of Letras Libres-née-Vuelta.
    The two giants of letters stopped speaking to each other, but they continued to speak about each other, in print. It was a battle of heavyweights, a literary feud of the highest order. And it spanned three generations (Paz was born in 1914, Fuentes in 1928 and Krauze in 1947).
    It’s all over now. Paz and Fuentes have passed on, and for all intents and purposes, so has The New Republic.
    In a pleasant twist of fate, Krauze has taken over from Fuentes (and later Jorge Castañeda) as the go-to Mexican intellectual for explaining Mexico’s current events to foreign readerships, especially Americans. This he does primarily through op-ed pieces.
    His latest opinion piece ran yesterday in the New York Times, which you can read here. It’s essentially an explainer of the Ayotzinapa situation, and a clear and succinct one at that.
    In it Krauze has some unsolicited advice for President Enrique Peña Nieto, including cabinet changes and a thorough overhaul of the criminal justice system.
    Another is for the president to make a public apology for the “casa blanca” scandal in which the winning bidder for a high-speed rail mega-project just happened to be the builder of his wife’s luxury mansion.
    In his pieces for in-country consumption, mostly in Reforma, Krauze has been an avid supporter of the activist movement that has grown out of the tragedy in Iguala. He compares its potential for forcing significant reforms to that of the student mobilization of 1968, which led (eventually) to freer speech and greater political freedoms.
    The language and stances in these recent op-eds remind readers that despite his rejection of so many staples of the left (besides the Fuentes affair, he’s in constant conflict with the Proceso/Jornada wing and dismisses Andrés Manuel López Obrador as a caudillo), Krauze is not the conservative he's sometimes made out to be. He's a liberal, and he still has something of the soixante-huitard in him. He speaks about the 1968 protesters in the first person.
    He’ll be worth listening to as this drama unfolds.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mexico and the world have expressed their outrage over state violence and corruption. So now what?

There is, sad to say, an unsatisfying narrative arc that every galvanizing crisis seems to trace in Mexico, including the current one.
    A reasonable possibility may have existed that this time would be different. Perhaps it still does. The sheer horror of the event — some four dozen teacher trainees, most barely out of adolescence, presumably murdered in the most gruesome fashion imaginable by a coalition of local government and organized crime — unleashed a new kind of popular energy, equal parts rage, empathy and determination.
    It was like lightning striking dry grassland, the landscape hyper-combustible from at least a decade of sickening violence, corruption and impunity.
    But will the aftermath be different?
    The cliché initial response to national tragedy is to say I told you so. We got that in a big way.
    This, we were told, is what happens when you let the PRI back in power. Or, we’re paying the price for 12 years of PAN government. Or, it’s no coincidence that it happened in PRD territory.
    Or . . . it’s Obama’s fault.
    I’m not making that last one up. According to UNAM law professor John Ackerman, Obama and the U.S. Congress are “directly responsible for the tragedy of the 43 missing, and likely massacred, student activists in the Mexican state of Guerrero.”
    You got to love that word “directly,” the way it takes a questionable assertion all the way over the top. Check it out here.
    It’s even a stretch to pin the tragedy on President Peña Nieto, although most of the new movement activists are doing just that. The president has done a good job of inviting contempt, first by ignoring the tragedy, then by leaving the country, then by threatening (rather than supporting) the demonstrators, and then by putting forth hackneyed, anodyne proposals that seem to be unclear on what exactly the problem is. More on that in an upcoming post.
    In a more significant sense, though, targeting Peña Nieto makes sense. The rallying cry of the uprising is that the murder of the students, along with other atrocities from recent years, are crimes of the state. And that may be the only meaningful way to look at it if you want to change things for the better.
    In this view, the difference between local, state and federal government becomes insignificant. It’s all the “state,” and Peña Nieto is head of state. What’s more, the difference between criminal gangs and corrupt state institutions is nonexistent. They’re two sides of the same coin.   
    After blame comes protest. The November 20 and December 1 marches were indeed inspiring, and they recruited much of the world to the cause. But the demonstrations have reached their dead-arm phase, as always happens, marked by endlessly repeated slogans, tiresome hash tags and self-important, well-meant pronouncements at pop concerts.
    There’s also the matter of diminishing returns. Repeated street actions tend to rankle the people who aren’t in them, especially the Mexican-style marches whose participants often prefer to annoy onlookers rather than win them over. Throw in the inevitable masked infiltrators, the ones who like to break things, and you don’t exactly have a formula for movement building.
    The post-demonstration phase in the above-mentioned narrative arc is usually a slow fade into irrelevance. Does that have to happen? Depends.
    Was the purpose of all that activity over the last two months to allow a few hundred thousand people to express their outrage? If so, mission accomplished.
    Was it to force Peña Nieto to resign? Good luck with that.
    Or was it to rid the Mexican state of impunity, corruption and violence? If so, how?
    It’s time for proposals. Followed by patience.
    But where will the proposals come from? Who will they come from? Are there leaders out there?
    And who carries the ball politically if credible initiatives do show up? The PRD was imploding even before it was compromised by the Guerrero revelations. The PAN is as weak as can be after 12 numbing years in power. And the PRI  . . . well, forget it.
    Is there a chance a movement candidate can attach himself or herself to a minor party, a la 1988? Maybe, but it couldn’t happen until 2018.
    Or could the 2015 midterms be converted to a referendum on a radical overhaul of the state, forcing every candidate to take a stance?
    That would be a piece of work, wouldn’t it? Wonder who’s up for it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mexico by the numbers . . .

100  . . . the life expectancy in years of a “trajinera tecnoecológica,” made of PET packages, shampoo bottles and plastic bags, as compared to the five-year lifespan of the traditional trajinera. A prototype of the recyclable-built version, a joint project of the Mexico City government and the national university (UNAM), has already plowed the canals of Xochimilco.  0  . . . number of decent translations into English for trajinera, the flat pole-driven boats that carry tourists and tipplers through what’s left of the Valle de México’s lacustrine past. 5,000 . . . number of trees (pines and oyameles) that Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera thinks could be saved if each wooden trajinera serving the Xochimilco pleasure cruise trade were replaced by what we might call a trashinera (better than “trajinera tecnoecológica,” don’t you think?). 50,000 . . . cost in pesos of a single traditional trajinera.  15,000 . . . cost of a trashinera. 

1 . . . Ranking of Ecatepec — which sits at the top of the horseshoe that the State of Mexico forms around the Federal District — among the nation’s most populated municipios.  1,655,015 . . . Ecatepec’s population, according to the 2010 census by the INEGI, the National Statistics Institute. Mexico City’s bigger, of course, at 8.85 million, but it’s a Federal District, not a municipio. Iztapalapa, at 1.82 million, is also bigger —  but again, it’s not a municipio. It’s a delegación, the borough-like political division into which the capital is divided, 16 times.  1,495,189  . . . population of Guadalajara, Jalisco, which is usually assumed (incorrectly) to be second to Mexico City in population and therefore the most populous municipality in Mexico. It’s not. Ecatepec is. So get your bar bets down. You’ll win. 1 . . . Ranking of Ecatepec nationally in car thefts, and among State of Mexico municipalities in homicides. Population has its price.

5,000  . . . number of Mexican grade school students who drop out each day on average throughout the school year. That’s one every 30 seconds, if you want to look at it that way, or more than a million a year.  580  . . . number of improvised trash dumps piling up on the streets and sidewalks of the Cuauhtémoc delegación in Mexico City, whose 33 colonias include the city center and the Roma, Guerrero and Doctores neighborhoods. 283  . . . number of garbage trucks operating daily in Cuauhtémoc, apparently not enough. Neighbors have resorted to putting up niche altars to the Virgin to make the trash heaps go away. It doesn’t seem to be working. 72 . . . percentage of Mexico City residents opposing legalized sales of marijuana, according to a poll earlier this year by the daily Reforma. These are the same folks who take progressive stances on abortion and gay marriage. But it seems potski is a no-ski. The following numbers might explain why: 78  . . . percentage who have not smoked marijuana in the last year nor know anybody who has. Even allowing for a certain amount of self-protective lying to pollsters, it’s clear that Mexico City is a long way from Denver. 71 . . . percentage who think that legal pot stores will increase “addiction to marijuana.” Reefer madness lives on, it seems. But keep in mind that the Mexican press uses the words “drogadicción” and “drogadicto” in contexts that clearly indicate “drug use” and “drug user,” and not necessarily drug addiction or drug addict.

5 million . . . number of Mexicans (out of 112 million) who are free of religion, according to INEGI, based on the 2010 census. That’s 27 times more than in 1960, nine times the population growth (which tripled in those 50 years).  84 . . . approximate percentage of Mexicans who say they are Catholics, down from 98% in 1950. There’s pretty good evidence that many are CINOs, Catholics in Name Only. Consider the following numbers from a 2009 study that you can consult here: 28 . . . percentage of Mexican Catholics who think their religion should be followed to the letter. That’s compared to 51% of non-Catholic believers.  15 . . . Percentage of Mexican Catholics who say their family life is highly committed to their religion. That’s about one out of seven.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Common knowledge, uncommonly wrong

Within 24 hours of taking office on December 1, 2012, incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto became the beneficiary of the Pact for Mexico, in which the three major parties pledged cooperation in implementing reforms aimed primarily at economic advancement.
    Within 24 hours of taking office in January of 2009, incoming President Barack Obama was the target of a pledge by opposition leaders to block any reform the new president might try to implement, which, given the sack of manure he was handed from his predecessor, would be aimed primarily at economic advancement.
    Since then, as everybody knows so well, Peña Nieto has been busy Saving Mexico, ushering in the Mexican Moment, taking giant steps toward a thriving market economy and turning his country into the darling of investors worldwide.
    Obama, meanwhile, has bumbled his way through seven years of suppressed growth, single-handedly discouraging job creation as he balloons deficits.
    What’s wrong with this picture? Just the truth of it. To wit:
    Peña Nieto inherited an annual growth rate of 4.03% from the last year of the Calderón administration. It promptly plummeted to 1.44% in his first year and may barely crack the 2.0% barrier when the 2014 numbers come in.
    U.S. GDP growth, on the other hand, was more than 5.0% below 0 when Obama took office, resulting in negative growth for 2009. But since then the annual numbers have all been positive, and after a bad weather-induced first quarter in 2014, the last two quarterly growth rates have reached 4.6% and 3.9%.
    Mexico’s public finances deficit, promised to be reduced to zero, has instead risen as a percentage of GDP since 2012 and shot up 119% in the first three quarters of 2014 over the same period in 2013.
    Whereas the U.S. deficit during Obama’s nearly six years in office has been reduced from 9.8% of GDP to 2.8%.
    The U.S. and Mexican unemployment rate figures differ sharply in methodology and reliability. Still, Peña Nieto inherited a 2012 rate of a few ticks under 5.0% and kept it right about there in 2013. The 2014 forecast is for something similar, perhaps a few ticks lower.
    Under Obama, a different story. The U.S. unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8% to 5.8% — slowly, to be sure, but in the right direction.
    Inflation has been a pesky problem during Peña Nieto’s term so far, with the annual rate rising from 3.0% to 4.2%. Some items in the “basic basket” of food items have increased in price by 20%.
    Under Obama, inflation has been close to nil.
    So . . .  growth slowed under Peña Nieto, up under Obama. Deficits down under Obama, up with Peña Nieto. Unemployment level under Peña Nieto, down under Obama. Inflation up under Peña Nieto, not a factor under Obama.
     Whose Moment?
    The point here isn’t to promote one president as better than the other (although one clearly is). It’s to promote facts over perceptions.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fields of abuse

Today's must-read piece about Mexico in English comes courtesy of Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Morosi, who visited some 30 farm labor camps across nine Mexican states and found horrific conditions throughout.
     Farmworkers, mostly indigenous, are trapped for months in rat-infested camps, with guards and barbed wire, sleeping on concrete floors, and piling up debt from the company store as their wages are illegally withheld.
    You should be able to read this superb and disturbing work of investigative reporting  here.
    The comments appendix can be revealing in articles like this, and usually disheartening, But so far (it's early still and three more parts are coming) the posts have been encouraging. Most praise the Times for publishing such a piece, and a good percentage seem to understand that pressure on Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and other major U.S. importers of Mexican produce — who profit from the exploitation and theoretically follow guidelines that don't tolerate it — would be a helpful response.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Entertainments and atrocities

Last Sunday, a coffin containing the body of Roberto Gómez Bolaños was placed on the field at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.
    But the 40,000 or so filling a third of the cavernous stadium weren’t there for Gómez Bolaños, who had passed away two days earlier in Cancún. They had come to say good-bye to his television personas, mostly El Chavo del Ocho, the suspendered little tyke with the middle-aged face.
    “El Chavo” the show and El Chavo the character — both Gómez Bolaños’ creations — were unmitigated triumphs of ultra-lowbrow entertainment. Why the endless abuse of a simple-minded orphan — delivered via obvious jokes and ghastly wordplay — has remained a soothing staple of Mexican family life for more than four decades is a topic best left to the social scientists. But the program and its characters are so engrained in the national psyche that they’re complaint-proof; show a hint of doubt and you’re either a snob or a malinche.
    Maybe that’s why Gómez Bolaños (or Chespirito if you prefer) got a free ride in his posthumous news coverage, even beyond the customary suspension of judgment in writing about the recently deceased. It’s as though a negative word about Gómez Bolaños is the same as taking yet another shot at the lovable little Chavo, or blaspheming the family hearth.
    You see, this was not the first time Gómez Bolaños had been the center of attention at a soccer stadium. There he was with the “El Chavo” cast  in 1977 at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile,  doing live skits for the adoring Chilean fans, who if anything were more enthusiastic than their Mexican counterparts.
    Nor was that the first time that the Estadio Nacional had been used for non-sporting purposes. From September of 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s elected president, through 1975 — just two years earlier — the stadium had been used as a concentration camp where citizens were held, tortured and prepped for slaughter.
    One would think that simple queasiness, if not moral conviction, would discourage a comic actor from entertaining at such a site. Years later, Chespirito defended his appearance as a step toward rehabilitating the stadium, pointing out that if past abuses were the sole criteria, there’d never again be entertainment in Mexico City’s Zócalo.
    Save for the discrepancy in scale, those are sound points. But they beg the question of what he was doing in Pinochet’s Chile in the first place.
    In most of the obits I’ve read, if it’s mentioned at all, this shameful episode is lumped in with other “controversial” aspects of his life, such as his anti-abortion activism. Which is nonsensical. Good people can differ on abortion, but not on mass murder.
    Besides, there’s nothing controversial about the Pinochet dictatorship. The facts are incontrovertible. His regime was bloody, sadistic and sickening in its scope. Tens of thousands were tortured, thousands killed and buried in mass graves, thousands more disappeared and hundred of thousands forced into exile.
    And the butchery was still going on as Chespirito took the stage.
    What’s more, the atrocities’ victims weren’t enemy combatants or guerrillas or even strikers. They were simply citizens whose political views Pinochet abhorred, all the more so for having been in power for three years. It was politicide — the elimination of an entire generation of liberals and leftists. What Pinochet achieved was the equivalent of torturing and killing thousands of Elena Poniatowskas, Oscar Chávezes and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenases.
    Did Gómez Bolaños condone that? It would be comforting to think he was merely naive (like John Denver, who a decade later praised Pinochet’s Chile during a visit because he saw a surprising number of Mercedes on the roads).
    But Chespirito had to know the implications. To make his appearance, he consciously broke a solidly established artists’ boycott, which was in place not to deny Chileans foreign entertainment but to deny Pinochet legitimacy, to avoid handing him a victory.
    Chespirito handed him one.
    Thus falls flat his contention that he went for his fans, not for the authorities. The adulation of a mass of avid admirers must be intoxicating. But does it justify aiding and abetting one of the great monsters of 20th century Latin America?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

When Mexican journalism changed forever

Vicente Leñero’s death at 81 on Wednesday will put most people in mind of his stage plays and fiction, as well as his movie work, such as the screenplay for the 2002 international hit “El crimen del Padre Amaro.” But for those of us on the more ink-smeared side of life, it’s Leñero the journalist we’ll remember.
    Especially “Los periodistas,” his novelistic but factual first-hand account of a seminal event in Mexican journalism — the great Excelsior Putsch of 1976.
    Excelsior, you have to understand, was far and away the biggest and most influential newspaper in Mexico for most of the 20th century, a huge daily mass of newsprint with an outsized effect on the nation’s political awareness, cultural taste and, no doubt, deforestation.
    But it didn’t always behave as a paper was expected to behave during the PRI dynasty, and in July of 1976, editor Julio Scherer was pushed out, almost physically. Iconic photos circulate of Scherer and his team walking near Bucareli and Reforma minutes after the event. (The one seen here is from the cover of a 1994 edition of “Los periodistas.”  Scherer, then 50, is third from the right.)
    Few doubted, least of all Scherer, that President Luis Echeverría was behind the coup. One who did was the Mexican ambassador to France at the time; Carlos Fuentes deplored the coup, but couldn’t accept that his boss, the president, would pull off such a reputation-damaging stunt just months before the end of his term.
    Hundreds of Excelsior staffers followed their editor out the door in solidarity. Some of their names read like a who’s who of Mexican letters over the next several decades. Here’s a tiny sample:
    Manuel Becerra Acosta, who had been the No. 2 editor at Excelsior, started his own newspaper, called Uno Más Uno. In a daring move that turned out to be historic, Becerra hired Carlos Payán, who had zero journalism experience. Payán learned quickly and later (1984) founded La Jornada, the relentlessly critical daily that still thrives today.
    Joining the exodus was the editor of Plural, the weekly cultural supplement. Octavio Paz wasted no time in founding Vuelta, a literary magazine that he ruled with an iron hand until his death in 1998. Vuelta then became Letras Libres, edited today by the historian and academic journalist Enrique Krauze.
    A thirty-something social critic and cultural journalist named Carlos Monsiváis was among those who walked. By the time of his death in 2010 — well before it, in fact — Monsiváis was the reigning opinion leader in Mexico.
    José Emilio Pacheco was also in his thirties at the time. His poetry and novels have long overshadowed his cultural criticism,  but he wrote commentary regularly for pre-coup Excelsior, and kept at it in other publications until his death early this year.
    Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, a 35-year-old associate editor at the time, went on to become the nation’s premier political columnist, finishing his career with Reforma. He died in 2011.
    Scherer himself started the newsweekly Proceso within a few months of his ouster. He stayed at the helm there for more than 20 years and still serves as chairman of the board, and occasional contributor.
    Most major Mexican newspapers and news magazines today won’t hesitate to criticize the executive branch, though none quite as aggressively and consistently (some would say excessively) as Proceso and La Jornada. It took decades for the change to set in, and it would be oversimplifying things to attribute it directly to the 1976 unpleasantness at Excelsior that Leñero described in detail. But the coup certainly unleashed a chain of events that led us to where we are today.
    Echeverría’s successors must wish he had left well enough alone.