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Is this what happens when you start with Twitter?

19 Jan

You begin by trash-talking justifiable targets like Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, branch out into meeting movie stars, and end up back in jail?

images.jpeg It’s a question Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman might well be asking himself at this very moment.

Following his headline-making escape from a maximum security prison last July, the diminutive drug lord accrued more than half a million Twitter followers, enjoying his occasional insults to people most Mexicans don’t like anyway.

But the fame seems to have gone to head. He started thinking that what he really needed was a movie made about his life, and got in touch with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. She, in turn, got Sean Penn to come along with her on a trip to one of El Chapo’s jungle hideaways so he could write an article about it for Rolling Stone.

Now Mexican justice authorities are suggesting that El Chapo’s yen for fame, not just notoriety, contributed to his capture earlier this month. That clandestine visit with the stars apparently played some role in giving police, according to the New York Times, “the break they needed: actionable intelligence of his specific location.”

The truth is, I myself have consistently wondered if I too should be on Twitter. After all, I have just published a new book, and could use the publicity. Twitter, I guess, is one way to get publicity although I’m still not quite sure how.

But I do recognize that tweeting and celebrity-dom are somehow entwined. Not only can you follow your favourite celebrities’ thought processes via their tweets, but you are, in a sense, a sort of celebrity yourself if you are on Twitter, if you can boast vast crowds, or even small crowds, of anonymous followers.

All of which has got me pondering the very nature of celebrity. After all, El Chapo is already well known as a larger-than-life character who controls a vast empire of crime and death, and has earned gazillions in the process. He’s got a beauty-queen wife, a legion of gun-toting minions, and sway over a considerable number, no doubt, of Mexican politicians.

And it’s interesting how Penn himself, along with his 11,000-word article underscores that celebrity power.

His article, as Joel Simon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, “was not an interview and certainly not a piece of investigative journalism. It fits more neatly into another journalistic genre: The celebrity profile. Penn’s story is an exercise in myth making that for the most part lets El Chapo tell his own story.”

The context is important here. Mexico is a dangerous place for journalists who question and illustrate the extraordinary damage to Mexican society by its combination of unaccountable politicians and unassailable drug cartels.Way too many of them have paid with their lives.

However Penn’s article was, first of all, mostly about himself – naturally. He’s a celebrity too. But he also shied away from asking Guzman hardball questions about the consequences of what he does for a living, and even had the magazine send him a prior copy of the article to make sure he was okay with everything.

This is probably normal for celebrities. When I approached Penn’s organization in Haiti for my book about aid, I was told I had to sign a similar agreement before they would consider allowing me into the Internally Displaced Persons camp he was running in the Pétion Ville Golf Club. (In the end, I signed it, but never did pass on what I wrote before publication.)

Our obsession with celebrities, as opposed to the newsworthy, seems to have opened up an increasingly ample definition of what the term even means. It has provided an ever-broader platform to the talentless and unremarkable, people who have nothing worthwhile to offer, not even entertainment value. And in the case of El Chapo, quite simply a violent cartel boss with no idea of the harm he and his ‘business competitors’ are causing.

Maybe El Chapo is now regretting his desire to clamber onto this platform. Maybe he is seeing how fame can also be a two-edged sword. As the pathetic images of him post-arrest inspire everything from piñatas to popular social media jokes, he seems to have very quickly gone from being an unlikely counterculture icon to a figure of ridicule.


The Free Houses No One Wants

17 Feb
Santiago del Pinar, photo courtesy of SiPaz

Santiago del Pinar, photo courtesy of SiPaz

There’s a short video making the rounds of some websites that focus on development aid. It was made by the Institute for Development Studies and takes the viewer into a house in Chiapas, one of a few hundred, built by the state government in what their planners are calling a ‘Pueblo Rural Sustentable,’ or rural sustainable town.

This particular sustainable town was called Santiago El Pinar and, according to Proceso magazine, cost almost 400 million pesos — or about $27 million — to erect.  And in the words of the Chiapas government’s Institute of Rural Cities, the idea is “ to concentrate dispersed localities and faciltiate the provision of quality basic services and productive alternatives with dignified and paid jobs.”

The idea behind these towns is to bring indigenous peasant farmers, among the poorest in Mexico, out of their villages and into a central spot where there are proper roads, a school, a cooperative and a clinic. It’s not a terrible idea and the houses, painted in different colours, look nice perched on the ridge where they have been placed. The only problem is: they’re cheap and badly constructed, and the families who got them are leaving them in droves.

According to reports in the Mexican press, some families were willing to live in these houses despite the fact that they were still hauling water from a nearby stream and walking several miles to cultivate their bits of farmland.

I spent a fair amount of time in rural villages in 1994, the year the Zapatistas caught the world’s attention, and saw lots of rural houses. They were made with adobe, in general, or wood slats, with thatched roofs and were rather dark and basic. Sometimes a separate kitchen was built beside the house, which would be just a  thatched, open pavilion structure with an area to build a fire and cook. Chickens and pigs wandered around at will, and bathroom facilities, in other words a pit latrine, were rare indeed.

So  house with a corrugated metal roof, glass windows, a bathroom and a kitchen with a gas hook-up and running water would represent quite a change. But it’s a change that has proven to be ephemeral and raises some interesting issues.

Among them are: how can residents pay for gas and electricity if they are poor?  Why build them with cheap materials — like, in this case, plasterboard, when, in fact, adobe is perfectly good and durable? And if these peasants had money and these houses were offered for sale, instead of being free, would any of them  actually want to buy one? Would any of the city-bound planners in Tuxtla Gutierrez or Mexico City ever buy one, for example? And finally, what does the entire plan tell us abut how people with good intentions approach the whole notion of housing the poor?

I have lately been doing some research into the latter question, in the context of Haiti. It strikes me as interesting that organizations like Architects for Humanity have databases of useful and well-designed structures, created by professionals who are interested in innovation and at the same time recognize that the people who will use their structures need to have a say in what ends up getting built.  Or that organizations like the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India have designed apartments that were lofty, well-lit and inexpensive to build. And yet, when it comes to the majority of housing that is actually built for the poor, one tends to see the same thing: nicely painted (sometimes) shoe boxes, whether assembled into apartment buildings or laid out in rows, that become ramshackle in a matter of months. Or 25 square metre plywood huts that become ovens in the hot sun. The paint wears off, the material warps, the roofs leak, the drains don’t work, the electricity gets cut off and there’s nowhere to build a fire for cooking. In short, things begin to fall apart — sometimes in a matter of months. And then you have – tada! — what’s known as a slum.

If you are living in a tent, or a thatch-roofed adobe hut, these houses may look pretty nice. But if given a chance to specify what is needed and what is preferred, probably no one would want to live in one of them.

So in Chiapas, where two such Pueblos have been assembled, and five more are planned – all as part of the Millennium Development Goals apparently — a lot of money is going down the drain and the poor are no better off.

It’s not hard to set up a consultation process with poor communities, to give them the construction material  they want and get them to build themselves — after all, they have already built the houses they live in now — or to think about how they will pay for electricity. It just requires that governments and international bodies respect the poor, rather than seeking political gain — in the case of the former — or checking a box on a list — in the case of the latter.



From Rhinos to Orangutans, Criminal Activity is So Depressing

24 Oct

Photo Credit: Marboed

Whether it’s been about palm oil or rhino horn, recent news items I’ve seen about the dire effects of criminal activity on our planet’s forests and wildlife are truly depressing. From the photo of a Vietnamese woman gleefully grinding rhino horn that she believes will cure her gall stones (honestly, someone there ought to do a television news segment on the chemical make-ups of endangered animal parts and how they don’t cure anything) to the map of Sumatra’s shrinking forests, I’m wondering when if ever criminals will be stopped from helping destroy the natural world.

And there’s the article I saw on organized crime gangs’ increasing destruction of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve and surrounding Selva Maya. Salvadoran drug dealers are slashing and burning tens of thousands of officially protected hectares to establish ranches to launder their narcotics cash, Chinese gangs are plundering the region for rare hardwoods — before moving on to the jaguars, which they’ll kill for body parts — and Mexican cartels are razoring the forest to land their illicit cargo, one three-strip airport alone accounting for the loss of 40,000 hectares of pristine jungle.

It almost makes me want to applaud the folks who simply go out and rob a bank or liquor store (not that I will: As Jockin Arputham (of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, who I write about in my book, Broke But Unbroken) would say, you guys need to get some value change.)

The Sumatra problem was recently highlighted in an NBC news program that focused on the impact of shrinking habitat on orangutans, and an Australian man who has been trying to move them to places where there is still some forest left. The illegally cleared land gets turned into palm oil plantations, already a billion dollar industry in Indonesia, thanks to the fact that we now find palm oil in everything from chocolate to ice cream, as good a reason as any to boycott these products, quite frankly.

There was no word on how these well-armed gangs given a blind eye by local authorities are affecting the forest dwellers in this area. No doubt my friends at the Serikat Petani Indonesia would have something interesting to say about that.

But the article on Guatemala did tell some pretty sad tales about how local forest community groups, given concession rights and financial assistance to protect the forest from these ignorant, money-hungry marauders, are fighting a losing battle in keeping them out. In one case, an ethical community leader was even killed, and the local management project fell apart.

So while it’s hard to use arguments get crooks to stop with the environmental mayhem, it should be possible to find the financial means to do so. Companies using palm oil can and should stop buying the stuff if they can’t triple check its provenance. And if they don’t, we should know who they are and what they’re selling us. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral lending institutions, being arguably useless at encouraging effective development, should at least demand that Vietnam uphold its own laws on sales of endangered animal parts there. And countries like Guatemala that are trying to safeguard their natural resources with nowhere near enough money ought to be given more help.

But, sadly, I think it unlikely that people with power will actually do much to stem the tide of environmental destruction. Here in Canada, we were recently treated to a news story about conservative Member of Parliament Alice Wong enjoying some shark fin soup at a news conference for Asian media in Richmond, B.C. Ms. Wong was apparently supporting local restaurateurs’ opposition to a municipal ban on the so-called delicacy — a ban her host labels as “culturally insensitive.” (As if culture and cultural sensitivities do not evolve — or does he also support a return to foot binding?)

And with more than a third of all shark species threatened with extinction because of finning, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, isn’t this cruel practice ‘environmentally insensitive?’

A New Democrat MP is now tabling a private member’s bill to make it illegal to import of shark fins to Canada, but with the Tories holding a majority in parliament, and their own environmental insensitivity a point of pride for them, I’m afraid it stands little chance of passing. “It’s part of the culture and (the government) has no intention of banning the soup,” Ms. Wong told the Richmond News.

So I guess that means there are two things that couldn’t be more depressing: criminal activity’s destruction of the environment — and Tory politicians.

The Dinosaurs Are Back

3 Jul

It’s not easy to put a brave face on it. The return of the Party of the Institutional Revolution to power in Mexico, the thought of the vapid Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife Angelica Rivera (star of one of the most ridiculous soap operas ever) smugly walking into the presidential home of Los Pinos, the galling prospect of the most corrupt old guard of Mexico’s political class — from Emilio Azcarraga to Elba Esther Gordillo –congratulating themselves for having pulled the wool over the eyes of the voters yet again.

There’s no way to look at it coolly, to not feel emotional about it, or to think of some justification for why so many people in Mexico voted for appearance over substance.

And so I can not only imagine but share the deep and dispiriting frustration that has now taken hold of all those people, especially young people who will see six more years of the status quo, and who tried valiantly in the days prior to Sunday’s election, as they realize that, yet again, liberal democracy has let them down.

As in the past, moreover, Mexico City, home to about one-fifth of the entire population, voted overwhelmingly for Peña Nieto’s main opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD, meaning the aspirations of the more progressive-minded capitalinos, rich and poor, educated or not, are being held back by the rest. The dinosaurs are back and the Jurassic Park they will run in Mexico leaves a lot of people yearning for a different country.

So I am not going to try to search for any silver linings to this particular cloud — except to say that, with the mess Peña Nieto and his administration are bound to make over the next six years, things should be looking great for a Marcelo Ebrard candidacy in 2018!

Viore Cafe’s post election poster

La Primavera Mexicana

25 May

I spent most of the month of April in Mexico waiting for something interesting to happen that I could write about in The Global Kiosk. I chatted about the upcoming elections with cab drivers, hairdressers, friends and neighbours, and everyone said more or less the same thing: that they were not going to vote for the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto, but that he would undoubtedly win. Early surveys – the election is July 1 – also put him 20 points ahead of the next candidate down for the race to the presidency.

Then, in May, I come to Haiti – and interesting things start bubble up in Mexico. A bit of a kerfuffle for Peña Nieto at an elite university, the Ibero Americana. Okay. Maybe a bit of an embarrassment for a man who disdains education and use of the brain in decision-making, but no big deal. The young people shouting “Out Peña Nieto” were but a rabble-esque minority, said his campaign people and the self-styled pundits at the country’s main television news provider, Televisa. Let’s get on with our taking over the country again.

Then, as I say, the reactions started to bubble up, and seep into the national conscience. The tech-savvy Ibero students began to counter the image invented for them by the PRI and their wealthy mouthpieces at Televisa. They began to put out the real story on Twitter and Facebook and even made a short film – 131 Students of the Ibero Respond – that got more than 1.2 million views within a week.

Then the street protests began, with student marches in more than 20 cities on the 19th. Another big demonstration in the Zocalo of Mexico City the following day organized by the PRD contender, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – a candidate whom the students were clear about indicating they wouldn’t necessarily back. And then another big anti-establishment – for lack of a better word – demonstration last Thursday night.

Suddenly we are paying attention.

And the details to which we are paying attention are interesting: as a new article by my husband, Luis Porter, in U2000 points out, if the original rejection of Peña Nieto had occurred at the country’s largest public university, the UNAM, it would have died on the spot. People expect that kind of thing from the leftist hotbed it is supposed to be.

But the kids at the Ibero are the children of Mexico’s ambitious middle and upper classes. They study hard, work hard and want to succeed in life. (In every issue of business magazine Expansion’s annual list of the nation’s top entrepreneurs, almost everyone is an Ibero grad.) They aren’t used to being shoved to the sidelines with the suggestion they don’t know what they’re talking about or have been bought off by Peña Nieto’s opponents.

But it is now clear that this sense of youthful indignation is not confined to students whose parents can afford to send them to a private university. It is being felt by young people all over the country. They all want their vote to mean something. They are all fed up with being told what to think by a media empire (and how the on-going Rupert Murdoch saga now springs to mind as well) that trades in cheap sentiment and biased reporting in lieu of informing a populace so that it can make its own decisions. They are not buying the soap opera narrative of the young, good-looking politician with the actress wife and lovely family returning the country to the stability of days gone by.

In fact, there is much about the protests that remind me of the Occupy movement. Somewhat like Occupy’s “We are the 99%,” the movement in Mexico is calling itself “I am #132,” each protestor adding him or herself to the original group that pointed out that they had the right to voice an opinion, to demand more than good looks and mega-corporate backing as qualifications to run their country.

They’re not telling anyone who they should vote for, or even who they will vote for, only that times have changed. That they represent a new generation of Mexicans that has gone outside the traditional media to inform themselves, and that they care about the direction their country is going.

And it’s pretty clear that they don’t want a society where illegal immigration is the normal response to low wages or unemployment, where monopolies and duopolies hog economic activity, and public spending is a till filled with the many hands of the corrupt. They don’t want to be told that the July 1 election is already, as so often in the past, a fait accompli.

They are so far the sole indication that business as usual, whether by the dinosaurs of the PRI or any self-interested politician, is standing on ever more fragile legs in Mexico right now.

Is this the sign of  a Mexican Spring? We don’t know yet. But the power of mobilization the youth of Mexico have brought into play is, I think, something no one is going to denigrate, or forget, anytime soon.

Average People and the Impact of Mexico’s Drug War

9 Dec

Today I have to bring some attention to a very interesting interactive posting on the website of The Guardian. It gives some well-deserved space to different people suffering in different ways the impact of organized crime in Mexico — and by the government’s poorly thought out and executed attempts to reign in the murderous mayhem.

Do their statements help us better understand the nature of what seems like an inexplicable and obscure phenomenon? To a certain extent, they do, I think because they illustrate both the immensity of the business — the vast sums of money, the ability to buy off major power brokers — and the picayune, quotidian aspect. And by that, I mean, the gangs of small-timers linked to bigger cartels or acting independently, carrying out kidnappings and extortions, and of course, retailing drugs.

Who are not, to my knowledge ever investigated, are the legitimate companies involved in the cartels’ support network. Edgardo Buscaglia talked about it when I was working on an article in THIS magazine last year but for which there wasn’t space.

“The main link between political corruption and organized crime goes through legal businesses in Mexico,” he told me. “They provide the logistical structure for (it) to operate. Some provide the transportation infrastructure for organized crime to move weapons, people and drugs, and storage infrastructure. They provide the distribution infrastructure, so drugs from here can reach Canada. Or people — they provide the production infrastructure.”

Today, another legal expert I interviewed for that article, John Mills Ackerman, has an interesting Op Ed piece in The Daily Beast. As he says in the piece, “There are no signs that organized crime actually has been weakened since the present Mexican president came to power in 2006. To the contrary, the cultivation and use of drugs in Mexico has risen dramatically, organized crime groups now have more firepower than ever before, money is freely laundered in the country and the impunity rate has reached an historic high, with, at most, 5 percent of all crimes receiving punishment.”

The situation is so out-of -control that, guess who is now seeking to move to Mexico? Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saadi. Having escaped trial and punishment for his various crimes in Libya, it looks like he thinks he will be right at home in Mexico.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s Sarah Palin Moment

6 Dec

Photo by Ricardo Carreon

The ribbing Mexican presidential pre-candidate Enrique Peña Nieto is taking right now is the subject of today’s admittedly schadenfreude-flavoured blog post.

Yet the predicament of this weirdly handsome-but-not really, Astro-Boy favourite of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party  says a great deal about politics and politicians in that troubled land.

First the facts: Peña Nieto is the former governor of the State of Mexico, and nephew of another former governor, Arturo Montiel, whose full-on process of illegal enrichment ended in 2005, when PRI forces lined up against him. Now, thanks to the generalized disenchantment with President Felipe Calderon and the current ruling party, polls are putting Peña Nieto well ahead of any other contender.

Peña Nieto was at the renowned International Book Fair in Guadalajara last weekend to promote a book — Mexico: the Great Hope — he has ostensibly written. When asked by a member of the audience to name three books that influenced him, he was stymied.  Books? After some prevarication and floundering, one book, the Bible, did finally spring to his mind.

The event has since given rise to a number of jocular posters, with messages like: “Don’t give Peña Nieto your vote. Give him a book.”

It also reminded Proceso magazine’s Alvaro Delgado today of an episode three years ago when another politician gave Peña Nieto a book he’d written. “I really don’t like to read,” he told the author, according to Delgado. “I’ll ask my assistants to write up some flash cards with its most important points.”

Even more newsworthy however are the comments Peña Nieto’s teenage daughter, Paulina, posted afterwards on Twitter, describing his critics as a “bunch of idiots who only form part of the proletariat and only criticize those they envy.”

Peña Nieto’s soap opera-actress wife, Angelica Rivera,  no intellectual giant herself, also used her 140 characters for a few harsh sentiments: “Osea (sic), yo creo que si los indios quieren salir de donde están que se pongan a trabajar y dejen de estar de flojos o violentos, como en Atenco”.

Loosely translated, I can tell you she suggests that if the “Indians” want out of where they are (i.e. poverty) then they should damn well get to work and stop being lazy and violent.

If the fact that these representatives of Mexico’s ruling class didn’t stand an excellent chance of actually running the country by next year, all of this would be laughable. Instead, the prospect, in a nation that is primarily indigenous, is downright terrifying.

The entire incident shows not only the disdain in which anyone but the rich, the corrupt and now, the ignorant as well, are held by Mexico’s powerful political elite. It also shows their disdain for education in general. Thanks to its high dropout rate, the average educational level in Mexico is no more than Canada’s equivalent Grade 8.

While enrollment is high in primary schools, under teachers’ union president-for-life (and Peña Nieto mentor) Elba Esther Gordillo, resources are scarce, curricula hide-bound and academic performance low, with Mexican school children consistently scoring among the lowest of the OECD countries, and the lowest in Latin America.

University education is publicly funded, but there are nowhere near enough places for all who want to attend. Dropout rates are also extremely high, so that less than 10 per cent of Mexicans aged 18 and older holds a bachelor’s degree.

Aside from all that, however, as Delgado writes, “Peña Nieto’s ignorance isn’t only a bookish “error,” but also a conception of Mexico and the world in which ethical principles are subservient to the securing of one’s ends, no matter the means.”

The fact that an aspirant to the government of a country of more than 100 million people doesn’t like, and can’t be bothered, to read only highlights the thoughtlessness with which he plans to govern. The fact that he claims to have written a book and everyone is supposed to believe this, only highlights the lack of transparency and honesty in the entire political system.

Mexico doesn’t need an intellectual genius to head the government. But it does need an honest and capable and compassionate one. So while Peña Nieto’s gaffe may seem like farce, its implications are tragic.