Tag Archives: Mexico

Who Us?

10 May
Memorial for Mariano Abarca Photo courtesy of Mining Watch

Memorial for Mariano Abarca
Photo courtesy of Mining Watch

For Silvia Nuñez of the national Autonomous University of Mexico’s Centre for North American Studies, it’s really not possible to say that Mexicans are actually changing their (generally) positive impression of Canadians simply because our mining companies are damaging their nation’s environment while sloughing off any responsibility for the abuse of the rights of those who are complaining about it.

But maybe they should be.

I mean, I do understand when Ms. Nuñez says that it “is a very focused sector that is tracking this issue” – NGOs concerned about human rights and the environment.

What’s more, the Mexican media already have a lot of other serious issues – from missing students to economic malaise to government corruption to drug cartel hyper-violence — to deal with.

But there seems to be something especially wrong when it are foreigners coming to your town and causing havoc, yet pretending to be good guys. And in Mexico, increasing numbers of people all over the country have been complaining and protesting about what happens when a Canadian mining company finds something valuable under their land.

Most of those protests have to do with water pollution, such as in Guerrero where the cyanide used by Vancouver-based Goldcorp in La Carrizalillo has caused major health problems, or in Zacatecas, where the same firm’s Peñasquito open pit mine grabbed most of the water supply, or in San Luis Potosi, where New Gold’s leach ponds at their Cerro de San Pedro mine overflowed into the community’s water source.

In other cases, such as in Veracruz, communities are simply concerned by potential disasters, such as that presented by Goldcorp and Timmins Gold blasting near a nuclear power station.

These protests tend to be given short shrift by local and Canadian authorities, and by the media. After all, these are mostly poor, mostly rural, often indigenous people who are doing the complaining. Shouldn’t they just be happy that some local investment is coming to their hardscrabble hick towns? Some actual development? Even the current Canadian government considers mining companies excellent promoters of development, to the point that it wants Canadian charities to work with them in the global struggle against poverty.

Indeed, one small town in Durango called La Sierrita did take that approach. When Toronto-based Excellon Resources showed up wanting to exploit the zinc, lead and silver in their area, they signed a contract that seemed to make the most of the situation. Along with paying some royalties, the company would provide a certain number of jobs to locals, buy all their food from the community, and build a water treatment plant.

The only problem was the company immediately reneged on most of their side of the deal. What’s more, when mine workers tried to organize after a workplace death, they were fired. Subsequent demonstrations were used by the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City to dig up information of use to Excellon, while the protest camp at La Sierrita was attacked and burned down by Excellon employees. No wonder the company is, according to its website, “positioning itself to capitalize on undervalued projects by focusing on increasing La Platosa’s profitable silver production and near-term mineable resources.”

But maybe the folks in Durango should consider themselves lucky. In Chihuahua, two protestors against the Vancouver-based MAG Silver Corp mine were killed, while in Oaxaca, according to Mining Watch, “numerous members of the Coordinating Committee of the United Villages of the Ocotlán Valley, which leads opposition to Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver’s mine in San Jose del Progresso, were shot or assaulted.”

And in Chiapas, Mariano Abarca, an outspoken organizer of the protests against the Chicomuselo barite mine run by Calgary–based Blackfire Explorations also paid with his life.

(In an interesting side note, Blackfire actually sued the corrupt mayor of Chicomuselo when his demands for bribes became untenable; not only did he want even more money than what the community was getting in royalties, and vacations for him and his family, in return for his support of the project, but the sexual pleasure of his favourite Mexican soap opera actress.)

So as Canadian companies now account for 70 per cent of all the mining exploration going on in Mexico, and as the clauses of the 1994 Free Trade Agreement protect them from any liabilities, and as the Canadian Embassy works hard to smooth any obstacles in the path to their profits, I for one wouldn’t mind if I had to face some opprobrium when an average Mexican learns that I am an average Canadian. I would be happy to declare that I, too, deplore this kind of behaviour, and even more so to know that my taxes are helping to pay for it.

But so far, the most I can do is wish this egregious behaviour would get more of our attention, that of both Canadians and Mexicans. As vacationers from the north start to worry about Mexican drug traffickers spoiling their week at the beach, I wish they at least recognized that, for too many Mexicans, it are Canadians who are ruining their livelihoods and lives.

This Can Only End Badly

21 Jan


It has been building up for several months now, both the phenomenon and my wanting to write about it.

The events themselves seem almost incredible, like a movie script or novel: ordinary average people pitted against forces of evil who, like video game role-playing teens have given themselves the ridiculous name of the Knights Templar, and who terrorize them and their families. All within a hilly, tropical landscape of green pastures and lime, mango and avocado groves. The people join together and like Les Miz (sort of) fight back, using any weapons they have.

Then the government steps in.

The story is, however, very real — and raises a significant dilemma: what to do when the state fails in its basic responsibilities to its citizens? Replace it, which means it will never become accountable, or what?

We are talking about Mexico, here, a coastal region in the state of Michoacan called the Tierra Caliente. The roots of its problems go way back, according to a man who has become both a spokesperson and a leader of these self-defence groups. As Dr. Juan Manuel Mireles describes in a Red de Noticias video, 12 years ago, a break-away gang from the notorious narco-traffickers La Familia showed up in his town, Tepalcatepec, and said they would conduct their illegal business but leave the townsfolk alone. So people there said, “esta bien,” he relates, until new twists in the political economy of drug production and marketing took place.

After a lot of inter-necine conflict, many of the original Knights were either killed or had left; new leaders emerged and apparently unable to make as much money as they liked from marijuana and meth, decided to get into the extortion racket as well. Cattle ranchers, says Dr. Mireles, had to pay 1000 pesos per head sold, butchers 10 pesos per kilo of meat and tortilla vendors, 4 pesos per kilo. Lime growers were taxed on acreage, tonnes harvested and crates packed, their workers on their wages and bus fares. And so on. People had to fork over fees for almost anything and everything, including 20 pesos per child going to school.

Those who did not pay were killed. Last April, ten lime pickers — the region is a noted lime exporting area — who resisted the Knights were slaughtered, their bodies dumped on the side of a road.

Women, however, were a major target, and rape a common occurrence. One of the most horrendous details in the long list of facts Dr. Mireles marshals to explain the origins of the citizen militias, was the raping of 11 and 12 -year-old school girls, 14 in one month alone.

By quietly forming their resistance movement in Tepalcatepec, he says, the autodefence group managed to arrest 15 criminals. They were handed over to the local army HQ, and then brought to the Public Ministry office in Apaztingan. “By 12 midnight,” he says, “they were all free again.”

This only confirmed what many people already believed, that the police and judicial services were in cahoots with an extremely violent organization that had been doing as it pleased for over a decade.

It is at this point in the story where Dr. Mireles is less clear about just how exactly the militias got rid of their tormentors. He says that the groups took a page from the strategy, as he calls it, of local Purepecha indigenous “and in three weeks, we cleaned up our town.” I’m thinking they probably killed a number of drug dealers in armed confrontations but for obvious reasons don’t want to say so in public, and are scaring away others during their 24-hour patrols.

As Javier Pimentel a butcher in Coalcoman, put it, the military may be trained and armed, “but here, the locals, the farmers, the workers, we are doing the job.” There are now scores of citizen defence groups throughout Michoacan and, in the neighbouring state of Guerrero, an all-female one with 100 members.

So we are now seeing the emergence of a big international news story. Media like the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Guardian have been writing about the arrival of federal troops in the Tierra Caliente, while Mexican media print the declarations of government security officials, who want “the locals, the farmers, the workers” to put down their arms.

Every autodefence member interviewed, however, reveals the logic of not doing so: “If we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs,” one leader told the Associated Press.

So we are left with the original dilemma: Communities feeling forced to take on policing activities themselves, despite the danger.

A state incapable/unwilling to root out criminals, even admitting as Deputy Interior Minister Eduardo Sanchez has to the Washington Post: “The Mexican army does not have powers under the constitution to pursue criminals, unless they are caught in flagrante or a warrant is issued by a judge.”

And making everything even more complicated, a push-back from the cartels setting up faux autodefence groups, or potentially, the entry of new criminal actors onto the scene to take over from the harried Knights.

I have little doubt that any fair-minded person is applauding the courage and initiative of the citizen militias, while deploring the massive flaws within the Mexican state and its security apparatus. By any standard, the people of rural Michoacan deserved far, far better than their elected authorities have ever been willing to give them. Like any of us, I suppose, and in the absence of any other solution, they just decided to rid their lives of the gnawing cancer of violence meted out by the strong against the weak. Their struggle, moreover, reinforces our most fundamental sense of justice, not unlike the traditional Hollywood movie trope of the terribly sinned-against loner exacting revenge in a blaze of bullets and swelling music.

This may make for a thrilling moment or two in the cinema, but in real life, there is something wrong with this picture. Government has a duty and a mandate to protect its citizens – among other things. And citizens have the right to demand their government do so. They have the right to vote in another if they don’t get what they want.

Otherwise, what’s the point? What does a future where average people have to come up with their own security solutions imply?

We’re not talking about water, or schools, here. The ball is in the court of Mexico’s feckless young president Enrique Peña Nieto now, and after giving all those people 100-peso pre-paid gift cards to vote for him, he’d better step up. Sadly, however, it’s pretty difficult to imagine him doing so — or to see how this will all end anything but badly.

One may certainly sympathize with the people of the Tierra Caliente, and recognize they had no other choice. Their courage only illuminates the lack of it among their elected leaders, and the fearful path down which they are leading their country if they don’t seriously embrace a dramatically more effective democratic provision of public justice.

Otherwise, the movie this conundrum will perhaps more clearly resemble is Aliens vs. Predator– particularly the final scene in which a creature with Predator-like features emerges from the chest of the last dead Predator.

Militia Take over a Drug Dealer's House in Nueva Italia, Michoacan.

Militia Take over a Drug Dealer’s House in Nueva Italia, Michoacan.

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.



Environmentally Responsible Design Interlude

24 Jan

And now, as bit of a break from what I usually write about, here is a post and a kudos to family friend Emiliano Godoy. Not only is he an incredibly talented young designer, but he’s committed to using only ethically and environmentally sustainable material in everything his company, Pirwi, makes.

When I did an article about him a few years ago for a newspaper in Mexico, he told me about some of the challenges he faced in finding what he needed — from resins to varnishes to cotton thread — for his beautifully designed furniture like the screen below.


And he’s shown that beauty and creativity  don’t have to play second fiddle to caring about the earth. He lives and works in Mexico City, which is in itself a daily lesson to what happens when we take our natural surroundings for granted.

Now he has turned his hand to designing entire interiors, like this one. It’s been done for one of my favourite museums, the Santo Domingo former church and monastery in Oaxaca. With its amazing gardens deigned by artist Pablo Toledo, the Santo Domingo would, on its own, be enough of a reason to make a trip to that city, although really, there is no shortage of justifications — especially for anyone who loves art. And eating.

Photo: Romina Hierro

Photo: Romina Hierro

With the world the way it is, sometimes we just need a little loveliness and symmetry in our lives.

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.

OpCartel Update

4 Nov

Well the person kidnapped by the Zetas cartel in Veracruz has been released — apparently at about the time I was posting last night.
But with that person came a chilling message for Anonymous — something along the lines of of ‘we will kill 10 people for every person you name.’ So the group has decided not to reveal any of the information they have.
Now some people are calling the hackers everything from cowards to ‘accomplices’ of the Zetas.
But please — let’s get real. It is the job of the Mexican government to deal with this dangerous criminal gang – not a bunch of computer geeks. They say they got the information from a Mexican government website in the first place. And that means authorities already know exactly what it contains — but have decided not to do anything about it. So — who are the cowards and accomplices now?