Some of the work produced out of our office in Mexico City shows up on this compilation of highlights from VICE News' year.
Above, our VICE News documentary produced by the Mexico bureau, regarding the case of Alberto Nisman, the federal prosecutor who was investigating the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires.
Our crew spent a week in BA investigating this case, with local producer Gaston Cavanagh. It was one of the more complex stories I've had to cover, because every time we reached what seemed like a reasonable conclusion about something, the next turn, the next interview, completely flipped it.
The assignment was also challenging because it dealt with the thorny themes of anti-Semitism, terrorism, the Kirchners, the opposition in Argentina (the left calls them "the right," but they call themselves "liberal"), and Iran. You decide where you stand on all that.
* With my homie Franco, an hincha for club Newell's Old Boys in Rosario, Argentina, May 2014. Photo by producer Raymundo Perez-Arellano.
There is no use apologizing. Intersections, like a lot of blogs that started in this long-forgotten blog big bang of 2005-2006, went into posting decline after the realization that it was impossible for me to keep up. Not while at the same time taking on a reporting and writing job with extremely demanding responsibilities and expectations.
When I was in the DF bureau of the LA Times, at least I managed to re-post my stories, most of the time. Since 2013, this has also become functionally impossible. Work just went from crazy to crazier.
After a year as editor of VICE México, in June of 2014, my boss asked me to step in and become Mexico bureau chief of VICE News. It was the kind of job I had never really thought about doing but at the same time knew I was capable of doing, so I said yes. With this, my year, and my life, changed.
By then, early summer, our office's Munchies Guide to Oaxaca (which we actually recorded in November 2013, produced by Santiago Fábregas and shot by Guillermo Alvarez), was finally live and cookin'. Munchies had also just posted my profile on food queen Diana Kennedy.
I was on my way to being a food host for VICE, and was still editing the Mexican edition of the print magazine at the time.
But after seeing and hearing good responses to my first hosting gig for VICE with the Oaxaca guía, the chiefs wanted to try me out on a serious news assignment. Right away, they sent me and a crew to Rosario, to investigate the drug war happening on the streets of an important port city in Argentina.
From there, other assignments in the field followed. I said "Yes" to whatever was asked of me — including yes to a trip that was decided on and carried out within hours of arriving to the office for a normal work day — dealing with the challenges as best I could, recognizing and representing, in a corner of my mind and in my own little way, for my beloved brown America.
During all this, I've had to keep up my main, most important duties, with a teensy staff: editing, translating, fact-checking, and publishing original news stories and features from across Latin America. The bureau staff and I have spent long hours working with reporters filing from Santiago to Tijuana, often under breaking-news pressure, just everyday hustling, getting stories up onto the VICE News site.
The stresses in 2014 were the steepest I've confronted since the start of my career. Then, in late September, Ayotzinapa happened. And the work got even more intense.
But I'm not gonna complain. I'm only looking forward. This year I plan on hosting more for VICE News in my role in the bureau, and I also hope to squeeze in some fresh field assignments with Munchies. There's more in store, and I want to thank all my readers and my community for staying strong with me and hanging on through all the madness and bullshit out there.
So, below, some highlights from my first seven months at VICE News. For all the stories I've written or co-written for News, click here. I'll have a post later — I hope! — all about our Ayotzinapa coverage.
The Rosario documentary I mentioned. Beautiful city, fucked-up story. This documentary, fixed locally by Gaston Cavanagh, made some waves among locals in Rosario and was cited in numerous subsequent news reports in the Argentine press.
Stopping over in Buenos Aires, we decided to check out the issue of paco, the BA streets version of crack, and a symptom of the economic malaise that has plagued the country since 2001.
A quick Munchies interlude in here, a tour of three classic Mexico City fondas. Mmmmmmm, ¿A que hora es la comida?
On September 11, we landed in Chile, to cover the demonstrations and street protests tied to the anniversary of the 1973 coup that brought down socialist president Salvador Allende and initiated the military dictatorship. Three days earlier, a bomb went off in a Santiago subway station.
At the Tolemaida military base, in Melgar, Colombia, our crew covered the 2014 Fuerzas Comando competition, a meet-and-greet for elite special ops teams from across Latin America. This documentary was produced as part of the VICE News "War Games" series.
This is the full-length version of our documentary on the horrible case of the missing students in Guerrero, Mexico. All the credit in the world for this work is to be shared with the committed and talented producers, fixers, photographers, editors, and administrators at the VICE México headquarters in Mexico City, and in particular, Rafael Castillo, Hans-Máximo Musielik, and Melissa del Pozo.
We really put in as a team the toughest hours and biggest risks many of us had ever seen in Mexico.
Me and the VICE News crew were also in Peru in late 2014, for a documentary that is coming up early this year. But that's another story ... 2K15 has begun. Stay tuned, and as always ... More soon.
Check out the official trailer for the Guide to Oaxaca I am hosting for MUNCHIES, the newly launched food channel at VICE. It's a quick taste of the five-part, hour-long series I recorded in November with colleagues Santiago F. and Guillermo A. from VICE México.
Yes, I tried the turtle eggs.
** Originally published in the print edition of VICE México, Nov. 2013:
* Fotos por Bénédicte Desrus.
Los hermanos Juan Luis y Pedro Poncho Vanegas Bravo, de 20 y de 17 años respectivamente, nacieron en la Ciudad de México y pasaron la mayoría de su niñez en condición de obesidad. Eran, como se dice con ternura en México y como siguen refiriéndose a sí mismos cuando hablan de sus vidas, “gorditos”.
A ellos los conocí este verano gracias a la fotógrafa Bénédicte Desrus. Ella ha documentado la obesidad global en su proyecto Globesity, que la ha llevado a conocer a personas obesas en África del Este, Egipto, Estados Unidos y México.
Bénédicte primero fotografió a los hermanos Juan Luis y Pedro en el Hospital Infantil de la Ciudad de México en 2011, cuando ellos enfrentaban los retos más difíciles de sus vidas. Como su obesidad estaba poniendo en riesgo su salud, los hermanos Vanegas Bravo fueron los primeros menores de edad en recibir cirugías bariátricas en un hospital público en México, con el fin de reducir el tamaño de sus estómagos y así combatir la obesidad.
Las cirugías venían con riesgos propios. Los doctores les explicaron que de cada diez pacientes, uno sufre complicaciones, y de cada cien, dos fallecen. Además, el papá de ellos, Juan ManuelVanegas, murió en 2005 por complicaciones relacionadas con su obesidad mórbida. La mamá de los chicos, Juana Bravo, nos dijo que su esposo padecía diabetes, y cuando se detectó una perforación en su colon, los doctores no pudieron alcanzar la herida y sanarla. Tuvo ocho operaciones antes de morir, a los 42 años. Uno de sus hijos tenía 12 años, el otro, ocho.
“Me di cuenta que si no bajaba, iba a terminar como él; iba a terminar muerto”, me dijo Juan Luis cuando lo visitamos por primera vez en su casa por el rumbo de Metro Camarones, en la delegación Azcapotzalco.
“Anduvimos buscando la cirugía por años, porque no nos la daban, porque yo era menor de edad y no nos podían operar en hospitales del gobierno”, dijo. “Pero uno de los doctores que hacía esa operación tenía un proyecto de operar adolescentes, y yo me presté. Básicamente como conejillo de indias”.
Ese doctor fue Francisco José Campos Pérez, reconocido especialista en el campo de cirugías bariátricas en adolescentes en México. Pero antes de saber cómo les fue a Juan Luis y Pedro, cabe mencionar que la situación que han enfrentado con su salud es una que enfrentan millones y millones de mexicanos, muchos de ellos desde chiquitos.
En México, el sobrepeso y obesidad (que son niveles diferentes del mismo problema) afecta a 32% de las niñas y 36.9% de los niños entre las edades de cinco y 11, según la Encuesta Nacional de Salud y Nutrición de 2012. Son unos cinco millones 664,870 niños con sobrepeso y obesidad en el país, según la encuesta.
Las cifras aumentan entre los adolescentes y más entre adultos. Ya casi alcanzando niveles de obesidad de Estados Unidos —el más gordo de los países desarrollados—, en México son aproximadamente 69.5% de personas mayores de 15 años que viven con sobrepeso u obesidad, dice la Organización para la Cooperación y Desarrollo Económico.
Ser gordo mata.
La diabetes, la enfermedad más relacionada con la obesidad, es la mayor causa de muerte en el país, bastante más que los homicidios, enfermedades cardiovasculares o accidentes vehiculares. Este padecimiento se ha convertido en el mayor asesino de los mexicanos de una manera exponencial desde los ochenta, lo revelan varios estudios nacionales e internacionales.
En 2012 las autoridades contaron más de 80 mil mexicanos que murieron a causa de diabetes (básicamente la suma de todas las ejecuciones relacionadas con la guerra contra el narco, en los seis años del último gobierno); y son más de 10.6 millones de mexicanos que ahora lo padecen. Peor aún, se calcula que para el 2030 serán más de 16.3 millones de mexicanos con esa enfermedad.
Las razones son variadas y muy cercanas a nosotros, como lo son el refrigerador y la tiendita de la esquina. Es la comida frita, la comida chatarra, el McDonald’s, la Coca-Cola y sus 12 cucharadas de azúcar, y tal vez las costumbres sociales que se pueden describir comomexicanas que llevan a uno a comer más y más: ofrecer más (para demostrar hospitalidad), pedirmás (para demostrar confianza), y consumir más cuando se te ofrece (para demostrar gratitud).
Juan Luis y Pedro empezaron a engordar a los tres años de edad, me explicó su mamá. “Era mucho comer y comer”, dijo la señora de 51 años un sábado que nos juntamos en el hogarVanegas para platicar y asar hamburguesas. “Yo me preocupaba”.
“Los llevaba a nadar, al futbol, tae-kwon-do, lo que hubiera. Mi error fue que teníamos un refrigerador dúplex y cada quince días lo llenaba de carnes frías. Si se te antojaba algo en la semana, en el refrigerador había”.
En fotos, los hermanos lucen felices y activos, pero definitivamente, se nota cómo van engordando a través de los años. Son un par único. Juan Luis es moreno, y en las fotos se ve cómo de niño le encantaba el escenario y el performance; ahora es bailarín de danza “árabe gótica”. Del otro lado, Pedro es blanco, más reservado en sus fotos, y a él le han gustado los deportes desde pequeño. Ahora juega como centro en una liga de futbol americano.
Ya para su adolescencia, los hermanos Vanegas eran enormes. Sus cuerpos llenaban los retratos de familia. En el punto más extremo de su obesidad, parece que sus formas están infladas con aire.
“Tú no te das cuenta de qué tan gordos son tus hijos”, dijo la señora Juana. “Cada que entraban a la escuela, yo les mandaba a hacer sus pantalones. No me daba cuenta que eran talla 38 cuandotenían seis años, o 40 cuando tenían diez. No sabía cómo revertirlo”.
Después de la muerte del papá de Juan Luis y Pedro, la familia Vanegas empezó a buscar ayuda. Hubo consultas y más consultas, entrevistas, listas de espera, especialistas de todo tipo. Juan Luis pesaba en el momento más crítico de su condición unos 146 kilos. Tenía 15 años. Pedro tocó los 138 kilos a los 14. Tenían que hacer algo.
En 2009, a Juan Luis le aplicaron una manga gástrica en el Hospital General Rubén Leñero, de la Secretaría de Salud del Distrito Federal. En esta cirugía el estómago es reducido entre 60% y 85%, dejando una “manga” de estómago donde cabe menos comida. Juan Luis bajó hasta 105 kilos, pero su cuerpo se aferró. La capacidad de su estómago se acomodó, creciendo de nuevo, y así volvió a subir de peso.
** Originally published at Thump:
It was 3AM on a Saturday morning by the time we made it to Del Valle, the middle-class mid-section of Mexico City. We inched our way into a tacky, vacant bar where Siete Catorce was scheduled to play a late-night set. Ten Foot, a prominent DJ from London, was playing before a crowd of about eight, and when the Mexicali electronic music producer walked in he went straight for the DJ table. The two hashed it out, and before long, Siete had assumed the position in front of his PC laptop. We were there to watch him make music live on his screen, mixing and manipulating original tracks with nothing but a laptop and a mousepad.
It was a weird, soggy summer night. There were a few strewn about tables, fluorescent lights, people smoking indoors (which is illegal here, but only incidentally), and furtive passages to the restrooms to “powder noses.” The bar wouldn’t have been out of place tucked away in LA’s Koreatown district, and it was a perfect place to dance to Siete Catorce’s mix of tribal, techno, and “emo broken beats.”
A few minutes into his set, I was dancing. A few minutes more and everyone in the bar was dancing.
Dawn approached, and he kept playing. Thin and wily, basked in the glow of his laptop screen, Siete hopped and swayed through his set. Only after every authority figure in the place, from the bartender to the promoter, told him he had to stop, did Siete stop playing. The speakers rested. People were panting, walking around in circles. The young DJ turned to the nearest girl next to him and asked, still bobbing, “Was that good? Did you like that?” But he already knew the answer.
It was good. The girl by his side knew it. I knew it. Even the angry bartender knew it.
Since moving to Mexico City from his native Mexicali—thanks to the release of his EP with local label NAAFI—Siete Catorce has torn through town, playing wherever he can, and frequently winding up crowd-surfing during his sets. From that nameless bar in Del Valle, to the it venue of the moment, Bahía, to Mexico City living rooms dusted with cigarette smoke, he’s been dazzling audiences with a sound that marries Mexican tribal jubilance (à la 3BALL MTY) with an unmistakable feeling of sadness, rage, and foreboding.
It was about time somebody did it.
Life in Mexico is hard right now: traffic is bad, the rainy season was devastating, no one has money, people get paid shit. Encounters with cartel or state violence are basically considered normal. Some economists already think Mexico is slipping into a new recession, even though the cost of food and transportation continues to rise. But night after night, weekend after weekend, the party rolls on. In Mexico City, Siete Catorce (or “7:14”) has been there for us consistently.
“My music is very Mexican but also very tripped-out”—ondeada—Siete Catorce told me. “I like the vibe here. It reminds me of when I lived in Oakland, even in the weather a little bit. I like the vibe of a city that’s always busy.”
Marco Polo Gutierrez was born in Mexicali but was raised mostly in Oakland, CA. He identifies strongly with the Bay Area in his music, tastes, and cultural stance. This got us talking. I went to school in the Bay and spent childhood summer vacations visiting relatives in Northern CA. During one YouTube-scrolling hangout session, we confirmed that we could both rap along with “93 ‘till Infinity.”
“I was born in Mexicali, and when I was two, I went to live in Oakland,” Siete said during a rainstorm in early July. “I lived there till I was 14 or 15. I came over here because they deported my mom, and so, the whole family came back.”
Mexicali is the vast desert sister city to Tijuana. Singer-songwriter Juan Cirerol is from there, and there’s a significant Chinese-Mexican population, but other than that there’s not much going for it. It must have been a tough place to adapt to after feeling the freedom and mobility that comes with life in Oakland.
“Well, over [in Oakland], you’re in the ghetto. It’s dope because there are cultures from everywhere. And you grow up exposed to all that. I just hung out with my cousins. They were stoners and listened to rap and hip-hop. And that’s the environment I grew up in.”
His sound, he explains, is deeply rooted in the all-night birthday and quinceañera parties among relatives that marked his childhood—the hours and hours of cumbia. It’s an experience that almost any Mexican kid can tap into, but in his case, one that is marred by the trauma of a parent’s expulsion from the United States.
In 2007 Siete's mother was deported. He tells me she had to visit a sick relative in Mexicali and used a sister's passport to cross back to the U.S., and was caught. His entire family followed her to Mexicali. This was around the same time that the Baja drug-smuggling corridor erupted in internal warfare—one site of unrest within a country-wide drug war that was getting increasingly out of control. All across northern Mexico, many young producers and musicians at the time were literally retreating to their bedrooms for safety. They dabbled across genres, from sad-core garage to hard-core club. In the process, they developed the personalities that would later become an Erick Rincon or a Dani Shivers, names now defining music in Mexico today.
Siete Catorce started playing piano at the age of five. Once he settled in Mexicali, he downloaded Ableton Live and started taking his first cracks at house and electro. “Then I started making glitch, glitch-hop, dubstep, stuff like that,” Siete said. “But that was a long time ago, when no one listened to Skrillex or anything.”
He explains his start as a producer in recognizable steps: first came the teenage boredom, then the isolation; followed by an introduction to raves, a few lessons in desktop mixing, and a period of dancing around genres and scenes before finally finding a sound. In this case, it was thanks to a cumbia remix he did for the cura of it—the shits-and-giggles.
“You could say that what changed everything was when I remixed a track by Celso Piña, ‘Cumbia del Poder’,” Siete said.
The remix of the Celso was driven by a dubby boom with some hip to it. A DJ in Canada picked it up, and then the music site Generation Bass posted it, Siete recalls. Then, in April 2011, he was invited to open at a party for experimental electronic music in Tijuana.
* End of the line: a concha below the volcanos at the terminus of Line 12, Tlahuac, Dec. 31, 2012.
I've spent three years reporting stories in Mexico, the region, and sometimes on Mexico-related topics north of the border from the Los Angeles Times bureau here in Mexico City. On top of that, I've been contributing steadily to a bunch of magazines and radio, Web, and video outlets, all places I love.
It's been rad. But, man, I needed to make a move! And I think I've made a good one. Vice is expanding, not contracting. It has vision, huevos, and, most importantly for anyone who wants to do good journalism, cash.
Talks started informally months ago, and it's been a fully pro negotiation and transition with Vice Mexico publisher Eduardo Valenzuela and the head of content here, Bernardo Loyola. I've also been contributing pieces to Vice's New York headquarters, so I'm looking forward to working more closely with the editors at the hub.
For more context, check out these highlights from a recent profile on Vice by The New Yorker, including interesting comments from players such as CEO Shane Smith:
Rupert Murdoch, after his visit, tweeted, "Who's heard of Vice Media? Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don't read or watch established media. Global success."
"Part of the reason Vice is successful is because we have cash to make stuff. Everyone else is just fucking wandering around trying to find budgets to make their dream project."
"[T]he nice thing about Vice is that it's the future and it's already very profitable."
McInnes told me, "My big thing was I want you to do stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way. So if you’re going to Palestine, try to find a good burger joint. Don't talk about Israel and the borders, 1967, Gaza -- just find a good burger joint. Conversely, if you're gonna do a thing on farts or poo, talk to experts in digestion, find out the history of what we know about farts, why they smell. Be super-scientific and get all the data. Which is what we did with 'The Vice Guide to Shit.'"
Vice is opening bureaus as quickly as traditional-media organizations are closing them.
Smith told me, "It used to be, back in the day, that news was the most profitable of all shows that the networks did. The Gulf War built CNN. There's a lot of conceptions that news doesn't make money, that young people don’t care about news. But young people obviously care about news -- that's why we're successful."
Still, if Vice is the future of media, it might be argued that, for all its faults, it's no worse than what we already have. For anyone accustomed to the current offerings on cable news -- with its twenty-four-hour cycles and blow-dried personalities rehashing wire reports -- it's hard not to be impressed by Vice's vitality and by some of the topics that it covers firsthand.
Pretty G. ...
My top priority is to always challenge myself, challenge my craft. I'll be editing an established publication again more than ten years after my "EIC" days at the college paper. But, hugely, my primary audience for the first time will be hispano-hablantes en México y Latinoamerica. That's a crazy challenge for this die-hard pocho and I'm eager to take it on!
Admittedly, there's a nostalgia factor also at work here. I grew up checking out Vice as a teenager, picking it up once it started appearing at skate-, head-, and record shops in my hometown. When I lived in L.A., I was around when lil Mark "The Cobrasnake" Hunter started showing up at the Vice store parties at Sunset Junction. Through friends, I met and really fell in love with one of Vice's original muses, lil baby Dash, and I still think fondly of the time we shared in L.A. with K. Garcia and Nina T., the trouble we'd get into. ... Que descanse en paz.
The magazine, the brand, the broader ambitions of Vice Media have morphed so much, it's remarkable. I am honored to get a chance at joining what I suspect will become a long tradition of good, fucked-up reportage. I start on Monday. Got a story idea?
From Latino USA:
Commentator Daniel Hernandez is a pocho, a Mexican-American, living in Mexico City. But lately he’s noticed he’s not the only one, and the line between pochos and chilangos, what Mexico City natives call themselves, is blurring.
Go here for the link and audio file for my latest commentary for Latino USA on National Public Radio. Readers, are you a pocho in Chilangolandia as well? * Previously, “On voting for the first time for president in Mexico.”
** Photo: The crossing at San Ysidro into Tijuana, January 2012.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY — They were tweeting about it, turning it into memes and ogling it in real life along the route that President Obama took from Mexico City's airport to the colonial front gate of the National Palace.
Throughout Obama's visit, which ended Friday, the president's super-armored presidential limousine, nicknamed "The Beast" when it was unveiled four years ago, almost stole the show from the cool and cordial display of diplomacy between Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
When Obama stepped off Air Force One and hopped into the customized state Cadillac, one cable newscaster on Mexico's Foro TV called it a "spectacular vehicle." Broadcasters on a variety of channels seemed to mention The Beast — La Bestia in Spanish — as frequently as they could.
And they were also talking about it in Costa Rica, where Obama was headed after his morning forums with Mexican students and businesses.
Maybe it's that famed American engineering stirring up the fascination? Or could it have to do with Mexicans' similar obsession with the popemobile whenever the Holy Father comes to town?
"We came to try to see the car, La Bestia," said tourist Daniel Castillo, a 33-year-old port worker from Tamaulipas state who was standing outside the National Palace with his wife after Obama and Peña Nieto departed Thursday afternoon. "Don't really care for ... that señor," Castillo added, referring to the U.S. president.
News cameramen on motorcycles chased The Beast as it passed some of Mexico City's toughest neighborhoods along its speediest highways. Infographics on La Bestia adorned news sites, with journalists noting the elaborate features, such as a blood supply in case of an attack.
In a cruel twist, there was another vehicle nicknamed La Bestia making headlines in Mexico this week: The freight train that chugs along the rain forests and backcountry of eastern Mexico, carrying vulnerable migrants from Central America on an often deadly attempt to reach the United States.
On Wednesday, migrants were again attacked by suspected drug gangs, this time near the city of Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz state. At least nine were seriously injured by men armed with machetes and firearms who tried to extort $100 from each of the travelers, The Times reported.
According to accounts, some migrants were thrown from the train for refusing to pay. In recent years, tens of thousands have gone missing while traveling along La Bestia's tracks.
"Now isn't it curious that Obama's limo is called La Bestia, just like the train that takes thousands of migrants from Chiapas?" a politician wondered on Twitter, referring to Mexico's border state with Guatemala.
Castillo, the tourist, said cartel violence fueled by U.S. demand for drugs has made it too dangerous to travel from Puerto Altamira, where he lives, to the border to visit Texas. He and his wife now prefer vacationing in the "center of the country."
Obama "should stay over there and fix his own country's problems," Castillo huffed.
His wife, Irene Gomez, said the couple hasn't seen some family members in the United States in years. Most of her relatives left Mexico to flee the drug violence, she said.
"Everyone is going to the United States because the insecurity is so bad," said Gomez, 34. "And what are they doing over there? They're deporting people, separating families."
Once Obama's "beast" had departed the National Palace on Thursday, the low fencing placed around the Zocalo square was removed and pedestrians gradually reclaimed the plaza that has been at the heart of national identity here for centuries.
A few passersby hurled curses at the front door of the palace as soldiers emerged for the customary evening flag ceremony. For some, the awe of the La Bestia faded away and reality set in once more.
* Photo by AP via LAT.
** Originally published in the April 20, 2013 print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- Contradictory court judgments in the war crimes trial of former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt this week set off protests in Guatemala City and prompted rebukes from human rights organizations around the world.
On Friday, Judge Jazmin Barrios, who is presiding over Rios Montt's genocide trial in Guatemala's capital, called court to order despite another judge's ruling a day earlier granting an appeal by the defense to annul the case based on a technicality. The Thursday ruling was "illegal," Barrios said.
Rios Montt's defense did not show up in court Friday, however, leaving the 86-year-old former military ruler alone at the defense table.
Without counsel for the defendants, the trial was suspended, prompting crowds to rally in protest.
The developments came after nearly a month of wrenching courtroom testimony from survivors of a counterinsurgency campaign that brutally targeted members of the Ixil Maya minority in 1982 and 1983, considered the bloodiest period of Guatemala's 36-year civil war.
Prosecutors say Rios Montt and his former military intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, ordered a campaign to wipe out the Ixil Maya, including women, children, and elderly adults. Truth commission reports have found that military commanders believed Marxist guerrillas had indoctrinated the community, making them enemies.
As Barrios shut down the trial Friday, cries of "justice!" erupted in the courtroom where Rios Montt still sat. Later, Ixil witnesses and supporters who had traveled to the capital from their region of Quiche marched from one justice building to the other, many chanting "Genocide did happen."
The chants were a direct response to a media campaign launched this week by Guatemala's right-wing, denying that an effort to wipe out an ethnic minority had occurred during Central America's bloodiest war.
Many young Ixil, including those born after the massacres, held up signs that read in Spanish, "We youth have a right to know the truth," American blogger Xeni Jardin wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said they would file appeals, and they were reportedly forming a separate procedural case against Carol Patricia Flores, the judge who annulled the trial Thursday.
The court decisions pushed the legal drama into murky political territory and complicated the Rios Montt trial for Guatemala's judiciary. Guatemala's current president, Otto Perez Molina, was implicated by a witness this month in the executions of Ixil Maya villagers.
"This is a blow to the numerous victims of the atrocities committed during Guatemala's civil war, who have been waiting for more than 30 years for justice to be done and for remedies," United Nations human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Friday in Geneva.
In New York, leading human rights groups also denounced the Thursday ruling and called for Guatemala's highest court to reverse it and allow the Rios Montt trial to resume.
"For years, this case and ones like it have been delayed by dilatory maneuvers and acts of intimidation against victims and justice officials alike," said Reed Brody, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch. "This hyper-technical decision is deeply troubling and should be reversed immediately so that the trial can continue."
Manolo Vela, a Guatemalan academic who served as a government investigator in the successful 2011 prosecution of lower-ranking military officers for the Dos Erres massacre of 1982, said the sudden turn of events suggests other forces might be at play.
"What's clear is that despite certain advancements in the justice system, there are still slits, openings, through which corruption or the interests of the powerful can infiltrate," said Vela, a social sciences professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
Barrios said Guatemala's Constitutional Court has three days to respond to petitions to reverse the annulment or prosecutors will have to restart their case from the beginning.
* Photo: Ixiles demonstrate against the court rulings in Guatemala City, via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now and in the print edition of the April 19, 2103 Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- On the first day of trial, a witness named Bernardo Bernal recounted how, as a 9-year-old in the spring of 1983, he hid in a stream and watched Guatemalan soldiers kill his parents and two younger brothers.
On the second day of testimony in Guatemala City, a man named Pedro Chavez Brito described how soldiers found him and his siblings hiding in a traditional sauna in their village on Nov. 4, 1982. His sister was carrying a newborn.
"'You are a guerrilla, you gave food to the guerrillas,' they said to my sister," the witness said, according to an unofficial transcript of the genocide case in Guatemala. Soldiers tied his sister to the stairs of the house and set fire to it, killing her, her children and perhaps six other relatives, Chavez Brito testified.
Another witness said soldiers used an old woman's severed head as a soccer ball.
The litany of terrors recalled in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan President Gen. Efrain Rios Montt has been relentless. The proceedings have been widely hailed by human rights groups as an important reckoning with the past, a rare prosecution of a former Latin American military dictator for war crimes in his own country.
But on Thursday, nearly a month into the trial, the case suffered a potentially devastating setback. In a stunning turn, a judge from a different court granted an appeal from Rios Montt's defense to annul the entire case based on a technicality. That ruling in effect shut down the genocide trial and may force it to start all over. Prosecutors said they would appeal the decision.
"This is an absolute abuse of power, it is illegal, and of course we are going to appeal," Arturo Aguilar, an aide to the attorney general, said shortly after the ruling.
The uncertainty angered survivors, families and human rights advocates who had been attending day after day of wrenching testimony. Witnesses, often through interpreters, have described how indigenous Maya women, children and elderly adults were raped, dismembered, burned and buried in mass graves during counterinsurgency operations that prosecutors say amounted to genocide.
The case against the former Guatemalan president and his military intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was not the first time that the world has heard about the atrocities committed by the country's army during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. They have been documented in international truth commission reports, books and films and in the stories that Guatemalans carry with them anywhere they live.
But the trial has given survivors their first opportunity to testify in the same room as the high-ranking officers accused of ordering the burning of villages, the rapes and the executions of more than 1,770 Ixil Maya Indians in 1982 and 1983.
This week, the prosecution finished making its case against Rios Montt, 86, and Rodriguez Sanchez. The defense, seemingly in disarray early in the proceedings, launched its campaign to have the case dismissed, or at least discredited in the public eye.
On Tuesday, coalitions of Guatemalan army veterans, conservatives and Catholic groups placed ads or inserts in Guatemala City newspapers declaring that "genocide never occurred" in the country and that prosecutors are undermining the 1996 peace accords between the military and Marxist guerrillas.
In all, about 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during decades of fighting that started in 1960 after a U.S.-backed military coup, the United Nations has found.
"There is still little consensus in Guatemala over what happened during the armed conflict or why," Mary Speck, a Guatemala-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said by email.
"These attacks on prosecutors — including Atty. Gen. Claudia Paz y Paz — as well as on human rights groups and their international supporters are likely to increase," she said.
If the trial resumes and a verdict is handed down by a special three-judge panel, it could have far-reaching implications for high-ranking army veterans and other members of Guatemala's right-wing elite.
During testimony April 4, an ex-soldier testified via videoconference from an undisclosed location that an army officer named Otto Perez Molina —now Guatemala's president — directly ordered the executions of villagers in 1982.
The implication reportedly rocked the courtroom, producing gasps among witnesses and observers. Perez Molina later labeled the soldier's testimony as "falsehoods," but the implication raised a troubling question.
Could Perez Molina, a retired general protected by immunity as Rios Montt was by virtue of holding a public office, be next in the defendant's chair?
The Rios Montt trial "is going to open doors for prosecutions against other military murderers," said Guatemalan American journalist Francisco Goldman, author of a book about the 1998 killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi. "It's also a way to clean up the murk of all these sorts of hidden powers rooted in military intelligence. And not just in Guatemala."
Here are resources to learn more about the trial and its players.
The Times recently profiled Claudia Paz y Paz, the Guatemalan attorney general described as brave and tireless by the international human rights community but harshly criticized by Guatemala's right. Read the story by Richard Fausset here. And a 1995 Times interview with Rios Montt by Tracy Wilkinson, before the end of the war and when he served as president of Congree, is here.
* Photo: Rios Montt seated right at the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Skull motifs. Dollar bills pasted on a wall. Phrases written in neon lights. Figures cut out of photographs. Or, if you like, a bunch of lines on paper.
It's hardly surprising that the offerings at Zona Maco, the Mexico City contemporary art bazaar that opened its 10th edition Wednesday, tend to look and feel like the art for sale at any other big fair.
Many of the galleries with showcases at the glitzy five-day event are visiting from established art centers like New York or Milan. But the ambition of Zona Maco's longtime director, Zelika Garcia, is to help build a mature art market in Mexico by cultivating domestic galleries and buyers.
Has it worked? Not entirely.
Numbers on Mexico's cagey collectors and what they're spending are hard to come by, and Garcia was not available for an interview. But dedicated fair-goers said that the number of collectors in Mexico City remains small.
By far the biggest local art patron is Eugenio Lopez, heir to Mexico's Jumex juice fortune and owner of the Jumex Collection, said to be the largest private art collection in Latin America. Housed at a juice-making plant in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, Lopez's collection is reportedly worth at least $80 million.
On the fair's opening day, which was attended by Lopez and other noteworthy buyers, including the former mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon, there was much grumbling by dealers, artists and visitors.
There was no Internet connection in the hall at the Banamex convention center and not a lot being handed out for free. No water for sale, but plenty of tequila cocktails.
"Slow," "pale" and "thin" were some of the words used to describe the scene.
"What bothers me is there's no real thread," said Mario Ballesteros, editor of Domus Mexico magazine. "Even the big-name galleries, it's like they're just pulling out the inventory, like a garage sale."
On the bright side, government cultural agencies are becoming more involved, offering special programs and providing venues for Zona Maco events, said Maria Ortiz, director of volunteers at Mexico City's Museum of Modern Art.
Give the scene more time to grow, Ortiz said. "They have international galleries coming now, and so we can see art from abroad that we couldn't see otherwise."
By the afternoon, works were selling briskly. A government cultural official announced the establishment of an $829,000 fund to buy new work for Mexico's museums.
Prints by the artist and tattooist known as Dr. Lakra, made in his trademark style of embellishing vintage paper nudes, were going for $12,000 apiece at the booth of the local Kurimanzutto gallery. Working musical instruments made out of gun parts from Mexico's violent drug war, by Pedro Reyes for the Labor gallery, were going for $20,000 and up.
But some of the most interesting events are happening away from Zona Maco. Across town, small galleries, art collectives and pop-up curators are offering a host of intriguing indie exhibits throughout the week.
The group Bucareli ACT brought art viewers to a decaying downtown street Tuesday night where largely disused buildings were turned into venues for sound-art and other shows. A new video by artists Ilan Lieberman and Rafael Ortega juxtaposed clips from the classic film "King Kong" with footage of the arrest of the famously smirking U.S.-born drug lord, Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez.
Also away from the fair, art titan Gabriel Orozco is launching a collection of new works at Kurimanzutto on Saturday, a homecoming of sorts after a retrospective of his art traveled through New York, London and Paris in recent years.
Could Zona Maco be the place where a future Orozco makes a first sale? If market-savvy skills are any indicator, why not?
In the young artists section, Monterrey-based gallery Alternativa Once was showing "TwitterDrumSolo," a drum-kit that played itself, by 25-year-old Daniel Perez Rios.
A lanky guy in glasses, Perez explained that he used a computer to program the drumming to match surges in tweets about the presidential candidates on the night of last year's election.
The bass drum, for example, played when tweets mentioned "electoral fraud." Asked how much the piece cost, Perez replied: "You'll have to talk to my dealer."
Above, several members of the Mexico City art collective Cráter Invertido at their studio space, October 2012. I profile the group, along with a variety of other exciting artist-run spaces currently operating in D.F., in the March 2013 issue of Art in America magazine, part of their series of "Atlas" columns from different art capitals.
An excerpt from the piece, in time for this week's energy around Zona MACO:
At a warehouse on a nondescript street in an old semi-industrial neighborhood near downtown, 14 artists have joined forces in a "collective of collectives" calling itself Crater Invertido. The name evokes the twin volcanoes that loom in the distance as well as an explosive inversion of the art pyramid. Most of its artists are recent graduates of one of the national art schools, La Esmeralda, where the group first took shape by organizing “happenings” in response to the institution’s deficiencies. Crater Invertido is now a politically sharp, process-based collective. Several members were active in the spring 2012 protest movement known as #YoSoy132, a grassroots democracy effort aimed at preventing the restoration of the old political regime.
"There was a constant interest in maintaining some type of cooperative. But we actually started seeing each other less, working less, because so much was going on politically in the country," remarks Crater Invertido artist Juan Caloca. "We kept asking ourselves what we could do, beyond purely symbolic actions, to generate something constructive in the long term."
#YoSoy132 was an electric moment for the opposition in Mexico, but the old regime won the election anyway. The movement eventually suffered a symbolic cooption by one of its sworn enemies when the media giant Televisa announced that prominent former members of #YoSoy132 were joining one of its programs as on-air panelists. On the October day that the news broke, members of the Crater Invertido shrugged it off and were busy at work, hunched over tables finishing a joint assemblage project called "Container of Volcanic Ash." There was still beer left over from the space’s most recent live-music event.
While reporting this piece, I interviewed Jose Kuri, co-director of kurimanzutto gallery, about the growth in independent art spaces in the city. He recalled a similar movement a generation ago.
"That’s why the artist-run spaces were there, where they could bounce off ideas, connect with other artists, experiment," Kuri told me. "That's why they had the artist-run spaces like the Panaderia, a place to meet people, to hang around, to go see a band to play."
"You don’t want only galleries, the commercial side of it. You want these other places, where [young artists] can show without the pressure of the galleries and without the pressure of the market," added Kuri.
* Above, members of the collective and space Neter, in San Pedro de los Pinos, Nov. 2012. Left to right: artists Marcos Castro, Alejandro García Contreras, and Jimena Schlaepfer.
Kuri and Monica Manzutto show many artists who started out in the important spaces of the 1990s -- Abraham Cruzvillegas (who has a great "Autoconstrucción" up right now at the Eco), Miguel Calderón, Gabriel Kuri, Gabriel Orozco, and more.
On Saturday, Orozco could possibly grab the highlight of D.F.'s annual spring "art week" based around Zona MACO, the city's major art fair. He's opening a solo show at the kurimanzutto's space in San Miguel Chapultepec, his first at his Mexico "home" since 2009, and I believe his first new work on display since Orozco's conquest of New York.
** The following is an excerpt of an English/Spanish-written draft of a piece published in the February 2013 issue of Gatopardo magazine, 'El fin de un ciclo.'
* See original post here.
Sábado 15 de diciembre de 2012
[11 Ix o 188.8.131.52.14]
El punto clave de información that we aquired on this stop was that in the town of Ticul, south of Mérida pero antes de Oxcutzcab, vivía un maestro de los garabatas, como se llaman los guaraches en Yucatán. Jorge Coronada, one of the healers we met at Kambul, told us el maestro Jose Ortiz made the best shoes on the peninsula. We drove off.
A place often reveals itself to you by the character of its roads, and in Mérida, there was a prominent but never menacing police presence all along the city’s periférico, a modern highway lined with factories and government compounds. We passed our first of many state police checkpoints, there to help maintain Yucatán’s proudly held rank of safest state in the country. In the town of Uman, the street I took to reach the center suddenly turned one-way against me in the opposite direction. A kid on a motor-bike taxi coming in the correct direction took one look at me as he drove past my dash and sneered, "Vete a la verga, vato." I laughed it off as the capricho of a local angry teen with a mean streak. One can never truly say about a people, "They are so kind, they are so welcoming," because there's always at least one or two exceptions.
It was early evening by the time we arrived in Ticul. The sky was clear and a sea of stars shone brightly above. The moon was regal, the roads one long line of darkened forest from point A to B. This town was like most others we’d come to see in Yucatán. It contained a market, a bus station, cell-phone and clothing and shoe stores, and low stone houses that looked as though they could have been built twenty or two hundred years ago. The towns that dot the plain of the peninsula are all centered around a plaza with a church that often looks built to repel a siege. In fact, many of them were. The churches in towns like Tizimin, Muna, and here in Ticul were built tall, with few windows, and with massively thick walls. They are reminders that the Maya of Yucatán resisted the Conquest forcefully and for generations more than the Aztecs.
In Ticul, which 19th Century traveler John L. Stephens described as "the perfect picture of stillness and repose," I drove into the dusty center of town, made a right, and pulled up alongside a middle-aged man sitting outside of a shoe store. I told him we were looking for Mr. Jose Ortiz, the shoemaker. The man was about sixty years old. He had white hair and unusually clear green eyes. "He is my father," he replied, and offered directions.
A few blocks back, on the same street, we came across Mr. Ortiz's taller. There was a small hand-painted sign attached to a wooden post, marking the front of a house. The door was open and the only illumination inside was a single flourescent bulb attached under the shelf of a work table, bathing the room in a humming pale blue light. No one was inside. We knocked and called, knocked and called. In the window to the street, Christmas lights were draped over an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe. The lights were the kind that come with a device that plays carols in a single tone in a loop. We inched inside and waited. Old photographs, signs, maps hung from walls appeared as though they hadn't been touched in decades. It was clear that Mr. Ortiz's taller was a special place. I felt good just standing there. A woman passed on the street and asked us who we were looking for, and a minute later Jose Ortiz Escobedo came strolling our way.
He was a very slim old man in trousers and a work shirt. Mr. Ortiz had a handsome brown face and a sharp triangular nose. He greeted us kindly and we introduced ourselves. We expressed interest in taking a look at his offerings of garabatos, but at first it was a little difficult to comprehend what Mr. Ortiz was saying. He said he was 90 years old. His words blended together and his sentences came in mixed clauses. His Mayan accent was strong – the swirling yet chopped castellano that simmers at the front of the mouth and pops with K's and Q's.
Mr. Ortiz explained that he would be unable to sell us any pair of the leather sandals that hung on his wall. They looked like delicate but sturdy objects. He said any he had "would hurt your feet." He only makes garabatos to fit a foot right, he said. I tried on a shoe and it fit perfectly, but Mr. Ortiz absolutely insisted he would not sell us anything not made to fit – not even a belt, although I tried. For a minute, it was impossible for us to comprehend the possibility, that unlike in Mexico City, money couldn't buy everything, and everything wasn't for sale.
We asked Mr. Ortiz if he heard anything about the supposed prediction of the end of the world, and he said it was nothing, and although he hadn't been to Mérida in more years that he could remember, he concluded in between other thoughts: "Si se acaba el mundo, me voy a Mérida."
Mr. Ortiz was born in the house where we stood and his father was born there too. He has worked as a shoemaker for 75 years. He married at 22. His wife is still alive, and they have the same age, 90. He had eight children, but only five survive today. He told us he had 12 great-great-grandchildren.
He explained to us the Maya translations of certain words – che for madera, eck for estrella. He said the Maya of Yucatán always say what they mean, no matter how blunt. He said he belonged to a stubborn people. And, being a man of his age, Mr. Ortiz didn't demure while elaborating.
"Porque los mayas, lo que ven, eso dicen," Mr. Ortiz said. "Lo que hablamos ahora es amestizado, no es la verdadera maya. La verdadera maya es ofensivo, ofende a la mujer."
"El apedillo que tengo yo no es maya … me llamo Victor Jose Ortiz Escobedo. Es español … Y a pesar de que soy maya porque nací en la tierra maya, nuestro estilo es maya, solamente el apellido no es."
We talked about life in Ticul, and asked what he ate to stay so healthy and alert. He eats chaya, lechuga, espinaca, rábano, chayote, no mention of meat. He moved about the room freely, using his arms to emphasize thoughts. "Tengo que trabajar," he said. "Si se acuesta, envejece mas pronto."
I asked again if he saw any meaning in the "end of the world" as supposedly predicted by the Maya. Mr. Ortiz explained: "El sistema de ellos termina. El sistema de los otros, ahorita, es lo que va terminar, y empieza lo de los mayas."
* Printed with permission of Gatopardo magazine, c/o editor Guillermo Osorno.
* Above, screen shot, via BBC Magazine.
The executive skyscraper at the headquarters of Pemex -- Mexico's state-owned oil monopoly, where an explosion this January killed 37 people -- is 51 stories tall, plus an elevated helipad at the top. The entire glass exterior has turned a flat metallic yellow from Mexico City's brutal smog. I’ve lived in Mexico for more than five years, and I always think that at sunset, the helipad looks like it could be a sacrificial platform.
Which is now a terrible thought. The victims of the explosion at the Pemex headquarters on January 31 were mostly regular, everyday office workers. They were secretaries, maintenance guys, accountants. One of the dead was a nine-year-old girl named Dafne Sherlyn Martinez who reportedly went to visit her father that day at work. They both died.
According to official sources, a gas leak caused the explosion. But this official narrative has been called into question and some suspect it was a political attack -- another deadly salvo in the hall of smoke and mirrors that is Mexican politics.
Why would anyone try to blow up Pemex? The company is the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also a state-run monopoly, making something like $580 billion dollars a year in oil exports, or about a third of the entire country’s GDP. Mexico expropriated its oil industry from all foreigners in 1938, lionizing forever the president responsible for this, Lazaro Cardenas.
The constitution still strictly forbids foreigners from owning any of the oil here, and the popular leftist leader, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in Mexico, promises to "defend" Pemex from "privatization" with everything he’s got, which basically adds up to street protests if his record on the matter offers any guidance. Critics like to say that Mexico is now more adverse to foreign investment than the state-owned oil company of Cuba, a Communist-governed country that gets most of its oil from Venezuela and does permit some foreign investment in its oil holdings.
Yet under state control, Pemex underproduces, underperforms, and is being ransacked by organized crime. In this scenario, global oil companies are eager to bid for the chance to help Pemex in its deep-sea drilling operations, or to make it more efficient, or at least safer (by one count, 127 people have died at Pemex sites in Mexico since 2011). Current President Enrique Peña Nieto supports this plan, too, and this Sunday, the PRI's whole party membership voted in favor of privatizing Pemex. That opens the floodgates; they command a majority in Congress. And so it’s likely that one day soon, Mexico’s oil industry will be "open for business" -- for the first time in seven decades.
If Pemex goes "public," so to speak, who in the long run will reap the rewards? The last time Mexico opened up a state-owned utility to foreign investment, Carlos Slim nabbed Telefonos de Mexico (also known as Telmex) and became the richest man on Earth. Was the explosion at the Pemex complex part of a plan to hasten some privatization at the oil giant by creating a deadly PR disaster? A gas explosion at the headquarters of a gas company does look pretty terrible. Or was it an attack by one of Mexico’s guerilla groups, or some unnamed leftist force opposed to what is seen as Pemex’s imminent privatization? The explosion destroyed a human-resources department. Could it have been intentionally set off in order to rid the company of some incriminating paperwork before the utility opens up to newcomers?
Here's what we do know happened. At 3:55 PM that afternoon, as some workers were returning from lunch and others were ending a shift, an enormous boom and shake emanated from around the basement of a 13-story tower at the Pemex complex called B2, adjacent to the main skyscraper.
Witnesses would later describe it as an "earthquake," as an "expanding wave," and say that it produced "smoke but no fire." Investigators would later say the explosion was "horizontal," that it seemed to "lift" the bottom of the building when it hit.
I visited the site the day after the explosion and got a view of about 20 feet from the floor-level spot of the blast zone, covered in rubble and dust. A bunch of reporters and news cameras watched rescue workers clear the wreckage. One Cruz Roja rescuer I interviewed said that he thought the blast zone looked like earthquake disasters he had worked, and looked at me blankly when I asked if it looked like a bomb had hit, saying little more than, "The investigators are investigating."
There were no flames, witnesses said, and no fire, but walls ripped open, floors collapsed, and windows blew out on at least four floors of building B2. Most crucially, the blast destroyed the building's basement, which is where the Pemex human-resources department was located. Many of the dead were its employees.
It wasn't until a full four days after the blast that an official explanation of what might have happened was made public. Authorities believed that an "accumulation of gas," possibly methane, was ignited unintentionally by a crew of maintenance men working in a tight crevice below the basement. The methane theory was laid out by the government with the use of an architectural model of the Pemex complex, which looked nice on a table but showed us nothing of what is located beneath the buildings. Funnily enough, authorities have still not said with total clarity what the ground beneath the Pemex complex exactly looked like before the explosion.
The investigation was still ongoing, officials assured reporters. But the basic story line -- that four workers for a subcontracting firm that had no history of serious accidents unintentionally lit an apparently odorless and unknown source of methane while performing work on the foundations of B2 -- well, all of it seemed insufficient considering that four days had passed since the explosion killed all those innocent people. That's an epic amount of time when compared to how quickly the dirty details are figured out after any big disaster in the United States.
In four days, all Mexico could come up with was a working theory based on a catastrophic fart.
"My personal reading is that all the hypotheses related to the gases is very weak indeed," David Shields, an experienced energy-sector analyst in Mexico, told me over the phone last week. "There was no methane supply in that building, so where does the methane come from? Where does the gas come from? What I am unhappy about is that they very lightly dismissed the possibility of an intentional explosion, a bomb."
A few days after the government released its official explanation, employees returned to their jobs in the explosion-damaged Pemex complex. I visited at 4 PM that day, right about when the blast hit six days earlier, and stood around the makeshift altar that people had left for the victims near an entrance of guarded gates to the complex.
The place still felt tense, and I was slightly creeped out by my physical proximity to that satanic Pemex skyscraper. Additionally, now there were ghosts involved, and a lot of sad and frightened people, too.
I made attempts at talking to adults I assumed were Pemex workers. Among a gaggle of secretaries, I met a woman who later told me her name was Maria Gallardo. At first, Maria, a chill older lady who wore bangly bracelets but seemed like she'd be good in a fight, looked at me with a mixture of anger and fear as she talked about the entire incident.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim is the world's richest man once more, according to a new Forbes list of billionaires, and Mexican drug lord Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman was dropped from the list because his estimated drug profit could not be verified.
Guzman, 55, had been a controversial fixture on the list since 2009.
Forbes said this week that Guzman's whereabouts are unknown, and it was unable to verify his estimated wealth as chief of the Sinaloa cartel, which the magazine called the world's largest drug-trafficking network. Last year, Forbes said Guzman controlled about $1 billion.
Guzman's inclusion on the list had been an embarrassment for the white-collar business and political elites in Mexico. The Mexican edition of the magazine reportedly petitioned Forbes' headquarters to have him removed this year.
"Our numbers show that the increased pressure put on the drug trade by the Mexican drug war suggest that he has to spend more of his money on security and bribes to protect his family," a Forbes writer said.
At the top of the list, Slim and his family have a net worth of about $73 billion, based mostly on telecommunications subsidiaries dominated by America Movil, the largest cellphone carrier in Latin America. (America Movil is known to Mexican customers by the names of the Telmex fixed-line and Telcel cellular carriers.)
The 73-year-old widower appeared on the list at $4 billion wealthier than in 2012, thanks in part to amassed wealth in industrial sectors and in retail, such as the Sanborns department stores.
The distinction comes as Mexico's 3-month-old government has sought to take a stance of control over special interests in the country with last week's arrest of the seemingly untouchable chief of the powerful teachers union, Elba Esther Gordillo.
Leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party have made telecommunications reform a top priority early in the term of President Enrique Peña Nieto, stating they plan to boost competition "in all sectors of the economy."
On the billionaire list, Slim is $6 billion wealthier than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose second-place net worth is now estimated by the magazine at about $67 billion.
* Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt for AFP/Getty Images via LAT.
How do you guys rip YouTubes now that Zamzar succumbed and doesn't anymore? Cuz I need the entire audio to this hour-long fashion collection video musicalized by mi hermano Total Freedom, "Meat Fashion Show A/W 2013 - Believe."
Ash's mixing is, like, prime material. Call it trap, rave, hoodie gothic, whateva; his style has become recognizable by ears alone. Particularly in awe of the track that starts at about minute 38. Deaaaaaaamn. (Clothes are good, too.)
A major reportaje on the afromestizo musical profile of Mexico, by producer Marlon Bishop, via Afropop on Public Radio International. Bishop travels to Guerrero to check out the chilena tradition, to Mexico City for the danzón, and to Veracruz and Los Angeles to examine the new-generation son jarocho craze.
It's an involving, rich podcast. See more here for blog posts with clips related to self-declared criollo musical culture.
I've held a long-running discussion on race in Mexico in recent years on Intersections, highlighting previous documentary projects, easy but telling race-tricks in contemporary social science in Mexico, and bringing some pop-media attention on pop Mexican blackness.
I remain ambivalent about the application of U.S.-style racial goggles on the reality of race as it's lived in Mexico today.
I was struck, for example, by an academic voice in the Afropop audio who says "naming the beast" is needed to "fund the beast," suggesting that afromestizo people in Mexico need more "resources" that have been denied to them because of their race or color.
That is totally an American racial-politics thing to say, and would register as flat-line discourse to many Mexican thinkers, of many classes and colors, I can assure you. All kinds of poor people in Mexico have been neglected by the state, in a complicated long-running saga of injustice in Mexico that is simply more complicated than a black-and-white vision.
Additionally, I remain unsure who gets to be Afro-Mexican. Or even, who wants to be? Mexicans call themselves mexicanos first, and many find little use in sub-categorizing ourselves in the U.S. manner. Yes, there are some serious race conundrums at play here, and racism in the mass media is still so prevalent. But U.S. race relators don't necessarily have the smarter hand, or the better model.
So what is? Let's keep discussing, and in the meantime, enjoy the podcast and the dope music! * Gracias por el tip, Nati! * Post edited.
* The following is an excerpt. Gatopardo is on newsstands in Mexico now.
Sábado 15 de diciembre de 2012
[11 Ix o 184.108.40.206.14]
Finalmente conseguimos aquí una información clave. En el pueblo llamado Ticul, al sur de Mérida, un poco antes de llegar a Oxkutzcab, vivía un experto en garabatas, como se le llaman a los huaraches en Yucatán. Uno de los curanderos que conocimos en Kambul, Jorge Coronada, nos dijo que el maestro José Ortiz hacía los mejores zapatos de la península. Nos lanzamos para allá.
Un lugar se revela por el carácter de sus caminos: a lo largo del periférico de la ciudad de Mérida —una vía moderna repleta de fábricas y oficinas de gobierno— era común la presencia de la policía, fuerte aunque nunca amenazante. Pasamos por uno de los varios retenes que se instalaron para seguir manteniendo el orgullo de Yucatán: el estado más seguro del país. Al llegar a Umán tomé una calle que nos llevaría al centro, pero se convirtió en un camino cuyo sentido era opuesto al que veníamos. Del otro lado venía un joven en un taxi-motocicleta y cuando nos pasó me miró con desdén y me dijo: "¡Vete a la verga, vato!". Pensé que nunca se puede decir de un lugar que "la gente es tan amable y tan acogedora", porque siempre hay excepciones.
Cuando llegamos a Ticul ya era de noche. El cielo estaba despejado y un mar de estrellas brillaba arriba con intensidad. La luna estaba majestuosa y los caminos entre la selva oscura eran largos y rectos. Este pueblo era como los demás en Yucatán: tenía un mercado, una estación de camiones, zapaterías, tiendas de ropa y de teléfonos celulares, además de casas de piedra de un piso que parecen haberse construido hace veinte o doscientos años. Todos los pueblos de la llanura de la península son iguales; están edificados alrededor de una plaza con una iglesia que parece un fuerte. De hecho, muchas funcionaron como tales: las iglesias de pueblos como Tizimín, Muna y Ticul son altas, con pocas ventanas y están construidas con muros de ladrillo de grandes dimensiones; un recuerdo del pasado, cuando los mayas se resistieron a la conquista española por generaciones —mucho más tiempo que los aztecas.
[Previously, "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Part 1."]
Un viajero del siglo XIX, John L. Stephens, describió a este pueblo como "el perfecto retrato de quietud y descanso". Íbamos en el coche por el centro polvoriento, cuando giré a mi derecha y enseguida me detuve junto a un hombre de mediana edad, que estaba sentado afuera de una zapatería. Buscamos al señor José Ortiz, el zapatero, dije. Aquel hombre tendría unos sesenta años, el cabello blanco y unos extraños ojos verdes y cristalinos. "Él es mi padre", contestó y explicó cómo llegar a su casa.
Unas cuantas cuadras atrás, sobre la misma calle, nos topamos con el taller del señor Ortiz. Había un pequeño letrero pintado a mano junto a un poste de madera que marcaba la fachada de la casa. La puerta estaba abierta, y dentro se veía todo iluminado por un foco fluorescente pegado a una mesa de trabajo, que bañaba la habitación con una luz azul pálida. No había nadie adentro. Tocamos y llamamos a la puerta, tocamos y llamamos. En la ventana de la calle se veía una serie de luces navideñas que formaban un altar a la Virgen de Guadalupe, de esas que vienen con música de villancicos con un solo tono. Poco a poco nos fuimos metiendo y esperamos dentro. Viejas fotografías y mapas colgaban de las paredes, como si no hubieran sido tocados por décadas. Estaba claro que el taller del señor Ortiz era un lugar especial. Me sentí satisfecho por estar ahí.
[Previously, "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Part 2."]
Una mujer pasó por la calle y al vernos preguntó qué estábamos buscando. Un minuto después, José Ortiz Escobedo llegó y se acercó a mí y mis compañeros.
Era un hombre viejo y muy delgado que vestía pantalones y una playera de trabajo. Tenía un rostro bien parecido, moreno, y una nariz triangular puntiaguda. Nos saludó con amabilidad, y pudimos entonces presentarnos. Queríamos ver, le dijimos, las garabatas que vendía. Al principio fue un tanto difícil comprender lo que decía. Tenía noventa años de edad. Su acento maya era fuerte —el turbulento y entrecortado castellano, que hierve en la punta de la boca para luego estallar en sus cus y kas.
El señor Ortiz explicó que no podía vendernos ninguno de los huaraches de piel que colgaban en la pared. Parecían objetos delicados, pero resistentes. "Te pueden lastimar los pies", dijo. Ortiz sólo hace sandalias a la medida. Dijo que podría tomarnos la talla y tendríamos que regresar mañana o el día siguiente, si así lo deseábamos. Me probé un calzado y me quedó perfecto, pero el señor Ortiz insistió en que no nos vendería ni un solo par que no estuviera hecho a la medida. Ni un cinturón, además, aunque también intenté llevarme uno. Por un momento me resultó imposible entender que, a diferencia de la ciudad de México, aquí el dinero no podía comprarlo todo.
[Previously, "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Part 3."]
Le pregunté si había escuchado algo acerca de la supuesta predicción de los mayas sobre el fin del mundo. "Si se acaba el mundo, me voy para Mérida", concluyó.
El señor Ortiz, que no había ido a Mérida en muchos años, nació en esa casa donde estábamos parados, lo mismo que su padre. Ha trabajado como zapatero por más de setenta y cinco años. Se casó a los veintidós, y su esposa aún está viva y tiene la misma edad, noventa. Tienen ocho hijos, aunque sólo sobreviven cinco, y doce bisnietos, dijo. Se puso a traducirnos ciertas palabras mayas como che para madera, o eck para estrella. Los mayas de Yucatán siempre han dicho lo que piensan, dijo. Y como él es un hombre de edad, no fue nada tímido para enunciar lo que pensaba. "Los mayas lo que ven, lo dicen —dijo—. Lo que hablábamos ahora es mestizado, no es la verdadera lengua maya. La verdadera es ofensiva, ofende a la mujer".
"El apellido que tengo no es maya… Es español… Y a pesar de que soy maya porque nací en tierra maya y nuestro estilo es maya, el apellido no lo es".
Le preguntamos qué comía para estar tan sano y despierto: chaya, lechuga, espinaca, rábano, chayote, nada de carne. Se movía por la habitación libremente y usaba sus brazos para hacer énfasis en sus ideas. "Tengo que trabajar —dijo—. Si uno se acuesta, envejece más pronto".
Cuando le pregunté de nuevo sobre el significado del "fin del mundo", contestó que "el sistema de ellos termina. El sistema de los otros, ahorita, es lo que va a terminar. Y empieza lo de los mayas".
[Previously, "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Part 4."]
* English-language posting is forthcoming ...
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's new government is considering relaunching an abandoned rescue effort to reach the bodies of 63 miners in a coal mine in northern Mexico since 2006, one of the worst mining disasters in the country's history.
The Pasta de Conchos tragedy left 65 dead and exposed poor and dangerous working conditions for miners in one of Mexico's largest but also most under-regulated industries. Relatives of the victims have insisted in protests that the recovery operation be resumed and in recent days sought support from members of the new federal Cabinet.
A methane explosion trapped the miners on Feb. 19, 2006. The recovery effort was abandoned in April 2007 after only two bodies had been brought out.
The Pasta de Conchos disaster deepened rifts between representatives of the victims -- their families and unions -- and Grupo Mexico, the mining conglomerate that owns the coal mine in the municipality of San Juan Sabinas, Coahuila state.
This week, after a fresh push by relatives of the victims before the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, the attorney general's office indicated it was open to examining the investigation and possibly reopening the recovery effort.
Speaking Wednesday at Mexico's Senate, the deputy attorney general for human rights, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, said the Pasta de Conchos case is a reminder that poorly regulated mines known aspozitos should be closed.
"We should prohibit pozitos, because since Pasta de Conchos they've generated an unjustified number of dead," Garcia said. "They're an avoidable human pain."By one count of victims' relatives, at least 67 more miners have died since Pasta de Conchos in accidents or explosions in Mexico through early 2012.
No dates or guidelines have been been set yet for a reexamination of the case, said Armando Seguro, a spokesman in the attorney general's office.
Juan Rebolledo, vice president for international relations at Grupo Mexico, told The Times that the company has not received any formal petition to reenter the mine and would not comment further.
The explosion occurred during the mine's overnight shift. Some basic figures about the incident, such as at what depth it occurred, remain in dispute. In 2008, widows of the miners and volunteers from other mining regions of northern Mexico converged at Pasta de Conchos and attempted to storm the mine and launch their own effort to reach the bodies.
* Photo by Sharon Steinmann, via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- A Facebook page in Mexico has notched tens of thousands of followers for posting detailed but unconfirmed updates on security risks in the drug-war hot zone of Tamaulipas state. Now, purported assassins have declared a bounty on the head of the page's anonymous administrator.
In response, the Facebook author said the page would not stop gathering and publishing information on shootouts and highway blockades because the Tamaulipas authorities and local news outlets offer nearly zero updates on so-called "risk situations."
The person behind Valor por Tamaulipas posted a photograph last week of a reward notice that was said to have begun circulating in several Tamaulipas cities calling for information leading to the page's author or relatives.
The flier makes an offer of 600,000 pesos, or about $47,000, for information and includes a cellphone number with a Tamaulipas area code.
"I'm not trying to be a hero," the Facebook page says in response to the bounty claim. "I'm doing what I'm supposed to do as a citizen and a member of society before the threat that organized crime poses to the stability of our state and country."
The photographs and postings, like other content on the page, could not be independently verified, a fact that partly explains the appeal of Valor Por Tamaulipas and similar social-media platforms that offer intelligence related to incidents in Mexico's ongoing drug war.
Local, state, and federal government authorities release only scant details, if any, on the conflict in Tamaulipas between federal authorities, Mexico's military, and three major crime groups: the Zeta, Sinaloa, and Gulf cartels. As in many other violence-wracked regions of Mexico, local news outlets widely practice self-censorship.
The sharing of such information -- from sites of checkpoints to times and places of grenade or car-bomb attacks -- has generated risks in the past for social-media users.
In September 2011, a woman known as an info-sharing user of an online message board in the Tamaulipas border city of Nuevo Laredo was found decapitated. Though never fully confirmed by local authorities, the woman's death was blamed on cartel hit men who wanted to silence her constant postings on violent incidents there.
The page where the woman posted, Nuevo Laredo En Vivo, maintains a message board where locals apparently keep posting.
Valor Por Tamaulipas has chalked up nearly 158,000 likes on Facebook since its launch on Jan. 1, 2012. On Twitter, the Valor por Tamaulipas account currently has about 24,400 followers.
In contrast, the state government's official Facebook page has about 3,000 likes, and noticeably no steady updates on risky situations on the ground. And, in a sign of the horizontal nature of the drug-war's information battles on the Internet, a page intended to counter the assertions of Valor Por Tamaulipas has already emerged, calling itself Anti Valor por Tamaulipas.
The administrator of the first Tamaulipas Facebook page did not respond to emailed questions Monday.
Antonio Martinez, a spokesman for the Mexico City-based free-speech advocacy group Articulo 19, said his organization was monitoring the purported threat against Valor por Tamaulipas but suggested that the site might not be administered by an ordinary citizen.
"It's a little strange," said Martinez, who noted the Facebook page routinely praises military personnel and their operations, without mentioning any of the allegations of abuses or criminal activity within the army's ranks in the region.
"We are still investigating, but we think this could be some kind of military strategy, and not a case of a direct threat against one person," Martinez said.
In an interview with the daily El Universal, the Facebook page administrator would "neither confirm nor deny" the assertion that Valor por Tamaulipas is a product of Mexican military intelligence.
Tamaulipas' statehouse has remained silent on the Facebook page and its report of a death-threat. But days after the threat was publicized, the state attorney general's office released a statement reminding citizens that it offers rewards of up to 500,000 pesos, or about $39,000, for information leading to the solving of serious crimes.
If you get a weird jumble of characters in your reader for the headline for this post because of the capitalized ñ in it, it's a minor inconvenience worth swallowing while getting to know the artist and electronica producer known as Ñaka Ñaka.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Workers at Mexico's state-run oil company have begun returning to the job -- some apprehensively -- amid official declarations of back-to-normal conditions at the headquarters that suffered a deadly work-hours blast last week.
Some workers expressed concern and doubt over the government's initial explanation that the blast was caused by an accumulation of gas ignited possibly by an electrical spark, while others declined to discuss the topic or said evidence pointing to an accidental gas explosion seemed strong.
The workers were interviewed Wednesday, the first full day of operations at the Mexico City headquarters of Petroleros Mexicanos, or Pemex, since the explosion Jan. 31 that killed 37 people and injured more than 120.
Nonetheless, the jitters were visible on the faces of workers who were filtering out of the complex after the 4 p.m. finish to the day's shift.
People in khaki-colored uniforms or office clothing crossed themselves while passing a makeshift memorial to the victims in the shadow of the main executive skyscraper. Signs posted near entrances offered employees psychological services to help cope with any trauma since the blast.
Maria Gallardo, a secretary who has worked for Pemex for 25 years, stood at the memorial and gestured to faces she recognized in a printed photo of the human-resources department that was in the basement.
The government’s explanation of what happened has been met with some skepticism.Pemex has a history of shoddy maintenance, rampant corruption and lax security. Speculation about the cause of the blast has ranged from tragic industrial accident to deliberate sabotage aimed at destroying sensitive documents or derailing efforts of the new government to open the long-protected state monopoly to private and foreign investment.
Luis Alvarez, a 26-year-old plant worker who's been on the job for less than a year, said he participated in rescue efforts in the blast zone. He said he didn't have a reason to believe the explosion was not caused by an accumulation of gas.
"They're saying so many things, you don't even know what to think," Alvarez said. "I wasn't there when it hit. Some said it did smell weird. According to what my coworkers said, those who were there, you could think that what [the government said] is the truth."
Adriana Gutierrez, an office worker of 29 years, stood near a photo she placed in memory of a victim and friend, secretary Laura Gonzalez Sanchez, who worked in a top floor in the main skyscraper and died as she walked past the administrative building when the blast hit.
Gutierrez said the blast might have been intended to destroy records. She said was unafraid to return to work.
The office-worker said she found it "strange" that President Enrique Peña Nieto visited the blast zone hours after the explosion hit, when it was still unclear what had caused the blast or whether any kind of threat persisted.
"It hadn't been clarified what had happened, so why did the president of the republic come? When you look at everything, you say, 'Yes, it's political.' The dumbest person would see it," Gutierrez said.
Authorities have said none of the dead were dismembered or had severe eardrum damage -- typical results of a bomb. The only victims with burns were three workers whose bodies were found in the basement where the explosion occurred, they said.
That is leading investigators to theorize that the workers may have ignited an unseen and apparently odorless gas, possibly with faulty wiring in a lightbulb they connected to illuminate a concrete chamber below the basement.
* Photo: A woman passes the makeshift memorial to victims of the Pemex headquarters explosion, Feb. 6, 2013.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- As rescue efforts were winding down Friday at Mexico's state oil company, where a blast the day before killed at least 33 people, workers gathered nearby, saying they were unafraid of going back to work and eager to do so as soon as they were told it's OK.
There would be no business at the tower complex until further notice. Yet on Friday, employees of Petroleos de Mexico, or Pemex, kept showing up. Some were eager to get inside to help with the rescue effort, while others said they were awaiting news of co-workers and friends who remained unaccounted for.
Armed soldiers were guarding all the entrances and exits of the complex. Rescuers from the army, marines, Mexican Red Cross, and the searchers known as topos were still clearing away rubble.
An estimated 10,000 people work at the Pemex headquarters in Mexico City. The workers described it as a cosmopolitan setting, with employees, contractors and visitors from all over Mexico and the world circulating through the building each day.
Carlos Pineda, 45, an accountant who has worked in the main Pemex tower for 10 years, said he was on the 10th floor when the blast occurred Thursday afternoon. Pineda said workers in the buildings were prepared through previous drills to face an emergency such as an earthquake.
Pineda wouldn't speculate on what caused the blast in the basement of the building called B2, which he described as the human resources department, where there is "a lot of traffic."
"We're all asking ourselves the same thing, what happened?" Pineda said. "I really don't know what could have happened. These are administrative offices, not workshops. There are no solvents or anything like that."
Pineda and others said they wanted to know who was injured and who was killed. No official information has been released on the dead. He said he recognizes coworkers by faces but not necessarily by names.
Like others, Pineda said he's prepared to go back to work as soon as possible because Pemex is "so important to the country."
Marco Antonio Franco, a top search-and-rescue official at the Mexican Red Cross, said teams would keep looking as long as there was a possibility that people were trapped under rubble.
"A young man just came up and said he still can't find his father, he went to the morgue, and to all the hospitals, and well that gives us the possibility that someone could still be under the structure," Franco said.
"Ground zero here looks a lot like an earthquake," said Franco, who was among Mexican rescue workers who traveled to Haiti for search efforts after the 2010 quake there.
Carlos Alberto Hernandez, a 38-year-old cleaner in the tower, stood outside an entrance to the Pemex complex waiting for his chance to get inside to help. Others milled about with worried expressions.
"That's why we're here, to support our coworkers, to help look for anyone who might be trapped or injured," he said. "I don't have any anxiety about going back to work, no. Anxiety maybe so I can get inside."
By the afternoon, the Red Cross was pulling out, and the search was being suspended.
* Photo via LAT.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- Television viewers in Cuba reportedly had the chance to watch U.S. President Obama's inauguration on Monday via a news feed from Venezuela's Telesur network.
A real-time news feed from Telesur was made available to Cuban TV viewers only since Sunday, "for a few hours a day," state media said.
Obama's inauguration speech was aired Monday on Telesur accompanied by a commentator who cast doubt on some of the U.S. president's assertions, reported Mexico's state news agency Notimex from the Cuban capital, Havana.
It was unclear whether viewers in Cuba also watched the recitation of "One Today," the inaugural poem by Richard Blanco, a son of Cuban exiles.
Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote that the "biased vision of Telesur" and the Communist state outlets are "not, today, our only choices." An alternative or pirated digital media market has been active in Cuba "for months now," Sanchez wrote.
** Originally published at World Now:
TULUM, Mexico – Hold on to your doomsday fever, folks, the Maya calendar date celebrated Friday as the “end of the world” might actually be off by two days – or a full year.
The end of the 13th baktun cycle of the so-called Long Count of the ancient Maya’s intricate, interlocking calendar system might correspond to Sunday, not Friday, said Carmen Rojas, an archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Rojas stressed that the Maya not only calculated baktun cycles of 144,000 days, but also had systems that measured the marches of Venus and the moon. Other scholars note some Maya glyphs mark dates thousands of years further into the future.
In addition, calendar dates that Maya leaders recorded on pillars that survive to this day might have been modified over time to suit certain cultural or political interests of the day, Rojas said during a walk-through Thursday of the ruins of Tulum, a pre-Hispanic port city situated on a spectacular bluff overlooking coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea.
One such inconsistency leads some Maya scholars to believe the 13th baktun cycle ends on Sunday, while others say it might be off by a full year or more.
Dec. 21 "is not a relevant date for us. It is an accident that someone would take and pull it out,” said Rojas, a specialist in the archaeology of cenotes, a type of sinkhole. “If you look at a book of Maya epigraphy, there are so many dates that could be commemorated. The glyphs are also not so easily interpreted. It depends on the correlation that you use.”
Nonetheless, in recent days, tourists from around the world have flocked to the so-called Maya Riviera on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, leading to higher-than-normal occupancy at hotels and on flights arriving at Cancun’s international airport, local reports said. Many visitors say they are using the supposed end of the 13th baktun as an opportunity for spiritual reflection and cleansing.
In Guatemala, people are gathering at the Maya site of Tikal for ceremonies marking the end of the baktun cycle and the winter solstice, which does correspond to sunset on Friday. Separately, highland Maya tied to the indigenous rebel army known as EZLN in Mexico’s state of Chiapas have mobilized and occupied at least five towns, reports said.
As tourists arriving on packed buses swarmed the Tulum site on Thursday, one visitor said she came to the region to get married at a nearby resort -- just in case.
"The end of a cycle is the end of a cycle, there are obviously translation issues," said Rhonda Church, a visitor to Tulum from San Marcos, Texas. "I find it interesting."
* Photo: People pray at Chichen Itza, on Dec. 21, 2012. Credit: Jacinto Kanek / EPA
** Originally published in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MERIDA, Mexico -- Contrary to any Hollywood doomsday scenarios or a variety of less-than-optimistic New Age theories, the world will not end Friday, Mexican tourism authorities and Merida residents assure anyone who asks.
Yes, the end of the 13th baktun cycle in the so-called Long Count of the Maya calendar corresponds more or less with Dec. 21, this year's winter solstice.
But the event merely signals the "end of an era" and the start of a new one, locals and scientists say. Or, as some academic Mayanists have explained, the end of the 13th baktun — a date deciphered from totem glyphs and written numerically as 220.127.116.11.0. — is a sort of "resetting of the odometer" of time.
It has become reason enough for people of this flat, tropical region of Mexico to celebrate their Maya culture and history and make mystically minded calls for renewal and rebirth. Officials and residents have also expressed high hopes that foreign tourists will be inspired to visit the Yucatan Peninsula through Friday and beyond. (Assuming the world is still here.)
A handful of residents and officials from Merida, the capital of Mexico's Yucatan state, gathered Saturday at a small cenote, or freshwater sinkhole, for a "Blessing of the Water" ceremony. A man dressed in white and described as a shaman stood before an offering marking the four points of the compass, saying prayers in the Mayan language for Madre Tierra, or Mother Earth.
"We must reflect on how humanity has conducted itself, what we've done to the Madre Tierra during this cycle," said Valerio Canche, president of a local association of Maya spiritual healers.
Canche walked among the people, singing in Mayan in a low voice. He took a handful of herbs and dipped them in water drawn from the cenote, then splashed droplets on the heads of those gathered — a cleansing ceremony.
"Let us conduct ourselves, as brothers all, for the common good," Canche said. "Not only for the Maya people, but for the entire universe."
This cenote, in a community called Noc Ac about 14 miles outside the historic center of Merida, sits inside a dilapidated, unguarded government lot, little more than an opening in the ground shaded by a large tree.
** Originally published at World Now:
MEXICO CITY -- The U.S. government's decision this week not to prosecute top executives at the global giant HSBC for the bank's systematic laundering of money tied to violent Mexican drug cartels or to hostile regimes has resulted in an interesting number.
The U.S. fined the bank a record $1.92 billion on Tuesday, saying HSBC is essentially too big to prosecute. With assets, subsidiaries and investments spanning the globe, pressing criminal charges against HSBC could harm the global financial network at large, the Justice Department reasoned.
The fine, coincidentally, is about equal to the amount that the U.S. government has sent to Mexico in security aid in recent years under the Merida Initiative: A little more than $1.93 billion was sent by the Bush and Obama administrations to Mexico since 2007 to help Mexico fight the drug trade.
In other words, the money the U.S. government would collect from the British-based HSBC for laundering cartel cash would match the cost of the six-year security investment that the United States has made in a neighboring country fighting a bloody internal conflict.
The Merida Initiative funds for military hardware, intelligence upgrades and training is meant to help Mexico's government fight a war against drug cartels, which has left at least 60,000 people dead or missing over six years but made no major dent in the trafficking of drugs to the United States.
HSBC operators in Mexico are accused of laundering $881 million in drug profits, primarily for the Sinaloa cartel, as well as other Mexican and Colombian traffickers. In doing so, it violated a variety of U.S. laws and bank regulations, including the Trading with the Enemy Act and Bank Secrecy Act.
"These traffickers didn't have to try very hard," U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny Breuer said in announcing the decision against HSBC.
"They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in a single day in a single account," using deposit boxes "designed to fit the precise dimensions of the tellers' windows in HSBC's Mexico branches," Breuer said.
Pablo Galvan Tellez, a banking professor at Mexico's Autonomous Technological Institute, said banks are their own first line of defense against laundering activity.
"At the end of the day, banks must be glass boxes, where we can see all the tubes of where the money is coming from and where it's going," Galvan said.
Academic Edgardo Buscaglia, a world expert on money-laundering and organized crime, said the fine was a "farce," a laughable sum that amounted to "peanuts." He told a radio interviewer Friday that the fine equaled five weeks of HSBC earnings.
HSBC apologized this week for its "mistakes" and promised to set up better safeguards against laundering. The Sinaloa cartel, meanwhile, is believed to still control trafficking routes over much of western and northern Mexico.
* Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga / European Pressphoto Agency / December 14, 2012.