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domingo, 5 de diciembre de 2010

Teenage Assassins? What next?!

For the past few days, I've seen the same story in a variety of newspapers and online news pages about a 14-year old boy arrested in an airport near Cuernavaca and charged with at least four drug-related murders.  What's always stressed in these stories is that the boy was involved in the decapitation of the victims, an especially gruesome detail that's guaranteed to make readers sit up and take notice of how out of hand the situation in Mexico has become.  While no one would argue that murder is, indeed, a terrible thing, I'm surprised that it's getting so much attention in the U.S. press.  Reporters act as if we've never heard of teenage assassins before, as if we weren't used to seeing news stories about horrendous violence carried out by teens in our own country.

The story of  "El Ponchis" is tragic and brutal, not only because a boy who is barely into his teens has committed murder but because it underscores that Mexico's drug problem is societal problem that extends way beyond the borders of one country.   This boy was not born in Mexico, but in the United States, like the famous "La Barbie" (Edgar Valdez Villarreal) who was captured at the end of August this year.  "El Ponchis" told reporters that he was kidnapped when he was 11 years old and forced to work for the Pacific drug cartel associated with the Beltran Leyva family.  "I participated in four executions, but I did it drugged and under threat that if I didn't, they would kill me," the boy told reporters.  Fox news emphasized that he spoke in a calm voice and showed "no remorse"  for his actions.  While many people in the U.S. might raise their eyebrows in shock or suprise, or suspect that the boy is lying about his unfortunate past, I believe him.  I've seen abandoned children in the streets, not only in Mexico but in many places around the world where parents simply cannot afford to take care of their children, where the parents are still children themselves, some of them have drug problems, or they're deathly ill, or they've been raped and have no idea how to raise a child.  Some are runaways, they're displaced, they're undereducated, they're poor, and they have no family or friends to help them. "El Ponchis" apparently has a couple of sisters, but they have no idea where their parents are.  They have a step mother in San Diego who was willing to send them money to flee across the border, but where have the adults been to guide "El Ponchis" and his sisters during their childhood years? 

 Abandoned street kids, portrayed so poignantly by Luis Buñuel in his 1950 film, Los olvidados, are not a new problem.  The only thing that's changed is that now children are recruited by drug gangs to carry out dirty work before they have acquired the ability to make moral judgments and ethical decisions on their own.  They're no longer picking pockets and begging for coins; now they're cutting off heads and dumping bodies around town.  "El Ponchis" bragged that he was paid as much $3000 for a murder.  For a 14-year old boy on the streets $3000 is a fortune; but in the world of paid assassins, it's a bargain-basement price.  If we're going to portray "El Ponchis" as a monster, let's at least put his crime in the proper context.  For the poor, life is very hard, and it's easy for homeless kids to be led astray.   I'm not excusing his crime, but I'm aware that his crime is symptomatic of a larger issue, and it's not just limited to Mexico.

I did a simple Google search for news items related to murders committed by teenagers in the U.S. during the past six months, and I got so many hits, I can't include them all here. But I noted some of the major stories, and the details seem as shocking and horrible as the story of "El Ponchis."   These teen murderers are not homeless children kidnapped and raised by drug lords.  But, in many cases, they are poor, many are African American, Latino or belong to an ethnic minority, they're marginalized from mainstream society because of socio-economic conditions, and they don't think they have the same kinds of options and opportunities that middle and upper class kids have. They've committed murder for less money and for less obvious reasons than "El Ponchis."  If they had a chance to work as paid assassins, who can say they wouldn't see it as an "opportunity" for a "better life"?

Consider these stories:

Macon, Georgia. December 1, 2010.  Three teens charged with murder in the shooting death of an employee at a supermarket.

Detroit, November 27, 2010. Two teen gangs fired shots in a suburban Detroit mall on the busiest shopping day of the year.  One teen was critically wounded and employees of a clothing stores were also hit in the crossfire.

Atlanta, Ga. November 20, 2010.  Two teenagers bludgeoned to death an 88 year old woman after breaking into her house.  The motive was burglary.

Douglas Co, Georgia. November 8, 2010. Four teens charged with murder after stomping another to death at a house party.  The mother of one of the murderers stood by and watched while this happened.

Louisville, Ky.  Nov. 7, 2010. Three teens held for murder of a young woman. They bragged about their crime on Facebook, which eventually caught the attention of police.

Tacoma, Wa. October 15, 2010. Three teens were charged with murder in a drug-related robbery gone wrong.  The murder is assumed to be gang-related.

Victoria, B.C. September 28, 2010. Two teens are held on charges of the kidnap, rape, torture and murder of a high school girl.  After killing her, they burned her remains and threw them under a bridge.

Birmingham, Alabama, September 10, 2010.  Two teens murdered another teen who was riding his bicycle to the store.  They pulled him off his bike, beat him, and shot him twice in the chest.

Philadelphia, August 23, 2010. Two teens are being held on murder charges after killing an 87 year old man in the driveway of his home.  He had just finished mowing his lawn when the teenagers approached him and shot him, apparently for the motive of robbery.

Summit NJ,  July 28, 2010. Three teens charged with murder of an immigrant from El Salvador, the father of four small children,  as the man was leaving his shift at a restaurant.  The teens videotaped the murder on their cell phones and circulated the video to their friends.

Indianapolis, In. July 26, 2010. Teenager charged with shooting nine people in the street during a summer celebration.  They were leaving a fast-food restaurant as he open fired.

I see stories almost every day about teenagers in this country committing murder.  I'm not even going to mention the school shootings, because that's another topic. It's upsetting to think about young people committing acts of extreme violence and cruelty, but why are we so horrified at "El Ponchis"?  Don't we have kids like him here?

Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, has acknowledged that "in the most violent areas of the country, there is an unending recruitment of young people without hope, without opportunities."  I don't think I've ever heard a U.S. politician admit that same problem exists in our country, but clearly, the level of gang-related violence in our country suggests a similar pattern.  If young boys like "El Ponchis" cross the border into Mexico and work for the drug cartels there, is it because they see more opportunity for a life of crime on that side of the border?  Or, is it because on both sides of the border, they live in a world where they have little hope for a different kind of future?  Arresting young criminals like "El Ponchis" will stop a few individuals, but it won't clear up the problem.  As long as children like him are without hope for a better future, they'll continue to look to the drug cartels for employment opportunties, and violence will become the norm for many of our young people. The next time we shake our heads at dismay in how the world has gone beserk, let's ask ourselves honestly what's at the root of the problem, and what we can do to change the dynamics.

martes, 28 de septiembre de 2010

A Night to Remember

In Mexico City, the bicentennial celebrations reached truly epic proportions but, like most Mexicans, I watched it on tv.  Even through a medium where people are used to seeing things larger than life, exaggerated and unreal, these festivities didn't disappoint us.  They were bigger, better, flashier, more spectacular than anything I've ever seen, in Mexico or the U.S. The ceremonies began with a pre-Hispanic ritual ceremony know as "The New Fire," where 40 shamans gathered in the zócalo to initiate new solar cycle.  According to ancient beliefs, this ceremony marks the end of the old world, and the beginning of a new one.  This was followed by a monumental parade with allegorical floats, many of them using advanced technology to achieve splendid results:  the giant figure of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of ancient mythology, was as tall as the Cathedral and stretched out for a full city block.  It was subtly illuminated, like a giant firefly,  moving through the  night at a slow, serpentine pace, reminding everyone that Mexico's history doesn't begin with Independence from Spain, but stretches back in time for thousands of years. Another float featured giant sized Mexican toys, wooden tops, puppets, the lottery game, along with other colorful and whimsical items, stirring up nostalgia for a pre-NAFTA past, and respect for tradition.   There were costumed dancers from every region of Mexico, acrobats, mariachis, and of course, after the President's appearance on the balcony, spectacular fireworks that lasted for at least 20 minutes and set the night skies on fire with magical colors and designs.

The landmark Metropolitan Cathedral became a movie screen, against whose imposing walls technicians projected moving images showing the history of Mexico, including a tribute to Mexican music, where the Cathedral seemed to move in time to the beat of a mambo.  A 65 foot statue of the Mexican Colossus was erected in the zócalo, slowly and laboriously rising from the ground to stand tall before the people, claiming a place for Mexico in the 21st century as a strong, independent nation.  The message was loud and clear:  No longer is Mexico under the thumb of the "Colossus of the North" (the US).   The time has come for Mexicans to take a firm grasp on their own future.  This magical feat was accompanied by a heart-stopping original musical score specially composed for the occasion.  And, like icing on the cake, there was the newly elected Miss Universe, Ximena Navarrete, looking on from a balcony of the National Palace, smiling and waving at the estimated 65,000 people gathered below.

With my mouth practically hanging open in awe,  I was speechless at the way the spectacle just kept escalating throughout the night.  There were multiple venues for concerts along the main thoroughfare of the city, and the cameras kept switching back and forth from the Mexican Philharmonic Orchestra,  to a rock concert, to country-inspired banda music. It was a kaleidoscope of sound, color and movement.   After hours of build up, the President finally appeared on the balcony to wave the flag, and give the famous "grito."  By this time, everyone present had fallen in love with Mexico, with the very idea of being Mexican, and they were happy to join together to sing the national anthem, despite political differences and overwhelming social, economic and political problems.  Not a single episode of violence happened that night, showing Mexicans and the world (if the world cares to notice) that Mexico is not the barbaric and violent place the media likes to portray.

I kept wondering how a nation like Mexico can afford a spectacle like this.  People are estimating that the cost of these bicentennial celebrations ran around $230 million dollars.  This is in a country where 40% of the people share only 11% of the nation's wealth.  Mexico as a nation is not poor: it ranks 12th in the world in terms of its purchasing power, with a GDP of more than $1.465 trillion dollars.  Yet, asset-based poverty statistics say that 47% of Mexicans live in poverty.  Many people in Mexico must have questioned why so much money was spent on the bicentennial celebrations.  A survey conducted by the newspaper Reforma says that 8 out of 10 people in Mexico City thought that it was costing too much.  And yet, there they were, filled with pride as they watched the ceremonies.  How was I supposed to make sense of these conflicting emotions?  A Mexican friend inadvertently offered me an explanation through an old refrán, or popular saying:  she told me that in Mexico, poverty knocks people down, but pride lifts them up.

Sometimes all people have is pride, and they get through life by clinging to a belief that they're part of something important.  At a time when Mexico is under constant attack and so many people are trying to paint life in Mexico as hell on earth, it feels good to see your country in a more positive light.  People said they understood that the bicentennial celebrations weren't going to make the country's problems go away, but they also said it was important to take part in the celebration, each one contributing a tiny grain of sand to the creation of national unity.  Mexico put on a show to let the world know that Mexico is capable of great things.  The pageantry was only part of it; the greatest achievement of the two-day holiday was that people felt safe and secure, they weren't exposed to violence, millions of families wandered around in the streets of what some call "one of the world's most dangerous cities," and nothing bad happened.  Everything was orderly, people were in a good mood, even the nightly rain held off, making the night of the 15th a truly remarkable event.  And, yet, where are the international newspaper reports about this??

Before the event, I saw many articles forecasting doom and disaster, worrying about the violence that was bound to happen, telling Mexicans that "there's nothing to celebrate."  But when events went off without a hitch, it wasn't newsworthy.  Instead, foreign papers looked at cancelled celebrations in Ciudad Juárez along the northern border, and reminded readers of a bombing incident in Morelia in 2008.  Rather than celebrate, they said, Mexico should focus on its problems with migration, unemployment, poverty, and- of course- drug-related violence.  This struck me as arrogant, since we do a lot of celebrating in the US despite our own internal problems.   But it also made it clear that peaceful events don't make the news.  I see that Univision is showing the Mexican bicentennial on cable tv in the US "on demand," so Mexican-Americans can see what's happening back home, but non-Spanish speakers in the US tell me that they didn't hear anything about the celebration.  It didn't make the nightly news, and even National Public Radio, famous for reporting international news, talked only about the music and cultural events, not about the political significance of it all.

Why do we care about all the violence in Mexico, but we ignore non-violent events?  Why are we fascinated with drug cartels but don't care about parades? Violence and drama sell newspapers and attract readers to internet sites, but these kinds of reports distort reality.   I remember the protests and manifestations leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where students, workers, and housewives took to the streets to protest the money that the government was spending on preparations for the Olympics while ignoring the needs of so many of Mexico's poor.  Like many people of my generation, I admired the passion and conviction of people who were fighting for social justice.  But, I also remember that this ended in the massacre of many people at Tlatelolco Plaza on Oct. 2 that year.  This event rocked the nation and caused a huge rift in society that has perhaps still not been completely healed. And, yes, it made the international news.   I'm glad that Mexicans didn't repeat that cycle of history this year with the Bicentennial celebrations.  Yes, the money perhaps could have been used to better purposes, and maybe they did spend too much, perhaps it was all for show and didn't mean a lot in the day to day lives of the ordinary people.  Still, when I remember seeing the crowds gathered below the presidential palace on the night of Sept. 15, and I remember the joy and happiness they felt at that moment because they were so proud to be Mexican, I understand how it was possible for there to be a night in Mexico when violence and poverty didn't exist.  Was it worth the cost?  I don't know, but I do know it was worth remembering, and I wish more people in the US could have witnessed it.  It would have transformed the way they think about Mexico.

miércoles, 15 de septiembre de 2010

¡Que Viva México!

Today and tomorrow, Mexico is celebrating its fiestas patrias, an annual holiday that commemorates the beginning of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain in 1810.  Every year, Mexicans celebrate the fiestas patrias with great enthusiasm, but this year,  the holiday has taken on special importance.  In addition to being the Bicentennial of the Independence movement, it's also the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, one of the most significant social transformations of the 20th century. 

For the past month, I've been wondering what this Bicentennial/ Centennial celebration really means to the Mexican people.  Clearly, the government, the media, and the business sector in Mexico want people to feel proud of their history, their traditions, and the achievements of the nation.  Cities and towns all around the Republic are decked out in red, white and green banners, representing the colors of the Mexican flag.  Stores decorate the windows with cut out figures of Padre Hidalgo, José María Morelos, and Josefa Ortíz de Domínguez ("la Corregidora"), national heroes associated with Mexico's long war of independence.  There have been more than the usual number of patriotic movies on tv, old black and white classics that show beloved movie stars like Pedro Armendariz, María Felix, and Dolores del Rio reenacting Mexico's  historic struggles.  There's even a soap opera that retells the story of Mexico's Independence every night in 30 minute segments.  Vendors on street corners sell inexpensive costume jewelry, flags, sombreros and shawls, and makeshift costumes, corn on the cob, traditional sweets and toys.  Supermarkets have set up special displays of national products, especially food and drinks associate with the holiday.  Restaurants offer seasonal dishes, like the famous chiles en nogada, a patriotic combination of green chile peppers smothered in a white sauce rich with ground nuts and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds.  TV commercials remind Mexicans to feel proud of their country, and to celebrate the holiday in traditional ways, with family and loved ones.  It feels like a combination of Christmas, New Year's Eve, Thanksgiving and Halloween, all rolled into one event.  It's festive and sweet, old-fashioned and a little corny, but fun and exciting at the same time.  Yes, there's a lot of hype, but most people seem to enjoy it, or at least tolerate it with good humor.  This year, to mark the special occasion, the President declared a "mega-puente," or super long weekend, giving people a holiday from the 15th until the 20th.  Mexicans now have a breathing space, a few days off from work, a time to celebrate and enjoy the holidays, even if they do nothing more than watch the festivities on tv.

Tonight,  the President of the Republic and mayors in every city and town across Mexico will stand on the balcony of the government building and wave the flag, echoing the words and actions of Padre Hidalgo who gave his famous "grito" from the village church in Dolores, a small town near Guanajuato. Hidalgo urged Mexicans into battle against the Spanish, and hurled Mexico into a war that lasted for eleven years.  Today, with all the problems Mexico is facing, I think people can relate to the turbulent times that Hidalgo lived in.  People are feeling a little uncertain about the future now, but they're still hopeful.  Nothing can take away their deep-seated belief that Mexico is an extraordinary country.  The natural beauty of the landscape, the rich and fertile soil that produces an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, the creativity and artistry of the people, the colors, the warmth, the generosity and kindness that people are capable of here, these are things that make all Mexicans proud.  It's easy to idealize Mexico, the way film directors used to do in those old black and white movies, but today, Mexicans are more aware than ever that blessings come mixed up with trouble.  La vida aquí no es fácil, life is not easy here.  I hear many poor and working class Mexicans say that every day, and it's very true. They struggle just to get by, and yet, they never seem to give up hope that things will get better one day.  The Bicentennial, some say, is all about showing the rest of the world that everything is fine in Mexico, there are no problems here.  Well, most Mexicans will be the first to tell you that yes, there are problems, but there is also beauty.  When they watch the fireworks and marvel at the bright lights, the pageantry, and the music that goes along with Mexico's celebration of independence, they aren't blinded by the spectacle, but they can still appreciate what it stands for.  It's a short break from worrying about life, it's a time to enjoy and have fun, to forget the problems, if only for a few days, and to remember the good times rather than the bad ones.  I will be standing next to my Mexican friends tonight and my voice will join theirs when we all shout "Viva México!   It's a real treat for me to witness this outpouring of national pride and love of all things Mexican.  As my friends clap and sing along with the mariachis and eat their tacos and pozole, they have a sense of being part of history.  For that moment, I feel a part of it too.

jueves, 9 de septiembre de 2010

Do your homework, Hillary!

I wasn't planning to write more about drug cartels, but yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some comments comparing Mexico and Colombia that were so embarrassing, I can't ignore them.  I admire some things about Hillary Clinton, and never thought of her as a fool, but yesterday  she sounded like a naive person who knows very little about how the world works and, yet, thinks she has all the answers to the world's problems.  It seemed to me that she was tossing out ideas that crossed her mind without thinking them through, and making comparisons based on very superficial and misleading information.  Yet, because she's a very important person and the world pays attention when she speaks, her casual and thoughtless remarks will have a huge impact.  They'll become engraved in the minds of millions of people as "truth," and Mexico will be dismissed as just another one of those violent, turbulent countries where bad things happen, where Americans shouldn't go, unless it's through military intervention.

First, let's think about her choice of words:  She called the Mexican drug lords "insurgents."  Some people might argue that words don't matter, but I know they do.  Words have literal meanings, but also historical and cultural connotations that cause people to form opinions and attitudes based on the labels they use to name things.  Mexico is just a few days away from it's Bicentennial celebration of Independence from Spain.  Last week, when I was helping the 11-year old daughter of a Mexican friend with her history homework, she found the word "insurgents" in her lesson and asked me what it meant.  Literally, it describes people who take up arms against the government for a political cause.  In Mexico, it has much more specific meaning. It's a term used to describe the Mexican patriots who fought for Independence from Spain.  Miguel Hidalgo,  José María Morelos, Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama - these men were "insurgents" who took up arms against the Spanish crown.  They were men who died for a political cause, who inspired other people to continue the fight and demand sovereignty from Spain.  When Mexicans hear the word "insurgents," these are the people they think of.  What do drug lords have to do with them?  Nothing.  They aren't insurgents. They're criminals.

In the U.S. we have words with special historical meaning.  When we talk about Revolutionaries, we usually mean men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  These were the men who guided our own Revolutionary War, or struggle for Independence from Great Britain.  We use the word Rebels to talk about members of the Confederacy of southern states who broke away from the Union in 1861, who fought (and lost) a Civil War in an attempt to form a sovereign nation with its own constitution and president.  I've never heard anyone in the U.S. use words like Revolutionary or Rebel to describe Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 680 more.  We call him a crazy person, or a terrorist, not an "insurgent."  His bomb caused $652 million dollars in damage - much more impressive than the car bombs and molotov cocktails some Mexican drug gangs have tossed around in recent months, no?   In the U.S., people set off bombs with some regularity.  Just a couple of days ago, an 81 year old man in Alabama set off a bomb in the Senior Citizen complex where he lived.  On that same day, a woman in Mobile set off a pipe bomb in a roller rink as an act of revenge because her friend was kicked off the skating team.   In July, federal marshals discovered and prevented an attempt to set off a bomb in the NYC subway.  In March, a bomb did go off in Times Square in NY.  It was linked to two similar bombings in NY in 2005 and 2007.  In May, someone tossed molotov cocktails into a North New Jersey shopping center, and in January, two men set off a bomb in an Ohio mall.  And what about Ted Kaczynski, the "Unibomber," who went on a bombing spree that lasted for 20 years?  We've had a lot of bombs go off in the U.S. in the past few decades, and no one in our country is talking about the responsible parties as "insurgents."

Clinton says Mexico today is like Colombia 20 years ago.  Twenty years ago in Colombia, there was a left-wing insurgency group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas), who embraced a political ideology rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideas of liberating the "pueblo" or common people from the oligarchy, or ruling class.  The U.S. classified the FARC as terrorists, but it's worth noting that many other countries around the world didn't see them in that light, or use that label for them.  Colombia has been engaged in an armed conflict since 1964, but the political violence there can be traced back to the 1948 coup (the "Bogotazo") and the following years, known simply as "La Violencia."  The FARC did get mixed up in the drug trade, protecting local coca growers and helping them distribute their products in the US in exchange for cash that could be used to buy weapons and support revolutionary activity.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were kidnappings, shoot outs, bombings, some of them linked to political issues, and many of them linked to drug-related crime.  It's no coincidence that the U.S. decision to get militarily involved, to help Colombia fight the drug trade coincided with the creation of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened up the borders between Mexico and the U.S. for the easy exchange of goods and services, including those linked to drugs.   As the drug business tightened up in Colombia, it shifted to Mexico, where it has grown steadily in the ensuing years.  The Plan Colombia was launched in 1998 to provide U.S. military and economic aid to fight drug production in that country.  Whether it was successful or not is a topic for debate, but it's clear that the U.S. benefits from a military presence in Colombia, if for no other reason than to keep an eye on Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chávez.   Colombia also supplies oil to the U.S., and its in our best interest to have a hand in what goes on there, whether it's helping the Colombian people or not.

So, Hillary, tell me why Mexico is like Colombia 20 years ago?  There's drug-related violence, yes, and in both cases, the U.S. is the market where those drugs are sold.  But Mexico has a 90 year history of political stability and democracy, which it will be celebrating a week from today.  The narcos in Mexico aren't interested in politics. They care about money and power, not for political change, but for personal enrichment and to feed their egos.  They attack the police and government officials who try to limit their power or otherwise betray them.  Do your homework, Hillary, and think before you speak.  When you compare Mexico and Colombia, take into consideration that political instability and crime are not the same thing.  Your suggestion that "we need a much more vigorous presence" in Central America, similar to the Plan Colombia,  is not well thought out.  I remember all too well the "vigorous presence" of the U.S. military in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at overthrowing governments and fighting leftist groups who were not sympathetic to U.S. economic interests.  You should remember it, too, and understand why Mexico is not eager to see this kind of military intervention along its southern border.

martes, 7 de septiembre de 2010

Floods? What Floods?

For the past week, I've been seeing a lot on the national news in Mexico about the terrible floods in some of the coastal areas, where more than 650,000 people in six states have suffered damages, many of them losing their homes and everything they own.  When I mentioned this news to a friend back home in the U.S., she expressed surprised because she hadn't heard anything about it.  This surprised me because my friend keeps up with world news, and she usually pays special attention to what's happening in Mexico when she knows I'm here.   There certainly hasn't been any shortage of news coverage about drug violence in Mexico in recent weeks, so I wondered why the news of the floods, which impacts so many more people, isn't making it into the mainstream media north of the border.

I happened to be in Mexico with Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, and I remember seeing hours of news coverage on Mexican tv.  Reporters from the major television stations in Mexico provided live coverage of the events as they unfolded in Louisiana, and the Mexican government sent federal troops as volunteers to help the flood victims there.  President Fox, who was Mexico's president at the time, sent a letter of condolence to President Bush and the American people.  Fox told the Mexicans, "Mexico and the United States are neighboring countries and friends that must support each other in times of crisis."  In addition to soldiers, Mexico sent truckloads of purified water, canned goods, medical supplies, baby diapers, teams of doctors, all terrain and amphibious vehicles, airplanes, radios and communication equipment.  The Mexican navy sent a ship to help evacuate people from the disaster zone, and members of the Mexican congress pledged one day's salary to aid the hurricane victims. Mexicans followed the news day by day and were truly horrified and saddened by what they were seeing on t.v.  Despite differences of language, nationality, ethnicity and so on, Mexicans were struck by the human suffering they saw in New Orleans and they felt compelled to help.

The floods in Mexico right now are very serious, and the Mexican armed forces are working to evacuate people from danger zones and bring overflowing rivers under control.  Citizens of these regions are working together to help neighbors and provide temporary shelter for those who have no place to live.  From the interviews and images I've seen on tv, it's clear most of the people impacted by the floods are, like most of the victims of Katrina, poor people who struggle to get by, even when times are good.  When disaster hits, they have little or no possibilities of recovery without a lot of help.  This made me wonder what the U.S. is doing to help Mexico with this problem.  I found a document from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance that talked about giving Mexico $100,000 in July 2010 when Hurricane Alex hit the northern state of Tamaulipas.    They talked about plans to send a military advisor to Mexico, "to monitor humanitarian conditions."   Is that it?  Hmmm.... seems so.  If something else is being done to help out, it's not being broadcast very openly to the American people.

The internet is full of news about U.S. aid to Pakistan, where terrible floods are also claiming lives and driving people out of their homes.  True, the scope of that disaster is huge, and Mexico's floods may not seem so grave in comparison. But in terms of lives lost, damage done, and possessions lost, the current situation in Mexico is not that different from what we saw with Katrina.  Katrina made headlines all over the world.  So, why are the floods in Mexico treated by the foreign press as something that's not very newsworthy?  In the U.S., I see no signs of the human empathy and concern that Mexicans expressed toward us when disaster struck New Orleans back in 2005.  There's no great outpouring of aid, or even recognition that entire communities in Mexico are under water   Of course, Pakistan is important to the U.S. because it could easily become a stronghold for terrorists if the U.S. doesn't work hard to keep up good relations with that country.   We have to be concerned about what happens there.  But, what about Mexico?  Mexico and the U.S. share a border that's almost 2,000 miles long.  We're trading partners and political allies, we share as history and a future, because like it or not, Mexico and the U.S. have many common concerns.   When disaster struck in New Orleans in 2005, Mexicans expressed interest in the well-being of thousands of U.S. citizens who were harmed by the floods.  So, why is the U.S. media ignoring news about the Mexican floods now?  Where's the human connection between people who reach out across borders?   Is sympathy a one way street?

When I first thought about writing about the floods here, I hesitated, because I figured that the U.S. sees enough bad news about Mexico.  But this is a different kind of bad news.  The people who've lost their homes here aren't involved in drug trafficking, they aren't criminals, they haven't done anything to "deserve" the bad luck they're facing now.  They're just ordinary people going through life in a normal way, people without a lot of resources, who work hard and want to raise their children in a healthy and safe environment, like everyone else.  They have the misfortune of living in low lying communities where rivers overflow, dams can't hold because they're beyond capacity, and the soil can't absorb any more water because it's over-saturated.  It's not anyone's fault that this disaster is happening in Mexico right now.  If anything, we'd have to blame Mother Nature and human beings who've contributed to global warming and damaged the environment beyond repair. It's called global warming for a reason:  it's not the fishermen and farmers who live in rural areas of Oaxaca and Chiapas who've damaged the atmosphere.  The root of the problem can be as far away as Los Angeles or Shanghai, where pollution has created holes in the ozone layer and, now, Mexican villages are under water.

 Here in Cuernavaca, we don't have any serious problems related to the rain.  I might complain that I got wet when I went to the street fair in Tepoztlan on Sunday, or that yesterday when I went for a walk, it started to rain before I got back to my house.  My feet got wet, and my clothes were damp, but I wasn't in any danger of being washed away. The floods are happening to people I don't know in places I don't normally visit.  What do they have to do with me?  Why should I care?   Do we have an obligation to follow the news about people who are strangers to us?  Maybe not, but in Mexico, the news doesn't stop at city, state or even national borders.  When people in any part of the world are facing serious problems, it's a newsworthy topic.   There's a sense of being connected to a larger world.  When floods hit the U.S., Pakistan, Guatemala, or parts of Mexico, you hear about this on the news.  People here express concern, and worry what will happen to all those people who've lost their homes?  How will they survive?  Natural disasters that impact hundreds of thousands of innocent people get the attention they deserve.  People organize and send relief if they can.  People express solidarity, even if they can't help out in material ways.  This kind of news isn't as dramatic and thrilling as new of shootouts between rival drug gangs, but it's a more accurate portrayal of life in Mexico.  These are real people who are going through hard times, for no fault of their own.  Don't they deserve more attention than the goings-on of drug dealers?  Why does the U.S. media devote space to photos of shootouts between federal troops and drug lords, but not photos of Mexican soldiers rescuing children from flooded areas?  

Watching the Mexican people face hardships with dignity and determination reminds me once again that Mexicans are strong and brave people.  The stories we see in the U.S. about Mexican drug cartels, or coyotes who smuggle migrant workers across the border, don't give us a complete picture of the country and the people here.  I, for one, would like to see a more balanced presentation in the media, one expressing solidarity with the Mexican people. Now is a time for us to show some of the kindness and concern that Mexicans showed Katrina victims in 2005.

sábado, 4 de septiembre de 2010

Mexico is a Work in Progress

The other day, Felipe Calderón, the President of Mexico, gave his state of the union address to Congress.  One of the first things he said was this:  Mexico is a country still in the process of construction.  That comment caught my attention because it sums up the way individuals here relate to their country.  During the Cold War, people in the U.S. talked about Latin America as the "Third World," and now we continue to talk about it as a block of "Underdeveloped Nations."  These kinds of labels always seem to imply, at least to me, that we in the U.S. think we're superior to other countries.  We're the "First World," and "The Developed World," and those other places aren't as lucky as we are.  In Mexico, where history teaches us that life moves in cycles, the material world around us is always a work in progress.  Nothing is ever fully developed, but always in the process of developing.

Mexico is, technically speaking, a developing country, a country still in the process of construction, as the President said.  But this terminology really just refers to technological, scientific and economic progress, the economic infrastructure of the country. The President spoke with pride about all the highways that have been built, the creation of telephone, television and internet services in places that formerly had none, the number of new jobs that have been created.  These are important achievements for Mexico, but they don't really address the narrow way that the modern world measures wealth.  In terms of culture, tradition, history, creativity, resourcefulness, and plain old-fashioned good manners and human kindness, Mexico is one of the richest countries in the world.  If we measure achievement in terms of what Mexico offers the imagination, the mind, and the heart, it's probably more "developed" than we are in the U.S.

When the first English settlers were building their log cabins on the eastern shores of what would later become the U.S., Mexico was already an empire.  The first successful British colony was in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.  The Pilgrims arrived in 1620.  Spain was way ahead in terms of colonizing and settling the new world, including many territories that today are part of the U.S.  They settled St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and New Mexico in 1598.  Before the U.S. gained its independence from Great Britain, Spain had settled California.   But the most significant difference between the Spanish and British colonies in the "New World"is not what the European settlers did, but what was there before?  U.S. territory was made up of indigenous tribes that were mainly hunters, gatherers, or farmers, living in small villages or living a nomadic lifestyle.  While they had developed enough technology to help them carry out their daily chores, they weren't interested in creating a huge empire and all the infrastructure required to govern it.  In Mexico, however, there were cities and empires that could rival major European powers.  When Europe was in the Dark Ages, there was a thriving civilization in Mexico that's known today as Teotihuacán, the city of the Gods.  This is the famous archeology site outside Mexico City that millions of tourists visit today, known for the impressive pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  When Rome was fighting off Barbarians and struggling to keep its culture alive, Teotihuacán had around 200,000 inhabitants, making it one of the most important cities in the world at that time.

Other important civilizations grew up in Tula, Monte Alban, Chichen Itza, and Tenochtitlán, to name only some of the more well-known ones.  Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, Mexico had seen the rise and fall of some of the greatest civilizations in the world, the Toltecs, the Maya, the Aztecs.  Built into the collective memory of the Mexican people is the knowledge that life goes in cycles, that nothing lasts forever, and change will always come.  There will be good times and bad times, and while we can all hope that life will become better and better for all, there will be setbacks and disappointments, and many problems to face.  When the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlán in the mid 1520s and the mightly Aztecs were brought to their knees, it was part of a broader cycle. The construction of the new capital, today Mexico City, on the ruins of the old Aztec capital, was visible proof to many that the new civilization was rising out of the ashes of the old, and that despite the radical changes going on around them, life for the survivors settled into a pattern after a while, and life went on.

Without going into the past 500 years of history, it's clear that Mexico has seen a lot of ups and downs and even in this modern age, most Mexicans know that the world doesn't stand still.  You don't create a country and then stand back and say, "Ok, it's done, now our job is to conserve it as it is and not let it change."  Change is scary, it's hard, it's sometimes destructive, it can bring both good and bad to people. But it's inevitable.  Most Mexicans, at least the ones I know, don't think that the country is finished with its own construction.  Instead, they see more things that need to be done, and problems from the past that have to be corrected, and they go through their day to day life with the knowledge that things aren't going to be perfect.  This makes them realistic, practical and patient, but also very creative, willing and able to resolve problems themselves, and it brings out an ironic humor in them that lets them laugh at themselves, their politicians, their own country, without losing an ounce of pride in being Mexican.

This past week, someone in the US posted a cartoon on a blog showing the Mexican flag dripping blood. The national symbol, the eagle, had been shot and knocked off his perch on the cactus, destroying one of the most beloved images in Mexico.  While no doubt the cartoon's author thought this was a witty commentary about Mexico's drug violence, it's hard to explain to someone who's not Mexican how sacred the Mexican flag is.  People here love the flag, it means something to them, and despite all the problems that exist in the country, they would never think about treating the flag with disrespect.  For a foreigner to do it is nothing short of a major insult.  It made me wonder:  what right does this person have to make fun of another country's flag?  Where is this attitude coming from?  I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier, that people who live in the "developed world" think they can tell everyone else what's wrong with their countries.  It's a kind of arrogance that comes from living in a place where so many people enjoy material wealth and privilege.  Personally, I'd like to see a little more respect for countries like Mexico that have a rich history, an amazing and complex culture, and a healthy dose of humility, where respect for others is a way of life for the majority of the people.

miércoles, 1 de septiembre de 2010

Barbie Behind Bars!

No, I'm not talking about THAT Barbie, the All-American doll with the impossibly small waist, perky breasts and feet designed for high heels.  I mean Edgar Valdez Villarreal, "La Barbie," a high-ranking figure in the drug world who was captured by Mexican federal police on the outskirts of Mexico City a few days ago.   In a society where only the most macho of men would dare to go by the nickname of a high-fashion doll, La Barbie wears his nickname with pride.  He gets it from his all-American looks, blonde hair, light colored eyes, pale skin.  In fact, he IS an American, in the sense that people in the U.S. use that word.  He was born in Laredo, Texas, and is a citizen of the United States.  He is bilingual and bicultural, a true child of the Border, and he has led his criminal life on both sides of the Rio Grande.

La Barbie represents better than anyone else I can think of the phenomenon of international drug-trafficking.  He has connections all along the East Coast of the U.S., throughout Mexico, and in Colombia.  He's accused of handling a ton of cocaine every week, passing it across the U.S. Mexican border in semi-trailer trucks headed for Atlanta, Georgia, where it's distributed over the Eastern half of the U.S.  The trucks supposedly head back to Mexico loaded with cash, millions of tax-free dollars that fuel the wars between Narco cartels in North and South America.  La Barbie is a wanted man in both Mexico and the U.S.  The U.S. Department of State offered a $2 million reward for his capture, and the Mexican government offered a similar amount.  He's clearly an international criminal of major proportions, and yet his Hispanic last name guarantees that in the popular imagination of people in the U.S., this Barbie is Mexican, and he represents "everything that's wrong with that country."  His U.S. citizenship is easily forgotten.

The Mexican federal police have been doing a pretty good job, all things considered, in capturing drug lords in Mexican territory.  La Barbie is the third major figure brought down in less than a year.  While the media in the US has reported some of these confrontations between criminals and police, there isn't enough context in the reports for people to understand what it means.  Capturing a few drug lords won't put an immediate stop to the drug-related violence in Mexico because the demand for drugs worldwide continues without interruption.  As long as there are billions of dollars to be made from illegal drug business, cartels will continue to fight each other for control of the industry. 

What's clear is that the "drug problem" isn't just a Mexican problem.  Mexico borders a rich and powerful country where drugs are much in demand.    While most Mexicans agree that illegal drugs are bad business, they also know that some people are going to grab an opportunity to get rich, just because the opportunity is there.  In both Mexico and the U.S., there have always been and always will be people who are willing to bend the law to make a fortune.  We don't have to look farther than the history of prohibition in the U.S., when illegal alcohol sales and distribution created a whole new generation of millionaires and gangsters.  We can also see, if we look closely enough, that the illegal drug business in the U.S. has generated a lot of money and a lot of violence over the past 100 years.  And, if we're honest, we'll admit that not everyone involved in the U.S. drug trade has a Hispanic last name.

For the State of Morelos and Cuernavaca in particular, the capture of La Barbie is good news, but people here aren't foolish enough to think that the drug wars are over.  There are others who will probably come in the wake of La Barbie and fight to occupy his place.  But, this is a perfect opportunity for the U.S. to join hands with Mexico to fight the drug trade on both sides of the Border, to make sure that La Barbie, whether he goes to trial in Mexico or in the U.S., will be behind bars for a long time.  It's also an opportunity to educate people in the U.S. about the international scope of the drug trade, to let people know that the violence between rival gangs selling coke on a street corner in Atlanta or Philadelphia or Baltimore and the shoot-outs that occur in Mexico between police and drug lords are all connected.  In capitalist countries like Mexico and the U.S., the market operates through supply and demand.  As long as there's a demand, there's an opportunity to make money, and wherever there's a lot of easy money to be made, there's a potential for violence.  La Barbie may look like a dim-witted thug, but he's smart enough to know that those truckloads of cash are going to buy him whatever he wants, and he's willing to risk everything in exchange for tremendous wealth and power.   La Barbie is a symbol of violence and corruption, but also a model of enterprise and ambition.  He calls himself a "businessman," and in a way, that's exactly what he is.  We can be glad that his business has been shut down for the moment, but let's not pretend that the demand for his product has disappeared.