TRAVELER’S ADVISORY: WAR ON OAXACA – GUERRERO BORDER

Persistent reports coming from southern Guerrero, near the Oaxaca border, are painting a picture of violence and anarchy that should give some travelers pause if planning a trip along the road from Acapulco to Puerto Escondido, particularly in the area where the coast road (200) meets the highway from Tlaxiaco (125). LarryMoto, a January traveler, reports that there was a marked decrease in the people’s warmth and friendliness as his party made their way through this zone

As reported in a letter from Dan McWethy dated in December, the roadblocks are frequent and sometimes include inspections for hidden arms. By all reports, the inspections, especially when done by the Army, are friendly and non threatening. However, it is advisable to make sure that you are not carrying anything that might be illegal, particularly when stopped by the Juduciales (state or federal police units).

There is absolutely no question that a state approaching anarchy exists in the mountains of southern Guerrero, near the northern Oaxaca border, just inland from highway 200. Aside from the usual shootouts between rival law enforcement units and rival gangs (often the same thing) over the lucrative drug traffic, and the occasional flare-up of inter-family feuds (the latest of which apparently resulted in a minibus being machine gunned just outside of Tlaxiaco), the area has been hard hit lately by a series of executions of peasant leaders by police units loyal to the governor of Guerrero. The result of these attacks has been the formation, by peasant associations, of “home guards”. These vigilante units are irregulars, ill trained, poorly equipped and — unless you are going arduous distances off the beaten track — unlikely to be encountered.

The most dangerous elements to be introduced into this mix are rogue units of heavily armed motorized state police who are operating like Quantrell’s Raiders: convoying in to villages, shooting the place up, robbing, raping and pillaging, and convoying back out of town to plan their next raid.

Unfortunately, the killing is not confined to the mountain fastness, hidden at the end of goat trails. Bodies have been showing up on the beach at Acapulco, on the highway between Acapulco and Mexico City (reportedly stopped by a marked Guerrero state police car with flashing lights, the victims were forced to drive to a less conspicuous spot, and then liquidated), and along the Costa Chica (the Guerrero coast south to Oaxaca). While none have been tourists, accidents do happen, so be careful.

There is safety in numbers, so traveling by bus is more secure than traveling by auto. There is safety in daylight, so day buses are safter than overnights. There is safety in being circumspect, so if you do drive think twice about the “quaint little town” only twenty kilometers off the coast highway — at least, ask at the crossroads if thy have heard of anyone having problems up there.

THE HUMOR CORNER:

Our thanks to the cartoonist “El Fisgon”, published in a recent edition of “La Jornada”: Uncle Sam, down on his knees, hands clasped, eyes cast up to heaven, implores the Mexican person standing before him: “Why, for what reason, how is it that the corrupt Mexican politicians act with such virtual impunity?”. The answer: “Perhaps because they studied in Harvard,are supported in Washington d.c., celebrated in Wall Street and exalted by the U.S. press…”

An AP photograph run in “La Jornada” during one of the most dangerous smog inversions on record, caused by the same storm system that dumped record snows on the U.S. east coast and in the highlands of Mexico: Taken in the Zocalo, it shows a pedicab operator wearing a filter mask over his mouth and nose. The Caption: “Ecotaxista” (Ecological Taxi Driver).

OAXACA AND THE INTERNET: ELECTRONICS IN THE THIRD WORLD

In the Beginning, there was the telephone…and in the middle somewhere (which is where we are, presumably) there is still the telephone. Or there is not, as the case may often be. Telephones in Mexico are expensive, occasionally unavailable, reasonably (but not always) reliable, and expensive to use when calling outside your service area.

Telmex, the state monopoly which controls all telephones in Mexico, has much in common with the old Lenny Bruce joke: “..get hot with Ma Bell, you end up with a Dixie Cup and a thread…”. Telephone access is not rented, it must be purchased. You literally OWN your telephone number. There are no refunds. If you move outside your exchange area, you buy a new number, at full price: from N$2,000 up (current exchange rate: 7.4 to one), depending on where you live, whether there is a line running near your house, whether you need (at your expense) a pole erected, etc. There is also a reasonable monthly fee which covers the first 100 calls, with a per call surcharge thereafter.

Even after paying the price, there may be delays of up to six months before you get it installed, depending on many not-always-understandable “factors”. One factor is that phone lines are distributed in 8-packs. One neighbor we had in a suburban complex told us: “I really wanted to wait a little to buy a phone, but I have a friend who works at Telmex, and he warned me that there was only one line left in the current pack, and that it may be some time before another pack is available here, so I went right down and signed up”. We were lucky: we moved to the Center, and our building had an available line. We were hooked up and rolling in a day.

Once you have a telephone, you have a choice of ways to hook up to the Great Web. Compuserve, America Online, and others have access numbers in Mexico City, at long distance charges of $10/hr day rates (1/2 off at night, but the hours just after 8pm and just before 8am are often jammed with bargain hunters).

Oaxaca has had a full service Internet provider since September 1995, and after months of struggle the operation seems to be operating reasonably smoothly. The fee is N$600 for signup, N$350 for software, installation and handholding, and N$300 per month for a minimum of 30 hours’ use (N$12 for each additional hour). Depending on your expertise and what programs and modem you are using, Jose (the “Visionary-in-Charge” according to his business card) may cut you some slack in the upfront charges. The monthly fee appears to be non negotiable.

For those whose needs are less ambitious, there are two or three offices in town who will sell you time on their connection to Jose at N$35/hr. Bring your own disk(s) and use their machine.

As well, if you have an internal modem in your laptop, there is a Larga Distancia (long distance store) with modular telephones where you can plug your laptop into the line.

For various reasons, I subscribe to the Mexican equivalent of Peacenet, “LaNeta”. Because they charge only four hours minimum per month and only N$100 for signup (software provided), and I don’t do much net surfing, I pay little more than I would for the Jose’s hookup, even when I include the longdistance charges to MexCity. So far, for the igc subscribers among you, they do not reciprocate with other networks.

GROWTH BRINGS OUT THE BEST AND THE WORST IN PUERTO ESCONDIDO

We returned to Puerto Escondido last week after a one year absence, and the amount of new construction, particularly along Zicatela beach, was staggering. Partly fueled by the international surfing competition held there in November of 1995, and partly in response to the hordes of snowbirds seeking respite from one of the worst winters in memory and encouraged by low peso value, Zicatela, which used to be a kind of sleepy surfer beach with scattered clumps of bungalows and palapas, is now wall-to-wall hotels, shops, restaurants and miscellaneous accommodations in various stages of construction.

Dan, of Carmen’s Bakery fame, estimates that twenty-five new eateries have opened in the last six months; everyone who could has expanded their seating. Bruno’s, which was burned down by a disgruntled employee last year, reopened as a thai-food / sushi joint. A bunch of old bikers opened a beachfront paradise for serious lushes, whose dedication to alcohol is rarely sustained past ten at night, by which time their passionate (and noisy) consumption has sent them all beddybye… There is a concrete 48-room three story hotel/resort going up on Zicatela. Alleys are being laid out running up from the beach to the hill, so that gift stores and scuba shops can open: there is no more available beach front.

As a city guy by temperament, I like my beaches busy. I appreciate the art-movie cinema and the guys who run innertube journeys down the nearby river. However, I must confess that the plastic bags and other human detritus floating in the water at my favorite snorkeling beaches do take away from the charm of the little fishies.

The big surprise in all this for me was that all this development is happening in spite of the government’s determination to make nearby Huatulco the “in” destination on the Oaxaca coast. Many of us thought that the plans for Huatulco would leave Puerto Escondido alone, to be a sleepy little town that “progress” forgot. Guess not…

STAN PREDICTS: A regular feature of the Oaxaca Newsletter

THE PESO, kept steady in December and January by big peso purchases on behalf of the Mexican National Bank, and manipulative predictions of economic recovery by Salomon Brothers and other market-hustling thieves, will not hold at the current 7.5-to-1. Look for a nine-peso dollar by April Fools’ Day and a high of 12 by year’s end – at which point, of course, there will be another devaluation.

THE WAR IN CHIAPAS will begin in earnest by the middle of March, probably sooner. In spite of all the good intentions of all the negotiators, the central problem will not go away: the announced policy of the Zedillo government to continue dismantling the Ejido system of communal land ownership that began when former president Salinas repealed Article 27 of the constitution. At stake is some of the best growing land in southern Mexico. The indigenous people who farm those lands understand that a system of private ownership will in the not-so-long run deprive them of their lands and their livelihood through a wave of intimidation, credit scams and badfaith mortgage agreements. They will resist, preferring to remain undivided, and the army will be called upon to act.