Yet Another State Department Warning:

Late last month, the State Department issued a new travel advisory, good until April 25, warning U.S. citizens that it is no longer considered “safe” to travel to the area of Mexico bordering on the U.S. Citing the recent disappearance of two young women who had crossed the bridge from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo, the “advisory” declared in so many words, that Mexico has neither the capacity nor the will to control the gangs that, through bribes and assassinations of officials, have subverted the Mexican justice system. While they were at it, they raised the specter of hordes of brown-skinned people, drugs in their hands and murder in their hearts, poised to stream across the border and rape our women and children: the usual racist cant.

A little perspective is needed.

Certainly, there is a “war” going on for control of the cocaine routes through Mexico to the U.S. As in the U.S., the victims are almost exclusively part of the system, not innocent bystanders. More victims are accidentally killed in South L.A. drive-by shootings than in all the so-called drug related deaths in Mexico, and so far I have not heard of one case of “collateral damage” involving U.S. tourists here.

Now that the governor and the mayor are of the same (PRI) party, many neglected city buildings are undergoing major renovations, a sign that the money faucet is flowing again. This is a “before” picture of the Modern Art Museum (MACO: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca).

There are more Mexicans who have “disappeared” in the U.S. than vice-versa; and still more U.S. citizens that have disappeared in the U.S. The “advisory” is hype, folks. An excuse for more interference by the U.S. in Mexican affairs. The spectre of armed gangs of crazed drug lords killing and kidnapping our innocent citizens (or, alternatively, the assertion that the victims may not be so innocent, perhaps there to score drugs) is largely overblown; an attempt to create yet another fear by an administration that runs on fear.

My pal Al Giordano believes that this “advisory”, and the simultaneous publication of hysteria-feeding articles in the Times and the Post, are part of a plan to subvert the candidacy of MexCity mayor López Obrador for the 2006 presidency.

There is little if any reason to connect the disappearance of a couple of teenage women from Laredo celebrating a birthday across the border in Nuevo Laredo, with either gang activity, drug dealers, or kidnappers (since no ransom has been demanded, and neither girl had any history of drug abuse). Yet, this is exactly the connection Garza and the State Department are trying to sell us.

Gang violence reports are dwarfed by the ongoing violence against Mexican women, hundreds – probably thousands – of which have disappeared between shifts at the maquiladora assembly plants all along the Mexican side of the border. By and large, the presumed killers have not been caught (although a few people have been arrested, proclaiming that their “confessions” were extracted with torture, a likelihood that is given high credence by international human rights groups such as Amnesty International). Many Mexicans believe that some of the killers (the killings are too far apart and have slightly different methods of operation, indicating a number of “serial killer” groups) are coming across the border from the U.S. to perform their abominable deeds.

The U.S. itself manufactures most of the marijuana, methamphetamine, and “designer drugs” that are used domestically; and the majority of heroin comes from our “allies” in Afghanistan. The cocaine trade represents a small share of the narco-bucks generated in our country, and of the violence.

It is now estimated that hundreds of “special advisors” from the DEA, FBI, ATF, CIA, and secret Pentagon spy outfits are operating in Mexico. Mexico has a long history of being invaded by its northern neighbor: a good reason for Mexican touchiness about U.S. interference in sovereign affairs. For a more detailed recounting of this history, see John Ross’ excellent book “The Annexation of Mexico”.

Mexico was a corrupt and lawless country way before anyone made any substances illegal in the U.S. All dictatorships are inherently corrupt, and Mexico under the PRI was to all intents and purposes a dictatorship. As in the U.S., the rich get away with murder and the poor are preyed upon and punished when they get too “pushy” about their rights. Recent cases of large-scale embezzlement by high government officials who then get released for “lack of evidence”, or by bribing judges for “injunctions”) illustrate the fact that corruption follows the money.

Recently, we took some family members to Sta. Maria del Tule, to commune with the giant cypress. Every time we go there, the town looks a little more prosperous. This shot is of the municipio building sporting its new coat of paint.

Anyone who has a computer and an Internet hookup can access a series of articles on the Narco News website by Bill Conroy, whose exposé of irregularities, malfeasance, misfeasance, and outright criminal activity by U.S. customs officers shows that the problem is not just Mexican.

There are far more political killings in Mexico on any given day than there are drug-related murders; they mostly happen in the small villages and arroyos of the Mexican countryside, where the victims are organizers of the poor and oppressed, who are being enslaved and cheated by the Mexican minions of international timber, mining, agricultural and petroleum corporations; and reporters who dare to tell the story. The U.S. media largely ignore this, not wanting to ruin the image of Mexico that presidents Clinton and Bush I used to sell us NAFTA. Many of the political killings in the cities on the border may have more to do with who gets a big boondoggle sewer contract than with cocaine distribution.

Are there gang killings in Mexico? Of course there are, just like in L.A., Kabul, Moscow, Jamaica, or anywhere else there are arguments over the spoils of corruption and patronage. Should you be careful when you cross the border? Of course you should, but not so much as in New York City, Naples, or Jakarta. Mexico is no more dangerous than most large cities in the U.S – and many mid-sized ones as well. Don’t be deterred by propaganda and manufactured hysteria. C’mon down. Enjoy.

Head For Mexico:

If you loved “The People’s Guide”, you will find much to like in Don Adams’ new version of a theme that bears repeating: if you want Mexico to be like “home”, then stay home. If, on the other hand, you are flexible, patient, organized and tolerant, with a well-developed sense of humor, c’mon down, it just might well be the place for you.

Filled with practical advice, almost all of it correct, “Head For Mexico” should, like all other publications on expatriate life and / or tourism, be taken as a guide, not a gospel – and as a guide, it has much to offer. Contributions of stories and drawings by other expatriates round out a well-organized and mostly enjoyable read.

The innauguration did not go un-noticed here in Mexico. There were anti-war demonstrations in almost every city of any size. This poster was displayed outside the Plaza Santo Domingo, an upscale mall of boutiques and galleries housing the offices of the U.S. special consul.

One warning: Don Adams does not come across as a sensitive, new-age male. The persona he has created for himself can be a little off-putting if you are of a feminist persuasion. On the other hand, he does include accounts from women who have migrated, and for whom he clearly has respect, so as in other areas in the book, and as in life in general, and life in Mexico in particular, this book is a mixed bag. I did learn a thing or two from it, and so will you.

Don is a regular contributor to Mexico Connect Magazine, an online monthly publication at www.mexconnect.com if you want to check him out before you buy. If you do decide to buy, we hope you’ll do so through our no-extra-cost-to you Amazon connection, by clicking HERE
An Old Fire-horse hears the bell:

Last week, PRD founder and perennial presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas (CC) came out of self-imposed political obscurity. Well known to followers of this Newsletter and students of recent Mexican history, CC is the son of ex-general and late president of the republic Lázaro Cárdenas, arguably the most popular modern politician in Mexican history. CC, born into the ruling class and all the privileges of power, quit his father’s PRI in 1998, at the end of his term as governor of Michoacán state, and ran for president as an independent.

CC won the presidential election of 1988, the only time in the 20th century that the PRI could not come up with a majority of the vote; but lost the election during the “official” vote count, when the main computer suffered a mysterious “outage” with him comfortably ahead, and went back on line showing a thin win for Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the PRI candidate.

Ever since the Cubans began using poster art to communicate ideas to the people, I have been fascinated with the genre. This banner says “Do you believe other worlds exist? Think! This is our only one.

By 1999, CC and another maverick politician named Porfirio Muñoz Ledo had formed the PRD, a rather loose agglomeration of leftist and socially progressive elements. Once again, in the 1994 presidential race, CC stepped up to the plate – against Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, a candidate considered weak – and struck out swinging. He subsequently ran for, and won, the mayoralty of the Federal District (DF), and surprisingly, he managed to maintain his image as an honest if lackluster leader, considering the array of opposition forces that aligned against him.

Muñoz Ledo and others pleaded with him not to run in 2000, but he would not hear of it. He named a close political ally, Rosario Robles, to his mayoralty, and hit the campaign trail. Nobody thought he had a chance, and sure enough, he got the lowest percentage of the three major candidates, and the party was falling into disarray.

Robles- who was plagued by scandal and accusations of making sweetheart deals with her not-so-secret lover Carlos Ahumada, who took the DF off for beaucoup bucks – was removed from the central committee of the party in 2004. CC, who was her mentor and defender to the end, resigned all his party posts and dropped out of sight in protest of her removal. Muñoz Ledo, disgusted with the internecine warfare in the party, and no doubt believing that it should have been he, not CC, that the party nominated in 2000, began campaigning for Vicente Fox Quesada. When Fox won, he was rewarded with the ambassadorship to the English court of St. James, a plum that kept him out of sight.

Into this vacuum strode Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), a labor organizer from Tabasco, who, in his stints first as party president and then later (and currently) as mayor of the DF, has gained enormous popularity with the masses of the Mexican people. All the polls show that, if the 2006 election were held today, López would win hands down. In spite of a series of scandals that hit lesser lights of the party, AMLO has managed to keep his skirts immaculately clean. For the first time since 1988, the PRD has a shot at the presidency. But only if they can figure out some way to pull together.

When someone asked CC if he was going to be a candidate for his party’s nomination in 2006, he wouldn’t rule it out; nor would he rule out a run by his son, who is the current governor of Michoacán, just like his daddy was. The last thing the PRD – and the nation – needs, is another PRD dog fight. My opinion? The Cárdenas clan should get behind AMLO, and young (around 55) Cárdenas should wait another election cycle.

A tale of two factories:

One of the nice things about living in Oaxaca is the opportunities provided by the arrival of friends and relatives from “back there”, to show off our various cultural, archeological and natural points of interest. Recently, one of Diana’s old friends came visiting, and we took her on a mini-tour of San Augustine and Vista Hermosa, in the Municipio of Etla.

Since we hadn’t been out that way for some time, and since I’m the kind of driver that is so intent on the roadway that I occasionally miss turn-offs, we got more of a tour than we had bargained for, as we drove up hill and down dale on thoroughfares small and large, dirt and paved, trying to find the “back way” to our destination: the Taller de Arte Papel Oaxaca, known locally as the Paper Factory.

I loathe driving the stretch of highway from the bottom of the Fortin hill to the nearest border of Etla. It’s ugly, the roadway can be bumpy, the bus fumes are enough to knock you down, and everyone drives either too fast (most) or two slow (a few, but a really annoying few). Fortunately, that stretch takes only about 15 minutes, after which you find yourself in “the country”, and beautiful country it is.
Because of the abundance of water (the Etlas used to be the next biggest supplier to Oaxaca, after San Felipe del Agua), the hills stay green longer than in other parts of the Oaxaca valley. Driving up from the highway through Vista Hermosa and into San Augustine provides one with generous vistas, and the road is excellent if a bit curvy at times.

In the early 20th century, hydroelectric power attracted a few factories, the largest and most well known of which was a mill for weaving cotton that actually had its’ own hydropower.. Occasionally, it is open for tourists, and it’s fun imagining the incredible din created by all those weaving machines, run by belts and pulleys operating off a single wheel run by a cascade of water coursing through a wheel which powered huge dynamos. The old equipment (the factory closed in the 50s, when workers struck for higher wages and better working conditions) is still there: machinery made in the 1900s in Scotland. Unfortunately, the gate was locked when we were there.

This is the showroom at the Paper Factory. Situated near the top of the San Augustín hill, the view alone is worth the drive.

One of the hydroelectric plants, long since closed, has been converted into the Paper Factory’s showroom, while the actual work is done in another building, down the hill on a brick path. We counted about eight workers altogether. Cotton, shredded paper, ixtle (the fiber of the maguey cactus) and nopales (the fruit of the “nopal” cactus) are combined in various configurations to produce “designer paper” and various paper objects such as baskets, boxes, and kites. Visitors are welcome too observe the process, from emulsification to final product. The masthead picture shows some of the emulsified paper mixture curing.

The kites are adorned with silk-screened images of a crab, drawn by patron Francisco Toledo. Toledo is a millionaire artist whose charitable works are well known all over the valley and in his native city of Juchitan.

The building where the products are displayed is sparse, as befits a gallery of art (in this case the art of the papermaker), with white walls and large windows that provide lots of light. It even has a small turbine in one corner that emits the sound of rushing water.

Substitute dirt for the paving and remove the benches, and the old rug market at Teotitlán del Valle hasn’t really changed all that much since I first started coming here about 30 years ago, except for the not-locally-produced goods that are sold in some of the lean-to market stalls.

Closer to town, we visited a completely different kind of factory: Tribus Mixes (the tribes of the Mixe, a region far from where they are located), where wood, leather and other substances are used to make exquisite alebrijes (fantastic figures). Located in the town of Viguera, also part of the Etlas, but much closer to town, these folks are very well organized, turning out a full line of frogs, butterflies, peacocks and other “animales”, exquisitely painted, in a variety of standard sizes. When we were there, at least a dozen folk were working at cutting, painting, assembling and packing for shipment (they get very little walk-in trade). I was there to order some figures for my friend Carol who sells them on eBay. I’ll go back to pick them up in a few days. I asked them not to wrap them before I get there: that way, I’ll get to take some pictures of them, which may find their way into the next Newsletter (which I hope will be out in about 2 weeks).